We had the opportunity to ask the new, three-member indie studio inbetweengames, questions about their upcoming project All Walls Must Fall, and what it was like moving from AAA development to the indie scene.
In 2016, the Cold War can seem like just another piece of history to some. To the developers at inbetweengames, a new indie studio out of Germany, the idea of an alternate universe where the Cold War never ended provides an exciting backdrop to their upcoming and ambitious sci-fi game, All Walls Must Fall.
You may not be familiar with the studio. However, you’ve probably heard of some previous projects that the founders and team of inbetweengames, Issac Ashdown, Rafal Fedro, and Jan David Hassel, have worked on in the past when they were with YAGER Development – most notably Spec Ops: The Line. When their next big, high profile game, Dead Island 2 was canceled, they decided to try their hand at indie development.
“…the concrete occasion that made us to go indie was losing the Dead Island 2 project at YAGER.” says Jan David Hassel, the designer at inbetweengames. “This was the last in a series of cancellations for all of us. So at that point we decided we had enough of that and didn’t want to give that kind of control away to a publisher again.”
But it wasn’t just the prospect of losing control over their projects. Hassel also attributes the availability of technology for pushing them into the independent direction saying, “Unreal Engine 4 is now free to use. This removed a major barrier for us as we have worked with the engine for something like a combined 20 years or so.”
Of course, wanting to go off on your own and make games is a great dream, but to accomplish it takes a large amount of planning and paperwork. Lacking the support of an established company, the trio had to figure out how to make ends meet while crafting their next project. Issac Ashdown, the programmer at inbetweengames, says that being based out of Germany helped with this.
“… although there’s certainly quite a bit of bureaucracy, Germany’s actually a pretty friendly place for small businesses. It involves visiting a lot of little offices in very official buildings, but the people there are all pretty helpful, as long as you fill in all the forms correctly.”
Filling out forms may not be the most exciting part of game design, but putting in the effort has helped them to succeed so far. “We recently learned that we got our personal founders grants, or Gründungszuschuss, from the government. That support really helps us out personally when we’re in the stage of getting the company and the project off the ground.” Ashdown says. “And now we’re waiting to hear about our application from the Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, which we hope to be able to use to fund the project itself.”
While many indie studios are turning to the crowd-funding routes like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to raise money for their projects, inbetweengames has expressed no interest in funding All Walls Must Fall that way. Ashdown explains what Medienboard is and how it helps with video game funding.
“The Medienboard is a local government organization that funds development of projects like movies and games in the region. The main condition of the funding is just that you have to spend the money in the region itself.”
But really it’s XCom meets Braid with a dash of Rez. Shaken and not stirred.
He also goes into detail regarding the process of getting approved and the stipulations that come with approval. “As it’s public money, the process for getting it is very transparent and rigorous, and there’s a few stages of the process, including a large application document you have to deliver along with meetings with the reps from the board. Once you get the funding, it functions as a loan that you have to repay if the project makes enough income to cover it.”
Ashdown believes that the organization has had a positive impact on the industry. “They have currently three application rounds every year, and I think they’ve been really successful at helping support and build the indie scene here, which is totally thriving. The other main condition is that you have to own and retain the IP rights for the project itself, which is a really positive idea, compared to a more traditional developer-publisher model. This is really the killer thing for us, and why it’s our preferred source of funding, if we get it – we’re part of the current round that’s being processed.”
All of the funding in the world doesn’t matter unless there is a project that it’s going toward. Inbetweengames has that project in their recently announced All Walls Must Fall. Labeled as a Tech-Noir Tactics Game, Ashdown explains what exactly that is.
“All Walls Must Fall is a Tech-Noir Tactics game set in Berlin 2089 where the Cold War never ended. You control time traveling secret agents that have one night of clubbing to prevent a terror attack that leads to nuclear annihilation. But really it’s XCom meets Braid with a dash of Rez. Shaken and not stirred.”
Looking at the website, the images and videos show a very distinctive style in the artwork and the gameplay. Rafal Fedro, the artist at inbetweengames, explains the look of All Walls Must Fall.
“…We find this place [Berlin] quite inspiring and an underused video game setting. While trying to capture its complex identity and at the same time staying coherent with All Walls main theme we came with the idea of a propaganda poster brought to life. The visual style combines 2D and 3D elements and follows various influences from socialist realism, street art, graphic novels, modern architecture but also German Expressionism and noir movies – from classic through tech-noir to neo-noir. We want to employ a narrow color palette with a meaningful use of bold accents, graphical minimalism, spatial patterns as a result of repetition and various compositions of environment’s elements. Last but not least we want to focus on angular designs with flat silhouettes in the background and thick, daring outlines.”
He also describes the reasoning behind choosing such an art style.
