Formed with the simple, but ambitious goal of bringing AAA quality to mobile platforms, Australian developer Uppercut Games was founded by Ed Orman, Andrew James and Ryan Lancaster. With 38 years combined experience working on titles such as Fallout: Tactics, Freedom Force and Tribes: Vengeance, as well as the original Bioshock and Bioshock 2, the small team remain committed to the philosophy they set out in 2011 when the studio first opened its doors.
Lots of indie companies set up by industry veterans are formed out of necessity, following layoffs at larger studios as they wind down naturally after a big release. But this isn’t the case with Uppercut. The founding members took stock of their career and decided to make a change.
“Myself, Andrew and Ryan met working at Irrational Games and 2K games,” says Ed Orman, designer and co-founder at Uppercut Games. He continues: “About the time that [iOS action-RPG] Infinity Blade came out on the iPad, was when we realised that the engine, Unreal, was mature enough to make cool things on mobile. So we quit our stable, secure-ish jobs at the large company and started our own small studio to make mobile games.”
The starting roster of three has expanded twice since 2011, doubling in size with the arrivals of John Travers, Taamati Te Rata and Evan Zachariadis in 2012, before completing the set with Ben Driehuis in 2014.
“We’ve got various people from various disciplines and various backgrounds,” Orman says. “We’re a small team, with seven full time employees. Most of us are here in the office here in Canberra, one guy is in Adelaide, which is way down south, he works remotely.
“We’re comprised of veterans from a couple of different studios, [the founders are] from 2K and Irrational, Taamati, the artist, used to work at Creative Assembly. Ben Driehuis, who’s the guy in Adelaide, worked at 2K, as well as working for Overbite. And Evan, who’s one our programmers worked at Big World in Sydney, who ended up getting bought up by War Gaming for World of Tanks.”
Smaller scale game development has its up sides, affording greater freedom than the big publishers. “Agility,” says Andrew James, another co-founder and director at Uppercut. “Mistakes cost less. When you do decide to change your mind, you haven’t had a 200-person team working on it. We quite literally said, ‘Let’s not make this game, let’s make another one.’
“A small team has its drawbacks, you can’t get a lot of things done, but everyone’s really invested in the project, everyone has ownership over a large chunk of the game,” he goes on to say. “With a small studio, unless you have a war chest of money, we don’t, you’re basically working project to project. Other than Ben, who’s in Adelaide, we all sit in one room. That’s what keeps things cohesive. We’re just constantly in each other’s faces, it’s hard for anybody to wander off in a bad direction.”
“We could communicate the idea to everybody very rapidly too,” Orman adds. “In comparison with where things were at 2K, when I left, we had massive drawn out approval processes for every feature that went into the game. When you’re that large, I guess you need a bit more vetting of an idea before you commit a shedload of money to it, because it’s going to affect a lot of different people. When there’s only a small number of us, we can get the idea out faster.”
Submerged is Uppercut’s next game and its first to come to consoles and PC, as well as mobile platforms. This represents a departure from Uppercut Games’ best received previous titles, Epoch and Epoch 2, which were 3rd person action games exclusive to iOS and Android. Submerged is about exploring a sunken city, revealing the secrets of the past, while solving the puzzles of the present. The pace at which the original IP has progressed is an accomplishment that could only have been achieved by a flexible indie studio. “We pivoted really quickly into Submerged,” says Orman.
He continues: “We were prototyping and pre-visualising a bunch of different games at the beginning of this year , and then we just fell in love with Submerged as an idea. Being a small team, we could just put all systems onto that.”
“We just stopped for a week, did some prototyping and created a small space that you could zoom around on, with some buildings and a boat, and it looked pretty cool,” James says.
With the high profile GTA V controversy and strict content classification system in Australia, one could be forgiven for thinking that the games industry is stifled by bureaucracy. However, in the indie scene at least, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
“We’re going through a bit of a renaissance at the moment,” says James. “The game’s being co-funded by a grant we got from Screen Australia, which is a government body that usually does film funding, but for about 12 months there was a games fund that existed here in Australia and we were lucky enough to get one of the grants from that programme.”
Orman continues: “The industry here takes a lickin’ but keeps on tickin’. We were quite sheltered when we were at 2K from a lot of closures and things like that. Like Andrew said, there’s a bit of a renaissance of indie studios coming to the fore. We don’t have a lot of large studios any more, but there’s a lot of indies doing some award winning stuff. If you look at Apple’s Best of 2014, there’s a lot of Australian game developers in there. It’s flourishing. Canberra’s industry is pretty small, but we’ve had the benefit of being able to go to things like PAX AUS in October and catch up with a lot of people from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. The Melbourne scene’s enormous right now, in terms of indies.”
Part two dives into Uppercut Games’ latest project, Submerged, which is an open-world exploration adventure set in a mysterious sunken city.