Today I’m talking with Oskar Burman – currently the General Manager of Rovio Stockholm and one of Sweden’s most well-known figures within the gaming industry. We spoke about his time at EA, how joined Rovio and why the Nordic gaming scene is so strong.
Oskar, tell us a little about your background?
I’ve been playing computer games all my life, and from my early teens, I knew I wanted to work with them. In fact I was building and selling selling my hobby created games on a small scale since I figured out how STOS worked (a visual variant of BASIC) in high school, and pretty much since then, I’ve been working with games. Starting with creating games for Atari/Amiga back in the mid 90s, then moved on to PC and console games, and now made the transition to mobile, with iOS and Android games, working as a General Manager at Rovio Sweden.
You’re known as one of the early players in the Swedish gaming scene – tell us what the scene was like back then and how you became interested in games.
When I started it wasn’t much of a gaming scene to speak of, it was all in its infancy here in Sweden. There was however a vibrant and thriving Demo scene, where nerds like me competed in creating the most advanced visual demonstrations on their home computers, usually an Amiga or Atari. It was there I found my peers, creating demos with them, attending copy parties all around the Nordics, and learned to create more advanced Assembler code. It was also with those people I eventually started a company, Unique Development Studios (UDS), and since there was no money to be made in demos, we figured games probably was a better path in the long run.
In terms of role models, the only other folks we knew creating games out of Sweden at that point was Digital Illusions (now DICE), and they had just released an awesome pinball game, called Pinball Dreams. It seemed to be working for them so we started to build.. another pinball game. Not the most original idea, it turned out OK, but it wasn’t until a few years later, when we created the racing game Ignition for PC, we had our first hit.
Tell us about your time at EA and Easy Studios?
My years at EA were important, up until then I had only worked in smaller organisations, up to 150 people, whereas there I was part of a larger corporation, with 9000 employees around the globe. EA are creating some fantastic games, and I learned a lot on how to run a business unit in a larger corporation, but in the end I definitely feel more comfortable in a smaller, more fast moving environment, and that’s what I was looking for when Rovio came knocking on my door.
How did you become involved in Rovio and what attracted you to the company?
I knew Rovio was opening a Swedish branch, as they’d made a press announcement about it earlier in the year, but never connected the dots to realise this could be something for me. It wasn’t until they contacted me, and presented the opportunity I saw the full picture, and figured out this was exactly what I was looking for. Building my own studio in Stockholm with some of the most talented people I’ve worked with in the past, with the backup of Rovio’s brands, financing and know-how about the mobile games sector. It almost felt too good to be true.
In the summer of 2007, I imported an iPhone to Sweden about two months after it was launched, jailbreaked it and tried the different garage built games that were available back then. This was before the app store, still it showed the potential to become the perfect gaming device. Since then I’ve been wanting to create games for smartphones. With Rovio, I got that chance.
Why do you think the Nordics have had so much success in gaming – what’s the secret sauce?
The demo scene is definitely part of this success, as both Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway had a strong scene back in the 80s and 90s. Many of these people founded the first game developers in the region, and if you look at the early startups still around; DICE, Remedy, Starbreeze, they all have a demo scene background. On top of this, we had government subsidised PCs in the late 90s, basically making sure each and every household had access to a PC, which helped getting these machines in front of everyone willing to learn how to use them.
Finally over the last 10 years, we’ve seen not only great success from these early startups, but also have had great help in getting a steady stream of talent due to some of the excellent game educations that’s been around, at least in Sweden, since the early 00s. In the end, many factors contributing to this “perfect storm”.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Oh, wow, 5 years is such a long time! No idea to be honest. I really like what I’ve done over the last year; built a games studio from scratch, gotten the teams up and running, and setting the direction for what games we should be building. I’m really interested in getting games in front of an even larger audience, and using game mechanics more in society as a whole. There’s so much that we could do to improve our schools, and even though I hate the word gamification, I truly believe we’re on the verge of revolutionising learning in general.
In the end, there’s a lot of paths I’d like to explore, but only a limited amount of time. We’ll see where I end up.