Let’s kick off with, in your own words, a little bit of a history on PlayCorp and yourself and how you got to where you are with Beyond Contact.
: Yeah, sure. So I've been a part of the Australian games industry now for about 30 years. So I think it was 27 years ago or something like that, we started Blue Tongue Entertainment
here in Melbourne, Australia. I think we were one of four or five of the largest studios in the country at the time. So I was the founder and CEO for, I think, a bit over eight years. And then I left that studio and founded Red Tribe, and we went on and we did a lot of fee-for-service work with a lot of publishers and large movie studios actually.
And towards the end of that road at Red Tribe
, we started to work on our own independent games and tried to move out a fee-for-service, which was always the dream to work on [our] own games. And unfortunately, the GFC hit in 2007, and that completely upended the entire industry, as you guys know. And here we are. So if you're in games, it's kind of a bit like a disease. You get into games because you love games and you get quite burnt out after a while. It's a horrendous industry for burnout and mental health and so on. But after a period of rest, you think about what you want to do with your life, and of course you end up back in games. So this is where we are.
Yeah, right. Yeah, I think that's a particular situation in Australian game development as well, because it's such a peaks and troughs industry here. Before we go on to Beyond Contact, can you talk to some of the new initiatives that are coming up based on your really long time in the industry and how you've seen Australian game development change? And do you think it's going to be a more rapid upshot now?
: Yeah, I really do. I mean, fundamentally what I feel is shifted is the way that Australians think of themselves in terms of the games industry [and what] has changed. So I think in the early days we lacked a lot of confidence. We really didn't think we could compete with the UK. We really didn't think we… I mean, just in terms of what I've seen is a systematic shift in the games industry overall.
From the early days, it was very much about fee-for-service work. So we were essentially building games for overseas publishers. And this has transformed into people building their own games. And I think one of the underlying reasons why this has happened is our level of confidence and our own abilities have grown over time, and this was very much lacking in the early days.
So I think this is, in part because of the education systems that we've got now, there's so many more people giving it a go. The technology base is much more established than it used to be. So in the early days of game development when we started, you couldn't just get an engine and start creating a game, you had to create the engine and the game at the same time. And so life was exceptionally difficult. [I’m] talking extremely long hours and very technically detailed work in building engines and games simultaneously. So this new world that we find ourselves in is empowering. You have this more confident group of people coming through the industry now, and of course there's many different ways of distributing your game. And so it's a very different industry.
Yeah. And on that, you guys, Beyond Contact's been in [Early Access] for nearly two years or maybe a little bit less than that. But that's a unique program and system as well, in a sense that it's basically an ongoing preview and community feedback platform. Was it always the plan to do that, to drop the game in there and just kind of chip away at it?
: Yeah, I mean, this was the strategy. I think we launched into EA a year ago, but we've been working with the community for quite some time. It was always the dream. The dream was always to work with a community of people to try and build a game as part of that community. And this kind of stems from our background where we would work like absolute maniacs to get the game done by November 4th to have it ready for publishers. You get one shot and that's it. And it's really a horrible way to make anything. And this is the way games used to be.
So the dream was, hey, look, let's put the game out. Let's get as much constructive feedback as we can. Ignore the trolls. You're always going to have your detractors. Focus on the really high quality feedback, take that feedback, iterate on that feedback, and work towards something really, really special. So we've poured our heart and soul into this game, and you'll probably see that there are these parts of the game that just really resonate with people and really work. And obviously there are parts that we have to work on.
Does it make financial sense to do it that way as well? We've seen a lot of games have a pretty successful period in EA where ultimately that buy-in concept allows development to keep running in the background. It's almost like an ongoing Kickstarter, if you will. Did that help you guys out? How did you find that process in terms of, I guess, net reward versus kind of a longer development time?
: I think it's really hard to draw any sort of conclusions out of just purely the example that we have. But if you look at the industry as a whole, I think that the answer is definitely yes
. I think it does make more commercial sense to, I mean, what we're essentially doing is we're using the scientific principle, right? Which is, you have a hypothesis, you test that hypothesis, you get a result, and then you make the changes that need to be made. So, over time, you're constantly going to get better and better. And then hopefully that translates into commercial success. And that's the strategy that we've employed. If you look at a number of games like Don't Starve
, Project Zomboid
... many of these games were doing okay for a while and then suddenly just exploded in terms of interest.
