Jaime Cross Interview – Team Junkfish (Monstrum)

Brute Attack
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If for some tragic reason you’ve been locked in Davy Jones’ sub-aquatic locker for the past two years, then you might not be aware of Monstrum, the brilliant and brutally addictive horror game from Dundee-based Team Junkfish. Let me fill you in on the details while you splutter up all of that rancid seawater.

In development since 2013 and approved for Steam Greenlight program in March 2014, Monstrum has proven popular with horror fans since the game left Early Access in May of this year. The game is essentially a massive nautical nightmare; you find yourself trapped on a decrepit 1970s cargo ship, with the rest of the crew nowhere to be found. Well, sort of – it depends on what exactly you classify as ‘the crew’. Unfortunately, it soon transpires that you’re actually stuck on board with a monster who is only too happy to make your acquaintance…before it mercilessly crushes/eats/twists your head off, naturally.

Your goal then is pretty simple; repair one of the three escape vessels by collecting the necessary tools and get the hell out of dodge. So far, so Slender, you might say – but wait, there’s a twist. What sets Monstrum apart from the majority of its creepy collectathon rivals is the fact that it’s a roguelike with extensive procedurally-generated systems in place. Every time you fire the game up, you have no idea what the interior structure of the ship will be, no idea where the specific items you need are located and, perhaps most importantly of all, no idea which of three different monsters is currently hunting you. With no one layout to memorise or a single strategy to master, the pressure can quickly ratchet up to ridiculously high levels as you desperately try to make your daring escape. In the words of Scooby Doo‘s Shaggy, “Zoinks Scoob!”

Monstrum is a harsh, demanding but incredibly rewarding game of hide and seek on the high seas, and one that’s had me gripped (like a monster slowly crushing the life out of a frightened, isolated sailor perhaps) since release. Keen to learn more about the game and its dastardly delightful design, I reached out to Jaime Cross, Team Junkfish’s Director and Audio Designer to talk about monsters, audio design and the exciting multicultural future of the horror genre.

How did Team Junkfish originally form as a studio, and what’s the story behind the cool name?

Team Junkfish came together in 2011 at Abertay University. In the third year we had to do a big group project – they have a lot of big briefs from Microsoft, Sony, Disney etc., but students also have the opportunity to form their own team and present their own idea. They can pitch it to the lecturers and if it’s good they’re given the go-ahead. Back then, there were currently nine members of what would become Team Junkfish, and they wanted to do this big idea but they were told they were probably not going to be able to do it unless they got a sound guy. So they pitched for a sound person in front of the entire year, and I just said “I’ll do it, aye!” and that was kind of it. There’s been ten of us ever since, and it’s coming up on four years now in total that we’ve been working together. It’s scary when you think about games companies and the way they can come and go, but yeah we’ve been doing this for four years and we officially became a company two years ago now. The Team Junkfish name came from when we did our first big prototype, and it was basically a giant flying mechanical whale, and we just went “Yeah, let’s call it Junkfish!”

Your previous projects FooFoo and DinerSaur were aimed more at children and younger audiences. What prompted the shift to darker, more adult material, or was it just a natural evolution of the team’s creative urges?

Originally the FooFoo game was part of the Samsung Student Developer Challenge, so we put it together mainly for that competition. We did quite well – we got a lot of press out of it, which was very cool. DinerSaur was made for the Dare to be Digital competition a couple of years ago, it was a cool augmented reality arcade shooter. The game itself was technically made just by six members of the team (then known as Prehistoric Spatula) over a period of nine weeks. That included three programmers, two of the artists and me doing the audio. We had thousands of people come by and play it, and after that we sort of decided “So what do we actually want to do now?” Everybody pitched in with ideas, and the one that we thought seemed the most interesting and doable was Monstrum. It was more of a diplomatic way of moving forward rather than an impulsive choice of “Let’s just do horror games”.

Where did the original idea for Monstrum come from, and what were the main influences throughout the game’s development?

The original pitch was basically what would happen if you mixed The Binding of Isaac with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. We ran with that concept for a roguelike horror game, something that would be replayable over and over and where you’d never get the same jumpscare twice or anything like that. That was the main emphasis that we were working on – to make a really replayable horror game.

What was the reason for situating Monstrum in the 1970s? What is it about that time period and aesthetic that was crucial to the look and feel of the game?

With regard to the game’s setting, the designer decided that with landlocked locations – such as the usual horror game tropes of hospitals and asylums – not only are these environments overused, but theoretically you could also just break a window, escape and you off they go. However, if you’re stuck on an abandoned ship out at sea then you have to escape in a more specific way, because otherwise you’re probably just not going to meet a great fate otherwise! (Laughs) As far as the ’70s aesthetic went, it was down to a mixture of things. In the original concept for the game, the player was supposed to be exploring an old ship but one that’s set in the current time period. It’s since shifted from that obviously, but generally we just thought that it was an interesting aesthetic that hasn’t really been done all that much. We thought it would be something that would make the game stand out that little bit more.

Hunter StairsYou’ve previously described the Monstrum experience as ‘Alien on a boat’ but interestingly you suggest that the player’s experience is more closely aligned with the character of Captain Dallas rather than Ripley. Can you elaborate a bit more about this distinction?

