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“We don’t get a lot of Government support” – Flightless’ John O’Reilly on the plight of the NZ gaming industry

From How Bizarre to The Lord of the Rings, the New Zealand entertainment industry has performed well internationally across a variety of mediums. But, Path of Exile aside, these small islands are yet to birth any significant gaming classics. Don Rowe speaks with John O’Reilly about the challenges and triumphs of designing games in New Zealand and the development of Flightless’ latest release Element

I wrote last week about Element, the second game by design firm-cum-indie developer Flightless. Though still in early access, Element is a complex and satisfying experience bundled in a low-poly, minimalist package and marketed as a real-time strategy game for those without the time to play one. However the story of Element’s conception can’t be squeezed into a ‘first look’ review. For it is a tale of genre-bending and augmented reality, adaptation and integration. A journey of discovery and experimentation stretching from the windy Wellington basin to the shade of the now-crisped Mt Maunganui.

Actually, it’s mostly just an interesting chat with implications around game design and the NZ gaming industry as a whole.

I spoke with John O’Reilly, Artistic Director at Flightless. We talked about the process of transitioning from a designer firm to a game developer, working with major firms like Sony and Microsoft, the challenges of producing games in New Zealand and the future of augmented reality and technological interaction in general. An edited transcript of that conversation is below.

Tell me about Flightless. 

We started Flightless way back in 2005. There’s myself as artistic director and Greg Harding, our technical director. At the time, we were more of a multi-discipline design studio doing web and branding, but we’ve always been passionate about interactive, so our passion projects have been things at Te Papa and Auckland Museum that gave us a chance to combine our skills in audio, visual and programming in one project. In doing that interactive stuff, you’re always challenging yourself to come up with new ways to present information to the public, and in the museum space that means screens and physical displays, and then blurring lines between them with augmented reality technology. Ironically, when we decided to focus a lot more on games it was partly because the technologies we were using for games were more similar to those kind of museum display technologies.

Element is your most ambitious game, but it’s not your first. How did it come about?

Element started as a small game about two years ago after we did our first game Bee Leader, which was relatively successful for us. We thought, ‘Ok, we’ll do a suite of smaller games,’ but it quickly turned into something that was much bigger. We were playing with augmented reality about 2.5 years ago during another project we were doing for Auckland Museum and through that process I started to get into 3D modelling a little bit more – I’m traditionally just in graphic design and 2D-based stuff. I started messing around with faux-poly world structures, and the game sort of came off the top of that. We thought ‘Hey, how cool would it be to have this 3D globe spinning in front of you, on top of your phone, and then how could we augment that?’ So I did some prototypes in terms of look and feel. We’re a design company essentially so everything we do game-wise generally has a design aesthetic to it rather than a traditional game aesthetic. It’s been a slow burn, we started Element two years ago, and ideally it would have been out a year ago, but it just came out of a ‘look’. We thought we could make a game that blended that info-graphic look with something a little more realistic.

The thing that struck me is the instantly recognisable crossover between the 3D printing you’ve done with these other projects and Element, it’s almost genre bending.

Generally most of the stuff we do on our client service side is museum interaction design and large scale installations, and what we find successful in that space is bringing some kind of physicality to the digital, so blurring the line between using a screen and something physical to input on that screen. It kind of opens up another avenue for people that are a little bit fearful of the screen, it lowers the barrier of entry to people. We did an augmented reality project where we used blocks to navigate this seaweed structure for Auckland Museum, and because we used a mounted iPad as a microscope we had people from seven-year-olds to 80-year-olds in wheelchairs using it without thinking about a screen as such, which was really nice. 

There are a whole stack of designers out there, but not necessarily that many working with augmented reality. Are you of the opinion that augmented reality and virtual reality are the next big thing? Is that the way we’re heading in both gaming and day-to-day life?

I think so. I think gaming and the gaming industry generally tends to be at the forefront of research and development. Gaming quite often leads the way for ICT technology, which kind of trundles along behind. We’ve always prided ourselves on being on that leading edge of tech and communications technology so we felt that being in the game space actually allows us to R&D way more than we could previously. When the app store launched we thought ‘Hey, we’ve been waiting years for someone to solve this distribution problem’, that is, being able to sell the stuff we do direct to consumers, so we jumped on that quite early on.

How did the decision to go multi-platform effect the game design?

Well it’s not a coincidence that there are five buttons down the left-hand side that snugly fit into an iPhone 5 resolution. The user interface actually all works on touch. And in fact, on touch and on iOS, it’s a great experience because you’ve got that natural pinch and zoom, and you can touch some of those buttons rather than having to use a mouse or keyboard. Ironically, we got a little bit of interest early on from Microsoft and Xbox One, so we had that process of ‘Oh ok, we’ve got to make it work for controller now’, and we were really shit scared about that because RTS games on controller are notoriously terrible, but in fact it’s our preferred input now. There’s something about the analog sticks being able to roll the planet around and the controller shortcuts for deploying stuff quickly – it’s become our preferred method of input.

Element gets seriously hard quite quickly. How difficult was it to find a sweet spot between ?

