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MCV/DEVELOP ISSUE 967 THE ART AND BUSINESS OF VIDEO GAMES

A PERFECT SOULSTORM Lorne Lanning and Bennie Terry III on Oddworld's globally distributed marathon to bring Abe to PS5 & PS+

APRIL 2021

n SCOTLAND: WE REVEAL THE SIZE OF THE INDUSTRY 01 MCV 967 Front and Back Cover V5 FINAL.indd 3

n FREE YOUR GAME'S STORY WITH INK

n CCP LONDON'S NEW STUDIO HEAD

n WHEN WE MADE... GANG BEASTS 25/03/2021 12:04


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“I met the mind-blowing £7bn annual valuation of the UK games industry with mixed emotions.”

TheEditor Have we reached our peak? I’d like to think that I’m still on an upward curve, that I’ve yet to fulfil my potential and that I have many ambitious, yet realistic, goals still to achieve. But while that may be true in some respects, I am keenly aware that as I move towards middle-age (a segment of life that I keep on revising the start date for), that in some respects my best days are behind me. Science tells me that I’m just not as strong, as fast or as sharp as I was ten years ago. I’m having to make up for all that with experience and cunning. Although whether riding a bike or playing games, I’m increasingly aware that while I’m not quite over-the-hill, I’m having more of a struggle reaching the top of said hill (cycling) or remaining king-of-the-hill (shooters). With this in mind, I met the mind-blowing £7bn annual valuation of the UK games industry with mixed emotions. It’s a monumental tally of individual achievements by everyone in this industry, something that we should all be proud of. Yes, we must consider that the figure was built upon the greatest global crisis of modern times. However, the industry has been a force for good throughout, helping to entertain, maintain social contact and even spreading useful information. That said, it’s also likely that we’ve peaked. That figure looks unrepeatable, a mountain that we may never climb again, or at least not for many, many years to come. Yes, it’s an outlier, but like everything else it will have a knock-on effect, and measuring year-on-year ‘success’ in the new normal will be tricky for quite a few years to come. Thankfully, there’s always more than one mountain to climb. So while the peak of financial success, whether seen in this single figure or recent share prices, may be undoubtedly conquered. That then surely gives us more leeway to target other, arguably more personal, peaks. What peaks you choose is entirely up to you, but certainly for many in the industry there’s never been a better time to take a chance, to try something new, to break with traditions, to venture out into pastures afresh. Back at home, after a lifetime of resistance, I’m having a go at decorating things properly (not just rolling white paint over the top of the old). It seems like a skill that rewards patience and an astute use of YouTube tutorials – both skills I’ve developed over the years. But each to their own, and all the best with whatever peak (personal or professional) that you decide to scale next. Seth Barton seth.barton@biz-media.co.uk

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APRIL

03 The Editor

Is this peak games?

06 Critical Path

The key dates this month

10 Industry Voices

Comment from around the industry

12 Oddworld Soulstorm

An epic story to reinvent the genre

19 Ins and Outs

This month's hires and moves

21 Recruiter Hotseat

Jagex is hiring!

23 Debugging D&I

D&I at Splash Damage

12 40

26 Scotland Spotlight

An eye on Scotland's games industry

34 Speaking the Lingo Xbox's long-awaited language tags 36 Wired Direct

36

40 Ink: Inkle & Failbetter

Free your game from flowchart hell

44 CCP takes aim again

62

New games, new label, new stream

We speak to new London studio head

47 Nacon LIFE

Publisher on its new 5-title simulation label

50 Warp Digital

Expanding onto the sands of Arrakis

54 Unsigned

59

Handpicked indies looking for partners

59 The Art Of...

Pixel artist Henk Nieborg

62 When We Made...

Gang Beasts

66 The Final Boss

Polygon Treehouse's Alex Kanaris-Sotiriou

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Show your best side to potential candidates

Jobs This special advertorial feature will consist of double-page studio profiles including short interviews with key staff, so candidates can put a name and a face to those they will be working with. Boost your recruitment drive in this difficult year with a concise summary of everything that makes your studio a great place to work from the people who it know best: your team. Distributed via print, digital edition, email newsletter and online. All studios will also receive a PDF version for future use as they wish. To get involved with DEVELOP JOBS then contact: alex.boucher@biz-media.co.uk

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Critical Path

Here are the key upcoming events and releases to mark in your calendar... Before Your Eyes Bit of an usual one – This game from developer GoodbyeWorld Games and publisher Skybound Games, is a first-person narrative adventure where the story progresses via your real-life blinks. This innovative technique makes use of your webcam to track your blinking, which you’re now aware of and doing manually. And also breathing. I’m sorry.

Star Wars Republic Commando This classic Star Wars FPS, a beloved game from the teenage years of MCV/DEVELOP staff writers everywhere, is resurfacing on PS4 and Nintendo Switch. Originally released in 2005 on PC and the original Xbox, the game (developed by LucasArts and re-published by Aspyr) has developed a cult following over the years, and is often regarded as one of the best Star Wars games ever made. Correctly, I should add.

APRIL 6th

8th

Oddworld: Soulstorm Abe is back – this time in a reimagining of the 1998 Playstation title Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus. Published and developed by Oddworld Inhabitants, the game has been long in development (and long delayed), having been first announced in March 2016. In an interesting move, this ‘2.9D’ platform title is launching as the free Playstation Plus game for April. (See page 12 for more)

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New Pokémon Snap Pokémon Snap has returned and my life has meaning again. Developed by Bandai Namco and published by Nintendo, this is the long-awaited followup to the 1999 N64 original that forever changed our world. It has been a long, long year. Please get me through to April 30th so I can take photographs of Snorlax in peace.

Humankind Humankind is a new historical turn-based strategy game from Amplitude Studios and SEGA. Releasing on PC, Mac and Stadia, the player will rewrite the history of mankind, making impactful moral decisions, scientific breakthroughs. The game runs from the ancient to the modern age, starting out as a Neolithic tribe and combining over 60 historical cultures as they progress through to the modern day.

APRIL 22nd

23rd

30th

NieR Replicant ver1.22474487139

Judgment This spin-off title from the Yakuza series is getting a new lease of life on PS5, Xbox Series consoles and Stadia, having originally released on PS4 in 2019. This remaster follows the adventures of lawyer-turned-detective Takayuki Yagami as he tracks down a serial killer in Kamurocho. It’s a great game – but criminally breaks with Yakuza tradition and doesn’t feature a karaoke minigame, which is truly unforgivable.

This uh, catchy title is an updated version of NieR Replicant, which was only released in Japan. However, an alternative version with an older protagonist was released in the West as Nier in 2010, in order to give the game more appeal outside of Japan. NieR Replicant is the predecessor of the critically-acclaimed 2017 title Nier:Automata.

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We’re Playing... CONTENT Editor: Seth Barton seth.barton@biz-media.co.uk +44 (0)203 143 8785 Staff Writer: Chris Wallace chris.wallace@biz-media.co.uk +44 (0)203 143 8786 Design and Production: Steve Williams swilliams@designandmediasolutions.co.uk

ADVERTISING SALES Senior Business Development Manager: Alex Boucher alex.boucher@biz-media.co.uk +44 (0)7778538431

MANAGEMENT Media Director: Colin Wilkinson colin.wilkinson@biz-media.co.uk +44 (0)203 143 8777

SUBSCRIBER CUSTOMER SERVICE To subscribe, change your address, or check on your current account status, please contact: subscriptions@bizmediauk.co.uk ARCHIVES Digital editions of the magazine are available to view on ISSUU.com. Recent back issues of the printed edition may be available please call +44 (0)203 143 8777 for more information. INTERNATIONAL MCV/DEVELOP and its content are available for licensing and syndication re-use. Contact Colin Wilkinson for opportunities and permissions: colin.wilkinson@biz-media.co.uk

WIth the anniversary of the pandemic came the anniversary of Warzone. For me the two will always stand together, much like playing Hearthstone during my son’s first year. These were not easy times for me, and while those games helped me get through, they’ll always be tainted in my memory by the experience.

This is (hopefully) the last month I’ll spend in my childhood bedroom, so I’m making the most of it by revisiting Oblivion. Adding so much of the Bethesda library to Game Pass seriously endangered this issue of MCV/DEVELOP. I just got the Shivering Isles expansion, so Seth will have to handle next month solo I’m afraid. Chris Wallace, Staff Writer

This month I’ve been on something of an Assassin’s Creed binge. I’ve now gotten my Viking fill by absolutely rinsing Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, so I’m now stepping back in time to revisit Ancient Egypt in Assassin’s Creed: Origins. Quite a stab-happy month, basically. Alex Boucher, Senior Business Development Manager

Seth Barton, Editor

Paws the game The best furry friends the industry has to offer. Send yours to chris.wallace@biz-media.co.uk

Printed by Buxton Press Ltd

Biz Media Ltd, 44 Maiden Lane, London, WC2E 7LN All contents © 2020 Biz Media Ltd. or published under licence. All rights reserved. No part of this magazine may be used, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any way without the prior written permission of the publisher. All information contained in this publication is for information only and is, as far as we are aware, correct at the time of going to press. Biz Media Ltd. cannot accept any responsibility for errors or inaccuracies in such information. You are advised to contact manufacturers and retailers directly with regard to the price of products/services referred to in this publication. Apps and websites mentioned in this publication are not under our control. We are not responsible for their contents or any other changes or updates to them. This magazine is fully independent and not affiliated in any way with the companies mentioned herein. If you submit material to us, you warrant that you own the material and/or have the necessary rights/permissions to supply the material and you automatically grant Biz Media Ltd. and its licensees a licence to publish your submission in whole or in part in any/ all issues and/or editions of publications, in any format published worldwide and on associated websites, social media channels and associated products. Any material you submit is sent at your own risk and, although every care is taken, neither Biz Media Ltd. nor its employees, agents, subcontractors or licensees shall be liable for loss or damage. We assume all unsolicited material is for publication unless otherwise stated, and reserve the right to edit, amend, adapt all submissions.

www.biz-media.co.uk

Pet: Rupert Owner: Grace Carroll Owner’s job: Lead community & social media manager at Creative Assembly Rupert was originally nominated for 30 Under 30, but we’re giving him this as a consolation prize. Next year, Rupert. Next year.

Pet: Rose Owner: Lana Zgombic, Owner’s job: Producer at PlayStation London Studio Rose is a massive diva that likes attention, playing fetch, hiding her toys and dismembering grasshoppers. Sometimes she gets poo stuck to her fur.

Pet: Thy Royal Court Wizard of Camelot, Merlin the Wise (PhD) Owner: Eltanin Casciani Owner’s job: Communications & community lead - Team Junkfish Merlin’s name leaves almost no room for any information about him, but honestly I don’t regret it at all. Great name.

+44 (0)203 143 8777

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Industry Voices

Roblox’s direct listing puts the games industry’s hottest trends to the test Craig Chapple, Sensor Tower

MCV/DEVELOP gives the industry a platform for its own views in its own words. Do you have a burning hot take for the world of games? Get in touch!

While 2020 was the year of M&A in the games industry–a trend that continues–2021 looks to be the year of the IPO. By floating shares–such as through a direct listing, a traditional initial public offering, or one via a SPAC–publishers are striking while the iron is hot following years of growth in the sector. Last year saw a particularly large surge in engagement and revenue for many, in large part a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns. By going public, publishers are hoping to build up a warchest to either invest in their existing portfolio and teams, or expand aggressively, likely through M&A. While it’s an exciting time for the games industry, which is attracting unprecedented levels of revenue and investment, going public isn’t without its risks. Coming with it is increased scrutiny of their business practices, while questions will be raised on whether some of these companies should be going public at all–might it all end in tears?

Roblox Rocket The games company leading the charge of going public is Roblox, which finally had its direct listing in March, instantly making a publisher that has yet to be profitable larger than EA, Take-Two, and Ubisoft, at least by current market cap, which stands at approximately $41 billion at the time of writing. It’s a blockbuster listing for Roblox and the games industry as a whole, and the company itself perfectly encapsulates many of the major trends we’re seeing in the sector. For years, Roblox has been quietly building up its player base and unique platform focused on user-generated content, having officially launched

back in 2006–even before Minecraft. It’s only in the last few years that the title has really begun receiving mainstream attention, and its impressive numbers reveal why. On mobile alone, Sensor Tower estimates show Roblox has surpassed $2.5 billion in player spending from the App Store and Google Play, with close to $1.2 billion of that generated in just 2020. Across all platforms, the title now welcomes 37 million daily active users, a staggering figure. And as Roblox’s engagement and revenue rises, that helps its network of creators grow, too. Roblox seems to be at the forefront of many of the key industry trends we’re seeing right now–a lockdown bump in popularity, M&A activity, going public, providing a place for players to connect, and in-game events such as live concerts that are generally unrelated to the core gameplay. It’s also breaking into China through a Tencent partnership, focused for now on education. On top of it all, Roblox is a leading candidate for one of the hottest buzzwords in the industry right now: the Metaverse. Roblox’s hefty valuation seems to come from its staggering engagement figures, and the bet that the title can bring us a step closer to the Metaverse. Only time will tell if it can achieve these lofty goals, but if you’re looking to monitor industry trends, Roblox provides a good compass for where they’re headed–and it’s hopefully not a direction where they all go bust. Craig Chapple is Mobile Insights Strategist, EMEA at mobile intelligence firm Sensor Tower and was previously Senior Editor at PocketGamer.biz. www.sensortower.com

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How digital distribution has changed the investment landscape for video games Richard Darlington, Zeus Capital

Transactions in the video gaming sector have boomed during lockdown, but UK investors haven’t always had such an appetite for gaming companies. When we began actively tracking the sector four years ago, many were wary of intellectual property risk and a perceived boom and bust cycle in the industry. Today, we’re having very different conversations with those same investors, advising on five deals worth $750m in the last year and a half. Gaming’s popularity under lockdown has contributed to this change in appetite, but it has also accelerated trends that will ensure that the sector continues to thrive after COVID-19.

Games as a Service We’ve seen spikes of interest in gaming before, but the accelerated adoption of digital distribution models means that this demand for content is now being met sustainably. By removing the friction of delivering content to a global audience at scale and at pace, these models have created new opportunities for the sector. For example, the latest generation of gamers is hugely focused on social engagement, which provides long-term revenue opportunities through subscriptions, downloadable content and extensions to games’ life cycles. Platforms and games like Roblox, Fortnite and Fall Guys have tapped into digital distribution to attract huge audiences and stable revenue streams. At a grassroots level, the technology can be used to Alpha release games quickly, enabling companies to take direct feedback from players on board before they are fully launched and significantly improving their chances of success. Research suggests that the new customers are here to stay: according to a recent Google survey, over 40 per cent of new gamers are likely to continue playing after the pandemic. As a result, we expect to see the launch of exciting new models to access and leverage these new users, creating more ‘Games as a Service’ revenue opportunities and more highly engaged audiences that investors are becoming increasingly attracted to.

Content is King The success of digital distribution has driven huge demand for exclusive content, creating opportunities across the entire gaming industry.

From Epic Games acquisition of Mediatonic to indie publishers such as TinyBuild stating their desire to acquire original IP, many businesses are growing rapidly by acquiring IP that can be monetised long-term, whilst still sharing the upside with the original IP creators through revenue shares and shared ownership models. Thanks to a reduction in the need for physical media in the supply chain, independent publishers and successful developers have blown their funding options wide open. Public and private investors recognise the scale of success possible in the sector whilst also seeing more predictable monetisation of back catalogues, giving rise to multiple exit routes. There has clearly been a boom in UK listings and consolidation in the last three years, but this has also given the UK’s private equity investors confidence that they can achieve an exit. This is evidenced by Perwyn’s investment in Sumo Group, Northedge Capital’s investment in Catalis or Carlyle’s recent investment in Jagex.

Looking forward From an investor’s perspective, digital distribution models and a global, engaged audience have made the sector an infinitely more attractive proposition. By delivering ‘Games as a Service,’ the ability to scale up and assess return on investment have become more predictable than ever before. Simultaneously, the race for exclusive IP is driving value in the sector by stimulating innovation and creating new possibilities, for instance cross-platform gaming, that is engaging a new and growing audience of social gamers. As an industry at the forefront of technological advancement, gaming has only just begun to realise the potential of digital distribution – at Zeus Capital, we have no doubt that video gaming deals will continue to thrive after COVID-19.

Richard is a Director of Corporate Finance at investment banking firm Zeus Capital, where he heads up video gaming transactions. Zeus Capital has advised on deals including TinyBuilds $470m IPO, Sumo Group’s £145m IPO and subsequent fundraising and acquisition of Pipeworks for $99.5m, as well as the sale of Catalis to NorthEdge Capital for €100m.

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Weathering the Soulstorm After five years of development, a wholly independent Oddworld Inhabitants is back to take the puzzle platformer in an epic, cinematic new direction. Lorne Lanning and Bennie Terry III talk to Seth Barton about distributed development, stunning cinematics, Unity, crunch, a technical moonshot and their PlayStation Plus deal

O

ddworld is one of the great gaming stories. Developer Oddworld Inhabitants’ first title was a huge hit on Sony’s first PlayStation console. But while further titles elicited critical acclaim, the team felt poorly-served by a succession of publishers. Now Oddworld is back, springboarding off a 2014 remake of the original game. And this month the IPs ambitious new title is dropping onto PlayStation Plus and Epic Games Store. What started out as a relatively modest remake became a five-year epic development, a journey to re-invent the puzzle platformer, and to bring Abe and company to a whole new audience. Created by a wholly-distributed development approach, born out of a rising global demand for top talent, with the team working around the clock in order to manage the globally disparate talents at its disposal. It pushed for next-gen, assisted by Unity’s breakthrough in highfidelity visuals. And it ended up teetering on a technical moonshot to bring it all home. This is the story of Oddworld: Soulstorm.

NEWER AND TASTIER Soulstorm’s story dates back to that 2014 remake of the original Abe’s Oddysee, titled Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty. Working with UK developer Just Add Water, the title proved a commercial and critical success. And its audience was hungry for more. When asked, the fanbase were keen to replay the classics. And that worked with Oddworld

Inhabitants’ budget. So the initial plan was to follow up New ‘n’ Tasty with a similar remake of its sequel: Abe’s Exoddus But the team wasn’t sure that would be enough, co-founder Lorne Lanning recalls: “The landscape of product was maturing so fast, and systems were maturing, and you had new types of titles exploding onto the scene – free to play was changing where a lot of gamers were spending their time, and on how many IPs, and that was concerning.” “We didn’t think we were going to cut through in the same way we did on New ‘n’ Tasty,” Lanning says. “So what can we do to turn up the volume… very practically and rationally…” he laughs in hindsight. “We said ‘we’ve got to push it to that next dimension’,” but the question was how to do that in a way “which stays true to what the fanbase wants, and stays true to the originals.” “We were trying to analyse why people – who could play Red Dead Redemption or Grand Theft Auto, fully realised open worlds – were still asking us for more classic 2.5D adventure platform games. Accessibility was a part of that “because you’re you’re aiming in two dimensions not three.” But also that the story is being narrated something closer to a movie, with the game controlling the camera, not the player. How then to add that sense of an epic world while retaining that directed feel? The answer was Oddworld: Soulstorm’s 2.9D approach. A fully realised 3D world but with the player moving Abe along a now

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curving path through that environment. A path that allows the camera new freedom, rather than it simply panning across a flat world. “We could do things with the camera that would give us a cinematic approach, towards what our original objectives were in Oddworld, and take advantage of the 2K plus resolution that was becoming available. Although Lanning felt there was more to resolution than just getting pretty. “We felt like everyone was going to go high-res on their hero characters. And place those characters close to the screen, get a lot more detail. And we said, why don’t we focus on what that resolution gets us in letting characters get smaller. “Abe was always a character that was dealing with a big hostile world around him. So it made sense to want him to feel really small. And then we could do more things with the gameplay, because we can pull right back… all of which created a whole host of problems.” BREWING UP A STORM The vision was there, it worked with the character, it fulfilled the team’s dream to make something more cinematic, and it should help Abe stand out in a far more competitive market. Now it needed to be built, and so we turn to executive producer Bennie Terry III. “I think we went for about a year and-a-half on the initial trajectory, building on top of what New and Tasty had as a foundation, but still predominantly a 2.5D platformer, with all of the known rules, with all of the known systems, known behaviour. “But the moment Lorne had the stroke of genius of going to 2.9D, and we’re moving through the world, all of those conventions change. And so the systems that were bespokely designed to work well in 2.5D, truly didn’t work in 2.9D. “The challenges in refactoring almost all of our systems was significantly more in scale and scope than we were initially anticipating. Everything that’s core to what Abe is and how he functions, none of it was designed to work on a curved path. In hindsight, you think ‘I wish we would have started over from scratch’. “It was that monumental of a lift for the engineering and design teams to wrap their heads around what we needed to do and how we needed to build… you just don’t know the magnitude of the cans of worms that you’re opening until you open it.” AN ODD WAY OF LOOKING AT THINGS Hand-in-hand with the in-game camera pulling back from Abe to better frame him in an epic world, the cinematic camera was coming in for a sumptuous closeup of our protagonist, his allies and enemies.

