INTERVIEW: Indie Start-up TCGames on Velisia, and Their Journey So Far…

So, how do you go from programming games in university to starting up a fully-fledged indie game company, bordering on your first release? TCGames are a young group of designers and programmers caught up in the middle of their own indie story, and are on the brink of releasing their first game Velisia: A Traitor’s Legacy. Stephen Rhodes took the time to interview Director, Producer and Lead Designer Chris Wilson, on how their dream journey has panned out so far.

 

Hi Chris, thanks for taking the time out to talk to me in what must be a very busy time for you..

Chris: Not a problem, somewhat of a calm before the storm at the moment, as our single programmer is putting the finishing touches to what will be the final main build of the game prior to release testing.

Tell me a little bit about your team and how it came into being. Where did you guys start off?

Chris: The team was formed at Salford University during our final semester of the undergraduate Computer and Video Game Design degree. The main submission for the semester was a game prototype that must be designed and created in just over half a year which doesn’t sound too bad, until you throw in all the work for the other modules of the course and a dissertation on top…

So this is how we came together, Velisia the game we are currently working on is indeed a revamped and much polished version of the game prototype that we created for the University project.

It’s good to see a group coming straight out of university and forming their own indie studio. Can you tell me a little about the game?

Chris: Velisia is, at its core, a Turn Based Strategy/RPG which draws its roots from gameplay along the lines of those found in the Final Fantasy Tactics and Fire Emblem series. Unlike these games, the story and gameplay focuses around just four main heroes that are directly controlled by the player.

Action takes place over four levels of gameplay that see the heroes travel on a story across the land of Velisia, as they attempt to defend their homeland against an ancient enemy. The story and gameplay in the first chapter of Velisia, titled “A Traitors Legacy” is first of three episodes of content that we hope to deliver if the game is successful.

Each further piece of content will continue the story, allow further advancement of your characters, with all your stats and choices from the previous game carrying straight on into the next.

Quite a large and ambitious project, but it sounds incredibly exciting! So, from that I assume, you do have plans to expand on Velisia and release new content for players?

Chris: Plans and/or dreams, yes. As with everything, we need to be successful in order to see them through to completion. When we wrote the narrative for the Velisia story it soon became clear that it was too long to be delivered within the deadline and budget that we currently have as a fledgling start-up studio.

So instead we will release the first section of the game’s narrative which is a complete story experience, but with your standard plot holes left open for expansion. This game model will allow us to keep the unit costs to a bare minimum and hopefully make people more willing to take a punt on a brand new game from a brand new company.

If this works and enough people make that choice we will quickly be able to put out the second and third installments of the game. Within a few months of the game’s release – we won’t be expecting fans to wait years for the next section of the story…

The turn-based RPG has been a genre that has suffered in popularity in recent times. Do you think this is due to a lack of choice or the quality of the titles that are produced for the genre?

Chris: I think turn-based strategy suffers because it’s not a genre that delivers the big spectacle which seems to be what all the AAA titles are about these days. In a market that is constantly pushed for the newest, shiniest graphics and amazing set pieces, a game that makes you wait your turn and watch units move one after the other will always appear second rate to the more modern RTS game.

Lack of titles is definitely a major issue for the genre, and even when titles are released in Japan/Asia, it is not uncommon for them never to see the transition to the Western market – or, if they do, several years go by before they finally get released.

Speaking of Asia, one thing that really makes your game stand out is the manga art style. What were the key motivations behind picking such a unique style for your game and how has it been received by the fans?

Chris: We started off with perhaps a little too much Manga tunnel vision, attempting to make the game look and feel like a comic book, this has been toned down quite a bit recently to be more in line with a traditional JRPG.

All in however the art has been probably the easiest section of the project, very little has needed to be redone and the only major issue we hit was making our special effects for the heroes abilities match up to the style and quality of the artwork for the characters and backgrounds themselves.

Quite a few people have left feedback on our moddb.com page saying the game reminds them of Valkyria Chronicles. We at TCGames take that as a mission accomplished.

Chris hopes Velisia will be out some time during February 2012

During the last few weeks you have done a lot of development diary videos covering certain characters or classes which have all been really informative. Do you intend to keep this momentum in the weeks prior to launch?

Chris: The character introduction videos sadly only really showed off the game’s combat engine, this was due to the core game still being in major development and not really at a good place for viewing. Once Matt Sanders (our programmer) finishes the final game build I spoke of earlier, we will be releasing a series of gameplay videos that show exactly how the game looks and feels to play.

How important do you feel it is for a start up indie studio like yourselves to keep in touch with its community, and have you found this an easy thing to do given today’s obsession with social media?

Chris: It’s definitely a key element to getting your name out there. Unfortunately it also takes a lot of time to really push it forward, and when you only have six guys in your team, time isn’t something you have in large amounts to throw around.

Once we have a finished product I’m hoping to convince some of the more established YouTube community members that review and give commentaries on indie games that we deserve a little of their precious time. This would do us the world of good in getting our title noticed as some of these guys have hundreds and thousands of viewers on every video they release.

