How Thor movies, a love of co-op, and survival inspired Tribes of Midgard

Brian Crecente |
August 16, 2021
Julian Maroda is co-founder, CEO, and Minister of Creation at Norsfell, makers of the "surthrival" hit and Epic MegaGrant winning title, Tribes of Midgard (Gearbox Publishing), which reached more than 500K active players in its first week across PC, PlayStation 5, and PlayStation 4. Tribes of Midgard has received wide industry recognition and was named a Ubisoft Indie Series Winner and Best of E3 2021 by PC Gamer. As a communication and game design graduate, Maroda specializes in the creative direction of video games and has contributed to the launch of more than 30 titles on various platforms. At Norsfell, he manages the strategic vision and operations of the company. Julian regularly gives his time to exchange ideas with other industry leaders—speaking at the MIGS, IGDA, and ComicCon.
Blending the action role-playing of Diablo with the survival of Don’t Starve Together and soaking the results in a steaming bath of Norse mythology, Tribes of Midgard is what its developers like to refer to as a “surthrival.” Players can’t just fight for their own survival, they need to work as a community… a community of Einherjar, glorious Viking heroes brought back from Valhalla to stave off the approaching Ragnarok.

Players seem to love the game, which was named a Ubisoft Indie Series Winner in 2017 and Best of E3 2021 by PC Gamer. Since its July launch, the game received a positive reception on Steam and a review from Screen Rant extolling the game’s brightly colored open worlds and unique details.

We had a chance to chat with developer Norsfell about the studio’s first game and how the team came up with an approach that combines so many different genres to create a unique and aesthetically delightful Viking experience.
 

How did the Norsfell team come together and what would you say is the studio’s focus and approach to game development?

Julian Maroda: The team started Norsfell in 2013 with four people and the goal to create games that forge new genres and bring people together. This mission carried over to Tribes of Midgard, to go where no genre had gone before by mixing and matching elements of survival, action, and roguelite games. We combined that mission with our love for Norse mythology (coming from a studio called Norsfell, that must be a surprise), and Tribes of Midgard was born.
 
How did the idea for Tribes of Midgard come about?

Maroda: When we started envisioning Tribes of Midgard in 2017, we identified three trends in the industry: 
  • Cooperative gameplay grew in popularity with the rise of PVP games.
  • Survival games were beloved but were still considered very hardcore and inaccessible.
  • Viking-related media was on the rise, as we saw in the eponymous series and the popularity of the Thor movies.

We wanted Tribes of Midgard to evolve at the crossroads of these three trends and combine genres in ways we’d never seen in a game before. We couldn’t have imagined just how well those trends would materialize in 2021. 
Image courtesy of Norsfell
What sort of research went into capturing and faithfully exploring Norse mythology in the game?

Maroda: Myself and our team have always been fond of Vikings and Norse mythology. While we did a lot of research and read old Norse legends, we also thought about the elements that came to our mind when we initially think of Viking culture: larger-than-life gods, grandiose storytelling, unwavering bravery (along with axes and beards... the whole nine realms). From there, our focus was not just on what to include, but how we wanted to highlight each of these elements.

Like many myths, Norse mythology was carried from generation to generation by way of oral tradition, told as a community around the fire. Even today, how many times have you had a friend tell others a story and noticed that their recollection of a past event has grown to become a bit of a “tall tale” aspect? We wanted the game to feel like one of those larger-than-life, tall tales of legend.
 
What genre is Tribes of Midgard?

Maroda: Tribes of Midgard blends all of our favorite things across the survival, co-op, and action RPG genres to make a new genre we like to call “surthrival,” where multiplayer survival hinges on the entire community. Unlike normal survival games, in Tribes of Midgard, there is no “I” (not in the name but gameplay), your team will either thrive as a cohesive unit or fall entirely. 

Moving survival to the team-level definitely introduces a lot of changes and challenges to what you might expect from a survival game. Rather than focusing on your individual needs, you turn the scope to the needs of the tribe and adjust your plans to achieve those goals. This might mean assigning different tasks to other players, coordinating to gather necessary resources, or even creating strategies that help to maintain the health of the Seed of Yggdrasil, which gives life to all of Midgard, and work to everyone’s strengths. 

