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Exclusive Interviews

Russ Pitts Expands On The New Escapist and the Joy In “Making Things”



The Escapist was dead. Much of the site’s former glory, from its idiosyncratic content creators to its lively forums, was dormant. Outside of a few Zero Punctuation videos, the site did not pull the same traffic and admiration it used to. For an outlet that once stood at the forefront of independent game journalism, the mid-2010s saw the site hit its lowest ebb. GamerGate and its far-right ilk had damaged the forums, and the site seemed to be living on borrowed time. Until last month, that remained true. Thankfully, things can change. Suddenly, in an impassioned Medium post, former Escapist editor Russ Pitts declared that the site, under his and Enthusiast Gaming’s care, would start anew by focusing on what really bound gamers together in the first place: games.

To say the response was mixed would be an understatement. Immediately following Pitts’s statement, a false narrative snowballed: The Escapist would be apolitical. “Someone paraphrased my post using that term, and others picked it up without reading the source material,” Pitts explained. “Par for the course, really.”

In the Medium post, the exact phrasing Pitts used was “leave politics at the door.” Why, then, did the social media crowd believe this comment related to apoliticalism? Pitts’s theory regarding the wider media’s reaction is as follows:

“There’s been a lot of insincere discourse in games. People say one thing and mean another. Or engage in what appears to be reasoned debate in an effort to simply annoy you, or make you look bad. That’s where people are coming from. Having waged this war on ‘reasonable people’ or ‘nice guys’ who only want to destroy because they’re bored or have a grudge. It’s frustrating, but it’s where we are. So I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable people might read what I wrote and wonder if I really meant it. Spoiler: I did.”

Despite a rocky start, Pitts’s attitude remained positive. “People are definitely interested in the brand. I think that’s ultimately a good thing.” So far, speaking solely in terms of recruitment, Pitts exclaims, “It’s going well!” Pitts has already recruited former Escapist resident Bob Chipman and retained the services of Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw of Zero Punctuation fame. With Pitts’s contacts, as well as an open contributor system in place, The Escapist has its foundation to flourish.

One of the first major tasks for him is to maintain The Escapist’s infamous community. Whilst the forums and community rules “will be changing,” Pitts invited “as many of them as will have us” to return. Pitts clearly has a lot of admiration and respect left for the community, concluding that they are “a big reason for [the site’s] continued relevance.”

Throughout the short interview, Pitts kept returning to the phrase “[allowing the] work itself answer those questions.” The new Editor-in-Chief has clearly had enough with idly talking; he wants to get to work. Pitts is steadfast in ensuring the site does not regress to the mistakes of old. Concerns have spread about the site becoming another hot-bed for extremism, which flies in the face of everything Pitts believes in, both as a person and as an editor. “There’s a school of thought where if you’re not openly against a thing, then you must be for it,” Pitts explained. “So if I say ‘we’re going to leave politics at the door’ but don’t also say ‘screw the alt-right,’ then, according to this school of thought, I must be OK with the alt-right.”

“Obviously, that’s incorrect.”

Whilst the downfall of the The Escapist unfolded, Pitts was no longer part of the site. Pitts’s post-Escapist years were fruitful. Alongside his feature editor role at Polygon, Pitts started mental health charity Take This with his wife, Susan Arendt, before spending time “making movies.”

Despite his work ethic, Pitts, according to his Medium post, had not written anything for the past three years. A return to gaming—at least gaming journalism—did not seem likely for him at the time, never mind returning to a site he left seven years ago. “I never imagined I’d be back here,” he confessed. “I figured I’d eventually come back to writing, but not about games. I’ve been happy making films. It ticks all the creative boxes for me.” His return was not pre-meditated or planned either, with the opportunity literally “dropping into [his] lap.”

“This isn’t something I was sitting around trying to finagle a way back into. […] In some ways it feels like a step backward. Like, from a purely career evolution move, I’m EiC of a gaming website again. I’ve done that. Why do it again? But then again, joining Polygon as ‘merely’ a feature editor after being an EiC was also a step back in that same way, although I feel it was a good move.” Despite holding the same job title, The Escapist is very much a different beast than when Pitts was at the helm. In many ways, his job now is both journalism and restoration.

When asked what he finds enjoyable these days, Pitts merely answers “making things.” One thing is for certain: with The Escapist, Pitts will be happy. As it always has, the site will remain as a pillar in gaming journalism, churning out and creating its own style of content. If the site can mirror the creativity of old, it will surely have one happy Editor at the helm.

More details about the editorial staff and new vision of The Escapist are available here.

Be sure to check out Damien Lawardorn’s meditation on politics in games and follow OnlySP on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Exclusive Interviews

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



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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