Previously on StartGame we’ve had interviews geared towards advice for budding developers who are thinking about taking the plunge and creating their first game. Today we have something a bit different, in the form of a full interview with John Dowdles from Whisper Game Studios, who launched their first game – Pie Collect – onto Xbox Live Indie Games last year. Whisper use a rather neat method of development and are currently working on their next major release, Elysia, which they’re extremely keen to talk about.
So, without further ado…
Q: Can you give us a bit of background on Whisper Game Studios and the team?
John: Whisper Game Studios was born from an instant-messaging conversation in October 2008, between two gaming friends across the Atlantic from each other, myself and Corey Blakeborough. I was beginning my education into a career in Games Art & Design, and Corey was halfway through his education in coding languages (Java, C++, C#, PHP, and so on). We’d often spoken about repeating the online community and upstart legacy of our favourite Game Developers, such as Bungie.net, where the vast majority of our team originally met. It basically started with the simple, harmless question of “Hey, couldn’t we pool our resources together and start up a company too?” We certainly could. So we got to work on spreading the word, looking for people who wanted to help us out, and on 11th November 2008, Whisper was officially formed.
At first, we were a tiny team of 5. This was before we’d heard of the Xbox Live Community Games service (as it was called then), and we’d set our sights on starting small and making simple games in Flash (which are still available on our website, and we’re slowly adding to them). Once word got about our game Elysia (which was originally named after one of the main protagonists, “Quiff”, but was changed because not everyone knows how to pronounce it correctly, so that led to a few problems) being upgraded from just a Flash game to a full game on the Xbox Live Indie Game marketplace, interest spiked and more people started taking notice of our efforts.
We are now a team of 18, with our recruits hailing from Scotland, England, Australia, Norway, Washington, Ohio, Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida, Colorado and Canada. Each and every one of us works purely for the fun and the experience of it. Our hope is to one day have core team members migrate to a singular location, and form a physical studio, whilst retaining our cloud-based system for those yet unable to move (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but feel free to add to it).
We are constantly taking on people, and we don’t mind if you haven’t had much previous experience. As long as you’re a pretty cool, laid-back and talented individual willing to take some criticism and help us make some great games, you’re free to send an email to myself, and I’ll forward you to the right people. If you’re more musically inclined you can contact our Audio Director, Christi O’Donnell, who has her own start-up record company, Rare Pop Records, which we consider to be our sister company. They’re on the lookout for talented people who can do sound design, mixing, mastering and composing. They currently work in the cloud too, using the same setup we use.
Q: I understand that you use quite a unique, cloud-based development setup – can you explain to us how that works?
John: Currently, we split up our cloud into five key sections, using as many free resources as possible:
- Communication – Using Skype’s Group-IM and Group-Call services. Segregated work-related and general chats helps keep order, as well as keeping people focused.
- Collaboration – Using Dropbox’s simple file-sharing systems. Segregated folders for teams (i.e., Art, Writing, etc) is important as Dropbox only allows a small amount of space, which you can increase by referring friends to sign up.
- Task Assigning – Using Huddle’s web-based ticket-software. Allows tasks to be assigned to individual or entire groups of people for collaboration efforts, as well as a handy calendar of events.
- Subversion – Using Tortoise SVN’s server-based code-collaboration software. Essentially works as a code-only collaboration tool, allowing multiple coders to work on a single file without (much) conflict.
- Susurration – Corey designed an entire back end area of our website designed exclusively for our employees to access important team-based information and resources, and allows authorized people to add, remove or edit content on the website.
With these, we can essentially replicate the exact same sort of software physical studios use in-house, whilst also allowing the team to communicate openly and freely with each other.
Q: Was this setup always the same or did it evolve over time?
John: Originally, we were all piled up in a single group-conversation on Windows Live Messenger. Which was fine when we only had about 5 of us on the team, able to simply send files to each other privately, and were just starting out, but when we began to expand, and conversations became increasingly difficult to stay focused on work, and instead led to mass memefests and sharing of custom emoticons (often spanning the entire screen), we figured we needed to make the shift to a better system.
So after doing some research, I started piecing together the cloud-system we’re using today, and it feels a lot more efficient and professional whilst still retaining that feeling of ownership and independence, which is what makes Indie Development so exciting to be a part of in the first place.
Q: Do you find that this setup is difficult to work with compared to a traditional development environment?
John: Having worked at a game company previously, as well as participating in Dare to be Digital 2010, I can safely say that yes, working in a cloud-based environment with team-members from all sorts of different time zones can be extremely difficult; especially considering that a lot of already have jobs or are on courses at Universities, or both. As a result, a lot of us, myself especially, find ourselves staying up until the early hours of the morning, throwing off our sleep schedule, and then struggling to get back to normal.
