THE THIRD EYE

The mak­ers of Skull­girls are toil­ing away on a game that will change the way you think about the Metroid­van­ina genre. We talk to Lab Zero CEO PETER BARTHOLOW about the min­d­ex­pand­ing worlds of In­di­vis­i­ble...

PCPOWERPLAY - - Interview - JAMES COT­TEE

In­di­vis­i­ble, the new Valkyrie Pro­filein­spired RPG from Lab Zero, is shap­ing up to be a ground-break­ing work of art. Yet, as pro­ducer Peter Bartholow told us, it al­most never got off the ground.

“In late 2015 we launched a crowd­fund­ing cam­paign on Indiegogo, seek­ing $1.5M. If we hit that goal, 505 Games would pro­vide the re­main­ing $2M of the bud­get. Since we’re still a rel­a­tively new stu­dio, we re­leased a playable pro­to­type on PC and PlayS­ta­tion 4 to drive in­ter­est in the game.” The cam­paign was rough, to say the least. “What we didn’t know when we set this plan into mo­tion in early 2015 is that the sum­mer would be a record­break­ing crowd­fund­ing sea­son, thanks to Blood­stained and Shen­mue 3. And af­ter that, the me­dia more or less col­lec­tively de­cided that the au­di­ence was tired of crowd­fund­ing cov­er­age. Fur­ther­more, some out­lets I spoke to said that the cloud over Mighty No. 9 in par­tic­u­lar caused them to pull back on crowd­fund­ing cov­er­age be­cause it might be seen as an im­plicit en­dorse­ment.”

Peter be­lieves that an­other fac­tor was likely his choice of crowd-fund­ing plat­form. “Indiegogo ar­guably helped our Skull­girls cam­paign, be­cause it was rel­a­tively un­known at the time and it stuck out a bit in the sea of Kick­starters. How­ever, in the three years since our Skull­girls cam­paign, it would seem that the Indiegogo brand lost what trust it had, and that gave a num­ber of peo­ple pause when con­tribut­ing.

“For­tu­nately, how­ever, Indiegogo’s poli­cies are a bit more flex­i­ble than Kick­starter’s, and that ul­ti­mately saved us. Indiegogo cam­paigns can run a max­i­mum of 60 days, and it’s pos­si­ble to get an ex­ten­sion if you reach a cer­tain per­cent­age of your goal. Thanks in large part to our fans, the PS4 pro­to­type re­lease, and sup­port from other in­die de­vel­op­ers let­ting us cross-over with their char­ac­ters, we man­aged to get the ex­ten­sion. We ul­ti­mately not only funded the game, but also funded two stretch goals. And post-cam­paign ‘slacker back­ers’ have pushed us to a third stretch goal.

“As grate­ful as I am that we suc­ceeded, if I’m be­ing com­pletely hon­est, that was an emo­tional roller­coaster that I hope Lab Zero never has to ride again.”

To make this crowd-fund­ing suc­cess all the more bit­ter-sweet, Peter isn’t even sure if there are any spe­cific lessons his team has learned – rather, they’ve been left with lin­ger­ing ques­tions. “For ex­am­ple, I gen­uinely won­der if re­leas­ing the playable pro­to­type was a good move and a good use of de­vel­op­ment money.

“Against all odds, we hacked to­gether a pretty pol­ished and fun pro­to­type in about three months, and did our best to make it clear that it was a proof-of-con­cept and not a fin­ished game.” And yet, much of the feed­back held this work-in-progress to the stan­dards you’d ex­pect from a fin­ished prod­uct.

“Fun­da­men­tally, I think the gen­eral pub­lic doesn’t un­der­stand how game de­vel­op­ment and it­er­a­tion works be­cause our in­dus­try has done a ter­ri­ble job ed­u­cat­ing the con­sumer. As a re­sult, I feel that re­leas­ing a playable pro­to­type just presents them with too many ques­tions about the game or too many op­por­tu­ni­ties to find fault with it.

“So, de­spite what ev­ery­one says they want, I think when it comes to crowd­fund­ing, it’s prob­a­bly eas­ier to sell a con­cept or a dream than some­thing that they can ac­tu­ally play.” While Peter didn’t name names, the big­gest crowd-fund­ing suc­cess of all time cer­tainly bears this out.

In­di­vis­i­ble will touch on cor­ners of the world sel­dom ex­plored in games – the core of the story is in­spired by South East Asian cul­tures and re­li­gions. “Whereas many games have a West­ern point of view as they ex­plore East­ern cul­tures, we wanted to turn that on its head.

“For ex­am­ple, Ajna comes from a tiny, re­mote vil­lage called Ash­wat. Later in the game, she’ll visit the Iron King­dom, a steam­punk take on Vic­to­rian Lon­don. So whereas a West­ern game char­ac­ter wan­der­ing into a small ru­ral vil­lage might com­ment on how ex­otic and prim­i­tive it is, Ajna would have the op­po­site re­ac­tion.”

