An Interview With Martin Sahlin, The Man Behind The Delightful Unravel

ColdWood Interactive’s Martin Sahlin sounds off on a number of pertinent topics and issues.

Posted By | On 25th, Feb. 2016 Under Article, Interviews | Follow This Author @Pramath1605


ColdWood interactive and EA recently released the delightful Unravel, a heart warming puzzle platformer that released to great critical acclaim. Unravel seems like it will go down in the annals of gaming history as one of the cult classic platforming hits of this generation- and naturally, we at GamingBolt wanted to know more about the development process of the game, as well as about the guys who brought it to us in the first place.

Immediately following Unravel’s launch, we sat down with Martin Sahlin, from ColdWood Interactive, who came up with the original idea for Unravel, and also was engaged in its development extensively. We talked about a lot of things- Unravel, yes, of course, but also about the state of the indie gaming industry, about EA (who published Unravel), about the current generation consoles, about Nintendo and the upcoming NX, and more. It was a wonderful exchange- and we ended up learning a lot of things.

Unravel

"He was really honest about saying that they didn’t need our game to make money- because they are already making money. But they needed our game because they really cared about it, and they thought it was really cool- a really cool concept, a great theme for the game."

So I’d like to congratulate you on the launch of Unravel. It’s still early days, but it seems like people have taken a liking to it!

Yeah, I think it’s been going well!

Yeah, looking at all the reviews and the early reception, it certainly sounds like it has been well received! Anyway, could you tell us a bit about ColdWood Interactive, how it started and how you eventually tied up with EA for Unravel?

ColdWood was founded in 2003 by a group of friends, basically, who had been working at a different company, and they just basically wanted to break away and make games together. And basically what we’ve been doing – I, I joined in 2005, and – we’ve released quite a few games, but most of the games that we made before was stuff like sport games, and skiing games, and racing games, stuff like that. Just, really small games with really small budgets and short development times, which eventually, to me, got- it felt like we weren’t doing all that we could be doing. It felt like we could do more, more meaningful and interesting things. And that’s basically why I designed this. Unravel is basically a sort of reaction to what we’ve made before, an attempt to make something that had more heart.

So something more meaningful, then.

Yeah, absolutely!

Alright! So how did you end up working with EA for this game? Like, there is this common perception that EA isn’t necessarily interested in games like this, they want their big budget franchise hits, AAA releases, stuff like Mass Effect or Battlefield. So how did you guys end up with EA for a game like this?

Well, they sort of are like that- or they have been. But they’ve also been working really hard to change the direction for the company, and try to do more creative things, more experimental and interesting things.

We had a meeting with one of the guys at EA, and that’s when we showed them the game. Basically, the reason we got that meeting was that we’ve worked with EA before. We have- we made a PC port for Bad Company 2 a couple of years ago. So we have a history of working with them. So they kind of knew us, and they knew what we are capable of.

Well, we got a meeting, and we pitched Unravel to them, and it basically turned into them pitching EA to us, and talking about how they want to turn things around, how they want to do things differently, and how they really cared about projects like this.

He was really honest about saying that they didn’t need our game to make money- because they are already making money. But they needed our game because they really cared about it, and they thought it was really cool- a really cool concept, a great theme for the game.

So yeah, it was just a really good pitch- because it’s kind of nice, when you’re working on something that you care that much about, to know that.

And then you have the kind of stability that a big publisher like EA would bring to the project.

Yeah, absolutely! They just basically feel the same way that we do- they’re into it, they love the concept.

So how would you say your experience working with EA was? Like, in general, there’s this idea that big publishers tread on the toes of developers, that they stifle creativity eventually- it sounds like that hasn’t been the case for you! How would you characterize your experience of working them, personally?

I would say that it’s been great, actually! They- they give lots of feedback and opinions, sure, but they’re also really humble about it. And they basically said right from the start that this is your game, and the reason that it works is because it’s so personal to us, so they can’t go about changing anything. So they help us out with things like testing, and QA, and things like that, and they also give feedback, but no, they haven’t been trying to control anything. We have had full creative freedom, which- which has been really awesome. And it’s been really cool to have that infrastructure, because with all the things like QA, and their experience in publishing games, it’s been really, really invaluable to us.

Yeah, it sounds like the best of both worlds- you get to keep your creativity, but you also get the backing of a big publisher, and the benefits that come with that.

Yeah, absolutely- and I think a lot of people have this misconception that all the publisher provides is money, which is really not the case. The way I see it, it is all about the infrastructure, it’s about having- about having all aspects of launching games on multiple platforms handled. There’s so many things, like certification and QA, and all that stuff, and it’s been really helpful to have them around.

