The enormous careers of Dave Jones (Lemmings, Grand Theft Auto, Crackdown, APB) and Stieg Hedlund (Diablo, Diablo II, Ghost Recon), are intersecting in ChronoBlade, an action-RPG published on Facebook. I visited Jones and Hedlund at their studio in San Francisco to talk about what brought them together, their thoughts on the value of independence, and the changing role of publishers in the game industry.
Stieg Hedlund (middle) and Dave Jones (right) with two coworkers at nWay in San Francisco.
PCG: You're veteran PC game developers. What’s interesting to you guys about Facebook as a platform?
Dave Jones: We’ve worked on many kinds of games across many genres, many platforms, many markets. What was interesting was, for the first time ever, I’d seen my wife, my father-in-law, my mother-in-law playing games, which they’d never done before. Mainly because of Facebook games. We can all call into question if they’re really games or not, but hey, at least they were doing something I’d never seen them do before. Just because they were so easy to go into… You don’t have to buy it. You don’t have to go to the store. You don’t need a gaming system. There was something about that. If you make it really accessible like that, it does break down barriers. That’s when we came together.
"Being on a huge team is really hard. But having all these new markets is just great."
We thought it would be interesting if all these new generation of gamers were there, what if we did some of the games that we like to play, but made them what we call “hyper accessible.” We thought it was interesting that Facebook allowed you to do that. But the tech was pretty low-tech. In those days it was still the original Flash. It was very low-tech. But at the same time, Adobe were talking about launching Flash 11 and saying, “Hey, we’re going to start tapping into the GPU.” For us as core gamers, that was pretty interesting. You could maybe do some decent-looking games on Facebook. That’s what it all sprung from.
We thought what would be great is if we could do a great combat-action-brawler game, because those have always been popular. We hadn’t done one for a while. It felt like we were going back in time a little bit with this tech, back to Street Fighter, Virtua Fighter, Tekken kind of games. But to give it real longevity, what if we added this great full RPG backend to it as well? So we felt that we had the design skills ourselves to do the moment to moment play control, but we needed someone like Stieg to… We wanted a really good backend, a complete Diablo-style backend for the RPG systems. That’s how we put the team together. That was about 18 months ago now.
"One of the other appealing things about Facebook in particular is that you have a really direct relationship with the audience." Do you feel like you sought out this situation because you value independence? You don’t have to work with a publisher. Is that part of the appeal?
Jones: It’s definitely a part of the appeal, yeah. They don’t bring any kind of preconceived ideas. They’re not trying to change the model, which is always slow and cumbersome to do. It was easier to be independent and just do the classic San Francisco raise-some-VC-finance route. That’s why we’re here. And just give it a go.
Stieg Hedlund: I think one of the other appealing things about Facebook in particular is that you have a really direct relationship with the audience. You have a live game and you get feedback directly from them about what they like and what they don’t like. Both in terms of comments they send in and the data about where they’re going and what they’re engaging with in your game. You can continue to refine the game and make it better and better as you go. As far as the game being kind of retro, I think we acknowledge the past, but particularly the first couple of generations of Facebook games were super backward looking. They were games from the ‘80s and ‘90s, really. The early ‘90s. We definitely try to take the feeling of games like Dave just mentioned, but really do a new spin on them. It’s obviously a hybrid. It’s all of those things. But I think we’re making something very new and different, instead of just remaking things that already exist.
Talking about the idea of independence, with Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight and lots of other publishing platforms—Facebook is one of them… I think a lot of people would say that we’re entering an era where publishers are decreasing in relevance, decreasing in importance. I’m curious if you would agree with that, or if that’s something you would celebrate.