It was one of those weird things where we thought yeah, ‘Alien on a boat’, that’s a really great way to describe the game. Then Alien: Isolation got announced and we were just like “Fuck!” It kind of put a bit of a dampener on us all; we thought we were screwed. This new game is coming out, it’s going to look amazing – we’re done. However we gradually started to pick ourselves up after that and reminded ourselves that actually no, Monstrum is probably going to be quite different from Isolation – we’re aiming at different markets, let’s just keep going. We were at EGX Rezzed in 2014 and Creative Assembly were also there with a big Alien: Isolation booth set up with VR headsets, so we got a good chance to compare the two games there. That was quite reaffirming, as it showed us that they were different enough.

The focal point of the Ripley/Dallas character comparison was based around that sense of impending doom that surrounds your character in Monstrum. Namely that Ripley survives her alien encounter and makes it through the film as a survivor, whereas Dallas doesn’t! We wanted to apply those feelings to the players; that you’re not Ripley, that you’re probably not going to make it out of this. You’re just going to have to get out of there as best you can and try. I think that was the basis for comparing the two characters.

I understand that you prototyped Monstrum as a board game first before moving ahead with the bulk of production. How was that as a testing experience, and did it highlight any issues about the game that you hadn’t previously considered up to that point?

It was very, very loosely tied into the game and really strange, but it did give us a feel for how the real game would eventually play out. Essentially it was a singleplayer board game where you had to move through the randomly placed corridor pieces and rooms to find the random items potentially hidden in them. We had all these different systems going on, but some of them didn’t carry across all that well because they were based on dice rolls and stuff like that, but in terms of generally planning out whether all this would work as an actual game, it really helped us look at different issues we might not have properly considered before. How should things be placed? What speed should this monster travel at? How easily should it be able to find you, or chase after you? Little concerns like that eventually become much bigger things once you actually start to develop the game and are really important, so having that sort of stuff trickle down into the final thing was pretty useful. It’s stuff that we’re doing again now as we’re prototyping new ideas – paper prototypes are still very important.

Did you ever have any ideas about including randomised sea conditions in with all the other procedurally-generated elements of the game, or would that have been just a technical nightmare or simply not fun for the player?

Yes we did speak about having different environmental conditions as part of the experience. Things such as large-scale environmental fires – you can manually set small fires in the game with the fuel cans, but we wondered what if they could break out around the ship itself? Or what if you had some decks which were flooded and now underwater? We even talked about small things such as whether to have the ship rock back and forth, but ultimately it was one of those things where in the end we decided that it would be a nice idea, but it really wasn’t that important and far too much work for the little return it might give. They were all good ideas, but ones we couldn’t really make viable. Also, on the topic of having choppier seas, because we started Oculus Rift integration very early on, that was one of the big things that made us think having a rocking ship wouldn’t work well and potentially might just make people feel even more sick! (Laughs)

Notes

Speaking of Oculus, how is the VR integration coming along? With the game already out at this point, how do you plan on making VR functionality feel like an integral part of the experience rather than just a bolted-on extra?

We’ve been working on the VR integration right from the beginning of the project, developing for Oculus Rift alongside the game since we started in September 2013. It’s not like we finished the game and just decided to stick the Oculus stuff on it and then start again from scratch. So in that sense it’s been really good, we’ve been aware of any issues that we need to address, and we’ve been going back to fix them as we’ve been moving along.

Our programmer Stephanie has been getting all the VR stuff sorted; there’s a lot of weird things that you might not consider when designing for VR, such as user interfaces and post-processing effects. Elements like that don’t really work the same way in the Oculus because of the stereoscopic screen. Getting that sort of stuff working has been quite difficult, so she’s done a lot of iteration on the UI systems and solved some weird clipping and animation issues. It’s all these little weird problems that you might not consider all that much until you run into a wall and you can suddenly see through the entire ship – that is a bit of a problem!

The concepts of player agency and responsibility are particularly well implemented in Monstrum – how did you manage to balance the game’s difficulty so that it works well for both brand new players as well as expert ones?

A lot of this stuff came about from simply doing lots of playtests to see if people wanted another shot – yes or no? If players came from a background of having already played roguelikes such as The Binding of Isaac and knowing how those sort of games work, then they could quickly adapt, learn and experiment through dying. The main issue came from people coming in from the opposite end of things who hadn’t played a roguelike before. They would go “What do I do? I don’t know what to do with this thing! Nothing is telling me anything!” We didn’t want things to be hand-holdy; Monstrum is very much a difficult game, and we say up front that it is hard and you will die quite a lot. So we iterated quite a lot on the initial tutorial room which basically just says “Here’s some stuff, this is what you use it for, press these buttons for interactions”, but beyond that you’re on your own. You have to explore, you have to check your journal to see “How do I solve this situation? Ah, I need to need to find X, Y and Z to escape – okay, got it.” The main thing that we were looking to build into the game was that as long as the player learns something from each death, it doesn’t feel like a complete failure on their part. It’s stuff like that where if you’re new to the game and run into a new monster, you don’t know what it’s going to do so it’s about picking up on its behaviours. On your next run, if you get the same monster again, you’ll then have a better idea of how to deal with it. Picking up important information like that is very cool, and interesting to see how different people do it.

Hunter Attack

Have you been surprised by the ways in which players go about tackling the various monsters and escape routes? Have there ever been instances where you’ve seen players do something totally unexpected?