Yeah, so basically they provide the backend, so you can focus on the actual game making part.

Absolutely- that’s exactly it.

So, Unravel, like you said, is a really personal game for you all- what were your inspirations for it? I’ve seen a lot of comparisons between it and LittleBigPlanet or Yoshi’s Wooly World, or even Thumbelina– so how did you come up with the idea for the game? It’s a pretty complex concept, if you think about it- it seems simple, but it is pretty complex.

Well, actually, the initial inspiration came from a song lyric! It wasn’t actually from a game or anything like that at all! It was a line from a song that a friend sang once, that just popped up into my head, and I wrote down a paragraph from there, where I basically asked the question- wouldn’t it be really cool if the bonds between people were actual physical bonds? And then to make a game about that? Where you’d be playing as a character that was quite literally made from that stuff. So that was basically the initial idea, and that was all that it was, and then the rest of the development of this idea happened when I went off on this camping trip with my family, and I guess you’ve heard that story- how I made up that little doll, and walked around in the woods with it, trying out what the game might eventually turn out to be.

So did you always intend for the game to be a puzzle platformer? Or was there any other direction you were looking at taking the game in?

Well, that was- that decision happened pretty organically, as I was playing around with the idea, as I was taking pictures of that doll in the environment. Because the type of stuff- I mean, I hadn’t really gotten a clear picture of what the game would be at the time, I just had the story and the setting for it. And then as I was playing with it, I realized, well, he’s kind of small and fragile, and when you’re that small, even the simplest thing can become like a very interesting obstacle- something challenging to overcome. So it felt kind of natural to turn it into a puzzle platformer, where you would be climbing and traversing your way through the game, and just try to figure out clever ways through all these obstacles.

unravel x

"Video games can definitely be art- and I think many of them are."

I imagine the studio was pretty excited about this- when you brought up the idea with them.

Yeah! Absolutely, and I think everyone was also really keen on this thing about setting the game in our home environment- we based all these levels in Northern Sweden, which is where our studio is. And I think everyone just found it really, really fun, and inspiring, to be able to share a slice of home, something that means a lot to them.

Yeah- everything I have seen of the game makes it seem like it has so much heart put into it- which is refreshing to see, by the way! In an era of increasing assembly line AAA titles, Unravel is like a breath of fresh air, so much heart and passion put into it.

Yeah.

So I had a question about the storytelling method- A lot of people have complimented its nuance and simplicity. What inspired this kind of storytelling?

I think the games that do storytelling best are the games that let the story that- the games where I like the story are the games where the story is something that you have to kind of seek out and- I don’t really like this sense of how so many games just treat the story like you’re watching a movie- like you’re a passive participant just observing the events. So what we said was that we want to make the story something you need to seek out. So we’ve got all these little details in the world that you’ve got to try and kind of seek out and then put together. So basically, the story becomes something that you discover. It’s not like we have these big branching paths, or anything like that. It’s just like looking at a picture.

It sounds a lot like Dark Souls– so basically a form of storytelling that’s unique to video games, something that really couldn’t have been done in any other form of media.

Yeah, absolutely. It’s like- there’s this photobook, full of faded photos, that is gradually restored as you play through levels of the game. But what’s interesting about it is that it’s not like a comic book, or a linear progression of events that unfold in a certain order. It’s more like an inspiration piece, or- I don’t know what to call it.

Like a college yearbook!

Exactly, yeah, a little bit like that. Like an old family photo album something there that when you look at it, kicks off memories, something that inspires you to think, to figure your own memories and story.

So you construct your own story and then project it into the game, which makes the story even more personal, to you, the player.

Absolutely- because that’s the thing. We want it to be a personal game, but it can’t be personal just to us, it has to be personal to the person who is playing it as well. So that’s the reasoning behind this.

Unravel is a game that has, naturally, received a lot of attention for its gorgeous visuals, and for the way that it tells a touching, heartfelt story. I’ve been looking at some early reviews for the game, and there seems to be a lot of discussion that Unravel is provoking about games as art, yet again. Where do you stand on the question of games as art? What is your response to Unravel having prompted this discussion again?

To be honest, I haven’t really followed much of that discussion, because it’s been pretty busy! But if you’re just talking about games as art, I can say that yes, video games can definitely be art- and I think many of them are. I saw a quote some time back that I really liked- he basically said that what a video game is is essentially, you take a bunch of supremely talented artists, whether they are 2D or 3D artists, or musicians, or whatever, they are all artists in their own way. And you have them all create the absolutely best possible thing that they possibly can- so of course they’re gonna produce art!