Lanning explains that going all-in on top-end cinematic cutscenes was one of the earliest choices that the team made. “And this was actually a lot easier to manifest because it dealt with largely pre-rendered, highest res assets. “The thing we wanted to do is go back and look at the original drawings of Abe,” Lanning explains. And arguably the new cinematics, some of which you can see here, not only do justice to the original art but blow it away in terms of execution. Abe connects with players better than ever through those big expressive eyes of his. Lorne recalls his wishlist at the time: “I want the eyeball and the eyeball sockets to be able to get bigger. I want the retina to be able to shrink. I want the pupil to be able to shrink. I want those optical effects that happen with the human eye, but greatly exaggerated. “Aside from animation, the cinematics team was so small, you just couldn’t believe it. A very tiny handful of people,” Lanning looks to Terry, “We put out, what, 40 plus minutes of cinematics in this game?” “I believe we’re at 50,” Terry replies deadpan. “Yeah, sorry... the original budget was like 25!” Lanning smiles sheepishly. “As an executive producer I should only care about time, money and the quality of the product. And however we balance that, that triangle is critical,” Terry says, telling it from his side. “But Lorne sold me on going big for the cinematics. We originally budgeted 18 to 20 minutes, we had it all scoped out. But when we started pushing the cinematics further, and when we saw what we could do, some of the logical constructs went away for a minute. “And we came back to ask ourselves, what is Oddworld? What do we want the company to be? Is it just focused on making games? Or can it be more?” After all, Oddworld has long had these ambitions, With Lanning focused on how games and Hollywood might merge when the company made Abe for the PS1. “And if the goal is to evolve the company beyond just making games... What does it take to move that needle outside of games into other realms of media? “Because ultimately, Lorne’s a great storyteller. And Oddworld has unique visuals in style and direction. So it cuts through in many ways on that front.

Above (from top): Lorne Lanning and Bennie Terry III, Oddworld Inhabitants

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“But what we didn’t have is something that was near film quality, something that was in the realm of what you would sit down in a movie theatre to watch,” says Terry. Well, it certainly does now. The shift to 2.9D also created uncertainty about the game’s narrative, Lanning explains, uncertainty that could be mitigated by the cinematics. “How much of the story am I going to be able to tell, in the way I was originally thinking of telling it?” Lanning mused at the time. “Because engineering time is now going to all these things that we didn’t expect… So how then do you still strategically align to a good outcome?” And additional cinematics looked to be the answer, a way of ensuring the team could hold together Lanning’s narrative vision, come what may. “It was a finite way to measure what something would take. Building the interactive part it’s very hard to measure what it will take unless you’ve done it exactly before, there are so many zillions of ways everything can get slightly askew. “If you get something wrong, and you’re out of sync, and you’re needing to have it work in real time, you’re going to be screwed,” Lanning adds that it was a way of “hedging our bets... although we ultimately got more [in the gameplay] than we expected.”

“HDRP and other components of Unity’s renderer became a valuable resource. One of the biggest ones I would say is Unity’s tone mapper. It sounds so simple, it’s been in compositing tools forever. But we didn’t have to use a compositor because the tone mapping tools were directly built into the engine. So we could do all the tone mapping, the colour correction, the colour grading, all in-engine. That accelerated our iteration time, versus going out to After Effects, and then bringing it back and forth. It was all in engine, with all the editing done there. “We also rendered everything out at 4K but when you look at how much data it was pushing in the movies, we got a certain freedom of licence where it didn’t have to compute at 60 frames per second. It could compute a frame a second and you can save out, so we can turn up the resolution dial, we had characters having 8K texture maps.“ And better still, creating and rendering all the cinematics within Unity meant they were a perfect match for interactive segments, allowing for easy transitions, Lanning explains: “When Bennie was cutting together earlier trailers, he was going ‘I’m kind of amazed at how close the game footage looks to the movie footage’. And that was a huge advantage of bringing the two together.”

UNIFIED APPROACH Behind the game’s sumptuous visuals – both interactive and cinematic – is the Unity engine. Soulstorm was amongst the early high-profile titles being made with the then fledgling High Definition Render Pipeline (HDRP). With the game and Unity’s new graphics tech being developed side-by-side. “The technology didn’t exist when we started the project. The rendering quality of Unity and the tools available, from post processing to lighting, all evolved over time,” Terry tells us. In fact, the change of direction, and the delays that came with it, became something of a boon. It better matched up the project and Unity’s toolset, both in terms of ambition and availability. Plus it was a huge time-saver for the team, says Terry.

GLOBAL EFFORT While New ‘n’ Tasty was created largely by a single development team, Soulstorm’s creation was hugely distributed, with Terry giving us an overview: “Six time zones and four continents is currently how things are structured. And so we chase the sun here, which is why I was up at five this morning, because I had to connect with Perth, Australia. But everything is distributed development. There’s only Lorne and I in the studio here and Sherry [McKenna, co-founder], at HQ in Emeryville.” Major outposts include Frima Studios and Sabotage Studio, both in Quebec, Fat Kraken Studios, set up by New ‘n’ Tasty veterans in Leeds and Titanium Studios in Perth. Alongside other freelancers and independents. This wasn’t the initial plan however, with Oddworld Inhabitants originally looking for a single developer to take on the majority of the work, preferably one fairly close to home. Engineering started in North America, Lanning tells us, but with the project changing direction, and with the engineering team having other options for work, the

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Oddworld team “wound up having to move engineering to Australia.” The very opposite of its initial aim to move the work closer to make communication easier. Lanning explains that it just became hard to find the right people in North America. “The markets were changing and all of a sudden the demand for live art pipelines grew. The success of titles like Fortnite meant they were able to offer good rates for easier work. “They’ll just lock you up, they have all kinds of talent on a retainer. Just as long as they produce ‘X’ number of drawings or paintings or models a month, they’re doing great. And that made contracting larger companies more difficult, because how do you compete with guys who make hundreds of millions of dollars a month?” Between the change of scope and the difficulty finding a co-development partner, Lanning feels that at that point a big publisher would have said: “Let’s just kill the project. We can’t really see the end, we can’t tell exactly how much it’s going to cost. “But as a small developer, you’re like a family that has decided to build their own house. Shit is not necessarily working out how you thought, but you’re in deep, and you have to complete it, you don’t have a choice. Being small can make you persevere and deal with your problems rather than just go ‘fuck it, it’s too hard’. “And there’s a certain stamina and perseverance and kind of insanity that goes with all that at the same same time, but it’s not an easy road,” Lanning sighs. “It’s definitely felt like a battle every day,” agrees Terry. “My job is to make sure we have the talent we need and with the vision and the complexity of the project, it wasn’t just something that I could hand over to new developers or even slightly seasoned developers. It was something that required world-class talent to pull off. “But when your competitors are Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and they’re hiring the engineering talent you need… all of these entities gamifying their experiences, even though they’re not really part of the industry. It became challenging just to hire, because everyone in the top one per cent was gone. With the best talent in North America becoming increasingly hard to access, The Oddworld team went distributed and built an international team. And that changed radically how the project was managed. “This is my first 100 per cent distributed development that I’ve ever worked in,” says Terry. “I’ve managed outsourcing here or there, but to have everyone distributed changed my perspective. The eight hour day isn’t necessarily as important for me, but I need

to make sure that teams are moving in parallel. “As one team is slowly going into their night, the other team is picking up where they left off, just keeping that chain unbroken. And that’s given us some great benefits, being able to kind of pass the baton, but also some management and logistical challenges of just keeping the momentum going.” “So even if there was a simple day for us, it was still a 13 hour day,” Lanning clarifies. “And we at HQ just had to suck that up, or fail. I mean, I don’t want things to be that way. None of us would say, ‘you know what, let’s just do this project that’s going to age us quickly!’”

Above: Abe and friends navigate one of those tricky-proving curved paths

GETTING MUDOKON While the discussion of crunch in the industry is as heated as ever, its increasingly distributed nature makes the issue more complex still. After all, promising that you’ll send your staff home after a full day’s work is one thing, but when they’re freelance contractors, working in their own homes, that’s tricky. Lanning notes that sometimes he’ll be working and notice that one of the team is also working, but in a very different time zone. “I’m like ‘Tom [Bramall, freelance artist] why are you awake? It’s like 12 o’clock UK time’.” Bramall explained that he saw a mispositioned eyelid in one of the frames and he was just correcting it. “I’m like, ‘you really don’t need to correct that, we have 50 minutes of cinematics, you just don’t need to do it’. “But the same was happening across the team,” Lanning admits. To which he tells them: “What we need is to reach satisfactory. Good would be nice. Great would be phenomenal, but satisfactory is what we need right now. “If you’re in distributed development, it’s a little bit like carrying water in a wicker basket. Because you don’t

“The success of titles like Fortnite meant they were able to offer good rates for easier work.”

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Above: A cinematic scene from Soulstorm, rendered with Unity’s HDRP

have all the minds in the same place, looking over each other’s shoulder, having that conversation at lunch, a director that can hit 20 people in an hour, giving feedback and reviews. That’s gone. “You’re not policing them. And there’s a few reasons for that, even if you wanted to, when you’re dealing with contractors, and you’re dealing with all these different countries, you have to abide by the labour practice laws, contract laws and this and that. We’re not allowed to measure people’s hours. And we don’t,” he says emphatically. “To my knowledge, we’ve never told any of the staff that they have to work overtime, that they have to crunch. What I find is that because of the distributed time zones and the way things are set up, team members will be on early to sync with me,” Terry adds. “There’s no doubt that to produce this project, or any game, there are times when things go further into the nine hour day, instead of the eight hour day. But for engineering, for design, for art, cinematics, we haven’t asked them to do it. “On my end, just just from HQ, and as a EP and Lorne creatively, we spend the weekends together... we spend evenings together… As a leader of the company, I need to make sure that I’m crossing my T’s and dotting my I’s. And I’m in lockstep with all of the creative directives, so that we can build this product and hit the vision. “I’ve never seen it as crunch for me, because this is what I enjoy doing, this is my passion. You don’t necessarily consider crunch when it’s personal and that’s how I feel when I work with Oddworld.” A PHILOSOPHICAL ODDITY There’s something ironic about discussing crunch with the Soulstorm team. After all, Abe’s

adventures have long been set within the satanic mills of Rupture Farms, where he and his fellow Mudokons, a slave race, are at best being worked to death, and at worst are themselves the meat for the grinders. “When Abe released, I remember sort of being attacked as anti-capitalist,” Lanning recalls. “And they don’t say that anymore. Because in a way, it’s almost like everyone’s a little anti-capitalist now.” “I don’t want to be political. I want to be philosophical. Was Orwell political? Was HG Wells political? Or were we focusing on conditions that the human experience is trying to navigate? And how do we shine a light on that?” Lanning talks passionately about researching his topics. Whether its politics, economics or industrial design, he loves to look deeply into his subject matter before creating. “I saw clearly in the 90s that we were being screwed collectively. And people were still like, ‘I love Nikes’. They didn’t know it was made by child labour. And that research really opened my eyes and I wanted to create a property that was a reflection of this dark side of globalisation. Lanning didn’t want to make a flash in the pan protest though, but instead something that would take on its own life inside people’s heads: “I felt like in the creation of an IP, you had to get into content that would reflect an insight that people would find intriguing as it related to themselves, and have the depth so they could see the creator had much more in mind than you were seeing. Then you have a chance of having something that survives decades, rather than just being timely. “I didn’t want to say I’m making the game about how McDonald’s is chopping down the rain forest for the sake of 99 cent Happy Meals, that’s not going to fly... I wanted to have the workers, in their everyman’s plight, first have to fight through their ignorance, and then they have the opportunity to fight for something else. But if they don’t beat their own ignorance first, game over, you’re just going to be a cog in someone else’s wheel.” Lanning may not be anti-capitalist, but there’s something distinctly Marxist about that. “We have a lot of challenges as people and as a planet. And that’s sort of the territory where I take off on Oddworld, I want to always make fun of that. And I think that attracts some of the people that work on the product, they feel a connection to it, because there’s something resonating with them. That it’s not just a cool IP.”

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THE GPU MOONSHOT Oddworld is undoubtedly a cool IP, though. Cool enough to have cut a deal with Sony for PlayStation Plus inclusion, where it will also appear in a fully-fledged PS5 guise. To that end, the team really pushed the envelope and almost tore it in half. “We were approaching this new console with the PS5, and really all-in on trying to figure out how to make that sing,” Terry recalls. “But in doing so, we were dealing with millions more polygons than we had originally anticipated, because the worlds were so massive. “To achieve Lorne’s vision, our art team had to assemble a high level of details and quality. We love the way our levels look, but that fidelity came with a significant challenge. There was just too much content. We had too many objects for the CPU to process, too many triangles for the GPU to process, and we used too much memory. “Standard optimization techniques would improve one area and make others worse. No matter what combination of optimizations we tried, nothing got us close to our performance targets or fitting into memory on last-generation platforms. “The answer was to cull away what the player never sees. Real-time culling techniques have been around for a very long time. If something is off-camera or behind another object, then don’t draw it. In our case, when these algorithms tried to deal with our massive number of objects, they just made our CPU times worse. “We went to first principles – what are we rendering that is useful and what is just overhead? Consider this: if you walk along a mountain trail, can you see every face of the mountain, every leaf on every tree, every surface of bark? No. The same applies to moving through Soulstorm. All we had to do was figure out in advance what the player can see and discard the rest. This would reduce our objects, triangles, and memory in one shot. “The amount of computation was massive. With no time to spare and unsure of whether we’d be successful, we built a set of tools and a sophisticated baking system in three short weeks. “When we tried running the system on a top-ofthe-line [Intel Core] i9, it was going to take over a month per level iteration to run the computations. And so the team found itself in an extreme version of the same plight as many consumers did last year, trying to hunt down the right card for the job. “For our full-level culling bakes, we needed the most powerful commercially available GPU with a minimum of 24GB of onboard memory to compute the bakes.” Of course with this being a GPU in 2020, “We could not find one available!”

“The few places taking orders had lead times of more than three months. Even in the face of all those potential project killing challenges, the team had come too far to give up. “Jason Lee-Steere and his team at Titanium Studios again came through for Soulstorm. They found the only available Nvidia RTX 3090 on the Australian continent. With the RTX 3090 integrated into our automated culling pipeline, and with the computing power of 35 TFLOPS, our times went down from over a month to two to four hours per level, per iteration. “Soulstorm would simply not be shipping today without extraordinary efforts being executed by our engineering team in Perth,” Terry says in thanks. AN EPIC AUDIENCE With the vision delivered and the biggest technical hurdle overcome, the team can finally start thinking about this month’s launch. And what a launch it will be, with millions of certain downloads from PS+ alongside a big push on PC as an Epic Games Store exclusive. With both of those deals signed, we put it to Lanning that Oddworld Inhabitants might be hedging its bets somewhat on the release, and that the title is already making a good return before it’s even launched. “I wish that we were in a position that we made something so great, and we made it so cheap, that those deals were fat on the back end,” Lanning replies openly. “We’ve had long relationships with both Epic and Sony, I think there’s people internally that like the IP, they really liked what was happening. And they knew we could use help. “And as much as I’d like to say ‘It’s a killer deal! I just can’t tell you the terms.’ Really, they helped us actually get to the finish line. So there’s a lot to recoup on.” And while he seems relaxed about the financials, there’s

Below: A beautifully rendered but still thoroughly detestable Glukkon

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another interesting upside to the PS+ deal that he’s more keen to discuss. “We’ve always felt that Oddworld was a tremendously undervalued IP.” And Lanning himself has long spoken out on how he feels previous publishing partners failed the brand. “In the business world. success is measured by the money the product made, but we didn’t give up on Oddworld because we thought we got shortchanged in the marketplace, this shit happens, it’s happened to tons of products. But we held on and said we believe it’s something more.” And the huge exposure of PS+ gives the IP an opportunity to build a huge audience for Oddworld. The kind of audience that Soulstorm was so painstakingly created for, rather than simply being another 2D title that might sail under the radar. That hugely increased audience does come with some challenges, though. “One of our problems in legacy was we have to overcome the difficulty barrier, we have to overcome the comprehension barrier. We were notoriously hard, we don’t want to not be hard, but we do want to make the gateway a lot more pleasant,” Lanning explains. “And so we spent a lot of time in this game, making it more accessible,” both in terms of making a story that works for novices to the world, and gameplay that communicates what’s going on to everyone. “We’re bringing the property to a fan base that may not have zero clue about who we are, just that it’s free online, they’re going to download it and play it,” adds Terry. “You know there’s things

you can’t control and there’s things you can, and where we’re focused internally is just making sure we’re ready to react and respond to anything that comes out of that. “So whether that’s immediate feedback from the community saying they’d love to see this, and these are things that we didn’t consider, we’re on the ball to make sure those things happen, as well as communicating from PR to social and all of those other departments that feed into that.”

“We can’t just launch to our core fan base and say ‘here’s another iteration’ we’ve got to dip our toe in a bigger pond.”

Above: Some Sligs demonstrating that it’s not just Abe who can now navigate a curved path

THE NEXT ODDYSEE And overcoming that challenge of a new audience is what will secure Oddworld’s future, Terry tells us: “This is what we wanted. It’s looking at how the company evolves. What do we need to do to remain viable and grow the brand, so that we can do future projects and keep this going? It comes back to: we can’t just launch to our core fan base and say ‘here’s another iteration’, we’ve got to dip our toe in a bigger pond.” Terry and Lanning both have the look of people who are delighted to find themselves at the end of a very long tunnel, just about to step out into the sunlight, a little dazzled but delighted to find themselves at the beginning of the end. As Terry puts it: “This is our moonshot, if you will. And all of the challenges to getting there have been monumental… we’re at the precipice of shipping and it has been truly a journey. And I hope we never have to work that hard again! But we pulled it together when we needed to, and the team was behind us every step of the way, stuck with us to bring the project home.” Arguably the road to putting Abe on a curving path ended up being a more tortuous one than its developers ever foresaw, but isn’t that so often the way in game development. “That’s the dance, the challenge of game development, where you’re pivoting all the time, as quickly and as intelligently and as subjectively as you can, and trying to keep the vision intact. And that is one royally difficult dance,” Lanning observes. And so Oddworld keeps on dancing, when so many other IPs have tripped and fallen. And we sincerely hope that with Soulstorm it finds an audience that allows it to explore all its ambitions, in games and beyond, and that the team can, for a while, put up their feet.

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RECRUITMENT

Ins and Outs: Industry hires and moves 1

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Splash Damage returns to utterly dominate Ins and Outs this month, with an absurd 12 new hires over at the company. First, JAMES AUSTIN (1) joins as lead cinematic artist, working on an unannounced new project. Austin has previously worked as an art director for FASA Games, and before that spent four years at Ubisoft Toronto. JACOB ARBIB (2) also joins the company, as an assistant systems programmer. Prior to joining Splash Damage, Arbib interned as a Unity Developer at the Amsterdam-based DTT. Still at Splash Damage, SAM SPICE (3) joins as an associate lighting artist. Spice recently graduated from Staffordshire University with a first class degree in Computer Game Design. STEFAN HELIER (4) joins Splash Damage as a senior gameplay programmer. Helier was previously at Fabrik Games as a senior software engineer.

