I managed to have a discussion with Pete Bottomley Founder and Game Designer at White Paper Games - creators of the recent PlayStation 4 title Ether One. We talked about all things White Paper Games and more.
Tell us a little about the background of WhitePaperGames & how it all began.
White Paper Games was formed in 2012 by myself (Pete Bottomley) and Benjamin Hill. Shortly after formation Oliver Farrell, James Burton, Nathaniel Apostol and Dave Smith joined the team.
For myself, I was very close to joining a large studio and working on franchised titles when a developer friend of mine named Aaron Foster, was just forming his own studio Lunar Software. He got me onto the idea that I could start my own independent studio - and create a game - so I decided to do just that! I don't think our studio would exist without his advice, so I definitely have him to thank for this path!
What inspires the team as game creators, and do you guys play games at the office too?
I think inspiration comes from all around, and you are rarely inspired by one specific thing. Travelling, music, television, galleries, life; all inspire me but I think it's the culmination of everything that will always create the best ideas. I find myself coming up with most of my game ideas when I'm not actually designing - whether it be trying to sleep at night or in the shower - that's generally when the best ideas hit!
We don't actually play any video games in the studio. We sometimes load something up to use as a reference or see how a certain game did this specific mechanic, but we never play games purely for entertainment - I guess it's mostly because we have big ideas and it takes all the hours in the day to achieve them. We don't really say 'we have an hour off for lunch' it's more of an organic work environment where we just work whenever we can. For a break we generally like to get outside to a basketball court that's down the road - sometimes that can be a nice stress release when you're up against hard deadlines!
How did the concept of Ether One come about initially - you guys have to be fans of the Myst series right?
The concept of Ether One definitely grew over time. We initially had some platforming sections and the design was very different - it started off a lot of more sci-fi. I think the cool thing about our studio is that we're constantly changing directions to go with the direction the game is leading us. It's very rare that we'll start with an idea and say 'this is the game' and it will be exactly the same at the end. We re-designed the game A LOT and scrapped a lot of content we didn't think worked any more.
I was a huge fan of Myst and also a slightly smaller games called REAH! growing up. It's funny that everyone brings up that connection though, because I didn't consciously think about Myst being an influence until towards the end of development, when people were making those connections. It was never a conscious design decision I guess it was just ingrained in my memory!
Dementia within gaming I donít believe has ever really been tackled before, what brought you to that idea?
The approach to dementia didn't enter the game until maybe 6 months after we had started prototyping. It was a really important subject topic for us to tackle and we wanted to treat it with respect. We were all too aware of not getting it right and upsetting people or not connecting with the game the way someone should when a family member of yours has dementia. We have family members that suffer with the illness, but we also have people in our family that are in the medical field. This allowed us to give a perspective from both sides, which I think created a nice dynamic between Phyllis and Jean in the game.
What kind of changes occurred on Ether One during the development then?
I think pretty much anything that could be changed, was changed, throughout the development. I think the core things that didn't were the hand painted art style, which we knew we wanted from the start and also the optional puzzle solving. This was a really important design system for me to implement into the game because we wanted to tell this deep, impactful story; however, I knew that if people were getting hung up on the puzzles then it would break the flow of storytelling. I also didn't want to create easy puzzles for the sake of them being easy, so this lead to me making all puzzles completely optional (apart from at the very start of the game). I feel that this approach lets players pick apart the world at their own pace and (hopefully) allows them to play the game the way they want to.
Is there anything in the game the team wished they could of added if time or money permitted?
There's honestly not a thing I would have changed with time or money permitting. We didn't release the game until we were 100% happy with it. We funded the game ourselves working part time jobs and making sure everything was 100% correct before we released. This is more focused on the PC release though.
So what were some of these challenges when moving game engines?
There were a lot of challenges and some we just couldn't have accounted for. Firstly, Unreal Engine 4 is an incredible engine, so to implement our gameplay, and get the game up and running was a very quick process indeed, and with the new visual scripting tool called Blueprint, things are incredibly easy to manage. That said, it is still a very new engine and there are a lot of 'production' issues that still to be ironed out for people releasing games - this is especially the case on console.
