Indie developers come from all walks of life, and sometimes even seasoned veterans will do away with publishers in order to pursue ideas of their own that aren’t considered “mainstream” enough. Sometimes it’s because the industry country’s industry collapses out from under your feet, and you have to go indie just to keep making games. Megan Summers is a little of both, and I spoke with her at PAX Aus about Screwtape Studios’ new game, Damsel – a modern take on a classic genre. She also loves Apogee, like, a lot, and that makes her pretty cool already.
It looks like you’ve gone for the classic, side-scrolling shooter vibe, what were your influences for this?
We’re actually calling it a “score-attack arcade platformer.” It looks really linear, but each level that you go into is much more of an arena. We had the inspiration from the games we grew up on, so Commander Keen, for me, was a massive game. Every level was so huge, it didn’t just side scroll, it was up and down, and all over the place. The original Duke Nukem, all the Apogee PC 90’s platformers, those sorts of games are really our inspiration. It’s why you’ll find a lot of humor in there, as well.
I did get something of a Halloween Harry vibe while playing it.
One of our inspirations in Brisbane is John Passfield, who made Halloween Harry, he’s been a really amazing mentor for us, as well.
And what’s your role in the project?
So, Screwtape Studios is a core team of two, and we contract out our art, all our art is by an amazing group of contract artists. I’m project manager, I started out in the industry doing testing for the big studio system. So, I’m very much a backwards engineering designer, I let our designers design, and then as we were going through testing I’d fix up all their bugs. I work on all the project management, keeping us on track and making sure we get the game out.
How long has the game been in development for?
The game as a whole has been in development for about eighteen months, but about nine months ago we completely redesigned the gameplay. The game started out as a completely linear, metroidvania style platformer, but we had an amazing opportunity to talk to someone from SquareEnix, someone from their acquisitions team. We were unfortunately told that fun is no longer enough, we needed a hook, and we had to decide, “Okay, do we shut down the studio, or spend a week redesigning?” So, we redesigned in a week, and that’s how the arcade style came out, with the arena levels, it was an idea of, “How do we differentiate the game?” Because it’s a beautiful game, and we want to have it out there, but if no one’s going to see it then what’s the point?
So, with the game being something of a slower, more deliberately stylised Metroidvania type game, what was some of the stuff that hit the cuttin room floor?
Almost everything. The art style stayed, but our assets pretty much changed completely. So, almost everything hit the floor, and that includes the character herself, she was designed in about three months, we put a lot of work into trying to create a character for everyone, which is not easy to do.
So, this isn’t your first independent project?
No, so we as a company have been around for about six years, but mainly in the mobile space. And we were behind the mark on the monetisation, everytime we were releasing a game the monetisation changed. Also, for us, this is always where we wanted to be, we wanted to be in the PC and console space, that’s where our hearts lie, so we decided, “Well, if we’re going to do it, let’s just bite the bullet and do it!”
And what have you guys been using to build Damsel?
This is actually a Unity game, the whole thing is built in Unity, but from our mobile experience, our programmer Anthony has built so many tools now that we’ve integrated into Unity. It gives us a lot more freedom now compared to when we just didn’t know as much.
And how long before the game will be finished?
So, April next year is when it’ll be out on Steam, we’ve already passed Greenlight this year, which was fantastic. And then hopefully consoles by the end of next year, but that’s the worst time to release, so, if not, then Q1 the year after.
So, with the game nearing production, have you got your sights set on future projects?
I would love to do Damsel 2, all the things we cut, everything that we had to let go of, and bringing the story, which we had to cut a little bit of, bringing more of that into our next game.
So, you said earlier that there’s a lot of replayability, even though the levels are shorter, what can players do to get more out of the game?
Because they’re arena based, we have eight different mission types, so you’ll likely come back into them eight different times. However, each time you come back into them, it’s the story that’s driving you around the world. There’re also bonus challenges in those missions, you don’t have to complete them but definitely it will boost your score in each of those levels. But some of those challenges may be counter-intuitive, and there are timed intel bonuses, as well, that open bonus missions.
At the start of the game, you can get through the first levels in about ten to twenty seconds, but we’re looking at five to ten minutes of gameplay per level in larger versions you encounter as you go through.
So, how did you get your start in the industry?
I was lucky enough to start working on things before the start of the horrible collapse of the industry in Australia. So, I got in the old way, I started out as a tester. I tested games for six years at Pandemic Aus, Krome, and THQ before they all went under. It’s heart breaking, but it definitely made me realise that this was the right place for me, and I’m definitely not leaving the industry.
Having been around when the larger studios all shut down, and seeing what the indie scene has become, do you think Australian games development is here to stay now?
Oh yeah, it’s not going anywhere. Especially in the last two years, Brisbane, which hasn’t got much funding, has gone from five indie companies to thirty. We’re back again! And that’s from small teams, there’s a lot of space in there now to build back up. We’re not going anywhere anymore.
So, with your industry experience, what would be your advice to people trying to get into the industry these days?
Keep working on your own stuff, keep making things, keep your portfolio as much as portfolio. Continuing to make stuff is important, that first game will not make anything, get it out, learn from the experience. Even if it’s just a mobile game, get through all the rubbish of getting it out, and learn about all the things you don’t think about while you’re making the game. Getting it onto the app store, figuring out how long it takes to get it up, because the next time all of those things will help you get closer to making money from your game.
Look at the market, we’ve got some great resources at the moment. There’s stuff like Steam Spy, where you can see what’s selling and how it’s trending, and, unfortunately, it’s not always about what you’re making, but what everyone else is making, too. But, on the flip side, make sure that whatever you do choose to do is something you love because it’s going to be hard. It’ll be hard, but it’ll be worth it if it’s something that you’re passionate about.
And what’s your favorite game?
I’m gonna have to go back to Commander Keen, it’s where my gaming heart began, and it’s what I’ll always go back to. I can’t wait to have kids, and show them the game. And being retweeted by Tom Hall was one of the most exciting things in the world!
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