Following Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Machine Games’ reboot series is going through some significant changes in the next spin-off. In Wolfenstein: Youngblood, the emphasis is still on slaying Nazis and their scumbag allies in gruesome fashion, however, it moves away from the linear, story-driven style of previous games, and instead leans closer to an open-ended co-op shooter. Now focusing on the hero BJ Blaskowitz’s twin daughters as they dismantle fascist, white supremacist rule in 1980s France, you and a partner have greater control in choosing the next stop on your violent warpath.
Machine Games executive producer Jerk Gustafsson recently spoke with GameSpot about the making of the standalone co-op focused spin-off. In addition to detailing the collaboration with Dishonored dev Arkane Studios, he elaborated on what the move to the 1980s means for the series timeline. Also, in light of the current political climate, he shared his thoughts on the changing reception of Wolfenstein at large, and how the series grapples with politics.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.
Can you walk us through the origins of Youngblood? On the surface, it looks like a standalone game in the vein of The Old Blood, but there seems to be a lot more going on than what people are expecting.
Jerk Gustafsson: Yeah, there was a little back and forth on what we should do after New Colossus, to be honest. Initially, we talked about doing a smaller thing in between our bigger games like we did with The Old Blood, but when we got this opportunity to work with Arkane Studios, and we decided to go bigger. As you know, Arkane Studios released the Death of the Outsider in Fall 2017 and then we released The New Colossus after that. We talked with the guys over at Arkane and we decided to do something together. It was a collaboration for the game, but to also learn from each other and gain more experience as developers. So, I think that’s where we decided to go a little bit bigger, do co-op, and have a little bit more of an open-ended structure with Youngblood.
It was all about trying to broaden our experience a little bit. It’s similar to the Cyberpilot VR game. To some extent, we’re trying to work a little bit outside our comfort zone. We have been doing the single-player, very heavily story-driven experience for a while now. So it’s been a long time with this. We feel very comfortable with what we’ve done after all these years, of course, but it was exciting for us actually to do something different.
Would you say that this is a bigger game than The New Colossus?
That can be a difficult question to answer. I would say in terms of gameplay time, yes, it probably is bigger. There are more things you can do now compared to the previous games, and I’m pretty sure players will stay in the game for a longer period of time. It is bigger in terms of content, in that sense, but the story and the main campaign itself had to be tighter. Not only with the cutscenes, but also in tone. When I look at people playing, and when I play myself, we are at a higher number [of hours] now than where we were with The New Colossus. So yes, it probably is bigger.
With the focus on co-op and open-ended structure, was it a challenge trying to set expectations for fans? Especially since Youngblood won’t be released at full price.
Yeah, we did have some concerns regarding that. In the beginning, we had planned to just do something in between, but it turned out to be bigger than we expected. The price for this game was also a result of the development time, as it was shorter [than previous games]. The fact that I have been able to together with the guys at Arkane as well, and that we have been able to produce so much content in this, in this short period of time is an amazing and accomplishment from our teams.
Though the story in the campaign is a bit shorter, the gameplay experience is, at least what we have seen, bigger than New Colossus. So with the game we have now, I don’t know if we would have set that price if we knew what it’s going to be. So it’s a bit hard to answer at this. But I’m very happy that we can do it because it is great value for your money, and especially with the buddy pass, where you can play with your friend completely for free. You will get a lot out of this game and I really hope that people will enjoy it.
Working with Arkane Studios must have been exciting, as they have a clear strength for making immersive sims that have some very sophisticated level design. Was this experience sort of eye-opening for you?
Yeah, I think so. But it also goes both ways as well. I think this game gave us the opportunity to learn a lot from each other, and their level design and their expertise within the field is really, really strong. We have grown on it from this, it definitely helped us to become a better game developer. We have a lot more that we can improve upon for the future, but they have allowed us to take that next step in terms of level design specifically. Arkane Studios have contributed [to] several aspects of the game and they are a great team. So I am extremely honored that we had the opportunity to work with them. I’m very happy with the result.
