While it’s always very exciting to see our biggest local games come out to play with the public, something I’ve always personally enjoyed about the Perth Games Festival is the platform it provides to students who are looking for feedback and experience. Murdoch University is a huge supporter of the festival every year, to the point where creating a game demo to showcase on the day has even become a part of some course curriculum. In truth, many of these games are very early-on in development, so you might not have heard much about them unless you were there, but thanks to some encouragement from their lecturers this year, we had a couple of the students reach out to us to talk about their games. One such student is Michael Vatskalis, who has almost finished his studies and is getting ready to go it alone.
What were your impressions of the Perth Games Festival and how did it feel showing your game to the general public for the first time?
While it wasn’t my first time showing off Samurai Showdown to the public, I was still really nervous in the hours leading up to the doors opening as the Perth Games Festival was way bigger than the last event I participated in. I really hate being the centre of attention at the best of times (which makes my choice of career an odd one, I’ll admit), so I really didn’t feel confident that people at the PGF would like my game. Thankfully, everyone was really great from the organisers and volunteers who made sure everything was going well and kept us hydrated, to the public who played our games. My trepidation about the whole thing ended pretty much the moment people got their hands on the game and said they liked it, and they were happy to fill out questionnaires that will help make Samurai Showdown better.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get over the nervousness that comes with showing off your games, but I’m happy to keep it if it means that I can go to PGF again.
I understand you’re currently completing a post-graduate degree in game design and this exercise was a part of your curriculum. What was involved in that?
A frankly excessive amount of work. Haha!
On a more serious note, my post-graduate in Games and App Production has two sides to it. The first side involves learning how to communicate with stakeholders and audiences, how to analyse existing communication strategies and develop your own, and how to model and improve business processes. This aspect of the post-grad was very much about learning the nitty gritty of streamlining your production efforts, communicating with people, and marketing your game, as one of the biggest killers of an indie game is simply that nobody knows it exists. You can make an awesome game but if nobody knows it exists in the first place, very few people are going to give it a go when you release it.
On the other side of the coin, we had to make a game over the course of a year and release it in some form, be it a demo, alpha, Steam Greenlight game, free game on ItchIO, etc., etc. I probably sound pretty flippant here, but in my case, it involved starting work on an isometric city-builder and deciding that it wasn’t working before swapping to a virtual reality God Game/City Builder. Of course, I then, during break week, got bored of having nothing to do and decided to start work on another game that eventually morphed into Samurai Showdown.
It was a lot of work and indecisiveness, but I’m quite pleased with how everything has worked out so far.
There are two games you’ve been working on: Samurai Showdown, a local multiplayer action game, and Small Gods, a VR city building game. Could you give us a rundown?
Small Gods was originally intended to be a VR god game set in a fictional universe where every civilisation has a god associated with it whose power and existence is dependent on the number of people who believe in them. While there have been some minor changes in the game since I initially conceived it, the intention remains to provide players with a god’s eye view of the world as they try to turn a few villages into a mighty, ancient Egyptian-themed civilization by planning their cities, commanding their worshippers, and casting miracles to reshape the landscape. The game is intended to be more of a meditative experience than similar games in the genre as I didn’t want to try my hand at something as complex as combat and enemy gods while also experimenting with VR for the first time. I also designed it to basically be something that you can pick up and put down at a moment’s notice as I’m of the opinion that VR isn’t great for long gaming sessions due to the weight of the head-mounted displays.
Unfortunately, due to how busy I’ve been at uni and some mistakes made early on in the design and programming of the game, I’ve had to put Small Gods on the backburner in favour of Samurai Showdown. I do hope to return to it soon, though, as I think that a VR good game is a brilliant idea that not too many developers have considered trying.
What was your primary source of inspiration behind Samurai Showdown and what is your ambition for the game moving forward?
In all honesty, I saw the trailer of a game called Western Press that uses a very similar input method and decided that I should try to replicate it over the month break between semesters. If I recall correctly, I finished the core of the input system in something like 6 hours and the rest of the game seemed to fall into place from there. To be honest, I still know nothing about Western Press beyond what was in its Steam trailer as I haven’t played it and don’t want to as I want Samurai Showdown to be as me as possible (if that makes any degree of sense).
In terms of themes, however, I knew from the moment I finished the input system that it had to be about samurai. I don’t know why I did, but after the first trial run, I immediately pictured two samurai going opposite ways on a dirt road and getting ready to duel one another like something straight out of Japanese samurai cinema. Art-wise, the final look of the game is intended to resemble that of traditional Japanese woodcuts/paintings such as those done by artists like Katsushika Hokusai. The sprites currently in use are very much test art taking from sites like OpenGameArt for the purposes of testing things out, and I’ll have to replace them soon.
VR is a relatively new technology that is still on the cusp of taking off in the mainstream. What is your vision for Small Gods and why do you think it’s a good fit for the platform
My vision for Small Gods is for it to be used by same kinds of people who are interested in building sandcastles and watching animals. In my head, I always end up imaging what is essentially a marketing trailer wherein a person wearing a VR headset stands in the middle of a room and watches a city slowly rise out of the ground around them as they look around and follow people going about their day.
