Wednesday, 18 October 2017

First Look: Sigma Theory

     Sigma Theory is the latest offering from the team of Mi-Clos Studios and FibreTigre, also known as the team who brought us the multi-award winning "Out There", and it's every bit as deep and evocative as it's predecessor. To read it's summary often ends with more questions than answers, so I decided that this was something I was going to have to look up once I arrived at PlayExpo.

   I wasn't disappointed. It's a game that doesn't sit too well with descriptions, as it's blurb can attest:
"Sigma Theory is a single-player near-future espionage strategy game that takes place during a new cold war."
However, once I started playing the preview that was available at the convention, it suddenly became much more clear. Sigma Theory allows you to hire spies- all of whom have their own strengths and weaknesses- and send them out to obtain information. How they get that information is up to you and what you do with it can either lead humanity into a utopia, or to ruin.

        The joy in this game is that there are no bad guys, unless you decide to become one. Your spies have free will and can rebel against you at any time, depending on what you make them do or what type of person they are, and you can cause your spies to be caught and killed in action. Every choice you make will have a knock-on effect for the rest of the game and losing information does not mean that it's Game Over. 

      This is a well thought-out game, that has a rather meaningful origin. When asked what sparked the idea for the game, the creator Michael Peiffert told me "it started with a discussion between me and my friend. We were discussing politics and how it is so easy for everyone to say 'this decision, that the government has made on our behalf, it's so stupid'- but we don't know the whole story. The politicians have so much more information, they have so many secrets and we thought 'what if we can make a game, where we put people in this position?'. So that's what we did"

    It's easy to see how you could lose hours playing Sigma Theory. The game makes a complicated premise really easy to use, and it's a credit to the developers. Most importantly, this game is fun- and I can't wait to play more. 

Monday, 16 October 2017

Ersatz; Interview With Paris Stalker at PlayExpo

      The best part about PlayExpo is undoubtedly seeing small games and game designers move up in the world, creating success and gaining massive exposure, from Snake Pass to the new Ersatz. All-iN Indie games are well-and-truly the new kid on the block, consisting solely of Paris Stalker, meaning if you haven't heard of Ersatz, that's kinda understandable- but by no means should All-iN be underestimated. This guy is a game designer and composer, who has amalgamated the two to create a game that's fun to play and surprises you with little treats, including unlockables, tough bosses and an ever-changing soundtrack which causes the controller to vibrate to the beat. In the words of the creator "learning the game is simple, mastering it is not".

   I had a chance to catch up with him and ask what it means to really complete a full game, entirely on your own, and the challenges that accompany it.

I understand you created and finished the game on your own- was there any outside help at all?

    I had some minor help figuring out how to implement shaders from my brother about mid way through development. He is younger than me, but is a crazy, self taught programmer, so helped me understand some of the language. Other than that it was just a lot of testing on friends, and asking the occasional question to some friends in the industry.

What was the big focus for you- what did you really want to be unique about this game?

   I love game music and I adore tight, aesthetically satisfying action. When gameplay and music inform each other both ways you can get a unique synaesthesic experience that isn't often seen. For me to combine these two elements and create a game where the music and gameplay feel at least partly synced, but not lock to the player rails was the goal.

I love that the music is so integral to the whole experience. Is your background in music or gaming, or are you completely self-taught?

    I studied Game Design at Teesside University where I got a 1st and won an award for digital creativity. In the first year the Design, Art and Animation courses all shared the same modules to give us a basic understanding of the disciplines. We were never taught programming. I carried on learning and using skills outside of design throughout the course and beyond, and took the visual scripting I learned from Unreal 3 into picking up bits and pieces of programming after uni. Basically, I'm officially qualified, but I wouldn't have the broad skillset I do have if I hadn't gone some way to teaching myself! Anyone looking into getting into game development I think must understand, that even if they focus on one field, they must be willing to learn about that field of their own accord to at least some extent.

I have to admit the music levels on Rayman Legends were some of my favourites...
    Same here! I loved those levels and I felt like they could be developed into something more, without being tied into following a prescribed beat- it's more fun when you have control over your character but the game still reacts to your movements.

How did you manage to fund all this?

    I have to work part-time, sometimes tipping over into near full time hours! After university and taking part in Dare to be Digital at Abertay University, I moved back home to Canterbury for 2 years, eventually convincing my mum to let me pay her a small rent. By the end of those 2 years I was going near mad despite loving my family very much, but I'd saved up enough to move to Manchester with a game that was most of the ways there. I've not spent a lot on the actual game itself, most of it being since it released. It's definitely not easy, and I'm not really in a position I'd call anything but quite poor for the time being. My passion and friends keep me going.

Where did the idea for ERSATZ originally come from and when did things really begin to snowball for you?