JACOB SIMPSON (5) joins the company as an assistant level designer. SImpson has just recently graduated from the University of Central Lancashire, with a degree in Game Design. Next up, DOMINIC PUGH (6) joins Splash Damage as a character artist. Pugh was previously at Bomper Studio, working as a 3D character artist. Prior to that Pugh has worked for the likes of Legion Studios and Airship Images Limited. On top of his work as a character artist, Pugh has worked as a figurine sculptor – sculpting the range of official ‘Cuphead’ figurines for Studio MDHR BEN LAWS (7) is also among the onslaught of Splash Damage hires, joining the company as a lead systems programmer. Where are they finding space for all these people... Bromley must be booming! Anyway, Splash Damage has also hired AARON KETTERINGHAM (8) as an associate technical designer.

Still at Splash Damage, somehow, the company has hired yet more people. SAM FORSTER (9), for instance, has joined the company as a cinematic animator. Forster has previously worked as a facial animator, working for the likes of Foundry 42 and Cubic Motion, and has worked on games such as Wolfenstein 2 and Star Citizen. Meanwhile, RODERICK MCDOUGALL (10) joins the company as a senior game designer. Prior to joining Splash Damage, McDougall spent 6 years at DICE – joining as a product manager in 2014, before becoming a game designer in 2017. FIACH O’DONNELL (11) joins Splash Damage as an associate technical audio designer. Before he joined the company, O’Donnell was working as a systems engineer at McKesson. And last, but not least, SABINA JOCHNICK (12) has joined Splash Damage as senior development manager. Before joining the company, Jochnick worked at DPS Games.

Sumo Digital has a couple of promotions to announce this month. First, GRAEME ALLARTON (13) has been promoted from game designer to senior game designer. Allarton is an experienced designer with ten years’ experience at Sumo, in his time he’s helped ship titles such as Forza Horizon 2, Crackdown 3 and more. Second, Sumo Digital has promoted JUSTIN VAN OORT (14) from a junior technical designer to technical designer. Joining from university in Breda, he started at Sumo 2 years ago on an internship. There’s a new hire over at Sumo Leamington too DAL HUNDAL (15) joins the team as an associate technical director. After four years at Steel Media, DANIELLE PARTIS (16) has left her position as editor of PocketGamer.biz. Partis is an MCV/DEVELOP Women in Games award winner, and launched Influencer Update during her time at the company.

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JOHNNY CHIODINI (17) has left tabletop website Dicebreaker, where he had been the head of video since 2019, joining the team from his previous role at Eurogamer. Chiodini is also the DM for Outside Xbox and Outside Xtra’s D&D series The Oxventure. For his new role, Chiodini has launched his own Patreon to support his future independent work. There’s some movement over at GAMINGbible too. EWAN MOORE (18) has been promoted to senior journalist, in recognition of his work over the last six months, driving record traffic and providing vital support to new hires, as well as social packaging and promotion. Finally, the former New York Times journalist specialising in video games, SETH SCHIESEL (19) has joined Microsoft as their new director of executive communications. Announcing his career move via Twitter, Schiesel remarked that “Together, we will continue to extend the joy and community of gaming to people everywhere.”

Got an appointment you’d like to share with the industry? Email Chris Wallace at chris.wallace@biz-media.co.uk April 2021 MCV/DEVELOP | 19

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Rising Star

Every month, we pick the brain of an up-and-coming talent

Maria Camenzuli, software engineer at BossAlien, talks about leaving Malta to pursue a career in games, dealing with imposter syndrome and creating a sense of wonder

How did you break into games? I started programming as a teenager because I wanted to make games. However, the games industry doesn’t really have a significant presence in Malta, which is where I am from and where I lived at the time, so after completing my studies in computer science I worked as a software engineer in other industries for a time. Eventually though, I decided to leave Malta and pursue my dream of getting into games. I applied for a masters course in computer games technology at Abertay University in Scotland. While there, I signed up for the Search for a Star game dev challenge run by the Grads in Games team, and landed several job offers through that. This included an offer from BossAlien, where I am very happy to be working now. What is your proudest achievement so far? During my time at BossAlien, I feel like I have had a creative impact on the game that I am currently working on. I can currently point at a couple of things in the game and say that was either my idea, or I have been involved in conversations with my colleagues that shaped that idea. This is my first game development project outside of university or small hobby projects, and the game is one that I am personally very excited about, so having a creative impact on it means more to me than I can say. What’s been your biggest challenge so far? Coming into the games industry and diving into gameplay programming after spending multiple years in completely unrelated industries

What’s your biggest ambition in games? My dream is to contribute to building the kind of games that spark the joy, connection, and sense of wonder that I felt when I played the games that inspired me to want to be a part of the world that created them. If I ever hear someone excitedly speaking about how a game that I’ve worked on has positively impacted them, it will probably instantly make my year, to say the least.

working on server side code, I initially got a strong feeling of impostor syndrome. I think working on overcoming that has definitely been a challenge. Luckily for me, my colleagues were and continue to be wonderful about giving me space, time, resources, and encouragement to adapt and succeed in my new role. What do you enjoy most about your job? Being surrounded by people who care about their craft and building an incredible experience for players. This last year, with people staying indoors more due to the COVID pandemic, it has been really interesting watching an increase in people playing games, and I feel lucky to be working with one of the many groups of people who pour their hearts into creating beautiful experiences for players to immerse themselves in, even when times are hard.

What advice would you give to aspiring software engineers? The world of software engineering is so vast now that it can be overwhelming trying to figure out what to invest your time in learning. Don’t let that distract or discourage you. Pick up a project, and focus on learning what you need to complete that. For students who want to get into games specifically, take advantage of opportunities like the Search for a Star competition to get exposure to the industry. If you want a job in games, you’re going to want to get your work in front of some studios at some point, and the Grads in Games team is offering to lend you a hand to do just that with this initiative. The way I see it, you have nothing to lose and absolutely everything to gain.

“If I ever hear someone excitedly speaking about how a game that I’ve worked on has positively impacted them, it will probably instantly make my year, to say the least.”

If there’s a rising star at your company, contact Chris Wallace at chris.wallace@biz-media.co.uk 20 | MCV/DEVELOP April 2021

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RECRUITMENT

Recruiter Hotseat Jagex is hiring! We find out more about life at the Runescape studio with Peter Lovell, director of talent acquisition at Jagex What differentiates your studio? Jagex is more than 20 years old, with a rich history of stability, growth and doing things the right way – this combination creates an excellent employee value proposition. This stability and consistency is embodied in the recruitment team, creating the kind of muscle memory and efficiency in our processes and practises that few can match. A result of this has been our decision to use a directrecruitment model. This approach has proved to be hugely successful for us, and while we still use agencies for a small number of specialised roles, they are external partners offering an extension to our capabilities rather than replacing them. In addition, the talent acquisition team at Jagex are gamers through and through so can converse with ease to candidates about development, are very smart, and empowered to think creatively. How many staff are you looking to hire? In 2020, during exceptionally difficult times, we hired 123 permanent staff as well as a significant number of contractors. We will be looking to hire a similar number this year. What perks are available? Jagex is above the line in terms of salary and benefits. We are a studio that cares – and that’s where the intangible benefits come in. One thing our unbelievable response to Covid shows is how incredible we are in supporting our staff. We go to great lengths to foster the same sense of community at work as we do in games such as RuneScape. Our focus on wellbeing is a key focus of our wonderful HR team and extends beyond just industry-leading

benefits packages and to our charitable giving and our focus on diversity and inclusion. What should applicants do with their CV? Let’s move away from the concept that a CV is the be all and end all. We use LinkedIn and other relevant portfolio sites for example to really find out if a candidate can demonstrate who they are as a person beyond just their CV. Recommendations are hugely important, showing endorsement for their skills from peers we often know and trust very well. Once we’re in contact, the key is to communicate well, be polite and have a positive attitude.

benefit of having an in-house specialist TA team because we have the ability to spot issues and respond quickly. The actual process itself is no different to any hire, it’s just the practicality of arranging visas, permits and potential relocation that come into play in the final stages when we’ve already decided we want someone.

What advice would you give for a successful interview at your studio? The basic ones: be on time, be polite, present yourself in your best light. What’s become even more important is to research the company, show that they believe in themselves and demonstrate a good match against the role. Always come armed with questions and create a deeper engagement; the best feedback we get from hiring managers is from those who were asked a question by a candidate that got them thinking.

What processes do you have for onboarding staff remotely? Our onboarding process is comprehensive to say the least, led by a team of dedicated experts. We look at the need for a world-class onboarding process as a key factor as keeping people engaged for the long term and we’re proud to have an exceptional recruitment, onboarding and inter-staff journey. This starts from the moment we message a candidate for the first time, making sure that every interaction they have with us is positive and that we look after people from start of their journey with Jagex to the finish, whether that’s before they get to interview stage or if they’ve been at the company for a decade.

If you have recruited internationally what is the process like? Jagex recruits extensively internationally, and around 40% of our hires in 2020 were based in countries outside the UK. The process has been difficult in the last few years with uncertainty over Brexit and difficulties regarding visa applications through the Home Office. Covid has been massively disruptive but we’ve navigated through it – it’s really shown the

How has the pandemic affected recruitment at your studio? It’s been a very challenging and unpredictable time, with many ups and downs. Thanks to bold leadership and the deep knowledge held at Jagex, and a variety of specialists responding very quickly to our change in circumstances at having to work remotely, and shifts in the needs of the company, we’ve not just overcome this challenge but exceeded our hiring targets.

If you’d like to feature your recruitment team on this page then contact Alex Boucher – alex.boucher@biz-media.co.uk April 2021 MCV/DEVELOP | 21

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RECRUITMENT

Cherry picked advice to help you reach the next level in your career

Wesley Arthur, lead level designer at Sumo Sheffield, talks about the role of a level designer, the importance of word of mouth and the opportunities in the games industry

What is your job role and how would you describe your typical day at work? I’m a lead level designer at Sumo Sheffield, and I manage a team of designers to produce the game’s levels. A level designer’s job is to build the layout and script behaviours to create a compelling space for the player to progress through, or a series of challenging puzzles to overcome. It’s all about understanding how to take components built by other teams and assemble them into a cohesive world that’s fun to play. On paper, my typical day doesn’t sound that glamorous. It usually consists of various meetings and reviewing my team’s work,

while trying to figure out their next steps. As a lead I don’t get my hands in the editor that regularly; but shaping

If you were interviewing someone for your team, what would you look for? A good portfolio will often get you an interview but being able to explain the processes and theories behind a piece of

the project’s creative vision, while steering the career progression of my team, is one of the most rewarding things a job could possibly offer.

work is just as important. Although technical skills are an integral part of the job, game development relies heavily on collaboration and communication, and the interview provides an insight into whether you would fit within my team. One of the most important things to demonstrate in an interview is an ability to build a rapport.

What qualifications and/ or experience do you need to land this job? There are lots of ways to get into level design, but the most important things are your personality and portfolio, which can be developed on your own or as part of a formal qualification. It can be difficult to demonstrate design-specific skills in a portfolio without having shipped titles on your résumé, but people often overlook level editors in existing games that can serve as a valid tool for aspiring designers. Several of my colleagues at Sumo learned a lot of their skills through usercreated content, and some of them were hired based on their contributions to LittleBigPlanet’s online communities. Never underestimate word of mouth. Go to industry events, engage with forums, make your work as viral on social media as possible. Anything you can do to network and showcase your work will increase the chances of it landing in front of someone who can offer you a job.

“Make sure you are well prepared; but remember, it’s okay to be nervous” Be confident in yourself and your work so you can showcase your potential in the best possible light. Make sure you are well prepared; but just remember, it’s okay to be nervous. What opportunities are there for career progression? Working in the game industry has many different facets to it, whether that’s development or non-development departments. Our rapidly growing industry has an increasing number of roles to specialise in, and you can move towards management as a lead or become a master of your technical skills as a principal. At Sumo, the number of projects and studios provide tons of opportunities to find what suits you and your career best.

Want to talk about your career and inspire people to follow the same path? Contact Chris Wallace at chris.wallace@biz-media.co.uk

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Debugging D&I Amiqus’ Liz Prince speaks to Splash Damage’s Diversity & Inclusion Advisor Cinzia Musio about how to take the first steps in establishing as studio’s D&I initiative Where does a studio start when approaching a D&I initiative? One of the first things we did was to set up employee resource groups – an LGBTQ+ group, and Women at Splash Damage. Later we set up BAME at Splash Damage and recently we set up the Families group. These groups are open to everyone – whether you are part of a marginalised group or an ally – and it was a good place to get the conversation started, looking at the issues and what things we could do to fix them. The next thing we looked at was unconscious bias and how to fix that. Thankfully, there’s a lot of free resources out there in terms of webinars and workshops. Discussing unconscious bias was a great way to start talking about how marginalised people are affected without making it accusatory or telling people that they are thinking things wrongly or doing things wrong, but rather that it’s what society and psychology has set us up to do and think. We also began to host events. This started with International Women’s Day where we brought in industry women to talk about what it’s like being a woman in games. We also hosted a Pride event, where we had a live drawing session, but the model was a Drag Queen. With our events, we try to include a mix of awareness and bringing in people to talk to staff – but we make sure it’s also a celebration. Who should get involved in a D&I initiative within the studio? It’s a massive strength having leadership on board and that’s really helped us. It makes a big difference if the CEO believes in it. It brings strength to the conversation and means it’s something that cannot be misunderstood or misinterpreted. D&I should involve everyone and not be done in separation. What you don’t want is for people to think you are doing this to work against them. If you make the work open and transparent, you can bring everyone along with you, and it becomes part of the

studio’s culture. It’s so much more valuable than telling people ‘this is what we’re doing’. That just creates a divide and politicises something that doesn’t need to be politicised. It’s important that leadership knows that when you invest in diversity and inclusion, you have better retention, your workforce is going to be collaborating better, and people believe more in the studio. Ultimately, it will make the studio a more successful place. What are your top tips for a studio starting out on a D&I initiative? One of the most important things I did was to become a sponge for information. Learn the data, learn the business cases, so you can relay that information and discuss what you should be doing as a studio and what the benefits are. Pace yourself. Diversity and Inclusion is an incredibly long journey and change will not happen overnight. And keep track of your successes, because it is a long journey! So you need to celebrate the positive moments to give you the energy to keep you going. What advice would you give to small studios who maybe don’t have the resource to do some of the things that you’ve managed at Splash Damage? Take it seriously. If you put in the foundations, you are putting in the groundwork for the future of the studio that will make everyone’s life easier. We are lucky that there are a lot of resources in the games industry. We are an industry of wanting to share information and help each other. Get in touch with groups like POC in Play, Out Making Games and G Into Gaming, sign the Ukie Raise the Game pledge. If you are struggling, reach out to people in the industry because we want to help. No one is trying to keep the secrets to themselves. Everyone wants to share that knowledge and make the whole games industry a better place to work.

Cinzia Musio, Splash Damage

At Amiqus, we have many resources available to help, so please do get in touch via liz.prince@amiqus.com

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Scotland in the Spotlight Chris Wallace reaches out to some of the leading experts in the Scottish games industry to get a sense of the country’s wealth of opportunities. Plus we reveal the size of that industry today thanks to a brand new survey

W

Douglas Hare, CEO Outplay Entertainment

hen it comes to discussions about the UK video game industry, Scotland is quite often left out of the conversation – which is odd for a country that’s home to some of the biggest names in the industry, such as Edinburgh’s Rockstar North. The country’s industry goes well beyond big hitters such as Rockstar, too. Scotland currently has 425 companies working within the video games sector – according to new data from the Scottish Games Network. Of those 425, developers make up 317, tech companies 34 and the remaining 74 are supporting companies – largely specialists in audio, animation, digital design, music etc. Additionally, there are 37 dedicated games freelancers working across the country. The number of studios have been steadily increasing over the last ten years. From just 12 new game studios registered in 2010, to 85 in 2020. The region’s industry has seen the same benefits from the pandemic as

elsewhere in the world too – with the 2020 figure being a huge leap over 2019’s 56 new studios. So to remedy this blindspot in UK games coverage, we reached out to the Scottish games industry, to get a sense of the sector in their own words. SCOTLAND’S LEGACY While many will know Scotland’s console and PC success stories, such as GTA and Lemmings, far fewer know the depth of technical innovation that came alongside. “Scotland has always been an early adopter and pioneer when it came to exploring new technologies, new devices, new markets, and audiences” says Brian Baglow, the founder and director of the Scottish Games Network. “Digital Bridges was one of the earliest mobile games companies in the world. Years before the iPhone came out it was building a server-based system to deliver

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sophisticated, massively multiplayer games in a way which is very recognisable to anyone looking at Stadia, PS Now, etc. However they were delivering these games to dumb terminals - Nokia 3310s, Sony Ericsson T65s, etc. It was hugely successful and they were producing some incredible content, but then the iPhone happened and once the App Store launched, all of the previous technology was swept away. “Likewise the Edinburgh studio Outerlight was an early adopter of modding. Their first game, The Ship was originally a HL2 mod and was an early success on Steam, though their experience with publishers eventually drove the company out of business. The game lives on to this day via Blazing Griffin and their recent take, Murderous Pursuits. “Additionally, Denki was an early adopter of interactive TV, and produced over 100 games for Sky in the UK and DirecTV in the US, many based on enormous film and TV licenses.” Despite this rich history of innovation, and acting as the birthplace of some of the biggest franchises in the industry, Scotland doesn’t seem to come up often in industry conversations. Does the Scottish industry feel like it’s getting the recognition it deserves? “I think the games industry is still poorly understood by many people in the media and government,” says Douglas Hare, founder and CEO of mobile game developer Outplay Entertainment. “I think the situation is improving but at the moment, I don’t think it gets equal treatment or the attention it deserves.” “Certainly not,” adds Marc Williamson, CEO at Tag Games. “We have products built here that are financial and critical hits across the globe and you really wouldn’t know that they were produced here. The games industry still isn’t taken as seriously as film, TV or music even when they are dwarfed by it. This will change as those that have grown up taking games as a serious medium move into positions of influence in the media. We are nearly there.” “We’re in a strange position where we have a couple of large studios, producing very high profile and commercially successful game franchises, which is wonderful” notes The Scottish Games Network’s Baglow. “They’re great examples of what’s possible and inspirations to every subsequent generation of game creators. “However, they’re so big, they tend to obscure the rest of the industry and as a result, very few

of the successful, sustainable and scalable studios are getting the recognition they deserve.” BRAGGING RIGHTS With so much going on in Scotland, why is it that it’s so often overlooked? “We are pretty terrible at boasting about ourselves,” says Tag Games’ Williamson. “I think that is going to be hard to change. There is an expectation that good work will be recognised and in the industry, Scotland is known as a powerhouse of development. Others in the industry know of Scotland’s history and development skills, but the wider media are not that clued up on what is going on here in Scotland. Lots of focus is around large publishers as well; the UK doesn’t have many homegrown publishers that can stand up to the big giants of the industry.” “The local industry doesn’t shout about itself enough but it’s getting better,” agrees PTW regional president Marion Muir. “I think most people would be surprised that the largest entertainment product in human history (Grand Theft Auto) is made in Scotland.” “The games industry in Scotland has far outstripped any other creative sector in terms of it’s impact internationally,” says Traci Tufte, executive producer of Axis Studios. “Producing a number of the best selling video games of all time, even those with little knowledge of the video gaming industry knows ‘Grand Theft Auto’ or Minecraft. There are a lot of activities within the games industry outside of game development that also go unnoticed.” So in the name of getting a better image of the country’s industry, what are the benefits of being located in Scotland? Though of course, as

Brian Baglow, founder and director, Scottish Games Network

Traci Tufte, executive producer, Axis Studios

Marc Williamson, CEO, Tag Games

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Signposting success Companies working within the games sector

Game studio employees

425 85 1307 18

New game developers registered in 2020 alone

Universities and Colleges offering games related courses

LOCATIONS

STUDIO SIZE BREAKDOWN

NUMBER OF NEW GAME DEVELOPMENT STUDIOS

Aber deen

100+

Du

80 80

80

00

e

nde

gow

100

-1

Glas

11

ess

Invern

100 100

60

5-10

60

60

40

40

1

urgh

Edinb

2-4

20

20

20 0

2020 - 85 2019 - 57 2018 - 39 2017 - 39 2016 - 31 2015 - 28 2014 - 32 2013 - 24 2012 - 9 2011 - 17 2010 - 12

0

40

0

Just focusing on game development studios, Dundee is no longer the biggest region for game development in Scotland

1307 total number of employees (Games studios only)

Aberdeen (AB postcodes): 22 Dundee (DD postcodes): 40 Edinburgh (EH postcodes): 98 Glasgow (GG postcodes): 64 Inverness (IV postcodes): 10

73 studios have 1 person 45 studios have 2-4 employees 19 studios have 5-10 employees 18 studios have 11-100 employees 3 studios have 100+ employees

Lockdown was good for the number of new games studios. The number of games companies registered over the last 10 years.