Jones: I would disagree with it. It’s not like there’s one market for gaming and the whole market goes one way. I still love console gaming. I love the big budgets. I love E3. I love seeing what’s new and what’s coming. Those are big, expensive games to make. Publishers do back and do pay for some of those big, big titles. I’m looking forward to GTA 5. I would hate to be in a world where that stuff goes away. I think we need that as well. I would say about five to six years ago, I was more worried that the market was going the other way, where everything… There was only one market for video games and it was massive triple-A. Studios were dying. If it wasn’t for this resurgence of new platforms—social, mobile, tablet—I’m actually grateful that we do have lots of different ways now. For a while I was worried about where a new generation of game designers was going to come from. Being on a huge team is really hard. But having all these new markets is just great. Notch is the absolute prime example, and going back to some of the great iOS games, Rovio and so on. For me, I think you need everything. I think you need the full ecosystem. I’m glad we have this.
Hedlund: I’d agree with that. I’d jump in on the fact that there is a place for us as indies to say, “We’re going to do something that’s different.” We don’t need a big publisher buy-in to get it going. We’ve had a good response so far. We were able to identify something that people would like. Sometimes publishers can be a barrier to that, where they don’t get it or they want to change the vision of the game so it fits more with things that they’re familiar with.
I’m wondering if you guys think that there is a stigma among core gamers about Facebook games—that they’re not for them, or they’re too simple…
Jones: Oh, there is.
So with that being the case, how do you guys address that?
Jones: I think it’s hard to address. We’ve seen a lot of comments from people like Steam players. “Oh, this game looks awesome, but it’s on Facebook, so I’m not going to play it.” It’s kind of cutting off your nose to spite your face a little bit, you know? What do we do to address that? To be honest, what we’re trying to do is say, “Hey, if we bring something that is really good, and the only place to get it just now is on Facebook, maybe we can start to turn that a little bit.” We’re not going to try and preach at people and convince them to do it. I have a funny feeling that if there’s peer pressure -- if people’s friends start playing it and they get an invite and they tell them that it’s a really good game, you should come try it – then I think we can deliver something that changes that perception. Hopefully that’s a good way to do it.
Hedlund: Yeah. Again, like David was saying before, our reasoning is that because it’s accessible to everyone… That’s the key to what we’re doing. We probably will eventually move to other platforms, but Facebook makes sense as a starting point. We want people to be able to play together, and it just seems like the best way to do it right now. Just like David was saying, it’s a fantastic game. Everybody looks at it and says, “Hey, this doesn’t look like a Facebook game.” That’s our goal. We’re not trying to be a Facebook game. We’re trying to be a really good game that’s on Facebook.
Jones: There’s definitely something powerful in it. It’s the first time I’ve ever worked on a game where… You can be speaking to somebody on the phone. You don’t know what gaming system they have. They say, “What are you working on?” “Oh, I’m working on this game.” “That sounds pretty cool.” “Actually I’ll just send you a link right now and you can jump in and we’ll play together.” It’s so easy. There’s something pretty cool about that. Games, I think, have to be as accessible as possible. You want to show somebody a clip from a movie, you just click YouTube. You don’t have to worry about what system they have or how long it takes them to install something.
Hedlund: Yeah. There’s also the try before you buy kind of mentality. Steam is great, but I have to be convinced by my friends that something is worth paying for and downloading before I’m going to do it. Here you can just jump in and find out.
Jones: That puts the pressure on us, because we know that they have absolutely no vested interest in this game. They can decide in 20 or 30 seconds. “Nah, that’s not for me.” It puts a lot of pressure on developers, going over to this free, hyper accessible model. You’ve got 20 or 30 seconds. They haven’t paid any money. They don’t feel like they have to play for a little while to get into it because they’ve spent money on it. It’s really good, I think. All game developers should develop a Facebook game at some point in their career. I think you learn a hell of a lot. You have to think about things very differently. It just broadens your skill set a little bit. It’s one of the reasons I was really excited to do something on Facebook. People said, “Facebook?” Yeah, but it does broaden your skill base. It does make you think, from a design perspective, very differently about some things. Some of that stuff may go across, eventually… If we ever do a core game on console or something, I think it’s a very valuable thing to have gone through.
Hedlund: Yeah. In a way, you have to be extremely respecting of your player’s time. Just like you were saying, there’s no buy-in. You have to say, “Hey, we’re going to give you the best experience we possibly can. We’re not going to bullshit around.”
