This interview was conducted in May 2022 and features five members of the original Wands-team at Cortopia Studios. It’s the first piece in a series of five or more.
Thomas (T): First of all: welcome or “välkomna” as we say here. As you know, we’re gathered here to talk about The Story of Wands, in the context that we’re about to release Wands Alliances, the spiritual successor to Wands. This interview will be published here on wandsalliances.com and beyondframes.com in three parts, while future interviews in this series will end up both in written form on our sites and in vlog form on our Youtube channel. The interviews will cover the whole creation and development process of Wands and Wands Alliances.
Ok, now for the formal introductions. With me today we have Ricky Helgesson, founder of Cortopia, co-founder of Beyond Frames, formerly CEO, now Head of Design at Cortopia, wielder of ideas, first of his name and also Creative Director of something we can’t talk about yet. We have Hannes Lidbeck, our humble Software Engineer, Petter Bergman, super Lead Technical Artist, Max Huusko, Graphics Artist extraordinaire, and Alexander Bengtsson, laid back philosopher and self-critic clad in cap and tattoos. Finally, my name is Thomas “Twinbeard” Petersson, and I’m the residing Community and Content Manager here.
As some of our readers know, we’re currently on the verge of wrapping up our next game Wands Alliances. The IP and first Wands-game, however, were born already six years ago. So let’s go back to a time when VR just had been reborn (and before it ended up on the verge of dying again, due to fading hype and investments, but that’s another story). In 2016 – just as now – VR was booming.
Ricky, as the one there from the very beginning, could you talk us through the birth of Wands, how the idea of a magic duelling game came about, and how it went from being a tech demo to a full retail VR game?
Ricky (R): It began with us starting a company called Univrses to work with positional tracking in AR and VR. As part of that technology, we wanted to build a system that showed what you could use that tech for. So, it started as a tech demo, but we quickly felt that we wanted to do more with it, while still maintaining the positional tech as one of its core features. It’s ironic though, because it ended up with us releasing a game in 3DOF (“three degrees of freedom”, the number of movement axes being tracked, Editor’s note) and without positioning albeit the game was designed to really need it [positioning]. Now we’ve come full circle with Wands Alliances, however.
We started by discussing very simple solutions, like a game where you had to avoid incoming projectiles, and shooting targets was the first idea that we in all seriousness bounced back and forth. Then we realized that we wanted to do something more substantial. If we’d gone for a standard shooter, bullets travel fast, so we thought it made sense to go over to magic, where the pace was more appropriate. It’s you yourself who decide how your magic works.
Petter (P): Exactly.
Bullets were too fast for VR and the team’s ideas in 2015.
While the generally more slow-paced magic was a better fit.
T: When did you come up with the idea of using magic – in 2015?
R: Yes, it was early 2015. Wasn’t it then you joined, Petter? Winter 2015?
R: At that time there was neither Cortopia nor NUX, it was all part of Univrses. I was trying to get us started, and we quickly steered into magic. We did sketches of wands, tried out building characters and we also tried to build an environment – where Petter explained that “This will never work in a cell phone.” So we had to backtrack and try to understand what you actually could build for mobile.
We prototyped during all of spring 2015. We focused mostly on the tech stuff in Univrses, but then in August, Hannes and Petter came in full time and we kicked things off for real.
T: The story building, wasn’t that Mikael Hulkko’s work (early co-worker at Univrses and Wands, Editor’s note)? But then he left suddenly?
P: Yes, he was there already when I started, when I did freelance work as a consultant, but I don’t think he was around after August.
R: No, I don’t think so. I think it was late summer that he moved to Malta. He wrote the lore in the beginning and worked on the world building, but yeah, he left, before any work was done on the Wiki
T: Alright. You had your embryo and Hannes and Petter had joined. Then things must’ve moved quite rapidly? When did you decide that this was going to be a full-fledged game? Or did it more or less just happen?
R: It must have been when you guys [Hannes and Petter] came in. I don’t really remember, but at that time I think we’d made up our minds to build a game we would release.
P: As I recall it, that whole time in the beginning we were still building a demo platform specifically for the tracking piece for Univrses. I’m not sure if we were seriously discussing whether or not to make a stand-alone game after the positional tracking had been solved. I think our focus was a better test platform – “Will this tracking work technically if we were to use it live?”.
T: It doesn’t sound as if any of you really had a hallelujah moment and were just “We’re going to release this!”, and that it was more of a process that happened along the way?
P: It came naturally. I don’t believe there was no specific time or date, it just became a very entertaining game all of a sudden.
Hannes (H): Yeah, we moved away from tracking with our demo, and it became obvious that we were ready to release it, but that they [Univrses] weren’t ready to release their tech.
