City of Brass is the latest game from Australian developer Uppercut games, the team behind mobile hit Epoch and more recently, beautiful exploration game Submerged. The tight six-person team at Uppercut has developed a diverse catalogue of games, and their latest foray is only widens the net: City of Brass is a first-person rogue-lite set in a dark-fantasy Arabian city. Armed with whip and scimitar, you delve into the city’s depths, searching for treasure and upgrading your arsenal with the help of a friendly genie – no joke! There are bad genies too, so watch yourself.
Much of the team is made up of ex-2K Australia developers, including the three founding members, Ed Orman, Andrew James and Ryan Lancaster. The trio met on the development team of what would eventually be released as The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, a game that took nine years to develop. Over that time, six different major versions of it were worked on, and our Uppercut trio only lasted for five of them. Exasperated by the development hell the game had descended into, they left 2K in 2010, forming Uppercut Games not long after.
Now, six years later and five games later, the team has just released City of Brass into Early Access on Steam, and are looking forward to releasing the game to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 next year. They also said they have been in contact with Nintendo, and while reluctant to commit to bringing the game to Switch, they are certainly looking at the possibility.
Last week, I caught up with Uppercut to talk with them about the game and its future.
Q: It seems that in your development history Uppercut has jumped around quite a lot. First you made on-rail shooters, and then a quiet exploration game, and now a 3D rogue-lite – on mobile, PC and now console. Let me ask… do you get bored really easily?
Andrew: [laughs] I think we have gone wherever we saw the opportunities, and I think we have been very lucky that we had some experience that let us jump around. Some of those decisions were because we didn’t want to do something. For example, we were very happy on mobile but we had no experience doing long-form analytics for freemium-type games. We are PC/console developers, we are old people in terms of the industry. We didn’t want to pivot to become a freemium developer. So, we kind of got pushed out of mobile when premium died, when you couldn’t charge six bucks for a game anymore. But then that was good, because it opened up opportunities for Submerged. Ed had a good idea and we thought, ‘Let’s try this!’. I mean, I would like to say it was all a great plan… but not really.
Ed: It was certainly not a long-term plan, but we do learn every time we make a game. What we got out of Submerged, and the lesson I think you will see us applying in City of Brass is making all that content by hand was really time-consuming. Which is what got us down the line of: we need to think about procedural content.
Andrew: [With Submerged] it was too late to take on board a lot of the feedback we got through play testing. So going through Early Access with City of Brass, we feel like we have a project where we can shape and change quite easily based on feedback, and see how people are engaging with it. Whereas that was something we couldn’t do with Submerged. By the time people said ‘I want more puzzles’, it was too late.
Q: How much of a risk was this game for you? It looks like it could be a little more involved than what you have developed in the past?
Ed: I have a lot of confidence in City of Brass. I think it is the best game we have made, and we have had comments from a lot of other developers who have said the same. The risk for us is more just from project to project. You know, we have to make sure we are able to make a game that makes its money back so that we can keep making games. I guess it is more of a company risk than a project risk.
Q: Where did the idea for City of Brass come from?
Ed: The idea of procedural generation was one of the founding thoughts that we had. We were coming off Submerged, and we thought we had to change the way we were going to make things. Then we come to the idea of a city, and a procedurally generated city was something that we thought we could do pretty well. Then there was a big leap, and we said ‘do you know what is a great setting? The Arabian Nights’. Somewhere in the middle there, there is a whole bunch of head-scratching and naval-gazing.
Andrew: We were actually on a trip to Sydney, and on the way back we were talking about Bioshock and the one-two punch of the electro-volt and the wrench. These conversations were kind of separate, but we ended up thinking, ‘What about a melee game with a sword and whip?’ Then we started talking about the whip and Indiana Jones, and we got all excited.
Q: Was the game always a rogue-lite?
Ed: The kind of rogue-lite is has become has gone through some changes, but yeah a rogue-lite was always the intention – to make a game that you had to survive in as long as you could. Looking at our conversations around Bioshock, we weren’t trying to make a set narrative experience or anything like that, it was always going to be a tough survival game.
Q: Your game is a first-person melee combat game, which has been tried and failed many times. What was your philosophy going in to try and avoid some of those pitfalls?
Ed: One of the things that works well for us is that we’ve got a very arcade-y feel – we’re not trying for realism with our first-person combat. We just want it to feel fun, snappy and satisfying when you land a hit, but we are not trying to do a simulation of swordplay or super in-depth collision. Also, combat is really secondary in many ways. You are trying to survive in this city, so in some runs you don’t want to fight anybody at all. That is where the whip really comes into its own, because it is such a useful tool for so many different things, but especially in combat or avoiding combat. Being able to disarm people, or trip them up or stun them, means that you can continue to move as quickly as you can through this and get out to the other end.
Q: City of Brass has a loot and upgrade system. What was your approach to developing those mechanics?
Ed: They were heavily inspired by Spelunky as the starting point. There are a couple of different models for rogue-lites out there, but I really liked the Spelunky style of extremely punishing – if you die you lose everything. So, you are really relying on building up your own understanding of the world and your own skill to get further. You can’t really buy your way ahead.