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A long chat with MercurySteam about studio culture, games and crazy ideas

At Gamelab 2023 we got the chance to sit down (even though our table was stolen mid-interview) and catch up with MercurySteam's CEO Enric Álvarez to talk about several topics, including their bet on office work, the innovative ideas in Metroid Dread and Spacelords, and what may come in the future...

Audio transcription

"All right, we are at Gamelab 2023 in Barcelona and you know several times in the past both at Gamelab and at other events we had the pleasure to talk with Enric, Gamescom I think, and it's always nice to catch up with you guys at MercurySteam and sometimes we can talk more about the games you are doing or you just released, sometimes we cannot talk that much but it's always interesting, it's always a pleasure."

"But before we talk games and the studio, you had a panel here at Gamelab which is about risk-taking, about is this safe, was the name, right?
What do you wanted to convey to the audience of developers?
I wanted people to think, to stop and think, about the delocalization of development teams a.k.a remote working."

"Just bringing on the table a few questions and thoughts about how sustainable is this strategy and if it is as good as it seems for people and for projects and for companies and even more for the industry my worry is that this is like a one-way ticket thing and we're losing a lot of good stuff, not only for the projects and for the products, but also for the people."

"I think that our workday in modern times is kind of half the time you're awake every day, maybe.
I think it makes...
I struggle to find what sense has to be working cooperatively but alone at the same time and I think that this projects its influence over the welfare of people, but also over the culture of the studio and it goes straight to the quality of the product that you're making."

"Listen, every day when I get into the studio, I see tons of people they're not in their desks, they're in other people's desks, discussing, talking, laughing.
You have an idea of how many intuitions and challenges and problems we solve this way? Now, this happens every day and in a three years development these interactions, these organic, casual, unpredictable interactions are the source of many, many, many solutions and intuitions and it helps raising the quality of the product you're doing."

"Also, another thing that we can ignore is the mentorship of young people.
We see that every day in the studio as well. Very young people, they have an example right there in the veterans. Their attitude, their skills, their abilities."

"It's pure inspiration and they grow much, much faster than if they were home and they had to ask for a meeting with a veteran through email or whatever.
This freedom, this interaction, I think is what defines human beings. We're social animals."

"And I perfectly know that a part of our identity is digital these days, but nobody in his right mind decides to exist only in the virtual world. So, why we are accepting so happily spending our workday in a virtual environment?
Alone."

"Day after day, month after month, year after year. I don't think we thought carefully about this. I fully understand the pandemic forced many of us to go home working.
But the pandemic is over and we should be careful with this because I think it's in the human nature, the desire to be with other people."

"This is what makes us humans. We can't take this lightly.
Do you think it's sort of reverting in a way? Because we're seeing this with IT, with programming as well. We at Gamereactor in Spain, we have a local office and pretty much everything you said happens with the development of our projects as well."

