From GTFO to Cyberpunk: 10 Chambers Shares Insights on Game Development and Den of Wolves
During The Game Awards, Ulf Andersson, CEO and founder of studio 10 Chambers, also took to the stage to present not only the latest update to the dark action game GTFO, but also the all-new cyberpunk co-op experience Den of Wolves. We had the chance to meet not only Ulf, but also Simon Viklund, composer and narrative designer, a few weeks ago. We checked out the Duality update for GTFO and learned more about Den of Wolves. We talked about their past and the Grin studio they used to work for. We also discussed co-op games, classics like Hidden & Dangerous and Delta Force. Most importantly, we brought you an interview about how (and why) they plan to finish GTFO and what we can expect from their new cyberpunk heist game. An interview that, in many ways, is not just about these two games, but about the games industry as a whole.
So, GTFO is ending with this new update. So why did you decide that this is the right time and the right way to end GTFO story or content-wise?
ULF: So it's a multifaceted thing, right? So one of the things is like when we set out to make the game, we had this complete story in mind, and it changed a bit in the middle parts of it, but the ending was very clear. I can't say how it ends, but it ends in a very specific way or at least on a very specific note or like a tone. And I think just being able to do that motivated us to execute and do it. Because it's a luxury to be able to actually close something up instead of just going like, "Oh, we're not making any money anymore on this, let's not do it."
I think we would regret not closing it up before leaving it. So we'd rather do that. And you could say like, oh, we could spin it out to somebody else or we could expand the studio even more and make it on the side. But we do think like it's our baby, you don't want to have somebody else ruin it, or even if they make a good version of it or a better version, even worse. So I'd rather, you know, close it up in that sense to just have that done.
I know that you cannot talk about the story that's ahead of us, but what can we expect gameplay-wise from this last update?
ULF: More punishment. I think you're going to see the level design team knowing the tools fully and then going all in on all the things they can use because they know it's the last thing. So there's been a lot of ambition going into what they can make with the tools they have.
SIMON: That goes for the storytelling as well. And actually utilizing all that we have and pushing it a little further, introducing some stuff. Making some stuff we talked about super early, but we never got to because of the complexity. We had ideas about the storyline even before we started working really on the game. They were exploring some themes or concepts that are prevalent in Rundown 8.
What is the most important lesson you learned during this long development of GTFO?
ULF: The length of it. We got this question a couple of times, but I think we go into the length of it. You know, games today are quite long because of the complexity and this kind of thing. Making the game takes a lot of time. It's a grueling process that is fun the first two days. And then it's like at least two years of hate and then a year of regret. And then maybe you start to look at something.
Once you're over that bump, you want to keep extending that thing. And now it's like, OK, now we have a thing. Now we can extend that thing and make something better from there. And then once you build the energy or lose interest in the concept or like we have one final thing, and then you do that. Maybe that's the time to end it, you know, like we're doing.
So I think something that if you design a game, just make something that can be extendable for a longer time. Like GTFO is so, so, so very specific in how it plays and everything. That being said, it's changed a lot. We removed and added things, we could change weapons and enemies and some playstyle things. We just changed a lot of things we didn't like; it's just part of GTFO. So it was a sort of game design playground in that sense.
Visually and what the locations are and this kind of thing haven't really changed a lot. The tech is also built around a very specific small team production. So what we picked up from this one and tried to do on the next one is just build a world that can do a lot more, be more free, and not get into a super complex system, multi-layered game mechanics instead of trying to do fairly clean game mechanics but in different worlds, different settings.
I used to ask developers a question of what would you change if you had a chance, but you actually got a chance to change a lot of things during the development of the game with these updates. So what was the thought and development process behind these changes?
ULF: I think most of the time it's based on a couple of things, right? So perfection is one, just trying to improve the concept. But on the other hand, it's also like change is fun because if you keep changing it, there's something new to talk about and there's a new challenge to it. And just exploring something. So you wanted to say, we know that works. We could do that again, but that works. We know that. So we'll just say, "Forget that," and then switch over and do this other thing. And in the beginning, we did a lot of like 100% focused things. We did a whole rundown about a theme. And then towards the later stages, we started to combine concepts. So it enables us to do a lot of exploration.
It's not always a balancing thing where you try to make something perfect. You know, arguably a perfect thing is completely boring. I think Valve was right about this one. When they're doing balancing for multiplayer games, it is to move the balance around a bit because one of the interesting parts about playing the games is that it actually moves a bit, and you have to think about it, adapt to it. So we keep doing that a lot. We will probably do that on the Den of Wolves as well.