Is there a date set for when Velisia will be available to purchase?

Chris: Release dates are not something I can confirm yet as they are handled between our Publishers Merge Games and the number of online digital portals that we are approaching to put Velisia on their shelves. At a guess, sometime around February, but don’t hold me to that!

Velisia is however available for pre-order from our website, www.teamcraftgames.com and there is an option there to get hold of the game’s Beta build if you really cannot wait for release day!

Seems like you’re all geared up and ready for a great launch! The game is looking great and I know we here at NAGF are following you guys with great interest. Thanks for your time Chris, and good luck with finishing Velisia!

The Life and Times of a Games Publicist

We’ve dealt with the lovely Roxana Etemad, UK PR Manager at Square Enix Europe, quite a few times as the years have rolled by. So, as far as we’re concerned, there were no better brains to pick when we wanted to find out what the daily life of a gaming publicist was all about. Ever wanted to know what goes on behind the scenes at one of the world’s largest publishing houses? Or just want some advice on how to get into the medium yourself? Follow Roxy’s advice below, and everything will fall into place, padawan…

 

Roxana Etemad - UK PR Manager at Square Enix Europe

 

Those who don’t work in the industry, especially younger audiences, will never have heard of or seen the work put in by those in games PR. Could you give us an overview of your job specs, from the smallest thing to the largest task, as we can’t imagine every day being the same!

In my opinion Games PR is one of the most diverse roles within the industry! No two days are the same and you have to be really adaptable to cope with all the different things that come up. We speak to members of the press daily, talking through our release schedule and securing lots of coverage which can range from an exclusive first look at a game to interviews and reviews. Event organising also plays a major part in the role which I personally love doing!

We plan many events for our games to give press and communities the chance to experience our games in the most creative and immersive ways. We also take press abroad on tour to visit studios and attend industry shows which is a massive perk! Of course it’s not all fun and games all the time – we have the usual paperwork that comes with most jobs; updating budgets, filling in spreadsheets, creating PowerPoints, writing PR plans….

You’re UK PR Manager for Square Enix which sounds pretty hectic. It must have taken a long time to get there, though? Is PR something you always had a lifelong ambition to get into? What was the journey like to your current position?

I started by getting a lot of work experience at various media companies during my school holidays and PR was the area that interested me the most. I then went to University where I got to do a degree in Communications which covered PR, Marketing and Advertising which was a lot of fun!

After Uni I worked at a PR agency which was dealing with products that I didn’t really have a passion for so I decided to write to the games company Eidos direct to see if they had any opening as I have always loved gaming. The expression ‘right place at the right time’ fits right here! I had an interview and got the role as PR Assistant – 8 years later and here I am managing the UK PR dept for Square Enix Europe.

Square Enix Logo

What’s the messiest situation you’ve come across during your time in PR, and how did you deal with it?

There haven’t been many thank goodness so I think I have gotten away with it so far!

And the most satisfying result you’ve had in your career to date?

It’s always satisfying to see your games getting the recognition they deserve and to see how excited people are when you show them a new game for the first time or when a game launches and you listen to consumer reaction! For me it’s hearing people removed from the industry discussing your game at a friends party, people who have no idea that you may have played a part in their excitement.

Not every game is going to set the world alight, and there must be times when you know a game is going to need that extra little bit of pushing to generate sales. Business is business after all, but what challenges does that pose from a PR point of view when you know a game is likely to be received poorly by critics and the public?

Everyone has individual tastes and you have to remember that what might not be your cup of tea can be someone else’s favourite game and so I feel every game needs the same amount of effort and attention in a PR’s work. End of the day, a team of developers have worked incredibly hard to deliver their vision of a game and so you need to respect that and do your best.

You must get correspondence from a huge variety of sources for review and preview code, alongside many other requests. How do you decide which ones deserve access and exclusives? Also, what’s the most bizarre request you’ve ever had?

It is always lovely to have lots of people interested in covering your games and I would like to think we give most people the chance to get their hands on exclusives and opportunities to preview and review our games. I can’t think of a bizarre request to be honest! Is that really boring of me?? I am sure there was probably something relating to one of our Lara Croft models as some point!

Are you a gamer yourself? Is a knowledge of gaming vital to working in games PR, or is it more a case of being clever enough to learn about a product and have the ability to promote it to its maximum potential?

I have always been massively into games, that’s the reason I got into the industry all those years ago because I wanted to be part of an industry which I have a passion for. One of the best perks is being able to play our games before they release – it’s very cool!

Hands On: A Hardcore Gamer’s View of the 3DS

You can’t stop that Nintendo lot. They’re spreading all over the UK at the moment faster than a porn star’s legs to promote the 3DS, and are giving the public hands-on access to try and convince them to part with their hard-earned cash. One of Nintendo’s most recent showings was the Nintendo 3DS Pre-launch Event at the Arnolfini, Bristol.

