The Liverpool studio that took a circular route to its desired destination
Inside Spiral House, the UK studio that’sthat s taken a circular route to its desired destination
Bobby Earl and Kevin Oxland, alongside senior programmer Robbie Tinman, have been working together at Spiral House for 18 years. It’s no surprise, then, to find that they have a habit of finishing one another’s sentences. On this occasion, there may be another reason for such keenness. Both are buzzing with nervous excitement as they demonstrate the studio’s forthcoming game, the ambitious thirdperson action-adventure Troll And I. This is the long-delayed realisation of a dream. “When we first started,” Earl says, “our remit was a five-year plan to do our own IP, to make our own games.” But since 1999 RPG Silver, the studio has mostly taken on conversions and workfor-hire jobs. Only now, 17 years on, is Spiral House able to make good on that promise.
In some respects, Oxland tells us, Troll And I represents the closing of a circle: “It’s got these strong adventure and story aspects, and that’s pretty much where we started.” The inventive and well-written Silver was warmly received in both PC and Dreamcast incarnations, though it was a relatively modest success. It has, in the intervening years, become something of a cult favourite; to this day, Spiral House still receives emails and Facebook messages asking about the possibility of a follow-up.
It worked again with Infogrames on the PC and PS2 versions of Alone In The Dark: The New
Nightmare, assisted on Reflections’ Stuntman, and followed that with the little-remembered
World Racing and its sequel. Then, in 2006, Sony came calling: Evolution needed some help getting flagship PS3 racer MotorStorm out of the door. “Four of us, all coders, went on site at Evolution, we used our expertise to get it to alpha and beta, and then we did the first DLC pack,” Earl recalls, proudly. “They were really happy with us, and wanted us to go back.”
Sony was clearly impressed: since then, Spiral House has been credited for its work on the likes of LittleBigPlanet and Wipeout Pulse. Its strong technical background helped it earn an unlikely gig: porting the augmented-reality game
EyePet to PSP, a job Sony had initially thought was impossible. “At the time, we were doing a game called Table Top Sports, and we pitched that to Sony,” Earl tells us. “The PSP was really limited [for AR], but we managed to get it working. We even did a wireless co-op mode with two PSPs, but that was probably a bit ahead of its time! Sony London had already done
EyePet on the PS3, and they said you can’t do AR on the PSP because it’s not powerful enough, and we said…” Oxland butts in: “We’ve done it – here it is!”
A second PSP outing, EyePet Adventures, came next, though by this time PSP sales were dwindling and, despite a raft of new features, it was less successful than its predecessor. Still, the studio was able to put its improved fur tech to good use in virtual puppy sim PlayStation Vita
Pets, which eventually proved to be an improbable inspiration for its next project. “Pets had a little story to it,” Oxland explains. “You took your dog on an adventure to unravel this ancient tale about a king who used to live on the land. And we suddenly realised that we really liked doing that [type of] game.”
As an author of children’s books, Oxland had been kicking around an idea about a boy and a troll for some time. Earl encouraged him to rework it into a fully fledged game concept, and while the result initially seemed too expansive for a studio with just 14 staff, the pair knew the time had come to make the leap. “We thought, ‘How can we do this?’” Oxland says. “And we were being offered other work-for-hire [jobs] at the time as well.” But to take those on would only mean postponing their original plan even further. “It was a big risk, but we thought: just do it.”
By this stage, Spiral House had amassed enough capital to self-fund development to a stage where the game could be effectively presented to publishers or any other potential investors. The studio spent a year creating a robust prototype, with strong hints of The Last Of
Us and Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider reboot. “We were big fans of those games, but we really liked the idea of doing a dual-protagonist game where you can control both characters, not just the one, so you can [switch] between them,” Oxland says. With a prototype in place, it approached Manchester-based production studio Mi to collaborate on a CGI promo. “We wanted to give it real direction and focus, and a goal to aim for in terms of visual quality,” he adds.
As much as the trailer was for the studio’s own benefit, it was also designed to help during the pitching process. At first, Spiral House considered Kickstarter, with interest in the crowdfunding platform at its peak. Then Earl and Oxland attended a Develop Interface event, and saw a talk about the Square Enix Collective. “We thought, well, let’s give it a shot,” Earl says, “so we put it on there, and it was received really well. We got 92 per cent saying ‘we’d back this’, so we carried on down the line with Square for a while.” But their ambitions were too great; to finish the game to the studio’s satisfaction would’ve required substantially more money than the average Collective project. By January of this year, the risk had paid off.