Yeah, there’s been quite a lot of those instances just because of the way the game is built. The procedural generation is one thing, but the monsters are all AI-driven, so there’s no real pre-set things or scripted things that happen as a result. There have been a few instances where I’ve seen players carefully following a plan, and then suddenly BANG! A door suddenly just flies through the corridor and you see them freak out! This also goes on in the Team Junkfish office itself, especially with the Oculus Rift testing. You just see people go jumping right out of their chairs! It happens at trade shows as well, so it’s been fun to see how people take to that and all the different instances that can happen. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody have the same exact runthrough, which has been our main thing, our overall objective. It’s a very emergent experience; we hear people telling their own stories about how they would be trying to find a particular item, and then out of nowhere this intense chain of other events kick off. I think that’s an interesting thing in games in general. Being able to give people that opportunity to have their own version of the same game is pretty cool.

Brute Grab

The way you have designed the monsters according to various forms of fear is a really interesting concept; the animalistic rage of The Brute, the claustrophobic paranoia of The Hunter and the cruel psychological mirth of The Fiend all come across really effectively in their designs. Can you talk about the inspirations behind each monster and what went into designing their unique AI behaviours?

In terms of the monster designs, we’ve always had those three basic archetypes in mind. The Brute is big and chunky, triggering your primal fear response when it’s chasing after you. Then you’ve got The Hunter which is the thing lurking in the dark making creepy noises, and then The Fiend which is the sadistic psychological one. Even when we didn’t know exactly what the monsters were going to look like originally, we’ve always had these design concepts in mind; we basically thought about what each one’s going to do, and then expanded out from that. The Brute was the first one we built because technically he’s the simplest. We built a lot of the backend AI work around him, and then adapted it for the other monsters to make sure that it worked for each of their unique behaviours. It was interesting to see it change up, especially when it came to stuff like The Hunter, because he’s completely different from the other two monsters in that he’s not really available on the ship and instead he pops out at you from the vents. It was interesting to get those systems all working together, especially from the audio perspective, to make sure that they all tied into the ship and the environmental sounds. You might hear a rumble and be able to identify it as the monster, or you might not and think “Oh no what was that? What do I do now?”

The Fiend

On that topic of encountering a new monster, you ingeniously put The Fiend into the game disguised as part of a routine lighting update. I’m guessing you must have heard some crazy horror stories of people encountering it for the first time?

We snuck it in just to basically beta-test it and see what we thought. Then we saw people on forums just going “Why are the lights going weird? What the hell is this thing?” and all that sort of stuff. We saw videos where people were just freaking about this strange new thing that had just killed them, and calling us sneaky bastards – we were just like “Yes, yes we are!” So yeah, it was pretty cool and it gave us a decent opportunity in Early Access to see how people took to it and tighten it up a bit more before release.

The in-game notes dotted around the ship allude to a spawning ground from which the monsters were presumably collected – is there a possibility that we’ll get to see this area in a future game?

We’ve talked about future stuff, and even if we’re not necessarily doing a direct sequel, it’s something that we’d like to keep continuity wise. It’ll be interesting to go back to it in a future game, even if it’s not the next one. We’ve created this little world, now how can we expand on it? We’ll see.

Sparky

Any chance we’ll get to go up against the original test monster Sparky?

I’m not sure! It’ll be interesting to see if we can polish and change him up a bit more, and see what else he can bring to the table. I’ll mention that to the team – “Hey we’ve got a half-finished monster here!” (Laughs)

You’ve been using Ableton as your primary digital audio workstation throughout the project. What is it about that program in particular that appeals to you over Cubase/Logic/Pro Tools etc. and what VSTs and plugins do you tend to favour when working?

Ableton was one of the things that I was taught when I was at college alongside Pro Tools. I was mainly using Pro Tools going into university but it just kept crashing too much, so I decided “No, go away I’m using Ableton!” That was basically it, there was no big overarching decision to it and since then I’ve been using Ableton for the past four years nearly exclusively. As far as VSTs and everything goes, for a lot of the sound design in both the music and the game itself, I basically used a lot of Ableton stock stuff. Their granular delay is really cool – I’ve used it quite a lot on various different things, and it’s just a really weird sounding delay which stretches the sounds out – it’s weird to describe without letting you hear it, but it was one of the ones I’d always go back to. It was just basically a lot of the standard Ableton tools that I used, nothing super fancy or expensive. I’ve got some Waves stuff that I’m sometimes using in newer projects, but when it comes to stuff like EQs or compressors, I’m still find myself going back to Ableton because I know their tools so well. I know exactly how they affect sounds so I can get them to work really quickly. I suppose that’s me being lazy and not learning new tools to a degree, but it’s also down to familiarity of speed. There’s a trade-off there I guess.

The game’s soundtrack is an interesting blend of atonal textures layered with creatively melodic noises and effects. How did you approach the composition process for Monstrum?

A lot of the music wasn’t necessarily instrumentation as much, but rather a lot of sound design and manipulating samples. All the monster themes were built around that idea.

For example, with The Brute’s theme, I really wanted to focus on it being driving and pulsing because he’s this big physical thing charging after you. That’s a lot of percussive elements with a strong drumming pulse going on, which also ties into the creature’s fire elements too. There’s actually an engine loop playing on the track which I basically warped out of time, then pitch stretched it in Ableton to make it into a constant triplet rhythm. So you’ve got these two pulsing rhythms running through the track which give it this chaotic chase feeling. Then there’s other sounds like steam screeches and stuff like that going off in the background which are basically samples where I was pitch shifting them to have them sound melodically in tune.

Another VST I made use of was Camel Audio’s Alchemy. That one was really cool, but unfortunately it doesn’t really exist anymore. It allowed you to sweep through various presets, and it had the two XY pads which are similar to Ableton as well so it meant you could do really quick automations and stuff like that. It was very handy, especially for The Hunter’s themes where I used it quite a lot.