“Being conscious about the importance of imagination in the perception of an artwork process, we are trying to employ the poetry of obliqueness,” he explained. “Instead of serving you [the] one and only correct interpretation, we leave some empty gaps here and there for you to fill them up. Following the legacy of classic noir cinematography, we are using the project’s low budget as a creative challenge more than a limitation. Since inbetweengames consists only from three people, we have quite limited resources and to succeed, we need to stay smart and focused. Then, considering my traditional art background, graphic design education, and years of freelance work going with minimalism lies in my comfort zone.”
Fedro also hints that a different approach may have been considered.
“As much as we appreciate pixel art, we don’t feel we have anything fresh to bring to this table. Ultimately we are aiming to create an unique aesthetic or even synesthetic experience comprising language, movement, space and sound.”
The team lives and works out of Berlin, Germany. Although it’s one of the major cities in Europe, Berlin may not be as familiar to audiences in other parts of the world. But it is the creators love for the home that drove them to set the game there.
“Berlin is an amazing city full of contrasts, where roughness and decay meets opulence, and brutalism clashes with neo-classicism. It’s multinational and multicultural, a crossroad of diverse backgrounds and histories,” Fedro says. “The former capital of German expressionist cinematography and the Cold War Era, ‘The graffiti Mecca of the urban art world.’ Last but not least, Berlin is UNESCO’s City of Design – its design tradition and contemporary creation played a big role influencing national and international movements.”
Instead of using modern day Berlin, inbetweengames decided to imagine the city in the future of their extended Cold War world.
We want to ask questions about these themes and make the players think about and discuss those topics. Ultimately, they will have to make up their own minds about it. We look forward to that.
“Setting the game in a far future allows us flexibility and creativity. At the same time we want to stay true and capture Berlin’s identity. We are far from just putting a city name sign or to limit ourselves to use only Brandenburger Gate. We are drawing inspiration from the city’s less known but still iconic buildings, sculptures or graffiti artworks also. To name a few: we have Putin kissing Obama artwork based on the famous Berlin Wall street art from 1990,” says Fedro.
It is commonly agreed that the Cold War officially ended in 1991. However, in the alternative history of All Walls Must Fall, the conflict is still going strong in 2089. Historically, Berlin was a major part of the Cold War, but it was the combination of this world event, the future setting, and time travel that excited the team.
“We always thought that Berlin is a very interesting setting and so is the Cold War. But we also have done our share of somewhat realistic, contemporary games before and just really wanted to go sci-fi in order to be able to draw from a broader set of influences,” says Hassel. “This also allows us to do interesting things for the sake of gameplay and visual design that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. The alternative future was our way to marry these opposing ambitions. Time travel then entered the mix later on from the side of our gameplay prototypes and then things really started to click together.”
Hassel says that the element of time travel plays into the themes they wanted to explore.
“Time travel for us is really a metaphor for the predictability of the future,” he said, “which is something that in the advent of big data analysis is a very real thing in many aspects of our lives already. Even if it is still hidden out of sight for most of us. It also represents the possibilities of totalitarian surveillance states, which is another thing that we are noticeably moving towards. So we asked ourselves, what could that mean for things like the meaning of freedom and morality, when driven by different ideologies.”
“In the world of our game the superpowers of the Cold War are still going at it and represent two seemingly juxtaposed approaches to the matter. There is also a third faction which is closer to anonymous internet culture today. Then there are obviously themes around proverbial and literal walls which are erected to uphold the systems and groups that build them around themselves. We want to ask questions about these themes and make the players think about and discuss those topics. Ultimately, they will have to make up their own minds about it. We look forward to that.”
According to Fedro, many of those elements came later. He describes the initial mesh of ideas that began them down the path to All Walls Must Fall.
“One of the first ideas and, at the same time, a high-level pitch came from David [Hassel] and was that of a combat inside a disco. Inspired by John Wick’s club scene mixed with Equilibrium’s Gun Kata spiced up with action movies with Steven Seagull. A choreographed combat which resembles dancing more than fighting itself. Berlin as a setting came to us naturally and felt like an interesting and underused environment. We had then laser walls, laser punches, and basically everything with lasers. Making actions happen on the beat of the music also emerged as a natural consequence of setting the game inside of the clubs.”
That concept of music playing a role in the game never left the project. On the games website, it is mentioned that they “came up with mechanics relating to how the music and the gameplay work together first.” Ashdown shed more light on this idea.
“One key vision we had for the game from the beginning was ‘actions on the beat of the music.’ But we also didn’t want to make a game where the player actually had to do things in time to the music, like in a rhythm game. So we spent the first few weeks prototyping different ways of doing this. We iterated a lot with different ideas for how you would plan tactical combat, that happened on the beat, and then what we wound up with at the end turned out to basically function like time travel. And then we worked backwards from there, as time travel made what we’d created as a gameplay mechanic intuitive and gave us inspiration for the narrative concept also.”
With all of these ideas being thrown together, it may be hard for someone outside the project to see how they all work together. Ashdown explains more on how their “tech-noir tactics “game will actually play.