Troll And I had already attracted attention from several publishers and investors (“We had several deals on the table,” Earl says, “not all of them in our favour!”) but it was US boutique publisher Maximum Games that eventually put pen to paper. It was its enthusiasm for the game that most impressed Spiral House. After watching a new trailer – which spliced the original teaser with gameplay footage – Maximum CEO Christina Seelye gave the most positive feedback so far. “She just said, ‘I want this game,’” Earl
“WE REALLY LIKED THE IDEA OF DOING A DUAL-PROTAGONIST GAME WHERE YOU CAN CONTROL BOTH CHARACTERS”
“I FIXED A BUG THE OTHER DAY THAT WAS 16 YEARS OLD! I DON’T KNOW WHETHER THAT’S GOOD OR BAD”
recalls. “It took her less than a minute,” Oxland adds. “She was that taken by it.”
If anything, Maximum’s plans for the game were even grander than those of its makers. “When we first started out, because we were trying to self-fund it, we were going to go episodic, make each game three to four hours,” Earl explains. But Maximum wanted a single, much larger game. Now Troll And I is 16 chapters long, and the studio is aiming for “a ten- to 12-hour experience”. No mean feat for a team of 14 people.
While it’s rare to see a game of this nature even attempted by a studio of this size, Spiral House has an experienced and capable team, and both Earl and Oxland are confident that they’re up to the challenge. “Tech-wise, some of the coders have been in the industry since…” Earl begins, before pausing briefly. “Well, for example, Robbie [Tinman] wrote Hunchback on the VIC-20. And Kevin worked on Pinocchio on the Mega Drive, [as well as] The Lion King and Shadow Of The Beast.”
It helps, too, that the core of Spiral House has been there for some time. Though the crash of the early 2000s hit the studio hard, reducing its numbers to just four, it has built itself back up to a similar size to the team that worked on Silver. And its staff turnover is low. Its most recent recruit arrived two-and-a-half years ago; the majority have been here for at least five years.
Being small has its advantages in other respects, Oxland says. “The good thing about being our size is we can get everyone together and thrash out an idea, then go back to our desks and implement it, and see if it works.” It also, he suggests, makes for a greater individual sense of creative investment in the games the studio creates. “I’ve talked to people [at larger developers] and a lot of them don’t even see the finished game. They just write a piece of code or build a little object, and that gets put into the pool and disappears into the ether. As a creative person that’s kind of soul-destroying: you build a tyre or a gun or whatever, and when the game comes out you’re running through it desperately trying to find this object you built.”
Earl immediately follows up. “It’s even more of a shame when you see these projects that get built, and they could be a work of art, but then the studio closes down, and that code just goes off into the ether. OK, some people probably walk away with some bits. But it’s so hard to make games and put them together.” That might explain why the studio’s code base has been around for even longer than most employees. “I fixed a bug the other day that was 16 years old!” Earl laughs. “I don’t know whether that’s good or bad. It only transpired because we were [testing] the co-op stuff and it was in the input manager. But I don’t know how many other people could say that.”
Is that, we ask, why Troll And I uses the studio’s bespoke engine rather than Unity or Unreal? “Well, there are a few reasons, really. We just get more control over what we want to do,” Earl explains. The engine has been growing over time into a truly crossplatform concern: Troll And I runs on PC, Xbox One and PS4, but it could be easily ported to other formats. “We’re still coming across DS and PSP code in the code base,” Earl smiles. “That’s how crossplatform it is. And it’s all been done through source revisions, so if I wanted I could take it back to when it first started.”
Having such close familiarity with the code base not only makes adjustments and additions easier, it means the studio isn’t just starting from a clean slate; rather, it has the support pillars in place to make a game of this scale. The engine may not have an official name (“We really should get around to that,” Earl says) but everyone at Spiral House is aware of its strengths and its idiosyncrasies. “We’ve had a play around with Unity and Unreal, and it’s easy to get things up and running with them,” Earl adds. “But they’ve still got their own quirks and nuances, and you have to work around them. It’s the same as doing it in our own engine, but we know it, so we don’t have to research any issues.”
By early next year, Spiral House will finally have achieved its five-year target. It’s under no illusions that the competition is fierce, but it’s hopeful Troll And I can find an audience – and it won’t have to sell in Uncharted or Tomb Raider numbers to be considered a success. “Look at all the strong IPs,” Oxland suggests. “They all started out a bit rickety, but with potential. It’s a fun game, with cool ingredients. And who knows? Maybe ten years down the line we’ll see Troll
And I 4!” He laughs, but there’s a part of him that hopes that might just happen.
“Does it look as good as Uncharted 4? No,” Oxland adds. “At the moment, that’s beyond us.” He glances over at his long-time colleague, a twinkle in his eye. “But that’s our goal, isn’t it?”
Technical director Bobby Earl (left) and creative director Kevin Oxland have been at Spiral House since its formation
Troll AndI isn’t the studio’s only original property: it will look to raise funding for another project towards the end of the year. “We’re really glad we made the leap,” Oxland says