For The Fiend’s themes I ended up using one of the Max for Live plugins called Granulator. It’s an interesting granular synth that reads little bits of a WAV file which you can then stretch out and control how many times they’re repeated. Once I’d composed the Wander theme I simply dragged it into that synth to use it as an instrument. I ended up using the Wander and Chase theme as three separate instances, so that was interesting.

You’ve mentioned before that Silent Hill‘s composer Akira Yamaoka was a big inspiration for the soundtrack. What is it about Yamaoka’s music and compositional style that appeals to you?

There are a few different things which come to mind. Looking just at his music on its own, it’s the way he uses sound and samples to create that signature feeling of his. Like with the original Silent Hill soundtrack, it’s dark, gritty and very industrialised, whereas the later ones sort of become slightly more melodic. You can sort of see a different musical feel in the other games from that point on, but he still keeps that familiar really oppressive feeling across the whole series. When you’re hearing his music in the context of the game, it just works so well with all the stuff that’s going on. One of my favourite Silent Hill moments is the final Pyramid Head encounter from Silent Hill 2. There’s those big screeches and crunching sounds playing which mirror the movements of his knife and helmet, but then you’ve got this eerie choir coming in behind all that which gives the scene this sort of otherworldly, god-like feeling. It’s moments like that where he uses those sounds and contrasts really well together which I find pretty cool.

When designing the diegetic sound effects, did the procedurally-generated room reverb systems make your mixing process easier or more complicated?

It was a mixture of both really. Some things we made quite dry, such as footsteps, but because of the way our system worked, in some cases we had to pre-bake the reverb onto specific effects. The reverb in the game engine is mainly for spatialisation – making an effect sound like it’s actually in that area and space you’re currently in. There were some sounds which didn’t play well with our in-game reverb system, such as the environmental rumbles I mentioned earlier for example, so in those cases we had to pre-bake all of the reverbs onto those sounds and give them all different distances and drop-offs and things like that. Sometimes you just have to do one or the other really! (Laughs)

I particularly enjoy the small changes you make to the music as the game progresses, such as the way the main Wandering Alone on a Ship at Night theme will irrevocably change once you’ve encountered the monster for the first time.

It’s one of those things where I didn’t think it felt right for the music to sound the same after the player experiences the monster for the first time in a game. The way you’re now perceiving the game world is different, and so the music should reflect that change. It was one of those things where musically you’re almost starting from a blank slate, but then after the first monster encounter it should change and morph into something else. You know what you’re up against now, and you want to carry that feeling across in the music even when it’s not there onscreen. That’s what I wanted to accomplish with changing up the wandering themes.

You wrote a really interesting blog post which explores the fallacy of the ‘game audio as 50% of the experience’ adage. Why do you think that audio design is overlooked in a lot of games design, and what can be done to better integrate the process with the other design disciplines?

I have this personal philosophy about world building when it comes to games. I think everybody should work together to make a cohesive role as opposed to everybody doing their own little thing separately and hoping it’ll all come together and work somehow. In other words, there needs to be plenty of back and forth on everything – conversations like “What’s the monster design in terms of the art team’s perspective? What does it do design-wise?” I see what I can take from those discussions and make music from them basically. Rob Bridgett talks a lot about this design approach in his book, Game Audio Culture, which is definitely worth reading. He writes about this sort of stuff and how we should improve game audio workflow, and just game workflow in general. It’s a really interesting concept and I really hope it carries forward.

It’s one of those things where people will have a lot of appreciation and nostalgia for things like game music, but they might not necessarily understand how it actually works in the context of a game. A lot of the time, other members of the team might just say we need a sound effect for a specific thing, but it’s very much a black box situation. They’ll tell the audio designer what they need, but not talk about what they’re doing, and the audio designer will just make the effect and say “Here you go, does it work?” Again, communication is the big issue, and it’s essential in order to have programmers, artists and designers understand audio designers workflows and vice versa. It’s about seeing how you can come in from the audio side of things and how you can influence your fellow designers, how they can influence you, and making sure that when you’re trying to explain stuff to them, they’ll actually understand what you’re saying and not get confused with really weird technical jargon. I think that’s where a lot of the issues lie. With artists and programmers and designers, they have this shared lexicon where they can probably speak to each other roughly but they might not know the technical nuances of everything. However if I started speaking about things like parametric EQs, they’d all just be like “What is that? What does muddy mean? I have no idea what you’ve said…but okay!” (Laughs)

Yeah I suppose it’s hard to express some of those sonic qualities accurately from a linguistic perspective. It’s similar to trying to describe the minutiae of a particular part of the colour spectrum to another person; what might appear as a bright red to my eyes might look more like a reddy-brown to yours.

Yeah, it’s all about understanding the implementation process. When it comes to getting the right ‘feel’, a lot of people will say they really want an element to feel a certain way, but getting it to that point is not necessarily down to just making the right sound effect. You can make the effect so that it sounds good on its own, but when played in the game, it might jar with everything else that’s going on. Things are getting a bit easier with middleware programs like FMOD and Wwise, which are opening things up a bit more. We actually didn’t end up using anything like that in Monstrum for the final game, but we did use it for prototyping early ideas, which made it a lot easier for me to explain the various systems to programmers. I just had to set up all the logic and explain that this is how it works; these are all the music things, if you trigger this element, then this will happen. Even using it for non-traditional methods like that, it’s still really handy, and learning those tools is really useful for anybody who wants to do game audio and game music.