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with any country, the answers may vary depending on the city. Edinburgh and Glasgow by far have the most game studios (98 and 64 studios, respectively) though the industry has a sizable presence in Dundee (40), Aberdeen (22) and Inverness (10). “Edinburgh is home to one of the most vibrant digital tech ecosystems in the whole of the UK,” says The Scottish Games Network’s Baglow. “There’s a thriving hub around Codebase, Europe’s largest tech incubator which brings together almost every ‘x-tech’ sector known to man - fintech, healthtech, spacetech, you name it. It’s also home to startup events, such as EIE (Engage Invest Exploit), the Turing Festival and of course the creative whirlwind which is the Edinburgh festival and the beating heart of Scotland’s creative and cultural heritage. “It’s the perfect place to give you context for the games industry, to see how other sectors are addressing their challenges and to help them understand all of the ways in which games are pioneering new approaches to user journey, business models, engagement, gamification and good old fashioned being-incrediblycommercially-successful.” “Dundee’s not a big city but it’s pretty fully-formed, has a great quality of life, low cost of living, and has ready access to other bigger cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow’’ says Outplay’s Hare. “Higher education-wise we have Abertay University and Dundee University on our doorstep, the University of St Andrews nearby and other world-class universities throughout Scotland. Finally, I think that the game

sector in Scotland has benefitted from having Scottish Enterprise recognition and support that Outplay, and the sector at large, has valued greatly.” Still, for all its history of innovation and a rich games community, working in any country has its challenges. What issues have our experts encountered? “Location for attracting talent and business can sometimes be an issue,” says Tag Games’ Williamson. “Dundee connectivity could be better. While it is a beautiful train journey from Edinburgh, being over an hour away by train has its disadvantages. The flight into Dundee airport is great when needing to have a meeting in London, we could do with more of that.” “Post-Brexit, our access to multilingual talent has been reduced, as the local industry suffers somewhat from a lack of entrepreneurs and business acumen to grow” adds PTW’s Muir. “Local businesses do not tend to work with one another very often, so overcoming this hurdle will take some work.” ATTRACTING TALENT On that note, how easy is it to attract sufficient talent, working in Scotland – particularly globally? “Our talent pipeline should be excellent,” says Scottish Games Network’s Baglow. “We’ve got seven universities producing games graduates, and eleven colleges offering game development at HNC & HND, so entry level positions should be taken care of. “However, it seems much harder to recruit senior staff and find people for positions outside the technical and

Marion Muir, PTW regional president

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creative roles, since we’ve not done a particularly excellent job in terms of shouting about the incredibly vibrant ecosystem we have here in Scotland, which makes it difficult…” “Due to remote working capabilities we have in place now, attracting and working with international talent remotely on an ongoing basis is more achievable and sustainable,” adds Axis Studios’ Tufte. “Before COVID attracting talent to move to Scotland had some challenges with shorter term and non-permanent contracts. But Scotland and Glasgow have a lot to offer, it has a thriving arts and music scene and benefits from a big city feel without the big city hassles.” GOVERNMENT SUPPORT Closer to home though, government support can be vital to any thriving industry. Scotland may not appear in games media as much as it perhaps should, but what has the Government done to support the Scottish games industry? “The short answer is: a lot!” says Muir. “Scottish support for video games goes all the way from local government incubation at startup levels, to the Scottish National Investment Bank co-investing millions of pounds into games companies (Blazing Griffin, Outplay, etc.). We’re also anticipating the Dundee Esports Arena that was announced last year (£40-60m project in coop with the Dundee city council).” “Scotland has been lucky to receive a whole lot of support from the public sector organisations across the country,” says the Scottish Games Network’s Baglow. “Scottish Enterprise pioneered dedicated support with the creation of the Scottish Games Alliance back in 1997, while the country had its own presence at E3 and GDC since the early 2000s. “The Scottish government was an early supporter of Video Games Tax Relief, providing a platform for the industry and also the creation of the cross-party group on video games Technology in 2013. I’m hoping to resurrect the group once the 2021 elections are over. “Finally, the Scottish government produced the extraordinary Logan Report at the end of 2020, which reviewed the whole of Scotland’s technology ecosystem and made a number of recommendations for how to make it more connected, collaborative and commercially successful. It focuses upon education,

infrastructure and funding, and was accepted in full for the programme for government in 2021. “This applies to the games sector as much as it does the wider software world, so this could be transformative. Off the back of the Logan Report I’m currently lobbying the Scottish government to support the creation of a videogames industry cluster, which would give us the infrastructure and the power to make collective long-term strategic decisions to make Scotland an even better place to make video games.” So that’s the past and present of the Scottish games industry – But to an outsider, what might surprise people to learn about the country’s games community? “How diverse it is!” says Outplay’s Hare. “Even just in terms of nationalities, Outplay has hired people from nearly 40 different countries in the last ten years and it’s something we’re extremely happy about. I’ve been in the industry since the mid-80s and have never worked with a more diverse and representative team in my life. Having looked at other game companies in Scotland, I know we’re not alone so I think that it’s as diverse as it is would be a surprise to many.” Or, to sum it up in a sentence, Tag Games’s Williamson adds: “How many countries can say they birthed Lemmings and GTA? “There have been so many brands, IPs and games built here. We are only five million people, and the subset of us building games have created worlds and products enjoyed by millions and million of people across the globe and forged a place in people’s hearts and become a meaningful part of their life. “We can’t always look to products of the past and the next global hit is just around the corner.”

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The industry of tomorrow S

o that’s Scotland’s industry as it exists today, but what of the future? Scotland has extensive resources for training the game workers of the future. The country has seven universities offering games-related degrees, and 11 colleges across the country offering games at HNC & HND level. With such a range of courses available, it seems logical to assume that there’s a huge amount of interest in a career in the games industry. How eager are the young people of Scotland to join our industry? “The definition of ‘games’ has expanded exponentially in recent years and the opportunities available to our graduates grow every year, be that based in Scotland or anywhere else in the world” says Professor Gregor White, dean of the School of Design and Informatics at Abertay University. “While many of our graduates go on to work with wellknown studios like Rockstar or Ubisoft on large commercial entertainment releases, or with mobile game developers like Outplay or Ninja Kiwi, an increasing number are working in ‘Applied Games’ supporting sectors like education, healthcare, and many others. “The advent of emerging technologies like AR and VR has been a game-changer over the last few years and a lot of industries are now beginning to realise the huge potential that games and gamification have to offer. Of course, a lot of our graduates will choose to go down their own path

and we have a great history of start-up companies being formed here at Abertay as part of coursework projects or our Dare Academy competition, then going on to successfully trade as SMEs in Dundee or elsewhere after graduation. Abertay is Europe’s top-ranked institution for video games education, but that ‘games’ badge covers a wide variety of skills ranging from creative subjects like computer arts through to technical subjects like computing, meaning we produce graduates ready for a very broad spectrum of industries. “There’s a great quote from Frank Lantz, the Director of the NYU Game Center, which recognises that ‘making a game combines everything that’s hard about building a bridge with everything that’s hard about composing an opera’ and that’s always been an excellent way to describe the different types of skills that we teach within our School of Design and Informatics.” WORK OPPORTUNITIES With all that range of options available, how many opportunities do graduates have, as they look to make a start in their careers?

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“I think Scotland is a great place for graduates, especially recently,” says Edinburgh Napier University’s Dr. Thomas Methven. “We have the obvious big companies up here who are hiring, but there are loads of small indies and mid-size studios who are growing rapidly at the moment too. Due to COVID, the games industry is having a boon too, so lots of studios are starting new projects, or growing online offerings to meet demand. “We’ve also been getting lots of requests from data science and visualisation companies who are looking for people with expertise using 3D game engines and I suspect that will be a huge growth area too! As I work in data science as well as games, it’s really exciting to see these two worlds collide, and I’ll be interested to see what comes of it.” “When considering graduates from games or game related courses, I believe that there are a vast number of opportunities’’ adds Ibrahim Daniel Buksh, of The Glasgow School of Art. “The skills learned for realtime application development are extremely transferrable and SimVis (School of Simulation and Visualisation) graduates have gone into games, but also areas like; medical visualisation, heritage visualisation, visual effects for feature film and small screen, VR/AR in construction industries. There are opportunities that go far beyond the games industry.” That’s certainly encouraging for graduates, but what about current students? Work experience is a vital part of learning a new industry – coming from a former MCV intern, I can testify to that. How many opportunities are there for students? “There are work experience opportunities with local companies however, there is a high number of applicants for the number of opportunities” says The Glasgow School of Art’s Buksh. ”It’s a highly competitive area, so there is a need for students to put the extra effort in.” “Abertay’s ethos is incredibly work-focused, both within our games programmes and across the university as a whole” says Abertay University’s White. “We are fortunate to have international industry partners at a very high level and our students benefit from work experience and mentorship from multinationals like Disney, Sony and Microsoft, as well as projects with national, regional and local partners. “During their programmes, all of our students get a taste of what it’s like to work in a multi-disciplinary team on an industry brief, meaning our computer artists and programmers will work with sound engineers and production managers on real world projects driven by companies. The Scottish games

industry tends to be very collaborative and welcoming and in my experience there’s always plenty of work experience opportunities on offer.” STAYING LOCAL Still, it’s certainly encouraging that Scotland is host to such a range of educational opportunities. But how many graduates stay within the Scottish games community, instead of leaving for elsewhere? “Scotland has a really vibrant video games cluster and in Dundee, where Abertay is based, we have a particularly high concentration of SME studios, many of which have taken the leap of starting up as a business straight after graduating” says Abertay University’s White. “Students come to Abertay from all over the world and naturally we see many of our graduates go on to work in some of the global games hubs, for example Liam Wong, who went on to become the art director of Ubisoft in Montreal. But it’s fair to say that many do choose to remain in Scotland due to the strong job prospects and the rapid pace that our tech sector is moving forward at the moment.” “I think for many it depends on what goals they had when they came to University,” adds Edinburgh Napier University’s Methven. “Some students have the dream of working for a specific company, and I’m always delighted for them when that happens. As games are so global, and the industry does seem to be embracing remote work, there are more opportunities for graduates than ever. Some certainly do stay in Scotland, however, as the country does have a habit of doing that to people – I came up to study here about 15 years ago and haven’t left yet, for example, and I know I’m certainly not alone in that!” And those who stay get to experience a culture of collaboration and community within the Scottish games industry. Or, as Abertay University’s White puts it: “There’s a sense of collaboration and a common goal that exists in Scotland which I don’t think is quite so easily replicated elsewhere. This perhaps comes from the smaller geographical size and spread of our cluster, meaning there’s a close knit environment for communities to form, staff to easily move between companies, and partnership ventures to be fostered with minimal disruption. I know our graduates would say it is a fantastic and supportive place to forge a career in the games industry and, as all Scottish sectors would tell you, the significantly more affordable cost of living and easy access to city, rural and coastal locations for work and play is a real draw.”

Professor Gregor White, Dean of the School of Design and Informatics at Abertay University

Dr Thomas Methven, Napier University

Ibrahim Daniel Buksh, Glasgow School of Arts

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DO YOU SPEAK THE LINGO? The Xbox Store has finally gone multilingual, with clear tagging for all varieties of language support. Seth Barton talks to Microsoft’s Briana Roberts about the update and how publishers and developers can support it

M Briana Roberts, Microsoft

icrosoft, this month, officially added support for language information to the Xbox Store. After a soft-launch in January, consumers can now clearly see which languages are supported, and in what manner, for nearly 1,000 titles. It’s arguably somewhat overdue. Obviously many, many titles have long-supported multiple languages, but that simply wasn’t represented in any formal way on the Xbox Store until now. A situation that was problematic for both publishers and consumers. The Xbox brand has always fared well in the US and UK, but has relatively struggled in many other regions around the world. All of which made the ongoing omission of such information in its store even more puzzling. Finally, though, consumers can now easily find out if your game supports their language and in what respects it’s been localised for them. And while the new system isn’t perfect, it’s a huge step forward for everyone concerned. Plus both the Xbox Store and Xbox Game Pass benefit from this update. Currently there are 27 languages officially supported, with details broken down for UI, audio and subtitle support, so consumers can see exactly what they’re getting before they buy. The default language for the Xbox in use will be the first to appear in any list, and will appear in search results for a title too, although consumers can’t yet narrow their searches by specific language support. To find out more about the new system of language tags and how developers and publishers

can make use of them, we talked to Briana Roberts, senior program manager at Microsoft. How many languages are there tags for? How was this decided, and can more be added? The supported language tags are available across 27 languages for hundreds of games, including Xbox Game Pass titles and Xbox Cloud Gaming (beta)-compatible titles. We will continue to update existing titles and future games to include information on supported languages when we receive that information from publishers. We will keep you updated as more titles and languages are added.

Why has it taken so long to roll out this language information on the store? We are constantly listening to our community for how we can make gaming more accessible and relevant for everyone. It’s important that gamers can find titles that are available in their preferred

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language, and we are happy to provide this update to make that search easier in partnership with developers making games for Xbox. We will continue to update existing and future games to include supported language tags when we receive that information from a game’s publisher. How easy is it for developers/publishers to take advantage of this new feature? It is very easy! We have made the process of adding supported language tags as flexible and easy as possible for developers and publishers to include for their titles. The supported languages feature is part of the established publishing flow that publishers are accustomed to, and they simply select from the set of ingame localization capabilities per language. They’re able to easily indicate if their games support input, audio, and/or subtitles across 27 languages. It is also easy for the end user: The in-game localization information is prominently displayed, in several places. Even before you click on a product details page, you will see tags indicating that the game contains language support. Once you click into a product details page for a specific game and navigate to the details section, supported languages has a card of information listing all capabilities for each of the 27 supported languages. And to save you time and scrolling, your selected console language will appear at the top. Are you encouraging developers/publishers to add tags to titles currently in the library, how successful has this been to date? Yes, many publishers have utilized this new feature for their games, and we expect many more over time. Developers choose which languages to support, and we encourage developers to consider our fans around the world when choosing their localization strategy by making it as easy and flexible for them to do so. Are you concerned that presently some titles will support certain languages, but will not yet be tagged for them, so it looks like they don’t support them? No. We will continue to update existing titles and future games to include information on supported languages when we receive that information from publishers and developer partners. In the meantime, we will continue to work closely with publishers to add this metadata for their titles and look for ways to make it easier for players to find games that are right for them.

We’d think that titles with such tags would likely sell better, would you agree? While we believe that fans will more likely engage with content when they know that it supports their preferred language, our priority is to create inclusive experiences for both our new and existing players. By creating ways for players to find out if a game supports their preferred language – we are providing pathways to find the most relevant game experiences on Xbox. Will users be able to search for titles that support a certain language either in the Store or in Game Pass – and if not will it be possible in future? Searching all titles by language is not a feature we have available today, but we’ve expanded the existing search function to display information about ingame language support in returned search results. The in-game language capabilities of a game are front and center, identified by a ‘Languages’ tag shown before you even open the product details page. For example, If I search for “Forza,” I am returned all titles with that name, and not only can I see the “Languages” tag, but I also see the number of languages the game supports noted as part of the tag. And all of this is before I dive into the details of a specific title. So, when you log in to the Microsoft Store on Xbox or the Xbox Game Pass app, you can easily see which languages a game supports, making it easier to decide if you’d like to purchase or play that title. Furthermore, once you dive into the Details of a product details page the supported languages card indicates what aspects of the game have been localized for a given language, including the game’s interface (game controls and on-screen menus, for example), the spoken audio you’ll hear from the characters, and the game’s subtitles. To make it even easier, the language you select as the default for your console will surface to the top of the list; you won’t have to scroll. And finally, will you be supporting tags for fictional languages, such as Klingon, in the future? Ghobe’ [that’s a No - ed]

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ALL WIRED UP

Wired is all set to have its biggest year to date, and it kicked off with this week’s Wired Direct. Seth Barton talks to Leo Zullo about the stream, looks at the company’s slick new Black Edition label, and discusses its Brexit woes

T Above: Leo Zullo, managing director, Wired Productions

Below: The Wired Direct livestream which occurred earlier this week

here’s a lot going on at Wired Productions. Faced with another COVID-hit year, the publisher is this week putting on its own livestream event, featuring an impressive new lineup of titles, all hosted up by BAFTA and BBC presenter Julia Hardy. (And you can catch up with that right now via Wired Production’s YouTube channel). But that’s just the beginning. Wired is also building up its own brand by licensing IP, launching its own Black Label special editions and repositioning its titles under the ‘Wired Presents’ moniker. Plus MD Leo Zullo talks frankly about Brexit and its impact on the business. Why Wired Presents, how does it differ from just plain old Wired publishes? Our approach is different. Wired are not a traditional publisher. We do things our own way, rightly or wrongly, but alongside our developers, we are a family! We fight as one! We are a partner to all our developers. That is not just a name or a phrase to us – every relationship is different, but generally we work with developers to improve games, and not to just publish them. We do work hard for every single developer to deliver success to them. If we can do that, we’re successful.

Each game is heavily curated – and gets greenlit by the whole team – every Wired team member has a vote on the games we sign. We put a huge amount of work behind the scenes meeting with developers and looking for those gems, and we feel that we do a good job at finding them. But it isn’t always about finding a million-copy selling game… a gem can be a great story, a difficult story, an uncomfortable experience, or just a bit of fun, but all designed to deliver a feeling. There is more value in delivering a unique feeling and a unique experience to gamers, and that is what Wired Presents is all about… a carefully curated range of games that all deliver! What is a Wired game then, speaking both in the past and going forward? Since our humble beginnings as a producer in 2008, we’ve been scaling organically, always with the aim of growing our business, from production to publishing, and the expansion of our publishing activities. We’re very careful to have a balanced pipeline, and part of that is knowing what we’re good at. A Wired game is not a particular genre, but it is a story we believe needs to be told, or a game that needs to be played. It’s an experience delivered by developers as passionate as we are to break the mould, and try something new, or go somewhere that traditional publishers might not. Fundamentally every game that we sign now has two core pillars: Firstly, each game must be created by a developer that we connect with. Each journey lasts years so there has to be a great relationship otherwise it doesn’t make sense. Secondly, every game has to offer something new or different. Whether it has a great or difficult story, unique gameplay, or an experience that energises us as a team; and I think that’s evident in our product line up for 2021 and beyond. Oh, and music still plays a big part of our line up, so each game will always have a kick ass soundtrack, that

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will get a vinyl release! Deep down I would love to own a record label! I can see that! Tell us about your new Black Label edition, how does it differ from normal collector’s editions, and do you think Wired has the kind of following to justify this? As a company, we’ve always loved to produce physical copies of our games and have often experimented with many different ways for players to get access to them. We produce collector’s editions, special editions, full retail with global distribution and we’ve recently started working with Limited Run Games to gain experience in the collector’s market. Our Collector’s Editions are crème de la crème of our boxed offerings. We’ve been creating and developing them over time - culminating in our two latest offerings for Close to the Sun and Deliver Us The Moon. These are 100 per cent focused on the Game and the Developer and we will continue to make these for certain games and they will continue to be released on Day One. The Black Label edition is a reflection of the way Wired curates its games. Each will have exclusive items that are items only available within the Black Label Edition; a beautifully crafted Wired stylised box, exclusive artwork, music and some top-secret stuff that we announced soon. Products added to our Black Label range won’t be day one releases – it’ll be six months after release – and will be limited to 2,500 units that we believe will be the ultimate collection for fans of our games. We are not arrogant enough to think Wired are the pup’s nuts of Indie Publishing. Wired as a brand was very much kept out of the press as we have always had a games first approach. It is time to show the community each of the Wired games has something unique to offer. The Black Label range is there to bind the range of games together and really offer Wired fans something nice to collect. It’s a beautiful presentation and essential for any collector. Coming back to Wired Direct, do you then think there’s a shared audience for these titles? We’ve been publishing indie games for a while now. Each indie game is normally a new indie game from a new developer, and while exciting, does present its own challenges. To try and launch new indie games with the effort that we do is a complex task. It takes a lot of effort. Wired as a company is always trying to fine tune, improve, iterate and doing our best to deliver success. With this in mind, and with the impact of Covid 19 and the halting of consumer events, we’ve been looking

at how we can improve how we operate and have direct conversations with customers. Now, as part of a huge commitment. From Wired, we’re going to drive a bigger community through in-house expertise, as evidenced by recent hires across product marketing, PR and our moves within social and content creation. We have to become the central point of our activities, and the kick off for that is Wired Direct. It’s a celebration of Wired and its progress over the last few years in a one hour special. We are announcing information on eight titles, including five new products. It’s really a statement on how we are going to do things moving forward. Wired Direct is a digital event about Wired and its games, but we’re doing so much more. As we’ve already discussed, there’s a new store, underpinned by a modern and engaging website built for future expansion. Then there’s Wired Live; daily broadcasts of exclusive content, either filmed or live. And it is a big push and a step change in how Wired is perceived from a consumer standpoint, as well as industry perception. It’s a statement in this shift in attitudes and positioning of Wired as a company and we look forward to welcoming as many of our players as possible to Wired Direct, Wired Live, and taking them on this journey with us.