It’s like a shared work of art- between the creator and the audience.

Yeah! And I also, I mean, it’s just kind of- does it move you? Does it mean something to you? Does it make you think? Can you appreciate it? Does it do anything for you? And I think that for many games, the answer to all of those questions is a resounding ‘YES.’ These games do everything that art is supposed to do, so yeah, I think games can be and are art.

With a lot of games, people have this idea – especially these days, with games having vast open worlds, and sidequests and loads of content, and over 100 hours of gameplay time and everything – people have this idea that longer is better. What was your idea on this? Did you ever have a game length in mind? Or did you always want the game length to service the story, and not the other way around?

Yeah, I didn’t want to make anything too huge- because I think that its important to see the story through to the end. Because even though I want people to tell their own stories with Unravel, I want them to have a sense of closure, just to be able to finish it. And I want them to finish it while they are still in the mood. Because if you let something go on for too long, then that original feeling is gone- it mutates over the course of the game. I know a lot of games that I’ve played where I’m super into them to begin with, and then like, 20 or so hours later, it’s more just mechanical than anything else. It’s more like doing chores.

Yeah, like checking things off a checklist- you get bored of that after a while.

Absolutely- and I didn’t want Unravel to ever become that, so I think it’s important that the goal is always in sight, so you know what you are working towards.

What do you think of how players and critics have responded to Unravel so far? It’s still early, but you have some reviews, and player impressions, and I’m sure you’ve looked at some of them.

Yeah, I’ve seen a bit- and I think it’s pretty fair so far. It’s one of those games that’s like, I think a lot of people have been surprised by how hard it is. Because they’ve seen the first few levels, so they expected it to be cute, and harmless, you know, and sunshine and happiness. And I think some of those people are slightly surprised that this is actually kind of a difficult game. But I think the difficulty level was important, because I think it ties into the message- it is all about trying to reach someone and trying to connect with someone, and that doesn’t happen without some level of effort. And I think it’s just, when you get to the end of the game, it just, if you had to work towards it, it just means more.

Yeah, definitely- there’s this feeling of accomplishment.

Yeah, it just feels more special when you had to work more for it.

unravel 3

"About the NX, it’s funny, really. I wish I knew more about it, but they’re really secretive about it."

I think this goes back to what you were saying about checking things off a checklist- like in Assassin’s Creed, at some point you’re just sort of automatically climbing up a building and collecting the page or the feather, and then moving on to the next one. At some point it stops being meaningful, it’s just automatic busywork. But, like, in Assassin’s Creed itself, there are those Assassin tombs, and those take more thought, more time and effort, and those are the ones that stand out in your memory.

Certainly, yeah.

So what do you think- is there something in Unravel that you think you would do again better, or is there any criticism that stuck out to you, something that anything you would change, basically?

Ummm- I think that every game you make is a learning experience, and you always bring a lot with you to the game you make next, you always learn a lot of lessons along the way. I am super proud of what we have accomplished. I think that with the amount of time we had, and the amount of resources we had, we did extremely well. So actually, I don’t think there is anything we would change- I mean, there are little details and things that stand out, but those only do so to me, I don’t think anyone else will notice. And I thin it’s like- games sort of develop their own identity during the course of their development. They are what they are, and sometimes, you have to let them be what they are, and know when to stop messing with them so much. There are some things you will learn and do differently when you move on, but- I’m really happy.

So you plan on keeping Unravel alive over time? Post launch content, updates, DLC, community events, that kind of thing. Or do you think you’re done now?

Well, I guess we’ll see what the community says! Personally, I’m just going to take some time off to enjoy the fact that we managed to pull this off, and then we’ll see where to next. But there are no plans set in stone just yet.

So Unravel obviously represents, like you pointed out yourself, a bit of a departure from your previous projects- is this a new direction you are hoping the studio will go in?

Well, I don’t see myself going back to making the kinds of games that we did before. Games that were basically just about wasting time. I think making Unravel has been really awesome. It has also been kind of exhausting, because it is very personal, and it means a whole lot to me. So doing something like that will require a lot of your energy- but still I think that it has been so incredibly worth it, I hope we keep making games like this one.

So do I- like I said, I think we really need more games like this one!

Yeah I think so, too! I mean, I think it’s okay for games to be all kinds of different things. Some of them can be just a form of diversion, some of them can be just entertainment. I just think that there should be room for all games- which includes more games like Unravel too.