Check back early next week for a conversation with Dave Jones about the life, death, and rebirth of APB.
UPDATE: XCOM: Enemy Within is a thing! 2K Games told Digital Spy that they'll be revealing the sequel/expansion/tie-in Facebook game/range of action figures at Gamescom this month, which kicks off on August 21. Hmmm, "Enemy Within," what could that be?
Original story: The XCOM franchise has received a lot of love recently, and it looks like the passion for making new XCOM games isn’t wavering anytime soon. Someone with a knack for scoops found something called “XCOM: Enemy Within” listed on the Korean ratings board website.
The name sounds like the perfect title for a sequel to the unforgiving test of tactics known as XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but that’s just pure speculation. We don’t know if XCOM: Enemy Within will even be a turn-based strategy game, but we sure as hell know what we’d want to see if that happens to be the case. Namely, more mission variety and less squad members looking like they came off an android assembly line.
There’s a chance we’ll see Enemy Within rear its bulging grey head at this year’s fast-approaching Gamescom convention, but it’s impossible to say for certain. All we know from the listing is that the enemy within us will be making its way to the PC when it finally decides to blink back at us.
We were just talking about the new single-player RTS, Meridian: New World, a couple days ago, wishing we could see some footage of the newly-announced game rather than some logo-emblazoned screenshots. Well, it looks like our wish has been answered, as Elder Games has released its debut trailer for its debut game.
Despite what the trailer says, it seems like Meridian will be somewhat similar to StarCraft II's single-player campaign.You chit chat with your crew members as the story rolls along while upgrading and customizing your units as you accumulate XP. And although you could make choices that impacted the story in StarCraft II, it sounds as though Tarsoly is aiming for even greater consequences, though we've yet to see something that proves that's the case.
The out-of-place “Tired of the same bugs and templars crawling on your screen for the last 10 years?” jab aside, Meridian’s trailer shows the game has some promise. “Equip your units with rocket launcher,” may not sound particularly ground-breaking, but the list of things you can slap onto your units is impressive. If the game’s sole creator, Ede Tarsoly, can get the balancing right, I can see Meridian: New World being more than just a fun diversion.
The video doesn’t show off any story beats, crew interaction or the promised level editor, though I suppose you have to pace yourself when the game’s not due until spring or summer of next year.
Early buy-ins, crowdfunding, and early access have taken game development (and more importantly, game funding) into crazy new directions in the last few years. An extensive set of interviews at Gamasutra asks some of the biggest names in early access funding, like Dean Hall (DayZ), Markus Persson (Minecraft) and Chris England (Xenonauts), about their experiences developing a game with thousands of early adopters looking on.
The verdict? It’s a mixed blessing, for sure.
"I think the biggest benefit is that you can get real momentum going for your game at the gestation period of the design," says Hall, the creator of the popular DayZ mod for Arma 2, which will soon launch as a standalone game. "Without doing this, the game can only become 'hot' when the design is already locked down and finished." Hall cites Kerbal Space Program as a good example: the game is a hit early in its development, and the income and attention has led developer Squad to add more features. " became popular very early in its development, and allowed the scope and the direction of the game to adjust proportionally to this. If they had made the game completely first, I don't think its scope and direction would resemble at all where it is today."
Markus Persson, founder of Mojang and creator of Minecraft, agrees. “For game like Minecraft, it makes sense to release early and fund early," he continues, "but for other games (such as story-heavy games) it makes no sense to release an incomplete product.”
As for the down-sides, the developers list fear of disappointing fans (who have already become customers), being overly ambitious and becoming locked into a game that you’re afraid won’t be fun, but has to be completed to send to already-paid-in players.
Check out the full interview for more developers’ thoughts on early access funding.
Last year’s Dark Souls was a fun third-person hack ‘n slash, but everything is better with a little tinkering. Now a modder has adjusted the default view to zoom the camera right into the back of the player’s head. The result is a nauseating journey into a world of flailing arms and upside-down elbows, but if it helps you get in character, I say go for it.
