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Bridging Mythology and Technology in Iron Danger

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“[Iron Danger] is a story of your whole world turning upside down and a big burden put on your shoulders. With big power coming with it, of course.”

With talents from studios such as Remedy, Supercell, and Bugbear, Action Squad is a “story-driven game studio” filled with passion and a desire to bring rich narrative and compelling gameplay to players. The Finnish studio is currently working on Iron Danger, an RPG with one foot in the fantasy genre and the other in technology, drawing on mythology and modern machines alike to craft a unique world and engaging story.

OnlySP recently had the chance to speak with Heikki-Pekka Noronen, the studio’s lead programmer, about Iron Danger’s inception, inspiration, and innovation regarding story, gameplay, and world building.

When asked how Iron Danger came about in the first place, Noronen explains that “the game creation is very much both [an] iterative and incremental thing. It is actually really hard to make [a] fun game without just trying to repeat something that already exists.” Noronen and lead designer Jussi Kemppainen spent the first year or so throwing around and testing ideas centered around the core gameplay of time manipulation, which Noronen endearingly calls “our grand quest of finding the fun.” Even after that process, Noronen says “we have been very much experimental. When noticing something enjoyable in some other games, we have been thinking if something similar would fit into our game or not. Quite often we have also experimented with those ideas quickly to really find out how they would feel in [the] game.” By having such an open and flexible approach to its game making process, Action Squad makes Iron Danger a true team effort.

Noronen describes the team environment as one where “we are discussing together very actively all the time, tossing ideas and concepts. I think that one of our strengths is the small team size and that we have [an] environment where everyone’s ideas are heard.” He also adds that “this is first thing that we do together as a team. Some of us [have] worked together in [the] past while working in different companies, but not in Action Squad Studios as a same team.” For such a cooperative environment to emerge within a team not familiar with working together is a heartening sight, and much passion and experience is brought to the table from years of experience, as Noronen jokingly adds that “Yes, we are all getting old here!” Also of note is the fact “that there are many guys in the team [who] have been working lots on developing mobile games[,] and [the] opportunity to jump into [the] PC and console space is something that most of them really cherish,” showing just how enthusiastic the team is about this new endeavor.

Such an environment inevitably fosters a stronger product, and Noronen, in speaking to his own experience, explains that “first of all, I’m a long time RPGer myself and [having the] possibility to work on developing [a] great RPG is something I’ve been looking forward for a long time. Of course, the fact that we have to keep challenging ourselves all the time with doing something that has not [been] done before is also very rewarding.”

After being inspired by Divinity: Original Sin’s elemental interaction and having the idea to do something similar, Noronen admitted “I was tossing the idea around, but I didn’t really get people excited about it by just talking. So, I decided to implement it during [the] weekend and showed the draft for [the] team on Monday. Now, I think it is […] very much one of the core systems in our tactical combat. There is lots more power to be able to try out something than to just talk about it!” Even with the more limited resources of a small studio over a AAA one, these stories highlight the humanity and passion of the team in a very favorable light.

Noronen describes the team’s current situation by saying “as the game gets closer to release, one needs to put focus on scope and getting the game ready, so things have […] lately changed to [being] less experimental. I think Jussi and me are sort of gatekeepers for what […] gets in nowadays. Jussi from the design perspective and I try to be the guardian[s] of what we really have time to implement on [the] technical level.” To hear how the development of the game has progressed from idea to execution is a fascinating and eye-opening tale, and one that is further enhanced by seeing how the team decided just what kind of game it wanted to make and what genre to go in on.

With the RPG genre being such a big umbrella, Noronen was asked how Iron Danger fits into the genre, specifically the player’s role in shaping the story and world. “The story and character relations building is quite linear and more in line with the way that people have used JRPGs to move forward with story. Therefore, it is much more of playing the story than building it yourself instead of what you expect with more free[-]roaming open-world RPGs.” While this focus means players will not necessarily be making big choices every step of the way, Noronen adds “Our heroes are on [an] epic mission that can set the fate of the world[,] and some of their actions will therefore have wider effects to [the] whole [of] Iron Danger’s world and its history and therefore to [the] whole Iron Danger franchise.”

Finding the balance between ensuring the player feels like their actions have consequences and also telling the story the studio wants told is a challenge for any team, and Action Squad seems to be homing in on the characters over the story to make players feel invested, resulting in the choices they will have to make being even more personal and meaningful.

The second part of OnlySP’s interview with Heikki-Pekka Noronen, delving into the history of the game and surrounding franchise, is available now.

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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