Above: Wired is launching a labelspecific series of special editions

Below): Lumote (top) is a puzzleplatformer set in a riot of colour The Last Worker (bottom) is a thought-provoking, comedic adventure about the increasing automation of our world

How did you promote the stream, how do you springboard off that? From Production to PR, and developers to even myself, we’re all working hard to deliver a stand-out event, hosted by Julia Hardy, and delivering at least eight games we’re presenting over the coming 12 months. There was significant spend on the broadcast itself in production terms and bringing all of this content together is a testament to the hard work of our team. We

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WIRED DIRECT FEATURED TITLES Lumote – Luminawesome Games A gorgeous puzzle platformer, that will send players to an underwater like world as they take control of Lumote with a simple control scheme of just jumping and attaching – the latter which allows Lumote to control the inhabitants to solve puzzles increasing in complexity. Arcade paradise – Nosebleed Interactive This is a love letter to arcades. Kit out your dream arcade with fully playable games. Cabinets cover a range of eras and genres, from simple monochromatic vectorbased games all the way to early 3D games. Tiny Troopers – Epiphany Games A full multiplayer sequel to the multi-million selling Tiny Troopers franchise. Building on the established pillars that have been highly successful for previous instalments, with feature additions, like couch co-op, and network multiplayer and all the visual upgrades and all enhancements of next gen graphics. Tin Hearts – Rogue Sun This is a Lemmings-style puzzle game that challenges players to explore beautiful environments, interact with objects, and look at things in new and different ways as they embark on a journey of discovery set in a magical toyfilled universe. The Last Worker – Oiffy / Wold & Wood The Last Worker is a first-person narrative adventure centered around our struggle in an increasingly automated world. Combining a hand-crafted art style with uniquely immersive gameplay mechanics in an epic setting, The Last Worker delivers an emotional, thought provoking and comedic story packaged with rich characters performed by an all-star cast.

challenged them to deliver, and they have done so. To reinforce this, we’ve invested strongly in social, trade, video pre-roll, and content creators to really bring home the message that Wired Productions is a different beast to the average publisher. We do more, we work harder, and if we deliver success for our partners, we’re successful ourselves, and that’s the driving force behind everything we do. A huge part of this push is a new website. While I know how exciting that sounds, we’ve created a website built for the future, including our store. You’ll see more from us in the calendar year as we move to phase two of our plans for our online presence. When we think about Wired Direct and how we’re capitalising on the success of the event, it’s important to look at the breadth of titles we’re announcing. During the event we announced five new titles, and we’ve still got more to go before 2022 is over. But just from our broadcast, we showcased Martha Is Dead, a title that we’re expecting big things from. We showed Deliver Us The Moon with next-gen features to-die for. It’ll be the best version of the game, no question. We showcased Lumote, a brilliant puzzle adventure from the developers of some huge triple-A titles. This is the game they wanted to make, and we’re delighted to work with them on bringing Lumote to market. Looking back to recent titles, how was The Falconeer received? The Falconeer was recently nominated for a BAFTA award for Debut Game, so telling Tomas, the solo developer that he’d been nominated was an incredible moment. At the time of writing, we don’t know if he’s won, but we do know he would be the most deserving recipient.

His dedication to creating this world in such detail, his direct interaction with the community, and the joy he brings is unreal. Across the editorial spectrum, and on storefronts, The Falconeer has done very well, and we’re planning some exciting announcements that we just couldn’t fit into Wired Direct. We are on track for a huge number of players of The Falconeer and there’s a long future for the IP. During Wired Direct, we announced additional free DLC that launched during the show, which will be the third DLC pack, two of which have been free, and there will be many more announcements coming up soon. There’s plenty of feathers left in this bird! Arcade Paradise is easily our favourite of your new titles... Sometimes you meet developers and you just hit it off. Nosebleed Interactive are one of those developers where we worked with them on Vostok Inc, and we just wanted to keep that relationship going. We’d been floating ideas around, and we came up with one for Arcade Paradise. It really is a collaborative project between us, and when you consider the magic sauce that Dre and his team deliver in everything they do, we had to give them the space to deliver the vision. We gave them carte blanche, and Arcade Paradise is the result. You’re tasked with managing a laundrette, but rather than do this, you figure you’d be better off building an arcade to sit side-byside with washing machines. Why hasn’t anybody thought of this before? The metagame, which Nosebleed are experts on, includes 35+ playable arcade games inspired by 80s and 90s arcade units, each with their own progression systems, leader boards and more. We’re delighted with the progress the team is making and we’re working hard for launch later this year. Tiny Troopers is now a Wired IP, why that game, and what are your plans for it? Tiny Troopers has a long history at Wired, and was the first title Wired signed when it began

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the transition towards publishing. While Tiny Troopers isn’t a Wired owned IP, we’ve been given the trust of the IP owner Kukouri Mobile to develop games within that universe via a licensing partnership. Whilst some might not have heard of the franchise, it’s been a really strong and evergreen IP for us. We’ve continued to port Tiny Troopers to new platforms in recent years, but we’re now focused on delivering a true sequel on multiple platforms for launch later this year. It is a fun IP, akin to the old Cannon Fodder days, and we are super excited to be bringing Tiny Troopers Global Ops to all formats, but digitally and physically. Tin Hearts and The Last Worker both have Oculus versions – Why are you branching out into VR, was it a strategic choice, or just happenstance? Whilst VR has a finite audience, the Oculus Quest has really started to shine. Wired are not big enough to invest in many new technological trends, but we are small enough and agile enough to pivot if we see an opportunity. We really love what the Quest is doing. That said, we signed Tin Hearts and The Last Worker because we love the teams and think both games are stand-out experiences. The fact that Oculus curates the content on its platform is a massive deal for us and shows the synergy between what they’re trying to do to grow that market, and their selection and belief in the games we sign. Wired had been following Tin Hearts for a long while, maybe two years, but was not in the right place to be

able to do it justice. Now we are and we are ecstatic to be working alongside Rogue Sun, who have such a pedigree in development from their time developing the Fable series at Lionhead. That experience shows in the accessible and compelling game design. Tin Hearts is a beautiful puzzle game, entwined with a heart-breaking backstory, enriched with amazing graphics. It is a real gem, and we are just super stoked to be able to be working on this game across literally so many formats. The Last Worker is similar in that yes, we’re going to be on Oculus, but the premise and design of the game is something entirely different. Working with Oiffy and Wolf & Wood, we are able, every day, to see their passion, creativity and drive to deliver an outstanding game on multiple platforms. The Last Worker is a first-person narrative adventure centred around our struggle in an increasingly automated world. It is wrapped in a beautiful handcrafted art style with uniquely immersive gameplay mechanics in an epic setting. I can’t wait to show more of the emotional, thought provoking and comedic story and the all-star cast lined up to perform it.

Above: Tin Hearts is a VR puzzle title that’s now coming to multiple formats Opposite: Psychological thriller Martha is Dead is also scheduled for launch in 2021

“I CAN’T SEE ANY SENSE IN BREXIT!” While talking with Wired’s Leo Zullo, the conversation touched briefly upon Brexit, and the problems that the company has had with just trying to do ‘business as usual’ under the new regulatory regime. And it’s grim reading. What problems have you had with Brexit? Brexit hasn’t been a success at all, with issues created for any business that wants to trade with Europe. We’ve had to temporarily close our online consumer store to our European customers, because our customers in Europe would have to foot a customs bill on delivery, and that’s a very negative customer journey that we’re not going to put our fans through. Even shipping physical goods to distributing partners now needs to be carefully planned and in some cases is incurring additional VAT charges. Then there are some annoying daily thorns, including additional shipping paperwork, actual delays in shipping and deliveries, added custom fees on much needed work items, additional European accountancy costs... the list goes on. If politicians hadn’t acted like criminals and lied to the public on both sides of the argument, Brexit would not have

happened. I believe that politicians should be accountable for what they say. If they don’t tell the truth, I believe that they should be prosecuted. How are you overcoming those issues? Very shortly, we’re going to be switching to a European fulfilment centre, and in the mid-term, we’ll need to open a local office within the EU. Our direct-to-consumer customer base was expanding in Europe, but we won’t put them through negative ordering experiences, so we’ll open again when we’re ready, and able to offer the same exemplary customer journey that we’ve been navigating in recent years. Great work Team Brexit! I’m not sure what the original objective was from people that voted to leave, but I don’t think their intention was for UK companies to have to open up offices within Europe and to have to employ staff within Europe? That is unfortunately the reality. Wired will have to open up a European office, have staff and facilities within Europe and will need to divert revenue from the UK company to Europe to ensure that we can trade effectively. I can’t see any sense in Brexit!

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Free your narrative from flowchart hell Want your story to drive your game rather than viceversa? Then the open-source Ink is ready to serve. Seth Barton talks to Inkle’s Jon Ingold and Failbetter’s Emily Short about a tool that puts writing first

W

riting in games is often very bad, very clunky and clumsy. And that’s not the fault of the writers. That’s the fault of the tools,” says Jon Ingold, co-founder of indie studio Inkle. And so the studio, step-by-step, came up with a better way of writing stories for games: Ink. “One of the things I was really keen on was finding a way to write that was fluent, because almost all interactive text writing tools are very far removed from being fluent.” He then explains: “So you set something up, you make a little box, you drag it in, you give it a title, you wire some connections together, you type in a variable condition, then finally you get to write something,” he sounds exasperated just explaining it. “There’s just an enormous amount of resistance to writing anything. The only way to get any good at writing is to write a lot, and to throw a lot away. And in general, tools for writing are so busy, obsessing over the structure of the writing, for the computer’s benefit, that the human never gets to really think about it.”

So Ink is an attempt to put the human back on top. “The one thing that I feel passionate about, the core of all of the design for Ink, is the idea that it should be a tool for humans to write things for other humans, and the computer should get out of the way and stay out of the way as much as possible.” And that’s increasingly been the case. The open source tool is now well known and widely used by writers and narrative designers across the industry. So with Ink hitting its 1.0 release – just as Failbetter Games’ Ink-powered title, Mask of the Rose (pictured below), is successfully kickstarted – we thought it a good time to take stock of its success and its future. CONDITIONAL TENSE The tool started out simply as a markup language, that was then read by what Ingold describes as a “terrible script in a programming language I didn’t really understand.” Although that was still sufficient to get the studio through the Sorcery series (based on the Fighting Fantasy books of the same name) and its multiple award-winning 80 Days. Those both take inspiration from the ‘choose your own adventure’ format. But even in its early form, Ink allowed Inkle to do far more than could ever have been achieved using pen-and-paper. “I wanted it to be incredibly fast to define a choice. And to branch back in, I didn’t want to have to think about that. I wanted it to remember everything that you’d ever seen, by default, so it remembered every single choice in every single paragraph you’d been to.” That then allowed the writer to easily add conditional markup, to let previous choices affect the story and future options. “You didn’t have to define variables to

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track things, because if you do it means that when you want to track something, you can’t really be bothered because you’ve got to set this thing up. Well, let’s turn that the other way around.” So instead of having to track choices, Ink simply tracks every choice by default and let’s the writer pivot based on those choices effortlessly. The onus is then on the system, not the writer. “Computers are coping fine, it’s the humans who are struggling,“ notes Ingold. INK SPILL After Sorcery and 80 Days, that initial markup and script had to evolve, at the urging of co-founder Joe Humphrey. “He was saying, ‘look, this is our livelihood, it’s the core pipeline and it’s built on this terrible piece of code’.” And so Ink, as it largely is today, was born. Ink today is a middleware markup language, a narrative engine with Unity integration. It has its own editor, Inky, which you can get started with in seconds. And then there’s spin offs such as Inklewriter, an even more accessible interactive storytelling tool, which is popular in education. Like any good tool, Ink can be useful at several levels, Ingold tells us: ”You can just use Inky as a scratch pad for knocking out a conversation quickly to see what it’s like or how it feels. And I’m sure a lot of people would use that, because it’s the easiest way to do it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you go all the way to actually implementing your game in Ink.” So how many games are made using Ink at some level? “The short answer is we really don’t know, people who ship games with it tend to tell us and there’s been a few, maybe seven or eight in the last year, reasonably high profile titles. But I’m pretty sure that everyone within the narrative design community is aware of it. And a lot of them have tried it.” “I know Sea of Thieves used Inky to draft up a lot of their narrative stuff. I think they ultimately either built their own runtime or kind of hacked the two together or something. But it was definitely part of the pipeline at one point. I know that at Valve they use Inky, or some people at Valve use Inky for drafting, but they don’t like to talk about it, because they’re Valve.” People who do like to talk about it include the developers of Haven, NeoCab and Over the Alps. And a current example is Failbetter’s Mask of the Rose, as its creative director, Emily Short, tells us: “Mask of the Rose is Failbetter’s first project using Ink, though several of us at the studio have used it before in other contexts. Ink felt like an ideal fit for Mask of the Rose. Mask is a romantic visual novel with a mystery at the centre of its plot. There’s lots of lore and evidence to

discover, and many possible relationship states between the player and other characters,” perfect fodder then for Ink’s capabilities. “Our previous games in the Fallen London universe all use StoryNexus to manage their content. For Mask, though, we knew StoryNexus had the wrong granularity,” continues Short. “It’s a system that’s designed for showing paragraphs of text at a time, which makes it great for showing what happens when your ship docks at port in Sunless Sea, but not so great for delivering one nuanced dialogue line at a time. “Instead, we knew we needed an engine that could handle a significant amount of branching conversation, that could easily substitute variable text, and that would automatically track state like ‘has the player ever asked this question before? Have they been to this story node before?’ Ink does all of that, and with less friction many of the other systems in this space. “Mask also has more of a system underlying its dialogue than some visual novels. The player character’s personal background, choice of outfits, and other choices change their dialogue options and also how other characters will respond to them. So we needed to build a dialogue system that would handle that complexity without a massive stack of if-statements. “Ink offers enough coding affordances that we could build that behaviour within our scripts, rather than needing to call out to external code to determine whether a social move has just succeeded or failed.” That built in logic is something that Ingold knew he wanted to include from the start. “I knew I wanted to have the ability to do full logic. Again, a lot of writing tools have a kind of block-based system for doing logic. So you know, here’s an option and you drag on a variable, and that’s a conditional that has to meet this variable, and you drag and drop it. That’s kind of the standard sort of interface,” he explains. “But that means you can only do logic up to a certain complexity. I have a maths degree, I’m gonna get annoyed by this at some point,” So Ink is designed to handle all the logic you can throw at it. “This, or this, plus this, or that, then call out a function, which does some things with some numbers and returns that – like full actual programming.” Although it’s still designed to be words first: “The programming sits within the text, not the text sitting within the programming. So if you write in JavaScript or something, every time you do text, you have to put it in quote marks and put a semicolon on the end to tell the computer ‘this is text’, don’t worry about it. So again, it’s turning that model upside down, human first and computer second.”

Jon Ingold, Inkle

Emily Short, Failbetter Games

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MORE FLOW, LESS FLOWCHART Ink does away with the flowchart model for creating branching narratives. In part because it’s inefficient to write into, but also because a flowchart simply can’t cope with the complex narratives that humans are capable of creating, such as the conversation system in Inkle’s own Heaven’s Vault. “A flowchart says this blob exists within a structure, where this comes before and this comes after,” says Ingold. “In Heaven’s Vault, when [main characters] Six and Aliya walk around, there’s a bucket of about 3,000 to 4,000 things they can say. “And Ink just runs through all of them and says, ‘give me all the conversations that would make sense at this moment’. And then it says, ‘which one is the most relevant to what you were talking about last’, and it puts that in front of the player. And that’s all it does, there is no structure, no flowchart.” The conversations end up like a deck of cards, but all indexed for different possible uses. “What’s great about it, is that once you throw the flowchart away, if I want to add 20 more lines of dialogue, I just write them and stick them in the deck. And it doesn’t matter how many other cards there are, my deck of cards can be this big, or it can be that big. And it makes no difference. Because I don’t have to fit into a superstructure, which I don’t care about anyway.” Such structures are too often foisted about writers, which is understandable in an industry where the story all too often is a secondary consideration to the gameplay. We suggest that the flow charts harness the writing and make it clear to producers that everything is present and correct. “That’s absolutely true of my triple-A days,” recalls Ingold, who spent three years at SCEE Cambridge. “I’ve definitely done that for producers – produce flowcharts, to show to someone who just wanted to be reassured. They don’t really read it. “One of the things about founding Inkle is that it liberated us to not have to satisfy anyone apart from yourself. I don’t have to prove it to an investor, I don’t have to prove anything we make to a producer, as long as I know that it works, then it works. It’s an order of magnitude change in terms of what your ambition can be.” And that kind of faith is required when you really push things with Ink’s conditional storytelling. “These things shouldn’t work, because no one human has a picture of how the internals of the story work, because you actually don’t need to.” INKTEGRATION OK, so most people aren’t going to go that far, but still, integrating Ink into your workflow might be just the thing your next narrative-driven title needs. So how does that work in

practice? Let’s go back to Failbetter’s Short for that: “Ink became part of the Mask of the Rose project very early in development, and was our go-to option when we started prototyping. We’re using it alongside Naninovel, which manages backgrounds and character art – so, for instance, when a new scene begins, we might have an Ink function generate some Naninovel markup in order to specify which characters should come on-screen, with what emotions. “When drafting new content, we start with some outlining and spreadsheet work – determining what the major beats of the story are, where they’re taking place, which characters are involved, and what assets are needed. But as soon as we’re at the point to write actual dialogue that the player might encounter, we draft that directly in Ink. “The Inky tool lets us verify the flow of that dialogue really quickly: one of its strongest points is that it will let you make a change to the script and instantly see how that changes the text of a given playthrough – or back up a few turns and try alternate paths. So we do a bunch of iteration that way, verifying the fundamental behaviour of the new dialogue. “Much as we value the ease of testing in Inky, that tool has occasionally been a bit flakey, so we do most of our actual editing in Visual Studio Code. That’s an extra layer to deal with, but it makes the editing process more robust. “Before checking anything in, though, we also look at the new dialogue in Unity. That’s the point where we can see how the lines play in context with the art and UI. That’s the moment to make pacing changes or revise how we’re triggering NPC emotional reactions.” For those making more traditional games, maybe ones that aren’t led by narrative or dialogue, there are still options for using Ink, where you’re not putting it at the heart of your game, as Ingold explains. “You can also just use it as a very intelligent database. So it’s not a single story, it’s a collection of little nodes of content. One of them might be ‘my conversation with Seth’, and then I walk around the game as I would normally and when I talk to Seth, it finds that conversation, we do it using the script, it renders that script and when it’s finished, it stops and goes back to the game again.” Which all sounds delightfully meta. And there are key advantages to doing it that way. “You still get all the benefit of the actual conversations themselves are extraordinarily fast to author because you’ve got this nice format, you can still do a conditional, everything the player has seen,” even in other modules, “is a conditional which you can test for very rapidly. So your conversations can be very dynamic within themselves, but they can also be dynamic with a

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conversation over there. It’s exactly no effort to say: ‘I asked Chris about this thing, what do you think Seth?’ “Whereas normally in a game, you’ve got to make a variable, you’ve got to make sure it’s accessible to this person over here, you’ve got to communicate that to the designer of the level, that this is a thing that they can do. And you have to do all this interconnection, whereas with Ink everything is global all the time.” And those conditionals aren’t limited to conversations. “So if we have a health stat we’ll store it in Ink, because we’ve got to store it somewhere. So we might as well store it somewhere where the Ink can say, ‘Wow, you’re looking peaky today’. And that approach is just really fun, because as soon as you have all of this stuff in data, I just tweak that line based on this number over here. And you don’t have to talk to someone about it. And you don’t have to ask permission. And you don’t have to do any programming. It’s just there.”

