Who is Jani Penttinen, the game developer?
Updated: Jan 16, 2020
To commemorate the launch of my latest game, I want to tell you a story. It’s a story of who I am as a game developer, but coincidentally it is also a story of how the game industry in Finland came to be.
I was one of the first game developers in Finland, almost 30 years ago in the early 1990s. There had been some individuals with published games on C64 before that time, but I was part of a wave that started from the demoscene and turned into formation of the first game studios, and over time, a multi-billion euro industry that has produced many of the top-selling games in the world.
It started from this thing called the demoscene. Finland is dark and cold during most of the year, and there is not that much to do, so a lot of bright minds turn to the dark art of writing code. Back then computers were primitive. Screen resolutions were small, you only had a limited number of colors, slow processors, etc. New faster computers didn’t appear every year like these days, so year after year everyone was using pretty much the same computers. Many people had an Amiga or Atari ST back then, I had the latter.
When you have people using the same computers for years, you tend to have coders starting to compete on who does the coolest things on that platform. When computers get faster every year, it is easy to push more polygons, or more sprites, on screen. But when the computers are the same, in order to break the records, you would need to write faster code. Coders and artists organized into demo groups, which then participated competitions at demo parties. The oldest and most famous of these called Assembly is still alive, though its focus has steered from demos to games long ago.
Back then, many of my friends were playing a game called Turboraketti on Amiga. It was created in 1992 and took the Amiga gaming world (at least people I knew) bu storm. It was a really fun shooter for two players where you were flying in a cave with a spaceship trying to destroy the opponent. This game didn’t exist on Atari ST, so early 1993 I decided to make one by myself. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was one of those decisions that changed my life, or determined the my future.
This was my first game, and it was called Utopos. I did it together with my best friend Matti. We had already been doing demos together, so we worked well together. I coded and Matti did the graphics. I can’t remember for sure but I think it took about 3 months to finish the first version. Higher level programming languages were too slow for those computers, so the whole game was written in Motorola 68k assembly language, just like the demos we had made. Making a 60fps dual screen scrolling shooter on Atari ST was a challenge and I would argue that the average code performance in Utopos is one of the best that has ever been written!
That could have been the end of it. I was dreaming of a career as a cartoon artist and I was planning to go to an art school after the high school. But something unexpected happened.
There was no internet at the time (ok there was internet, but very few had access and there were no web browsers yet). We traded games and demos on floppy disks via mail. I copied Utopos on a few disks and mailed it to my friends. The game was published as “shareware”, where you get to play a demo for free and you can send money to receive the full version in return mail. I set the price to 50 Finnish marks or equivalent in local currency (e.g. $10). I sent it off and forgot about it.
I think it took like a month for me to receive the first letter with money in it. Maybe a few days later another, and then another. Pretty soon the letters were coming daily. First they came from Finland, then Sweden, and gradually all over the world. You could see the speed of old snail mail, as the US and Australia were much behind European countries. At the peak I was getting about 5 letters every day and this continued for a long time. In total I sold over 2000 copies (which means I also copied and mailed over 2000 disks!)
The best part however was not the number of letters, but the messages scribbled in the letters. I guess when you are mailing some money to a faraway country, 1. You really love the game and 2. You want the author to know it. I was beaming every day reading all those letters. With this kind of personal feedback coming on daily basis, how could I even think of anything but a career as a game developer!
Bloodhouse and Aggression
After the release of Utopos, I was invited to join Aggression, one of the top demo groups on Atari ST. Right around that time a few demo scene people started the first game development studio in Helsinki called Bloodhouse, and I joined them along with some other members of Aggression. We started a work on a sequel of Utopos, and some of Aggression converted Bloodhouse's Stardust to Atari ST. Bloodhouse still exists -- after a merger with another early days studio, they are these days known as Housemarque.
Startdust sold well on Atari ST, but unfortunately we never received any money for it. It was never quite clear as to what happened, but the publisher in the UK vanished when it was time to pay us. As the last resort, I sent a mass marketing email to all of my Utopos customers and we sold the game via direct mail. I seem to remember we sold about 500 units at $25 each, which was then all the money the developers earned for it. This was the last straw for us and we decided to quit Bloodhouse.
After a brief stint at Bloodhouse, I was willing to give up the games business and go get a proper job. Bloodhouse didn’t pay salary to anyone and I slept in a sleeping bag on the office floor, and after some time it was clear that our ability to manage game projects was lacking so much that the odds of ever completing a game was minimal.
