What We Are Building In Here

Last week Channel 4 announced the project that I’ve been describing, cryptically, as “Game One”. The proper working title is “Walking City”, although I suspect that too will change in the next couple of months. We’re describing it as a “strategic, urban puzzler”, but really it’s a game with genes from Dungeon Keeper, Animal Crossing, Theme Hospital, The Sims, and even Lemmings. It should – Gods of game development willing – be perfectly indie PC, with an interesting core game mechanic, funky lo-fi visuals, and a playful attitude.

Walking City is a project I came up with in collaboration with Alice Taylor at Channel 4, who was looking for games that might fulfill her educational remits for the indie game budget. I wanted to do something about the value of the future, and the value of cities, both of which seem, of late, to have been somewhat reduced in their placement on the stock market of our imagination. Creating a game that was about reclaiming a city came to mind, and this developed into something which will be both an interesting exercise in anti-dystopian playfulness, and an offbeat take on familiar ideas about strategy games. The Walking City is about starting with things in ruins. This is no blank slate, as you might expect with SimCity, but instead a catastrophe of cynicism and neglect. It’s about helping the people that remain in a collapsed civilization to pull themselves out of the hole. It’s also going to be a game about /influencing/ the people in the city, rather than simply telling them what to do, and it’s working on the idea that if you clean up and fix one thing in an environment than that will have a knock on effect for everything and everyone else in its area of effect. This throws up some really interesting design challenges, of course, particularly in how you keep such a system simple and comprehensible. It’s exactly the kind of thing that I find interesting about game development. Also, it’s one of the things I find interesting about education: finding ways of reaching people without being preachy, condescending, or basically rubbish.

Walking City is not without jeopardy, of course. We are planning on filling the city with many of the threats and destructive influences that real world cities throw up – and we’re doing that from the top and bottom ends of our imaginary society. Of course I’m all about the mechanical game, the systems, too, and I’m hoping it’ll be a decent challenge, as well as fulfilling the other criteria that a Channel 4 game is expected to meet. It’s about as exciting as an opening project could be, not least because the Channel 4 funding means we can tackle it without fear of not being able to complete it.

We’re building the game using Unity, an engine which RPS readers will be vaguely aware that James Carey and I have been dabbling with since we made the RPS game, Shotgunity. It’s been a bit of a surprise for me, since I have almost no practical skills whatever, finding that Unity is straightforward enough not just for me to follow what is going on, but to have some input at a technical level. Not only that, but it’s a solid way for us to manage the project, and to control versions via the asset server. We discovered all this this largely through our work on Game Two. I’m not even going to say what the working title for that game is, since it’s basically ridiculous, but I can explain a little about what the game is, and why we have been working on it.

Game Two was about warming up for the Channel 4 project, getting us familiar with Unity as a working environment, and working together on something. But it’s also about Big Robot being a bigger thing than one commissioned project. This is intended to be the start of something long-term, something that will allow me to investigate some of those ideas I’ve always suspected might be cool or interesting when I was working just as a journalist. Procedurally generated worlds, robots, survival, and plenty more besides. It’s a big game, and it’s going to take a long time to finish. So far, at least, we’re really enjoying it, but don’t expect to see much more than odd screenshots before the end of next year.

More, er, soon (ish).

Big Robot Standing On New Horizons

If you really want to understand games, people said to me, the best way is to make them. They’re half right. The best way to understand making games, is to make them. Whether you understand games depends on what you are trying to do with them. For the past ten years I’ve been trying to write about them, and that’s gone pretty well, what with the book and the enormously popular website. But now it’s time for something different. I do want to understand a bit more about making games. I’m not going to be leaving my writing exploits behind – I’m not abandoning RPS – but I am going to be putting together games for the foreseeable future.

So what’s the plan?

Well, Big Robot will an independent studio run by me. Crazy, I know. I’m already working with James Carey, who RPS readers will remember from the Shotgunity articles, the Arma 2 script, and some community event organisation, and Tom Betts, who has long been a prolific experimental programmer, lecturer, and artist. Other creative types will be contributing as we go.

We have two projects underway, both of them being developed using Unity as our framework. But, uh, two projects? One thing at a time, surely? Well yes and no. Let me explain:

GAME ONE is a commercial project that we’ve pitched to an unusual kind of publisher. It’s a game about cities and people. A kind of Theme Park for urbanism and citizenship. It’s a project that encompasses my love of bossing tiny computer people around and my love of cities. It’s about writing positive futures, undoing dystopias, and generally making the world a better place. Due to contractual stuff Game One is currently sitting at a kind of pre-production stage. We know what will do, and some of how we will do it, but when we will do it is yet to be precisely nailed down. We’ll have much more to say about Game One in a few weeks time. It’s ludicrously exciting.

GAME TWO is rather different. This is an ongoing experimental project based on some ideas that I’ve collected from my years of playing and writing about games. It has elements of Stalker and Eve Online, it has robots, alien ecosystems, and procedurally generated worlds. It’s a game about exploration, survival, and tinkering. Having spent months discussing it, we’ve been working on Game Two properly for just a few weeks – with Tom doing some virtuoso coding – and I can’t believe how much progress we’ve made. It’s thousands of hours of work from being a game in any real sense, but already we’re beginning to see the prototype take shape, and our little world come to life. It’s a fairly ambitious project for a tiny group like us, but you might as well aim high. Game Two is going to an experiment to see what a small indie studio game achieve, and we’ll be blogging its progress as we go. I want to be open about what we are doing, and hopefully provide useful insights and tech we can share along the way.

Tom is planning to blog a little about some of the technology problems he’s faced and how we’ve integrated our ideas into Unity, too, so please bookmark us if you are interested in the ongoing development of both games.

More soon.