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Interview: Uppercut Games on the journey from BioShock to City Of Brass

Big Daddies

With the announcement of City Of Brass [official site] today, I was intrigued to learn what this group of Irrational veterans - key players on so many well-loved games like SWAT 4, Tribes: Vengeance, Freedom Force and of course, BioShock - had planned for their first-person Arabian Nights-themed roguelite. I got in touch with team lead Ed Orman to find out more about how Uppercut Games formed, and how their experience on so many big games plays a part in creating something quite so different.

Following on from 2015's Submerged, City Of Brass is a very different game. A first-person, whip-n-sword action game, designed to kill you as often as it possibly can. While it's only been announced this afternoon, it's intended to release in just a few months. So quickly, to the interviewmobile!

RPS: I know most of the team at Uppercut worked on BioShock, but you were also key developers behind games like Freedom Force 2 and Swat 4. Could you tell us a bit more about your development background?

Ed Orman: There’s six full-time people at Uppercut, and we all got our start making PC games. Between us we have something like 90 years of experience on first person shooters, turn-based and real time RPGs, single and multiplayer games.

My first Lead Design role was on Fallout: Tactics before I joined Irrational. Andrew was an animator for years before he began work on the original Tribes: Vengeance. Ryan and John started at Irrational on Tribes, too. Ben started out on BioShock, and Evan worked at Big World (the tech behind World of Tanks).

RPS: Can you tell us a bit about how a group breaks away from a larger studio? It must be complicated to coordinate, or even just to find enough who are ready for something new that cover all the skills needed.

Ed Orman: I’d love to say that we were well coordinated! The reality is that Andrew and I just decided we had had enough of 2K and quit on the same day. Ryan left 2K not long after, but it was several months later before he joined us. That’s the three founders of Uppercut, and between us we had the Art, Production, Marketing, Design and Coding skills to make a game on our own. Crucially, we also had experience – enough to know what we were capable of making in the short time our savings allowed, and how to take advantage of the opportunities that mobile was finally offering.

That got us through our first project, EPOCH, and it taught us that we could have done better with more hands on deck. While we wanted to expand a bit, we certainly didn’t want to return to the huge teams that we’d been involved with at 2K. So we’ve been growing as carefully as we can.

RPS: Submerged was beautiful, and really touching, but in some ways it felt like a proof of concept - almost like it existed to say, "Look, here’s what Uppercut can do." Showing off weather effects, incredible lighting, and of course that bane of game development, realistic water. Were there ever plans to build it into a larger, more involved game?

Ed Orman: Submerged is one of those games that changed a lot through iteration. We did start out with plans for stealth and combat play, but the more we played, the more that those kinds of high-tension mechanics seemed out of place, and the more we wanted to just spend time relaxing, exploring and enjoying this world we were creating.

RPS: The game received some colossally stupid reviews. How did you, as a small indie team, deal with that?

Ed Orman: To call Submerged “polarizing” would be an understatement – it’s a classic love/loathe. Even before we shipped, we were getting forum comments from people who didn’t like the idea of exploration only, or even a female main character. So you learn to take criticism in your stride, and you don’t set out to make a game to please everyone. If we made any mistake with Submerged, it was not communicating what the game was effectively enough.

RPS: City Of Brass is clearly a very different sort of thing. What was the process that led you from the previous project to this one?

Ed Orman: You couldn’t get much further from Submerged than City of Brass! There’s a couple of major factors that led us in this direction. First, we’ve worked on many combat games in the past, including Tribes: Vengeance, BioShock, BioShock 2, and EPOCH. We decided that it was time to benefit from all of that experience, and try out some ideas that we never had the chance to work on before. We’ve taken particular inspiration from the potential of games like BioShock to generate combinative combat situations. For example, you can use the whip to stun an enemy before slicing them with your scimitar; or you can run, slide and push them into a trap; or bait one enemy such that in its rabid desire to kill you, it actually destroys other enemies nearby. We think City of Brass will generate a ton of cool combat moments.