Fun fact: Another game that we worked on, but never finished, during Bloodhouse years, was a platformer called Elvis the king of Lizards. Maybe I will dig that up one day and see it to completion!
Just as I had decided to quit, I remember the faithful day when Samuli Syvähuoko called me. I had moved back to my parents and I was on the roof of their camper, to wash it, when my mom shouted there is someone on the phone for me. On the phone, Samuli explained he had just founded a new game studio called Remedy Entertainment.
I hesitated because I had just given up, and because Remedy also was not in position to pay anyone for the work. But somehow Samuli managed to convince me, and the rest of Aggression, to join Remedy. Once again we were splitting percentages of future proceeds while working for free.
We once again started working on a sequel to Utopos. Remedy managed to get funding for it, so finally we got paid something for the work. The new publisher didn’t like the name Utopos, so the name of the game was changed to Guntech. Which links us to a present day, as in 2019 I founded a new game studio called Utopos Games, which just released a game called Guntech.
Back to the history for a bit. Unfortunately, the publisher for Guntech back in the day fell into financial difficulties and canceled half of the games in development, ours included. Remedy had no means to keep the project alive with no funding, so we called it quits. I left Remedy and joined Housemarque in 1997, which was the first game company in Finland where developers were getting regular salary! Remedy continued to work on another project called Dark Justice and in fact started paying regular salary to employees starting in December 1996. This game would later be known as Max Payne, and prove to be a huge hit.
I remained friends with the Remedy folks and in fact you can find my name in Max Payne credits Special Thanks section, right after Tim Sweeney (my claim to fame haha!) In fact, even though my friends now worked at different game studios, we would regularly meet up for beers and discuss how to solve problems each one of us was having with the code. We literally had the entire Finnish gaming scene sitting around a table, drinking beer and openly talking about the projects we each were working on. These regular meetups would later transform into Helsinki IGDA chapter, the most active IGDA chapter in the world.
During my three years at Housemarque I helped ship two critically acclaimed titles: The Reap and Supreme Snowboarding. The latter was also a commercial success, and the first 3D game I had worked on. Supreme Snowboarding was technically really impressive and resulted on me getting an offer from Westwood Studios that I could not refuse. At the time the salaries at Finnish game companies were still quite modest, whereas Westwood was at the time one of the most successful game studios in the world on the heels of the success of Command & Conquer franchise.
Working in the US was an eye-opener to me. I had expected the coders in the US to be much ahead of us Finnish self-taught demoscene coders, but it turned out that the Finnish coders were actually really, really good. This was also a time when I first saw how the Finnish scene works – as I started my work at Westwood, I got messages from friends in Finland congratulating for the job and offering to help if there was ever any need for it. And sure enough, several times over the years I found myself sparring with the Finnish colleagues over how to implement new features. It was tremendously helpful.
Westwood Studios had very low turnover, and in fact most people I worked with had been in the company since the beginning. In other words, they had created many of the games I played and loved growing up. I had an opportunity to work with my idols, even though as a kid I didn't really consider games were made by real people, the same way as music and movies. I was floored by how humble and nice everyone was. I was this young guy from Finland joining a team of living legends, and everyone was super nice.
As great game developers as the people at Westwood Studios were, the one thing they didn't quite grasp well enough was 3D. My job ended up being guiding them to creating 3D assets, and writing a 3D engine that was used many games over the following decade. The engine was first used in Command & Conquer: Renegade and Earth & Beyond, and later renamed as SAGE Engine it was used in several more C&C: Generals and Lord of the Rings games at least. I was trying to do the math the other day, but there's not enough publicly available data about the sales figures, so I cannot be sure, but my estimate is that games that are powered by the core 3D technology I wrote have generated over $500 million in sales over the years.
When EA closed down Westwood Studios in 2003, I was running casual games publisher called Jollygood Games, at the same time I started a mobile games studio Umoco with my formed boss from Westwood, Steve Wetherill. At that time there was no iPhone, and the mobile games market was dominated by Nokia. You’d make a very simple game, and then create a hundred different versions of that for all the various Nokia phone models, all of which were slightly different. In Finland, Sumea had mastered this and I was hoping to build something similar on my own.
My plan was to have a team in China to build all those different versions, for cost reasons. I moved to Shenzhen to set up a company and hire the team. During that time I also met the love of my life Wen. She was a Chinese girl living in Shenzhen who could also speak English (at the time really rare in China) so she helped me with all the company founding and operations. We fell in love, got married and these days live in Las Vegas with our four kids!