Now that you're switching to a different game, are you expecting that the GTFO players will automatically switch to your new game, or are you trying to target a completely different audience?
ULF: I would think if you're into cooperative things, you probably will like it, but that being said, you can never take an audience for granted. There are some itches that GTFO is the only game that can scratch for sure. And we're not making Den of Wolves to scratch all of those itches. There's a couple of places you don't want to scratch, and GTFO is doing that perfectly.
SIMON: We will have hardcore moments in it, and there will be ways for people who enjoy the hardcoreness to sort of lean into that.
ULF: But I think the most important thing is that you can never take an audience for granted. You have to be humble about it. If somebody wants to play the madness that we're making, then we're super happy about that. I think a lot of the things we do are similar or have a similar vibe to them all the time. So I think if you're into that, you're going to gravitate to that, I guess that's like a fan base. That's not necessarily a game-specific fan base, but it's like a 10 chambers or the people involved or something like this much smaller audience. Of course, we have a tiny fan base in comparison to most, but I think that there's going to be a lot of reoccurring things you're going to recognize, but GTFO is just its own beast.
Before we dive into Den of Wolves, you guys have been in development for a long time, and you did a lot of games in the co-op genre, not just GTFO and Payday, but even before those with Grin there were games with co-op. So how did this genre evolve over the years?
ULF: I have to say this; the difference was when people were ready to pay for it. We were running a third-party studio. So maybe we made one game ourselves in the beginning, Ballistics, the racing thing. And then we started to do other things a bit together with other studios or other publishers. Even Bandits, our second game - we just explored a situation where one player was driving and another one was shooting, some weird stuff. But the thing is, when you're running a studio like that, you can only make the games that you get paid to make.
So if nobody wants to make co-op games, even if you pitch it, they just go like „Nah“, you know, so you can't make it. I think Halo was the turning point where co-op became like a selling point. It was so good for real. Before that, it was just like the awkward small things.
I think Left 4 Dead actually was the thing that really kicked it off. When we did Payday, the market was ready for something like that. People understood what it was, and Payday borrows a lot from Left 4 Dead in the sense of even like color choices and this kind of things. It also has similar aesthetics in a way. So all just to make you think about Left 4 Dead, trying to make you buy the game because you're trying to survive and you're trying to make games, not as a hobby, as a job, so you gotta make some money. Basically, if nobody buys your shit, it's not a job.
Let's talk about Den of Wolves. We've seen some arts; we've seen the trailer, so there are some signs of your inspirations. But could you be a bit more specific about some of the things that inspired you with the game?
ULF: I think all the sci-fi stuff that we've been a part of, everything from Akira to Ghost in the Shell to Blade Runner, Inception, Strange Days, Matrix, a little bit of Judge Dredd, and some Mega City stuff. There's a lot of stuff, like Heavy Metal and some other older stuff. We feel like you gotta make the thing that you can make; we understand that. And then you can say like, oh, this doesn't look modern or it doesn't do this and that. But for us, it's just that's the thing we can do to perfection because we understand it.
And I think aesthetically, it will lean into those concepts a lot. And even mechanically, there are some plays on a couple of these references. But gameplay-wise, it's going to be very modern because we keep improving at least. I don't know if it's good, but at least it's improving. Like, it has to be something new, but at the same time, you know, something fun to make and something, I think, being inspired by the masters, basically, as you should be.
You talked about GTFO being kind of a rehab game for you. And that Den of Wolves is a game that you have to make. So could you elaborate on these things?
ULF: Yeah, well, with GTFO, everybody was in a shitty place, more or less. Now either they've stopped making games or they sort of left the business or they were in a situation where they were working for somebody or on a project they didn't like or enjoy. They were doing a job maybe they didn't enjoy, even if they were in the games business still. Maybe they climbed the hierarchy ladder too much, and now they're managers or some shit like it.
Everybody just was so tired, and we've worked with most of these people before. So GTFO is really like trying to say, okay, we could enjoy working together, right? We've enjoyed it before, we're going to make something that's probably going to be interesting enough. And if you make it with the right people, you can basically make anything that feels natural to make. And if the crew is small enough, we don't need to think about sales that much. So we can just go ahead and do it. And at that point in our lives, it was also like, why not just jump and do it?
We had the resources to do the contacts and the relationships, and there was some economy there. Everything sort of clicked. So we were like, okay, let's just do that. And I started to do calls and call people and say like, do you want to come and do the thing? And some people were super reluctant because I'm an asshole. So we were fighting that a bit, and we had some people that didn't want to join, and we had some surprises also join. We even had a guy from Valve who wanted to join just out of nowhere, showed up in Sweden. Ended up not happening, but still.