The game is still in early access which really truncates that ramp up in difficulty. The full feature game will have a lot more solar systems and the progression will be a little bit slower. People will be introduced to features of the game planet-by-planet rather than at the moment where we’re kind of throwing people in the deep end and the difficulty ramps up pretty quickly. The idea is to have two or three solar systems with a number of planets that we ease people in to. Part of the feedback we’re having at the moment is that the tutorial is a little too ‘on rails’ for people, but that tutorial is just a placeholder to bridge the gap between having one solar system and, in the future, having a few different ones. So we’re still working on that game balance and, if anything, a slower ramp in difficulty allows us to flesh out more systems and more features.

But the game is complex only because it asks a lot of the player, not because it’s ungainly or hard to work with. There’s a real interesting crossover there between the simplicity/minimalist approach of the game yet still having some real difficulty.

We’re still trying to bridge that gap between a completely wide-open, easy to get in-and-out game and something that’s got a little bit of teeth for people that do like the challenge of real-time strategy games, so we’re trying to lie somewhere in the middle there. It’s quite a hands-on game where you need to be able to rotate the planet and you have to eye ball what’s going on so we run that line between is it a simulation or is it an infographics piece. We want the models on the planet to be representational of your health and all the inconography and the models tells you about what their function is but also the height stack in the middle is showing you the health of the model so we’re trying to make something that visually holds up as a beautiful thing but also is quite informational.

Is that easier because of your background in graphic design, conveying information through different mediums without spelling it out for people.

I’m not sure if it’s necessarily easier. I think we think about games in a slightly different way than a traditional game developer. We come from a de-cluttering, less-is-more approach, so there’s not a heavy amount of leaning on effects and things like that, it’s all visual structures and good imaging, having nice simple models to understand and that kind of beauty layer. As a result we also found early on, once we had the prototype working, that it’s a really good watch – it’s really nice to watch someone play over their shoulder.

I was imagining playing the game on a Microsoft surface or an interactive tabletop of some sort.

It’s interesting you say that. We did a project for Auckland Museum using a table made out of three 48’’ touch screens, and then we ran the game on that and it looked fantastic. So we’re thinking about larger format. We were lucky enough to get shoulder tapped at PAX Australia by a Sony rep who sent us some development kits, so given some success we’re going to be able to do something in virtual reality, something a bit more grandiose, but at the moment we’re kind of just trying to make this as successful as we can to fund more of it.

Is there a benefit to being a small indie company in NZ? I imagine there are significant disadvantages to being at the arse end of the world, but are there advantages too?

It’s hard to get seen. But it’s not just a New Zealand problem, the visibility thing. I think the quality of the games coming out of New Zealand is on a par with anywhere, there’s a lot of great stuff coming out of here, it’s just getting that visibility and getting on the App Store lists, I think it’s a problem everywhere. But I think more and more it doesn’t matter where you work, especially for us, we’re in Mt Maunganui for God’s sake. We deliberately moved here to focus on games. We were in Wellington when we had our bigger design studio and we almost had to escape, just take a year off to focus on games and get away from clients for a year. We make sure we get across to DC and San Fran every year, and there’s an NZ games developer meetup which is great, but you don’t get a lot of visibility. You don’t get a lot of Government support aside from Callaghan Innovation and things like that, but I don’t see it as a huge disadvantage. You do need to spend more time and resource on getting your name out there and travelling to various events.

Callaghan Innovation is a name I’ve heard before across several different industries. Is it essential to have infrastructure like that in place?

I don’t think it’s essential. We’ve never actually had any government assistance for the stuff that we do and to be honest we haven’t really needed it. We try to fund our game development, our own products, based on our service work. So we do half a dozen projects a year service-wise, and for the remainder of the year we work on our own products. But it is interesting, the NZ games industry is doing better and better, but we fall outside that Creative NZ thing because we’re a highly technical industry, but we fall outside ICT as well because we’re also a highly creative industry. There almost needs to be a new category for games when the government thinks about kickstarting or funding or giving a little bit of a boost to the industry.

What would benefit the industry the most?

It’s an interesting one because traditionally with that start-up industry, a lot of the government funding is based on accelerating growth and staff and getting people jobs. For what we do, we can be extremely successful without having to have a team of 50 people, we can be light and small and distribution is not a problem for us. It’s generally just getting out, and the visibility. So cash grants for going to events and promoting yourself is probably, and I’m only speaking from my own personal point of view, but for us that is what we would need. It’d be really nice to be funded to go somewhere, to go to a number of events a year to get our name out there. If we knew we had funding to go to three or four conferences a year that’d be really handy.

Providing this goes to plan, what is the next step? 

We really want Element to go as deep as it can. For us, a multiplayer version is just screaming out. That would be the ideal, but that’s quite a huge chunk of time and effort to do that with this game. If it funded that, we’d love that, but in terms of the next thing, the way we get seen is by doing something different and unique and hoping that there’s a small amount or a niche amount of people out there that really like that. Because we’re only two people and because we’ve got relatively low overheads, we don’t have to be hugely successful to keep going. I really like the place we’re in now where we’re bringing a graphic design approach to gaming. I think gaming needs that. 

Because you don’t work on a game for this long without making the sort of game you want to play. We wanted to make a space RTS that we could play and would have time to play. We don’t have a lot of time to game these days. I don’t know who does, but apparently some people do. So we wanted that kind of Starcraft, sci-fi feel in an RTS, but one I could pick up and put down, and possible play through in 12 hours or whatever it’s going to be.

It’s the game that we wanted to make, the way we wanted it to look.


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