"In the coffee break, you see how they come up with ideas and how they fix issues.
But we see that some of the bigger IT companies are sort of going back to requiring people to attend their otherwise pretty expensive and fancy offices in Madrid, which are difficult to maintain. And they are asking them to go back more days, have more physical meetings. Do you think this is not only in IT, but also in video games? You said it's a one way ticket, but perhaps some of them, some companies are buying the back ticket?
They're trying, but good luck with that, because once you send people home, it's close to impossible to make them back. Because to tell you the truth, it's clearly more comfortable. It's clearly even you save money because you don't have to commute. So from a comfort perspective, it's a good thing. But I don't think we should be looking for comfort in this life. I think we should be looking for realizing ourselves as human beings and having meaty, remarkable experiences with other people. So for me, it's clear that, as you say, especially regarding big companies, they've made strong statements about the wish of returning. At the same time, I find it very, very difficult that the people that you sent home two years ago, now is willing to go back to the office or the studio or whatever. But I think that we should be taking care of people differently. We should turn our studios into the best possible places to work. We should give people the flexibility to work home for a few days if they need it. Of course, this is what remote is more useful. If you have a specific need here and there, what's the problem? No problem. You go home, work for a few days and then go back to the studio. But I understand that now this is not the most popular of opinions, but it's my opinion and it's always been my opinion. In MercurySteam, when the pandemic spread, we sent everybody home, but not to work from home. We sent them home, period. And we went back when we felt things were safe. We went back progressively, first 20 people, then a month later, 20 more people, etc. And you know what? I mean, we had zero cases in two years, zero COVID cases in the studio. So I think that it's obvious that if you do things well, you are protecting people's health. That wasn't an issue in the studio. Of course, everyone else was sending people home to work, so we had a significant amount of conflict with that, with people, because they didn't understand why we did not do things as everyone else was doing. But I think that over time, most of them understood that it's not the same thing. And also, working in video games is something that you choose doing. Most of people in this world, they don't choose the work they do. We are fortunate. And these kind of experiences are much better with people. Much, much better. You make friends, you go and have some beers after work. You have incredible meetings where you learn a lot from other people and from an interaction. You might be putting on the table significant and crucial solutions to problems or finding an opportunity that nobody else saw and you saw. It's so intense. Listen, one of the things I said yesterday is that when we established MercurySteam, we had to take a significant, a very significant risk, financially speaking, because we wanted to make a big project and we needed kind of a 2.5 million euro, something like that. For normal people like us, that was a fortune. And we had to take the risk. So we had to, depending on the percentage of the company we own, we had to take the risk according to that percentage. If that situation happens today, you know, and I have to accept that my partners are, each one of them in their place, or I don't even know them, honestly speaking, I'm not willing to take the risk. Because I took the risk and my partners took the risk because we were together and we look into each other's eyes and we trusted each other."

"And yeah, we knew that we could lose everything and we actually ended up losing everything. But the force of the group was what made the difference. So if they had offered, if when we were working for Rebel Act Studios before creating MercurySteam, if they had offered us working remotely, MercurySteam didn't exist today because I didn't have the chance to know my partners, the people I was working with in Rebel Act Studios, Carlos, Darío, and the rest. And honestly speaking, I wouldn't have taken that huge risk of, you know, asking 2.5 million to the banks and being liable for that money, for the part of that money. It had never happened. So MercurySteam didn't exist. So I think that human beings, as I said, are social animals and there's no way around it. I mean, it's as it is and it will continue being this way. And it also makes a difference in one-on-one interviews. I've never interviewed you remotely and I'm glad because it really makes a difference. You can read into your eyes, you can read me, and we can understand each other, not via Zoom and shitty audio and connection and, you know, being each one at home. But you, of course, also have rebuilt your offices for MercurySteam a couple of years ago, I think. It's difficult to calculate. I haven't seen them yet, but I remember you had big space and I remember going there for Spacelords a few years ago. Then you also had some super secret space. I guess that was for Metroid. So now today I can tell you, yes, it was for Metroid development two years ago, two to three years ago. Coincidentally, it was for Metroid. So first of all, we haven't spoken about, we haven't talked about Metroid since last time we met. So first of all, congratulations because I think it's probably the best-selling, best review with Spanish game of all time. I don't know if I'm correct. So congratulations to you and to José Luis and the team. Thank you very much. It was a hell of an experience working with the best and trying to be up to the task of reaching the super high standards of Nintendo. It was heaven working with them. We work very closely with the Japanese team, meetings every week and visits so often. It was incredible, game-changer experience for us. And then the product, well both products, Samus Returns and Dread, they were very, very well accepted. And Dread was the best-selling game, the best-selling Metroid game ever, even higher than Metroid Prime."

