Regardless of what you do, there’s always the draw of something better. Working at Redlynx wasn’t enough for both Johannes Vuorinen and Juhana Myllys. They wanted to create their own games, decide upon their own direction and ideas. So they jumped, and – backed by the Finnish government – set up a small office in Helsinki: Frogmind.
Setting Out on an Adventure
“We received 15,000 euros from the ‘Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment‘ once we got approved to the Aalto Start-Up Center [a business incubator],” Vuorinen begins. “That has helped us a lot … to just focus on developing BADLAND.”
Frogmind’s inaugural title BADLAND is a dark physics-based platform game laced with equally dark humor; it was the “something better” they were drawn towards. Its physics-based elements came naturally; former employer Redlynx gained fame with their physics-based racer Trials. Redlynx initially didn’t want them to leave: “They would have wanted to keep us there, but they quickly understood that this was something we wanted so badly to do at this point,” Vuorinen muses. Luckily, it hasn’t soured relationships. “I haven’t seen any angry faces.”
Surprisingly, both never actually worked together on the same project at Redlynx (or even earlier at studio Universimo), the desire to work together and go indie evolved after seeing the success of indie-darling World of Goo on iOS. The success of that game helped them make the jump. As Vuorinen puts it, “We’ve always shared a lot of common visions and ideas. World of Goo was just one example of a successful indie game made with a tiny team. Basically, we saw proof that, being a small indie team, you can create awesome games, so we decided to try the same.”
From Friendship to Business
Vuorinen and Myllys have known each other since 2007, and their friendship provided the base to jump from, though the match-up was based on gaming preferences rather than skills. “It was a beautiful summer day in Helsinki…No seriously, it was, and I was going to work for the first time in my new job [at] Universomo. Back then, Universomo had this small team of 8-12 talented developers and I was so proud to be one of them. We met the same day and although we worked in different teams, we realized that we had common interests in playing FIFA and NHL.”
Vuorinen continues: “Playing those games heavily [together] lead to us getting to know each other better, and we soon realized that we shared a lot of the same thoughts about games and game design.” The friendship evolved into a willingness to work together, but it would take a while before Frogmind happened. “After Universomo was shut down by THQ in the beginning of 2010, we still weren’t brave enough to start our own thing, but rather we both went to Redlynx for a couple of years before we felt that we were ready.”
Yet being ready isn’t necessarily the same as being in tune. “Most of the time [it does], as we share so many common visions and thoughts about all the various aspects of the game,” Vuorinen mentions. “However, now and again we have some disagreements, and these can lead to really intense arguments. BADLAND is so madly important for both of us.” He starts laughing. “But these just make the game even better.”
Myllys chips in on the differences: “One of us is a very precise technical engineer and the other one is a lunatic artist. We often have a common goal but different approach. Of course, there are conflicts when you work with someone almost 24/7. We are generally very different persons. But that all being said, we are still alive and our first game is finished!”
“It happens all the time that one of us comes up with some new idea, and then I give some thought to it and give a small adjustment or addition idea to it, and then the original idea becomes just awesome. In the end, that’s a good thing, and I bet our mad love for the game can be seen in the result,” Myllys concurs. “Probably the greatest thing was in the very beginning when we realised that we have this golden game idea, and it just started to grow and grow. We just threw crazy ideas together this one day and developed them the next.”
The dynamic of Frogmind is mainly based on these complementing differences, though Myllys adds another component to the mix: “The key thing is just having a vision and desire to do something of your own. It has very little to do with talent or skills. You can always improve those things. But passion is something you cannot learn. If you have co-workers or friends who share that vision, just go with it!”
The remark leads to another point, as both developers like to ‘keep things small’. “The bigger the company you are working in, more unlikely it is that truly original ideas will flourish,” Myllys says, and he adds a few other positives: “the ease of communications and the total lack of meetings that you have to have when there are lots of moving parts in your development team.”
Myllys does note there’s a drawback to the small company stature, as the ease and speed come at a price. “You have to do everything. Don’t get me wrong; generally, it’s great. But there are numerous tasks that just aren’t much joy to do. Someone else might be able to handle those special tasks with better quality. Sometimes it would be easier to just ‘let the boys at the marketing department do that’, that sort of thing.” The monotonous tasks didn’t keep them from finishing BADLAND. They saw the game as a dream project, and to them, it meant they could optimize and change it as they pleased. “We are able to minimize the boring stuff and focus on things that we are good at,” Myllys confirms.
At Universimo, the duo saw 10 people working on just one mobile game. “We couldn’t understand why it wasn’t possible for just one or two people to do the same,” Myllys says. “Why have other random people involved if we could just do it ourselves, the two of us?” Universomo was the first game studio both of them worked at. “You could say we lost our game industry virginity there,” Myllys continues. “When I look back, it was a perfectly gentle place to do that. Lots of great people worked there, and we got lots of good memories.”
But the amount of people working on the game left another impression that influenced their own development at Frogmind. “In BADLAND, we could easily have a team with three programmers, game designer, level designer, graphic artist, Menu/UI artist, Producer, QA engineer and Sound Designer, and we would still be considered a small game company. But we felt that we can do most of that, just the two us. All we need is a work environment that suits us perfectly. We decided to concentrate on the essentials.”
They also managed to get some experiences from other start-up developers as well. “Cornfox & Brothers started their journey back in 2010, when Universomo was liquidated by THQ. They’ve done amazingly every since. First there was a huge success in App Store with Death Rally and now they are doing their first own IP with Oceanhorn. We worked with them briefly last year with Oceanhorn, and it was fantastic.”
Competing differences, a hands-on approach and a clear vision helped them to create BADLAND. The dark and organic styling of the game actually had a very common inspiration: “nature and wildlife has always been the biggest influence in BADLAND,” mentions Myllys. “In nature, things happen because of the shape and weight of things. There is no right or wrong, nor what’s fair and what’s not. Also, for almost any artist who ever lived, nature has been the biggest inspiration because of the beauty of it.”
That includes nature’s brutality. “Maybe we are just twisted or something. Although set in a fantasy world with cartoony characters, we really wanted that BADLAND would feel real. That’s when the life-like physics and sound effects comes in. It’s so much funnier when something gets crushed with realistic in-your-face type of sound effect rather than with some arcade style ‘punch’.”
Taking in those elements also comes close to making sure no gamer is left behind. “For us, it was important that it would have two basic “layers” in gameplay. First would be for those gamers who only want to proceed and clear the level. Second would be for gamers who really love the depth in gameplay and replay ability.” BADLAND opened up to all kinds of players as a result.
Maybe that’s how Frogmind won a prestigious Apple Design Award in 2013. “For us, it was a clear message: Job well done, keep doing what you are doing. The whole BADLAND project was an opportunity to forget the rules that we used to have and just simply do things on our own way.” It creates a very clear path: focus and make great games. Or as Myllys puts it: “[it’s our] ‘own thing’ or ‘no thing’.” So far it seems to work. With countless downloads of BADLAND during the five year anniversary of the App Store, they’ve arguably reached the top already.
And yet, there’s always something better to jump towards.