We haven't spoke about Plain Sight since its Open Beta early last year. Beatnik game retreated, got back to work and are finally ready to release. As in, as we speak. To celebrate the event we thought it time to talk to Beatnik's Robin Lacey about the long road to Plain Sight's release...
RPS: It's been a year since we last talked about Plain Sight, with the Beta. It's been a year since then. What happened?
Robin Lacey: Firstly, I think it's worth pointing out that the 'beta' was really a 'pre-alpha'... I think we were a bit liberal on the use of the word 'beta' there.
After the "beta" of Plain Sight we pretty much went back to the drawing-board. We loved the style and feel of the game and the death based gameplay mechanic, however we realised that a great deal needed to be re-written. It was fun, but it wasn't as fun as it could be.
One of the biggest issues we had was the fighting mechanic. I don't know if you remember, but in the beta all you had to do was click the mouse and the robot would attack the nearest person; basically zero skill involved. This, tied in with the horrific networking issues, made the game feel very random and unfair. We hated this so we decided to scrap it.
RPS: You scrapped it and replaced it with... what?
Robin Lacey: As enjoyable movement is a big part of Plain Sight, we decided the attack mechanics should revolve around evasion and chasing enemies down with a 'locking on' system. It took a while, but we eventually realised that many of the core mechanics in Plain Sight are similar to those found in flight sims.
RPS: Interesting. Care to talk more about the locking in, chasing and evasion? What's going through people's heads as they're playing?
Robin Lacey: So, the mechanics are pretty simple. When a player is running around the level, they'll see blue crosshairs appear on whichever opponent they are looking at. When the player clicks and holds the left mouse button they'll lock on and start building up charge. Once they have enough charge to reach their target the crosshair goes red, they let go, they dash attack forward, hopefully score a hit and steal their opponents energy. The opponent on the other hand can get a lock-on warning indicator and a shield to block attacks, they can also bum stomp (mario style) or dash to get away.
All this is pretty easy on a flat surface, however when a player has 6 axes of freedom and a bunch of other stuff going on, it's quite a skill!
RPS: Was there a specific moment where you realised... no, this isn't right with the Alpha?
Robin Lacey: I think when our servers burst into flames and people started using the word "unplayable" that we realised we'd slightly oversold what we were offering. It doesn't bother us too much to be honest, we got awesome feedback and - all things considering - the internet was pretty kind to us. I guess you get what you pay for sometimes! It was a baptism of fire, but it was essential. It proved to us the concept was sound, it just needed a lot more work that we initially thought.
RPS: What else has happened in the last year?
Robin Lacey: On the tech side, a couple of the biggest things to tackle were the camera (which proved to be incredibly difficult because of fast movement and crazy gravity) and the networking (to make it 'fair' we emulated Counter Strike's smoothing/prediction system and have bundled dedicated servers with the game). Oh yeah, we also applied liberal visual and gameplay polish.
The beta also only showed off the basic deathmach mode. Since then we've added 4 more: 'Capture the flag' and 'Team Deathmatch' are both pretty self-explanatory, 'Lighten Up' is time/ territory based and then there's 'Ninja! Ninja! Botzilla!' which is a one versus many scenario.
To keep momentum within the rounds we've added robot upgrades and power-ups. Players earn experience points during the game which can be spent on upgrades which last for the round, including super shields, vacuum bombs, triple jumps and other such fun things. Power-ups drop from the sky and give you short term bonuses, such as a flame-sword and stealthy mini-ninja mode.
Anything we thought would be fun and enjoyable, we threw in. After all, it's a game about suicidal robots, there's little point in being sensible.
Finally, we added long term gameplay goals such as achievements, stats and global leaderboards. ... and we kept the price at $9.99.
In other Beatnik news, we've also been working like crazy on the Channel 4 project, Ada. As games go, this is pretty much the opposite to Plain Sight. It's a single player, beautifully lush adventure puzzler based around real science. This should be out Q4 this year.
RPS: I tend to think when thinking of game designs, many players don't actually think about stuff like network connectivity. They notice it when it goes wrong, but few times else. What's the big lessons you've learned?
Robin Lacey: As for networking, yes, it's only something you think long and hard about when it goes wrong. There's nothing worse than playing a game, losing and feeling like you've been cheated. So the tricky part is getting clients to predict what the server thinks is happening with reasonable accuracy.
Just like the camera really. You only notice a camera it when it spoils the gameplay. The best camera systems are the ones you never noticed. We spent a long time getting the camera right, which ends up being a thankless task because noone ever comments on it - it just works now. Also, players really don't like getting motion sick - surprisingly - which Plain Sight could easily do when the camera wasn't right.
RPS: Plain Sight's aesthetics really are very strong and distinctive. Care to talk about their origins? What were their influences?