And sometimes that tipping point is such a fine line. I mean, this is enough to drive you crazy, right? What is the tipping point? What makes farming [for example] fun?
It's really not an easy problem. So, for example, we have Easy, Normal and Hard modes. We're trying to capture quite a broad range of players. And if you look at the statistics of who plays the easy version of the game; are we meeting their expectations? Are we creating the right setting? So, for example, I don't think we are right now. So the people who want that more casual experience, they want to have easier raids, they want to have more dispatchable enemies. And we haven't quite got there with that group of people, but they're very vocal. And that translates into lack of recommendation.
So we're about to change this. We're coming up with a new version update [in the] next four to six weeks. It's going to be really interesting to see how this translates into recommendations or not recommendations because the danger is you recontextualise your game and you say, ‘hey, this needs to be more casual’, or ‘this needs to be more hardcore’. And of course that may not solve the problem because you have a whole bunch of people that love a really difficult game, and you have a whole bunch of people that love a more casual experience. So you just need to try and meet those expectations without destroying the DNA and soul of the game somehow.
So just on the DNA and soul of the game, there are so many survival games, it's kind of similar to the sim genre. It wears many hats for many different types of players and different people. What were the non-negotiables in terms of what you feel is a pillared part of any survival game that you had to have in there? And then can you talk to what you guys did to… I guess, stand out in such a crowded market?
So in terms of pillars, I think you need to have a really good stepwise. You really need to introduce features in a stepwise manner. There needs to be an overall plan for where the player starts and where they go. And I can illustrate what that is going to look like for Beyond Contact, because we haven't fully realised it yet. But we see the game in three natural stages. The first stage is sort of a hunter-gathering stage, the second stage is [the] base-building and farming stage. And then the final stages of the game are supposed to be automation and optimisation. So this is where you have all of your pieces in place, but you can endlessly continue to improve on those elements. Without stage three being fully realised -- which is coming, I might add quite rapidly -- but without that final stage, you don't get the full experience yet.
So I think that's what sets a really good survival game up when you compare a whole bunch of different survival games. It's understanding the various stages of the game and how the mechanics change over time. Because if the mechanics are always staying the same, then you lose interest. There needs to be something bigger. So when I say optimisation and automation, I'm talking about things like auto miners and then in a stepwise fashion, increasing your ability to store the amount that you mine in a sort of factorial type of sense so that you're not always grinding for resources. So a lot of the feedback we get is, ‘hey, fantastic game, love it, but I'm still grinding for resources in the mid-game or the late game’. And the reason for that is because there's a few missing elements that are coming in. Still great fun, and there are still plenty of ways of doing these things that players haven't discovered that we are hoping that they will discover.
But that's the key pillars of any survival game, I think, is changing mechanics; changing up the mechanics over time, having stages of gameplay and then figuring out what each stage should look like. And so that's the overarching sort of principle that we have used. On top of that, unique aspects within Beyond Contact, I mean, we've incorporated a story into a survival game. That was no easy task; that was a huge, huge task, I can tell you. It's an open-world game. You can go in any direction, you can do anything in any order. And yet we have this story and we have this… village that you can go to. And it's huge; hugely ambitious. And we think it's been well received. We think it's a lot of fun. Certainly [there hasn’t been] an issue for players. I think they've enjoyed that.
And I think the next iteration in the future of the game is going to be about this Endless Survival mode and getting these three stages right and then just finishing off and rounding off some of this gameplay. There's still a lot to do. So for example, farming, there wasn't enough late game objectives and economy around farming. So the farming gaming loop finally coming together and these sustainable resources becoming part of the higher tier items of the content that we're adding to the game. So I think that's really going to make it very good.
Do you think that story helps separate the gameplay loop from becoming that grind? Because often in survival games and even in old school RTS games, you can find yourself just caught in the loop of resource gathering, building, going back, resource gathering, building. Even a recent game: Dredge, I just found myself just fishing for too long because you just get caught in this gameplay loop that's endlessly rewarding, but then the game doesn't really go anywhere. So do you think the story helps the player realise that they've got other tasks to do, and was that something that you used the story for?