“There are other benefits to its open source status, however. For one thing, there’s a substantial community of users working with Ink and discussing it, which has helped it mature. For another, tools like this democratise narrative game creation and open a lot of possibilities for hobbyist interactive fiction authors and indie narrative designers – and that’s good for the ecosystem.” “We support Inkle via Patreon,” Short adds, “using their guidelines about how for-profit studios should support the tool.” Something that anyone using Ink should consider, as Inkle continues to expand its capabilities.

FREE WRITING And thanks to its open source nature, Ink is just there for the taking. Something that Ingold attributes to his cofounder Humphrey’s foresight. “Joe was mostly the one advocating for this. And he was absolutely right, that as soon as we did open source it, what we got is a community of people contributing back to us. So within the first sort of six months, somebody did the JavaScript port of the engine, a fairly large amount of work, actually, I don’t think we would ever have done it. “I use that for building prototypes and auto testers, because I’m not very good at C#, but I can do JavaScript. So I built kind of auto players that test for dead ends in the story. And we got that for free. Essentially, it just appeared in our inboxes overnight. That’s kind of amazing.” Ingold tells us that to commercialise Ink would have taken a lot more time and energy than they were willing to commit to something that wasn’t making games. “It might have been a profitable business after five years of hard work. But then again, it might have been just another startup that fails. And none of that is interesting.” And as an open source tool, developers can be confident that as long as it’s useful to them, then it’s there to be used. “People are really suspicious of new tools, because then they often just completely disappear after six months, and then you’re stuck with this broken thing, which is understandable,” says Ingold. Failbetter’s Short focuses on the community when asked. “So the most common reasons I hear for studios to pick an open source tool – the desire to fully control their codebase, or the desire to avoid spending any money – aren’t the chief concerns for us. And we’re not making a lot of direct modifications to its workings ourselves.

THE GOOD STUFF Ink isn’t the only narrative tool, there’s Yarn Spinner and Twine. However, it’s Ink’s name that comes up most often when we speak to people in the space. And the appreciation of a responsive, conditional narrative is growing. “We were quite startled by the reaction to Hades last year with everybody saying, ‘Wow, it’s so incredibly responsive’,” admits Ingold. “We were sort of saying, well, you know, there are people who have been doing this level of responsive narrative for ten years now. “That somehow presents itself as a mainstream game. And the idea of responsive text within a mainstream game is still considered kind of quirky and kooky and a bit strange. So I think we’re still a long way off the Assassin’s Creed people using Ink or seeing any benefit to pivoting to Ink... although I bet you they draft stuff in Inky. “And I think if Ink has succeeded, or connected with writers at all, It’s because it looks so incredibly lightweight. And it’s so quick to type into that you can forget that you’re typing, and just get on with actually making stuff because I find that a lot of the games industry is focused on technology, on tools and on systems, naturally enough. “But all of the good stuff comes when you get those [tools] to serve a person who’s actually creative and interesting and has something to contribute. “So when writers enjoy using Ink, that makes me much happier than when programmers enjoy using Ink, because programmers will ultimately be fine. But writers are generally struggling in a computer environment. Because it’s complicated and confusing. It’s new, and it’s different. And anything which can make that easier, just leads to astronomical leaps in the quality of the written content that you get.”

Above: The Inky editor, showing an example scene from Inkle’s 80 Days. Left: Inkle’s as yet untitled new project that involves exploring the Scottish Highlands, all powered by Ink of course

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CCP RELOADS SHOOTER AIMS TO BE ‘GENRE DEFINING’ CCP is making a shooter, and the London-based team responsible has a new studio head in Adrian Blunt. Seth Barton catches up with him to find out about the project to date, the team he’s now building and his ambitions for the title

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opportunity to meet the team, play the t’s fair to say that there’s nothing game, and I was blown away by what the new in CCP trying to make a team has been able to create.” So, at very successful shooter based in its least, we know that this early version of immense, enduring and engaging Eve the game was strong enough to entice Online universe. First there was the Blunt from his previous position at PS3-era Dust 514 (which released to Splash Damage. a mixed reception), then came Project “I’ve been making games for the last 20 Legion, and most recently Project Nova, years. And throughout my career, CCP which itself was cancelled in February has pretty much been a constant fixture. last year. I’ve admired it from the start, both in The flame never died, though, and terms of how the game has grown, the now the baton for a new Eve-sibling way that it interacts with its community. shooter has been passed to CCP’s I’ve always been fascinated by it. London studio. And that team now “Combine that with what the team in has a new studio head in the form of Adrian Blunt, London is making, that opportunity to run industry veteran Adrian Blunt, most Studio Head, London, CCP a studio of talented individuals and help recently of Splash Damage, but who also shape that team and help shape that game. It just felt like a spent time at EA, Ubisoft and Square Enix. dream job. I think I finally have the best job in the world.” So we sat down with him to discuss the rebooted shooter. A project that, due to its now potted history, PROJECT RELOADED combined with the media’s long-running interest in Eve’s While Blunt is obviously delighted with his new role, it’s scale and success, is under the critical microscope to a far worth considering that his job is to make something that greater extent than many similar titles would be. So can it CCP has struggled with in recent years. Blunt obviously live up to expectations, before CCP has even said a word can’t speak to events before his time, so CCP’s head of about it? public relations, George Kelion steps in. “We have a history of breaking down barriers with our Kelion tells us, in relation to Project Nova, that CCP ambition. I think that’s very much true in this game. It is always aims to “keep challenging ourselves every step of a hugely ambitious game, it will be genre defining. And it the way by asking difficult questions when facing tough has all the hallmarks of a CCP game,” says Blunt, happy to decisions.” An admirable outlook. match those expectations. “Over the course of Project Nova’s development, The game was in pre-production before Blunt’s arrival, we conducted a number of player research sessions and his first impressions were good: “When I had the

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with external partners, tirelessly play-tested the game internally and brought community stalwarts in to help us evaluate the project,” he recounts. “After taking all this research and feedback into account, we saw that the gameplay experience of its hands-on demo did not live up to our original vision and would not achieve our ambitious goals for the project.” At that point Project Nova came to an end, though the learnings were not scrapped. “We took our shooter game concept back into incubation where it could continue to evolve,” explains Kelion. “Doing so was the best way to ensure we create a memorable experience that satisfies our players and makes us proud as developers.” The new, purposefully unnamed project, is more like a phoenix from the ashes, then. “Due to significant changes in its scope and direction, it also made sense to update how we refer to this project internally. Consequently, we are no longer using Project Nova as its codename. Furthermore, we are moving away from publicly announcing our internal project codenames and will wait until we’re ready for a full reveal.” One definite change is the personnel. “Project Nova team members based in Iceland have been moved onto other projects at our Reykjavík studio… Development of this game concept has moved over to CCP’s London studio entirely, where it is their sole focus,” says Kelion. Although the goals of the project remain unchanged at the top level. “We remain committed to offering a rocksolid, action-oriented gameplay experience with stellar visuals. We want to show you rather than tell you how we have evolved this concept and we’re looking forward to doing so when the time comes to reveal the game.” INTERSTELLAR COUNCIL Of course, Kelion and Blunt aren’t the only ones looking forward to the big reveal, there’s a huge and fanatical fan base out there, all set to pass judgement on the team’s work. And in fact some of them already are. “CCP has always taken the approach of creating games in conjunction with the community. It’s one of the hallmarks, I think,” says Blunt, although we’d add that any game as time-consuming as Eve will create some very strong, conflicting opinions on its Reddit page. Blunt rightly points out that CCP was a pioneer in community relations. “Nowadays, it’s very normal to have player councils, members of the community deeply involved with and in communication with the development team. That’s largely inspired by what the team here at CCP has achieved over the last couple of decades. And so I think, yes, there’s always going to be an expectation from the community, but we are making the game with the community and

having the community involved in that development cycle with us.” To that end, there is already a community council for the new title, Blunt informs us. “They’re helping us to gauge ideas and bounce things off as we go through the early stages of development.” And the broader player base has been refreshed by the pandemic, says Blunt. “We’ve seen an influx of players in our games. New players have come in, returning players have come back. And that’s been great for the game, been great for online games in general… We always have to listen to players and especially to new players coming in, it gives us a new voice that we can listen to, I think it will take our games to new levels… The challenge now will be to take on all of that information and adapt the game.”

George Kelion, Head of PR, CCP

TEAM LONDON Honestly we’d rather be in Blunt’s position of creating something new, with an intrigued audience on hand, than trying to steer a gaming oil tanker like Eve Online. And speaking of scale, we wonder how many people are currently onboard, and how big will it become? “We’re about 40 people right now,” he tells us, but the final size “will really will be dependent on the scale of the game that we’re making. I’m confident and I have a remit to build the studio to support the game.” Eve Online is a tech-heavy, back-end heavy title, will the new game have a similar bias? “It’s quite a balanced team. We’re making a shooter at the end of the day. And we’ve got worlds to build, we’ve got the core shooting gameplay that we have to build. So the team right now is quite balanced, and we’re looking to expand it in the same way. But that being said, there’s a lot of expertise from a back end perspective that, obviously, CCP is very well known for and there’s a lot that we can leverage.” That said, Blunt is clear about where the team is based. “We’ve taken the approach that this game will be owned and built by the London studio. So it is going to be very much the London studio’s game.” We’re having our chat on Zoom of course, but this is one meeting that otherwise we’d certainly be taking in person, as both CCP and MCV/DEVELOP have offices in Covent Garden. That’s not unusual for a small media company, more so for a big games developer. “I think we’re very, very lucky to have the studio and location that we do,” Blunt tells us. “As you know, Covent Garden is an amazing place to just spend time, just that walk from the tube through Covent Garden is just inspiring, you’re in the cultural heart of the city.” To boot the company picked up a Great Place to Work award in October 2020. “It’s a fantastic place to work and make games, but also it’s extremely accessible, it allows the

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Above: London’s Covent garden is a lovely place to work, as we well know at MCV/DEVELOP!

developers to live anywhere around London and still be able to get into the office in a reasonable amount of time. So having that central location is both inspiring and very beneficial to everybody.” He’s right, although I’m distracted thinking about my favourite sandwich shop, I really hope it’s survived. And of course, the pandemic may well change much more than our lunch options. “It’s going to be interesting to see what that landscape in London is like, coming out of the pandemic. I think the days of having a large office to house huge numbers of developers is not necessarily the model that we need to look for in the future. There’s opportunities for people to work from home. Also the way that co-development and outsourcing now works, distributed development is really a quite established practice within the industry. So it gives us flexibility there and allows us to leverage the fact that we can be so central.”

context of any conversation. So normally, those cues that you would get from being around people, you don’t have those now. So you have to spend more time talking about that. You have to arrange calls, all of that slows it down. “But I think one thing that I felt has been phenomenal, and I think this is true as an industry, is how we have embraced this way of working. If you had asked me 18 months ago, ‘can you make games remotely, entire triple A dev teams working remotely to make a game?’ I’d have said it can’t be done. “Turns out you absolutely can. And not only that, but the creativity that surrounds games and the development of games is in full force right now. And so I see that with our team in London, what they’ve managed to achieve through a concept phase. Everybody working remotely talking to each other through computer screens have managed to create the magic that you see in computer games. Entire games have been created in this time. And it’s phenomenal. “Specifically, I found that what’s been hugely beneficial to teams that normally would be in an open plan working environment, they can suddenly have really focused quiet time and that has really proved most beneficial.” All of this is of particular interest to Blunt, who tells us that team-building is his key strength when it comes to the often multi-faceted studio director role he now holds. “I’ve spent a large part of my career in production and operation of games. My focus has always been in terms of shaping and growing teams. I operate on the principle that a great team can make a great game, it all goes back to why CCP is interesting. “It turns out Hilmar [Pétursson, CEO] absolutely feels exactly the same way – form the team and the team will then be able to create great games. And that’s how I see my approach, as a studio director it’s my job to help that team, to remove any barriers, to enable and empower them to have the creative freedom to be able to make great games.”

“It’s going to be interesting to see what that landscape in London is like, coming out of the pandemic”

NEW NORMAL For now though we’re all stuck at home, and Blunt has had to get up to speed with the company and the project through his monitor. A process that seems somewhat analogous to a new Eve player coming to that immense universe for the first time. “It does slow things down. As a new person coming into an organisation, I don’t have the

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Living the Nacon LIFE Last year an internal consolidation brought publisher Bigben Interactive and accessories brand Nacon together under the Nacon brand. Now a year on, the publisher is announcing a new series of five simulator titles which will let players step into the shoes of various professions. Seth Barton talks to head of publishing Benoit Clerc.

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igben Interactive moved under the Nacon name around a year ago. Despite that change it’s still a familiar force in publishing, with a broad lineup of racing titles (including WRC 9 and Test Drive), sports games (Pro Cycling Manager and Tennis World Tour) and fantasy adventures (Warhammer and Vampire IPs stand out). Although, of course, it’s the Frogwares-developed The Sinking City that has grabbed the headlines of late, for all the wrong reasons. Putting that aside for now, the company has also made a handful of simulation titles (including fishing, hunting and even a bee simulator). And it’s this segment of its business that it’s expanding with a series of simulator titles, allowing us all to escape the home office to go and do something refreshingly different for a change. Grouped under a new ‘Life’ label, the publisher is announcing five games today: Train Life, Hotel Life, Chef Life, Surgeon Life and Architect Life. Allowing players to really get into the shoes of another profession. It’s an eclectic selection and one that could attract those beyond the usual core gaming crowd. The five titles are being developed by four different developers: Cyanide Studio (Chef Life), SimFabric (Architect Life), Simteract (Train Life) and two games from RingZero Game Studio (Hotel Life and Surgeon Life). We took the opportunity to ask Nacon’s head of publishing Benoit Clerc about the idea behind the new games, how the brand merger with Nacon has benefited the company, and

how things are progressing with some of most anticipated titles, as well as if he had anything further to comment on the Frogwares situation. THE LIFE LABEL Why this genre and these types of games? With this new LIFE games range, we wish to expand our Simulation pillar and nurture it with ‘live my life’ game experiences. We believe that today, core and casual gamers alike are accustomed to third- and firstperson gameplay in a 3D environment, and there’s a growing demand for simulation games, where Nacon already has extensive expertise. We want to address those players with several projects, each with its own themes, gameplay proposition, and writing. They all have their unique challenges, and we firmly believe that they’ll appeal to not only casual gamers who want a relaxing experience, but also expert players who are yearning for deep gameplay experiences with well-rounded and sophisticated game mechanics.

Benoit Clerc, Head of Publishing, Nacon

Why is now the right time to expand the scale of the company’s releases? We’re still aiming to publish 12 to 15 games a year, spread across our five pillars. What we’re really going for is expanding the quality of our productions to satisfy a wider range of players, whether they are interested in a particular niche or looking for ambitious games with high production-values, like The Lord of the Rings: Gollum or Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown for example. Ideally, we want all players to find

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the type of games they are looking for in one or several of our pillars. Are these titles being developed internally, externally, or both? Definitely both. We wish to have around 70 per cent of our titles developed internally, but we’re always looking for publishing games with external partners, as long as their project fits with our quality and editorial standards. Are technology/tools being shared between these titles? Some look like they could have crossover mechanics? We want to make this happen where it makes sense. For example, the KT Engine, created by KT Racing and used for high-quality racing games, is now co-developed by Raceward and also used by Neopica. It helps create formidable synergy between studios under the Nacon brand and boosts the potential of our in-house technologies for better and more efficient results. For the five new LIFE titles, we don’t want to impose the use of specific tools to the studios, but of course, we provide them with a range of technologies they are free to use. How do you think about each pillar? Presumably each individual pillar has its own audience, so do you market the titles within them as a group? Defining pillars allows us to build bridges between games. For example, in our Racing pillar, rally fans (WRC) may not necessarily be fond of motorcycle racing. Our first goal is satisfying the savviest of our players for each game, who act as are our ‘quality compass’. Once these expert fans show their support, it’s easier to get fans with a broader point of view on board. NACON BRAND Looking back, why did you consolidate all your gaming under the Nacon brand? The Nacon brand was created several years ago, dedicated to premium console accessories like the Revolution pro and Unlimited controllers or the Daija Arcade Stick. We choose to leverage this ‘seal of quality’ and bolster it with our game publishing activity, thus consolidating our

position in the video game industry as a pure player. Our message is the same for games and accessories: expert products for savvy gamers. Did last year’s IPO/restructure succeed in terms of funding your strategy going forward? (And is the fifth pillar a prime example of that?) Indeed, last year’s IPO was a huge success! It definitely helps us establish a wider range of games – some with a really high productionvalue – but also accelerating Nacon’s external growth with more and more studios joining our ranks. Each of them brings their unique expertise, such as Neopica and Big Ants Studios more recently. How many studios do you have? And are you looking to acquire more studios, with acquisitions being much in vogue right now? We have currently ten in-house studios, and we’re still looking for new partners with a proven track-record, bringing a strong savoirfaire in a particular segment. We like the idea of having teams passionate about developing one or two types of games, and then giving them all the support they’d need to create the games they want to make. When we acquire a studio, we wish to keep a healthy and respectful relationship, giving them the autonomy and space needed to express their creativity. There would be no point in pushing a tennis-dedicated studio in creating an open-world / actionadventure game! We support the continued development of our studios, which each have their own specific needs, and enable them in developing the type of games they love. You’ve said you’ll concentrate on “AA games, budgets between €1 million and €20 million, sales of between 200,000 and 3 million units.” How does that model fit with the increasing importance of subscription services? We think that these two models can coexist; there are more opportunities and a larger audience than ever before. Additionally to our stand-alone games, we also have in our lineup several games which will be dedicated to players who want to be engaged in a long-term gaming experience, with a strong and positive community built around it.

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You did Nacon Connect last year, what’s your outlook for this year regarding events, both your own and the big tentpoles (E3, Gamescom etc) As many other publishers, we miss the physical events, of course. We’re watching closely what’s happening on the digital front, but the COVID situation leaves us little hope of seeing physical events this summer. For the past year, we’ve showcased our games in several third-party digital events – the latest was Roguebook at the Media Indie Exchange – and we will follow this trend. We were really happy with last year’s Nacon Connect and we strongly consider doing it this year too, in order to showcase our line-up in the best possible way. BIG TITLES The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is a big license, arguably the biggest for you apart from sports titles. Why did you decide to take this on? As said before, we want to expand the quality of our games, as well as our audience, and The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is a perfect example of this. It’s a well-known license, and we’re thrilled to work with Daedalic Entertainment, an almost fifteen-year-old studio and publisher. They have an impressive track-record with numerous highquality games, and we were instantly seduced by our relation with them and their creativity. The Lord of the Rings: Gollum brings a brandnew vision to the license, as well as an original gameplay experience, fitting perfectly with our editorial standards. How is development proceeding on Vampire Swansong? It’s a somewhat crowded license with two big titles from competitors, so why also choose Epic Games Store for this game? We’re happy with how Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is progressing right now, and we can’t wait to show more of this ambitious title to both press and fans. We’re confident that there’s more than enough space for our game, especially for fans of the pen-and-paper game who want more games related to the World of Darkness. Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is developed by Big Bad Wolf studio, the creative team behind The Council which was critically acclaimed upon release. The game is a narrative

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RPG, using unique game mechanics mixing branching narrative elements and character sheet / skill tree, which will appeal to both coregamers and a wider net of fans. Epic Games was immediately convinced by the potential of the project, and we’re happy to have an exclusivity partnership with them. The Epic Games Store will definitely help us boost the visibility of Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong, which is a good thing in our day and age with more and more game releases.

