The story of Turbo Tape Games and Naval War: Arctic Circle
Turbo Tape Games started with a combination of bad habits, lucky breaks and disappointment.
The disappointment was when the previous employer of Fredrik and Jan, having promised an exciting game development studio, ended up delivering a fancy advertising agency. The bad habit, frequent smoking breaks at work, sparked talking about the idea of doing it themselves, and trying to find an opening for starting a business without foregoing the monthly pay check that, frankly, was pretty mandatory at this stage of their lives and careers.
One lucky break was with the fine people at Bergen Science Centre VilVite, where Fredrik and Jan had developed a great working relationship combining creativity, game design, software development and a total disregard for technical caution to deliver interactive exhibitions to teach kids about science and technology.
The second break was when Fredrik on short notice stepped in to give a talk at a conference, replacing an airport-stuck key speaker, delivering an enthusiastic lecture on games and game design. Attending was Dave Spilde, a founder of several successful businesses who was there to give his own talk (on digital distribution of cinema). An avid gamer, he dreamed about starting a game studio. Upon hearing the talk, he decided he would want to talk to Fredrik if he ever actually came around to doing it.
A few months later, Fredrik and Jan dropped into Dave’s office to propose an optimistic business idea: starting a game development studio in Bergen. The original written business plan did, to put it mildly, leave something to be desired, but enthusiasm and dreams cover a multitude of sins.
As strategy gamers already know: it’s all in the timing.
Turbo Tape Games was founded and incorporated in February 2008.
Fredrik and Jan envisioned using roughly half their hours to create interactive exhibitions (most of them were actually games) for VilVite and other clients, freeing the other half for developing their own computer games without having to resort to living off pasta in ketchup sauce.
The big question, then, was: which game?
Like all gamers, especially would-be game designers, they both had roughly a zillion game ideas, a baker’s dozen of which were pretty well developed already, at least conceptually.
Some of the game concepts were pretty much ruled out from the start, as they would be AAA level expensive to produce. Fredrik could fake it as a visual designer, while Jan could not, even in a dark room, and neither could do any 3D modelling. Most graphical assets would need to be produced by outside contractors, and the upstart’s budget excluded games that would need a lot of quality human 3D models.
The game concept that would become Naval War had an advantage in requiring assets and models that were comparatively less expensive, and it was also pretty well developed conceptually, including even a very old playable prototype written by Jan in Visual Basic 6 (its epic user interface makes Dwarf Fortress look like Crysis by comparison).
Turbo Tape Games received good local press coverage very early in the Naval War project. This is from Bergens Tidende. From left: Fredrik, Dave and Jan.
Most importantly, though, it was a very good game concept. Take the old hard-core classic Harpoon, update to modern standards, and create a player experience somewhere between the old hard-core detail management and the more action-packed modern RTS titles.
Turbo Tape Games, still employing only founders Fredrik and Jan, relied economically on using much of its time developing scientific exhibitions, leaving at most one work year for games production. The Norwegian Film Institute had initiated a programme for funding interactive productions, and the company applied for and received development support for creating a prototype of Naval War: Arctic Circle.
Both Fredrik and Jan had been teaching computer science, including game development, at the then-Bergen branch of the Norwegian School of Information Technology (NITH), and had from the start wanted to employ two of their best students, Tor-Inge and Espen, in Turbo Tape Games. Thus, the new funding, along with a number of good development projects, allowed the company to double its staff in September 2008. The development of Naval War: Arctic Circle could now be accelerated.
Norway's culture minister (now industry minister) Trond Giske visited Turbo Tape Games 26.6.2008. The producers had promised to make him prime minister of Norway in the Naval War story. Dave, Jan and Fredrik in the background.
