We all love worlds to get lost in. Whether they’re lore-rich fantasies, unexplored galaxies, or hyper-authentic depictions of real-life, nothing quite sates the gaming public like a vibrant, well-realised setting. From the dripping art-deco halls of Bioshock’s Rapture, to Persona 4’s countryside town of Inaba, to Rockstar’s technical wizardry in GTA IV and V, a game’s ambience can be defined by its environments, making the player feel at home – or far from it. A lot of games make promises about living, breathing worlds which twist and change dynamically in response to the player. Some never quite hit the mark, but when boundaries are pushed and innovations are made there’ll always be hits and misses, and for every broken Peter Molyneux promise, an acorn grows into a beautiful oak tree – only with more guns, dragons, and Troy Baker (because he’ll probably be involved at some point).
With Pine, Dutch game studio Twirlbound are looking to deliver such a hit. By using “neural network AI technologies”, fighting-game-style pattern recognition, and inspirations from real Darwinian theory, they hope to build a world that really evolves around you.
A young designer graduating from the NHTV University of Applied Sciences, Matthijs van de Laar is creative director at Twirlbound. Brimming with ideas, energy and enthusiasm, Pine is his, and Twirlbound’s, PC debut.
“I’m a designer, and I needed some people who can make my ideas come true,” van de Laar says of the Twirlbound team. “That’s what every designer needs, right? I’m pretty young myself, 21, and we’re all in school. A couple of years ago we started profiling to make some more professional products. We worked on a game for about two years, a puzzle game for iOS – we got featured in the app store, it was a great ride and we learnt a lot, but there was always this necessity to do something bigger.
“So as we came to the graduation phase of our four year course, we decided to do something larger, but also experimental with room for research – that’s were Pine came in.
“We got a couple more people, some more artists, and now we’re a team of five.”
The rest of that five-strong team is made up of fellow NHTV alumni: artists Pascal Vis and Timo van Hugten, animator Lukas Stolp, and programmer Marc Peyré. Formed in 1987 as a merger between two higher educational institutions in Breda, Netherlands, NHTV is a vocational school which offers a variety of degrees in tourism and logistics as well as games. Courses focus on the practical applications of skills, so for the Twirlbound team, indie development is a natural progression.
“I study International Game Architecture and Design,” says van de Laar. “It’s all focused on making games as the end product.
“In the Netherlands I think we have over 400 small studios, and a lot of them come from the students starting companies you know from their graduation.”
During their time at university, van de Laar, van Hugten and Peyré worked together on a previous commercial project, iOS puzzler With The Wind, which was featured in the ‘best new games’ section of the App Store. But as their team has grown, so has their ambition, and with Pine they’re looking to make the leap to PC and 3rd-person action by adding some impressive behind-the-scenes tech.
“The elevator pitch is that it evolves and I think it’s as simple as that,” van de Laar explains. “A lot of games have played with that in the past like for example Spore, which has disappointed a lot of people and we’re getting to that point where we’re having to manage expectations a little bit.
“The thing about Pine is that it’s a game like any other, I would say, so like a fun third person action-adventure game but it has this additional layer to it – so instead of it being completely based on evolution and the neural network systems that we use, it’s more of an augmentation.
“The game itself is a very designed experience but it gets augmented and expanded using evolution as a theory and as a system.”
These thoughts were formed reading Charles Darwin’s original theory of evolution by natural selection, which is based on the idea that better adapted species are more likely to survive in a given environment. Those small advantages can then be passed down to offspring, and over time, those characteristics can become more pronounced.
“I’ve always been interested in evolution as a subject,” says van de Laar. “I’ve sometimes thought that if I wasn’t doing games I would do something in that direction. I think it’s beautiful, I have Darwin’s book like right in front of me right now.
“It’s stuff like that that really inspired us to want to make a game about this. And we saw that some fighting games used machine learning and pattern recognition to balance the game difficulty based on what the player does. We thought that this could be better, more advanced. So we had this one idea on the gameplay side and we had this idea of evolution on the other side and it fitted together.
“I was reading [Darwin’s On the Origin of Species] at the start of the high level concepting phase, it just lends itself, sometimes he describes rules that were made for games it seems.”
These concepts are at the core of Pine, which uses artificial intelligence to recognise your actions and adapt to them in the same way an arcade fighter like Street Fighter might.