Second, we wanted to try our hand at procedural generation. As a small team, we have to be really mindful of how much time we have to spend on the games we are creating. In Submerged, we hand-crafted every nook and cranny of the environment. It was a long, hard, laborious process, and when you have so much geometry to texture, it’s incredibly difficult to build at a consistently high quality. With procedural generation, we can polish modular pieces of geometry and their associated textures really carefully while still being able to generate large, unique cityscapes. That’s not to say it’s a total win-win; there’s a certain degree of trade-off of course. You may not be spending as long building geometry, but it takes a greater programming effort to create a believable city procedurally, and even longer to test it for problems. But for City of Brass, procedural generation is a core feature.

RPS: Obviously "roguelike" is a term stuck on every other game being released now. What makes City Of Brass stand out in amongst that busy space?

Ed Orman: We were surprised to hear that there’s an “official” definition of Roguelike that came out of the International Roguelike Development Conference. In light of that, we prefer the term “rogue-lite” instead, because while there are some roguelike elements in City of Brass, it’s not a classic example of that genre. We’re keen to ensure that people know the kind of game they’ll be getting!

With all of that said, there’s a ton of things in City of Brass you won’t find in every rogue-lite – the whip that can be used to grab, trip, disarm, stun or shatter as well as swing, the fluid movement and melee combat, the traps, wide variety of enemies, combinative gameplay like in BioShock. OK, the levels are procedurally generated, but the scripts that generate them are careful to make it feel like a realistic city, not a random collection of chambers, corridors and courtyards stitched together. Yes, there is perma-death and there are no saves, but you will encounter lots of new stuff as you get deeper into the game. We have friends who are shooter fans who’ve really enjoyed playing it, some of whom don’t even know what a rogue-lite is...

So for us, it’s about building a game we think pushes the boundaries of the genre that little bit further with a unique combination of systems. The game we wanted to make was intended to be procedurally generated from day one, and as all the elements came together, out popped a rogue-lite, and one we’re really proud to be making.

RPS: Looking at the early images and info, it strikes me that the whip is what will make or break the game. Can you tell us a bit about how you go about conceiving and implementing something like that?

Ed Orman: Going back to that idea of making the game stand out: that’s the challenge for every game creator, ever. So we decided early on that we would focus on systems that supported “combinative gameplay” – allowing players to combine their tools to do fun, different things. The whip gets us a long way towards that goal.

In terms of conception, all I can remember is Andrew, Ryan and myself were driving back from Sydney together (it’s a three hour trip and we do a lot of intense game dev discussion on these drives). We’d been talking about touchstones for City of Brass, the two obvious ones being The Mummy and Indiana Jones movies, and I suggested that a whip could be a stand-out feature. We talked about it for almost the entire drive, and by the end had a solid idea of what a whip could be capable of. Once we had the first version in the game, we knew we were onto something.

It’s just so versatile! While it doesn’t do damage, it lets you manipulate the world in so many different ways. In combat it’s used for disarming, tripping or stunning enemies, or dragging them into traps. For movement, it lets you swing and get to otherwise inaccessible places. It can grab loot, pick up objects, trigger traps and switches. There’s a lot to work with there, and we’re still coming up with new ideas for it.

RPS: It’s going to be crucial that the game compels players to have "just one more go". What about City Of Brass will keep us wanting to start over again after every death?

Ed Orman: There’s multiple things that we look for when we’re playing these kinds of games. Primarily, there’s a feeling of mastery that keeps you coming back. That classic curve where you start the game getting your arse kicked, but over time you learn to leap, swing, fight and loot like an action hero.

Then there’s that sense of discovery you get whenever you reach a new level, encounter a new enemy or discover some cool new combination of elements.

And at the end of the day, you want a game that’s fun to play, moment to moment. Whether you’re in it for the first or fiftieth time, whipping a ghoul in the face and then shoving them into a pit trap is always satisfying.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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