: Yeah, I mean, you hit the nail on the head. That's exactly what we were really concerned about. What happens next? What drives this project? If we're creating this game that we want to keep as a live experience for a long period of time, what's going to do that? So I think you've pretty much summarised it, which is if we introduce a new planet, a new storyline, is that going to keep things moving along? I think along with the storyline and along with that sort of new content; new playable characters or planets, you need new mechanics as well. Things that are really going to show... so if I have a new planet, there's a whole bunch of new things I can do that's also really important. So it's just understanding the fact that, yeah, I think that an ongoing story is going to bring those players back. And then obviously to your point, you need to switch up the mechanics at some point as well otherwise people are just going to be stuck in a loop.
What was the inspiration behind the game in the first place? Were you playing any particular survival games that kind of resonated or that you saw an opportunity to do something different in? Just the genesis of the project overall…
: Yeah. I mean, it was at that time when Ark: Survival
was out and Don't Starve
, and then when Don't Starve Together
came out, it was just mind blowing. We were all just playing this game together and we thought, ‘wow, just imagine doing this in a pulp science-fiction setting with that aesthetic?!’. And we could bring in the contemporary moral dilemmas that you see often in Star Trek
movies and things like that. So we had an interest in philosophy and some of these ethical concerns that are raised through some of these sci-fi shows, which we found really interesting.
So we're total sci-fi nerds and then playing Don't Starve Together, it was just a no-brainer. We had to get into that space and do something. But we want to improve on each of those mechanics. And I think to a large extent we have, but I think that the final thing that will make the game shine is just polishing out and rounding out the balance of the game and the feedback and the mechanics of the game. So once that all comes together, I think we're going to have a beautiful work of art, hopefully. But then it's going to take time.
When you are a big sci-fi nerd and a pulp nerd and what we all are in this industry, how hard is it to reign in layering that into the visual side of the world and then the story side that we've just talked about before… you overload it? At what point do you have to pull yourself back because you want to put something from every single piece of science fiction that you've ever absorbed into the game?
: Oh, it's really challenging. Sometimes you really are your own worst nightmare. I think you need to create a really healthy culture within the company. So we have a good mix of veteran developers and the new people that are coming up through the industry. And I think we've got this culture where we really listen to that new generation. We're not sort of like the old vanguard telling stories about how it used to be and dragging ourselves 20 miles up a cliff. We're more encouraging as much as we can to get these guys to stand up and to express their ideas. It's an ongoing battle. I think I'm the worst person in the company for coming up with ideas that derail direction. And so I'm pretty much aware of this. So Alex Boyland
, he's in charge of the visual aesthetic of the game. He has an absolute eye for this stuff.
He's absolutely spot on and often will drive us crazy with the attention to detail that's required for a particular piece of art.
: So you have to balance that with the practical side of things. So we have a fantastic project manager who's always, like, ‘you know guys, this is great. We love the fact that you want all of this attention to detail, but we have to get this game out the door’. And she's one of the youngest persons on the team, and she's sort of telling us what to do, and she certainly doesn't feel shy of telling me what to do and telling me to shut up, which is great.
That's awesome. And I guess, what's the future for the company? You've been in the industry, as you say, for a long time. You've had your burnout moment, but this seems like you're on a successful trajectory. Siding with Plaion is, it seems like a really good fit. Yeah. Do you have a plan or is it just let's wait and see where this goes?
: Well, I think the first step for us is really just, let's see how this game evolves and where it ends up.
But we have ideas for new games as well. I mean, we've been working on this one for a while. We need to see it through and we need to see the final pieces of the puzzle come together. And once we're happy with it, we may be able to let it go. It's very, very hard to let go of a game. It's never going to be finished from the team's point of view. But yeah, I mean, we have some great new ideas and directions that we are looking at right now. We did a game jam recently where we took two days assigned to just come up with ideas and the team came up with a cute fury dog animal with an electric guitar with a chainsaw on one end and a flame thrower on the other, which was quite hilarious. So yeah, I think you're going to see a lot of very weird and wonderful stuff from our studio, hopefully.
Okay, cool. All right, Chris, well I'll let you get back to your holidays. I appreciate your time and taking the effort to talk to us… I really appreciate it, it was a great chat and congratulations on the ongoing success.
:Thank you so much, Stephen. Really appreciate that.