Above: The Lord of the Rings: Gollum, co-published with developer Daedalic is arguably Nacon most anticipated title this year

Do you have any further comment on the Frogwares situation? Most of what we have to say (and also what we are allowed to say) is in our previous statements. There are several cases with Frogwares which are now taken to the court, the latest being NACON unfairly accused by Frogwares of exploiting the PlayStation 5 version of The Sinking City because the console enable[s] backward compatibility with PS4 games. Indeed, we signed an agreement with Frogwares a few years ago to finance the production, marketing and publishing of The Sinking City. Nacon paid all its share and even more to have the game produced. Frogwares then tried to break the agreement to grab 100% of the revenues. Moreover, as the only publisher and distributor, Nacon was pursuant to the contract entitled to distribute the game on Steam, but Frogwares never made this possible. Frogwares tried to “make its own justice” by bringing the case in front of the media and social networks by voicing its one-way truth, but so far, all justice courts decisions are in Nacon’s favour.

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Warp speed to Arrakis Warp Digital is ramping up its operations, with a new focus on triple-A co-development. Chris Wallace gets behind the scenes to learn about the company’s new direction, and discuss an upcoming title set in the Dune universe

W Richie Turner, Managing Director

Piers Duplock, Senior Producer

arp Digital has a longer history in the industry than you might think. While the studio was founded five years ago, its core team have been together for 15 years now, after splitting off from Curve Digital. From that experience, the London-based studio has a background porting indie titles. Warp has been involved with some of the most beloved indie games on the market – having worked on games such as Return of the Obra Dinn, Close to the Sun and For the King – and has partnerships with the likes of Adult Swim, Team17 and Rare. Things are changing over at Warp, though. The studio has been transitioning into triple-A co-development – quite the step up from porting existing indie titles. Warp has already worked with NaturalMotion and Rare – and has its fingerprints on the enormously popular Sea of Thieves. More recently it partnered with Funcom, working together on an enormous IP, one with a decades-long history. The pair are working together to bring the world of Frank Herbert’s Dune to video games, and is currently expanding its team to bring the expansive sci-fi universe to next generation consoles. The two have a pre-existing relationship as they head into this ambitious new project, having worked together on the online survival title Conan Exiles. To find out more about that – plus its other upcoming titles, and how the studio is continuing to combat crunch under its new direction – we chat to senior producer Piers Duplock and Richie Turner, managing director.

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There aren’t many console/PC developers in London, what are the ups and downs? DUPLOCK: Well, the obvious advantage of being in London is it’s a fantastic capital city! You’re never short of something to do in your spare time, and there’s a great games development community. Of course, the disadvantage is that it is a capital city and it can be expensive to live here, but we feel the positives of being in a vibrant and creative atmosphere outweigh any negatives. Tell us a little about your history as a indie porting studio TURNER: The core team has been together 15 years or so, having worked together at Curve Studios. We split away from Curve after the transition to publishing and subsequent sale, as at heart, we’re developers first; we wanted the opportunity to choose our own projects and maybe try out some new ideas. However, we’d been porting games for the publisher, and we’d got pretty good at it! It was great for a start-up to have a ready revenue stream, so it made perfect sense, at least initially, to carry on once we were fully independent. By the time we hit our second year, we’d expanded our client roster to Adult Swim, Team17, Wired Productions, Devolver Digital and more.

What prompted the move into triple-A codevelopment? TURNER: We’ve been fortunate to port some great titles, Human Fall Flat, For the King, Grip, Blasphemous to name a few, and we got to the point where we could cherry pick the titles we worked on, the jewel in the crown being The Return of the Obra Dinn for Lucas Pope! However, we found that no matter how rewarding we found this, it wasn’t scratching our creative itch, as we always had a goal of returning to original development. We’d had a great experience working with both Rare and NaturalMotion on co-dev projects, and we enjoyed the creative input they afforded us, so taking on more co-dev was a great step in that direction. We’re not leaving porting totally behind though, we’re still picking select titles to bring to console.

Above: Warp Digital has its fingerprints on Rare’s hugely popular Sea Of Thieves

How challenging have you found that transition? TURNER: With porting, teams are small and self-contained, usually with only weekly catch ups with the clients. The work is also very structured, lending itself to a more waterfall style of management. However, working on triple-A co-dev we find ourselves integrating with large triple-A teams there is obviously a lot more communication involved, daily stand-ups and

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Above: Warp Digital is now working on Metal:Hellsinger, a rhythm-action FPS title

meetings etc. It’s a lot more creative and agile in comparison to porting, but it’s not been as massive a jump, as our senior team could draw on previous experiences, as we’ve all done triple-A before, that said the current projects are definitely some of the largest ones we’ve worked on! [Sea of Thieves, Conan, Dune] How did the partnership with Funcom come about? DUPLOCK: We’d previously worked with Rare on Sea of Thieves, and I think that got Funcom’s attention. We met them at GDC and at the initial meeting we learned what they were looking for in a co-development studio, and we found it meshed perfectly how we chose to work with our partners as well. From there things progressed very quickly and since then we’ve worked on a number of projects together and the relationship has gone from strength to strength. You’re currently working with Funcom on the Dune IP - What can you tell us about that? DUPLOCK: It’s a fantastic project, it’s triple-A in scale and scope, something larger than we’ve ever been involved with before and we are relishing the experience. We get a lot of creative freedom, while getting to work with some of the most talented developers across the globe at Funcom’s studios. We’ve been lucky enough to be on the project from the start, so we’ve had plenty of input as time has gone on. Is it intimidating, moving from porting indie titles to working on such a large IP, especially one with such devoted fans and a rich lore? TURNER: Back in our Curve Studio days, we worked with Nintendo on Hydroventure and we

also developed all the PSP Buzz! games for Relentless/Sony, and as Warp we worked with Rare on Sea of Thieves. So we’ve had a taste of working with big publishers and IP, however games are getting bigger and bigger and it’s hard not to be wowed by the level of coordination it takes to develop cutting edge IP such as Dune, and from what I’ve seen it’s definitely been crafted by fans of the source material, so hopefully won’t disappoint. Any other projects you can share with us? DUPLOCK: We have a few irons in the fire right now which we can’t talk about just yet, but we do have one other co-development project that has been announced. We are working with The Outsiders on a title called Metal:Hellsinger, a rhythm action FPS, and we’re thrilled to be involved with that game. As soon as we heard their initial pitch for the game we really sat up and took notice, and it was instantly something we wanted to be involved with. It seems that you’re currently on a big hiring spree - How large is the company now, and how has that grown from the company’s founding? TURNER: We started out five years ago with six of us working full-time. Four and a bit years later and we’ve just passed twenty folk! Of course with our current co-dev commitments, we’re still looking for talented individuals to join the team! You promise fair working hours and a “crunch-free” environment to prospective employees - Why do you feel this is so important to Warp, and how do you ensure your work remains free of crunch? DUPLOCK: We feel this is an issue important to the whole industry, and while we might not be able to change that, we can make our company a safe place that avoids crunch as best we can. Our management team have all worked at companies with enforced crunch, so we all know what it’s like and how bad it can be. We simply don’t want to expose our staff to that same environment. To ensure that remains the case, we have an inclusive planning process that gives everyone a chance to have their say and to get help if necessary.

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Brought to you by

A Swift Spotlight: d3t As a people-focused co-development studio, d3t haven’t slowed down over the last 12 months, growing at an impressive rate without losing the social and supportive aspect of their culture

W

ith a notable back catalogue of globally recognised titles, and a senior management team with decades worth of experience, d3t have gone from strength-to-strength over recent years after a period of steady growth and diversification. Aardvark Swift sat down with Phil Owen, Louise Andrew, and Sally Samuel to discuss recruitment during lockdown, what they look for in candidates, and how their focus on culture sets them apart from their peers. “I’d only been with the company for about seven weeks when we went into lockdown,” says Sally, talent acquisition manager at d3t. “We’ve been going through a dedicated growth phase, so part of my role was coming onboard and managing that across all departments. That’s all still been going on as normal, even throughout lockdown. We’ve hired about 35 people since last March, so it has been a busy time for us.” The focus on growth across departments, and the ability to offer more than ever to their clients, is echoed by Phil, head of engineering. “d3t has been around since 2011 and it has steadily developed and grown over that time. We’re now in a position to put a structure in place, with different departments that give us the ability to be specialised. It is really exciting.” This changing dynamic of more departments has resulted in the formation of an art offering, which Louise Andrew leads as head of art. “d3t was an engineering company set up by engineers, so historically there hasn’t been a massive art presence here. Over more recent years, we’re focused on co-development and as a result the art team has been able to grow quite a lot. In the last year, we’ve added 11 new artists, almost doubling the department to 25 people in total.” The need for sustained growth, that will allow d3t to meet the demands of the many different projects they are currently working on, has been able to continue unimpeded despite the move to remote work. “Sally and the IT team have been unbelievable, beyond just getting

us working. The application process, interview process, hiring process, onboarding process, and getting newbies on a project process, is all being handled remotely. It opens the door for more flexible working in the future,” adds Phil. Growing across the board, and seeing many would-be applicants over that time, has allowed them to consider what makes a candidate really stand out during the application process. “For an artist, it’s all about portfolio. 100 percent of the time. It’s your artwork that is going to speak for itself. We’ve also had three junior artists who’ve started with us over the last year, two of which had been involved in Search for a Star by Grads in Games, being shortlisted as one’s to watch. That stood out to us as well,” says Louise. “For programming, C++ is our bread and butter, it’s definitely what we use the most, so skills in this area and a good maths foundation is obviously essential. A big part of the recruitment process for me is finding not the right person for the role, but the right person for the team. Someone who will contribute to the culture here and get involved,” Phil adds honestly. As a studio, d3t have a real focus on being people first. “d3t is one of the most supportive and peoplefocused places I have ever worked. To be within a team that puts people above everything else makes a real difference. We’ve put on alternate social events to replace the things we’d usually be doing in person. We want to make sure we’re connecting with each other and getting people mixing because it’s the incidental conversations in the kitchen or passing in the hallway that you miss.”

“For programming, C++ is our bread and butter, it’s definitely what we use the most, so skills in this area and a good maths foundation is obviously essential”

Phil Owen, d3t

Louise Andrew, d3t

Sally Samuel, d3t

You’ll be able to listen to the full conversation with Phil Owen, Louise Andrew, and Sally Samuel in an upcoming episode of the Aardvark Swift Podcast, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, third party apps, and the aswift.com website.

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unsigned

Unsigned is MCV/DEVELOP’s new monthly initiative to bring the very best upcoming indie titles to broader industry awareness – and specifically to help such titles find the support and partners they need to make the biggest impact possible.

Welcome to Unsigned! We’re delighted to announce Unsigned is partnering with Unity on this initiative, specifically with the company’s Made With Unity programme. So to introduce this month’s selection of incredible indie titles, we chat to Kelly Ekins, who heads up Made With Unity. What’s Made with Unity? Made with Unity is simply any product built or run using any of Unity’s various tools and services that span across our Create and Operate solutions. These products can range from games and films to XR experiences, apps, and even smart vehicles. The Made with Unity program is dedicated to elevating and celebrating Unity creators, as well as inspiring new ones. Ultimately the program is designed specifically to help raise awareness of all these incredible products that may not necessarily get the airtime they deserve. Why did you decide to support MCV/DEVELOP’s Unsigned? Unity believes that the world is a better place with more creators in it, and what better way to support creators than to support a platform that aims to share the voices of indie creators? We are supporting this segment as part of our Made with Unity program. Speaking more generally, how are you supporting indie game makers? Along with providing a development platform indie game developers can use to build their experiences, we offer developers thousands of free learning resources so that anyone who wants to use Unity can acquire the skills to do so. Through the Made with Unity program, we’ll work closely with the teams to find ways to celebrate the game via our social channels, industry events, and more. In addition to free learning resources, the Unity Personal Edition version of the platform is free. We also design the Unity engine and our operating solutions such as Ads, Multiplay and Vivox, to bring large-team power tools and support to indies. This way, smaller developer teams can achieve at the same level of larger teams.

How can Unity help such studios create sustained success? We have been in the business of helping game creators bring their ideas to life for well over a decade and have provided all the tools that help game developers from the first day of ideation, through development, to release and then live services to help them operate their titles. You can make your game in the Unity engine, you can test it and fine-tune it through things like the Game Growth Program and game balance tools like Unity Simulation, you can scale it to as many platforms as you want through Unity’s multiplatform support, you can deliver fresh, engaging content to players through the Cloud Content Delivery service, and you can host your game and help your players connect with one another through Unity’s Multiplay services and Vivox. These are just a few of the things you can do through Unity. Practically everything needed to create and operate a successful game can be accessed through the vast Unity ecosystem, and all the different pieces work together so creators and game studios really do get hands-on, holistic, comprehensive support from start to finish. The Made with Unity program helps game developers succeed by facilitating creator access to the broader games industry. Our community of creators are also avid game lovers, so there is a synergy of enthusiasm around games, gamebuilding, and game-playing as game lovers support each other through sharing as well as learning.

Right: Just three of the numerous titles Made with Unity: Luis Antonio’s 12 Minutes, KO_OP’s Goodbye Volcano High and Graceful Decay’s Maquette.

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THE ARCHITECT: PARIS

The Architect: Paris is a construction game where you can turn the capital of France into a medieval looking city or a futuristic one. Build a business district surrounded by parks, create gigantic plazas worthy of the greatest soviet cities, imagine neighborhoods where historical architecture blends in with the most modern designs. Tell us about your game and why you decided to develop it? The Architect: Paris was imagined and designed by a team of city builders fans who wanted to offer their own approach to the genre. An approach more oriented towards construction and architecture and less towards management, in a real, existing city replicated with the highest possible level of graphics and fidelity to the original. Who do you think the audience is? Our target audience is people who play traditional city building games with management options deactivated as well as more casual players looking for a relaxing moment of pure creativity with little to no pressure to achieve goals. What experience does the team have? CEO and creative director Jean-Baptiste Reynes first prototyped the game with a handful of collaborators from mother company Enodo (specialized in real time 3D modeling of large urban projects). All other collaborators were hired along the way, as financial partners were joining the project. It is the team’s very first game even if several « serious game » type of projects have been realized in the past. Why did you decide to use Unity to create this game? The game was first developed under Cryengine but the ambitious scale of the project (replicating a 100km² city) required such a large number of systems that data-oriented development was chosen over object-oriented. Unity DOTS was – and has proven, since, to be – the best option. How long will it likely take to complete? Project development started in late 2017 and so the answer would be a little over 3 years. Early access is scheduled to last until the end of 2021 but could be extended, depending on public reaction and players’ enthusiasm. What kind of support are you looking for? Marketing & PR are our top priorities as well as development funding to achieve all the goals we have set to the project. In that regard, 500k€ would allow for early access completion. Since the launch, many players have expressed their will to see the game grow bigger and include management. A larger budget would be needed to achieve this goal and could be discussed with potential longer-term partners.

Developer: ENODO GAMES Location: Paris, France Team size: 19 persons full time: 8 devs, 4 artists, 1 UI designer, 2 level designers + 4 management & administration Progress: Game released in early access on Feb 26th. Early access scheduled until end of 2021 Contact details: raphael@enodo.games Left: Raphael Reynes (producer)

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unsigned STAR SHAMAN

Star Shaman is an action VR shooter/roguelite set in a marvelous universe with sparkles of French Touch music and a unique spellcasting system designed to empower the players in their movements. Tell us about your game and why you decided to develop it? The idea for what eventually became Star Shaman initiated in 2018, when we would go to VR arcades and see people were not engaging physically with the games they were playing. We thought we should create a game that required you to move in a way that would make you feel powerful through these very movements. So in early 2019, we built a new team – including the lead choreographer from Just Dance – and started working on these ideas. Who do you think the audience is? The current VR audience is the competitive type that looks for short energetic sessions (7’-20’). They play for the challenge, and keep coming back for achievements and scoring. What experience does the team have? Ikimasho was created by 2 friends. One’s a video game producer (Ubisoft, gumi) and the other’s a movie producer who also produced 360 fiction and immersive VR experiences. Their combined interest for VR as a growing market and an experimentation field led to the birth of the studio, which today includes 40% women among its staff. Why did you decide to use Unity to create this game? At Ikimasho, we believe great games are the sum of innumerable small and very diligently executed strokes of genius that coalesce into a coherent whole. We empower our creatives to take risks and pursue those strokes of genius in many different ways, and Unity is a cornerstone of this approach. We also support a vast array of VR headsets, ranging from untethered to fully dedicated PC-VR with specialized gaming hardware. ‘Fun’ fact: half of the headsets we are currently supporting with Star Shaman had not yet been released when we began prototyping. Unity helps us minimize the compatibility effort and smoothes the whole process. The broad community and extensive resources and documentation available to us as an indie developer were also one of the strong points in us diving into the Unity ecosystem and extending it at our scale. How long will it likely take to complete? The game’s development started right after Oculus Connect 7 (Sept 2019) and we released within a year on both Oculus Quest and PC-VR – we are focusing our current efforts on the PSVR version, with an additional co-op meta game mode and a Q3 2021 release target. What kind of support are you looking for? We are looking for a publisher who will support the development and release of the PSVR version with its co-op features, both financially and marketing-wise.

Developer: Ikimasho Location: PARIS, FRANCE Team size: 10 people, full-time Progress: Oculus Quest and PC version released, PSVR in development. Contact details: olivier.piasentin@ikimasho.games Left: Olivier Piasentin

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MOO LANDER

An action-adventure RPG where you have legendary battles with ancient, mighty cows for the most precious resource – the milk! Tell us about your game and why you decided to develop it? With Moo Lander, we are aiming at creating an immersive fantasy alien world with a unique mix of epic and funny moments. We have tаken significant time handcrafting our environments and composing the right music for them. During the years, we have prototyped, tested and validated dozens of different skills and hundreds of enemies and mechanics leaving and polishing the ones we’ve had most fun with. The glorious cow battles and their lethal AI were of course a top priority for us. We’ve had the idea for a long time and have always been fans of fantasy adventure 2D games, but the final push to start the development came after we’ve played through Ori and the Blind Forest back in 2015 – the game has been a real inspiration for all of us. Who do you think the audience is? Our environments are handcrafted with lots of detail and vibrant colors for the casual gamers and children while offering deep challenges, character development and rich storyline to the hardcore gamers. We also have legenDairy fast-paced couch multiplayer with different PvP and PvE modes. You can even play as a cow. What experience does the team have? We have passionate programmers, artists and musicians in our core team and we’ve had people from Europe, Asia and the Americas working on the game at the various stages. Our studio has worked on various mobile games for clients in the past. But this is our most ambitious project so far and working on it has been an incredible experience for all of us at The Sixth Hammer. Why did you decide to use Unity to create this game? When we started developing 4 years ago we determined Unity has the most of the 2D features that we would need. We also migrated Unity version once during development to get the new graphics effects and amazing 2D lightning. We are currently pushing the engine to the limits each day and have developed our own Unity solutions for various non-trivial problems a project of this scope requires. How long will it likely take to complete? Moo Lander has been in development for around 4 years (gathering the right people in our team took 1 year, because of the very specific artistic style of the game). Now we see the finish line with only months remaining for completing the PC version. What kind of support are you looking for? We are mostly in need of a publisher or a marketing partner as this is extremely important for getting the game to reach its target audience.

Developer: The Sixth Hammer Location: Plovdiv, Bulgaria Team size: A core team of 6 people working full-time and around 10 more working remotely during the different parts of the development. Progress: Demo (getting close to alpha) Contact details: Dimitar Popov popov@thesixthhammer.com Left: Dimitar Popov

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unsigned MORBID METAL

Morbid Metal is a sci-fi, action roguelite, where players can shapeshift into unique characters to slaughter enemies with powerful combos. What is Morbid Metal about? Morbid Metal is an action roguelite game that offers a unique twist on popular combat systems, letting players simultaneously shapeshift into up to 4 different characters in real-time, each with active abilities and unique traits. This allows for satisfying, high action inter- and intracharacter combos, enabling players to slaughter enemies left, right and center in stylish fashion. Diverse combat encounters and intense boss fights are fought through by players in semi-procedurally generated environments that can graphically compete with triple-A games.

Atmospheric showcase of the environment and one of the playable characters

Who do you think the audience is? Hack ‘n’ slash, sci-fi and action lovers, alongside fans of roguelites. The gameplay focussed experience is designed to also appeal to asian markets, already gathering a worldwide following with many fans in Japan and the US. Even players who just want to jump into the game and slaughter some enemies after a long day of work will get their dose of dopamine in the power fantasy that is Morbid Metal. What experience does the team have? While I have been developing games for about seven years now and graduated with a B.A in Game Design in 2019, Morbid Metal is my first commercial project. Why did you decide to use Unity to create this game? As a solo developer with a project of this scope, it is really important that I have as many tools in my disposal as possible. Unity offers close to everything I could ever need for the project’s development, including high fidelity graphics thanks to HDRP.

