Stu­dio Pro­file

The Liv­er­pool stu­dio that took a cir­cu­lar route to its de­sired des­ti­na­tion

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY CHRIS SCHILLING

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

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