How do you see the future of Monstrum going forward? You’ve successfully released the game through Steam Greenlight and it’s now out there in players’ hands – do you consider the game to be a completed project now that you’ve left Steam Early Access, or as more of a platform you can go back and add new content to over time?

Well we did say we’d get the Oculus stuff out, so once that releases then the game’s technically ‘finished’, but it’s one of those things that’s never really finished as such. There’s lots of stuff we’d like to add in, or maybe even things we could go back to and patch up, but it’s just a case of having limited time and resources to actually do these things. That’s the unfortunate reality of the situation which has kept us from just going “Yeah let’s keep working on this and adding loads of extra monsters” and stuff like that. It’s a shame really, but we’ve got other projects that we’re trying to do as well, and I suppose we have to make sure that we can keep roofs over our heads!

As far as future plans go, I’m not entirely sure right now. We’d like to add more stuff, even if it’s just smaller things, but we’re just sort of seeing how things pan out. We’ve got a few bits and pieces of work that we’re doing just now to keep us ticking over while we’re sorting out new prototypes and all that sort of stuff. We’ll see how it goes, but we’d like to anyway.

Any thoughts about porting Monstrum to PS4 and Xbox One?

We’d really like to, but it’s another question of resources, and figuring out all the necessary backend stuff. If we speak to somebody at Microsoft for example, it’s working out whether they actually want the game on their platform and all those sorts of other hurdles. Hopefully though – it’s one of those things where if we got the greenlight to do it we probably would, but getting there is still quite a lot of work. Maybe!

Nightmare BonnieWith the rise of streaming platforms such as Twitch and YouTube, do you see traditional horror games becoming something of a rarity in the future? In other words, do you see traditional solo horror experiences giving way to more community-based spectator sport experiences?

I’m not too sure. An interesting game to watch out for, especially in that regard, would be SOMA. I’m hoping it does really well and it does still prove a point that you can make these horror games that are primarily singleplayer experiences that you’ll want to really immerse yourself in and go through by yourself. At the same time though, I don’t think group/spectator-orientated horror games are necessarily bad. Things like Five Nights at Freddy’s have done really well, and every time I’ve seen [creator] Scott Cawthon speak about the games he’s basically said look, this is my work – if my games don’t appeal to you, they will to someone else. A lot of people complain about the rate at which he’s producing his games, but from a game developer perspective I think it’s really clever, because he’s got all this extra stuff that he adds in with each new game. It’s not just another churned out sequel with the same content, there’s more things going on in each new one; he might need to develop extra systems and stuff like that, but a lot of the same signature backbone is there every time. In that respect, I think he’s done really, really well off the back of it, and the way he’s kept the continuity across all four games is impressive as well. Reading all he’s posted about the series, he comes across as very humbled by it all and grateful for his fans – a genuinely nice guy. People are obviously engaging with that series and really enjoying his games, so there’s room enough for all types of horror games to co-exist. So Five Nights at Freddy’s might be a great horror game for one audience, whereas Silent Hill, Amnesia, or say something like Clock Tower might be more to the tastes of another. They’re all different horror games but they’re all horror games in their own right.

I suppose they aren’t mutually exclusive categories are they really – like you say, horror is now such a broad genre that there’s now games available for pretty much every particular niche.

I think the more interesting thing to look at is the different types of horror that will come in to the genre from other cultures. Japanese horror games are obviously quite big and they’re based on their own culture’s thoughts and considerations of what horror is, and the same goes for their films too. When films like Ring and Ju-on get remade as for American audiences, they didn’t really have the same sense of horror to them. They still work as basic horror films, but not in the same way; there’s this feeling that some crucial part was lost along the way. It might just be people insisting the Japanese versions are better because they were the originals, but other people might say that there’s slight translation issues and influences that aren’t as apparent culturally to western horror audiences as they would be to Japanese ones. That’s why those films might be way much more terrifying for Japanese audiences than western ones. In that respect, I’m sure there are horror things things we have in British culture which aren’t necessarily applicable to America or anywhere else in the world.

Dreadout

Seeing new horror games exploring different cultures of horror will be really interesting, especially with the advent of major game engines like Unity now going for free. This democratisation of game engines allows smaller teams or even individuals to make their own games – Digital Happiness, the Indonesian developers who made DreadOut are a good example, and seeing titles like that coming out of countries you might not expect is very exciting. There might already be a really thriving scene there, I’m not entirely sure, but it’s going to be really cool to see all these different aspects of horror, or even brand new genres coming out of these different cultural elements. A lot of people moan that this means we’re just going to get a load of random people flooding Steam trying to sell a load of random crap. While it’s kind of true on one hand, on the other it enables people who might never have had the opportunity to make their own games now have the means to get stuck in. Instead of just rushing something half-baked out, they could take years working on their magnum opus before finally releasing it; it might be this really good game. Look at people like Tom Happ with Axiom Verge for example. He was doing everything himself on that game, and when it came out people just thought it was absolutely amazing. People always seem to look at the negatives rather than the positives when it comes to things like an abundance of Unity games appearing. We used Unity for Monstrum, and other companies much bigger than us have also used Unity to great effect, it’s a powerful engine. Lots of people don’t seem to consider that however, instead just writing off anything on the engine as just another random Unity game. It’s a shame. I guess it’s one of those things – if you don’t like these games, then don’t play them – but people like complaining I guess!