“The way it works is that the enemies will have generalised moves like dodge, block, double attack etc,” van de Laar explains. “It will try to predict your patterns, and this is one of the ways in which it evolves.
“One of the things that’s so interesting is that players have patterns, for example you will roll and then slash, slash. So these enemies will evolve around that – they’ll try to predict what they’ve got to do. So after a couple of times they will know that after you roll you are going to slash so they will start to dodge. So that’s one side, this is what we call ‘the mind’.”
“The second side is ‘the body’. So all the enemies have stats , like speed, and this is where the survival of the fittest comes in, because they will do anything to survive. Sometimes they will do a speed stat increase because they need to be fast and sometimes they will do special attacks based on how the player plays. So if you play very defensively, it will probably get a bigger attack stat.”
“To sum that up there’s two parts: the body and the mind. The body controls the stats so faster, stronger, more health and the mind is the neural network system which will try to predict the patterns that the player does.
He continues: “It’s a global, macro thing where everything evolves rather than one species, because evolution is very slow, you won’t see it in one man’s lifetime so that’s why we did it like this.”
Twirlbound know that it’ll be difficult to successfully implement these systems, so they’re adopting a model of constant testing and iteration to produce the best end results.
“We won’t go on to the next stage of developing something if we haven’t seen everything about it work,” says van de Laar. “We’re also putting out these really small demos that we can ask some questions about, and based on that we know if a particular mechanic works – if it doesn’t we just keep on doing that.
“Once you have that basic testing set out, you can expand and expand and expand and the system still works – that’s how it’s set up at this point. That’s how on the one hand we can do this without a large team, but on the other hand we’re always testing with demos to see if it works. We always need to know when something works, and I think a lot of studios forget that these days. They get too deep into development and only test once in six months, then they find that their mechanics don’t work, but because we test really small demos we know when our mechanics work.”
He continues: “We are very lucky that we built this online system where we expected about a hundred testers , but without doing anything and without spending any money it just expanded over reddit and NeoGAF and now we have about 2500 testers. That’s really cool.”
Pine is more than a technical show-piece however. The Twirlbound team are hoping to flesh out the world with a deeper storyline, as well as fun and satisfying core gameplay.
“We definitely want to have a story and there’s research to back this up that games are more memorable with a story,” van de Laar says. “Obviously the evolution shouldn’t just go one way because that wouldn’t make sense, so we want to make sure that your actions do have reactions. There is a definitely a story there and we’re still trying to finish it up. It’s basically that in this world human beings are an endangered species, and human beings never landed on top of the food chain, so as a species you’ve got to try and evolve yourself and your small tribe and make sure that your species can thrive.
“What I see a lot online is that people see the GIF and think it’s a new survival game, because it’s about survival of the fittest, but it’s not just about finding resources and that you have to sleep and that you have a hunger bar, we wanted to make it a narrative experience as well.
“We want some sort of resource thing in there, but also because what’s interesting about species evolving is the resources that you need to survive. So if you look at giraffes the long neck comes from having to reach resources in high places, right? And we’d love to explore that, so if you have a field full of bushes which one species forages from, but you light those bushes on fire, that species can’t access that food anymore. So perhaps that causes those species to go somewhere else to find food or perhaps it’s an omnivore so it can also eat other species. But we want these actions to have a a purpose and a goal rather than something that repeats over and over again.”
To introduce these more structured elements to Pine, Twirlbound are hand-crafting certain aspects of the game’s world.
“We don’t use procedural generation in the common sense of the word, it’s not that we’re generating new levels,” van de Laar clarifies. “We plan on designing the world from start to finish but how it’s filled in can be procedural. The enemies are going to be procedural and the system behind it is very procedural, but we’re designing the basic structure.
“It can’t be overwhelming, we won’t have everything coming at you at once because that would get very tiring, so the way we want to design it as that the world seems to get bigger and bigger as you go so gradually you have to use more things but it’s not all coming at you at once from the start.
“Based on how generalised the system is we’re aiming for about ten hours of content, because with some games it takes two years to do the mechanics and the introductions but with the system we’re using once everything is set up it is quite easy to expand it.”
Open-world is everywhere right now, so Twirlbound and van de Laar have a mountain to climb to set Pine out from the crowd. But, they have an interesting premise, some headline-grabbing tech, and a dedicated young team behind the scenes – a recipe which, with some more development time to sand off the rough edges, could produce a winner.
The Occupation Designer Reveals Game Length, Talks Design, Inspiration, and More
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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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