Rich (left) and Solid Snake (right)

We couldn’t make it ourselves sadly, but one of our friends could. Richard Cadman eats, breathes and sleeps video games, and was one of the first through the door to get a taste of Nintendo’s console. So, how does Joe Public measure it up? Is it another console smash hit from Nintendo, or another Virtual Boy? Rich was kind enough to tell us his thoughts:

Hi Rich, tell us what your impressions were before you got your hands on the 3DS, and what you felt afterwards.

I’ll be honest with you, I had no idea what to expect. I read a fair bit of gaming media so I’ve heard a lot about the ‘being sceptical at first but blown away once it’s in your hands’ process of experiencing the 3DS for the first time. I had no idea if I would feel the same or not. I couldn’t really imagine what I was going to see on that top screen so I mostly felt very eager and privileged to be able to test it myself ahead of release.

I left feeling that Nintendo had done what Nintendo always do, they have made a great product. The 3D really works and there are certainly some quality games being made for it.

And the 3DS is more than just the 3D believe it or not, we were told about the Street Pass and Spot Pass abilities and the augmented reality games, the 3DS looks impressive now but it’ll be very interesting to see what Nintendo and third-party developers do with these features.

Was there a good atmosphere where you played the console, and were there a lot of gamers dribbling from the corners of the mouth?

Will Donkey Kong make a 3DS appearance any time soon?

Well Nintendo has a marketing problem with the 3DS, there isn’t anyway that you can show people the ‘3D without glasses experience’ in magazines or on TV, because this technology is only available on 3DS! So these events were set up for the sole reason that consumers can see it with there own eyes, can see that the 3DS works and presumably spread the word!

And yes the atmosphere was certainly good, while this wasn’t quite the lavish launch parties you see in the magazines, they had tried to emulate the fee., we had an introduction before we were let into the hands-on areas, along with a Street Fighter and Resident Evil presentation which was excellent. I almost kicked a zombie in the head! Hands on was in a rather groovy nightclub style environment, music and lights included, so all in all it was a well put together presentation, Nintendo certainly didn’t half-ass it!

Can’t say too much about the other gamers, there were one or two I noticed that were excited but I personally was a little tunnel visioned on the system itself.

You’re a massive Nintendo fan – well, a massive gaming fan in general! – so do you feel Nintendo has hit the nail on the head with another innovative product? Or did you leave with a ‘gimmicky’ underwhelming feeling?

A bit of both if I’m honest. The 3DS is an undoubtedly impressive piece of kit, and the 3D is genuinely something that that you can’t see anywhere else. However the 3D is, lets face, merely visual, unless you’re the type who gets excited every time a new 3D film is released at the cinema.

The 3D may seem more gimmicky than revolutionary. Ocarina of Time is the same, but in 3D. Street Fighter is the same, but in 3D and the same can be said for Dead Or Alive. Like I said before, it’s the connectivity and the augmented reality that interests me personally, so as long as future developments focus on these potentially game-changing aspects, the future will certainly be bright.

What games did you play that stood out and impressed you? What games looked terrible in comparison, and what are you looking forward to?

Ocarina of Time on the 3DS is dead good (apparently...)

One word, Zelda! It may be a re-release of a decade-year-old game, but who can resist revisiting such a world? The Augmented Reality game i played was my favourite, however, because I had never played anything like it before. It was very simple, a temple and then a dragon rose out of the table that this special card was resting on and you just had to shoot targets. A great moment was when I had to point the 3DS’s camera directly vertical to the table so i could look down a pit in order to shoot a target hidden at the bottom. As I said, very simple, but i can’t wait to try more games like these.

There’s was only really one game I was disappointed by and that was Kid Icarus: Uprising. A very very pretty game, and probably exhibited the best use of 3D in all the games I tried, as the sense of depth in the flying sections was very impressive. However the gameplay did not match the visuals, the flying sections reminded me a little too much of a poor man’s Lylat Wars, which I think you’ll agree is a tad ironic considering that is also coming to the 3DS in the launch window.

And with the fighting sections on foot, the controls are bad…or at least they aren’t easy to pick up in my 10 minute test, to turn 90 degrees you have to quickly swipe the touch screen and face an attacking enemy, to say it felt unwieldy and unnatural would be an understatement.

You’ve pre-ordered the console – going to be cancelling any time soon or has it just heightened your anticipation to own a 3DS?

I would say neither! I have read a lot of press so I knew this was the sort of thing I would like to own in the future, and playing it definitely confirmed that fact. It hasn’t made me want to rush out and get it on release – after all, £200 is still a lot to spend nowadays. But I will get one soon, at the very least to have a hand-held Ocarina Of Time. And who knows? Maybe when that moment comes I’ll have a 3DS ‘lite’!

So many people have dropped to the floor dead after playing the 3DS, or have violently excreted into their trousers, clutching their stomachs and vomiting all over their nearest and dearest shortly after playing. Nah, not really… but any ill effects?

Well there didn’t seem to be any queasy gamers stumbling around! However, I couldn’t help but feel slightly weird playing it, the feeling was that my eyes knew they were being tricked to see these images and it made me think if that the feeling would increase or decrease over long periods of time. Is it something we will get used to? Or will long periods give us migraines? There isn’t any way to tell yet, but I’m sure there’ll be plenty of stories after the console’s release!

