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From Steam to Self: Tether Director Reflects on the Issues Facing Indie Development

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Tether

A recurring—but often overlooked—refrain among game developers on their social media channels and personal blogs is that development is hard. The products that millions of gamers enjoy every day come with the sacrifice of blood, sweat, and tears, yet those tales of trial and tribulation are oft untold.

For Mark Gregory, creative director on the indefinitely postponed sci-fi narrative adventure Tether, those difficulties were even greater than many creators face. Not only was his team, Freesphere Entertainment, pouring its own money into the project, most members, including Gregory himself, were working on it in their spare time alongside full-time employment.

Indeed, the director says that he was often working on the game for up to five hours in his evenings, and the process was made more intense by the complexity of the game. Given Tether’s time manipulation mechanics and high level of environmental interactivity, Gregory felt beholden to “come up with scenarios where players are able to use all of these skills,” which was exceedingly demanding.

He burned out during development—twice.

He also says that between the heavy workload and his increasingly hands-off role, he lost sight of his passion. He says that he was determined to put the needs of his team and the project ahead of his own.

Now that Tether has been set aside and the team is engaged in work of a very different kind, Gregory says that he will be turning his hand towards smaller projects that will enable him to be involved directly in production. Although he offers no hints as the direction of those projects, he says that the lengthy development period of Tether brought with it an awareness of how to build games more effectively, and he provides salient advice to first-time developers: “understand your workflow and think small; more grandiose projects can come later. Get something to market.”

Early during Tether’s production, Freesphere was creating levels and environments to near-final quality, but Gregory says that this model was unsustainable, especially without external funding support. The team has since streamlined its process, preparing more in the greybox phase because “if it plays well in greybox, then once 2D and 3D art and sound are implemented, this only enhances the experience.”

However, an uncertain developmental approach and lack of funding were not the only issues faced during the torturous development of Tether. Other problems emerged from trends within the industry. For example, Freesphere took the game to Steam Greenlight in October 2016, and says that that program, as beneficial as it was for raising the exposure of Tether, was the beginning of a decline in the quality of games on Steam, which has contributed to the erosion of general consumer trust in the indie endeavour.

During the Greenlight period, groups were contacting the studio asking for payment in exchange for approvals, but Gregory refutes the suggestion that he accepted any such offers.

By outsourcing the assessment process—first to users via Greenlight and now to algorithms via Direct—Steam has given up its once-vaunted position as a bastion of quality. GOG.com and Humble Bundle have since usurped its position as they continue to vet the games they allow onto their storefronts, and Gregory is one of the users who considers those platforms to be more curated.

However, Valve has done even more unintentional damage to the prospects of indie projects by the much publicised decision to revoke public access to the data used to power SteamSpy and its ilk.

The site may not have been entirely accurate in its estimates, but it gave developers insight into the popularity of the types of games they are trying to attract funding for. The lack of accuracy and hard data means that indie developers are now more likely than ever to struggle to make a case for their projects to investors and other parties. Furthermore, although sources such as GFK Chart-Track and NPD provide estimates for games sold, they exclude certain data points, making them unreliable.

Without SteamSpy or a similarly trustworthy estimate, says Gregory, indie developers are unable to provide prospective investors with even approximations of a possible return. “We might be able to say this game sold between 500,000 and 1,000,000 copies, but that’s a gap that could be worth millions of pounds.”

In this fraught environment, even the most seasoned of developers are almost destined to struggle. The issues facing survival in the modern industry are legion, having given rise to trends often called ‘anti-consumer,’ such as microtransactions and day-one DLC. For a debut, self-funded team, these problems are compounded, and perhaps the ambition powering Tether meant that it was destined not to arrive at the present time.

Nonetheless, the videos and images available show the talent of the Freesphere team, so, although it has now shifted its focus, it is sure to return at some point with a new project to enrapture.

More details about team are available on its official website, while any further announcements about Tether and future projects will be available via Gregory’s and the studio’s Twitter feeds.

Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

Exclusive Interviews

The Occupation Designer Reveals Game Length, Talks Design, Inspiration, and More

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The Occupation promo

After a protracted development period, fixed-time thriller The Occupation is set to release in one month’s time. Between its retro aesthetic and immersive sim-inspired gameplay, the game is shaping up as one of 2019’s most unique titles.

In light of that, OnlySP recently spoke to Pete Bottomley, designer of The Occupation and co-founder of developer White Paper Games to find out more about the promising project.

OnlySP: I thought I’d start off with a fairly obvious question. Given the real-time nature of The Occupation, how long can players expect a single run through to last, and by how much can that time be shortened or prolonged by the player’s actions?

Bottomley: The core gameplay is designed around 4 hours of play. There are some sections that are untimed, whether it be for narrative impact or tutorialisation for the player. As we’re playing through the game as a team, it’s taking us around 6.5 hours to play through the game.

The Occupation

OnlySP: How many endings does the game have?

Bottomley: The game’s outcome is a reflection of the steps the player took through the game. I think when playing games, you always want the outcomes to reflect your approach and we’re massively inspired by how games such as Dishonored can tackle that. Our hope is that the ending you experience feels like it reflects their approach and actions.

OnlySP: Tied to that, approximately how many playthroughs would be required to see everything that the game has to offer?