Of course, you can also play and “surthrive” solo because the game automatically adjusts in difficulty based on how many players join a given session, but even then, it’s not about you, it’s about the Seed.
 
Image courtesy of Norsfell
Tribes of Midgard includes many elements from survival games like crafting, exploration, and resource gathering, but it doesn’t include the need to eat or drink or permadeath. How did you decide what elements of the genre to include and which to omit?

Maroda: Our goal with Tribes of Midgard was to make the survival genre more accessible for players who are interested in the genre, but put off by the uncompromising difficulty. We reassessed basic functions of survival games and combined them with other genres, and retained the features that made them a thrilling experience we can all relate to as humans, without the mundane aspects that distract from that feeling. It took some experimenting and balancing to find that happy medium, but we think we’ve found it.
 
With this combination of genres, your experience in Tribes of Midgard plays out a bit differently. As an Einherjar, a glorious Viking hero brought back from Valhalla, it doesn’t make sense for you to worry about “normal” human concerns like thirst and hunger. These are handpicked heroes by Odin himself, so, as a player, you can die and be revived endlessly, and even keep your gear after death. After all, what’s a Viking hero without an axe?
 
Instead of focusing on player survival, the game focuses on nurturing and protecting the Seed of Yggdrasil. How did the team come up with this approach and why?

Maroda: Instead of focusing on the survival of the individual, we wanted players to focus on the survival of the community. This creates a “team sport,” and gives new players the agency to figure things out before being thrust into a life and death battle. It also takes some of the initial pressure off players new to the genre and allows for learning through failure. We never expected players to defeat the Saga boss in their first or second session! That’s by design, and in Tribes of Midgard, there’s a lot to learn about resource management, how to efficiently divide your team and strategically deploy your time and effort, along with the unique content you unlock as you play more and more of the game. Each run increases your chances of success.
  
It's also much easier on morale to lose as a team than as an individual; teammates are there for support! 
Image courtesy of Norsfell
Your first season for the game is called The Wolf Saga and brings with it a unique boss, how will future seasons of the game shape gameplay and that end-game battle?

Maroda: Each saga is additive to the existing game, and will continue to introduce additional bosses, quests, gear, and rewards. This means that, when a new saga starts, content and bosses from the previous sagas will remain available. Players can then choose to take on two, three, four, or more saga bosses all in the session-based timeframe. There will always be a new challenge for players to take on, and we’re certain that our most dedicated fans will try to strategize to take them all in a single run.
 
What other games, movies, books, and fiction influenced the design of Tribes of Midgard?

Maroda: As you can tell from our studio’s name, we’re kinda big fans of Norse mythology. It’s so bright and grandiose. However, many are less familiar with Norse mythology than they might be with, say, Greek or Roman mythology, despite the fact our Western culture is shaped heavily by Norse traditions and storytelling (for example, more than half the days of the week in English are directly related to Norse gods). We really wanted to bring players who might not be as familiar with Norse mythology into its lively, whimsical, and beautiful world. 
 
What sort of rules did you apply to the procedural construction of the worlds and how much of that is automated versus manually adjusted to achieve the effect you were going for?

Maroda: Pretty much all of the world of Midgard is procedurally generated. We obviously have some rules, like the village and Bifröst being in the Bright Forest biome, or points of interest being located around paths that make you run faster, but we also make sure to let the generation do its thing, which can result in more forgiving or challenging layouts. We wanted each game to feel unique, and never let players feel too familiar or comfortable in the world, and Unreal Engine’s capabilities really let us do that.
Image courtesy of Norsfell
The game’s art style delivers an intriguing blend of a hand-drawn aesthetic and comic book cel-shading with the backdrop of fantasy art. There’s also a nice blend of 3D and 2D art found in the menus and gameplay. How did you come up with this approach and implement it?

