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Sneaking with the Makers of Stealth Inc. 2
It’s not often that you find a group as well-verse in the indie craft as Curve Studios. As the minds behind the Wiiware title of Hydroventure, Fluidity, and its 3DS successor of Fluidity: Spin-cycle, the company’s maintained something of a steady history with Nintendo platforms. Partnering with such figures as Jasper Bryne and Mike Bithell in converting a variety of titles like Lone Survivor and Thomas Was Alone, the studio hasn’t shied away from its Wii love affair, with the studio bringing its upcoming sequel of Stealth Inc. 2 exclusively to the Wii U. The Nintendo Team caught up with Curve Studios’ very own Jonathan Biddle and Robert Clarke to chat about the series, its future, and its time so far working with the Big N.
To start off, could you tell us a bit about your background and role at the studio?
JB: I’m the design director at Curve and one of the co-founders. I’ve been designing games professionally for around 15 years, after initially studying to be an architect. I generally direct our internal projects (such as the Fluidity and Stealth Inc games), making sure they’re as good as can be. I also use GameMaker to make or prototype some of our games. I programmed the original Stealth Bastard games on PC and Stealth Inc on iOS, and also prototyped all of the features of Stealth Inc 2 prior to them being implemented on the Wii U.
RC: I actually work for Curve Digital doing all of the marketing and PR, so it’s my job to make sure people know about all our games and keep getting new gamers to check them out, from Explodemon right up to Stealth Inc 2.
The series’ original entry of “Stealth Bastard” describes itself as an “unholy marriage of Metal Gear Solid and Super Meat Boy.” What about stealth games and platformers do you believe work best together?
JB: Stealth games are not dissimilar in structure to platform games. With platformers, there’s a definitive line that is crossed when the player fails; when they miss a jump, land in the laser pit, effectively whenever they screw up. With stealth games, the same line is in place, the only difference being that the line is crossed when the player is spotted; Snake bumbles out in front of a guard, or messes up his attack and alerts an enemy. The punishment for failure both types of games are fairly similar too, i.e. lost time or progress, this is whether it’s by having to replay a section in a platformer, or by having to return to a hidden state in a stealth game. Super Meat Boy proved that, as long as the level is fun, and as long as you aren’t set back too far, then people don’t mind replaying sections over and over. All Stealth Inc did was to add being spotted to the list of possible ways to fail, and it turned out that the two styles complemented each other very well.
Are there any other specific influences that come to mind looking back on the series?
JB: The influences are too far and wide-ranging to really pin down. Everyone in the whole studio spends countless hours absorbing video games of different types over decades, and it all has an effect. For example, our lead level designer, Sam mentioned that John Romero’s levels from Doom and Quake were a big influence on certain aspects of his levels, since they heavily featured cunning traps that lured you in. The original Flashback was a big influence on the style of art I wanted, since it had such a glorious sense of place. There are elements of the 3D Mario games in there, especially in new equipment in the sequel. Portal remains influential, and helped inform the tone of the game and its dialogue, as well as the mechanics. It’s our own work on the Fluidity games that probably had the biggest influence though, since we learned how to structure levels and puzzle design by working with Nintendo. They have a very high standard, and having to produce two games for them on which the gameplay stands or falls based on the quality of the puzzles has changed how we approach games design here at Curve. The DNA of Fluidity runs very deeply in the design of the Stealth Inc games.What effort goes into making those tears more joyous for the average player than otherwise in the development process?
JB: There’s definitely a very thin line between enjoyment and frustration, and we walk along it very carefully. It’s hard to know exactly where to put that line, since everyone is different, but players will generally forgive frustration if they’re not losing too much progress. To help them out, levels are kept short, puzzles kept local to a single space, multiple skills are challenged in any level, and communication is made as obvious as possible. We have weekly playtests of all the levels, and overly difficult, frustrating and fussy sections are removed or reworked as a matter of priority. The ramping up of difficulty and the expectation we have of the player’s ability across the game as a whole has a lot of time spent on it. However, there are always outliers; while some people claim the game was too easy, I think more take to social networks to rather vocally vent their rage. It’s healthy to get your anger out though. We’re providing an important service.
What left you wanting more from the Stealth series?
JB: There are so many ways in which we can expand the core Stealth Inc experience, since its fundamental gameplay is so simple. By adding equipment, new enemies and puzzle objects, we can push the game in wildly varied directions. We also wanted to address players becoming burnt out on the game. Because Stealth Inc can be intense, players find it difficult to play it for extended periods. We’re addressing this by adding the Metroid-like overworld, helping us to modulate the pace and give players some less intense moments, and allowing them to spend more time in the game.
