Making Wolfenstein: a fight club on the top of the world

Coffee with Willits and a spider demon in the copy room

Machine Games has just finished making Wolfenstein: The New Order. Shortly after this story goes live, it will be in stores, or perhaps in your game console. The game was four years in the making, pushed at the last minute into 2014 to accommodate the newly released Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles. And also, the team will admit, when pressed, because it just needed more work.

In spite of the fact that it is based off an existing franchise, The New Order represents somewhat of a creative risk for Machine, and for publisher Bethesda Softworks. It’s been designed as a first-person shooter, with a deep (for a FPS) narrative and some decided throwbacks to the mid-’90s style of shooter on which it is based.

The many faces of “B.J.” Blazkowicz.

The ’90s touches are the riskier. Ultimately the players will have to decide if the ’90s touches are an appropriate homage, or dated mechanics. The narrative embellishments are a safer bet. Wolfenstein’s developers are mostly former Starbreeze Studios veterans, creators of games like The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and The Darkness — games that were nothing if not narrative, and praised for being so.

“I don’t want to make this sound like PR-speak, but I think the biggest strength this studio has is the history of the directors and the kind of games they’ve made,” says Andreas Öjerfors, senior gameplay designer on Wolfenstein: The New Order. “The focus they have on two things — the narrative-driven experience, and the gunplay. Those are the two strongest things we have going for us. I think we’ve made a game about those things.”

Öjerfors started at Machine in 2011, when the tools to build Wolfenstein were still in development, and Machine was still getting its feet wet with the id Tech 5 engine. He had been at Funcom. He worked on the MMO Age of Conan, among other games, mostly writing narrative quests.

“We have a narrative-driven game,” he says. “It’s about the setting, the alternate history setting. It’s about combat and the physical sensation of being in [protagonist] BJ’s shoes and fighting a force of Nazis. Those two things are the strongest parts of our game. I think that’s basically because of the history of the directors.”

Machine Games is a new game studio, but comprised of industry veterans, like Öjerfors, almost all of whom came over from Starbreeze Studios, and many of whom helped establish that company.

“We were seven guys in the grim, grim north of Sweden,” Matthies tells me, of Starbreeze’s origins.

The “grim, grim north of Sweden.”

Although Matthies came on shortly after Starbreeze was founded, he considers what it eventually became as much his accomplishment as anybody’s. Over the course of his 11 years there, Starbreeze went from seven developers to 100, becoming a legitimate AAA game studio. Then, in 2009, while making Syndicate, Matthies, Jerk Gustafsson, Fredrik Ljungdahl, Jim Kjellin, Kjell Emanuelsson, Michael Wynne and Starbreeze founder and programming genius Magnus Högdahl left Starbreeze to start Machine. It was an exodus of creative talent that could have felled that studio. Instead, Starbreeze found new direction and has thrived, releasing Payday 2 and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. As for Machine, it was touch-and-go for over a year, and the studio came very close to shutting down.

“The first thing we did was just brainstorm many different game concepts,” says Matthies. “And then we went around pitching those to various publishers. That was basically the first year and a half.”

Those game pitches were all strikeouts.

The same year, ZeniMax Media announced it had acquired id Software — and all of its IP, including Doom, Quake and, of course, Wolfenstein.

Machine had pitched Bethesda on a game concept, but that game deal never came together. Bethesda suggested instead that maybe instead Machine might want to work on an IP from id’s closet.

“‘Is anyone working on Wolfenstein?'” Matthies remembers asking. “They said, ‘No, nobody’s doing that.’ We asked politely if we could have it.”

Matthies had cut his game-design teeth making Quake mods, as part of the modding group The Cavern. He become something of a name in that community, which, eventually, led him to Starbreeze, his very existence as a game designer having been forged by id. The possibility of working on one of its franchises was a fantasy he never imagined could become a reality.

Meanwhile, Machine had hit its lowest low. Its founders were faced with having to sell their homes to continue, or shuttering the studio entirely. Instead, in July 2010 they received an offer to visit Texas to talk to id about working on Wolfenstein.

“We rang the doorbell and we got greeted by Tim Willits,” Matthies says. “He’s just the nicest possible guy in the world.”

Matthies talks of his visit to id’s former headquarters in Mesquite, Texas (it’s since relocated to the nearby Dallas suburb of Richardson) as if it was a life-changing experience. One day, Matthies and his small team are struggling to survive; the next, they’re visiting id Software, the creator of the games that led them to become developers in the first place.

“We came into this reception area and they had this wall of all the awards that they’d won over the years. It’s just overflowing. They have so many awards they don’t fit on the shelves. Maybe now they do because they have bigger shelves, but back then it was crammed full. Behind there was the little room for the copy machine and office supplies. The door was open, so I peered inside, and I saw one of the original sculptures for that spider demon thing in Doom. Which just blew my mind. I knew this from before, that those were sculptures that they made for perspective when they did the sprites. But it was so funny that they had this relic of video game history. If you would put that on eBay, you’d get some pretty nice dollars for that. They just had it crammed into the copier room.”

“For me it was such a big thing to go to id,” says Machine Games Managing Director Jerk (pronounced “Yurk”) Gustafsson. “I remember when we came there, Tim Willits went to get us coffee. That was an extremely big thing for me. He was so extremely nice. Then we got our computers, because we had workstations where we could sit down and work. … I also got an id Software email address, so I sent a few mails home and asked them to look at the address. They were very impressed, of course.”

Matthies and his team believed they were in Mesquite to pitch id on what they’d do with the Wolfenstein IP. As it turned out, id wanted to pitch Machine Games on the id Tech 5 engine. Willits and Co. just assumed the creators of The Darkness and Riddick would do all right by Wolfenstein, and that faith motivated the Machine developers to go home to Uppsala and get it right.

By November 2010, the paperwork was signed. Machine would develop Wolfenstein: The New Order as ZeniMax Media’s newest fully owned studio.

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