Fredrik Präntare and Max Halldén, Pugstorm. Photo: Natalie Pintar

To do a doctorate and build an international gaming company at the same time may sound overwhelming to most people. For Fredrik Präntare, WASP PhD student and the creator of the award-winning game Core Keeper, however, this was not a hinder. Learnings from AI and a true belief in freedom and creativity are keys behind the success.

Fredrik Präntare and his colleague Max Halldén receive in central Linköping where their company Pugstorm has taken up residence in a co-working space. Today, Fredrik has the role of CEO and Creative Director. He has built the company in parallel with his doctoral studies in WASP Graduate School. Max is Lead Programmer and Technical Director and one of the first employees.

Like many others, TV and computer games have been a great interest for Fredrik since childhood.

– I have strong memories from when I was 2–3 years old and playing strategy games on my father’s computer. I had no idea how they worked but I thought it was fun just moving the units around. It was Civilization 1, and I was completely fascinated. When I was four years old, I got a Super Nintendo for Christmas from my grandfather. Donkey Kong, Super Mario and Zelda. Absolutely incredible for me and my brother, we played a lot. We drew and wrote our own games on paper, pretending we made them for real. The games were like a world of their own that you could enter and manipulate in ways you couldn’t with the real world.

The next step was to mod computer games and in high school Fredrik started building his first games.

– I wanted to do something visual. I love art and music and I’ve always had a natural aptitude for mathematics and technology.

When it came time to choose a university education, the choice fell on a master’s degree in computer technology.

– I knew the least about programming, so that’s where I could develop the most. The education in Linköping seemed to be a good fit for me. I didn’t know you could actually work with games; it was a dream to be able to do it for real. And now I’m sitting here working on games.

The local company is an international success

Pugstorm’s first game, Radical Rabbit Stew, won the LiU Game Awards in 2016 and was then released to all major platforms by a publisher in the UK. The capital has been invested in developing Pugstorm and hiring more people to be able to create more advanced games.

– From the beginning I did everything, wore all the hats myself. Max and I met when we studied for our master’s at Linköping University, and he joined the company quite early. In the past year, we have gone from five to 17 employees located on different sites around the world, says Fredrik.

A sign that says Pugstorm and two men sitting by a desk.

Fredrik Präntare and Max Halldén, Pugstorm. Photo: Natalie Pintar

The big breakthrough came with the sandbox game Core Keeper. It was released as an Early Access game in the spring of 2022 and has since sold well over one million copies. The USA, Japan and China are the biggest markets. Sites like Polygon and PC Gamer have listed Core Keeper as one of the world’s best co-op management games ever. It has also won Best Social Game 2022 at the TIGA Awards and was nominated for the Golden Joystick.

Briefly explained, the game is about discovering the world, above and below ground, and eventually uncovering the core’s inner secret. To advance in this non-linear game, the player uses various tools and combinations of materials and other elements. There is a story, but the game has no definitive ending.

An important part of Core Keeper is to give the player as much freedom as possible. The possibilities to manipulate the world are great and parts of it can be modified. We never want to limit the player, explains Fredrik:

– We make that possible through systemic game design. All functions in the game are built as systems that interact with each other. Wind, fire and vegetation are examples of three different systems. When they are combined, different things happen. The number of possible system combinations is enormous, and it is not certain that we have always foreseen how the different systems will interact with each other. Something magical happens there. When you take that way of making games, and lots of people playing together and running around a world and doing things together. This was integrated into the whole basic idea behind the game. Combinatorial effects are also something I, as a researcher, am very interested in.

The key to getting a PhD and building a company at the same time

Freedom and creativity are words that Fredrik returns to. According to himself, they, together with a strong self-drive, have been a key to being able to combine doctoral studies with game development.

– I am very grateful to my supervisor Fredrik Heintz who gave me a lot of freedom. As long as I have published great papers and passed my studies, he has let me stay up programming games all night.

The time as a doctoral student has been significant for both game development and company building, says Fredrik.

– My research is about combinatorial allocation and synergistic effects in multi-agent systems. These are fields with a broad application base and the type of ideas that Core Keeper is based on. I know what the math behind the systems looks like and what the limitations are, that’s a strength when we develop the game.

In addition to the technical skills, Fredrik has also been able to practice other useful skillsets:

– Something that became an unexpected delight was writing. It has been fun to write but also useful to be drilled in communicating one’s ideas both in writing and orally. These are important skills when you are selling your business idea. It is also useful for the pedagogical development of the games so that the players understand what they must or can do.

Continuous contacts with academia are valuable

A doctoral degree is within reach for Fredrik, but a continued close contact with the academy is important for the game studio.

– Core Keeper is a very tech-based game with a lot of AI in it. For us, it is important to continue to have contact with the academy in order to keep track of the state-of-the-art in these areas. In addition, the students on the Master of Science programs are an important point of contact for recruitment.

– I’ve been sitting at home hammering on stuff for 15–20 years. Now it is very exciting to build the company and get people to work together.

Published: February 27th, 2023

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