When you just need to take a relaxing break from shapeshifting

Concept for a character that is currently under development

How long will it likely take to complete? Morbid Metal has been in pre-production for around 3 years, refining the core game loop and nailing down the combat system. In late 2020 I decided to go full-time and started production, which I estimate to take until late 2023. However, the game is a great fit for Early Access. I am working towards a fully fledged demo, to be finished early 2022. What kind of support are you looking for? Primarily, I am looking for porting, marketing and localisation. While the social media marketing of Morbid Metal is already doing really well, I would greatly benefit from a great network in the Asian markets for publishing and marketing. Of course, funding is also something I am interested in, as I am currently paying the production cost out of my own pocket. Funding allows me to increase the scope of the project, as well as speed up the development dramatically, as I could either form a full-time team or outsource on a larger scale.

Dummy enemy seconds before annihilation

Developer: Felix Schade Location: Cologne, Germany Team size: 1 person, full-time Progress: production, working on a demo. Contact details: business@felix-schade.de Left: Felix Schade

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Seth Barton talks to pixel art master Henk Nieborg about Xeno Crisis and the upcoming Battle Axe. PIXEL ART has long had its devotees, with countless indie titles still created one pixel at a time. But one of the ultimate expressions of devotion to the form came in 2018, when developer Bitmap Bureau and artist Henk Nieborg set out to create an old-school shooter, and to release it as an actual Sega Mega Drive cartridge. Now the collaboration is undertaking a new project, from a design by Nieborg: Battle Axe. Which has been successfully kickstarted, with publishing duties on all major platforms from Numskull Games. We caught up with Nieborg to talk about the new game and to look at some of his work. YOU’VE BEEN A PIXEL ARTIST FOR OVER 20 YEARS BUT BATTLE AXE IS YOUR FIRST GAME DESIGN, HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT? I’ve always been a big fan of Atari’s Gauntlet, which for me was the first game with co-op gameplay done right. During that classic era of gaming I also discovered many other gems such as Golden Axe, and Knights Of The Round; games with excellent pixel art, tight gameplay and amazing soundtracks. I’ve been a professional pixel artist since 1990 and often dreamt about creating a topdown action game; at the start of 2017 I started work on a background and some test characters, which is how Battle Axe started to take shape. Halfway through 2017 I received an email from Mike Tucker and Matt Cope at Bitmap Bureau asking me if I would be interested in creating the art for their new Sega Mega Drive / Genesis game Xeno Crisis. This turned out to be an excellent collaboration and we thought that we should continue working together - I showed them my concept for Battle Axe and we decided to make it our next project. AND HOW DID THE PROJECT IDEA DEVELOP? Initially Battle Axe was designed as a MOBA title but the concept radically changed after Xeno Crisis was completed, and we decided that it should be more of an arcade action title. When working on the prototype the resolution was at least twice as high as it is now - it just didn’t look or feel right though, but after dropping the resolution to 398x224 pixels everything suddenly clicked into place. Just as with Xeno Crisis we opted to seek funding for the project through Kickstarter – the campaign went really well and gave us further motivation as we now had a multitude of backers eager to get their hands on the game! Early in the campaign we also signed with our

The Art of... Henk Nieborg

publisher Numskull Games which took a lot of pressure off us with regards to the manufacturing and distribution. The only major setback I had during development was the passing of my sister and my mother in 2019. I got through this thanks to my wife, kids and family but also because of the understanding of Mike and Matt. HOW MANY ASSETS ARE IN THE TITLE? I knew the art would be a massive undertaking because of the game’s viewpoint - many of the characters had to be animated in 5 directions, flipping 3 of them to get a full 8-way rotation. Animating a single hero alone took about 2 months, with most animations consisting of 12 frames or more!When producing pixel art I very rarely draw concept work - I just instantly create it in “Pro-Motion” with a quality mouse and make some colour tweaks using Photoshop. Looking at the numbers for Battle Axe, I created over 1,000 files comprising over 4,000 frames!

Henk Nieborg, freelance pixel artist

BEYOND THE ART WHAT ELSE WAS KEY IN CREATING THAT PERIOD FEEL FOR THE GAME? It was important to us that Battle Axe’s soundtrack was reminiscent of those classic 80’s and 90’s arcade games that we all loved. Luckily we had a connection with the legendary Capcom musician Manami Matsumae through Alex Aniel of Brave Wave. Matsumae-san had previously written the soundtracks for Final Fight, Mega Man, Area 88 and many others. We wanted her to revive the sound that she achieved in titles such as Magic Sword, Mercs and Carrier Airwing in particular, and we think that her music really compliments the action! SO IT’S A CLASSIC 90S-STYLE ROMP? Battle Axe is turning out to be a very solid and highly playable arcade game which we are very proud of as a team. I think that fans of classic arcade games like Gauntlet, Golden Axe and Shadow over Mystara, and indeed pixel art in general, will enjoy Battle Axe too!

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The Art of...

The Art of...

The Art of...

Above: Character select screen from Battle Axe

Left and below: The in-development Battle Axe.

Below: Just a few frames from the walk cycle for Rooney, one of Battle Axe’s main characters

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The Art of...

The Art of...

The Art of...

Left: Contra 4 (2007) Nintendo DS. Background pixel artwork and bosses by Henk Nieborg.

Above: Shakedown Hawaii (2019) Multi platform. Background pixels, HUD and misc animation

Below: Shantae: Risky’s Revenge (2010) Nintendo DS. Background pixel artwork

Above: Xeno Crisis (2018) Sega Megadrive & multi-platform. All in-game backgrounds, assets, bosses etc.

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When We Made... Gang Beasts

actually look at you. And even with that little bit of work, with the help of the animation and really smart designers and engineers, with everybody working together, you could tell from the very beginning that ChrissheWallace gets thereally gravitate was a character thatbehind people would toward.” Beasts: an anarchic scenes of Gang really becomes a fully fleshed out character with multiplayerQuill brawler informed by the the help of the game’s strong world-building. As an developers’ childhood interloper in Quill’s world, the player experiences it not through her eyes, but as an observer watching as she lives her life in her familiar setting. It’s a strangely intimate feeling, and one which gives way to joint apprehension as both the player and Quill enter new, unfamiliar areas. “When you go through Mousetown and you see Quill run through you see that hometown, asy tothere pickand up gameplay thatshe canhas beaunderstood the feeling her leaving that town maybe afterofwatching justit,aoffew seconds of thebeing in danger,game. gives you more of but a bond,” “If A simplistic iconicAlderson style thatsays. sets up that part was leftbrand out, you feel like therethe was a recognisable andwouldn’t distinguishes it from much to fight Plus for. Everything that we’ve competition. instant popularity withdone, somethe of mood the settings, taking Quilland fromTwitch one area to the next letting biggest YouTubers streamers in theand world? youBefore rest and in this environment… It’s all supposed Falltake Guys, there was Gang Beasts. to exaggerate andinaccentuate that mood that you’re Gang Beasts, case you need reminding, is an feeling. It all ties‘em back how youtitle, are developed connecting(and with anarchic beat upinto multiplayer Quill her world.” by UK studio Boneloaf. The game nowand self-published)

E

Above: Michael Brown, Boneloaf

saw its official release in 2017, though it had been in SAME QUESTION WAYS2014. Before even that early access on PC EIGHT since August Collaboration key during thegame development of Moss though, early was prototypes of the had attracted the, not attention just within of high-profile the team itself, gaming butinfluencers. with the help of external playtesters. It’d be quite People the accomplishment were often brought forinany to seasoned feedback on developer. Which makes it all the more impressive that Gang Beasts came from a team of three brothers, learning game development as they went along. Boneloaf was founded in 2011 by brothers James, Jonathan and Michael Brown, to make experiences informed by their childhood. Michael Brown gives us the rundown on how the three brothers created the social media sensation.

the game and asked questions about their experience – even if most of these questions were actually very similar. “External playtests were mostly about ‘Okay, how do people feel when they play? Do they like it or not like it?’,” Alderson explains. “At the end of playtest we would ask the same question eight different ways. The question is really ‘What didn’t you like?’, but we would ask it differently: ‘What pulled you out of the experience? What took you out of the headset? If there’s one thing you could change what would it be? If you had two weeks to finish the game, what would be the thing that you’d fix?’ “Those help bring a playtester into their comfort zone, because no one wants to play something that people put a lot of care and love into and then turn around and say ‘This is what I didn’t like about it’. So it takes a little while LEARN ON THE JOB to get the comfortable, and we found that “When we playtester first started, we didn’t really know what finding ask the samestudying questiongame means we weredifferent doing,”ways says to Brown. “I was you eventually get the really good stuff after the modelling fourth or design, but I didn’t have a programming or 3D fifth time you or askanything it. background, like that. My brothers: one was “I don’t anyoneand in our studio has ever working at think [UK games tech retailer] CEX made at the atime, game this,was so I teaching think it’s important and thelike other Fine Art.”that you trust the process. So when You the trust three playtesting got to work and on yougame makedevelopment, sure that you they allowtailored yourselfthe some games timethey and made freedom (including to try something a few game and then jamkeep projects) going. toTry cater something to their lack new of and experience branch out, but “We alsooriginally use yourstarted experience out making from games a different that you’ve game, amade high before fantasyand game, you’ll kind be of fine. likeAsGolden long asAxe you’re meets having Shadow fun too! We of the enjoyed Colossus. playing But Moss we found throughout we didn’t the entire have the process skills and to make I thinkthat thatreally reallywork helps.” at the time, because literally, we were learning on the job. So we decided, if you can punch someone in the face, you’ve got a game. So we started to try and make a Final Fight/Street of Rage clone.” With the game’s direction set, the team decided early on to include what became one of Gang Beasts’ most compelling elements: its physics-based gameplay. “We figured, because we don’t have an animator, we can’t make smooth animations and stuff – so let’s try it

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Below: The character design was largely dictated by the demands of the game’s physics

with physics. We kept plugging away until it worked – we didn’t realise how much of a headache that would be, but it’s been an absolute nightmare. “I mean, we’ve actually rebuilt the game three times now. The first version of the game was written in Javascript, but then we learned how to do C#, so we switched over to that. But then Unity updated their physics engine. The performance gains were so substantial, we needed to do it – but that also had the side effect of breaking all our physics. And so we had to rebuild again. Every time it’s gotten more efficient, cleaner, and we’re actually rebuilding the game again

now. We’ve got Unity on board with us, and they’re helping us fix a lot of the legacy issues.” The game’s physics is obviously central to the Gang Beasts experience: but it goes even deeper than that. In order to get the physics functioning in the way it needed to, it dictated even the game’s iconic character design. “We messed around with the physics, and just slowly evolved the character from that,” says Brown. “There’s just so many different variations of physics characters that we’ve built. Part of the reason why the characters look the way that they do is because of these experiments, and the problems we kept running up against. “They have short legs, because there’s an invisible ball between them, which helps them not only move around, but also helps with collision detection on the ground. They don’t have feet because the feet were getting caught on things. They are solid colours, because it was actually a placeholder art. We figured ‘oh, we’ll get time to do proper art later.’ But people liked it, so we kept it. They have solid white eyes because we needed a way of figuring out which way they were facing. No neck, because... we just couldn’t be bothered to do a neck.”

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The game’s character design may have been born out of the realities of game development: But it certainly helped with the game’s enormous success. The simplistic design is easily recognisable, giving Gang Beasts an definitive brand. It’s this simplicity of design that likely helped it attract the attention of some of the biggest YouTubers and Twitch streamers, propelling the game to mainstream attention. LIKE AND SUBSCRIBE “It pretty much blew up,” says Brown. “We were at a game developer meetup that was part of my university, run by a friend. And me and James decided that we’d take the game down there, see what people thought of the prototype. “People liked it, and played it all night. We thought that we probably wouldn’t get that much exposure again. So we uploaded the prototype to Indie DB. And within an hour or two of uploading it, it was played on a Giant Bomb livestream to I think 40,000 people, and then like a week or so later Dan NerdCubed said ‘greenlight this game!’ And yeah it got greenlit, and we’ve been playing catch up ever since.”

“We took the game to Tokyo Game Show, and I didn’t think anybody would know what it was. But we had some people just running past with their arms in the air, cheering Gang Beasts.” Such immediate, enormous attention is of course a dream scenario for game developers. But for a team learning as they went along, it must have come with a fair amount of pressure too. “It was kind of terrifying, really!” says Brown. “I mean it was great. It was amazing. But like, we thought we’d kind of be on a long burner. That we’d be able to learn, take our time, not have a massive following. We thought we’d be able to take our time over it. And then there’s just loads of people!” Over the years, the game has attracted an international audience. That’s certainly been boosted by its YouTuber and livestream-friendly gameplay, but it goes deeper than that. The easily understood gameplay and identifiable characters instantly transcends any language barrier – no matter who you are or where you live, you’ll understand Gang Beasts instantaneously. “We’re lucky that we’ve been so successful,” says Brown, “but it’s not all about the success. At the end of the day, we’re not in it for the money. It’s about seeing the fans enjoying the game.

“It’s completely bizarre for me, I love it. We took the game to the Tokyo Game Show, and I didn’t think anybody would know what it was. But we had some people just running past with their arms in the air, cheering Gang Beasts. And just like, the places that we’ve seen the game turn up… it’s been in the White House, it’s been in the Playboy Mansion. It’s been played in the bottom of a pool.... It’s been everywhere. It’s mind blowing for me.” FAMILY MATTERS What stands out most about Boneloaf, at least to me, is that it’s a family business. While the studio has grown and hired more staff over the years to keep up with its success, the family atmosphere seems to inform everything they do. It’s that family dynamic that informed Gang Beasts itself: a game you can play on the sofa together with your family, and beat the ever-living hell out of them. Still, as anyone with siblings can tell you, working with your family can sound like a great idea in the abstract – but be an absolute nightmare in reality. Or, as Brown puts it: “Well, it makes sense that a game made by a family would be about fighting!” Still, Brown seems delighted to be able to work together with his family. “Actually, we recently hired our sister too, she’s helping out with some of our admin work – and my wife

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does the marketing as well! It’s great, but at the same time, it is challenging. “There’s certain things that just probably wouldn’t work in a different kind of company, a more formal company. But at the same time, family comes first, and that includes employees as well.” For much of Gang Beasts’ life, it was published by Double Fine Presents. In May 2020, Boneloaf parted ways with their publisher, announcing their move to selfpublishing in a post titled ‘Boneloaf take Double Fine to a fancy restaurant so they won’t make a big scene.’ Despite the split, Brown has nothing but positive things to say about Double Fine, thanking them for their help in the early days of Gang Beasts’ life. “Part of the reason we went with Double Fine, is because when they first heard about the game, they played it and immediately gave us a bunch of feedback. Just straight off the bat. And with some of the other publishers we talked to, it seemed like a bit closed while this was just friendly. “It was really amazing working with them, but with them being published by Microsoft now it didn’t make sense anymore. It made more sense to go our separate ways – though I can’t wait for quarantine to be over so we can go visit them again!” So that’s that for the past of Gang Beasts then. But what of the future? As they move to self-publish the game, Boneloaf still has big plans for the game

– looking to finally pay full homage to the games that inspired it all those years ago. “There’s a lot of plans,” says Brown, “we have quite a large exhaustive list and we’re trying to tackle it all. So for example, we were originally trying to make a Final Fight/Streets of Rage game. So we want to add a campaign mode to Gang Beasts, where you go down the streets and fight gangs of people – hence the title, Gang Beasts. “Another thing is escalations. Some stages escalate already: like the elevator stage will malfunction and then eventually fall. We want to add them to every single stage. There’s currently an arbitrary five minute timer that stops the level. We never liked that, but we needed it for technical reasons. “So instead of having the timer, the idea is to have, say, the truck stage going along the road and have the escalation be having it veer off the road into a billboard. And then on the billboard stage have the same sort of thing, like a truck veers into it and just takes out the billboard. So we can kind of tie all the levels together.” Brown also reveals that the team is looking into introducing a ranked mode to the game: so your anarchic grappling could soon be taken to a more competitive level. Either way though, it seems Boneloaf has plans to keep you fighting your family for years to come.

Above: Gang Beasts at the Tokyo Game Show

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The Final Boss Every month an industry leader wraps up MCV/DEVELOP with their unique insight

Congratulations on your BAFTA nominations, how do you feel about awards generally in our industry? Thanks, we found out just yesterday so it’s all still sinking in and a little surreal at present! For us as tiny indie developers the nominations we’ve received for The Game Awards and now BAFTA are a massive win in terms of raising the visibility for Röki (and Polygon Treehouse) so sure, I think awards have the potential to play an important role for teams like ours. You co-founded Polygon Treehouse and come from an art background, does that make the studio different? Possibly. We’re an art-led narrative studio so that’s definitely our ‘in’ and jumping off point, we’re visual storytellers. Saying that, our approach to narrative in games is holistic, we try to leverage all the different tools at our disposal (music, sound design, in-game cinematography, empathy driven game design, etc) as interactive storytellers to make the most of all the levers that our medium offers, rather than being led by the written story or dialogue. Previous to that you worked for Sony for 15 years. What was it like moving from a triple-A to an indie environment? It’s pretty different. For starters the teams are much smaller, we have no physical office and there is no free fruit! We learnt a great deal from working with some awesome people over the years at Sony. We try to bring all that experience and know-how into our indie work. Many of the same creative challenges present themselves, just at a different scale. I think it wouldn’t come as a shock that working in the indie space gives a greater sense of self-expression and creative control, but not everyone has that itch to scratch. With the greatest respect to your current role, what is/was your dream job? As a kid I wanted to create comic books so I’ve not landed too far from the target! I can’t imagine a job that I’d get more of a kick from than creating indie games so I consider myself pretty fortunate. For me, it’s the perfect blend of art, animation, story, tech and entertainment and a space that I relish working in each day.

Alex Kanaris-Sotiriou Co-Founder & Art Director at Polygon Treehouse

“The nominations we’ve received for The Game Awards and now BAFTA are a massive win in terms of raising the visibility for Röki”

What was the funniest single moment of your career to date? We were asked to give a live stage presentation for a big crowd at Dreamhack, a huge multi-day gaming and esports exhibition in Sweden. We’d flown straight from E3 and then driven about 6 hours across Sweden to get to the event. Although tired, we were feeling pretty composed as we went on stage. That was until my sleepy brain decided to introduce us as ‘Polygon Shoehouse’ which promptly caused Tom to break down in hysterics on stage so that was a memorable day! I see a lot of delicious food in your Twitter feed, have you always been a keen cook? Ha! So cooking is my wind-down activity to transition out of ‘work’ and ‘into’ play. I have quite a wired mind so find it really useful to have an activity to focus on after I clock off to unhook my brain from whatever tasks I’ve been tackling. Also, I get some (mostly) nice food out of it so it’s a double win. Do you feel the games industry is headed in the right direction? That’s a big question! I’m encouraged by a great deal but also dismayed in equal measures. It’s safe to say there will always be room for improvement and it remains critical that we keep endeavouring to move things forward in the right direction, for everyone.

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Show your best side to potential candidates

Jobs This special advertorial feature will consist of double-page studio profiles including short interviews with key staff, so candidates can put a name and a face to those they will be working with. Boost your recruitment drive in this difficult year with a concise summary of everything that makes your studio a great place to work from the people who it know best: your team. Distributed via print, digital edition, email newsletter and online. All studios will also receive a PDF version for future use as they wish. To get involved with DEVELOP JOBS then contact: alex.boucher@biz-media.co.uk

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MCV/DEVELOP ISSUE 967 THE ART AND BUSINESS OF VIDEO GAMES

APRIL 2021

25/03/2021 12:03

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Profile for Biz Media Ltd

MCV/DEVELOP 967 April 2021  

MCV/DEVELOP is a free monthly print magazine about the business and art of the games industry! Subscribe at www.mcvuk.com. THiS MONTH... So...

MCV/DEVELOP 967 April 2021  

MCV/DEVELOP is a free monthly print magazine about the business and art of the games industry! Subscribe at www.mcvuk.com. THiS MONTH... So...