At one point, at the very beginning of Pie Collect’s production, back in June 2009, I was working with my friend, Scott Dunbar, who lived just a couple fields away from me. When we were both available to, I’d put my laptop and graphics tablet in a small suitcase, walk uphill to his house, and we’d work out of his shed; the sort that had electricity that ran on a ticket-based meter. The majority of the game was created in the weeks we spent working away in that shed, and I owe that to the simple ability to turn around, face Scott, and talk to him directly about what needed to be done for the game. Whereas, with our cloud-based development, there’s no set time for work, there’s no guarantee for if someone will be online to work with, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll reply in time before you have to get offline.
So in that respect, it’s very lacking, and isn’t helped by the fact that Skype will only actually send messages when both conversation participants are online at the same time, as opposed to MSN, where messages are stored and received even if one of the participants are offline.
Otherwise, with our collaboration tools like Dropbox, it’s completely efficient and easy to share files. You place a file down in a folder people are sharing, it’ll upload to the Dropbox site, then it will automatically download to everyone else’s Dropbox folder. Almost works like a Local Access Network.
Q: Pie Collect was your first project. Is there anything in particular you have learned from the experience?
John: Two words, really: Feature. Lock.
The simple arcade-styled game took us almost 2 years to get out the door. The game was based on the Flash games Corey designed on our website, and I figured that it would make a fantastic icebreaking title for us, to get to grips as a team as well as to understand the XBLIG process. And it was; we learned a lot of things that may have tripped us up if we had just started working on Elysia immediately (it also bought us plenty of time, too). Since its launch in November last year, the game was bought by over 150 people and trialled by over 1360 people in total. That’s about an 11% rate of purchase-trial counts. Which isn’t that bad, in the long run.
The game suffered from a combination of hacked hacks to fix hacks that were hacked to fix bugs, absolutely zero documentation about the game’s content, which essentially led to a widespread migraine amongst our coders (we actually lost a couple as a result of the project), and finally it was crippled by something that the XNA community fail for: a “code 4″ error occurred when the game was saved on a memory card and was ejected whilst selecting a storage device. This is one of the most hated issues regarding the XNA service, and a lot of people feel it is a hardware issue rather than the developer’s issues. It eventually got sorted and saved by our awesome coder, Tayler Wilbourn.
Whilst it doesn’t feature any flashy particle effects and superb graphics, it does have a retro theme that is its own (who liked my picnic blankets, by the way?), and there’s a certain addictive charm and replay value to it.
If it had flashier graphics, online multiplayer (Which it almost had, but essentially couldn’t due to how broken the base code was) as well as a few gameplay improvements I came up with and put on a list after mass-feedback from those who played it, and if it had actual achievements that gave out points, I think it would have been a lot more successful. But instead of polishing something that *might* be more successful and popular, we decided to go ahead and concentrate on something that we feel a lot of people are going to adore: Elysia.
Q: You’re now working on a couple of new projects, one of which is the platformer Elysia. Can you give us a summary of the games?
John: Elysia is a 2D puzzle-platformer game for the Xbox Live Indie Games marketplace, where you control not just the usual platforming dude, but you also get to control a portable-platform character simultaneously, who you meet up with in the 3rd level of the game. You progress through levels by collecting Dream Orbs, which allow you to pass through Dream Gates, marked with a number of how many Dream Orbs you require to open it. There are various enemies and complex puzzles that require skilled use of both characters at once. The game begins rather airy and slow-paced to ease you into platforming gameplay as Quiff, but after you rescue the platform-cloud, Whisp, the environments and enemies become a lot more hazardous, complex and dangerous.
Whisp is more than just a handy platform; as a cloud he can transform into forms of weather, such as Lightning, Heat and Rain. These weather elements can be activated by kicking signposts and can help defeat certain enemies if used in the right order, and can also change the environment in order for you to progress.
Something dark and sinister has infected the world of Elysia. It came raining down in the form of thick, black sludge, changing everything it touched into an evil, mindless puppet. And so, as the unknowingly-chosen protectors of the world, it’s up to Quiff and Whisp to liberate the infected creatures’ souls, lay them to rest, and discover the source of the great evil. As the game progresses, you’ll encounter the evil umbrella, Ego, who will attempt to stall your progress. Chasing after him will take you to the ends of the world, and beyond, into what the two heroes never imagined possible. Quiff and Whisp discover their origins, and discover the dark secret behind the world of Elysia.
Our other project, codenamed “Heron”, is our attempt at creating a game with a solid universe and solid canon. After seeing how careless some game companies have been regarding their games’ canon, and watching the effect that has on their fans, we were very disappointed in seeing how little these companies cared to try and keep new content consistent with their game’s world and back-stories, for the sake of a cheap and easy storyline. The majority of our writers, led by S.P.C. Hapner, are collaborating together to create a timeline of events that span a multitude of games that compliment fun gameplay, whilst keeping canon entirely in check.
