In the late 1990s, game engines were a serious investment. But a group of enthusiastic amateurs in Croatia didn’t have that kind of money. So they had to get creative, and Serious Sam was born.
In the late 1990s, first-person shooters were the hottest genre on the planet. The runaway success of games like Quake and Half-Life pushed PC gamers to the top of the heap and squeezed every bit of performance out of graphics cards.
Behind the scenes, though, a few notable companies consolidated power. If you had an engine—the core rules and methods that a game ran on—you could make almost as much money selling it to other developers as you could making your own games on it.
Some of these engines cost up to a million dollars to license, and studios happily paid. The idTech 2 license powered Hexen, Strife, and Chex Quest. Duke Nukem 3D’s Build Engine was behind the scenes for Blood and Redneck Rampage. And other studios were working hard to one-up each other and cash in.
But over in Croatia, a group of enthusiastic amateurs couldn’t shell out that kind of money. So they had to get creative, and Serious Sam was born.
Davor Hunski, Damir Perović, Roman Ribarić, and Dean Sekulić were schoolmates in Zagreb who shared an interest in computer programming. They realized that the popular microcomputers of their day were easy to program on, and immediately set out to make a game for retail. That game, Football Glory, was a take on the massive hit Sensible Soccer with some goofy additions, but when Sensible’s devs threatened a lawsuit it was pulled from the market.
The group worked on a few other games for Commodore computers, but after the bottom fell out of the PC market and left only Windows and Apple as competitors, they took some time to retrench and figure out what to do next. In the meantime, Doom became a genre-defining hit, and Croteam decided to jump into FPS development.
The advantage to making their own engine was that Croteam could prioritize features that were important to their specific game. So the Serious Engine pulled off a number of feats that even its well-funded competitors could not, including in excess of a hundred enemies on-screen at a time and draw distances of over a half of a mile.
Croteam released a demo in 2000 that shocked the game press. Their humble hand-built engine was accomplishing feats that the big boys couldn’t dream of, and Serious Sam quickly became a cult hit when it was released in March 2001.
Croatia wasn’t a country that was known for game development. Back in the late 1990s, PC games mostly came from the United States, and console games from Japan. The early microcomputer era had seen hobbyist developers pop up around Europe, but once MS-DOS came to dominate and budgets grew, they mostly died out.
Serious Sam marked one of the first salvos in a new wave of games from all over the European continent. At the same time, they were creating their ambitious engine, an upstart company in Germany called Crytek was attempting the same feat for a game titled X-Isle: Dinosaur Island. You might know it better by the name it finally came out as in 2004: Crysis.
Over in Belarus, a company with the generic name of Wargaming Inc. started releasing digital versions of popular tabletop games like De Bellis Antiquitatis before launching its Massive Assault franchise and eventually coming up with the overwhelmingly successful free-to-play World of Tanks.
In 1998, Czech development house Illusion Software began working on a 3D action-adventure built in its own home-brewed LS3D engine. Originally intended as just a driving game, it rapidly grew into an immersive, captivating story and launched the Mafia franchise, which saw two sequels.
Over in Poland, distributor CD Projekt—which had until then occupied itself with translating English games into Polish—decided that it wanted to create titles that reflected its own national culture and interests. In 2002, it obtained the rights to a series of fantasy novels about a white-haired swordsman named Geralt and kicked off the Witcher franchise, which found worldwide success and even a Netflix adaptation.
These companies, and others like them, seized the opportunity that the new world of standardized PC gaming presented. They were able to overcome the technical challenges of making a game engine from scratch and produce something that was both commercially successful and also representative of the world outside the American monoculture.
Croteam continued to develop and release games. In addition to more Serious Sam installments, it also branched off into puzzle games with 2014’s well-received The Talos Principle. Now it’s gearing up for the release of Serious Sam 4 on Sept. 24, both on Steam and Google Stadia (which is still a thing).
The sequel promises more of the “frantic action feeling” that has characterized the franchise. Every iteration of the Serious Engine has one-upped the last with new features. The new game’s Legion system lets people put 100,000 enemies on screen at once. That’s ridiculous but part of the charm.
In an industry that is often very imitative, where power collects around certain cities with large populations of tech workers, Croteam blazed a trail and proved that a dedicated enough group of hardcore fans could make a game that was profitable and stood the test of time. In 2015, the company dedicated a new branch to explicitly helping others do the same with Croteam Incubator, which gives office space and technology resources to small teams of Croatian developers looking to finish their games.
Game development is a truly global industry now, and while we’re not going to lay all of the credit for that at the feet of the school chums from Zagreb, we can’t help but think that their optimism and work ethic showed others what was possible and made a damn fine game in the process.
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Serious Sam 4, Croteam, Devolver Digital, Serious Sam: The First Encounter
World news – GB – How Serious Sam Paved the Way for Global Game Development