Youtube user Soul Slasher posted the above video showing off the new view. At first everything seems pretty normal. Forearm holding sword, check. Backside of a metal shield, check. It initially looks like a cross between Dark Souls and Skyrim. Then the player starts running, glitching off of walls and battling the undead. The video is 11 minutes long, but I had to look away after less than half of that.
The uploader notes that this version is mostly unplayable, and I have to agree. Still, it’s a cool idea. A few years ago the addictive infestation shoot-em-up Alien Swarm was converted to first person with great results. Let this be a new trend: convert everything to first person, try to keep the glitching to a minimum and slap an Oculus Rift on it. It’ll change everything.
Surprise one: Batman: Arkham Origins will launch with a multiplayer mode. Surprise two: it’s a weird confluence of Splinter Cell and Gears of War.
I played about an hour of Origins’ eight-player online component last week here in San Francisco with fellow press. The most interesting thing about it is its 3v3v2 format: two teams of gangs fight over control points while a pair of player-controlled heroes swoop around, disrupting their progress. The heroes—Batman and Robin—win by filling an “intimidation meter” that increases whenever they knock out a thug (with bonuses awarded for varying the type of takedown that’s executed) and depletes whenever a hero dies. Team Joker and Team Bane—the gangs—win by exhausting the respawn ticket pool of their opponent or by holding control points for longer in the match.
Splash Damage—known for its work on the Enemy Territory games and Brink—is behind this asymmetrical multiplayer mode, working in parallel with Origins’ campaign team at Warner Brothers Games Montreal. The British studio’s specialization in multiplayer makes it a great fit, and I admire that Splash hasn’t simply shoe-horned Arkham into a conventional multiplayer template. But without the heroes lurking around, this would be a conventional, cover-based shooter: the gang members unlock weapons, outfit pieces, and abilities through play, and their movement and survivability is along the lines of Gears of War and other games in the genre.
That puts the onus on the hero roles to make things interesting, and they do to some extent—being dive-kicked in the spine by a gliding Batman adds some paranoia to the mix. But in practice, Batman and Robin felt less intimidating to fight against than I would’ve liked. It’s possible a pool of inexperienced players might not’ve given me the best sense of how much the heroes can stifle the bad guys’ progress, but I was put off by how difficult it was to hide as a hero. Everyone can toggle Arkham’s x-raying, Invisible Predator vision mode to reveal the location of every other player. Gang members can only use it for a brief period before the ability recharges, but flicking it on and off was usually enough to make a mental note about where heroes were.
I do like that Joker and Bane’s thugs aren’t fish in a barrel—if anything, Batman and Robin felt too fragile—but the absence of a class system or any other distinguishing elements for gang members beyond weapon selection made me feel like I was playing a generic goon every time I respawned. Origins just doesn’t feel designed from the ground up to support third-person shooting. The player who fired first in most of my shootouts usually won. Credit to Splash Damage’s work on Brink’s character creation system, though, Origins’ avatar customization is terrific: I built a horrid, huge-bellied Joker-Santa Claus by attaching an acid-green beard to my thug.
Splash Damage and WB only showed a single map, and was unwilling to talk about how many maps the mode would contain, or how they would differ from one another, but did say that they wouldn’t be ripped directly from the campaign. The map we played, Blackgate Prison, felt cavernous in a way I liked for the hero team—there were always grapple points within reach—but as a Joker or Bane player that spaciousness felt more like vacancy.
I’m glad to see Splash Damage and WB pursuing a creative, asymmetry-driven mode for Origins’ multiplayer, but based on this short hands-on I’m not confident that it’s something I’ll spend much time with.
Paradox Development Studio has announced ambitious DLC for Crusader Kings II which will convert your saves from the medieval, Eurocentric sandbox into a playable mod for the upcoming, globe-spanning Renaissance simulator, Europa Universalis IV. Yes, this means that you could potentially play the same faction through over 950 years of alternate history, from CK2: The Old Gods' start date in 867 A.D. to the end point of EU4 in 1821 A.D. I had a chance to grill Henrik Hansson, a programmer who worked on the DLC, on the specifics.