Games like Unravel, and indeed, any smaller, ‘indie’ game, would have been almost impossible to release to the market just about a decade ago. What is your take on the rise of indie games, and of digital marketplaces that made it possible? What are your thoughts on Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, Valve’s policies towards smaller, digital game releases?

I think it’s amazing that we have all these new portals and platforms that we can use to reach an audience. When ColdWood started out, that was like twelve years ago, before Xbox Live, or PSN, or anything like that- that was pretty hard. I know a lot of games that we would have liked to make, but there was basically no market for it- and now there is. So, I think that’s pretty cool, it allows us creators to create more diverse, interesting, and experimental things, which is great. There are fewer obstacles between the creators and the audience now, which is great.

So these storefronts create a market, and then they enable you to reach that market.

Mh hmm.

There was once a notion among indie developers that Microsoft does not care about indies, given the ‘parity clause,’ and other things like it. Do you think this notion has settled down amongst indie developers?

I’m not sure, I mean we’ve had a really good relationship with all the first parties- so that’s been really cool! But, I can’t really say much about it, because that’s not how our experience has been. They’ve been really supportive of us, so I don’t know. I guess I’m just the wrong person to answer that (laughs).

Alright, so let’s move on to Nintendo- was a Wii U version ever in consideration? Why did you decide to not put the game on that system?

No, for a few different reasons. Basically, part of it is because the team size- there’s just 14 of us. And the engine that we- our engine is a prett heavily mdofied version of the Phyre engine, that Sony has made, and it’s easy to make it run on PC, and Xbox, and PS4, but it takes a significant amount of time and effort to get something like it to run on Wii U, because that’s just, it’s basically not built that way- a different architecture. And also- well, I think it’s a bit of a hardware issue. Unravel is a pretty tech heavy game, with all the physics stuff we are doing, and some pretty intense rendering, and… yeah. So it’s just, we would have to make a completely different version of the game, which is pretty unfeasible with just fourteen people on the team.

So, for instance, it’s not about Nintendo, just the Wii U- you wouldn’t mind putting the game on the NX, would you?

No, absolutely not. The more ways we have to reach the audience, the better.

Do you know anything about the NX? Something that you might be able to tell us?

I wish I did- but they’re really secretive about it!

About the NX, it’s funny, really. I wish I knew more about it, but they’re really secretive about it. They- I actually had a really fun discussion with a person from Nintendo a while back. It was basically ‘I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours’ (laughs) So he wanted me to pitch something for the NX, and then he could tell me more about what it was. But basically, it’s kind of hard to pitch something when you don’t even know what it is!

So if you manage to guess it right, we’ll tell you what it is. So, I don’t know. But I am just as curious as everybody else to see what they’ve been making.

Okay, so- where do you see indie gaming heading next? Do you see more and more indie developers tying up with this big label so to speak. Is this kind of thing going to become common, in your opinion?

I think- I hope that we see more games made this way. A few more ‘mainstream’ indies as well. I like that we’re not just these little niche things, that there is room for us in the mainstream as well. And like I said, a publisher is so much more about than just getting development funded- it’s more, it’s more about getting your game marketed, and getting your game to the market to begin with. And I hope that more games go our route- but I also think that it’s cool that we have so many options now- when we had none before. That will result in more interesting games being made.

Okay, I’m gonna change track here completely for a couple of minutes. I wanted your opinion on this as a creator. I’m sure you know, the console wars- 1080p and 60fps is a topic of much debate these days. Now your game, as you said, is pretty tech focused, but the reason it is so visually striking is because of the gorgeous artstyle. As the creator of such a game, do you think that all of this pixel counting and emphasis on graphical tech has been blown out of proportion?

Yeah, I think it’s a little bit blown out of proportion. I’m not really a resolution guy.

But it’s… I think it’s kind of fun as a developer, to be able to push boundaries, to be able to do kind of advanced stuff. I mean, I guess I like the challenge, because I like how it looks, and I think a game like this obviously helped by being beautiful. Which helped grabbed people’s attention. So things like that, they do matter. It does make a difference.

But also, as a developer, I kind of like it the more similar platforms are- because again, there are fourteen of us, and whenever there is a difference in the spec, in the machines that you are working on, it means more work for us. Because you have to make it look the same on everything, and it’s not always that easy to do that, it can take more effort.

unravel

"I’m not really a resolution guy. But I think it’s kind of fun as a developer, to be able to push boundaries, to be able to do kind of advanced stuff."

