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Mar 07

Going Off Grid

It’s your birthday.

Your daughter has gotten you glasses, the wearable-tech kind.

It's your birthday.

Always befuddled by technology, you gawk as your daughter runs through the pairing of devices, installation of apps and general operation.

She explains, “This eyewear connects your physical world with the virtual world. They can overlay a map of your location, respond to movement and record what you see while relaying data to …”, earnestly, you interrupt, “Yes, darling, fascinating, but what am I going to *do* with them? You know, I still can’t fathom the wireless comm interface you installed last month.”

“Please, Dad, this is important. Let’s just start by …”

Cuh-raash! Bah-aang!

Security force

The front door to your home is blown of the hinges.

Through the smoke come security forces that take hold of your daughter and march her away.

You chase them and get tased for your efforts. Later regaining consciousness, you see there’s an envelope on the floor in front of you. “This is a national security letter. You are prohibited from saying anything about today’s events. We will be in touch within the next 90 days.”

The clock starts.

The Developers

Pontus Schönberg and Rich Metson are Semaeopus. They are creating a world where you must not only come to terms with technology, but master it. You do have help, as there’s a hacker group that knows your daughter and wants to assist … but why, and to what extent? Play to find out.

Meeting with the pair on Metson’s narrowboat, which serves as a seemingly fitting base of operations for Semaeopus, we discussed gaming and the indie game scene, net neutrality, the mechanics of Off Grid and their philosophy on game development.

Here we see Metson and Schönberg talk about Semaeopus, data privacy and Off Grid.

 

Yes, though still in flux, the current story for Semaeopus’s Off Grid centres on finding out what has happened to your daughter. Metson explains that, “Over breakfast, and this part serves as a tutorial, your daughter gives you a birthday present; it’s a pair of AR (augmented reality) glasses … the main tool in the game for collecting and manipulating data. You struggle loading apps on it, she shows you how.” All of a sudden there’s a crash, and it’s the security services, they take Jen, your daughter, away.”

The challenges are many, the goals seemingly distant and the outcomes extremely important. And that’s just for the game developers.

Money

A major concern to independent game development is funding.

Though they have since secured funding via UK Games Fund, both developers supported the first year of Off Grid’s development by other means of work. They’re clear that “bootstrapping” is not how they wanted to go about those formative months, but it was a necessity.

Now able to work on Off Grid full time, Metson pointed out that the time spent seeking funds had to balance with time spent working on the game, “We’re quite disciplined in that we have our sprint phases that are usually two to three weeks, and there’s always time set aside for funding applications or speaking to publishers, but we don’t want to just chase funding, we want to work on the game too”. Schönberg adds, “Even if we need the funding, it’s still just a two-man company. If either one of us spend most of our time doing the funding stuff, it’s really going to slow down the development of the game.”

In this clip, Schönberg and Metson talk about their publishing challenges and address crowdsourcing, self publishing and marketing.

 

According to Metson, they’ve been promoting the game to tech and tech-security audiences, trying to spark their interest, he and Schönberg want to “See what they do — and don’t — like about how we’re handling the subject matter.”

“We get completely different feedback on completely different aspects of the game from gaming audiences, to tech people, to security people and so on. All are enthusiastic in their own ways,” says Schönberg, “At this point we’re not trying to market the game so much, particularly as people aren’t that interested in seeing the dev side. We want to develop the game further, but at the same time it’s interesting to show the game to other developers.”

Indie Development

Metson and Schönberg come across as cooperative, collaborative and forward thinking developers.

They both speak highly about independent game development in London. And being based in Hackney, they certainly have rich resources to draw from as well as contribute to.

Metson says, “We go to London Game Space, an indie co-working space, hosted by Scenario Bar that also hosts the Loading game events. There is also London Unity Usergroup.” But both developers are upfront about collaboration getting trickier as you get further into development, “Once you get set into a project, you stop networking as much because you have to spend time working on the project.” Says Schönberg.

Here, the developers talk on transparency, blog posting about the game’s development and the game’s ever-evolving narrative.

 

Gaming

As you might imagine, Schönberg and Metson are keen gamers.

But in the midst of game development, can you make time for gaming? Metson is clear that game developers should be playing games and sees it almost like walking around the garden with a cup of tea when you need a break.

In terms of the different approaches game developers take, “… especially in large companies [game designers] feel under too much pressure to take time out to play games …” says Metson. Whereas for Semaeopus it’s down to Schönberg and Metson to decide how to balance their time and that it’s valuable for the creative process to make time for playing games.

This clip sees the developers talking about the importance of playing games, pushing your own game design further and throwing 30 hours or more at Pillars of Eternity.

 

Game Mechanics

Schönberg says the game mechanics centre on collecting, manipulating and managing data.

“There’s how the data functions, making sure there is enough variety in that for the player and then how the guards’ AI (artificial intelligence) reacts to what you’re doing.” Says Metson.

He points out that “the character movement and the *toy* of the game needs to be fun instant to instant, whether pressing buttons, sneaking around or interacting with the game environment, it should be satisfying.” Schönberg is quick to add that “as the game develops, one thing [you change] has an effect on the other things, so you may [decide] to change how data is being transferred to all the interactive objects, but find that has a knock on effect on how the user interface will display it.”

The pair talk about building one game world on top of another in the following clip.

 

User Interface vs User Experience

Have you ever tried to encrypt data?

Schönberg acknowledges that trying to encrypt anything, even just an email message, may not be for the technically challenged.

“Getting the in-game internet and *internet of things* to collect everything and work with an AI that can deal with all the data and information … and then having a nice user interface with search tools for the player … well, it’s complicated.” He says. The impression I got listening to him was that the simpler you want to make it for the player, the more complicated it becomes for the developer. For example, one goal of the developers — something I did not conceive could be possible for such a game — is using a gamepad.

Watch this clip to hear, “Well, that’s game design. You wouldn’t be designing a game if you weren’t being challenged by design problems.”

 

Unity Development Platform

By way of wrap-up, let’s look at Unity.

Unity Development Platform is a free multi-platform game development engine that Unity 2012 Launch Event after attending a launch event.

“Unity and its idea of the democratization of game development, being a high-level game engine with all of its professional toolset available at the most affordable price and without it being ‘we’re going to take a cut of your revenue’ in the long-run, for us is first and foremost.” Says Metson. Schönberg continues, “Unity is definitely the most designer-friendly of the available game engines … and because it’s free to use for anybody, people can download the same tool to make their own content.”

Whatever the way forward for game development, Unity presents its platform as having the accessibility, functionality and philosophy that fits with Off Grid.

Many thanks to Metson and Schönberg for their time.

 

Independent games studio Semaeopus Ltd. is developing a game called Off Grid that is “an adventure, satire and stealth game about a mishap antihero.” Follow this link to see Off Grid’s trailer.
Please note this interview took place last year and the game footage and images may not be representative of the final version.

 

 

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