With The Room Two [official site] released on PC today, we grabbed the chance to speak to developers Fireproof about how they succeeded in a tough mobile market, and then succeeded yet again when converting those games to PC.
RPS: I think I'm right in saying you guys all worked on the best car game ever, Burnout Paradise. How did the six of you at the time make the decision to switch from smashing cars into other cars, to the calm, refined puzzling of The Room?
Barry Meade: Ha, thank you! Yep, in 2008 all six of us founders were the lead environment artists for the Burnout series. But our art group actually did a lot of heavy lifting in the game design too. We designed all the buildings & roads, the jumping & off-road gameplay, the collectibles, the yellow smashable objects etc. - anything you could drive to, on or past was handled by us and all designed ground up for gameplay first. We then built the city in 3D, testing all the gameplay as we went. So you can imagine how attached to it we all were when we left Criterion.
But when it came time to do our own game, The Room was a product of circumstance. We could only afford to hire one programmer. We could only afford to make the game for six or seven months, and even then with only two of us on it full time. The rest of us were working on lots of other games as freelancers - Killzone, Little Big Planet, Blur & more - to fund the studio. And while The Room's wooden & metal gizmos might seem a hundred miles from Burnout's streets, a building isn't so different to a fine safe or wooden cabinet. They are all inanimate objects and we'd spent years building inanimate objects. In a way making The Room, we were still mining what we were good at, even if it wasn't a racer.
RPS: So coming from PC and console, what was the thinking behind focusing on mobile, especially in 2012 when free-to-play was kicking off and people were predicting the death of paid-for apps?
Barry Meade: Firstly, in four years of freelance slog, margins were so small we'd managed to save up sod all money by 2012. So on cost alone console was out of the picture. Yet we just wanted to make a game, anyway we could. The cheapness of Unity gave us a bridge to mobile, so we looked at that. As to why we made a paid game and all that, the simplest way to say it is we're familiar with gaming on PC & Console, so we continued to make games as we had on those platforms. Our thinking was we'll have our best chance of success if we do what we're good at, what we know and what we love. It really was that simple. I remember I spoke to a single mobile publisher and that one conversation was enough to put me off the mobile mentality forever. From our perspective, how can we bring the influence of the developers we love and want to emulate into games we don't understand, or even like? Why would you, given the chance to make a game of your own, not try to be original? We didn't give it a second thought. To us, mobile was a blank piece of gaming hardware and we can make whatever we want, in whatever shape we want, as long as its entertaining.
RPS: Within that remit, why did The Room succeed, and succeed quite so dramatically, as a paid-for mobile game? Obviously it's a great game, but we all know that's often not enough in such marketplaces.
Barry Meade: All our friends who were making paid mobile games were suffering so we knew the risks going in. We had hopes and dreams for the game but not much in the way of expectations. We had no money for PR, none for advertising, no publisher, no backers - it was word of mouth success or nothing for us. That's why it was so important for us to do the best job possible. If the game failed, we had to be able to say the entire effort was worthwhile and the only way to do that is to make something you are proud of. So we didn't treat it as a side project at all, it consumed the whole company. And whatever we did right, Apple featured the game on release, but even better, awarded The Room 'iPad GOTY 2012'. That's the best advertising its possible to get this side of millions dollars ad campaigns. After that the game was carried by word of mouth - our app store ratings are amongst the highest of any title on the store. Those reviews tell us people find the game very refreshing, an oddity in a good way, not really like any other game. In a crowded market, making a strange little title helped us stand out.
RPS: The transition to PC has been a slow one. Can you explain a bit about the process the first two games have gone through to reach our bigger screens?
Barry Meade: Many reasons for that slow appearance. Time is one, budget is another, fear yet another. We couldn't just 'port' our game to PC, we had to rebuild it from the ground up. As a team of 14 people, The Room PC was going to take six to eight people full time for six months or more, with no guarantee of ever making money. Yet, ever since we started Fireproof in 2008 we wanted to make PC & console games, our natural home both as gamers and professionally. But with the Room we were always fearful that on PC we'd simply be cursed as a mobile game and ignored. Moreover because we put a lot of effort into our touch-based control system, we thought the game would be lesser without that direct tactility. Ultimately, we were completely wrong on that. Although not many people reviewed the game on release, one year on it has a rating of Overwhelmingly Positive from our players. It seems the content is what matters after all.
RPS: Will we be likely to see The Room 3 a bit more quickly on PC? It looked a much higher-def game on mobile this time out.
Barry Meade: We would really like to see it but it depends how The Room Two is received. Without PR or advertising as a crutch, we're more focused on what our players think and use them as a guide to help our decisions. If this game takes off, I think it's very likely we'll remake The Room Three for PC too.
RPS: The mythology of The Room games is a bit... unknowable. There seems to be this larger mystery taking place, but we're only getting a slight glimpse of it all. Is this going somewhere - do you have an ending in one or two The Room games time? Or will it always be this esoteric bit on the side to the core of clockwork puzzle solving?
Barry Meade: There has been some closure to the story if you piece together all three games. But yeah mythology is a great term for our game, mythology in place of an overt story. Originally, we left the story elements spartan because characters eat up budget in games and the simplicity suited the aesthetic. But that spartan sprinkling of notes and hints quickly became a strength. The Room really is a mood piece, it always has been and we've always crafted it to beguile people indirectly. The Room's story elements add to the game world ambiently much like our audio does or visuals do symbolically. By not nailing our story to the mast we can influence the game's universe from any place we want, any period of time, any style, from any world in fantasy or reality, from last century to last millennium. Moreover, the player can be anybody at all. At this stage, an explicit story about some poor berk who speaks to and kills other characters would seem almost reductive. We genuinely want the player to star in the game. In games you are always an everyman, we chose a nobody.
RPS: Dramatically changing subject, how has Omega Agent done so far? Is VR something you can see Fireproof exploring further?
Barry Meade: VR has serious potential and we hope it takes off - we're very up for doing more in it. But we made Omega Agent as an experiment, knowing it wouldn't make money for many years, but we were happy to do that because it allowed us to learn very early what VR is and how we can use it. But if we were to go back to make another VR game, we'd want to do it for real - big budget, big themes - and the VR market isn't there yet for that. So probably like most devs we hope it takes off and we'll be there when it does. But until then we have many other things we want to try.
RPS: Any plans for putting The Room into VR? It seems like a very natural fit.
Barry Meade: Good God yes, I can't tell you how much we think The Room will make a great VR game! But my previous point is your answer here - we don't want to make a Room experiment or Room 'experience'. We want to take a year off and make a full fat Room game for VR, do the best job we possibly can, go all out. Until the market improves and more people have VR devices, we can't really do it how we want to. So, we'll wait.
RPS: Thank you for your time.
The Room Two is out on PC today for £4.