Speaking to the larger Wolfenstein series, it’s been interesting seeing how people react to it due to the current political climate in the states. As it’s a series about fighting nazis and the larger influence of fascism, it’s always been political. In light of the reception that The New Colossus had, did you and the developers feel inclined to cover this topic on a deeper level?
Well, I can’t really say that it hasn’t affected us, because it has. The game is definitely political when you have Nazis, but we have always tried to stick with the timeline that we had envisioned [beginning with The New Order]. We have this Wolfenstein timeline, the lore of it, and we want to stick to that as much as possible. Even though I agree that it becomes more political in many ways due to real life, we never set out to do a political statement in any way. I get this question a lot and I read some comments [from readers] after an interview, and I said the same thing that I’m saying to you now. Though one comment I saw on a feed was like, “why can’t you just say that you hate white people?” For me, we have to also understand and accept that there are people that will react like that. We will continue to see these type of comments, but for me, there’s no logic to them in any way.
So it’s a hard question even though I have answered it so many times. I still don’t really know exactly what to say, but we want to make an entertaining game, and we want to tell a story about fighting this absolute evil in the world, and that evil is represented by the Hitler regime and the Nazis. That’s where we are basically.
I think a lot of it has to do to the fact that The New Colossus released at such a different time compared to The New Order. I wonder if certain scenes would have landed as hard as they did if it came out three years earlier or if the political climate was different.
Yeah, it was a huge difference, actually. There were so many discussions and so many talking points around that at the time, and the timing was the reason for that as well. So, yeah, absolutely, and I think the way it affected us. It never happened in that way for New Order, as an example. So that was a big difference for us. Absolutely. That’s what I mean by when I say that it definitely has affected us in ways. But we still really try to do our thing. We have our timeline, we have our storyline that we want to follow and we are trying to stick to that as much as possible. I don’t think Youngblood looks different based on that. I can’t say that for certain of course, but I think it would look the same even if we have done YoungBlood after New Order, for instance. I think it’s more of a thing that affects us on the side.
What’s really interesting about this particular take on Wolfenstein is that it has such a strong emphasis on story, despite having its roots in classic FPS design that featured very little narrative. We see a lot of these moments in the last two games that really hit hard and that can surprise, particularly the scene with an extremely unflattering look at Hitler in New Colossus. Will we see him back again in Youngblood?
Actually, Hitler is already dead in Youngblood. This is also part of the entire timeline, and it’s actually what we were thinking about and when we wrote the story for Youngblood as well. We asked ourselves if we should mention that Hitler is dead, or that BJ had already killed Hitler. There is a story to tell about that. When you look at the games that have been released over the years within the Wolfenstein universe, BJ has already killed Hitler once back in the early nineties, so it’s something that has been established in that timeline. It’s another story we can tell in the future [for our timeline] if we get the opportunity. As for Youngblood, he’s not alive anymore in the 80s–he is dead. But I’m really happy that you liked that scene. That was a tough scene to work with. It took a long time for us to get that together.
Looking back on The New Colossus, what were some of the big lessons you learned from that game on a gameplay level, and how did you want to try and do things differently for Youngblood?
Oh yes, one of the big things we were not really prepared for when it came to the feedback was in regards to the difficulty of the game. We had a few places where the difficulty spikes were just too hard. We do have a lot of difficult, challenging levels, and I myself I really appreciate games that can offer that, but one of the things about New Colossus that I wish I could go back and redo was to make sure that it was a little bit more even. It’s a little bit too much, and it really shows. We didn’t have the opportunity to react as fast enough to it. And I think we have a lot there when it comes to the work for Youngblood, hopefully at least.
I think that I would, of course, point to the core of Youngblood. It comes with so many things and since the core forced us to think differently [with the level design and co-op], we actually have managed to tackle that. It’s not only about the core as well, because the core also led us to add AI combined which was also a great challenge for us. So in combination with the things we’re doing with the more open-ended structure and the progression in general, it’s a lot of changes that we have done outside of our comfort zone. I’m very proud that we have accomplished in this much in such a short time.