Jonatan Soderstrom has made an unusual reputation for himself among independent game developers. More often known as "Cactus," the Swedish developer has created dozens of games, yet he's never sold a single copy. Until now, his experimental freeware titles have defined his career as a game designer.
But that's about to change, as Soderstrom recently announced that he's partnered with artist Dennis Wedin and publisher Devolver Digital to create Hotline Miami, a slick, surreal action game coming to the PC, Mac, and eventually consoles.
Soderstrom has been developing free games on his own for years, so why did he wait until now to make his first real commercial product?
"During the last few years it has been a personal choice [to work alone], since I wasn't feeling confident about managing the work on such a big project," Soderstrom told us. "I've tried a few times before, but never got very far before I lost my motivation. I guess I've had a short attention span, and have lacked the drive to pull off something large scale."
So rather than create a large-scale game for profit, Soderstrom experimented with games like Clean Asia!, Space Fuck!, and Mondo Medicals, all unusual, quirky projects that he put together extremely quickly -- sometimes in as little as just a few hours.
But he didn't just make these small freeware games because of a short attention span. Soderstrom said working on these smaller projects has given him a chance to become more creative as a game designer. After all, if you only work on long-term projects, you can only play around with a finite number of ideas.
"There's a lot of reasons to work on small freeware games," he said. "First of all, if you enjoy being creative, it's really rewarding to be able to manifest all the random ideas you have going on in your head. Working on larger projects means sacrificing a lot of ideas you simply don't have time to explore."
Of course, exploring new ideas via freeware is all well and good, but at some point any game developer will need to figure out how to keep a roof over his head. For a time, Soderstrom supported himself via sponsorships and donations, but eventually he found himself faced with a real problem: He ran out of money.
When funds got tight, Soderstrom knew he needed to create something that actually pulled in revenue, something a bit more robust than his previous freeware projects. He knew he didn't want to work alone, so he turned to Dennis Wedin, who had created the visuals for his psychedelic musical platformer Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf. With Wedin's help, Soderstrom felt he could focus and actually bring a full-scale game to completion.
"Dennis has always been a really good driving force," he said. "He's got better focus than me and helps me keep my head straight while we're working."
Together, the pair founded Dennaton, their own development label, and set out to create Miami Hotline, an unusual, '80s-inspired action title based on one of Soderstrom's failed prototypes from 2006.
It's a much larger game than anything Soderstrom's created until now, but despite the noted change in scale, it hasn't really affected his overall approach to design.
"[Hotline Miami] is bigger, more ambitious, more polished, and more thought out, but it's not a big step away from the games I've made before," he said. "It still has that kind of raw and straight touch that's in most of my other games, and of course the difficulty is pretty merciless."
The main difference, he said, isn't about design, but about content. Soderstrom didn't want to get into specifics, but noted that he has some big plans for the narrative behind Hotline Miami's stylish world.
"In Hotline I've had a lot of fun trying to come up with a decent story for the game that actually has an intelligent thought behind it," he said. "Other games I've made have been more about creating a feeling or an atmosphere through the dialogue, where as this time we have a chance to do something more."
Now, Hotline Miami has been picked up by Serious Sam 3: BFE publisher Devolver Digital, and is well on its way to becoming Soderstrom's first real commercial product -- a major landmark in his unusual career.
But now that he's gone commercial, does this mean Soderstrom's days as a freeware developer are over? He certainly doesn't think so.
"I will definitely release more small freeware titles, both on my own and with Dennis, but I have to start thinking about money unless I want to become a homeless bum living on the street," he joked. "I barely released any games last year, hopefully this year will be better on that front."