While the Indie game movement gained traction in the early 00’s, there were developers before then making a name for themselves. Croteam is a special case — Starting as a developer for the Amiga, the Croatian studio disappeared before coming back with a brand new game and a custom built game engine to run it.
Today, the studio is known for Serious Sam and their recent amazing game The Talos Principle and I had a chance to talk to them about their time in the game industry.
The following interview was done with Ivan Mika, lead environment and level designer at Croteam.
1: While Croteam has been around for over 20 years, for people reading this who may not have heard of your studio before, could you give us a little bit of history about how Croteam was founded?
During the early 90s, Amiga demo scene flourished in Croatia. There were many teams working on ‘demos’ – short presentations of Amiga technical capabilities. The core of the team originated from that scene. We thought that Amiga demo scene is cool, but games were waaay cooler. And you can make living out of them :). So, we wanted to make a game.
Being big football fans, we decided to try making even better game than the most popular football game at the time, fabulous Sensible Soccer. We wanted to add some entertainment on top so at 1994 we made our first game, Football Glory. It was for the Amiga 500 and Amiga 1200 platforms. During the next year we released a PC version, and stayed with PC ever since 🙂
2: Looking at your credited titles, there is the period of 93-95, then a jump to 2001 with the Serious Sam games. What was the decision to have such a long break between releasing games?
After the Amiga era, the PC games took our breath away. When we tried the first FPS games like Wolfenstein, Doom, Duke Nukem, we knew that gaming world will never be the same. We wanted to be part of this new world – we wanted to participate. It was so exciting, but since we didn’t have money to license 3D engine, we had to develop our own.
That was the era of the biggest game production technology changes. We started developing 2.5D engine under DOS using Assembler/C languages and ended up 5 years later finishing Serious Sam TFE on Windows, using full 3D engine and graphic accelerator cards, programming in C++. We managed to survive all this without any funding, but to be honest, we almost burned out.
3: Continuing from that point, one of the interesting elements behind Croteam is that not only are you an Indie game developer but that you guys created your own game engine (The Serious Engine) which has been improved and upgraded over the years. What was the reason for developing your own engine and could you briefly talk about the work that went into it?
When we decided to work on FPS, licensing some other technology turned out to be almost impossible – the prices were too high. Developing our own game engine was the only way to go. During the last 20 years, we had several major revisions of the Serious Engine, including one complete rewrite.
Developing a modern 3D engine is unbelievably complex and expensive process (we would not recommend it these days).
We are spending a huge amount of our programming power to develop it, but we feel that it’s worth it. Our games have unique feeling, our developers have lightning fast tools and we support 9 major platforms.
4: Regarding the Indie dev scene, I’ve been reaching out internationally to game developers over the last few months who founded studios in their native countries and I was curious about if anything has improved or changed in Croatia since Croteam was founded.
Nothing much changed for the first few years after Serious Sam came out, but now, with Steam and the new Indie movement we are witnessing here, everything exploded. In the last few years many small game dev studios appeared on scene, and they are very creative and ambitious. This is a dream job, and we would like to see hundreds and even thousands of professional game developers here in Croatia. Being the oldest and most productive game developer in Croatia, we will do our best to help game development in Croatia in any form.
And there are other currents helping the Croatian gamedev scene – very recently, by gathering a group of the most prominent Croatian game development studios, Croatian Game Developers Association (CGDA) was formed. That is an association that will represent the Croatian game development community in front of government and various economic groups, and should definitely put Croatian gamedev scene on map.
5: With that said, let’s move on to about your games. As we said earlier, Croteam had a lull in releasing games to work on the first Serious Sam game which was released in 2001. What was the inspiration behind developing Serious Sam in the first place?
Clearly, we were super fans of the original first person games like Doom and Duke Nukem. We kind of mixed first person genre with our love towards old arcade games and hero figures from comic books and movies. Serious Sam was a reflection of our inner thoughts, a compilation, a mix of things that excited us. We didn’t think/design so much these early days. We just did what we were excited about, and what we would like to play.
Back then it was simple, and so much fun! Actually, when I think about it now, it’s still the most important thing today, having fun…. If we really like playing our own game, we know that people will like it too!
6: What’s interesting about Serious Sam and the state of the FPS genre was that when it was originally released, it was similar to the other arcade styled FPS series like Quake, Doom etc. But the genre as a whole has shifted towards more corridor and cover based shooting with series like Call of Duty, Gears of War etc.
When Serious Sam BFE was released, many people took to it as a return of the arcade styled games. What do you think about the state of the FPS genre today and Serious Sam’s place in it?
Hm, that’s hard to say. We grew up enjoying skill based gaming, arcadish, difficult, one that keep you always on the edge, push you to your limits. The stakes are high, and so is the reward once you succeed. The joy in modern FPS games is delivered through other means. I am not saying that they are not good, they are just different. It seems that this other approach works better for much more people.