T: In some ways it’s funnier in hindsight that it wasn’t planned from the beginning – “We’re going to make a game from A to Z.” Instead it was more “We’re working on this thing and … oops, it’s a game!” That it was more of a fluke is a lot more fun.
R: Yeah, that’s the way it was. During 2016 when we were closing in on launch during spring, I reached a breaking point or a crossroads. We had a short stand-up meeting one morning where one of the mathematics or computer design PhD:s said “Well I’m going to work on this algorithm today.” or whatever, while someone else said “I’m going to switch colors on the fireball.” That’s when I felt like “Damn, we’re totally different companies.” We also had an investor that wasn’t too hot on investing in such a fragmented company, so they too wanted us to divide it into two parts, and actively helped push us in that direction.
T: Did that coincide with you already thinking about splitting the company into different entities?
R: Yes, and also in connection with that the game was getting close to release. Like, “Why should we launch this under the wrong name?” Then it launched under the wrong flag anyway since we didn’t get to keep NUX, haha.
Hills with … legs?
In the early years, Cortopia went through a lot of name changes – and suggestions. From the aforementioned Univrses to the, as it turned out, already claimed NUX, to finally settling for Cortopia. There were also lots of other suggestions, some more wild than others …
T: Yeah, I think “Hills With Legs” is really funny. Does anyone remember who came up with all these different names?
R: I remember who came up with Hills With Legs.
Max (M): That was me, I think. But that was just like … I think I’d seen The Hills Have Eyes or something.
T: The old horror movie?
M: Yeah. And then we just wanted another body part.
T: Haha! That’s hilarious.
M: I thought it sounded cool. There wasn’t anything smarter about it than that. I think we brainstormed like 15 names each, and then some stood out.
H: It was also very catchy since we drew a logotype to go with it.
Alexander (A): Yeah, I still regret that we didn’t use it.
T: It’s a pretty cool name.
A: Really cool.
R: It’s a much funnier name.
T: Cortopia is a bit more … more hard consonants.
A: Yeah, [as if] you make medicine.
T: So who came up with the name Cortopia then?
R: I don’t know if it was a conscious decision from the get-go, but I think it was the woman who was leading the company at the time. I don’t know how many, there were hundreds of names on her lists, there was no end to it. Then, since we’d failed this NUX name, much because of lawyer … copyright …
R: Yes. The patent lawyer had overlooked that there was another Swedish NUX Ltd, and also that a French company working in medicine was registered in our brand category. So when we were to come up with a new name they were too afraid to say anything, they tossed everything in the bin regardless. We could say “How about DUMGUFFPH?” and they were like “Weeell … you never know, there might be someone who …”. It took fuxxing forever to get anywhere. But then … yes, Cortopia … I’m not sure if it’s a retrospective thing, but I think it was Tony in the board who said “Core” and “Utopia … no, “Cortext” and “Utopia”! Hella clever!
M: Also, I know that the domain was available and very, very cheap. Possibly free.
T: After that it’s easy to read between the lines and see that things moved fast. The rest of you came in during spring and summer 2016, right? How many were working in the company at that time?
A: (Smiling) I wasn’t.
M: It was the three of us … I have to think. I started out as freelance and created icons and spells, stuff like that, from home. I’m not sure who were working in the office.
R: Well, Hannes and Petter built the entire game.
T: But Mikael was working there as well …?
R: Mikael was there for the story and world building early 2015, but as we talked about earlier, he left that summer and wasn’t involved with the production of the game after that.
T: So you were basically four people for the most part of 2015-2016?
R: Hannes and Petter did all the bulk and I was sort of standing at the side line helping out with one hand. There was also Per Nymark on sound. Then Max entered before summer and helped with finishing icons and some other stuff. Possibly key art as well. Then we released in August. We postponed it. It was due out in June but we moved it to August because we wanted single-player, so Hannes had the entire summer to build support for SP.
T: Not a lot of vacation that summer, I take it?
H: The plan was that we were going to [get some time off], but that didn’t happen. We also managed to hire and fire another programmer during that time.
R: We did? Damn.
Creative improvisation, a.k.a. winging it wildly
At the time, almost everyone in the Wands team had in common that they were new to the gaming industry. For several, it was their first job position altogether, and they threw themselves at it with reckless abandon using creativity, improvisation and in some ways simply winging it wildy.
T: Some of you had done some animation work or freelanced as a graphics artist before, but for several of you this was your first real job. How was it coming from what you did before all this and going into full scale game development and also VR? It’s a big question, but give it a try.
P: Who wants to go first?
A: Yeah … who has the coolest background?