"So yeah, I mean, couldn't be happier. I call the game Metroid Dare because you dare doing things that I wasn't expecting, for example, Nintendo doing.
Mostly with the lore, with Samus herself and, spoiler alert, the ending, what happens with her, what happens to her and the way you use the sort of side characters. That was very daring. That was very shocking to some of the fans. So how do you guys have the balls to go and say, hey Nintendo, we want to do this? And they accepted, which says a lot about both you and them. We have an excellent understanding of each other. I think that it's fair to say that over time we became friends and they are super talented people, super hard-working people. They have a work ethic that it's unbeatable. And they are open to accept new ideas and to try them. So we were also very hungry for leaving our own mark in the franchise. And we never ceased to suggest and propose ideas. And many of them ended up in the final product. So we're very proud of the collaboration between us and Nintendo. And yeah, as I said, one of the best development experiences we could possibly dream. You never cease suggesting ideas, proposing ideas to this day?
Well, about the projects we are doing today, there's nothing I can say. So a simple no comment will make it. I read on the news that some devs said that the development of Metroid was chaotic. I don't know if you want to, you have a statement on that. Do you want to speak about how developers were working during the Metroid project in that team?
I don't think the development was chaotic. Chaotic development doesn't end with one of the best games in the franchise. It doesn't end with a game that has sold over three point something million copies. It doesn't end with a game that won BGA awards. That's all I have to say about it."

"All right. You cannot say anything about ongoing projects, about the projects you are developing now. I guess you guys are still structured in two teams. Is that correct?
We are several teams working in several projects in different stages. We're growing. We recently bought a new premises and we are now putting everything together. You know that we can accommodate more people. We are more than two hundred and something people and we expect to be over the mark of two hundred and fifty before the end of the year. So yeah, things go well. We do the projects we want to do. We are very picky with the projects we select because we want to give people the greatest possible development experience to work in significant, remarkable projects, culturally relevant. And I think this is a big asset we offer people who are considering working with us. So it's no difference today. And the only thing is that the team is growing a lot and managing all that people is tricky. It's tricky."

"One of the things that we know publicly, that's for a fact, is one of the projects is with 505 is Dark Fantasy. I think it's Project Iron, if I'm correct.
Project Iron is the codename of the project I'm directing.
And yes, and it's in production."

"It's in production. And what do you guys learn from Spacelords and other dark fantasy? Spacelords is more sci-fi, right? But you come from dark fantasy and this is a dark fantasy game. So what sort of... I know you cannot tell me about the new game, but what sort of... Where are you now creatively in that regard?
Well, first of all, let me say that for us, Spacelords, it was an incredible development and it is an incredible game. Not very successful, but this is all our fault because we did... We committed all possible mistakes, except one. We did an excellent game. Now, all the lessons we learned in that project, of course, you apply them conscious and unconsciously. For example, the game we're doing right now is a single player game, which is our nature. We tried a multiplayer adventure with Spacelords. Again, we did an excellent game, but making a good, successful game today goes way beyond just making a good game. You need a lot of other skills, a lot of different people with different abilities, and we possibly underestimated that. So I promise that this is not going to happen again. We learned the lesson and now we are developing Project Iron with 505. We're keeping the IP, so it's going to stay with us. And I think that we're going to surprise you with this game."

"You guys are innovative, even though we know your staples. We know you're sort of your... This is a MercurySteam thing. We can see it from the Metroid Dread enemies. We can see it from the cutscenes and the ways you introduced for both Samus Returns. We can see it in Spacelords, sorry, from previous games, from Castlevania. But you're also into, you know, let's try something, you know, for example, with narrative and with episodic content for Spacelords. So we can also expect you to try some crazy new stuff."

"Oh, you bet. Yes, I mean, you are up for a surprise. And I think that it's going to please people, it's going to surprise people, and it's going to shock people as well. Of course, it will be a full-blown MercurySteam game, so it will have strong graphics, strong storytelling, strong action, and many more things I can't disclose right now. You guys working with Unreal or your own engine? We always work with our own technology. We can afford that luxury because from the day one in the studio, 20 years ago, we had the capacity to do it. And the Mercury engine is still there in full form. I mean, it's an excellent technology."

"And the best thing is that it's our property, and then we develop exactly what we need, like a tailor-made suit. All right, and I mentioned Jose Luis before.
I love his games. I love every single Metroidvania. He's put his signature on.
So is he still with the studio? I don't know anything about him as of late. Is he still with the studio? Can we expect more from him in the future?
All I can say is that Jose Luis is still in the studio, period. Send regards, and thank you so much for your time, Enric, as always. I'm looking forward to learning more about this new project. When can we expect to learn more about it?
We haven't announced it, but very soon you'll know. Thank you so much."

"Thank you very much."

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