But we feel that there will always be players that enjoy both styles. Actually in many situations these two intersect and look alike.
Still, regarding Serious Sam, some things will never change. We will stay in our own niche, skill based FPS gaming. After all, BFE’s tag line is No Cover, All Man 🙂
7. Around the time that BFE came out, the Serious Sam brand was expanded with side games from other studios like Double D and the Random Encounter. I was curious about how did this partnership come about?
We have long time relationship/friendship with Devolver Digital. Those guys are just great. And they have these amazing, creative ideas, you have to give them credit for being awesome. They anticipated greatness and passion that new indie movement and small developers will deliver. So, they approached us with this idea of offering indies to create games within Serious Sam universe.
And what can we say… it turned out great! Some really neat games came out from that collaboration, and some teams definitely sharpened their skills. For example, super–cool guys at Vlambeer did Random Encounter, and after that they did such amazing games like Luftrausers and Nuclear Throne.
8. To wrap things up, I have a few questions regarding your latest game: The Talos Principle. The Talos Principle in terms of design and storytelling is a far cry from your previous games. Where did the idea for The Talos Principle originate from?
It all started by prototyping new mechanics that we thought will enhance the gameplay of our next game in Serious Sam franchise. We created a series of test levels to test how they would work in a Sam game, and that turned out to be extremely fun. So, after several inspiring brainstorming sessions about other potential mechanics, we got so electrified about this.
When we decided to put our everyday geek discussions about transhumanity, technology, religion and humanity into this game, all of the needed ingredients were in place. Basically, all that was needed was some 20+ years of our experience in craftsmanship and two immensely talented writers to cook a fine meal.
9. The puzzle designs of The Talos Principle are very interesting in terms of their growth and use of items. What kind of philosophy did you guys use when coming up with a puzzle for the game? And what kind of baseline did you use to determine if a puzzle was good enough for the game vs. one that needed to be altered?
We playtested a lot. Initially, we measured times needed for members of our team to solve the puzzles. We also asked them to rate puzzles for fun and difficulty. From the first moment we knew that we want open world game. We still wanted to direct player just a little bit, so that he would keep his focus.
We structured game in a way so that player is able to discover several huge parts of open world, solve puzzles in any order, and by doing so open new parts of open world to explore.
Since we had initial time/fun/difficulty measurements for all of the levels, we were able to properly spread them across the game in growing difficulty but paying attention to have “peaks and valleys”.
Of course, many testers played the game in that period and they showed us clearly what was not working. We had several severe ‘chainsaw’ sessions regarding level structure and progress before we made Talos the way looks today.
10. And on that note, I know that you guys used an AI to help when it came to play-testing and balancing the puzzles and their solutions. For those reading this, could you talk about that process and how it helped with the development of The Talos Principle?
Simply put, we would not be able to finish Talos without the so called Bot. It clocked over 15000 hours of testing just at the end of the production. If we would compare this to the same amount of human testing, it would mean that one person would have to play for over 8 years, full day. And we would probably have to replace testers regularly just to keep them from not going mad.
The final version of the Bot was able to solve complete 20+ hours game along with the puzzles in less than 20 minutes, using some tricks with speeding up time.
That was invaluable for us. I could not imagine doing a project without automated playtesting AI any more.
11. The story of the Talos Principle was another high mark for the game and Croteam reached out to Tom Jubert and Jonas Kyratzes to help write the plot. At the beginning of developing the game, was this kind of story something that you wanted to tell or did it start to come together after getting Tom and Jonas on board?
The story of The Talos Principle actually originated from our everyday lunch break discussions. We can get very excited and passionate when we talk about the future, progress of technology, AI, about humanity and civilisation in general. Since we always implement things that we care about into our games, we wanted that to be the starting point for the game’s narrative.
When we brought Tom and Jonas to the table, their creativity juices started to flow like crazy and they added completely another dimension to the story. These two guys are just awesome, and we had amazing time working with them!
11. For my last question, what does the future look like for Croteam? I know you guys are working on Serious Sam 4 and DLC for The Talos Principle, but can you give us any other teasers on what’s next?
Huh, I wish I could 🙂 It is not that I don’t want to, but it is that I don’t know! Really, we just relaxed a little bit after finishing Talos, enjoyed the game’s success, and mingled with other fellow developers. We are already warmed up for the next long and exhausting but delightful run to deliver Talos DLC and SS4. But as usual, we wait for some super cool ideas to find us.
We will meet them prepared 🙂 We have some exciting new stuff discussed, but we are not sure what and if any of these will ever see the light of the day. One thing that I am sure of is that the next king saga, “Serious Sam 4” will be just awesome!!!