    To be honest, I think ERSATZ's conception was probably the least focused of any project I've worked on in any medium. A musical platformer was the basis, but it went through a number of phases during prototyping. There used to be a full blown cutscene based story, a combat system and all sorts. The basic visuals and the speed focused gameplay were just about the only things that consistently remained, born partly from necessity of limitations as a one man band and partly from my love of the aforementioned tight, aesthetically satisfying action. I kept paring it down, trimming the fat until I had a scope and focus that I felt was achievable. I'd say it wasn't until I'd finished a first playable version of the first level that things started to really move. It was at that point that I started to know what would actually work.

Wow, that's a lot of concepts! How did this fit into your life, given that you had to work elsewhere, as well?
     The flow of development would often slow down and speed up at different times depending on the problem at hand, my life schedule or mood. For example, the whole of the fourth level was entirely redesigned at one point (it's now a lot of people's favourite level!). Furthermore, when I moved cities I was starting to suffer from a mild depression for a number of reasons, which effectively shut down my drive for a good 8 months. I want to stress that when I pulled myself back around, I was stronger than ever. Don't give up!

      Taking a moment out of the interview, I think that's a great thing to focus on- I've been in hospital both when I was 17 and during the last year having had no job, no home and had to hand my daughter over to her dad so she had somewhere safe to stay. I'd lost everything. Then I came out of hospital and at some point gained just enough willpower to start again, getting a job, a home and seeing my daughter regularly. I can now look back at those moments and know that I managed to overcome it. No matter how low you go, you just need that one, tiny thing and the determination to see it through and tell the Black Dog to go fuck itself. Or, in this case, throw your energy into something and be proud of yourself!  

What were the biggest obstacles to overcome- and which part did you enjoy the most in making the game?

    The biggest obstacle was being so isolated. Having to spend such large amounts of time on my own, lack of funds not allowing me to do much, it got really, really tough at times. Since I went to PlayExpo Manchester this year, I came to realise that I could and should have been showing the game off at big events a lot earlier. The attention to build momentum would have been welcome sure, but more than anything, being able to connect with other dev's and people involved in the industry was really good for my mental health.

What (and who) are your gaming inspirations?

    Most of Nintendo's key talent has continually been an inspiration for me, but I am also a starry eyed man when it comes to Japanese legends like Suda 51, Hideki Kamiya & of course Tetsuya Mizuguchi of Rez fame. On the western side of things, Bleed & Valdis Story were both games which spoke to my soul and told me I could definitely do something myself. Honestly, it's hard to pin down anything in particular because it tends to depend on what I'm working on at the time, but I really believe in gameplay and mechanics first. Tell stories with your mechanics, not just your words or fancy cutscenes. Maybe ERSATZ is pretty light on narrative, but I think and hope others agree that it has a tone and atmosphere still.

What's next for you?

    Other than some small tweaks and bug fixes, I have an extra mode I've been working on as a free update. Then perhaps some language options so players from other countries can sink their teeth in. I've also started talking with some industry friends of mine who I went to uni with. They want to work on my next idea with me which is really exciting. I'm quite a ways off announcing anything in particular, but let's just say I'm hoping it's one of the most accessible party games ever made!

I'm really excited for you, you sound like you've worked your behind off and things are finally working out, the game is great and I look forward to playing some more!

    ERSATZ came out last month for PC on Steam on September 13th 2017 for £6.99, with the soundtrack also available on Steam and Bandcamp for £2.99. Both are available as a bundle for 20%.

Wulverblade: Interview at PlayExpo

     Wulverblade is as much a story about the creators as it is about the Ancient Britons who inspired the game design and background. This is a game that has featured at PlayExpo since the beginning, developing little-by-little, by a small team of 4 core developers who have put their heart and soul into creating a game that's fun, responsive and immersive in it's historical accuracy.
    Indeed, history is what this game is all about, with their website stating:

"Extensive research has been put into both the historical accuracy and the use of real locations from the time. Countless days have been spent walking the ancient sites, ruins and paths of the ancient Britons. The game features not only real locations, but even real people from the time. Even sound sampling has been taken from within the remains of old Roman forts and from the running streams that fed the Romans and tribesmen alike to create an atmosphere so rich you can almost taste it"

    Sounds intense. So let's see what Michael Heald, the illustrator and designer of the game, has to say about his side-scrolling brawler and third child.

Wulverblade was released on Nintendo Switch this weekend; the reviews are in, it's a resounding success! How are you feeling?

    I'm not gonna lie, I cried a little when I read the first reviews. This is like a child to me, and it's good to know that I've made a game people liked. I obviously love this game, I think it's amazing but it would have been heartbreaking if nobody else had liked it.

I bet! This has made it's way up to the AAA leagues, was there ever a point where you felt like selling the idea to a bigger producer/company?

