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Image: Housemarque, SIE

Housemarque, a 26-year-old video game development studio in Finland with a reputation for pushing the limits of PlayStation hardware, is making a comeback with its recent PS5 release “Returnal.”

  • “I think we're now finally understanding what we can do,” Housemarque marketing director Mikael Haveri told Axios.

The big picture: In the difficult world of video game development, few studios are able to survive independently for a quarter century, but Housemarque has recovered from very public setbacks.

The studio long focused on the development of smaller, dazzling, arcade-style action games with simple controls and lots of enemies to zap into colorful explosions.

  • But in 2017, studio CEO Ilari Kuittinen proclaimed “arcade is dead,” blaming “lackluster sales” of the studio’s self-published game “Nex Machina.” Housemarque would try to make something more mass market.
  • “I think the Finnish mentality drives that a lot,” Haveri told Axios. “We have to be realistic about what we're going against.”

The studio’s resurgence began with the development of “Returnal,” which started in 2017 as a smaller “traditionally-sized” Housemarque game.

  • It was always going to be a departure for Housemarque: a game set in a 3D space, rather than on the flatter terrains of its earlier arcade-style work.
  • And it was always going to star Selene, an astronaut stranded on a mysterious planet, locked in constant shoot-outs with aliens who emit torrents of energy bullets in a variety of patterns.
  • But it wasn’t initially going to have cinematic sequences, voice-over or other production value accoutrements.

During development, demos of “Returnal” kept impressing publisher Sony, which was funding the game.

  • "At each point, we kind of got a little bit more availability to scope it out more and to grow the game,” Haveri said.

That led to plans for a full-scale release, and Sony set the “Returnal” price tag at $70, making it one of the first games in decades to sell for more than the industry standard ceiling of $60.

  • Haveri said Housemarque found out about the price “around the same time as the general public,” late last year.
  • The studio was already focused on justifying a higher price than Housemarque’s older $20 arcade-style titles, precluding any developmental impact of $60 vs $70, he said.

“Returnal” taps into the PS5 hardware to create a visually sensational game full of detail and movement.

  • The game renders at 1080p resolution, upscaled to 4K, at a target 60 frames per second (with only occasional dips.)
  • A “particle engine” produces the game’s bullets, explosions and impressively detailed enemy tentacles.
  • A “wind system” allows all these elements in the game to interact with each other. “So if you shoot stuff, the fog disappears out of the way, and so on,” Haveri said.

The older PlayStation 4 might be able to render some of those impressive tentacles, but would fall short elsewhere.

  • “The wind system of interacting with the fog and everything, that would be impossible,” Haveri said. “All of the ray-traced audio and global illumination, all of those would be impossible.”

Fan and critical response to “Returnal” has been largely positive, with a sprinkling of criticism about design choices that could be addressed in downloadable updates.

  • Housemarque is looking into improving the game’s limited save system, Haveri said, though they've not decided on the best approach to take.
  • The studio is focused on “new content and updates and fixes and stuff like that.” No details yet on the new content, alas.

What’s next: For Housemarque, the bleakness of 2017 is past.

  • “We’re a happy 85 [people] now, so we're bigger than we've ever been,” Haveri said.
  • Smaller, arcade-sized games may still be dead for Housemarque, but “arcade as a core tenet of all our games, the gameplay side of it, that's exactly what we'll bring to the new titles that we make,” Haveri said.

Go deeper

Updated 1 hour ago - Science

NTSB probes crash that killed 10 in Alabama as storm lashes Southeast

Flash-flooding in Bloomington, Indiana, on Saturday. Photo: Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The National Transportation Safety Board announced Sunday that it's investigating a fiery multi-vehicle weekend crash in Alabama that killed 10 people, including nine children, as storms swept the Southeast.

The big picture: Saturday's crash on Interstate 65, south of Montgomery, occurred amid a tropical depression that left 13 people dead in Alabama as it triggered flash floods and spawned tornadoes that razed "dozens of homes," per AP.

Laurel Hubbard to become 1st openly trans athlete to compete at Olympics

New Zealand's Laurel Hubbard at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, when she became the first openly transgender athlete to represent NZ. Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

The New Zealand Olympic Committee has announced that Laurel Hubbard has been selected for the women's weightlifting team for the Tokyo Games — making her the first openly transgender athlete to compete at the event.

The big picture: Hubbard, 43, is part of a five-member Kiwi weightlifting team and will compete in the women's super heavyweight category. Meanwhile, BMX rider Chelsea Wolfe will become the first openly trans athlete to travel to the Olympics with Team USA, when she arrives in Tokyo as a reserve rider.

American Airlines cuts hundreds of flights amid demand surge

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

American Airlines announced Sunday that it's cutting some 950 flights from its schedule, including 296 this weekend, to reduce potential pressure on its operations, the Wall Street Journal first reported.

Driving the news: The U.S. vaccine rollout has led to a massive increase in travel bookings. The airline noted in an emailed statement that it's facing an "incredibly quick ramp up of customer demand."

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