For a broad overview of the converter, you can check out Paradox's livestream demo from yesterday.
PCG: What are some Crusader Kings II realms that will have interesting Idea Tracks when you import them into in Europa Universalis IV?
Henrik Hansson, programmer: Some of them can be counted as secret, as we want the player to explore the game and find out But you can expect that major special nations like the Roman Empire will get their unique ideas. Crusader Kings II also have some special nations that also get some personal unique ideas like the Jomsvikings. It's up to the player to find them all.
Can you tell us a little about the unique Idea Tracks for the Jomsvikings and the Roman Empire?
The ideas are tied into the nations history mostly. Now, the Jomsvikings and the Roman Empire did not survive to 1444, so we had to get a bit creative when making them. So if we take the Jomsvikings for an example, their ideas are very much centered on the honor of being part of the brotherhood and how they are the best of the best soldiers the North can give. The names of their ideas are: The Jomsvikings Code, Legend of Jomsborg, For Glory of the Allfather, In the Name of Thor, Adopt Feudal System, and Implement the Högting.
You mentioned that reformed pagan religions from The Old Gods will transfer over to EU4, while unreformed will just be lumped in with the generic Animist/Shamanist. Are the imported religions cookie-cutter, or do they have variance? Zoroastrian versus reformed Norse, for example.
The religions do have variance between them with having different modifiers, icons and such. The converter also treats rulers differently based on their religion. They are not as well-fleshed out as the original religions in Europa Universalis IV with their own events, their own mechanics and such. They will though be able to put up a fight against the major religions if they have managed to survive to Europa Universalis IV.
What kind of bonuses does the Reformed Norse religion get? What about the other reformed pagans?
The Norse Reformed Faith gets increased force limits to represent how they are in the Crusader Kings II game. All other religions get something similar that will represent something from the Crusader Kings II game.
The Norse Fylkirate as a title—how does it convert to EUIV?
At the moment it is not converted, but I am trying to come up with a good way to do this so the player is rewarded for his achievement.
Are there any unique cultural units for the importable CK2 cultures that don't exist in vanilla EUIV?
At the moment, no, that isn't planned.
Can you form the Holy Roman Empire in an imported game of Europa Universalis IV if it didn't exist in the exported Cruader Kings II game?
There is no way to form the empire in Europa Universalis IV, it will have to be done in Crusader Kings II first.
How does the converter decide which Europa Universalis IV tech group to stick you in?
Various factors decide what tech group you are in. For instance Muslims get the Muslim tech group, but if they conquer large parts of Europe they will become the Ottoman tech group. If you are Ottoman in Crusader Kings II, then of course you will get the Ottoman tech group. Then you have the pagans. They will become Eastern unless you manage to do large technological advancements before the game is converted.
How does the converter decide what government type to give you?
It is kind of the same as with the tech groups, various factors. Most of the time they will get Feudal Monarchy, but Merchant Republics will become Merchant Republics, the Mongol horde will stay a Mongol horde, the Empires will be Empires and Holy Orders will be Theocracies.
How is the world outside of Crusader Kings II's boundaries generated? Does it default to the standard EU4 1444 set-up?
It depends. Most of the time, yes, it will probably be the default. But there are some special events in Crusader Kings II that changes this...
Other than the Mongols, what stuff from Crusader Kings II "spills out" onto the larger EU4 map? Is there a hard boundary to how far it can spill?
There are the Timurids who can start to invade . They start with some provinces outside of visible Europe. These two will be joined together. The same for the Golden Horde.
Are heresies for each Crusader Kings II religion converted over? If my entire Persian empire was Manichean, or I had an Iconoclast ERE, does that transfer?
The religion system in Europa Universalis IV is totally different from Crusader Kings II, where each heresy is its own proper religion. Europa Universalis IV doesn't support that, so unfortunately, you will get the parent religion after conversion.
Do converted cultures and religions get any unique CBs in EUIV?
Does Muslim decadence carry over in any way?