I think Small Gods (and God Games in general) is a fit for the platform because throughout my time playing god games and city builders I’ve always wanted to be able to just lean in and follow a specific person as they go about their day and gesture in a direction to throw a fireball or scoop out a river. For me, at least, there’s always been a disconnect between my actions and what goes on in the game whenever I play god games on PC, and I know from experience that VR really breaks that barrier down.
Game development does not occur without its share of challenges. Could you tell us about some of the obstacles you’ve faced and how you’ve worked to overcome them?
Surprisingly it’s been okay so far. Don’t get me wrong, the have been tonnes of things breaking seemingly at random, things fixing themselves seemingly at random, and wasted time on my part thanks to failing to update a git repository, but there’s not been much that was too terrible. I think the hardest challenge I’ve faced so far would have to be getting the AI in Small Gods to work properly. The more simulation you put into a game the harder it is to know how things will interact with one another and you can imagine that that’s a bit of a problem when making a game.
I think my most annoying experience with AI would have had to have been when my AI kept starving to death while building buildings as they’d keep working even while starving and losing health. While it was pretty inspiring dedication it wasn’t exactly what I had intended to do, and it took the better part of an hour to figure out that I’d accidentally used a greater-than symbol in place of a less-than symbol (despite checking it multiple times!). As you can imagine, I was pretty annoyed at myself afterwards and I made sure to double check every < and > symbol I used in the AI code.
Can you tell us about some of the feedback you received during the festival and how that might influence the development of your games moving forward?
While I haven’t had the chance to fully go through the feedback I received, one quite clever suggestion that I hadn’t thought of before was to add a screen flash to the game when the samurai run past each other. It’d help to ratchet up the tension even further than it already is and would work to reduce the waiting time between hitting the last buttons and seeing a result. I think it’s a really good idea and it’s definitely something I’ll have to add to the game sometime soon!
Another idea that I think has merit is to add Borderlands-style damage markers to the multi-round game mode whose value is determined by how well someone does and how quickly they finish. I’ll need to experiment with it to see if it fits with the overall theme of the game, but I think it has the potential to improve the feel of the game.
Could you tell us about some of your most influential games that inspired you to become a creator?
Evil Genius, Dungeon Keeper, Black & White 2, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back, Jak and Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, Fallout: New Vegas, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and Freelancer have all left their mark on me in some way. I wouldn’t even say this is the full list, to be honest, this was simply the first one I could pull from the top of my head.
I will, however, say that I think that the variety of inspirations is a big benefit to me as I don’t just want to make RTSs, FPSs, or RPGs, I want to make… well, everything I can.
Imagine for a moment you’ve finished your degree, and you have all the tools and funding you need to create your dream game. What wold you be working on?
I think my first answer would have to be “Ooh, which one?!” followed quickly by “Well it’s kind of depressing, but…”
In all seriousness, I have a game in my head whose setting was inspired by a dream I had as a kid (which I guess makes it a literal ‘dream game’). While I haven’t had much of a chance to think about how I want the actual game to work, I distinctly recall the dream. The basic idea involved a wandering private investigator who dealt with magical things stumbling across an isolated, island community off the coast of America who are cursed to slowly have their insides transform into gold, silver, and jewels due to their own greed and the greed of their ancestors. In my dream game, the player would have to try and hunt down the secrets of the island and lift the curse while dealing with unhelpful locals and something evil lurking under the lake in the centre of the island.
Despite still working on your degree, you already have a studio established and ready to go. Tell us about your hopes for Otterspace Games?
As much as I like to joke about selling out for millions of dollars, I honestly just hope to eventually make Australian games and to make some kind of a living off of it. I know that sounds a bit dumb given the number and quality of games that have been made in Australia and the quality of the developers here, but it seems to me that there aren’t many games out there that are about Australia or which deal with topics relevant to Australia.
The only games I can think of that have been talked about recently and which meets my mark are Paperbark —a wonderful looking game about a wombat who’s walking through the bush during summer— and Forza Horizon 3. I don’t mean to come off as haughty or dismissive of the games made in Australia and by Australians —and I’ll totally admit to not being hooked up to news about releases 24/7— it just seems to me that there should be more games about Australia and I want to make some of them (in between games about time travel, samurai, and robot dinosaurs with guns for eyes, of course).
Can we expect to see more of your games at local playtesting events such as Playup Perth in the coming months?
Yes, yes you can. I’m completely obsessed with polishing my games so I expect that I’ll be at the next Nostalgia Box-hosted Playup Perth from now until the sun dies or someone tells me to release Samurai Showdown. One of the other.
Are there any other ways that our readers can support your games and continue to follow their development?
Yep! Every few weeks I post development blogs detailing the work that I’ve done so far, the work that needs to be done, and the bugs I’ve discovered to www.otterspacegames.com. It’s been a little quiet recently due to the amount of uni work I have but, ironically, as part of a unit I have to analyse ways to make the website better so you can expect to see some changes soon. You can also find me on Twitter as @Prometheus110 and I’ll have a company Twitter account set up soon.