GDC11: Arrowhead Studios' Johan Pilestedt Spills Magicka Secrets to All!

By Allen Park

March 10, 2011

Okay, well, that might not be entirely true, but I did get to hang out with Arrowhead Studios’ CEO and Director Johan Pilestedt last week at GDC, and we had quite a bit to talk about. As the creator of indie uber-hit Magicka, Pilestedt had quite a bit of ‘splaining to do, especially concerning the complaints around the launch of the game, the crazy idea behind Magicka: Vietnam, and what’s next for the Arrowhead guys.

First things first; I had to grill Pilestedt on the launch of Magicka, which most people viewed as a disaster thanks to all the bugs, especially when it came to the online multiplayer. Pilestedt had nothing but regret and terrible feelings for the release, saying, “the bugs were horrible; it never should have been released that way.” When I inquired as to why there were such bugs, Pilestedt did take accountability for his team and his game, and said that they just didn’t do a good job with the game. It was that sense of responsibility that motivated the Arrowhead crew to work day in and day out for a week or so to release patches every 24 hours until the problems were fixed, for the most part. Now, I can vouch for Pilestedt when I say the game is running quite well, with no true crashes and bugs to speak of.

In his defense though, I did point out that there was no way Arrowhead could have predicted Magicka to be so huge. I noted that just recently Magicka had surpassed 200,000 downloads, and Pilestedt corrected me, replying, “Actually, it’s getting closer to 300,000 now.” When asked about expectations for the game, Pilestedt mentioned, “we thought we’d get 20-30,000 downloads throughout the shelf life of the game,” so when it turned out that over 20,000 people had downloaded Magicka in just the first 24 hours, Arrowhead’s servers just couldn’t handle the massive amount of sudden traffic.

It’s still a wonder that they manage to do so to this day. When developing Magicka, Arrowhead Studios was quite a small outfit, even for indie standards; they had seven people on their team, with only two of them being actual programmers. “Our CFO was also our scripter for the game,” Pilestedt exclaims. Even the absurdly hilarious language in Magicka (created by translating English to Swedish, adding a few gibberish words, and dictating it in an English enunciation) was recorded by the entire team. Now, they’ve increased their staff to an even ten, but that’s still quite a cozy number for a studio that’s poised to break 300,000 copies sold.

With Magicka: Vietnam, Arrowhead hopes to ride the trend of massive popularity. The idea initially came from a special weapon hidden in the original Magicka. Pilestedt says that the team had such a fun time designing the M60 machine gun in the game that they extrapolated on it, and came up with an entire premise about wizards at war.  From that sprouted Magicka: Vietnam, an expansion that takes place in the apparently war-torn jungles of Vietnam. “Guns will be a big part of this game,” says Pilestedt, and judging from the amazing trailer they released during GDC, I would have to agree.

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The humor found in the original will remain intact in this one as well. While Vietnam will not only have more pop culture references from things like Predator and Lost, Pilestedt hopes to maintain the off-brand kooky humor of the original and not rely too much on the references. “We don’t want to be ‘Family Guy’,” says Pilestedt, where the references are funny the first time around, and end up becoming a crutch for the series as a whole. It’s an apt point, and one that more companies hoping to make funny games should note.

As for the future of the Magicka series? First and foremost, Pilestedt wants to make it known that Arrowhead will be working on other projects. “We don’t want to be known as just ‘the Magicka guys’,” he states, and would never want Magicka to be a once-a-year release where they milk the series just for money.

That’s not to say this will be the last we see of the Magicka brand, of course. Along with the paid Vietnam expansion, they have free DLC coming that’ll add a PvP element to the original game, along with maybe some extras in the horizon. Pilestedt has noted that Magicka is a bit of a spoof on dungeon-crawler games, but has yet to actually do anything with dungeons, so he’s interested in exploring that aspect of Magicka. Additionally, there were bosses and other content that was cut from the original game that may be released at a later date, but that’s something that hasn’t been set in stone.

What is confirmed is that Arrowhead Studios knows what it’s doing, and has the best of intentions behind their games. This was perhaps best summarized when I asked Pilestedt about his close involvement with the Magicka community, and his willingness to read the forums, regardless of whether they were complaints or praises. “Fans are everything,” Pilestedt acknowledges. “Without them, we wouldn’t be here talking about Magicka: Vietnam.” After that, how can you not support the guy and his company?

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Allen Park

Allen is an utter whore of a gamer; he's completely open-minded to all games, be they AAA blockbusters or $5 casual children's games. His focus is on indie games specifically, valuing gameplay and ingenuity over sparkly visuals and ridiculous gimmicks. When he's not geeking out over the newest art game, he's out toning his sexy, sculpted shoulders while surfing epic 1.5ft waves, or having a good time with local, high-gravity microbrews.

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