Mikael Nyqvist

MDNA Games

Posted by Joseph Howse.
First posted on 07 May 2008. Last updated on 15 May 2014.
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Mikael Nyqvist
Mikael Nyqvist and Eleen Nyqvist are the co-proprietors of MDNA Games and developers of the Carol Reed Mystery series.

Mikael Nyqvist and his wife Eleen are co-proprietors of the indie development house MDNA Games, based in Norrköping, Sweden. MDNA Games develops and publishes the Carol Reed Mystery, a detective adventure series that uses photography of Norrköping and local history of the city as the backdrop for its games. Since the company's foundation in 2004, MDNA Games has released 4 titles in the series and another title is already planned.

In this interview, Nyqvist talks about his artistic experience and background, the inspirations that Norrköping offers for his games, his approach to rapid game development, and his company's position as an independent developer and publisher. He also reveals that MDNA does not just stand for "mitochondrial DNA"!

What filmmaking experience did you have prior to working in game design? How had this past experience influenced your current work?

I made about 20 short films between 1991 and 2004, of which the last few were with Eleen. Making games is actually quite different from making films. There are some similarities, though, especially when it comes to storytelling.

As it is now, we find it more satisfying to create games. One of the advantages is that we reach a much larger audience than was possible with the films. The films were mainly created for ourselves and our friends, and are nowhere to be seen now.

Game designing also gives you more control over the finished product. So much is left to chance in film making.

What do the initials "MDNA", in your company name, stand for?

It's short for Madonna.

Who is the target audience for your games? How do your games appeal to this audience?

We've never had any specific target audience in mind. Most players, however, are women over 40 from America.

The graphics in your games are all based on digitally manipulated photographs. Why have you settled on this approach? How have the graphics workflow and technique evolved over the different games in the series?

It was never really a choice for us. Since neither of us had any particular computerized drawing abilities, photos were the natural option. We also loved some of the photo realistic games we had played.

The graphical idea is pretty much the same from the first to the last game, although we've gone for a higher level of detail in every game. I also spend much more time on each individual picture now than I did in the first game, often combining two photos into one to get a perfect exposure of both sky and landscape.

The scenes in your games look very naturalistic or true-to-life. However, how much work is actually put into staging these scenes before photographing them? How many different photos do you take for each scene on average?

We usually try to manipulate the environments as little as possible. In East Side Story, it almost became as obsession with me to use places, situations, and personal histories that were as close to real life as possible. Of course, we have to place objects in the pictures from time to time, but when we do, we try to do it for real as often as possible, and not digitally paste them into the pictures.

East Side Story contains 1,600 photos, and about 20 different locations.

You have said publicly that music is an important element of your design process, so much so that you create the music before the graphics and even the story. Why do you take this approach?

I got into the habit of using music as the basis when I was making films, so the film could be edited to fit the rhythm of the music. This is not so important when it comes to games, since the player decides the rhythm of the game while moving from frame to frame. But it's still a nice way to work, and I like to have as much as possible of the material finished when I start photographing. I always do the photographing in the summer, and the games are released in the autumn, so there's a narrow time schedule.

The Carol Reed Mystery series is set in your hometown of Norrköping, Sweden. How much does your daily life in this town influence the scenes, characters, and stories in your games? Do you ever go somewhere in Norrköping, meet someone, or read something in the news and then decide to incorporate this place, person, or event into the game?

Oh yes. In East Side Story, I especially used places this way. For example, there was this very old abandoned train station that I happened to see from the train on my way to work. When I visited the place, I also found some adjoining houses and sheds, which I could enter. It was obvious, from wall calendars and newspapers, that the place had been completely abandoned since 1958. The train station workers had even left some private clothing and other personal belongings in there. I found the name of one of the workers in several places, including one embroidered in a hat.

As it happened, one of the (historically authentic) characters I was planning to use in the game was married to a train station worker. Of course, I placed him on that very station, and gave him the name from the hat.

Most of the time, the atmosphere in your games is very bright and peaceful. However, your games also deal with serious subject matter, such as murder and the origins of Nazism. How do you balance the light and dark sides of your games?

Balancing light and dark, good and evil, etc, is no particular problem. That's simply the way life is. It would probably be more difficult to create a 100% bright and peaceful, or 100% dark atmosphere, or to portray a person who is wholly good or evil.

From playing your games, it is clear that you admire simple, intuitive gameplay. How does this simplicity in your design philosophy set your games apart from the work of other developers (independent or otherwise)?

We've always tried to make the interface as simple as possible. Saving and loading the game, and accessing the inventory should be possible at anytime in the game, and with a minimum of mouse clicks. I'm not sure about other developers, but I don't think that any player really appreciates those funky interfaces that takes forever to load and require a multitude of clicks or key-presses (or, in the worst cases, both) just to test an inventory item in the game environment.

You have chosen to develop your games using third-party game engines (initially, Adventure Maker and, more recently, Wintermute Engine). What tasks do these engines simplify in your production process? What, if anything, do they make harder? Why have you switched to Wintermute Engine for East Side Story?

Actually, the discovery of Adventure Maker was what got us into game making in the first place. The professional edition of the program is very complete, and simplifies the process considerably for the beginner, and even includes an installation utility and a program for distributing the finished game files on CD.

There was one simple reason for switching from the Adventure Maker engine: the lack of Vista compatibility (which has been added to the engine since then).

After having tested what I believe were all the engines out there suitable for adventure games, the choice was obvious. The Wintermute Engine was simply the perfect engine for our games, and probably for most other adventure games as well. It's extremely flexible and user friendly. The learning curve is steeper than for most other engines, but it certainly pays off in the long run.

What have been some of the challenges and surprises in maintaining such a rapid release schedule (4 games in 4 years)? What part of the development process is the most time-consuming or most difficult to plan?

I guess it's a matter of dedication, and to constantly avoid situations that are complicated or time consuming. It's also important to not plan anything that you're not 100% sure that you will be able to pull off.

Most of the time is spent in front of the computer. Although scripting, planning, location scouting, photographing, and sound recording are important stages in the production, they're not nearly as time consuming as the retouching of the photos and the actual programming. All games are photographed in the summer, and released in the fall, so it's a pretty tight schedule.

You have chosen to distribute your games independently and exclusively via MDNA Games' website. Have you considered publishing your games via a third-party publisher? What trends do you foresee in the distribution of adventure games produced by independent developers?

We've never tried to get a publisher. We've had our hands full with the game, and simply haven't had the time for it. But it seems like it's going to happen now anyway.

Some predict that downloading will be the future for independent games. I'm not so sure about that though, since a lot of people (at least adventure game players, who generally seem to be collectors) want to have a physical game with a box to place on the shelf.

What is your greatest challenge working as an independent game developer? What constraints must you place on your production process due to limited resources?

It's always a big challenge to make games, but I don't think that being independent has made it more challenging for us in any way. We've never really felt that we've had to place any constraints on the productions either. If we had more money, we would hire more professional voice actors for some parts. But that's really all I can think of.

What are your plans for MDNA Games in 2008 and beyond? What can you reveal about Carol Reed's next case?

I guess it won't be such a big surprise if I say that I'm planning the next game at the moment. More about that later.

Thanks very much for the interview, Mikael. We look forward to hearing more, in due course, about the adventures of Carol Reed.

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