With mobile games, the timing was not right. The work didn’t feel creative, it was more like factory work for me. I have never enjoyed managing people, I much rather work in an organization where people around me are my peers. In China, the CEO was above everyone else, and everyone expected me to be a strong leader who tells them what to do. Not my cup of tea. I am grateful of the experience of founding and operating a company in China, but after two years I departed the operations.
This turned out to be the right choice, as the following year Apple released the iPhone and soon the mobile game development would change forever. I continued contracting with EA 2-3 months a year in Los Angeles, and using that income to live in China for the rest of the year. Ultimately, Wen and I started a social media company called Xiha Life.
Xiha Life and Transfluent
Xiha Life was initially successful. Our idea was to be a place for people from all over the world. We provided realtime machine translation so that for example someone in China could chat with someone in Finland, each using their own native language. The machine translation was clumsy, but it was still a way for people to connect with people with whom they otherwise would have no way of communicating.
At its peak, Xiha had some 20 million users, but since most of them were from Asian countries, advertising didn’t bring much revenue at the time. Then, Facebook started expanding internationally and take over markets, and we decided it would not be possible to keep it up. We pivoted the business to a translation agency that first catered to social media translations, and later expanded to become a full-service translation provider. The name of this business is Transfluent.
Back to games
About three years ago, my kids somehow found I had been a game developer. I had not been making games since they were born, so they had no idea, but when they found out, they were really excited. They’d never been interested in the translation business, but their dad being a game maker was something incredibly cool.
They wanted me to show them how to make games. It had been years, and things have changed. I downloaded Unity, which didn’t exist when I used to make games. I opened a sample project which had some kind of a character moving on a screen. My daughter Lilly loves to draw, so I asked her to draw a character on a paper, then I scanned it and replaced the character in the sample project with hers, to have it move on the screen.
Lilly was so excited! The next day when she came from school, she wanted to “make games” with me again. So, I started a new project and we did some simple things, and she was just super happy about everything. But then I hit the wall. I just didn’t know Unity and I didn’t know how to do the things she wanted to do. She was 6 years old with a wild imagination, so she wanted to do a lot of cool things, I just didn’t know how to.
I wanted to learn, so I started building a game. I was still working at Transfluent, so I didn’t have much time, but I spent my nights and weekends with the game, learning as I went about it. I couldn’t implement the wild plans Lilly wanted so I started with something I knew how to make – a remake of my first ever game which I had coded when I was around 17. This is what ended up being Guntech, the game that was released January 10, 2020, almost three years after the events begun to unfold.
These days Lilly had her own workstation in my home office. She has a drawing pad and she has mastered Photoshop, and she’s doing some incredible art.
When I look back, it’s hard to not feel a little sentimental. It’s been almost 30 years since I was a high school kid, starting up my career as a game developer. There was no game industry in Finland back then, just a group of young kids like me, wanting to make games. People used to ask us when are you going to get an actual job.
Now, I have four kids, and all of them want to become game developers. I was just at my kids school giving a speech to 2nd and 3rd graders about career as a game developer. At the end of the speech I asked who wants to make games when they grow up, nearly all hands were up. Meanwhile, the industry in Finland has grown to couple hundred game studios, thousands of people and billions of euros in annual revenue.
At DICE 2019 I bumped into John Comes, friend and an old colleague from the Westwood Studios era. I had already talked with Elie Arabian, another old friend from the Westwood alumni about doing something together. Talking with John, we realized we both want to start a new game studio, and we already knew Elie is interested as well. I went out to raise funding and by the end of April we were ready to get started. Utopos Games was founded!
We are backed by VC funds byFounders and Sisu Game Ventures as well as Sybo Games. We are a team of 8 based in Las Vegas.
So what's next? My comeback game Guntech has just been released as Early Release in Steam for PC and Mac. I will release updates to it during the coming months to get to the final release. Guntech will also be released on iOS and Android in the near future.
The main focus of Utopos Games these days is a new machine learning -based game called Raivo. We have a skilled team of true game industry veterans -- many of us worked together already at Westwood Studios 20 years ago. My time is split between coding the AI tech and being the CEO. Raivo is a really ambitious project that is promising to be a real game changer in the way AI is used in games!
Exciting times ahead. My new career in gaming is just starting and I can't wait to see what the future holds!