The 3DS is nearly in our hands!

Where next for Nintendo? What other barriers are there to break?

There will always be new barriers. Nintendo have been experimenting with 3D gaming for years (Virtual Boy!) but only now has technology caught up with Nintendo’s vision. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out if Nintendo were currently working on holographic gaming or something and will soon be in our homes by 2026…

The BBFC Talks Modern Warfare 2, Censorship and How They Keep Gaming Standards High

James Blatch of the BBFC talks exclusively to NAGF

The timing couldn’t have been more coincidental. Just as we get our interview back from the wonderful James Blatch of ratings body, the BBFC, news started to spread of a terrorist bombing at a Russian airport. It was only a matter of time before alarmist arms of the British media created a link between Modern Warfare 2 and the tragedy.

The BBFC’s official stance, as usual, is dripping with common sense and reason. But we didn’t just ask about Modern Warfare 2 [albeit before the bombing occurred]. We wanted to know about how games are rated, the debates that rage behind closed doors and just how grizzly a game has to be before it’s deemed too disturbing for the public.

James Blatch of the BBFC - a keen, level-headed gamer

If any distributor is in any doubt, we are more than happy to help them out. We’re not in the business of forcing work our way – if a game doesn’t need to come to us, we will say so!

1: Hi James, so, who’s in charge when it’s time for a game to get rated? What’s the process? Do the BBFC request it from the developer/publisher or is it compulsory that material be sent your way by law if it’s to be sold at retail?

The Video Recordings Act (1984 and amended in 2010) sets out the criteria for when a game requires a classification. Until last year the law only required the stronger games to come to the BBFC, but in the future most games will legally have to get a classification before distribution with PEGI taking over this role some time later this year.

In legal terms the onus is on the distributor to submit the game and then conform with the labelling and packaging regulations (displaying the category etc). Some games will be exempt, in the same way that some DVDs are currently exempt (such as sport DVDs), in this case there is no formal ‘exempt’ category, it’s just a case of the distributor deciding it doesn’t require a category and not sending it in.

2: How strict are the guidelines that need to be followed when rating games, and how personal are you allowed to get during the process? Do personal or religious beliefs help to influence a decision in any way?

The Guidelines have be drawn up following very extensive public consultations. We must be able to use them to explain and justify every decision we make. Having said that the Guidelines do give us scope for interpretation in some areas. Context is the key element.

The same issue may be placed at two different categories depending on how it’s presented. In terms of our personal beliefs, there is no scope for individual examiners bringing their own set of criteria to the job, however our life experiences are an important part of the ongoing development of our Guidelines. I for instance have two young children and how they and their friends react to films and video games (I’m getting them started on the Wii!) is a great way for me to think about how we approach issues at the junior categories.

Some examiners are religious, others atheist, some are parents, others are single, we can all provide differing real life contexts to issues that come up in works. It makes for lively discussions on occasions…

3: To what extent does the story play a part when justifying some of the more gratuitous scenes that you come across? We point to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, where toward the very start of the game you walk in a very cinematic manner through an airport terminal slaying dozens of pedestrians in your wake. It must be tough not to make a snap judgement when interacting with something like that?

(Video courtesy of xCheezbrgr)

Good question. In film the narrative context is vital, it can help justify scenes that would otherwise look gratuitous or on other occasions it can aggravate what might have been acceptable at a lower category. There’s been a lot of debate about how far video game story-lines can work in the same way.

There are some important differences between the two mediums, firstly it’s impossible to ignore the storyline in a film, it is after all the substance of the work. But video games can be played with the user giving scant regard to the narrative, even if the developer intends it to be a big part of the game playing experience. Most games allow you to skip cutscenes, for instance.

That’s not to say they don’t count for something, but we are perhaps a little more cautious about using a narrative to justify strong issues in video games. In the case of Modern Warfare 2, the ‘undercover’ storyline leading to the airport scene was taken into account and most significantly the fact that whatever action the player took, [SPOILER ALERT] the player-character would be killed.

But in the end the level was felt to be at the upper end and the adult category (18) was the appropriate choice. We also noted that the game offered supervising parents the option to disable the level altogether, which seemed like a responsible move but we couldn’t offer a 15/18 category, because it doesn’t exist!

The BBFC logo

The Call of Duty series has been a mixture of real life scenarios (exaggerated for effect of course) and some over the top elements (John Kennedy fighting off zombies!). The airport scene was perhaps less like other aspects of Modern Warfare, that is to say less grounded in the usual armed forces world. That lack of realism meant that the level might have come across as a macabre arcade game, which increases its potential for offence.

(Of course the option not to shoot at innocent passengers in the airport lounge was there, but have you ever met anyone who didn’t SLAUGHTER EVERYONE!).

4: How much influence do media stories have in a judgement? There was a lot of press, for instance, about the Taliban being featured in the latest Medal of Honor game whilst there was a storm of controversy about the possibility of babies getting slaughtered in Dante’s Inferno. Do you have to ignore things like that and, in the case of the Taliban and our earlier point, what influence would religion have had on the overall Medal of Honor judgement if the Taliban were indeed included?