P: I’ll begin, then. When VR started to become a thing, when the Oculus Kickstarter campaign skyrocketed, I was working as a teacher at the university. We were handed an Oculus kit to try out and to study its hardware. It had lots of potential already then and it became a thing very quickly.
I was in other words already working with VR and trying out new headsets. After leaving teaching I jumped over to the private sector and started working at a VFX studio as a VR developer. It was more about how one could use VR within film, video and advertisement, not so much for gaming. It was through that company I met Ricky, so the transition was quite natural. To climb aboard this project and continue working with this new medium felt very interesting for me and I really looked forward to it. The process with VR going from what it was when it arrived to what it is today … it’s a whole different world.
T: If my research is correct, besides Ricky, you [Petter] were the only one of the five of you who had worked in the segment prior to this. For the rest of you this must’ve been quite the leap, right?
H and A: Mmm.
H: Yes. This was my first real job in the game industry, and I don’t think I even reflected upon the fact that it was VR. It was more like “I need to learn while I’m doing it.” In that way it was a good thing we were only doing a demo, it was something I could manage. But then we’ve had to live with this crappy code for the rest of the project, for five years due to me being green, so it was like being dropped in the deep end of the pool and learning how to swim, haha. But it’s been one hell of a ride.
R: I recall that you refused to call yourself a programmer, haha. You wanted to call yourself a game designer. It worked out fine in the end, didn’t it?
T: Alex and Max, what are your thoughts on how you started working here?
A: You go Max, you’re slightly ahead of me in the narrative. Our stories intertwine so well.
M: Indeed. We met in school in Singapore.
M: Industrial design. I was there … one semester before you, was it?
A: Yeah, exactly.
M: When I came home I moved back to Gothenburg. I sat there and tried to find jobs to apply for and drew stuff in my spare time. Took some freelance gigs. Crossing out devs in Gothenburg was like, if you sent five e-mails you were pretty much done.
T: A lot of stuff has happened here (Thomas is from Gothenburg, Editor’s note) these past seven or eight years, I can tell you.
M: Yup, so I’ve heard. But then it was like, ”Zoink, and then ok, I need to widen my search.” (Zoink Games is a game developer from Gothenburg owned by Thunderful Games, Editor’s note.) So I was looking into moving somewhere. I played around with some places, and then I saw that Ricky had posted on Facebook that he needed someone to do icons for their game, so I applied and then … I think Petter recognized the school in Singapore.
P: Yes. And then it was “auto approve”.
M: Haha. Yeah, it added some weight to one’s CV. I also learnt to play Ricky’s and Petter’s strings, so I did some bat shit crazy concept stuff that there was no chance in heaven they’d be able to implement. Flywing typewriters that printed out results from a match. Ricky thought that it was totally sick.
T: Appeal to the “creative enthusiast who’s a bit out there”?
M: So I guess that led to me getting to try out working here, but the game was pretty much done at that point, so it didn’t need much concepting.
A: Still, you managed to get into the release party though, right?
M: I was at the release party, but I was responsible for social media at the time and did a lot of content.
A: You just slid in there … invited to parties, straight off the bat.
M: I was barely there at all though. I didn’t know of any posting scheduling tools, so I sat on Facebook with champagne in my hand and pressed “Post”. Then I tabbed over to Twitter, and to Instagram …
Then things moved quickly. I don’t remember the details, but I think we were trying to pitch some new projects to the board or something, a lot of stuff at the same time and I couldn’t do it all on my own. We needed more people, so I called Alex.
A: You wrote to me on Facebook, actually. You had two, three projects up and running – Wands and a couple of others. Apart from that, the only thing I remember is that my brain said no but I wrote yes.
A: It was scary. I realized that I probably would need to leave everything I knew behind.
T: “My brain said no but my heart said yes.”
A: My fingers anyway. It didn’t even get to the heart.
The challenging pioneer years
If you’re not an avid gamer you might not consider when picking up a VR kit today that VR is still very much new technology, evolving rapidly. In 2015 this was even more so, and it had drastic effects on how the small but ambitious Cortopia team could approach work. Some for bad but possibly even more, for good.
T: VR is in its early childhood years, and even more so six or seven years ago. In 25 years, people will say that these were the pioneer years. Was there anything from that time in the beginning that was particularly challenging? What type of obstacles or surprises were there, or did you stumble upon working with VR?
P: Yeah, it really was. You did everything in an entirely different way. You almost had to rewind time 20 years for certain technical solutions. All things you as a player interact with … there wasn’t any play book saying: “This is how you create games the correct way”. It was like in the Wild West back then. You had to try a bunch of weird things and see what actually felt good. Most things were really hard to try before they were implemented as well. It was very much gut feeling that guided you.