Heron is set on Mars in 2189, telling the story of its inhabitants who survived the events in 2145, when mankind first started work on terraforming and colonizing Mars when a massive rock was jettisoned from the moon after an unexplainable explosion occurred. The rock smashed into our home-planet, crippling it and killing all who resided. The people of Mars are now on their own with nowhere to go. Heron tells the story of the fight for survival, and the civil war that erupted, complete with genetic enhancements and mutations that were a direct result of initial attempts at adapting humanity for Mars’ atmosphere. The game is a 2D side-scrolling shooter which will feature a nice lengthy storyline as well as fantastic characters and environments. You can read more about it, follow along with the project’s Twitter feed, and see concept work on its project page on our site.
It’ll make an interesting change from the colourful cheerful world in Elysia, that’s for sure.
Q: A trailer for Elysia was released earlier this month, and it’s looking great. What was your inspiration?
John: We’ve taken inspiration from a variety of sources; some obvious, others not so much. In October 2008, I wrote the story and designed the characters after finishing playing the game Braid. I simply adored the art style and the slow-paced feel of the world, but most important, I loved the shock of the ending, and that feeling of awe when you realize the truth of what is happening. We wanted this game to bring platformer games back to the best platformer gameplay dynamics that existed in the 90s but seem to have been replaced with less fun elements nowadays. We wanted the environments to be extremely detailed and saturated; almost preschool.
The portable platform concept was loosely based on the Sonic and Tails “helicopter” mode from the old Sonic 3 game. It’s essentially the same sort of function, except the entire control scheme is based on the dual-control dynamic. Though if you have a friend who wants to play locally, or over Xbox Live, they can join you as Whisp, which can lead to a lot of fun and hilarious moments between friends, but a great coordinated team of two could potentially win the fastest time-trials if they know what they’re doing.
An old accidental inspiration of mine is the Brackenwood animated series. The animations and world of Brackenwood are amazing, vivid and beautiful. I wanted to capture that same feeling of freedom and paradise without taint by man.
The Dream Orbs, Dream Gates and Souls dynamics were loosely based on old 3D platformer traits from the Rayman, Spyro and (later) Crash Bandicoot series. It’s the sort of thing that really inspires exploration, and the drive of finding enough Orbs to enter through a Dream Gate that has some really cool stuff behind it, is something that’s extremely powerful for a developer to use in level designs.
A lot of the game is essentially our own design and creation however, and if there is a source of inspiration for it, it’s likely not something we’re aware of, we’re just combining things that we’d love to see done in a 2D platformer game. We really want Elysia to stand out on its own as something of its own style, and I believe it’s paying off nicely.
Our audio director, Christi O’Donnell, too, has found the perfect blend of instruments to compose Elysia’s signature sound. Her catchy melodies have had the team humming, clapping and whistling them to ourselves as we work. There are some very subtle elements of Zelda and Final Fantasy in there, but overall it’s Christi’s own sense of style that makes Elysia’s music what it is.
Q: What are you hoping will set Elysia apart from the thousands of other games available through the Xbox Live Indie Games service?
John: In a word? Community.
We’re incorporating as much statistical data, XBL functionality and unlockable content as we can into the game to provide our players with enough extras to keep them entertained for hours. As Xbox Live Indie Games don’t have any APIs to connect to servers outside of Xbox Live, we’re incorporating a code-based system, where the game will generate a code based on your Gamertag as well as all of the statistics based on your gaming habits and progress in Elysia, and you can then input this code onto your profile page on our website, and it will display your gameplay history. This is something that we’re certainly hoping to do; whether we can pull it off or not is a totally different matter, but we have a functional plan for it and it appears to work well, even just in our prototypes.
So from being able to share your statistics on site, you can compare your medals, unlocked costumes and progress with friends and other site-members. And providing we get the system to work, it’ll even be backward enabled to unlock content, limited to things like costumes, in the game if you sign up on our site and submit your first code. This opens up a lot of avenues for us, and like I said, it goes back to the community-based development we’ve been aiming at since being active members at Developers’ sites that pioneered this sort of thinking, such as Bungie.net with their Halo series. Whilst Bungie are able to send data from XBL directly to Bungie.net, we had to come up with a way to get around that for XNA, and I’m very glad to say we did.
Of course, if we somehow get XBLA publishing rights, that could quickly change. We’re planning on entering Dream.Build.Play. with this game this year (providing we qualify for entry), and as the winning prizes are large cash sums as well as access to XBLA development, we’re extremely keen to try out for that, as it would essentially give us the tools to do everything we’ve ever planned to do for Whisper, and Elysia.
Thank you very much for giving us this opportunity to talk to you about who we are! It’s extremely appreciated.
Once again we would like to give a huge thanks to John for taking the time to answer our questions and wish everyone at Whisper Game Studios luck with their current projects! I can’t wait to get my hands on Elysia.