RC: We also want to focus more on the story this time around. The original game wasn’t known for its story, but ironically it has a brilliant ending that few people have actually seen, so we want to story to be more integrated into the game as you play through rather than something you get as a reward right at the end.
You’ve previously published and ported titles on the PSP, Vita, Wii, iOS, 3DS, and PC before coming to the Wii U with Stealth Inc. 2. What about the system attracted you to it and what qualities do you believe most set the Wii U apart?
RC: As you mention, we had previous world with Nintendo so we knew about their approach, although this is our first Wii-U game. The attraction for us this time is the opportunity to work with Nintendo and bring the game to a new audience on the Wii-U. We’ve always considered ourselves a very ‘platform agnostic’ company, and as we haven’t worked with Nintendo at all in 2013, we were really happy to get the chance this year.
How much communication do you maintain with Nintendo? Is there any particular guidance you’ve received from them regarding the game’s development?
RC: Curve Digital is publishing so it’s much less hands on than when we did Fluidity, our older platform game which was published by Nintendo. All of the design decisions are ultimately ours to make, though we still have technical support where we need it, and we obviously show the game to Nintendo regularly. The indie gaming scene has certainly been on the rise as of late on the console gaming scene.
RC: Nintendo isn’t going all out in the way Sony are, or Xbox are trying to do with [email protected] I get the impression that while they understand that indie is ‘different’, they don’t really see games in the same way as we as gamers tend to pigeonhole them. To them, a game is a piece of entertainment and things like how big your team is or even how much money you are spending are secondary elements to making sure the game is fun and playable.
Over the years, Curve Studios itself has worked with a variety of indie developers on a number of ports and publishing initiatives. What qualities do you look for in the ideal partner and what do you believe Nintendo looked for in you?
RC: In terms of who we look to partner with, there are loads of different things. The key elements are making sure it’s a game that fits console, but that doesn’t mean only porting over arcade and action games as our release of Proteus on PlayStation 3 and Vita proved last year. It’s more about making sure the controls are going to work well and make sense. Other key things include timing of the game and where it is in development, size of the original team, how well received the game was by the press and so on. As for what Nintendo look for, I can’t speak for them, but I assume they want high quality games made by smaller teams who have proved themselves before. They aren’t quite as willing to trust smaller teams and unknown developers as a company like Sony, and our track record in terms of both sales and reception of our games was probably a pretty big plus point!What can you tell us about the role of your sister company, Curve Digital, with Stealth Inc. 2? Will you be sharing responsibilities or handling it solo?
RC: Curve Digital is the publisher, and Curve Studios are the developer. We don’t really exist completely separately – we all work in the same office, for example. Our job at Curve Digital is really to make sure the guys making the game can just get on with making the game, rather than worrying about marketing or PR or reports or any of the business side of things that you need to worry about when you publish your own titles.
What’s the best advice you can give to new indie developers out there when it comes to gaining ground in the industry?
JB: There are no rules anymore! It’s kind of a joyous time where anything is possible, and anyone armed with a good idea and excellent execution can produce something that will be a success. Note that only having good ideas and execution aren’t the only things you you’ll need though. Marketing is a much required skill for modern indies, so, while many of us got into games to make really cool stuff, we have to remember not to ignore the skills that are needed around getting a game to market. Making the game can be half the battle. Still, I remember lamenting how difficult it was to get original ideas made around ten years ago, but these days it genuinely is possible to make any game you want. Things have changed immensely and definitely for the better.
RC: If you’re going to bring your games to consoles, make sure you talk to people who have done it and get an idea in your head of the workload. Publishing a game is a lot of work, it’s very possible to self-publish on consoles, but it’s better to go on with your eyes wide open than realize mid-way through development you’re going to have to delay your game because you have to stop coding to deal with production or publishing problems.In the meantime, we have only a few weeks to go before E3 hits. Are there any games in particular you’re looking forward to seeing?
RC: I’m actually going to E3 with The Swapper, so as is often the case when you actually go with your own games to these events, I’ll probably see absolutely nothing! I don’t play a lot of Triple A games now, but when I do I get really obsessed with them. I’m really forever holding out hope for Fallout 4 to finally be announced!
Thanks so much for your time and we wish you the best of luck on your work.