What’s next for Team Junkfish then? Any plans to revisit Into the Sky perhaps?

Right now, we’re prototyping two different projects. One of them is completely different to Monstrum, while the other one has a couple of similarities, but is still quite a bit different. I’m not entirely sure which one we’ll be pushing ahead with, but hopefully we’ll have that sorted out in the next month or two. Into the Sky would be interesting to go back to, but it’s one of those things where we’d have to start from scratch again and look at the core idea and ask ourselves can we rebuild it. If these prototypes pan out then we’ll hopefully announce something next year. One of them is very similar to Monstrum, so hopefully we can capitalise on our success as well as learn from our mistakes.

Hunter Sub Escape

Are you looking at going through the Steam Greenlight process again for these projects, or have you considered crowdfunding it through Kickstarter etc.?

Greenlight is a weird thing, in that Valve have been saying for a long time that they’re planning to get rid of it, so we’re not really sure what the deal with that would be. It might be a case of having to go through the Greenlight process with new projects anyway, or it might already be gone by that point – we just don’t know. It’s the same with Kickstarter – we don’t know if we need to do a Kickstarter, and if we did that then there’s so much planning that needs to go into that. Now that’s a scary thought! (Laughs)

Fiend Attack

Monstrum is out now for PC, Mac and Linux.

Beyond Flesh and Blood Developer Interview – Phillip Muwanga & Lee Blacklock

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There were lots of cool indie games on display at this year’s EGX Rezzed, and among the titles I was keen to try out and play was the latest playable demo of Beyond Flesh and Blood, by Mancunian studio Pixelbomb Games.

If you missed my impressions on the demo, here’s a quick rundown on Beyond. The game is a third-person mech shooter set in a post-apocalyptic Manchester in the year 2281. When a meteor containing some nasty extra-terrestrial creepy crawlies hits the planet, you’re sent in as a mech pilot to retake key strategic Earth cities (AKA Manchester) and get them back under control from gun-slinging bandits and bitey alien lifeforms. From what I’ve played and seen of the game so far, it’s shaping up to be a cool shooter that brings some interesting new tweaks to the mechanical mayhem of the mech genre.

I had the chance to chat with the two project leads, Coder Phillip Muwanga and Game Designer Lee Blacklock and talk about Manchester, mechs, meatsplosions and more.

Tom: What was the original inspiration for Beyond Flesh and Blood, and what inspired you to make a mech shooter specifically?

Lee: We’ve got a big love of anime and mechs, and being a dev company in Manchester, we wanted to set the game in a post-apocalyptic version of our city. We thought that a combination of these two things would be quite a playful scenario.

Phil: The basic thing is we love mechs, we love science fiction, we love action games, so we are finally able to make the game that we want to make.

Mech games in the past such as Steel Battalion and Titanfall have traditionally favoured a first-person camera view to get that cockpit experience. What was the decision behind deciding to go with a third-person camera?

Lee: Interestingly, when people ask us what the genre of the game is, we say that it’s a third-person action shooter, which is different from your typical mech shooter. It’s a third-person game, you just happen to be controlling mechs. We absolutely love robots and all forms of them, from the Japanese ones to the big stomping western mechs, so things like Steel Battalion were a big influence.

Phil: It pains me that I never got to play Steel Battalion on the big forty-button controller. I like the idea of a game where when you die, if you don’t press the eject button, you lose your save file. That’s a wonderful thing!

Townhall Concept

The game is set in Manchester, and the maps feature prominent Mancunian landmarks in their design – did you run into any issues with getting permission to use their likenesses in-game, and what other locations are you planning to get into the final game?

Phil: The main thing is that you’re fine to use the exteriors, but if you want to use the interiors then that’s when you need to get permission. But, of course, you can make a building that’s inspired by something, and that’s okay. For example, we’ve replicated my favourite bar in The Triangle – mainly because I want to fight in front of a bar that I drink in! (Laughs) There are a few other areas that we’re not talking about, but the main focal points are Deansgate, The Triangle and in front of the Hilton. We’ve purposely stayed away from having the Man United or City stadium because if you pick a side then we’ll alienate half the audience!

Lee: I think for us is the fact that the game is concentrated in the city centre as well, so to go to another location would mean jumping out of the city and we really want to focus on that sort of overgrown future version of Manchester.

Phil: The political answer is we have members of our team who support Man U and members who support Man City.

BF+B Play Expo Stand

You demoed the game last year at the Manchester Play Expo – how was that experience, and do you have any plans to take Beyond to any other shows or Expos after Rezzed?

Phil: Yes, that was a wonderful Expo. It was nice to do an Expo in our home town with a game that’s based in Manchester – we got a lot of positive feedback. There are a few big shows that we’d like to take it to, but we are mainly focused on just finishing the final thing now. What will be quite nice is that once we’re closer to release we’ll have a more stable build, so we won’t have to spend quite so much time getting a build ready to tour at Expos. It is important to get the game out and to talk to members of the press so that people can hear about it.

The game is designed as a singleplayer experience with a solo campaign, but have you got any plans to implement any online multiplayer features into the horde mode maps at a later date?

Phil: The gameplay that we’re showing here is from our wave-based mode – this is an added extra that comes with the game, the singleplayer story is the primary focus. We’re not showing much of that because we don’t want to spoil the story. Let’s just say that it does take place in these areas here, and that it involves mechs and people being torn to pieces.