Robin Lacey: When we first started Beatnik Games we didn't really have an experienced art team. They were great, but were fresh out of Uni, which isn't ideal when you're trying to come up with concept stuff. Because we were massively stretched we literally threw everything we didn't have time for in the bin. This included textures, high poly work and.. well, most things. We wanted to make something that was colourful and striking - like a pinball machine. This gave birth to one of the core concepts in Plain Sight: The better you do, the more of a target you become. The trails and other prettiness were a natural progression from that initial concept. It's strange, I dont think we'd have gone for (or had such faith in) such a striking minimalistic programmer art style if it hadn't been for Introversion ...
RPS: Care to talk more about Ada? Perhaps based around Byron's daughter and princess of parallelograms Ada Lovelace?
Robin Lacey: The C4 game isn't directly about Ada Lovelace, but it's certainly inspired by. Afraid we're having to keep a great deal of info under wraps, which is a shame as we're incredibly excited about it...
RPS: Okay - here's a harder one. Did you think it a risk to do a MP only game? Even very large games can fail to seed enough of a community to sustain... and if there's no community playing, the game is worthless. That sort of thought has got to keep you up screaming late at night, yeah?
Robin Lacey: Ha. Yeah, that’s certainly one of my many night terrors. It is pretty scary starting a multiplayer game. Frankly, we had no idea how hard it’d be when we first started. During development it began to dawn on us what a monumental task we’d undertaken. This all came to ugly crescendo as the shit hit the fan during the open beta – it was a real wake up call.
Making a multiplayer game is hard, no doubt. You have to first cater to the instant gratification of the player. With competitive multiplayer games, people expect to be entertained and be having “fun” within seconds of joining a game. They also expect to have something work towards during the round and they also expect to have long term goals to keep them coming back for me. It seems obvious, but in reality it’s an awful lot for an indie developer to do, but I think we’ve succeeded.
We initially spent all our time making the core fighting and moving mechanics fun but soon realized that wasn’t enough. To keep the momentum in the rounds we developed the upgrades and power-ups system and, to keep people coming back, we added the achievements and leader boards.
I agree, to survive multiplayer games have to have an active community. You never know how the internet is going to react, so sometimes it just feels like fate. As a developer, the best you can do is work on the game until you’re truly happy with it, price it so it’s great value and finally give your players more later on.
For us, $9.99 was always the price (even when we were going only ship with one game mode and a third of the features) and I think it’s a good level for people to easily pick up the game and keep the community and servers buzzing.
As for additional content; the way we see it version 1.0 is great starting point to build on. We have tons of stuff we’re waiting to add and, after we’ve got over the horror of the launch, we’ll be working on a Plain Sight map importer. This is something we’re really excited about. There’s some pretty neat stuff that didn’t make it into v1.0 that should keep the creative internet hive-mind amused for a while….
RPS: What about managing communities? What sort of lessons do you use to keep people nice.
Robin Lacey: We’ve never really had much of an issue with people not playing nice. If someone has a legitimate reason to be upset then you should listen to them and get it sorted out - that’s just good business practice. When we do get a troll in the forums we simply pimp out their profile with pictures of unicorns. It provides us with a cheap laugh and, amazingly, it seems to bring out the best in the troll. Trolls obviously love unicorns.
Damn, now I’ve told everyone our strategy, we’re going to have to come up with something new..
RPS: RPS also loves unicorns. Also, because it's the perpetual question du jour - piracy. What's your stance?
Robin Lacey: Amazingly, that’s the one thing I don’t lose sleep over. You simply can’t stop it. When people try, they usually end up harming the consumers. I grew up with piracy. Pretty much all my games on my Amiga 500 had warez group intros. I was young and couldn’t afford £35 for a game. I didn’t for a moment think it was wrong. Perhaps a bit naughty, but nothing sinister. Turning around 15 years later and calling some teenager on the internet a criminal is pretty hypocritical of me.
I think piracy is a market issue, not a moral one. The Internet is a behemoth of a free market; regardless of how hard you try to fight to control it, it’ll eventually price your product. If you don’t adapt to what people are willing to pay, they’ll just torrent it. We essentially deal in selling replicated data. Trying to make one copy “original” and therefore more valuable than another isn’t going to work in the long run.
With Plain Sight, I think the combination of digital distribution, accessible price point and a legitimate multiplayer experience should hopefully keep our piracy levels pretty low. Fingers crossed.
RPS: And finally, the future for Beatnik?
Robin Lacey: Aside from the C4 thing, we’ve got a couple of ideas/prototypes that we’d like to push a bit further. Next years Plain Sight for PSN is going to be accompanied by a super cheap upgrade for PC users. The game is being re-done on a new engine (XNA has been an utter pain in the arse to deal with) … there might even be a mac port - exciting times!
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Plain Sight is available from pretty much every digital download service you can imagine right now, for ten dollars. Go here and take your pick.