There are also el­e­ments that will di­rectly impact game­play, such as Ajna’s abil­ity to meditate to en­ter the In­ner Realm in her mind. “We did a lot of re­search for other re­gions and char­ac­ters. Even though In­di­vis­i­ble is a fan­tasy game, we wanted to be re­spect­ful to the Earth cul­tures that in­spired it. In some cases, this re­search also di­rectly in­flu­enced the char­ac­ters’ game­play.”

Peter’s team is well aware of the many Metroid­va­nia suc­cess sto­ries of re­cent years; he cited Ori and the Blind For­est, Gua­camelee, and Ax­iom Verge as no­table ex­am­ples. “In­di­vis­i­ble’s de­sign di­rec­tor, Mike Zai­mont, thinks Ori’s use of en­e­mies and en­emy pro­jec­tiles as a stan­dard move­ment op­tion was noth­ing short of bril­liant, and that heav­ily in­flu­enced one of our de­sign choices.

“Mike also loves that Gua­camelee feels like a spry plat­former, even in towns. And he

the pub­lic doesn’t un­der­stand how game de­vel­op­ment works be­cause we’ve done a ter­ri­ble job ed­u­cat­ing the con­sumer

thinks it’s es­pe­cially clever that they use spikes to re­set Juan to a cer­tain point, which al­lowed the de­sign­ers to craft plat­form­ing se­quences that re­quire com­ple­tion in one shot with­out out­right killing the char­ac­ter, since killing the char­ac­ter is a ma­jor event in a Metroid­va­nia.

“Ax­iom Verge’s tiered ‘suit’ up­grades and the as­so­ci­ated abil­ity, as well as one abil­ity we won’t spoil, stand out as hugely in­no­va­tive as well. Mike tends to en­joy games like Ax­iom Verge where a de­cep­tively sim­ple abil­ity turns out to have myr­iad uses as you come to un­der­stand it bet­ter, and we’re def­i­nitely tak­ing that route with In­di­vis­i­ble.”

The team at Lab Zero has been work­ing with an evolved ver­sion of their own pro­pri­etary en­gine, re­ferred to in­ter­nally as the ‘Z En­gine.’ “We’ve kept the same amaz­ing light­ing for the sprites that we had in Skull­girls, but ex­tended it to the en­vi­ron­ment as well. We’ve also added real shad­ows cast not only by the en­vi­ron­ment but also by the sprites, which serves to ground ev­ery­thing and give the game a much more co­he­sive look.

“For tools, we’ve built an en­tire suite of level build­ing tools di­rectly into the en­gine. This al­lows us to test things as soon as they’ve been built, which greatly speeds up test­ing and it­er­a­tion time. Since we’re a small team, this fea­ture is in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant.”

Through the course of In­di­vis­i­ble’s de­vel­op­ment, the game de­sign has al­ready evolved con­sid­er­ably – most no­tably with re­gards to the con­trols. “Ini­tially, Ajna had to specif­i­cally equip each weapon in or­der to use it and its abil­i­ties. This sounds great on pa­per, but once we tried it in real set­ups that re­quired the player to use abil­i­ties from mul­ti­ple weapons, this be­came re­ally con­fus­ing and cum­ber­some. The new con­trol scheme doesn’t re­quire any weapon switch­ing, and still gets all of the abil­i­ties into a pretty easy-to-use con­trol scheme.

“We still have more than a year left un­til launch, so we’re still it­er­at­ing on a lot of things. The Backer Pre­view build we’ll be re­leas­ing soon will not only let us get feed­back on the game as it cur­rently stands, but also serve as a last­ing test­bed for fu­ture changes.”

For the mu­sic, Lab Zero has com­mis­sioned leg­endary com­poser Hiroki Kikuta, most fa­mous for his work on Se­cret of Mana. “Kikuta is great with melody and in­stru­men­ta­tion, and I think he’s re­ally cap­tured the feel of each of the game’s ar­eas. We specif­i­cally asked for mu­sic that had the melodic, game-y feel of Se­cret of Mana, but with a more mod­ern-sound­ing lush­ness.”

Right now they’re mostly work­ing on mu­sic for ex­plo­ration and game­play, which will re­flect the mood of each new area Ajna dis­cov­ers. “For ex­am­ple, Kaanul is an Aztec-in­spired sub­ter­ranean city, but it’s a bit som­bre be­cause the peo­ple are hid­ing un­der­ground from a mys­te­ri­ous threat. But the fo­cus is more on strong melodies and cap­tur­ing the flavour of the en­vi­ron­ment.

“We’ll be mov­ing onto more cin­e­matic and emo­tional mu­sic later, but you can hear some echoes of Ajna’s per­sonal struggles in her theme, which we’ve re­leased on­line. And when I met with Kikuta last year, we ran through the story with him, and he promised that he’d make peo­ple cry... So look for­ward to that, I guess?”

With lav­ish an­i­ma­tion from Mariel Cartwright, and an in­tro se­quence from Stu­dio Trig­ger, In­di­vis­i­ble is due to launch in 2018. For more de­tails, visit In­di­vis­i­bleGame. com.

WHO PETER BARTHOLOW WHERE LAB ZERO GAMES WHY IN­DI­VIS­I­BLE

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