Within the world that we’ve made, there are various factions and it would be wonderful to do a multiplayer shooter where they fight against each other. We’re talking and thinking about that, but at the moment we are focusing on making the best singleplayer experience that we can. The campaign is our focus. What we didn’t want to do was to tack on a multiplayer component just to have a tick on the back of the box. If we were to do multiplayer, we would want to be properly focused on that.

Lee: When we’ve been developing in the studio, we’ve actually switched the player camera around and switched to the other AI classes that we’ve got so we can run around as them. It’s not going to happen for the game, but it’s just what we’ve been doing in-house just to have a play around, so like Phil said that’s given us the multiplayer ideas, and we’d love to do a lot more in the world of Beyond Flesh and Blood.

Dropship

I appreciate that you don’t want to say too much about the story, but what challenges did you have in writing a story around what’s essentially a faceless robot character?

Phil: The interesting thing is that you can’t die in this game. You’re in a space station in orbit, so if you’re suit is killed then they just send in another suit from orbit. It is not a big deal for them (The United Global Remnant, the in-game faction you play for). We try to tie this mechanic into the gameplay of the world – these soldiers on the ground, because they can die, they will comment on the fact that you’re not really there or that it all feels like a game to you. These are some of the areas that we wanted to explore in this.

Lee: We’ve not really had difficulties, but it’s more about the amount of choices we’ve got – we’ve got to keep narrowing it down. Like Phil said, there’s lots of themes we’d like to explore but it’s a case of just how many of these we can effectively explore in the timeframe.

Phil: The hardest bit that we’ve had is trying to squeeze all of our ideas into this game. It is a combat-focused game, so we want the gameplay mechanics to tell most of the story, rather than have a lot of expensive cutscenes and FMVs. Those two fields do not have to be mutually exclusive; we do have a story that we want to tell, but we are focused on making a fun, enjoyable gameplay experience. At the end of the day, we are a small indie studio – we’re not a big triple-A studio who can afford to hire all the animators it takes to do your cutscenes.

Mark 1

When I played the previous demo myself I used mouse and keyboard controls. I’m normally a player who favours using a controller, but I have to say I thought that the way you’ve designed the keyboard controls was spot-on. You really get a feel of each mech’s weight and momentum, especially the Mark 1.

Lee: That’s definitely something that we want you to feel as you go through the different mechs – we will have four mechs, so as you go through each one that feeling will feel different, but we still want it to feel very meaty. Like you were saying, in the Mark 1 you can really stomp around with it. The mouse and keyboard controls still need work though at the minute, they are still in development so that they can be even better.

So there’s four mechs in total?

Phil: You start off with the Mark 1 – he’s basically a walking JCB; he’s a slow engineering mech and can’t dodge so far. He can use his size to tear people to pieces and to pick up large objects and to interact with the world in a very physical way. As you move up through the marks they become smaller but more agile, but they lose the physical powers that the Mark 1 has.

Next is the Mark 2 – he’s the baby brother of the Mark 1. He isn’t quite as strong, but he’s faster and a more agile engineering mech overall. He’s still not purpose-built for combat, but he does have a welding laser which is really effective. The special thing about this mech though is that he’s got awesome extendable arms; if you think of the Mark 1 as the JCB, then the Mark 2 is like the forklift version if you will. Obviously it’s still very powerful – he can use his arms to extend himself up in the air and slam down on enemies. We’ve used his arms in a number of the sync kills which are unlocked through story means.

Eventually, you get to 4th mark, the Prototype Suit.

Mech Landing

Is that different from the Prototype Suit featured in the demo then?

Phil: Yes – I know the terms are the same, but the Prototype Suit that you’re seeing here is the prototype that we internally made as our test, and not the finished thing.

Lee: We made this in-house prototype so that we could get a sense of its scale and movement speed, and how that will differ in comparison to a larger mech.

Phil: The actual Prototype Suit in the final game is an advanced suit which has all sorts of interesting tweaks to it. It’ll be able to do all sorts of wonderful things.

Unlike a lot of other third-person shooters, you’ve got these big open environments in Beyond which aren’t littered with a load of conveniently-placed thigh-high walls to hide behind for cover, plus you can actually improvise and arrange your own cover using the items in the environment.

Phil: One of the choices that we made was that the player cannot take cover in our game. The AI can, but you instead have to rely on the suit’s powers and abilities, and the fact that you can slow down time and dodge. I love Gears of War, but I don’t want to make another game where you hide behind a chest-high wall, wait for yourself to auto-heal and then you come back. It’s why, from a gameplay point of view, you don’t recharge your health; the only way to get your health back in Beyond Flesh and Blood is to kill your enemies, so you can’t hide. If you want to stay alive, you’ve got to get into the fray and get into the fight.

I like the game’s tower mechanic – it’s a cool way of reining in the player’s power and reach without it feeling overtly restricting.

Phil: The main reason why we have them is that in the singleplayer campaign, we don’t like it when the player encounters an invisible wall, so the towers are our way of leashing the player to where we want them to be.

Lee: The story element of it is that the pilot controlling the mech is on the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, controlling his mech with his mind – he constantly needs connection to that mech through the towers, so when you die, that connection is severed. Another mech gets sent in and your mind reconnects to the replacement.

In one of your previous interviews you mention that you specifically didn’t want the game to be too hand-holding when it came to difficulty. Is that a personal reaction against the design of modern shooters, or rather a case of giving the game some of that old-school shooter difficulty?

