Tuesday, July 11

Interview with Ashley Ringrose of SMG Studio on Death Squared

SMG Studios, started as one of 10 companies funded by Screen Australia’s Games Enterprise grant before the funding was cut in 2014, hasn't been around very long but has been steadily getting more ambitious. As a mobile developer they've made a splash with several titles, including the acclaimed and popular OTTTD (an aptly-named Over-The-Top Tower Defense game), and have used those successes to first dip their toes into the Steam ecosystem and now consoles as well.

Their newest title, Death Squared, is set to hit the Switch on July 13. For more info on this very compelling and often mind-bending multiplayer (though you can play it alone as well) puzzle game be sure to check out the Preview! Ashley Ringrose is one of the heads of the studio and took the time to answer some of my questions about Death Squared, the studio, and the state of the indie market.

Like many other indie developers out there your roots are in the mobile market. What's the transition like, moving out of the mobile ecosystem?

AR: Mobile is a much easier place to test game ideas out and iterate on a game. You can have an idea, make a game and be out in a month which is impossible on consoles.

Console side there's also a LOT more paperwork to fill out. It's like doing six months homework in one go before you even get a dev kit!

The audiences have cross over but console players demand much more value for their time.

How did the idea for Death Squared, a multiplayer puzzle game where you control robots around test areas filled with death traps and requiring constant coordination and teamwork, start out? 

AR: Pat, the main designer and creator of the game, took part in a 48hr Game Jam in 2015. The theme was "What happens next" and with that he created a game where every level would surprise you with new mechanics. We all played it after the Jam and thought "wow this is fun! we have to release this" 2 years later we did!

Was the surprisingly adaptive/responsive running commentary there from the beginning?

AR: Not for the first year actually. When we were picked for Indie Showcase at PAX AUS the story wasn’t part of the game. But we already had plans for it. It was important for us to add a story element to the game to make it more than just a series of puzzles. We wanted you to want to follow the story and also have a laugh too.
We did a lot of testing with the amount of voices. At the start there was too much. Then we pulled it right back and it wasn’t enough. We ended up top and tailing the levels + a few random elements + adaptive ones and that was the right mix.

Mick (Ricepirate) who did the voices was great and also recorded a bunch of variations for many of the lines. I hate when you play games and hear the same things over and over so we wanted a play-through to not repeat anything. In some of the earlier story sections we even did variations as we knew people would see/heard them multiple times.

People are pleasantly surprised by the fact we have a story and more so that it's funny.  We also have a happy and a sad ending too 😊So make sure you watch both.

In terms of humor, and even some of the comments and phrasing used to describe the test chambers, there seems to be a heavy GLaDOS/Portal vibe. Big fans of the series?

AR: Yes, who isn’t! More so the writer Jonathon and myself the studio head. Pat didn’t have Portal in mind when he created the game.
The Stanley Parable, Portal 2 and Thomas Was Alone were influences on how a well-voiced story can really make a game shine.

Careful coordination is often required!
How did you envision most people playing the game with the single-joystick controls? You can certainly play Story mode by yourself if you can handle the left/right brain nature of things, but would any two people have the combined courage and dexterity to tackle Party mode both try to pull that off?

AR: Do you mean two people sharing the same controller? Kinky! But it can work. That's why the Switch is a great platform as it has 2 joy-cons out of the box.

The game is still fun as a single player game but with two people it really shines.  You can also play the 4 player mode with 2 people with each person controlling two bots.

At a certain point in the game there are some tormenting "mess with the player" moments that almost reminded me of Eternal Darkness back in the day. What was the inspiration for that and did you giggle at the thought of players suddenly screaming out loud as they were being punked in-game?

AR: Ohh Eternal Darkness is a good reference. It was more The Stanley Parable type thinking in which the game knows it's a game.

We just wanted to keep surprising the player with some 4th wall experiments.  Once we had the story locked in it gave us scope to do a lot of fun things. Even reading emails in the game is a time for comedy.

Don't know if this is giving anything away but my wife and I got to a level where, off in the distance we saw something and were thinking "What the heck is that?" We found the way to get to it and it told us we'd found secret cube 1 of 10. Is there anything you can say about the reward for finding them all to incentivize people?

AR: We didn’t make a big deal about calling it out at the start as we wanted people to discover them. Maybe you'd get to the end and realise you only found 3 and then have something else to do when finished.

If we called it out at the start people would play the levels differently (in a less fun methodical way) and we like to think fun first then you can go back and try to 100% it :)

In terms of Switch-exclusive content what will players be looking at on top of the 80-level Story Mode and the additional 40-levels in Party mode?

AR: We also have the 20+ Vault levels + 7 special Switch levels. We hope to add more to the Vault also. The Switch levels are very Nintendo in their design :)

Having been in the very over-saturated mobile market and then the jam-packed Steam market is it a relief to be looking to get into a much more curated and limited space even if the Switch install base is obviously currently much smaller? What are the challenges you've had being an independent and trying to get the word out about your projects?

AR: Yeah we're excited to be one of the first games on the new system. For some in the team (who are VERY big Nintendo fans) it's a dream for them. I feel like we're in a lucky position to be in this early.

Mobile is actually easier to get visibility in than Steam right now. Free mobile games have a MUCH better word of mouth element as kids go to school and talk about the game they're playing.

The 4-Player Party Mode steps it up a notch!
Any particular thoughts about the relationship with Nintendo and your experience since becoming a "Nindie"?

AR: I've probably annoyed them with the amount of emails I send a day but they have been great. All the platform holders (PS4 and Xbox) are really nice people who, no matter how small you are, are always willing to help.

Once this is in the rear view mirror do you already have your next project in mind? Any hints?

AR: We're working on a VERY big project now for release late this year which I can’t reveal.
We're also still working on our RISK game which is doing well for us.

And we hope the Switch does well for us so we can look at other games for the platform and also add more levels to the Vault!

Many thanks again to Ashley for taking the time to participate in the interview and to endure my prodding while they're trying to focus on releasing their first title on the Switch. Death Squared will debut on the console on July 13th and is already available to play on other platforms as well.