So essentially, the idea of consoles being differentiated machines, until I guess the PS2/Xbox/Gamecube era, the idea that that’s not true, the fact that they’re growing so similar now according to you, that’s a good thing? Because it’s easier for you to be able to have your game work similarly on everything that way.

Well it is. You could argue that it would be better if they were all massively different, but that would also mean that there would essentially not be multiplatform development for anything, because it just wouldn’t be- it would be like, you know, making completely different games, at the same time.

I actually like this idea that you raised- this idea of being challenged. And there is this old- I think it was Nintendo who said this, actually, they said something like ‘challenge through limitation’ or ‘creativity through limitation.’ Where you deliberately restrict the tools available to the artist, and see where that takes you. What is your take on this kind of a work environment? A limited one that catalyzes creativity, instead of stifling it?

I think that’s pretty interesting. I was actually talking about that the other day. If you look at the whole creation process of this, I made that doll, I went on this camping trip. I think part of the reason that it did turn out so good was because I didn’t have any tools to work with, so I was left to working with the stuff I could find and my imagination. That’s a very limiting environment in a way, but also very inspiring, because it opens your eyes to all these new options.

You see stuff like people making games for old C64s, and you see them doing things like using the processing power in the disc drive to bolster their games, and stuff like that, I think that’s really cool. Just trying to get every last bit of performance from the hardware.

Speaking of which, for the Xbox One and PS4, both Sony and Microsoft have unlocked more CPU power for the PS4 and Xbox One respectively through their SDK updates in the last few months- you know, freeing up more resources, trying to get every last bit of performance from the hardware possible. I know that one of the appeal of consoles is having a fixed spec to target. But you’ve always got a changing standard to work with- now you have more RAM to draw mire, now you have more processing power. How would you say this impact developers?

It hasn’t had that much of an impact for this game. But I know in the past, for instance, like with the last console generation, if things like, for instance, some units would ship with a hard drive and others would not, that kind of means that you have to make your game assuming that no units have a hard drive, and you have to make your game assuming that. Because you can’t create something that wouldn’t run on certain versions. So I guess, you always have to stick with the lowest common denominator, and that can be a bit frustrating, when stuff is a bit unpredictable. But no, not with this game at all.

So do you think, then, that what with these changing standards for these consoles, with more and more of their resources being freed up for developers, do you think that these consoles have more to show us in the coming years? Or do you think we’re nearing them being maxed out, since they do have some pretty standard and predictable hardware in the end?

Well, people always learn new and creative ways to do things, and I think that ties into this idea that limits can sometimes inspire creativity. So I think we’ll keep seeing improvements, we always will. We’ll constantly be pushing boundaries.

Like the C64 drive example.

Absolutely, you’ll always find surprising ways that you can make things more efficient.

unravel 2

"You could argue that it would be better if all consoles were massively different, but that would also mean that there would essentially not be multiplatform development for anything."

Do you think cloud gaming will have anything to do this generation? A lot of people think that cloud assisted gaming may some day be a thing- do you see that happening within this console cycle?

We’re not there yet- that’s as much as I can basically say. At some point- I mean, I don’t know, I wouldn’t know how far into the future that is. It might be pretty far. But we’re definitely not there yet.

Is there any interest in bringing Unravel or a version of it to mobile devices, like the iPad or the Vita, in the coming years?

Yeah, it’s- I mean, I would ideally like to see it on as many platforms as possible, but the problem right now is that it is kind of hard getting it to run on a lot of these systems. I guess you could technically play it on Vita, since we do support Remote Play, so that’s pretty cool.

I think the problem is that if you want to put it on the iPad, well they kind of want you to support not just the latest version of the hardware, but also all the older ones, and they are just nowhere near powerful to run it. An iPad 2 can’t run this game, no matter how much you would like it to.

So, couldn’t you make it like an iPad Pro exclusive or something? I’m pretty sure Apple allows those!

Probably- to be honest, I haven’t actually looked into that yet. It could be cool, though.

So- do you hope to do more with Yarny in the future? We’ve discussed DLC, I know, but I don’t know, maybe something more like a full fledged sequel some years down the line?

It’s hard to say- at the time, it’s just, I’m really glad to have gotten this game out there, and to have gotten such a positive reception. People have been enjoying it. So I just want to sort of take some time to enjoy the moment for now, and not think about where I want to go next. So we’ll see.

Well, I guess we’re done! I want to thank you for your time. Is there anything else you want to tell us about Unravel before we let you go?

No, I think we got everything! I hope everyone has fun with it- and when you try it out, hopefully you have a good time!


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