T: Those of you who felt like that and were coding, this feeling of being pioneers, was that more for good or bad?
H: Mostly good I think, but you had to set your brain to the fact that not all things that worked on flat screen worked in VR. One of the first things I suggested was that the camera would shake when you were hit, but that would only have made everyone nauseous.
At the same time, it was a lot of fun. I think that the greatest challenge, since VR was the talk of the town, new kid on the block etc, everyone wanted to make a new headset and everyone had their own platform. Therefore, one of the first challenges with Wands was that we wanted to be everywhere, on every platform, and that probably wasn’t the best decision we made for the game.
T: Everyone in the gaming industry knows porting a game is a challenge. Wands has been released in around 20 different versions on almost 15 different platforms. (We actually had to count after the interview. Not quite Skyrim, but still impressive! Editor’s note.). That’s quite a lot. Have all those transitions been difficult throughout the years?
T: Haha. How stupid of me to ask a sports question and get a “Yes.” as a reply. Like this, then: For those who are not familiar with the process of porting a game, what were the challenges in porting for Wands in general and in VR in particular?
H: With Wands, the greatest leaps were when we were about to go from Android to PC or PS4 and open for some people playing in 3DOF, some using roomscale thus being able to move around, when the game wasn’t designed to cater to that. So splitting the player base, or at least risking it, weighed heavy on us. Trying to make the game as fair as possible on all platforms. We still wanted to keep it cross-play so everyone could play Wands together.
R: The first version you played with the touch screen on the side of your Gear VR. What was it you … you swiped to … swiped in different directions to choose a spell?
M: You swiped up to “choose menu”, and then you looked at the thing you wanted to choose, and then swiped again.
R: Swiped again, yeah that’s right! And then you fired with …
H: You held down or pressed up here (pointing at his forehead).
R: But how did you teleport?
P: It was a spell.
R: It was a spell! That’s right! You had to choose “teleport” as a spell, then tap for teleport.
T: These things are fun. If you’d said stuff like we have now for the past two minutes in any other segment of the gaming industry, like “How did you do that?” “You had to press this button.” “But how did you do this, then?” “You didn’t.” – you’d think way more time had passed than six years. The sector has moved forward by leaps and bounds, so it’s really charming to sit and listen to what it’s been like from a technical view. It’s “just six years”, which really isn’t that long, but a totally different world in VR development.
R: Then we did support for, was it Samsung who made a gamepad? It worked like a normal gamepad but it didn’t track. So we added support for it – “That’s for choosing a game, that’s for firing” and stuff like that. I believe though, that in the end, as long as things were in 3DOF it worked the best. Then Google came along with their Google Daydream, so we did a small 3DOF-controller.
It didn’t have positional tracking but orientational tracking, so – sure enough – we made it so the wand was controlled by it. It wasn’t … well, you aim worse with your hand than your head, and that controller wasn’t great, so those who played on Google Daydream did worse than the Gear VR players. Then it just spiralled with 6DOF-controllers and dodging and all kinds of things. Shxt, that’s a lot of platforms. Google Daydream is gone, but if I remember correctly, we also supported a Xiaomi headset.
P: And Lenovo’s headset. They had one, right?
R: Yeah, that’s right.
P: Like, really early.
R: Was that a PC headset?
P: I think it had positional tracking with inside tracking. Maybe it wasn’t Lenovo.
R: And Viveport and Steam and Playstation … and Pico.
M: Credit where credit is due, which is not me in this case, but you were also early with the spectator thing. The online function where you could see what other people did – so you could be there when someone demoed the game, or if you knew two legends would be playing you could go in and watch it.
T: Spectator mode can’t have been very common in VR six years ago? That must’ve been very early.
R: Yeah, as a matter of fact we launched with spectator support just because of that. VR was so new, so many wouldn’t be able to see what the game was, so we thought “A spectator mode would be great, so more than just the two people playing can be there.” Unfortunately, Unity’s web player had its challenges, so every time we had to update it, it took forever. We finally gave up on it. It was fun, though. It was really cool to have [spectator mode] at launch.
P: That feature was extremely good. Demoing the game to people at events was great. Compared to other companies who had their players totally isolated, we used a large screen where you could watch two people face each other. It was almost like e-sport right there and then. Our way was more open and more people in the crowd committed to it, and even more so because it was VR.
R: We also used split screen where you could watch either player, and I think we had free fly as well. Yeah, it was cool.
P: Now you have other solutions where you cast to your TV-set and what not, but that didn’t exist then, so at that time this was a pretty neat feature. The need for that may be less now, but it’s still good stuff.
The story of Wands continues in part two. It will be published here later in the summer.