Do claims transfer over?
Some of the claims do transfer over, yes.
Can West/East Francia ever become France and Germany, or are they stuck with those names if they exist at the time the Crusader Kings II save was exported?
They will be stuck as West/East Francia in Europa Universalis IV.
You mentioned that if a realm has Minimum Crown Authority in CK2, the direct vassals will spawn as independent relams with vassalage contracts to their liege in EU4. How is multi-tiered vassalage handled? Is only the first level of vassals under each ruler relevant?
Only the direct vassals of the ruler are considered. But for Holy Roman Empire, every level of vassals is considered to take full advantage of the HRE mechanics in Europa Universalis IV.
You mentioned that importing a game with the CK2 Sunset Invasion DLC will spawn a huge Aztec Empire in North America. What flags a Crusader Kings II save as a "Sunset Invasion universe" game? Is it just having the mod checked when you export the save, or does the event actually have to fire?
Just have to have the DLC loaded when exporting!
How far ahead is the Aztec/Inca alternate history tech group in an imported Sunset Invasion game? Do they get new ideas separate from the historical Inca/Aztecs?
This is one of the things we want people to play and find out.
Do the other fictional North American states mentioned in Sunset Invasion exist in an imported game? Like, could I play as the Aztecs, and have a rebellion to restore the Shoshone/Iriquois free states? Would they then be part of the super Aztec/Inca tech group?
Are there any plans to port Europa Universalis IV saves forward to Paradox Development Studio games set later down the timeline?
Not at the moment. One step at a time.
Thanks to Henrik for clearing up these details for us. Watch for more on Europa Universalis IV and the save game converter in the coming weeks.
Chris Roberts is the creator of Wing Commander and CEO of Cloud Imperium, where he's leading the design of Star Citizen. He may not get much time to play games, but he sure as hell can make them.
Name: Chris Roberts Occupation: CEO, Cloud Imperium Location: Santa Monica, California Twitter: @croberts68
"I tend to try and build things to make them look kind of cool." Who are you?
I’m Chris Roberts. I am the CEO of Cloud Imperium and, I guess, the designer and project director of Star Citizen, which is an ambitious sort of combination of an open-world sandbox space sim and a single-player narrative story game in the vein of Wing Commander. That’s Squadron 42, the single-player component of Star Citizen.
What’s in your PC?
I tend to build my own PCs, just because I think it’s kind of fun, and it’s not very difficult nowadays. The one that’s on my desk that I built has an Intel 3930K, which I’ve overclocked. It’s sitting on an ASUS Rampage board and I run a GTX 690 in it. I’ve got 32 gigabytes of Corsair Dominator Platinum memory. It’s all cooled with a closed-loop water cooler: the Corsair H100i. My PSU is the Corsair AX860i. That pretty much covers it. My primary drive is a 512 gigabyte SSD. I think it’s an ADATA XPG 900, maybe? Then I have a three-terabyte 7200RPM Barracuda as my data drive.
I’ve got an Oculus Rift development kit sitting on my desk, so I have two monitors. One monitor is the ASUS PE278, it’s the 2560 by 1440 high-res IPS monitor. Then on my left, I’ve got the 1920 by 1080 Nvidia 3D monitor. I think my sound thing is whatever Corsair makes. I’ve got a pretty decent sound system. It’s not a bad rig. My home machine has also got an X79 hexacore in it, but it’s got the 3960X, which is overclocked again. They’re both overclocked about 4.4, 4.5. It’s also got an ASUS motherboard, but it’s the deluxe X79 one. I’ve got two 680s in SLI in my home machine. Again, a 512-megabyte primary SSD and a three-terabyte data drive.
What’s the most interesting part of your setup?
I tend to try and build things to make them look kind of cool. The one I’ve got here on my desk has this Republic of Gamers ASUS card and the motherboard has got that red and black theme, so everything is themed that way, even the Corsair water cooler. I’ve got it switched to the red LED. The case it’s in is a Corsair C70 Vengeance case, which is actually quite a nice case. It has a nice big open panel on the side so you can see in. It’s got tool less access which is really quite nice. It’s a fast machine. It’s good for development.
