There are a number of Perth developers attending PAXAus 2014, including several old friends of GameCloud that we caught up with to talk more about the games being showcased this year. On the last day of PAX, I wandered back through the ANZ Indie Pavilion towards Black Annex: A 2D, isometric strategy-action game that hearkens back to the old “Syndicate” days. I spoke with developer Lance E McDonald last year and wanted to catch up with him again this year to see how the game has progressed. I also might help him out with his quest to find someone to have a drink with!
So, Lance, how’ve things been since I spoke to you last year?
Lance: Yeah, really good, really good – obviously, we were here last year for PAX and we’ve had a year to get to this point from what we learned back then. From the looks of things, everyone’s happy and everyone’s enjoying it. Which is great, because last year people enjoyed it but it was a much earlier build. They liked the idea and what it was trying to do, but it needed work and that’s where we’re at now – you can see the meat of the final project.
The visuals are much clearer now, the AI is better and the characters are easier to use, what’s it been like getting it to that point?
Lance: The last year has been spent in raw development, just really focusing on making the game, but that’s a slow, slow process. When you give the game to people to play, there’s huge leaps and bounds in “What confused everyone at PAX?” Or “What confused people at the EB expo,” or wherever – and we slowly changed those things until people just stopped being confused. The scary thing was when we though, “are we making this too easy?” A lot of it was finding a balance to avoid that, so we’ve learned by finding out what people are confused by, and what doesn’t make sense, more than anything.
We spent a year doing that and people get it now – they understand why they die, now. When someone dies in a game and they don’t know why, they’re gonna quit and say “that was dumb, I don’t even know what killed me.” We want people to die [in the game], and we want them to enjoy dying because they’re learning how to play the game. That’s a hard place to get to, a really hard place to get to.
Were there any major influences on the game’s design?
Lance: Syndicate was a game I played a lot while growing up, it was a major influence on my childhood – it’s not like I wanted to grow up running a company that kills people or anything. It was a game that I fell in love with, though, and I want to make people feel the way I felt while playing Syndicate as a kid. It’s a much slower game, with a much tigher focus on visual agents, but I want to create that feeling of the player being an overwhelming, faceless corporation that just looks down on this tiny world. They interact with it and see how it’ll react, there’s almost a feeling of you playing with toys when playing the game.
In the last year it’s become very much it’s own game from where it started, given that my original design document was just “I want to make Syndicate.” I have no shame in saying that, though, I want people to fall in love with this game the same way I did with Syndicate. So, yeah, it was definitely a huge influence, maybe not so much on the graphics. They look more like Theme Hospital which was a big influence on the graphics, but obviously Theme Hospital wasn’t about running around and shooting people.
Is there a narrative to match the gameplay?
Lance: A lot of it’s in the game already. The narrative is very long winded and slow, and there are a lot of large areas to explore, which are optional, if the player is interested in finding out the history of the world. But, I know it’s bad to name drop other games, but I was really inspired by games like Dark Souls and Demon Souls where so many people who loves those games have no idea what the story is about. If that happens here, that’s cool – people might not even finish the game. They might say, “it was great and I never really got to the ending, I don’t really understand what was happening or what was going on, but I like it.” If that happens here, that’s fine.
If someone decides that they want to work out what the story is, if they want to explore these areas and there’s this computer here and they don’t know what it does and figure it out? They’ll be able to learn the history of the game world. There’s an entire corporation there that you’ll only know about if you explore the story and talk to people. I want to reward players who explore. I want people to see a screenshot and say “I finished the game but I haven’t seen that area,” I really want that to happen. I want people to realise there’s depth there and when you consider the scope of the game, that’s a dangerous thing to do – elaborate storytelling. I’m not under any pressure, though, and that’s what I want to do, the kind of game I want to make. So I’m really lucky to be making this project.
It’s come a long way, how close is it to being finished?
Lance: I’ve no idea. I have no intention of “finishing” this game, ever. If I die, I’ll put a copy on my grave and you guys can have it. Other than that, it might come out some time before then. But yeah, there’s no pressure – it’ll come out when I feel like I’ve made the product that I was passionate about creating.
What has your experience been like between PAX last year and PAX this year?
Lance: The reason I’ve brought a better game here is everyone’s happier with it and having fun, but the actual show itself is beautiful now. It’s not a concrete floor anymore! You worry about the Penny Arcade staff being here and saying: “Eh, it’s alright.” But I saw them getting a tour around yesterday and they were like, “it’s really nice.” There’s been things thrown around by the expo company like “it’s the nicest place PAX has ever been hosted.” That, I think, might be stretching it a little, but this is definitely a place to be proud of to bring your game for a gaming convention. I think everyone’s going to have a really enjoyable time here, including me.
Are you looking to other projects at all?
Lance: As any creative person does while working on a long haul project, I’ve been constantly trying to stamp out those other ideas. It’s dangerous to let them creep into your life – I spent a week on a game about gardening, and I thought “This is a cool project, but I need to finish my other game first. I do have other ideas, but I just don’t want to let them creep in too closely just yet.
Is there an endgame for Black Annex in mind?
Lance: The ending is done, there’s a mission you play through and the end credits roll. It won’t be a long game, if it takes someone five hours to finish then I’ll be happy with that. Some people might choose to explore and find everything, tick every box on the chart, debrief every mission and that might take tens of hours – I’m not sure. There is an ending which isn’t reached just by completing every mission, there’s certain things which progress the story in each level and you can probably reach it in a couple of hours. It’s the sort of thing where you put in as much effort as you want and you’ll get to the end eventually.
Lastly, what are you hoping to achieve at PAX?
Lance: I want to catch up with my friends and get drunk, mostly. As someone in my position, I’m greenlit [on Steam] – I don’t need media exposure from this, I can talk to media whenever I want and people already know my game exists. I want people to remind me that they enjoy my game. I need to be able to go home and say, “it’s okay, you’re not making a terrible game.” I need that to just remind myself that people actually like this, because to me it’s terrible. I’ve been playing this game over and over and I just hate it – I hate isometric 2D games now.
Someone said to me, before I started this, to be careful with what genre I picked, because, by the time you’re done, you’ll hate it. So yeah, that’s what I really need, for people to remind me that they like my game. And to go get drunk with friends.