We had a bunch of performance issues and also things that would disappearing on console that worked on PC. However, I'm sure every game development team faces technical challenges such as these and there's always a new piece of software or something that suddenly breaks that was working 2 days ago. It's about how pro-active you are in resolving those issues and making sure they're all fixed in time to release.
A lot of development teams prefer to hand over their game to console port developers - instead of doing it themselves. Was it a very conscious decision for you guys to handle the port yourself?
It was an extremely conscious decision and I wanted to make sure that if we were going to another platform that we would do it ourselves. I guess its maybe more a sense of pride than anything else, but I wouldn't want other people developing our game for us. There are very specific tones and feelings we try to hit. Everything from our audio guy balancing a specific reverb or a tone, to our artist lighting the scene exactly how he needs it to be lit - down to how far and quickly a door should open. There is an incredible amount of attention to detail when we're working on our games. Yes, we may miss one or two things, but I hope that when people play our game they feel like Pinwheel is a real place to explore. If we had handed this game to another studio to port, then there would be time constraints and you could question the resulting quality. It's our game and if the game is needed for another console, we shouldn't hand off the work for someone else to do because we're too tired or can't be bothered - we should put every effort into making this game the best it can possibly be or just not do it at all.
Of course this is my personal opinion and there are a lot of over factors that contribute to porting a game and I don't mean to imply that every studio should do this - but for our specific circumstances, I would like to believe we will always handle our own ports and not outsource our work for someone else to do.
As your first ever console release, how was it working on the PlayStation 4 system?
Development on PlayStation 4 was great. Especially in tandem with the Unreal Engine 4. It meant that we didn't have to have two separate branches for PC and PS4. If we wanted to do a PlayStation 4 build we just hit 'deploy to PS4' and the game would just load up on there without any changes to make. This made development very quick and iterative.
I would say the only troubles we faced wasn't with the hardware or software, but with mostly with the submission pipeline that Sony has. This has been the biggest learning experience, and Sony have been incredibly great at providing support to us when we had no idea what we were doing when it came to console, and helped us through the process. For our next game we will definitely know what to expect and know to take that additional time into consideration, but as far as the hardware is concerned, it's a great platform to develop on.
Was the marketing PlayStation Plus provides Ether One, a no-brainer for White Paper Games?
Yes, it definitely was. Ever since we released on PC last year we knew we wanted to go onto PlayStation 4 through PS+. We focused on creating a great game and hoping that they would accept us to be part of the Instant Game Collection. I think receiving good reviews on PC and an 82 on Metacritic definitely helped the process, along with a few of the awards we won.
It was mostly a case of making sure that we fixed any issues with the game, so that we released it in the best form for our PlayStation fans. Knowing that the game has been unplayable for some people on console is absolutely heart breaking and I can tell you it's been the most stressful week of my life. Knowing that we have released something that people may think is 'just okay' after we've invested the last 4 years of our lives, pretty much 7 days a week into, just isn't acceptable to me, and I wanted the players to have a better first experience.
I just want them to know that we will continue to make this release as strong as it can be, so that they can experience it the way that it should be played.
What can we look forward to next from White Paper Games? I've always said a doggy-dating sim could be the next Minecraft!
I have no idea currently - I can say that although a doggy-dating sim would be pure money, I'm not sure if we'd be able to handle that pressure! Haha. What I can say is that it will be first person and have the narrative exploration that Ether One did well (in my opinion) - but also some more emergent and dynamic gameplay, so that the game reacts to how you're playing. It should also have some AI if we're lucky ... No guns though I'm afraid :)
I wish to thank Pete Bottomley for taking the time out to answer my questions. You can currently download Ether One on the PlayStation 4 as part of the May PlayStation Plus lineup of games. You can also follow White Paper Games via twitter @WhitePaperGames.
Do you have any questions for White Paper Games? Let me know in the comments below.