Maroda: Compared to other Viking games, Tribes of Midgard immediately looks different than others in the genre.It’s brighter and more colorful than many of its darker, grittier companions. Norse mythology is full of these larger-than-life characters and often hilarious tales. For example, did you know that according to myth, the ocean tides were created when Thor won a mead-chugging contest? We wanted to create a more colorful take on Ragnarök, in keeping with that light and whimsical style.  

Tribes of Midgard has a very "comic-book-like" aesthetic due to the use of cel-shading and hashing in shadows we were able to create with Unreal Engine. That's also because we wanted to weave in some narrative elements in our visuals instead of really pressing on the scenario in a multiplayer game. As a result, it feels like you are playing a myth that's unfolding before your eyes.
 
What made you decide to develop this game with Unreal Engine and how has that impacted the game’s design?

Maroda: Unreal Engine has really opened up a world of possibilities with what we could do with Tribes of Midgard, in terms of art style, procedural generation, and everything in between. We had played around with a few engines in early development, but we found nothing gave us as much free range to explore as Unreal Engine.
 
The two major reasons we wanted to use the engine from the beginning were:
  • The use of physics: being able to have ragdoll physics on creatures and push elements around like our explosive jars was something absolutely critical to our strategy. Indeed, Tribes of Midgard was designed to be very streamable as a game, and the physics produce both unexpected and hilarious results that resonate very well with a viewing audience.
  • 10-person multiplayer: the other major aspect was, of course, that we wanted Tribes of Midgard to be a game you can play both solo and co-op, not just with a few friends, but with up to 10 players all in the same world. Unreal Engine made that kind of scale and networking possible (we run on dedicated servers).
Image courtesy of Norsfell
What PS5 technological advances were used in Tribes of Midgard and what sort of impact did they have on the gamer?

Maroda: We really wanted to use these PS5 features to enhance the experience and immerse players in Tribes, especially with the DualSense controller.
 
We used the adaptive triggers to make combat more dynamic and responsive; you can feel the resistance as you draw your bow, experience the impact on your shield from an enemy blow, and sense your footsteps as you run. The haptic feedback also helps you evaluate threats. You can feel the ground tremble as the giants approach via our unique giant rumble (we like to call it “Grumble”) haptic feedback.
 
You can also discover nearby events via alerts that come directly from your controller’s speaker, and keep track of time as the light bar on your controller changes color to indicate the time of day.
 
These features are not only fun but genuinely improve the gameplay experience.
Image courtesy of Norsfell
Is there any particular gameplay or visual elements of your game’s design you’d like to call out and explain how it was achieved? 

Maroda: Co-op and solo balancing was a huge aspect of development and something we played around with a lot to get it right. We wanted to make Tribes of Midgard as accessible as possible for groups of all sizes, which included an option for those that didn’t have the time or ability to create groups for co-op play. 

In Saga mode, for solo play, we automatically decrease the size of the world and scale the HP, power, loot, and overall difficulty of the enemies. We didn’t want one person to have to cross the same size world that is designed for a group of players to explore much faster. We wanted the game to be challenging for players, but not impossible. That said, we recommend playing Saga mode with a full party; it’s more chaotic, more frantic and, we feel, the best way to experience the game. 

In survival mode, players can set their difficulty when they create a world, so it’s easy to scale based on party size. Whether you want a more relaxed game or the ultimate challenge, you can set those parameters and they won’t adjust based on the size of your party. Some of survival mode's parameters include map size, how fast your Seed of Yggdrasil decays, enemy difficulty, and even what items you lose when you die and respawn outside of your Village. The harder you make your game, the more season XP you will earn.
 
Image courtesy of Norsfell
What excites you and your team the most about the long-term possibilities of next-gen hardware and Unreal Engine?

Maroda: Unreal Engine is constantly improving and pushing the boundaries of game development. We couldn't be more excited for what comes next and look forward to what capabilities Unreal allows us to play with next!
 
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Norsfell and Tribes of Midgard?

Maroda: You can follow Tribes of Midgard on Twitter and Instagram @tribesofmidgard, and you can visit our website www.tribesofmidgard.com. To learn more about Norsfell, go to www.norsfell.com

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