Phil: I’m an old-school gamer – I like games that are hard, that you actually have to think about them and learn the gameplay mechanics. One of the things that I don’t like is when people take a dislike to a certain game because it doesn’t feel like a game that they already know. If you don’t like a shooter because it doesn’t play like Call of Duty, then fair enough that’s your personal choice, but perhaps you should try and learn that game’s own gameplay mechanics. The configuration of the pad doesn’t have to be locked, I’d much rather a game dev did different things with it.

As for the holding hands bit, I like hard games. It pains me that nowadays quite a few games just give you this sort of rollercoaster ride. We want our players to really have to think about the game and understand the mechanics to be able to progress.

Speaking of old-school, Beyond has some crazy levels of gore going on – is that also a throwback to older shooters like Unreal Tournament and Quake and things like that where gore was a big part of the shooter zeitgeist of the time?

Phil: We are late ’90s gamers. I like games with gore in them. The big thing that I always say is that we’re not making a torture-porn game – it is over-the-top action movie gore, where you shoot someone and they explode into gibs. The violence is easier to palate the more extreme it is, as it takes on a cartoon-esque vibe.

Lee: Phil is also working on a new dismemberment system, and new sync kills – the melee kill animations that the mechs perform they tear people apart. We’re still working on them, but we’ve managed to get a lot of the new animations in. These are going to be a lot more detailed – we’ll be releasing some more footage sometime soon.

Phil: With the Unreal 3 build there was only so much that we could do. Now, I can tear any limb off any person and punch holes in people – basically all the things that my sick mind wanted to be able to do to people in games! (Laughs)

Printworks

How was the transition going from the Unreal 3 engine to Unreal 4? I’m guessing that it wasn’t just a simple ‘right-click – save as’ process?

Phil: No – I’ve not had much sleep over the past two months and the whole team has been working incredibly hard to port all of the assets over. It’s worthwhile, but it’s not a simple job; we’ve had to rebuild the game from the ground up.

Lee: I think Epic have done some things to help this process, like there are exporters for things like content, but it’s still a big job to move the code base over for our AI, the shaders, the dismemberment system and a lot of the assets.

Phil: It’ll be worthwhile, but I’ll be glad when it’s done because we have a nice stable build here, we need to get our Unreal 4 build to feel as polished as our Unreal 3 build does.

Lee: We’ve definitely got both feet in Unreal 4 now, but it’s just a case of continuing on with that process.

I’ve read that you’d also made changes to the enemy AI since the previous demo – how exactly have you changed those systems?

Phil: They are smarter, we’ve used everything that we’d learned in the Unreal 3 build to make the Unreal 4 AI a hell of a lot better. They have squad-based AI now, so they know where you are in relation to the rest of their teammates and will try to flank you. The AI is an important part of the experience – we don’t just want them to blindly fire at you. We want them to apply pressure.

Lee: Even in the AI themselves, we’ve got separate classes of AI that will respond to you slightly differently as part of their own AI class but will operate together as one when part of a squad.

On a related note, can we expect to see any more extra-terrestrial enemy types in the final game i.e. ranged variants?

Phil: We aren’t talking about that faction yet, but let’s just say that we have a crack team of artists who are making some interesting content. (Laughs) We do have to keep some things back for the singleplayer.

The game is coming to the Xbox One and PS4 after the PC release – do you have any plans to use the unique hardware and features of those consoles? Any plans to use the DualShock 4’s touchpad or the Xbox One’s Kinect?

Lee: With the Kinect personally, aside from what we’re doing with our game, I was really excited when it came bundled with Xbox One. Now that it’s an optional extra, you can never be sure that every user has a Kinect, so we’re not 100% certain about those elements.

Phil: Unfortunately because the marketplace has now been split with the Xbox One, you need to cater for people who don’t have one.

Anything in mind for the PS4 touchpad?

Phil: It would be nice, but just as long as it doesn’t influence the core gameplay too much.

Any plans or thoughts on integrating VR or Oculus Rift support into the game in the future?

Phil: We’re aiming to get the game to run at a stable 60 frames-per-second, but to integrate VR we would have to half that, and do it all in 3D. It’s something we’re not heavily focused on – we’re focused on making this the best singleplayer experience that we can, but just for my own personal pride I would like to see it working on Oculus.

Lee: I’ve played other games on VR and I think it’s an excellent experience so I hope that it definitely does take off. It’s interesting now that Valve is releasing its own VR headset (the HTC Vive) now.

Phil: It does feel like this is now an actual thing; VR is happening, and the future is all about these new headsets.

It’s funny how VR is still a concept that’s in vogue today after it turned out to be nothing more than a kind of a gimmicky fad back in the ’80s with things like the Nintendo Virtual Boy. In such a short period of time it’s come back and it’s now a very real possibility and practically an inevitable thing at this point.

Phil: I think it was at EGX last year that I played Elite: Dangerous on the Oculus, and that was a mind-blowing experience. If that is just the baseline of it, then the future is going to be bright.

Lee: Yeah, and that was on unreleased hardware as well, so hopefully it’ll just keep getting better and better.

Main Title

Anything else that you’d like to say about the game that we didn’t get chance to cover? When can players expect to get their hands on the final version of the game – Summer 2015 right?

Phil: Yeah that’s correct, we have a free demo of the game that players can download from our website (www.beyondfleshandbloodgame.com) so if you’re interested then you should get it downloaded.

Lee: Also, for anyone who’s interested in the game to keep an eye on our content releases, as we’ll be releasing more things to do with Unreal Engine 4.