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...
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.
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