I’ve been at the BBFC for five years and in that time there’s been a steady succession of press stories about our work. But we’re a self confident organisation with very nearly 100 years of experience. We take complaints seriously of course but to react to every criticism would be a mistake.

We need to make the right decision, base it on our published Guidelines and then defend it. In terms of Medal of Honor, the risk was one of offence to some people rather than harm. Even something that is likely to be extremely offensive to people is unlikely to get it rejected (but not impossible). It would be more likely to see its category raised to acknowledge this aspect of the game.

5: Is violence more acceptable in a game if it isn’t happening to a human being? If a robot or alien is being brutally decapitated for instance, does that make it more acceptable? If yes then why?

In simple terms: YES. It’s all about context (a bit of a mantra here in Soho Square). In the Lego series of video games, the player is basically blasting little Lego pieces to bits, that’s something my five year old does with the real thing and on the Wii all the time (so far he seems normal…). But if it were the real Luke and Leia, even without blood effects, we might be looking at raising the category.

(Video courtesy of NeuromancerLV)

6: Give us some examples of titles that were just too foul to ever hit the shelves and why. The more detail the better!

In 26 years of classifying video games only one video game has been successfully rejected and that was the original Manhunt 2 (a modified version was passed 18 on appeal). In terms of DVD, we end up rejecting a very small number each year, in 2010 it was just one, Lost in the Hood, a porn work that featured sexual attacks, so it was at the extreme end of retail DVD.

7: On a more personal level do you take your work home with you James? Are you a fan of gaming? Do you ever look at a title and think to yourself “I would have given that an 18 all day long!”

James and his colleagues help keep us safe at night!

I love my gaming of course. I’ve been playing since I got my first Sinclair ZX80. It’s a little more difficult now with a young family (hence the Wii), but I’ll try and play through the campaigns of the major games and perhaps rack up a few hours on multiplayer. There’s quite a few of us at the BBFC who are keen, so evenings can sometimes disappear in a haze of Xbox Live sessions!

In terms of being an armchair censor at home, I think it’s difficult to switch off completely and yes there have been occasions when I’ve seen something that’s raised my eyebrows. But of course I’m just looking at a small section of the game, while colleagues have considered the entire submission.

An example is Call of Duty: World at War. I was a little taken aback by the strength, at 15, of the opening cutscene in a Japanese POW camp. But by the time I’d invaded Berlin at the end of the campaign I was certain that 15 was the correct classification.

Thanks very much for your time, James!

‘If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix it’ – Crystal Dynamics Talk Tomb Raider Trilogy With NAGF

Karl Stewart of Crystal Dynamics talks to NAGF about his hopes for the Tomb Raider Trilogy

Life at Crystal right now is good, we’ve just announced our next game in spectacular fashion being on the cover of Game Informer, and the team are extremely pumped up and focused to deliver something unique and unexpected to the Tomb Raider audience.

Tomb Raider Trilogy touches down exclusively for the PS3 in March. But we had a few questions we wanted to ask the guys over at Crystal Dynamics. How difficult is maintaining quality control when porting to the console, for instance, and what can fans expect from the bumper package? Karl Stewart, global brand director for Crystal Dynamics was kind enough to set us straight:

NAGF: We want to know about the more technical side of things when a game gets re-released. How difficult is it technically to put three stand-alone games onto one disk, whilst improving on graphics and other individual areas?

To be honest, at 25gigs, the PlayStation 3 Blu-ray allowed us more than enough space to get the three games, along with a fair few additional extras, onto the disk. Underworld in itself has the same footprint as before so we knew what to expect there, what we didn’t know was how big Legend and Anniversary would become after we began remastering them from the PlayStation 2 versions. That kinda scared us a little. So thankfully, even with increasing the overall quality of all the textures and the addition of some technical data to play on the PS3 (Trophy support to name one), we managed to keep the entire collection just a little under 25gigs.

NAGF: We’ve heard about the Crystal proprietary engine. Tell us more! As two of the games were released on the PS2, how strenuous and lengthy is the process of what is essentially restoring old foundations, as you would a house?

We developed the Crystal Engine back in 2005/06 for its first use on Tomb Raider Legend. Over the years we have continued to evolve the engine with help from our highly-skilled engine team, improving on its capabilities alongside development expectations and requirements.

For the process of remastering the PlayStation 2 versions of Legend and Anniversary, using your analogy of restoring an old house, I would have to say that the foundations is the engine, and when a foundation is good you don’t touch them if you didn’t have to, as they say ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.

For the remastering of both games, we effectively kept all the walls of the house in place (story, music, physics etc..) and refurbished each room to become more modern and up to PlayStation 3 expectations (which included things like rezing up all the textures).

For this process we worked with our partner studio Buzz Monkey. Buzz have been working alongside us, and our engine, for quite a few years now and have become more than adept at understanding how she works under the hood. Were very honoured to be able to work with such a capable team in Buzz, and trusting that they now exactly what level of quality we expect and the level of quality we know they can deliver.