Bottomley: Our intention wasn’t to design a game that required multiple playthroughs. I’m personally the type of player that plays through a narrative, gets an outcome, and that’s my story. That being said, we’ve tried to fill the world with a lot of content, and because of the real-time character simulating actions, hopefully with second and third playthroughs, players will uncover different ways to solve challenges or narrative threads they hadn’t picked up on before.

OnlySP: How did you come to settle on the politicised premise of an Act robbing citizens of civil liberties?

Bottomley: Since we invest so much of our lives into making games, you have to work on something you feel is meaningful and rewarding of your time. At the time of concepting The Occupation, there was a lot of friction between what was happening in the UK and abroad. It affects us all and we wanted to work on something that may put people’s views into perspective.

Our previous game Ether One dealt with the difficulties of seeing a family member suffering with dementia and our aim is to continue these important themes throughout all of our games.

The Occupation screenshot 3

OnlySP: Also, issues surrounding privacy and freedom of speech, among other civil liberties, are pertinent right now. How close to your mind were the modern concerns about the topic while you were concepting the game? And have real-world events impacted the story of The Occupation across the development period?

Bottomley: The world around us always inspires us, but we don’t really rely on specific events to drive any part of the game’s narrative. When you’re developing a game that tries to get its own narrative across but ground it in the real world, you have to try to distil them to focus on the story you’re trying to tell. In a sense, real world stories inspire us but it’s more of an observational thing rather than a particular event we want to depict faithfully. We tend to focus on the emotional and societal impact of the event itself.

OnlySP: How present will those sorts of themes be within the average player’s experience? Or should players expect to be able to lose themselves entirely in the investigation without really leaning on the context?

Bottomley: We aim to put context on all of your actions in the world otherwise there’s not much meaning behind the choices being made. That being said, you can choose to follow certain narrative threads over others, which allows the player to follow the most interesting lead they come across.

OnlySP: Players take the role of a journalist in the game; how accurate would you say your portrayal is of the technologies and general aesthetic of late ‘80s Britain? How much research went into getting the language and atmosphere of the era right?

Bottomley: It’s interesting you raise that point as we’ve just been speaking about the world limitations in this game. In our previous game, Ether One, we aimed to deliver a grounded narrative that had certain sci-fi elements. With The Occupation, we wanted to go even more grounded and aim to deliver a world that belongs in the ’80s so any aesthetic and technological choices were always taken into consideration. Surrounding yourself with these limitations can create really cool gameplay mechanics such as our pager as a message delivery system, public payphones to update your objectives, and fax machines to deliver information.

The Occupation screenshot 2

OnlySP: The game has been delayed twice now, both times quite close to the scheduled release. Is there any chance you could shed some light on the causes of the delays?

Bottomley: Delaying a game is a gut wrenching decision. You’ve put a promise out there and you push yourself to deliver. We’ve aimed incredibly high on this game both technologically and in the game’s design. On top of this, we wanted to deliver the game in as many languages as we could along with sim-shipping on PC, XB1, & PS4 and doing a retail disc submission so that people could pick up the game in stores if they wanted to hold a physical representation of the game. Because of these platforms, the game has to be ready a couple of months in advance to help distribution and all the different regions to have the version of the game you intend for them. With complexity always come more bugs and since our last game shipped in a buggy state, we didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. We’ve QA’d the game for months and had support from our publishers in helping to identify the issues. As with any game, we’ll no doubt spot some issues on launch, but we’ve already put processes in place to address these as quickly as we can and hopefully the execution of the game will immerse people and keep players engaged so that nothing disrupts the experience.

OnlySP: I recall on Twitter that you once wrote that you were testing the possibility of a Switch port. How seriously have you looked at that possibility and what’s the likelihood?

Bottomley: Right now we have a Switch development kit frustratingly gathering dust in our studio. Since we’re a small team, it can be a tough choice trying to figure out where to best use your resources. We’d absolutely love to get the game onto Switch but we’ve not tested a build yet. It’s the first thing we’ll be moving onto in March so we should be able to update people as soon as we know how The Occupation runs on it. Thankfully using Unreal Engine makes this process a lot more straightforward and we’ve seen a lot of developer friends find success on the Switch so it’s a great opportunity to reach a larger audience.

OnlySP: How does it feel for you and the team to be just about ready to wrap development after four years of work?

Bottomley: It’s not quite set in yet. Although we’re done with the game and excited to see the reception it gets from people, it’s really only 50% of the work, especially when you’re in a small team. We’re currently planning all the marketing and PR opportunities along with reflecting on the development cycle and figuring out what we can do better (to hopefully not spend another 4 years on a game!).

The Occupation screenshot 1

OnlySP: Finally, do you have any closing comments for our readers or anything else you’d like to say about The Occupation?

Bottomley: The whole team has put an incredible amount of energy into The Occupation. If you look at our previous game compared to The Occupation, you can see how far we’ve come. It’s been a huge learning curve for the studio both technically and in production and we’re excited to move onto another game to push ourselves. We’re unable to do that without game sales. It sounds corny, but we really can’t develop games without our community’s support. We value each purchase and we want to grow and keep pushing to create more interesting games. We have a lot of goals and drive and we’re focusing on growing and creating more experiences for the player. If you’re reading this and have purchased any of our games, thank you. It absolutely means the world to be able to wake up in the morning and be excited to develop games. Thank you.


The Occupation is set to release on March 5, 2019 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

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