The path to success isn’t typically one that is laid out in pavement and marked with directional signs, instead it often begins with one brave step and continues down a twisted and unsuspected trail. Taking alternative routes is never easy, but it is clear that in terms of game development Sony is attempting to incrementally guide developers as best they can on their personal journey to pursue greatness.
Developer Atomicom are a veteran squad with a strong catalog behind them, yet it wasn’t until the group produced Switch Galaxy as a PlayStation Mini that the U.K. team appeared on much of the public’s radar. The game was considering to be among the very best that the PlayStation Mini brand had to offer, but true passion never rests.
Much as the Futurlab team did with the Velocity series before them, Atomicom have set out to evolve the quaint PlayStation Mini experience into fully featured console title. Utilizing the power of the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 4 the unit are working tirelessly to create the follow up to Switch Galaxy, titled Switch Galaxy Ultra. However the question has been asked, “what’s in a name?”, and perhaps in regards to this instance what does the addition of the “Ultra” moniker really mean for young the franchise?
Thankfully Gary Nichols, the CEO of Atomicom, was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions I had about not only his game; but also the industry at large.
Brian Sharon: Switch Galaxy was received extremely well by critics and was one of the PlayStation Mobile games that was held in the highest acclaim. What additions have you made in Switch Galaxy Ultra that improves on the experience?
Gary Nichols: There’s a huge list, seriously. We wanted to add a lot so we did. The key additions are 60 FPS (Frames Per Second), which you have to have and new player ships, which users can upgrade to and they do look pretty cool.
There are lots of new levels, all the front-end has been redesigned and improved as well as an improved HUD. The mission select map is now in full 3D, which you can zoom in and out of. Pretty much every part of the game has been polished and improved so we’re very excited about it.
We’ve also created a really awesome comic story for the game, which introduces Vince and Amur, our two new characters. As you progress through the game the story unfolds and there are more episodes of the comic to unlock. It’s hilarious and very gritty, it’s been designed by WipeOut legend Darren Douglas the only person to have worked on every WipeOut title to date as well as being a published Judge Dredd artist.
Most contemporary racing games are devoid of story all together, yet Switch Galaxy Ultra seems to have a pretty rich mythology. Could you elaborate on the rich history that sets the background for the racing?
GN: Actually funnily enough this was all done a bit backwards, the story came after the original Switch game when we were trying to work out what the motivation was for the player. It just seemed to come from there, we had a few ideas including one of being a space courier, but what we decided on seemed the best direction and allowed us to build Dakur Technology in future games.
We started a small backstory in Switch Galaxy on PlayStation Mobile to explain the reason behind the game but in Switch Galaxy Ultra we wanted to expand on that a lot more in the comics and it’s led us into a much bigger story. Amur Ness appears now as the CEO of Dakur Technology and the player takes the role of Vince Vance, a bit of a beaten down hero and he works for Amur.
Most of us are SciFi and Fantasy fans but Darren in particular is a massive SciFi fan and we’ve let him go to town on the story line, we’ve also planned an ending that leaves the game open for something else in the future.
Many have speculated that the Switch Galaxy games have been heavily influenced by the legendary WipEout franchise, yet the staff at Atomicom seems adamant that this is not the case. I’m curious then, what are games that have influenced Switch Galaxy’s design?
GN: I have to be the first to admit it’s easy to come to that conclusion; it’s not a bad thing either. WipeOut has an Epic history and some of the people in our team worked on it including myself. Back in the day people compared WipeOut to Power Drome and F-Zero but eventually that stopped and Wipeout owned the genre. Now it’s difficult to do any futuristic racing game that doesn’t get compared to WipeOut.
You wouldn’t believe the inspiration for this game though, when I was young I had an Atari 2600, I had tons and tons of games for it but the one I played the most was Dodge-Em, cos it was rock hard and very addictive. So back in 2011 we were thrashing around old games for inspiration and I wanted to do a 3D remake of Dodge-Em which everyone seemed interested in so we started work and had the game running in 3D and everything worked well…apart from the camera which was horrible and it was clear it just wouldn’t work in 3D. So we got rid of the corners and just had straight lanes and that became Switch, which we released in 2011 on iOS, Android and BB10.
Switch Galaxy Ultra is set to be released on a multitude of PlayStation hardware, but what makes it a great fit for the PlayStation Vita?
GN: I think for us we’re a great fit for PlayStation Vita because there is nothing like our game on there that’s new out. When Sony closed the Liverpool Studio and the WipeOut team went their separate ways it left a big hole open for us in that genre and there is now room for another game. We feel we’re different enough to do well on Vita because we have a stunning game and there’s no new WipeOut to compete against. Plus the fact that we’re building on the critical acclaim we already received from the PlayStation Mobile version.