Developing the game simulator – the world itself, oceans, weather, the units, weapons and sensors – certainly involved some complexity, and in the early stages of development most of the effort was directed towards developing the simulator and the communication system, what the team called the backend of the game. Obviously, it had been an objective from the start to create a modern 3D interface for the game, showing the military hardware and the destruction of them in all its glorious detail. However, developing a 3D engine from scratch was certainly not within the scope or budget for this game.
A few false starts, “learning experiences” in business speak, followed, but one middleware product presented itself as a great solution for the game: Unity 3D, created by the Danish developers at Unity Technologies. The engine was about to make the jump from Mac to Windows. Turbo Tape Games vigorously acquired the skill necessary to use Unity to its full capability, and sometimes beyond.
Unity 3D is a great tool for visualising 3D models, but this required having good models of our ships, aircraft and other objects to begin with. A few early attempts revealed that buying packages online gives a mixed bag, to put it kindly.
At the same time, early 2009, a Norwegian game artist studying in Sweden was looking for a game company where he could work on a project for his degree. This art student, Øyvind, phoned and mailed Turbo Tape Games and arranged to create 3D models of ships and planes for Naval War as part of his degree. He started his project on April 1, and the team was very, very happy with the work. Øyvind remained the go-to guy for everything graphical for Turbo Tape Games over the next year, working from his base in Sweden, until he was employed as the company’s Art Director and moved to Bergen in January 2011.
Back in the spring of 2009, Turbo Tape Games found itself facing a difficult choice. Originally, the idea had been to go the classic game developer route: create a playable prototype and make the rounds to game publishers to sell in the project. This milestone had been reached, but in the meantime the company had moved towards the idea of going indie, in fact, self-publishing the game. The upside, obviously, is not sharing the profits with anyone. The downside: there may not be any profit, as marketing a game worldwide is a skill that it takes a lot of resources to acquire, and the job can’t be done on your spare time. The indie scene certainly had its rebel appeal, but it should be possible to find some kindred spirits among game publishers who shared Turbo Tape Games’ values, including a passion for strategy PC gaming.
The team eventually came up with a shortlist of publishers that fit the bill. It was a short list indeed. It had one name: Paradox Interactive.
Fredrik and Espen travelled to Stockholm, armed with enthusiasm and a playable prototype. Paradox apparently had been very recently toying with the idea of a “remake of Harpoon,” so the Bergen team was met with a lot of positive interest. During the demonstration, a glitch in the prototype game caused the enemy to fire aircraft carriers (!) at the player. How can you turn down a game after that?
On September 15, 2010, the game publishing contract was finalized with Paradox CEO Fredrik Wester’s signature.
Fredrik and Jan were given the opportunity to present the game at ParadoxCon in January 2011 in New York City. The event, where the international press for the first time were given a peek of the game, totally demonstrated the professionalism of the Paradox team, juggling the promotion of in-house and external games without anyone feeling left out. The Paradox game fans, along with fans already gathered on Turbo Tape Games’ own forum, immediately showed the team, and the game concept, their love. The reception and interest created by a number of screen shots and an oral presentation of the game certainly strengthened the team’s impression they were really on to something here!
The publishing contract with Paradox also opened up for additional funding. A Bergen-based investment fund for movies, Fuzz, now opened up for investing in interactive productions. Turbo Tape Games is very proud that Naval War: Arctic Circle is the first game having a financing deal with the fund.
The entire crew! Top left: Jan, Tor-Inge and Andreas. Front left: Øyvind, Espen and Fredrik. PHOTO: Mariel Lødum.
This allowed the company to further strengthen its team.
Fredrik and Jan kept in touch with some of their old students from NITH, and at this time the opportunity rose to employ Andreas, who had built on his already considerable development skills with elite graphics programming experience. Andreas, like every other team member, is an avid gamer. Alas, he also regularly kicked everybody else’s butts in competitive gaming.
The strengthened team has since worked non-stop building a top game experience for the fans. As of writing this, the team puts together a playable for Gamescom in Cologne, Germany, to be presented to the press for the first time.