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%.

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