So then at Wolves, if we switch over to that, that's more of a game that's like, "Okay, we've done GTFO now, and we can't do another GTFO. We're older now and have more kids, it's less time over to do this kind of thing." Also, if we kept doing that, we'd probably break up our relationship quite fast because now we're getting more tired, and you could see that even on GTFO before we started to add more people that we were sort of running out on fumes, and people started to isolate a bit more. It felt like we need a new way of doing things so we can reinvent and keep doing it basically because you don't meet a lot of people like this in your life, so you need to sort of cling to them. That's my opinion at least, and I think that sort of is a great life if you can work, spend time with these people.
So it's so important to ask, how do we actually make that happen? That's the most important thing, of course, and then you try to look for that. What's the next thing then? What's the thing that can motivate you but also something you can make and you can believe in? It's always hard to find that thing, and I think that's Den of Wolves. We're currently going through a period where nobody believes in it, but we're still talking about it, but that's such a natural step for game development, at least for us.
And it's just the grueling part of it where we're like, "Fuck, you believe in it when you see parts," and we're starting to see glimmers of what the game is, but up to this point, we've been just doing systems and trying to figure out how to make art or recruit people and train them and this kind of stuff. It's fucking awful. Never start a company, ever! Or if you do, keep it small, that's my tip.
You're working on the co-op game again, but in a very interesting setting with this biohacking and stuff like. It's not as usual to get a very deep storytelling in these kinds of games, so how do you approach the narrative aspect of Den of Wolves?
SIMON: Just putting a lot of effort into it, making it as deep and appealing as possible and trying not to be bothered too much by the fact that some people might not delve that deep into it and find out all the stuff, but I think that people sense that it's there, and that adds to the experience still. They hear people in the community talk about it, and that there is a world out there. When they play the game, it gives a sense of there's something outside of the walls of this map I'm in.
How do you approach storytelling when the game itself isn't some kind of linear experience?
ULF: That's a magic trick right there; it's like asking the magician how did you do the thing with the cards? So we're not going to give you all the details, but the trick is, of course, to say when do you tell the story, that's the trick for cooperative games. If you look at the deathmatch game like Overwatch, they actually do it outside of the game because that's the when, like when I'm not playing the game, basically.
So co-op has different pacing in comparison to a deathmatch game or a multiplayer deathmatch. So you're looking at different pacing slots where you could act, so it's a lot of analytics of trying to figure out when to do that and how to do it properly, and we're still at the verge of getting to that point where we're starting to decide it's going to be here and here. We have an idea, but then that idea will fail partly, but at least we know what the goal is.
Can we expect a lot of emerging narrative in the game? Like smaller stories about the world and the game itself, changes in maps and stuff like this?
ULF: Yeah, I think we're not going to do a lot of big CG cutscene stuff. We got to do a lot of passive storytelling or finding nuggets and building like a database of things that you can dig through or find, and this kind of thing. So, we try to keep players in the story or in the game as much as we can and also avoid these super expensive big linear animations stuff. We're going to do some of it, but it's going to be quite small. So we're trying to make something that tells a story more passively in a lot of sense, it's like a layer cake. Some stuff is really efficient passively, and some other stuff you need to go through a text log or listen to an audio or see a movie clip. So we just need all of the range; we need all of those things.
I think a story in a game could be told about you finding an item and you carry this item and then you use the item, and there's no dialogue, and it's a story. So you need to use all the mechanics you have at hand to try to do that. And I think the cooperative space, if anything, allows doing that in a lot of different ways. That's not like a Half-Life linear storytelling or an Overwatch storytelling outside of the game. Those are great games, but I think there's an unexplored piece of cooperative storytelling still that we can probably crack or at least attempt to crack.
SIMON: One thing that might be worth mentioning—you're not playing a character that has a backstory that's written and has a voice actor that's doing it like all of the Left 4 Dead games and all of the Payday games. GTFO has that, but we're trying here to do something where you can inject your own sort of reasoning and motivation into why you're in Midway City, furthering your criminal career. But we will give you a lot of things to latch on to and get interested in in terms of how the city came to be and all the corporations and organizations and factions that exist within the city. So, it's a lot up to the player to just find these little nuggets and piece together. We can hide some conspiracies in there and stuff; that's a lot of what it's about.
At the beginning, you were talking about GTFO scratching that hardcore itch, and that this might be close to it but not directly a hardcore experience. So, what kind of itches do you want to scratch with Den of Wolves?