Just last week Atomicom released details about the partnership between yourselves and national children’s charity Caudwell Children. How did this collaboration come about, and why was it important for you as developers to get involved?
GN: I’d been talking to the charity for a while now and we wanted to do something earlier but the timing never seemed right until now. As Switch Galaxy Ultra is our IP we are able to try new things and we pitched the idea to Caudwell Children and they loved it, so it seemed like the perfect time. The charity are really amazing and forward thinking, most other charities take a % of the donation for admin costs but not Caudwell Children as all the admin is covered by founder John Caudwell.
Every penny and dime they receive 100% of it goes on helping children. They do some really amazing things for them for example not so long ago I was invited to one of their projects here in Liverpool were they had a group of autistic children and they were teaching them how to do stop motion animation. It was really amazing to see the results and to see how creative they were and it really brought home what Caudwell Children are all about.
All things considered Atomicom is a relatively young studio and yet you’ve managed to pump out a multitude of titles that do not sacrifice quality. How do you as a studio manage to be so efficient?
GN: Perseverance haha, we’re not that young to be honest. Most of us are vets in the industry and we were originally operating as another company since 2004 but with the change in the market and some really bad luck we were forced to close back in 2010 and that’s when Atomicom was born. Over the years as a team we’ve got titles out on DS, Wii, PS3, X360, PC, Mobile and PS2 and worked with the likes of Ubisoft and SEGA.
We’ve spent a lot of time and effort making sure we have good technology, we’ve never used middleware and I think that is really important, it may be a lot tougher to make your games but we’ve been able to do deals with many companies simply because we had our own tech. Right now I think most companies would need twice the amount of people we have to do what we’re doing on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita and this is because we have great tech an, amazing Technical Director and a team that’s worked together for a long time.
Even as we stand at the brink of a new console generation the focus (especially from Sony) seems to be directly squared on support for indie games. As indie developers yourselves why is it that indie games have become so prevalent and successful in the past few years?
GN: Some publishers have spent decades living off the hard work of indies. I can’t tell you the amount of people I know that were ripped off by a publisher, not paid or run ragged by some work shy fop whose 5 year old son didn’t like the beta build and it all had to be redone again. So when Apple surprised everyone with the iPhone indies flocked to iOS because they could earn money without selling their soul, without changing the product they wanted to make to appease a publisher.
Amazing games appeared that rocked the world and soon people started to realize that they could break free from the broken publisher/developer model and be creative again and take risks. You think EA would have signed The Room or maybe imagine Microsoft signing Minecraft before it was a hit haha; they wouldn’t. That’s why indies have flourished and jumped at other avenues to get their games out on such as iOS, steam, android and now with the awesome Shahid (Kamal Ahmad) at Sony helping indies get on PS4 and PSVita it’s really an amazing time to be an indie. You can really focus on the game you want to make rather than a game that fits into some faceless persons ROI(return-on-investment) spreadsheet.
We are seeing more and more games seeking funding via crowd-funding programs like Kickstarter. Given your previous experience with the crowd-funding giant could you share a bit about the pros and cons of a Kickstarter campaign?
GN: Damn you knew about that? Haha! I think Kickstarter is like the Dead Marshes from Lord of the Rings, one wrong step and you’re swimming with ghouls for eternity. Looking back on our Kickstarter we were a bit naive, racing games don’t get backed very well on KS, the only one of note was Carmageddon and with good reason. It’s an old IP, which people remember fondly. I’ve seen a lot of other racing projects fail badly and I just think they don’t fit the model. Also if you’re an unknown it’s tough to get anyone talking about it, the week after we launched ours the lovely Charles Cecil launched the Broken Sword Kickstarter, game over! None of the big gaming sites wanted to cover ours so you either need a big name or a big IP that everyone remembers well or an RPG! Most RPG’s seem to get backed.
But it’s also frustrating seeing how many people are now abusing it by taking people’s money then saying they didn’t get enough to make the game when they got 15 times more than the amount they asked for, *cough* Double Fine *cough*, and now the new debacle with Clang is really putting people off from investing in KickStarter projects and that’s going to make it more difficult for indies to be successful. It baffles me how these companies can’t deliver a game with such an obscene amount of money.
We may go back to Kickstarter with our next iteration of Switch but that’s a long way off yet, we’ve got a PlayStation 4 game to finish first.
Atomicom are set to release Switch Galaxy Ultra exclusively on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita on November 15 2013 via PSN.