“So you’ll be controlling secret agents in a pausable real-time tactics game. When something like combat kicks off, the game gets paused and you can evaluate your best tactical decisions. That part of the game follows genre conventions from things like Fallout or XCOM you can perform actions like shooting, interacting, or reloading, and each action take an amount of time, which is measured in beats of the music. When you do an action, the game unpauses, the action is carried out, and then the game pauses again. But it’s all happening simultaneously with the NPCs, who also are playing their own actions.”
So, how does the time travel aspect work with this?
“…we add in time manipulation, and things get a bit crazy. The ability in the video is the classic Undo: the agent goes in a room, but it turns out that was a mistake. So, just undo that action, and it’s like it never happened. Or perhaps you decide to fight it out despite the overwhelming odds, and you can try different tactical options. Moving left means you get hit by that bullet, so go back and move right instead. But the Undo ability is just one – we aim to start simply but add more craziness as you progress.”
While this all sounds like fulfilled action, it is important to inbetweengames that All Walls Must Fall stands as “both a game and a piece of art.” Artist Fedro elaborates on what they mean by “a piece of art.”
“It is quite subjective what one calls a ‘piece of art.’ To me, it doesn’t mean that some creation is aesthetically correct, symmetrical, pleasing. A beauty lives in understatements stimulating your imagination, leaving enough flexibility for a personal interpretation. It’s more about taking something existing in reality and creating an impression out of it. Parsed through the artist’s life experiences, his emotions and in the end captured using some specific medium. It might be a written text, a theatre play, a movie, an audio track, a sculpture, a painting, etc. The purpose of art could possibly be to provoke an emotional reaction, thoughts, make the viewer discover the existence of something he didn’t knew exists, visit places or times which don’t exist at all.”
He also expresses the importance of delivering a quality game.
“As a medium of our expression we want to use what we know the best – video games. We are all gamers thus we are conscious about the importance of good gameplay and we won’t sacrifice it at the cost of creating ‘a piece of art’ only for the art’s sake. We still want this game to be immersive and enjoyable experience at its core.”
Crafting such an experience can be difficult by itself. The creators here have to contend with those difficulties while also facing new challenges that arise from having such a small team.
We are all gamers thus we are conscious about the importance of good gameplay and we won’t sacrifice it at the cost of creating ‘a piece of art’ only for the art’s sake. We still want this game to be immersive and enjoyable experience at its core.
“In many ways, the development challenges are pretty similar to those you face on a larger team, and the real difference is that when you’re all equal partners, you’re all equally responsible. Of course the obvious one is that you need to be pretty tight regarding scope, to make sure you cover the resources and skills that match the feature set you’re planning to have, but with a tiny team,” says Ashdown.” But that’s actually as much of a challenge in a large team, and it’s perhaps easier to see when you’re over-scoped compared to when there’s a much larger team to spread the load onto. Otherwise, the biggest challenge is that everyone has to spend a bit of time operating outside of their comfort zone: we can’t just stick to our specializations any more, but rather have to take on a bit of everything.”
Ashdown also recognizes the benefits that a smaller development team provides.
“The lower overhead allows us to be much more agile than a larger team,.” he explained. “We can make decisions quickly, we can iterate on game ideas fast, and we can much more easily sync up and get on the same page. When you have a larger team with a hierarchy, decisions and ideas have to go through many layers of approval before they can be executed on. In theory this improves the quality of these decisions, but often what winds up happening is it’s so hard to find consensus that things get watered down. We can get in a room together, try out an idea, playtest, iterate, and decide what to do with it, in just one day.”
Play-testing and feedback are other areas where operating as an indie studio might prove challenging. Ashdown describes the ways that they can and do still receive quality feedback.
“Well admittedly as a team without a huge budget, you have to use all the resources you can get. […] we have a nice pool of friends and other developers in Berlin who we get advice from, and events where you can show off the game to strangers are also a great way of getting feedback.”
Today, there is another option as well, in the form of Steam’s Early Access. Inbetweengames has plans to make All Walls Must Fall available through that program and describes some of the benefits of that.
“That’s another great advantage of being indie: not having a restrictive non-disclosure agreement that you have to work under means we can show off the game and talk to people about it as much as we can. Of course another benefit of Early Access is that it can be helpful to have the additional source of revenue, but we don’t want to rely on that to fund the game – we aim to have the resources to complete the game we want to make already secured at that point.”
All Walls Must Fall is an ambitious project, full of unique ideas, setting, art styles and gameplay mechanics. And because of all that, it’s also a game that may only be possible at a smaller indie studio. Bringing with them the experience and pedigree from creating larger titles, the talent at inbetweengames are excited to bring their vision to life and share it with the public. Look for All Walls Must Fall on Steam Early Access in Fall 2016, with plans for a final release on PC and Mac in 2017.
More information on inbetweengames and All Walls Must Fall can be found on their website, https://www.inbetweengames.com
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