SIMON: For sure, co-op; for sure, power fantasy - getting to be Neil McCauley, Robert De Niro's character in Heat. Being in charge, being a criminal entrepreneur, having agency. Some games feel like yeah, you're supposed to be this badass but then you just get this list of things you need to do, and it feels like you're just carrying out someone else's biddings.
How will the gameplay differ from GTFO?
ULF: I mean, that's a good question. I would say GTFO plays in a very specific style. It does have some elements to it; different scenarios where it's stealthier or you do a bit of ambushing or full-on attacks or defending. But what we're going for on this one is seeing enemies more as a changeable thing. So it's not like a constant; this is the enemy in this game, but more like depending on where the story you're playing acts out and who's involved in that story, what factions or companies. We can inject a different play style. So a storyline might have a different play style than another one might have a slower pace, and another have a higher pace or be more like GTFO enemies, and the other one has more Payday-like enemies or Call of Duty enemies or Halo-esque things. There's a lot of things in between there, of course, that makes it different. But it's just wanting to explore different things instead of trying to make one place that has everything. So we're just trying to like silo off things and try to make as good of an experience as we can. If you imagine, it's like one level might play very differently from another level, and that's us.
GTFO is a game that I would really like to be good at, but I suck at it. I'm not a very stealthy player. So is there anything for me in that regard in Den of Wolves?
ULF: The main concept with player agencies is to be able to at least make some choices on how you approach things, and sometimes you have to sneak, or at least you can attempt to, and then you can fail, right? And sometimes you have the choice not to do it at all and just do it in a different way or take a completely different map than the map that has this problem. It depends on how you want to solve the problem. It's not a game where you can do whatever, and it's just a billion missions. It's structured, but the idea is that instead of making a map where you can do anything all the time because that makes for a very bad experience, actually, that is an extremely complex game to execute on and then additionally extremely complex to communicate in. So if you two are playing and you don't know each other and there's a hundred different ways of completing it, what's the version you're gonna pick?
You will have to sneak or not. I think sometimes you will want to, and that's not gonna be your favorite thing to do, but I think there's a lot to be said about contrast in experience that has a lot of value to it. Because if you do something that you don't enjoy as much, it's also sweeter to do something else that you do enjoy. When we design games, we try not to make everything fun; rather, we try to make everything emotional, so it affects you somehow. If you hate it, it might be purposely made for you to hate. We're not trying to avoid you having negative feelings; that's a feeling too, and the best drama comes from the negative-positive swing, not just a positive.
Like in Diablo, the best thing is when you are grazing through goblins and then you hit that boss fight and you get smashed. And then you are like, "We're gonna crawl our way back in there and kill that boss," and then you did that. That's like the best one because this is a challenge now, and without that challenge, it's pointless. It becomes like Farmville or something like this, and it's not what we do. There’s nothing wrong with those games, but we don't do that. We do the drama shit.
Judging from the trailer, it seemed like the new game is gonna be very intense and grim. Are these the types of emotions that you want to convey in your players or is it like a 10 Chambers trademark?
ULF: I've noticed that we set up to do something that was a way brighter, like that had its dark points, but that's trying to be a nicer thing in a lot of extent. Still contrast, right? Actually, it's just to be able to swing more between the emotions. Our team and the people we recruited, some of them are GTFO fans, and some of them have just been in GTFO for a long time, and I just noticed how everything we do drifts into this style. So I think it's extremely hard to shake this style. So we're gonna have to find an alternate path on top of it. I think that's 10 Chambers right there, what you're seeing. And I don't know if it's healthy to shake it either, you know. It's just gonna sell less, but I also know that they understand what they're doing. It's something they understand. I think when we do something and we like it, it's usually there. It's usually in that space for some reason.
SIMON: There's also something to be said about having confidence in the world where the game takes place. It’s grim and it has this very serious tone but then people are playing the game with their friends and they're gonna be joking over team speak and have a lot of fun regardless. If the gameplay is fun and engaging and they're having a blast playing the game, they're gonna have fun regardless of whether the tone of the game is super serious. So it's about treating the subject matter with some respect and then just allowing people to have fun.
During the presentation, you mentioned that you put a lot of effort into the world-building. So do you think that is equally as important as the gameplay?
ULF: Never, no.
So why did you put so much effort into it?
ULF: Simon is working in narrative and he will agree too.
SIMON: Yeah, I fully agree. I mean, the thing with the game is that it's supposed to be fun to play. Good graphics, good storytelling, all of those other things I would say it's just sort of in support of that.
ULF: If the performance is good and you have good frame rates and you have a good network code then it could be sort of ugly and be about nothing really, but then the other things will multiply on everything to the experience.