NAGF: What’s life like currently in the Crystal Dynamics team? What are the differences when managing a project such as remastering old properties as opposed to starting a new project? Is there a different creative and technical structure involved?

Life at Crystal right now is good, we’ve just announced our next game in spectacular fashion being on the cover of Game Informer, and the team are extremely pumped up and focused to deliver something unique and unexpected to the Tomb Raider audience.

The brand new Lara Croft, as seen on the cover of GameInformer

With that in mind though, we’ve always been excited about the opportunity to be able to go back in and remaster Legend and Anniversary for the PlayStation 3, for the Tomb Raider fans, but never quite had the time to do it with everything else going on around us.

Over the last year or so we kept the idea on the table just in case something would change, it was only recently that the notion of working with our partner studio Buzz Monkey came up that we decided to jump on it. This was the perfect scenario as it allowed us to continue keeping focus on the next game, safe in the knowledge that we have an extremely capable team in Buzz Monkey managing the helm of the Trilogy project.

NAGF: What’s the marketing potential and profit associated with releasing compilations? Are they seen as just a cash generator or is there a real desire to remodel the best of a series to a whole new audience?

I think first and foremost the goal of this project was to bring two great games which we’re extremely proud to have created on the PlayStation 2 to the PlayStation 3 audience. As mentioned above, we’ve always had the idea at the back of our heads to do this and with everything else going on right now we decided that now was the right time to do it.

The further we get down the road of presenting a vision of a younger Lara and redefining the idea of Tomb Raiding, the chances of us doing a Trilogy based on these three games would have gotten slimmer and slimmer. In 24 months the idea of putting a Trilogy out would only bring brand confusion to the consumer and start to fragment our new vision.

NAGF: Happy with the new pics of Lara and her reimagining? What does the future hold for her?

We’ve spent a lot of time getting to where we are now, the entire team at Crystal are extremely proud of the new image and vision were creating for Lara Croft and Tomb Raider.

As for the future, we’ll you just have to keep your eyes on the studio. We have a lot of exciting news and developments still to come in the future that will no doubt turn a lot of heads.

Crashing the Castle – An Exclusive Chat With The Behemoth

Dan Paladin and Tom FulpAbove: Dan Paladin, left, and Tom Fulp, right.

* John interviewed The Behemoth’s Tom Fulp and Dan Paladin for Imagine’s X360 magazine back in 2009. Here’s the whole four page spread, featuring the most promising creative developers on the planet today.

Castle Crashers stormed Xbox Live Arcade when it was released. A smash hit in its first week, it has since found another outlet via PSN, cultivating a whole new following thanks to the art direction of Dan Paladin and the imagination of Tom Fulp. Good progress then after their 2004 debut, Alien Hominid.

Those who played Hominid will no doubt have made the obvious link between the two titles. Their developers, The Behemoth, are fast catching the attention and critical praise they’ve worked incredibly hard to receive. What you might not know about these people, though, is the story that led them from a bedroom in Philadelphia to your own front room.

Those who have shelled out for Hominid and Crashers have been treated to a homage of games gone by. Influenced by classics like Metal Slug and Golden Axe, Crashers spent a painful three years in the making. The accusation was that Hominid was a one-off, and bettering it through a follow up would be too tough a task for two amateur developers.

Alien Hominid

Tom always refuted such a notion, putting his faith in the feedback he received from those who saw Crashers during its development. “We always loved showing off Castle Crashers because it got such a great response from people. We didn’t need to win over any publishers because we opted to self publish.”

There was a point though, when Castle Crashers was nearing three years in development and conventions became somewhat bitter-sweet. “People still loved the game, but they also questioned if it would ever be finished, and it pained us that it wasn’t.”

In its first month, the public’s patience was rewarded. After spending so long out of the spotlight after Hominid, they took Crashers around the world to show that The Behemoth was still biting. San Diego Comic Con, Tokyo Game show and more. They were sat there, tired in their stall, with flash demos of Crashers which took a painstaking 15 months to code.

Tom admits there were low points during the development phase. “If people had hated Hominid, I probably would have just stuck with web games, but there was this feeling of unfinished business that remained afterwards. It was like we got a taste of what we could do on consoles, and we wanted to give it another go and make something bigger and better. It helped knowing there were fans out there who would appreciate the effort.”

Behemoth conventionAbove: Tom and Dan work the floor at Comic Con

Web games were all part of an exhausting journey into the development spotlight for Tom. He was praised early on in life for his creative school projects, but constantly stepped over the line with some of his more outrageous creations. A video book report in Year 6 featured death, drugs and alcohol, and earned him a D. Throughout school, Tom dipped into coding and found his passion for programming, animating shorts in the school media centre and growing up throughout the mystical golden age of gaming with his Neo Geo and other classic consoles.

The influences from these consoles shine in his debut project, Alien Hominid. Problem was, Tom could see the difficulty pitching his idea to an already flooded platformer market. “We learned early on that it would be an uphill battle to pitch Alien Hominid, considering it wasn’t based on an existing film or console franchise.”

