Last year saw the closure of one of the last big publisher-owned console development studios in Australia – EA Melbourne, Visceral Games.
Having worked on such titles as Dead Space and The Godfather, the studio was two years into development of a multiplayer shooter that was around 90 percent completed when the plug was pulled.
Now, a small team of ex-employees have started up new studio named PlaySide in Melbourne, with an eye on the long-term and a desire to revitalise the local game development industry.
Details of PlaySide's first game, Catch The Ark were released today. Coming to iOS, Catch The Ark is described as pushing "the competitive nature of endless runners to new levels". As the game has it, Noah is a stickler for the rules who won't let three unpaired, misfit animals onto his Ark. Thanks to a conveniently-dropped escape raft, the trio embarks on an adventure to escape the impending flood at all costs.
Gameplanet Australia spoke to PlaySide’s CEO Gerry Sakkas (former lead designer at Visceral Games) about the challenges of setting up a new studio in the wake of Visceral Games' closure and learned some more details about Catch The Ark.
Gameplanet: First of all, can you tell us a little about the creation of PlaySide? Going from publisher-owned EA Visceral Games to starting your own studio must have seemed like a daunting process?
Gerry Sakkas: When the Visceral Melbourne studio shut down, it was either move to America and work for EA there, or start my own company. At the time I was really interested in mobile development and where that was heading, and I didn't want to risk working on another project for two years of my life that may or may not ever be released. With the closure of Visceral, there was suddenly a pool of really talented people that were now readily available to work, so I went out to find investors, showed them some game concepts and pitched them the idea of opening a new studio, not a game, a studio.
I feel like too many start-ups focus on one product and then if it fails, they shut down. We didn't build the studio around a game, we build it based on the fact we could hire a brilliant team to make amazing products.
Gameplanet: What were some of the unexpected challenges you faced founding the studio?
Sakkas: I think for me it was becoming more involved in the daily running of an actual business. Luckily my partners control most of the business side of things, but there are many day to day things that keep me from designing, so a lot of overtime is the only way to counter that!
Gameplanet: Do you believe Australia has the local talent to compete at an international level?
Sakkas: I really, really do! I think when it comes to other kinds of software such as social networks or dotcom start-ups, we are lacking some of the talent and massive funding that is required to make them work, but we have a plethora of talent in the games industry, really talented people who have had experience working for major companies, and most of them are still jobless. It is the biggest waste of talent ever. That is one of the reasons I chose to stay here, because I thoroughly believe we can revive this industry due to the amazing talent we have. At Visceral, numerous 'higher ups' would continuously talk about how they loved working with us, due to the fact we were talented and really easy to work with, and I really believe that to be the case.
Gameplanet: Your first game Catch the Ark has been announced today. It’s quite a departure from the more hardcore console games you’re experienced with. Was it easy to adjust to developing for an entirely new platform and market?
Sakkas: I believe in making games for everybody, not just because that's what makes money, but because I want everyone to be able to enjoy our games. In saying that though, I don't want to make games just for kids, I like the Pixar approach of making a game that touches everybody in a different way, there are many adult undertones in Catch The Ark that I'm sure adults will see. I mean, the game is an endless runner about three cute animals trying to escape from a huge flood, but its endless, right? You can't escape.
As for adjusting, I feel that Visceral as a brand only makes action and horror games. PlaySide as a brand just makes amazing game experiences, regardless of genre. If we want to make a horror game next we can, where as Visceral cant go and make Catch The Ark. So choosing Catch The Ark as our first game was more a decision of what was right for now, not cementing ourselves into a certain category of studios.
Gameplanet: What sets Catch The Ark apart from other similar titles like Temple Run?
Sakkas: I think most endless runners are setting out just to be the next Temple Run. We are trying to do the exact opposite. We are trying to bring a console style of quality to a genre that desperately needs it. One of the other main attractions to our game is the actual story and how we will be telling it when you play the game. I don't believe endless runners need a story mode, I just think its cool for the story to be told in unique ways, and for the world to change as you play and get further.
Gameplanet: A lot of attention has been put into the characters in the game (Titan, Boon, Zuzu, and Noah). If successful, do you see opportunities to expand the franchise (for example, with merchandise)? Is this something you think developers should include in their overall strategies?
Sakkas: The idea behind building Catch The Ark was definitely to build a franchise. When we first started PlaySide, I wanted our first intellectual property to be worth more than just a game. Even when designing our characters, I ensured that they could actually stand on two feet if they were made into a toy, and ensured they had thumbs so in the future they could hold objects (Catch The Ark Tennis? haha). I believe that you need to create amazing IP. Whether that's through characters or not I cant say, but developers should definitely consider and ask themselves this crazy question: "What if this was the next angry bird, how could we build upon this franchise outside of gaming?" We have also put a lot of time into developing personalities for them, as they would be great as animated shorts. I really want people to love these characters. I want them to feel attached to them, that was my goal from the very beginning.
Gameplanet: The iOS market is saturated with new games being released daily. How does PlaySide expect Catch the Ark to stand out from the crowd?
Sakkas: I think one of the main theories about Apps in general - and especially thanks to 60 minutes and their amazing story last week about how anyone can become a millionaire by making apps - is that if you make an amazing game or App and put it on the App Store then you are going to make a boat load of money. I know plenty of developers who have done exactly that, and made $50 dollars.
The key is marketing, we enlisted Surprise Attack to handle where and how we market our game, but the real key here is spending money. If you aren't prepared to spend half of what you spent making the game (or more in our case) on marketing, then just don't make an iPhone game unless you are doing it for the love of it, and just want something for your friends can play.
Gameplanet: Can you tell us anything more about the mini-boss battles and how they will work?
Sakkas: In the game there will be various times where you come across larger enemies that challenge in a different way. One of them is a large octopus named Kracken and he attempts to flick enemies with his tentacles. Another will be a large bird that snaps at you from the side of the forest. And one will be Noah himself. But more info on that at a later date.
Gameplanet: Are you courting controversy by suggesting Noah was a grumpy old man who built the ark all for himself?
Sakkas: I hope not! Well, let me rephrase that. That's definitely not why we did it. I just really wanted to take an amazing story that everyone in the world is told, and take it to another level - more on par with, say, a Disney film. By including fantasy animals and boats from all different time periods, I'd hope it's clear this is a very alternative take on the story of Noah from the perspective of a few fictional characters, and not any sort of serious interpretation of the Bible, or a take on his behaviour within it.
Gameplanet: Have you guys already got your next title in the works?
Sakkas: I have a few new concepts that I have been building. I don't really want to give too much away. But one is a brand new genre all together. So there are some really exiting times for PlaySide ahead.
Gameplanet: What advice can you give to other small start-up iOS developers?
Sakkas: My advice for all the unemployed developers is to put Skyrim down and start making a game. Mobile phones are super powerful now so the sky's the limit. Okay, maybe not the sky. Maybe the clouds. As for other devs all I can say is, I hope we all succeed in rebuilding what was once an amazing thriving industry. I'll be happy if at the end of the day that was our main achievement.