    No. There were a couple of times over the years that someone came along and said, y'know "we like this game. We want to take it off your hands" and I just couldn't do that. They're basically asking to own, like, 30% of my life- that's not worth any amount of money to me. I like that this is an indie creation, it has more heart. To me, anyway.

It sounds like a lot of time and effort has gone into this. How did you manage that?

    It's been tough, really tough. I've got 2 kids and I had no idea the amount of work I'd need to put in- I'm an illustrator by trade, I've always been behind the scenes so this was a whole new level of game design. None of us really knew what we were in for or just how big this could be.

I was speaking to Paris Stalker earlier- who has designed Ersatz and done the entire project alone. Ersatz is obviously on a much smaller scale but he was telling me how about 90% of the money that has gone into this has been in the last month, was it the same for yourself?

    Yes. Absolutely. That was another huge surprise for us. You think the game is finished and the hard part is over. Then it's hiring voice actors- that's £4000- and a PR company- there's another £4000 and so on, and so forth- and there's a lot of talking, getting this on to other consoles and negotiating. Again, I love this game and I want it to be worth something but I don't want to charge too much- or too little! I couldn't believe how much just the price of the game could affect how people view it.

No, no I get that- you obviously care so much for this game- it's priceless, and probably worth a lot to you.. but then if you're charging too much and people aren't 'wowed' in the first few levels, you know they'll just be pissed off. 

    Exactly. You want the audience to feel like what they've got is worth what they've paid, even if I feel like it's worth hundreds!

So there's a core development team of 4, but you mention working with third-parties like your PR company and voice actors. How many people were involved in the production overall?

   We did a lot of the work ourselves, starting as us working alongside our day jobs but as it's grown we've ended up putting more hours into this and had, roughly, 25 people on board at some point or other. Especially because we're pretty specialised in what we do and a lot of this was new to us.

A lot of your time has gone into this history of this game- is this something you specialise in?
  No! I'm just a huge history geek. I love history and gaming so it was amazing to be able to combine the two. I find it fascinating the way that decisions from before the Roman Empire has affected the issues we have, even now, with borders between Scotland and England, for example. The Rigante were a huge influence on this game, as the tribe used was basically what was previously just the North West clan- we were once one big clan on one island until we were divided and I like that I was able to tell the story of the defenders.


  Wulverblade is out now on the Nintendo Switch and is expected to be released on PlayStation, XBox and Steam later this year, priced at £14.99

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Play Expo: What's On, What's Good and Why

Play Expo is getting bigger and better, year after year, and I've been blessed with all the inside info (which I, in my infinite generosity, will pass to you!)

        In case you haven't heard, The North's biggest gaming expo is, once again, blessing Event City in Trafford Park with gaming exhibitors, special guests and nearly 1000 playable consoles, handhelds, PC's, arcades and even pinballs to play- and each one is going to be jam-packed with classic and retro video games. 

All free to play. 


Everything from tabletop gaming and VR headsets to cosplay and shopping- and everything in-between is going to be demonstrated under one roof! Can you tell I'm a little bit excited?

Ahem. I'm sorry I'll calm myself, now.

       One of the best parts about this Expo is seeing all the smaller, indie games that quickly get snapped up by the big companies- like Hyper Sentinel, which has just been selected for the all the big names, including PS4 and Xbox after humble beginnings on Kickstarter.
      Then there's some amazing new releases being previewed such as The Sigma Theory. A complex, turn-based/ tactical behaviour/ espionage game that takes place during a new Cold War era, in the near-future. This game is up there on my "to-do" list at this event, as it sounds both a little crazy, fun and like a bit of a mindf*ck. Check out the trailer here.

     Seeing these guys on the same level as the big guns, such as Crash Bandicoot's latest (/oldest) N.Sane Trilogy and Halo-2 gets those guys the exposure and accolades that they deserve, and it's pretty awesome to think that 25,000 people are expected to crash through the doors to play on ALL kinds of games, no matter the studio. Heart-warming stuff.

       And from the newbs to the golden oldies- Psygnosis and it's many, many years of experience will be on full display along with the 25 years of experience the team clocked up. That's right, the minds behind Lemmings, Shadow of the Beast and Wipeout will be there for a Q&A, reminding us why the Psygnosis logo is one of the most Nostalgic images I've seen in a long while.

Remember this guy? Owl bet you do

     Not to mention the original retro machines that played host to the classics, including Sinclair, Commodore, Nintendo, Sony and Sega. And all this retro-gaming is topped off with a RetroCollect Tournament. If you're wondering what that is, it's basically a big, retro-game tournament

If this all seems a little mad to you, don't worry I'll be reporting on just how amazing it will be and maybe next year you'll be prepared for the insane journey. For those who want to come along and have a go tickets are here but are on the verge of selling out so act fast and I'll see you there!