Rather than land a development deal up-front, he took a leap of faith and made the game on his own, funding it from his own pocket. Tom recognises it was a massive gamble. “Some publishers totally didn’t understand the appeal of the game and didn’t have any interest, while others wanted to pay us lots of money and lock up the characters for sequels and licensing deals.”

Castle Crashers

Tom rejected such ideals and stuck to his guns. Alien Hominid took off and sales grew steadily after its release. Hominid was getting a great critical reception and sold particularly well in Europe, becoming a cult favourite with gamers. Tom was in no mood to rush the next project though, and actually had difficulty establishing what console it should appear on after Hominid‘s cross-platform success.

Alien Hominid was a rewarding but stressful experience, so I wasn’t in a huge rush. We dabbled with a lot of stuff and eventually just sort of fell into Castle Crashers when we knew it felt right.” They originally started with Gamecube and PS2, but knew these platforms were on their way out of the market. “We tinkered with PSP for a while but weren’t really feeling it. Once we settled on XBLA, we knew we had made the right choice. It was an awesome platform for our style and had enough processing power for us to go nuts.”

Not as nuts though as some of his early work. It was in 1995 that Tom created an HTML website called ‘New Ground Remix’ that hosted all the shock content he created out of boredom. It hosted a game where you could take up a bat and club a seal, to a celebrity slugfest known as ‘Assassin’, which featured ways to bump off the most irksome figures of the 90s (Britney Spears’ monster truck for instance is still relevant today…)

What started off as a bit of fun ended up generating quite a stir. Letters from the BBC threatened to sue following the sadistic Tellybubbies game, but it wasn’t all bad. Tommy Lee described one of Tom’s first games as the best thing he had ever seen on the internet.

britney_KFedAbove: Newgrounds always hit the mark with its satire, when it wasn’t busy hitting Britney…

“I was just goofing around when I first set up Newgrounds, but I always wanted it to be a fun destination for people to visit,” explains Tom. By 1998 the site evolved with a new Flash interface, with lots of simple games appearing developed with Flash 2, moving off free hosting provided by his ISP.

The Flash interface was crucial for the next stage of the project in 1999 when he created a section called the Portal, intended as a black hole for small or unfinished projects. “Other people were making games with Flash and looking for exposure, so I started to showcase their small projects in the Portal alongside my own”. The demand became so great that he started becoming overwhelmed by all the files people were emailing him. YouTube? Newgrounds did it first.

Newgrounds soon developed a following and was the first place on the internet that people could submit their own creations to get an instant mass critique. One artist in particular was Dan Paladin who, in 2001 and beyond, climbed to the top of the awards system with his quirky and colourful submissions. Dan remains humble, though. “Newgrounds had a significant impact on discovering things about myself as well as how an audience reacts.  It can sometimes be a tough crowd there who can either push you to better yourself or to give up – all depending on how you take the really honest reviews.”

Chainsaw the Children

Tom took notice of Dan’s popularity. It was only a matter of time before the artist and the programmer met. Tom remembers their first project with fondness. “Dan and I met and just casually started talking about making a game together. It was all just for fun – Dan made funny cartoons in Flash and I made Flash games so things just clicked“.

Their first game revolved around a guy with enormous testicles. Players used their giant sack to bounce around on and crush kids. Dan agrees with Tom’s first impressions: “We clicked really quickly since our approach and tastes are somewhat similar. We are passionate about what we do so we have strong opinions. Sometimes those opinions differ but the great thing about that is we always find a compromise which ends up benefiting our games greatly each step of the way.”

Their shorts were well received on Newgrounds. With fire in their bellies, their next project was a breakaway flash game – Alien Hominid – which currently has over 19 million views on the website alone. Newgrounds was something of a guinea pig to test their skills, and the reception from users was glowing.

Then real life took hold. Dan’s employers shut up shop and he, alongside some industry mainstays found themselves destitute after working on an early XBLA project. Proving that it’s not what you know but who you know, Alien Hominid reached a co-worker of Dan’s, John Baez, who loved the web version and wanted to see it on consoles. The three got their heads together and formed The Behemoth with some of Dan’s ex co-workers, becoming an entirely self-funded company devoted to publishing their own titles.

The Behemoth

For anyone else looking to set up their own company, John issues a stark warning. “Remember that each developer is on their own in terms of funding, the hardware manufacturers are not funding games they don’t own.” John, now considered an industry veteran, emphasised the point early on that pitching Hominid would be thankless.

The differences between designing a game for the web and for a console began to become very apparent. With a new title to show off, conventions had to be attended with an incredible desire to prove themselves. After Hominid’s acclaim, the desire – thankfully – was still there to tap into for Castle Crashers. “When you have little time and put a lot of care and love into what you’re doing, things can take a while!” says Tom of Crashers’ delay. Three years may sound like a long time, but in hindsight, both men have just hit their thirties and have two bestselling games to their name. Anything is possible in the future.

