Emily: How do you feel about episodic games now? Would you do it again?
Ragnar: No. I don’t think so. I think episodic is also struggling now. Life Is Strange 2, is the second episode even out?
Emily: The second episode’s out; it came out in January.
Ragnar: Oh did it? I missed that. They took a long time.
Emily: I think it was four or five months.
Ragnar: Exactly, and I think people are tired of that. And I know they’re also struggling with the sales of that, compared to the previous one.
Emily: I really liked the teen girl story, so when Life Is Strange 2 was announced and it was going to be about boys, I just wasn’t that interested. And I was so surprised when I played it—the first episode is so good. So then I was kind of sad that it’s not getting as much attention.
Ragnar: I was also disappointed to see that; like really, you’re going to do boys now? I thought the idea with Life Is Strange is you do something a little bit different. But I’ve heard really good things.
Emily: It’s really good. You should play it.
Telltale's The Walking Dead may prove to be episodic gaming's greatest achievement but also a victim of its own success
Ragnar: I do think it shows that episodic gaming is dead. I think it might come back with the streaming model and the subscription model—not only subscribing to a single game, but to a service, because then these episodic games could be part of a larger package that you’re paying for. So that could be interesting. But the demands of making [an episodic series]—it’s probably one of the factors contributing to the fall of Telltale. That constant production pressure is not healthy, and is not good, and players are shouting out for new content, which puts the team under immense pressure. We had to basically abandon our schedule and say, look, we have to take the time, we have to, because we can’t keep churning these out every three months; it’s not going to work.
Emily: There are a lot of conditions that come in to make it very unhealthy for the people who are making the games. Pressure from the company, pressure from people on the internet.
Ragnar: Yeah. On [Dreamfall Chapters], we decided to only do a season pass; we never sold individual episodes, because we knew there would be a huge fall-off. So we’d rather say, ‘You commit to it and we’ll commit to it.’ But that’s also risky if you’re doing an episodic game selling season passes and you go, ‘Nope, two episodes and we can’t afford that anymore.’ That’s bad.
Emily: A big problem right now, for getting attention for adventure games, is that streaming has become so prevalent. Once a game like Draugen has been streamed, why should anybody go out and buy it?
Ragnar: Exactly. We don’t mind people streaming it, and all those people watching it and getting the story, fine, at least they know that the game exists. But they’re not going to buy it afterwards. Why would you? What’s the excitement now, unless you want to support us, and most people don’t think like that. But I think there’s a huge market for single player, shorter narrative games, and it’s proven. It’s a shame that Telltale disappeared but I think that market is still there for other people to pick up. So our vision is like, we would love to continue that tradition, but do it differently than Telltale did it, and not double down on only external IP, and not do episodic. Because they grew fast in directions that they maybe shouldn’t have.
Emily: Making Draugen in a short development cycle, working on it for a year and then getting it out, is that something you’d like to do regularly? A new game a year?
Ragnar: Yeah. We do, and our next game—we’ve started work on it already—that’s the game I decided, when Trump was elected, that we had to make, because as game developers, what can we do in this world? I feel like we’re not doing anything to contribute positively to the world we’re living in. So our next game is an adventure but with some action elements, that’s very us not staying in our box and saying 'fuck it,' we’re going to rise up and we’re going to try to resist a little bit and make a game that, even if it makes ten people change their minds when election day comes around, great. So it’s set in our version of America, ten years into the future, and we’re excited about that.
Emily: Do you have any concerns or thoughts about being non-Americans making a game like that?
Ragnar: I think that’s a good thing, because we have an outside perspective on it. And it’s not like—maybe people in America think that because we’re from the outside we don’t really understand what’s going on—
Emily: You probably see it better than we do!
Ragnar: I wake up and look at Twitter every morning, and I read the Washington Post every morning, and it’s all that concerns me, because everything that happens [in the U.S.] affects us so much. Politics in Norway is quite boring, in a good way. But Brexit and U.S. politics, that’s what we get fed every day. And this game is not really about the real people in American politics, it’s more about the emotions of it and the feelings of it. Of course we’re going to get that criticism, of course there’s going to be a lot of people yelling at us. Fine. We’re not afraid of that; we’re used to being yelled at. If you go on the Steam page for Dreamfall Chapters, most of the threads there now are about the politics of Dreamfall Chapters, how the game is Marxist propaganda and stuff like that. Which is ridiculous, because it actually turns out the Marxists are terrorists in that game! But it means people are sort of—they see a single criticism of right-wing politics and they take it as leftist propaganda.