What’s on your desk?
I’ve got a Razer Black Widow mechanical keyboard, which is awesome, and a Razer DeathAdder mouse, and a nice big Razer mousepad. Razer’s been quite nice to us. One of the nice things about being a pretty high-profile crowdfunded project, especially one that’s pushing PCs and peripherals, is that a lot of people like Razer that specialize in equipment for gamers have been very kind and happy to share some of their cool equipment. On my desk is their keyboard and mouse. I already talked about the Oculus Rift. I don’t have it hooked up here, but at home I’ve got the Saitek X52 joystick and throttle setup.
What are you playing right now? "I like to escape into different worlds. That drives the games I make. It’s about immersion into another world." I wish I had a bit more time to play. Since Star Citizen went full throttle, I haven’t had much time. Non-PC games, I was playing a bit of The Last Of Us, which is pretty awesome, even though it’s on the PS3 hardware. It’s pretty amazing how much they’ve pushed out of it. On the PC, Company of Heroes 2. I liked the original a lot. I haven’t had a chance to play very deep into it, though. And I just downloaded XCOM, the one that was out a little while ago. I’ve been playing and checking that out. But I haven’t had a chance to get too deep into games, because the problem is, when I get into a game, I want to finish it. That leads to a week, two weeks of being up to four or five in the morning. That’s not too good when you’ve got deadlines. We’ve got this hangar module we have for Star Citizen that we’re trying to get out for Gamescom on the 24th of August. Then we’ve got to work on all the other ships.
What’s your favorite game and why?
That’s really kind of hard, because I think it depends on—I would say that I would break it down, “At this point, in this era, this was one of my favorite games. In this era, this was one of my favorite games."
Most recently, on the PC...the problem with PC games recently is that there haven’t been many PC-specific games. We’ve had more ports from consoles. That’s one of the reasons why I started to do Star Citizen. Generally, the RTS stuff, StarCraft II I played a lot. Diablo III, obviously. I played Skyrim on the PC, which was much better than on the console, because of the higher res and a whole bunch of other stuff. The Witcher. I’m trying to think of more recent PC stuff I played. I intended to play the Mass Effect games all on the PC, so I actually did the first one and the second one on the PC. Dragon Age. I quite liked the first Dragon Age by BioWare. Not so much the second one, but the first one was pretty cool.
Those are the sort of stuff that I’ve been playing. I think the other one that I played a lot on PC—I switched up between PC and console—was Battlefield. Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and then Battlefield 3. I like that version of multiplayer, where you fight in a team environment, versus the Call of Duty one where it’s much quicker paced and more solo-focused. I really like that combined arms—you get into a tank with a friend of yours. You’re running the machine gun and keeping off the engineers planting charges and all that kind of stuff.
Why do you game?
I like to escape into different worlds. That drives the games I make. It’s about immersion into another world. I’m not really playing a game to rack up a high score or even for competitive stuff, although sometimes competition—like doing StarCraft competitively—is kind of fun. But it’s the immersion for me. I like to get lost in a world. I like to go and do things that you wouldn’t do in your normal life. You can see that in Star Citizen. Flying a spaceship out in the outer frontier of the galaxy is not something you’re going to do in your real life. Fighting dragons or demons and all that kind of stuff. For me, it’s an escape and an immersion into another world.
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There's a very good chance that watching the latest trailer for Cradle will leave you absolutely none the wiser as to what that game's about. Flying buses, a dude in a Groucho Marx disguise, amnesia, a half-built mechanical girl and so many cubes that part of the game world could probably be twinned with Minecraft. This seemed like exactly the time to get in touch with Ilya Tolmachev, Creative Director of Cradle developer Flying Cafe for Semianimals and ask "Wait, what?"