Despite seeing both titles thrash the competition when released on XBLA, Dan still has a tone of regret in his voice. “I would have liked to see 2-on-2 arena battles [in Crashers]. People are still finding ways to have team battles by calling out who is on which team.  So in a way, it is still able to be achieved but I would have liked to have a leader board for it. We had this feature on its way but I believe we had to drop it due to time constraints. I’ve learned that no matter what happens we’ll always want to go back and change something. I think realising that has given me a little more peace of mind with Castle Crashers!”

Crashing Concepts

Below, Dan takes us through the character creation stages with some of his gorgeous Castle Crashers concept art:

“A lot of the time I will show Tom a character design and we both talk about what he might do, what would be funny and so on…”

Castle Crashers concept 1

“Then I will go and create a few actions for him and Tom blocks in his attack patterns”

Castle Crashers concept 2

“After we play around with that for a little while we brainstorm once more for the finishing actions and touches.”

Castle Crashers concept 3

“Sometimes approaching something that doesn’t feel right later with fresh eyes makes the correction that was needed extremely fast and obvious!”

Castle Crashers concept 4

Dante’s Peak?

Dante's Inferno Pack Shot

EA had high hopes for Dante’s Inferno when it was released in February, but divine judgement has seen it slip to the seventh circle of the bargain bin. We ask an Alighieri expert what went wrong…

Dante's Inferno

“The logic of slaughtering souls who are, after all, already dead is a bit odd, but again that applies to the whole game.  Did the game’s creators pick cynically on unbaptised infants for shock value?  Well, maybe…”

Claire Honess is currently in America, but she has taken some time out to talk to us about EA’s Dante’s Inferno. She knows a wee bit about Dante – she’s currently co-director of Leeds University’s Centre for Dante Studies which The Guardian ranks as second in the UK league table of University Italian departments. She’s immersed herself in Alighieri’s original text for most of her adult life, and would be incredibly useful in a Dante-themed pub quiz.

So we want to know what she thinks of EA’s 2010 adaption of what is viewed as one of the most important texts in history. To date EA have sold just under one-and-a-quarter million copies combined on the 360 and PS3 , which should be viewed as tepid, especially considering the positive reviews that Dante received.

“I suspect that the poor sales mean that it’s just not a particularly good game.  But I am not the right person to judge on that.  I can’t imagine that the title put people off: Inferno is a pretty enticing title, I think.  Nor do I imagine that many people thought, ‘Oh, I won’t buy this because I read the book and didn’t enjoy it that much’.  So I think the reasons for the game’s relative lack of commercial success need to be sought out in something other than the fact that it was ostensibly based on a ‘classic’.”

Maybe the whole interpretation side of things is at fault, and some serious questions need to be raised with EA’s creative heads. There was certainly no shortage of inspiration for EA to draw on, as Claire points out. And EA’s marketing blitz left no stone unturned when whipping up interest in the game – PR director Tammy Schachter admitted to hiring a baying mob to protest the game’s content at E3 2009 in Los Angeles, while the International Nanny Association took a pretty dim view of the aforementioned baby-beating shenanigans.

Did EA make a blunder in trying to adapt such an old text for the modern gamer? “That’s a difficult question.  For the adult market, I suspect that most texts are just too wordy and lacking in action to transfer to this kind of market. Moreover, I think it’s wrong for any of us to assume that we have the right to pronounce on how Dante should be read and on how his works should be used.

Dr. Claire Honess

“My Dante is not the same as the Dante of Boccaccio, reading him in the fourteenth century, or of Dorothy L. Sayers, reading him as an Anglican in the first half of the twentieth century, or of a bored Italian teenager reading him in class in modern-day Florence.  And since I tend to see the game as ‘inspired by’ Dante rather than as actually engaging in any real way with Dante’s text, the ‘mis-use’ of Dante is not really an issue.”

There were a lot of other factors to consider when the game was released in February. The world was still curled up under its duvet after its recession bender and the time-burgling Mass Effect 2 was released a month earlier. February also saw the release of the phenomenal Bioshock 2 and the much-hyped Heavy Rain. Dante was probably doomed to walk its path through Hell alone before it was even released.

Claire does draw parallels with writing a story for consoles though, and Alighieri’s own troubles when he wrote Inferno some 700 years ago: “Certainly I don’t think that the art of storytelling in the traditional way, involving words on a page, is dead.  Nor do I think that the two [continued existence of a literary tradition alongside new media] are necessarily mutually exclusive.  And we need to bear in mind that, by the standards of his own day, Dante, writing an epic in the vernacular was doing something not very far removed from writing literature-as-console-game.

“The disapproval of some of his contemporaries (like Petrarch and Giovanni del Virgilio, both of whom thought that he had ‘debased’ the poem by writing it in Italian, and that it should have been written in Latin) is enough to remind us of that.  But Dante foresaw that this was the future of poetry, and he privileged communication of his message over rigid adherence to tradition.  So, if a modern-day Dante comes along with a pressing message to convey to the youth of today, then why not do it through a medium that will actually reach them?”

We point her in the direction of Limbo and open up a brand new can of worms.

Dante's Inferno boss fight