Emily: It’s a small group of vocal people.
Ragnar: It is a small group, and it’s not even Americans for the most part. There are a lot of progressive people as well, but it’s that sort of conservative gaming audience, which is tiny, but it’s vocal.
Emily: Do you try to avoid controversy with those people?
Ragnar: Oh no. No, I dive right in. And you see that on the Draugen Steam threads as well: oh, don’t support Red Thread Games, because as a company they’ve dared to speak out, and companies should never speak out, companies should be neutral. No, fuck no. We’re independent. Who cares? We can put those beliefs into our games; we’re not afraid to stand for something. Look at TV, look at Handmaid’s Tale. That doesn’t have a message? Of course it has a message. And that’s made by a huge corporation. So why are games supposed to be apolitical, why are games supposed to be never about something? ‘Keep your opinions and politics out of my games?’ It makes me so furious.
Emily: And if you don’t want to play that game, don’t play that game.
Ragnar: Don’t play that game! But even that is sort of like, no, do play the game, and feel free to disagree, but don’t tell us that we can’t have a message, that we can’t have a personal story. But you know, that said, we’re not [making] a game that’s setting out to preach a political message, we’re trying to just present the point of view and to also present different points of view, and let the players figure it out for themselves. But of course we have our beliefs. That’s going to color everything we do.
Emily: It’s refreshing to hear you say that.
Ragnar: Yeah, it makes me angry sometimes that people are like—the fear of politics. And this is not a criticism of, for example, Ubisoft, but I don’t know if you heard their statement about Division 2, which is set in Washington D.C. after an event that divided the country, and they say Division 2 is not a political game. Your game is in Washington D.C., shooting people. How is that not political?
Emily: Own it.
Ragnar: Own it, exactly. And it’s a shame that games are not there yet, when movies and TV do have messages, and they’re confident, and that’s great, and people accept that.
Emily: And they have for decades.
Ragnar: Star Trek, in the ’60s, had progressive messages! And now people are—I don’t know, it angers me. I like talking about it, it’s just frustrating. But there are publishers who are afraid of this kind of stuff, so we’re very up front about it, so if that worries you, scares you, don’t work with us on that game, because that’s what it is.
Emily: You didn’t do a Kickstarter this time around. Does that mean Red Thread is self-sufficient? Is everything going well as far as being an independent company?
Ragnar: It’s going. Like most indie developers, we’re getting by. It’s hand to mouth. We’re making enough money to pay our employees and to have free lunch for people everyday, but that’s it. We’re not paying ourselves a lot of money. We just want to make games and tell the stories. We don’t expect to ever create massive hits, because that’s not our motivation for making games, which is telling stories. Our hope is, at some point, one of these games is going to be huge and we can have a little bit more security, but that’s not indie game development. Nobody has security.
Emily: I think that’s a trade-off when you want to make adventure games, or story games—this is the size of my audience; I want to make a game that maybe attracts a little bigger of an audience, but this is what I’ve got.
Ragnar: The audience is millions, but you’re never going to reach everybody with a single game. Telltale did really well; I think there it just became a question of maybe it wasn’t sustainable over time, the amount of games they were making.
Emily: That, and I think The Walking Dead was a huge hit based not only on the fact that it was a great game—
Ragnar: It was The Walking Dead at the right time.
Emily: Right, and then those numbers don’t necessarily grow, but that was viewed as the new baseline instead of an anomaly.
Ragnar: And that’s a dangerous thing to think, that the baseline is the huge success. You don’t want to do that. But we do feel there’s a big market for what we’re doing, and we’re also always mixing other genres into it, so we’re not afraid to have action or to have other types of elements together with the storytelling and the character development. Hopefully at some point I can say we finally did it; we can have a massive hit and we can relax and do what we want to do for the next decade. Because, yeah, that would be nice.