You play as 18-year-old Enebish who has grown up in a yurt amongst the desert hills of Mongolia, explains Tolmachev. Ordinarily he spends his time digitising and selling flowers and ignoring the neglected entertainment park nearby, but when he loses his memory during an inexpertly performed medical procedure he gains new curiosity about his surroundings. That curiosity is only enhanced when Tolmachev discovers a neuroprocessor containing the digitised consciousness of a girl called Ida. He connects Ida's consciousness to a flower vase built in the form of a mechanical girl, and proceeds to try to unravel her story by exploring the park - the only thing she appears to recognise.
The game trailers and teasers released so far ooze a poetic strangeness which pegs the title firmly into "art game" territory, and seems to delight in obscurantism. Asking Tolmachev about the game's influences yields the following literary recipe:
"The story in Cradle has combined the mood and ideas from books of several writers: from Albert Camus the story of Cradle received the taste of bitterness and absurd; from Vladimir Sorokin, an eerie feeling of permanent hostility coming out of the reality; from Andrey Platonov, the feeling of empathy and pity directed towards don't know who, having no specific addressee; from the Strugatsky brothers, the humanistic confidence in the inevitable triumph of human essence over the animal one."
The game itself is intended to feel like a dream but translating liminality into a coherent ruleset for the player is no easy feat. According to Tolmachev, the team hopes that the consistent internal logic of the game world will ground players. "The entire world of the game is built so that under the first impression it looks surreal," he says. "However, as the story develops the player unfolds strict logical links between the objects and phenomena of this universe. That makes the game transform from a metaphoric parable to a logically convincing realistic story."
By holding the player at the pivot point between two aesthetically different environments Flying Cafe aims to achieve dreaminess. It's about here that we touch on the cubes. "The glowing cubes pavilion is an integral part of our idea to immerse the player into the complex, specific state of sleep where you are peeping at someone else's life." The idea is that navigation of the apparently-voyeuristic cube world can be used to find answers to some of the players' questions.
In terms of when we might actually get to explore these Mongolian landscapes and entwined cube worlds, Cradle was previously reported for release in spring of 2012 but the departure of game designer Pavel Mikhailov over 'ideological controversies' saw that date pushed to summer 2013. Now Flying Cafe are offering a tentative spring 2014 release date. I ask about the effect of Mikhailov's departure on the project.
"The development process has been the same hell difficult as it used to be," says Tolmachev. Over the course of development several other people departed the project and the nature of Cradle itself causes problems. "The idea behind it is ephemeral and tough to document - it is hardly possible to physically keep its sensation with you constantly." Tolmachev also admits to moments of self-doubt - a creeping coldness which accompanies exhaustion. "Then I produce a pack of old notepads where I used to work out the concept of Cradle, and everything quickly gets back in order."
The game's success on Greenlight provided a confidence boost to the team and offered proof that Cradle would be in demand but one of the side effects was that the developers now have an added sense of pressure to release - "This is an unpleasant feeling," says Tolmachev.
Speaking frankly, bringing the project to completion for 2014 - or indeed at all - might still be a challenge. With the Greenlight success in mind, one of my last questions is whether the team has considered a Kickstarter campaign. "We are indeed tempted about it as we are a bit short of funds to complete the project. In case we can't find an alternative way to procure the funding, perhaps we make a call for the community to help us with the finances."
All being well, Cradle will launch in spring 2014 on PC and Linux with a Mac port to follow.
Before a game is given its official PC reveal, it exists in my head as part of a dull grey memory pool, where things I've briefly noticed congeal together into a mess of half-ignored recollections. For instance, I've only now realised that Guacamelee! is a pun - and not just food with an exclamation mark - and that the game isn't just about punching, but also dimension jumping and chicken transforming. The reason for my new found attention? It's coming to PC next week.
IGN report that Guacamelee! Gold Edition is due for release on Steam from August 8th, bundled with the game's two DLC packs for £11.99/$14.99. In it, you follow luchador wrestler Juan as he attempts to save the president's daughter from an evil skeleton, with help from belly flopping body slams.
The Steam version will pack in achievements, trading cards, cloud saves and leaderboards, and everyone who buys in the first week will also get a copy of Drinkbox's first game, Tales of Space: Mutant Blobs Attack.