SIMON: That's how we think about the storytelling as well. It's not necessary to enjoy the game but we hope it will be even more enjoyable if you have that sort of simmering in the back of your mind, like what this world is about and who's who, who lives in this world and how did it come to exist.
And you mentioned you were actually kind of reluctant to put the microtransactions in. So do you think it's impossible nowadays to do just a premium game without these?
ULF: No, I don't think it's impossible. It's just that for a game we've made we need a bunch of infrastructure. The infrastructure has cost so we need to at least flag early and say we're probably gonna have microtransactions in there. Exactly how it's gonna look that we don't know for certain. We know that we're not doing some math fuckery as we call it. We're not doing that. So we want to be very honest early instead of saying like one day before the release that there are MTX. Or you start the game you bought and it's great and then there's some stuff in the menu that you're like there's a missing thing? Why is there a missing thing? Now that's a problem because I've bought the game thinking it's a certain monetization thing. I paid this amount of money, I did this based on the information I got so it's part of the expectation. It's a Trojan horse or like a contract, and then somebody just adds shit to the contract.
SIMON: So we want to be upfront and be like: there's gonna be microtransactions probably, certainly they are gonna be cosmetics. That's for the people who enjoy the game and want to find more of a unique identity or whatever it might be. We want to offer that.
ULF: Yes, if you have a lot of people buying the game and buying DLC, that's a constant influx and then that pays for everything that we're doing and then we can make more better cooler shit, and that's what we want to do. But if we don't have that, we get a devoted fan base that's more like a smaller one, more hardcore one. If you compare Destiny to like Warframe, Warframe has a lot of users, Destiny has a smaller group of users but super dedicated. I'm not saying we're in that space at all, but if you think about that, that means suddenly the different strategies become interesting. Maybe Warframe is a bad example because they have a lot of MTX stuff, but it's just a different mindset and also a different mindset of what is a player to you.
DLC is probably the thing we hope for. But we never know if that starts to be like there are fewer people doing that and more people are coming in and rotating or more interested in the MTX stuff because you also don't know how the market will switch. So it's just important to be honest early on.
Did the recent situation with Unity affect you and in any way and what are the main advantages of Unity that made you decide to use the engine again?
ULF: Basically, Unity is a great piece of tech in the sense of what we like with tech is to be able to have a very good core and then being able to scale away stuff. It's a very strong mobile engine also; it has a very slim core, and the things that they've been adding have been really good in the core parts of it. Especially the burst compiler and jobs, and just, I don't know how into it you are, but those pieces are super interesting, and you won't find anything that's more efficient than that, especially in performance but also in iteration speed which is key for us in gameplay. So it fits us perfectly in that sense, and we know that engine really well. We've worked with Unreal and we worked with our own tech in the past, but this one is the thing that fits us really well, that's why we keep picking it.
The recent stuff though is like, yeah, they messed up, that's clear, we all agree on that, but you have to make a decision. Because we know a lot of the people here at Unity, so you just have to make a decision: Are you, because of bad press, willing to just dump your friends or not? And we're not dumping them. We know the people; they mean well, so why not just stick to our guns. It's a relationship. You decide if you want to keep the relationship or not. We're not saying that's the way to do it but we will keep using Unity, and we have a good relationship with them.
How do you perceive AI in game dev?
ULF: It already helps us a lot, and I think people can use those tools much more. Actually, from a management standpoint or a director standpoint, I can get way closer now to my vision than I could before. I can communicate it faster. It does change the roles of people, and instead of fighting it, they should just adapt because a human can always add something to it. I'm an old pixel artist, and when Photoshop came out, people thought that automatic pixel antialiasing is bullshit, that it is just ruining everything. And then normal mapping came. Every year there's something like that. When people started to use reference photos for painting, it was the same. That's a youth thing, thinking that something is so mythical and glorious and it's so magical, but in reality, it's still hard as heck to do and it requires a master to add to it.
But you can get really far, and the problem now with the AI stuff is, of course, you can get really far. A lot of people can get really far, but that's just gonna set the extremely talented people on top. Everybody can write a text, use Word, do correct and all the cool stuff. If you go back in history, nobody could do that, just some monk in a temple somewhere. So it's just a gradual thing, it's just going like this, and we're just seeing that. It was the same when the Internet came up. For me, it's like a creative Viagra, you know.
SIMON: I agree. I'm not gonna use AI for music-making, but I have used ChatGPT to ask what a SWAT team would say to one another other than 'check six' and 'check the perimeter,' work-like things like that. And it came with some great suggestions, and I can pick and choose the ones that I liked.