Whilst walking past the Canada booth in the Business Centre at this year’s Gamescom, I happened to chance upon an extremely early version of an underwater exploration game where the objective was for the player to control a spirit and possess creatures. Given its strange premise, I decided to talk to Norma Rossler (CFO and co-founder) and Alvin Akino (Art Director) of the little known Blot Interactive, and find out a little bit more about the studio and its forthcoming PlanktOs game.
How long have you been established for?
Norma: We started production of our first game 1st November 2012.
So about a year and a half or two years?
What are you working on?
Norma: Currently we’re working on a PlayStation 4 game in 3D using Oculus. It is an exploration game in an underwater fantasy environment where the objective of the game is to bring balance back to the ecosystem; save your friends and release them from the grey smoke.
What’s the title of the game?
Norma: PlanktOs… It’s spelled with a big ‘O’. PlanktOs is an ancient Greek word that means drifter. So, you’re drifting through the water trying to save your friends and bring balance back.
It’s coming out for the PS4. Given that you were established in 2012…
Norma: We started production on this game four months ago. We’re at the vertical slice.
The vertical slice is a demo?
Norma: It’s more than a demo. We’ve basically at this point pretty much done the first world. We’re going to do a total of six worlds.
Given your lack of development pedigree, and because you haven’t been established that long, what difficulties did you encounter in bringing the game to Sony’s platform?
Norma: Well actually our company existed for a year and a half, but our team has made over 40 games. Our creative director himself has shipped over 34 games.
Alvin: I guess the difficulties with it right now don’t really exist because we haven’t had a chance to go through the shipment process through Sony yet. But getting the dev kits was really helpful, we have a PS Vita dev kit and the PS4 dev kit came very quickly. We’re waiting on Oculus, but in terms of going through Sony it’s been good so far. Just from getting all the dev kits from them and stuff.
Norma: The licensing was actually easy too. Becoming Sony developers was a pretty simple process.
Why did you choose the Sony PS4? Will you be releasing the game on the XBox One as well?
Norma: I mean our first step, the reason why we picked the Sony system was because the actual swimming mechanism that we use requires a touchscreen and the new PS4 has a touchscreen on it with a swimming motion. XBox, we’ll have to wait and see.
What about the Vita?
Norma: The Vita is way up there on our list. Again, it has that capacity for us to do that swimming motion on the system.
So, can we expect the game to come out on PS4 and Vita at some point?
Norma: Yeah. We’re looking at 2015.
Do you have a more concrete release date?
Alvin: For the PS4 we’re looking around somewhere in 2015. For the Vita we’ll see how much longer it will take to port that to the Vita afterwards.
Even though you’ve been in existence for a year and half, you are essentially an independent developer I assume?
Norma: We are 100% independent. We do not have a publisher. We do not have an investor outside of… we won an innovation award from the Canada Media Fund which gave us the opportunity to develop the two large games that we’ve put forward so far.
What difficulties have you had in bringing your game this far without publishing support, knowing that you don’t have a legacy of loyalties to draw from?
Norma: Actually, our first game Chat Fu is a Facebook application that uses chat as its game play. The most difficulty we’ve had, because again we don’t have a publisher, is marketing. And because we don’t have a publisher we don’t have that experience. We have very experienced game makers and developers, but we’re not experienced in marketing at all.
Given that you don’t have any experience in marketing, and bearing in mind that you don’t have an established track record, what difficulties do you think you’ll have in bringing PlanktOS to market when it is eventually released? How do you think you’ll be able to counter the products from rival publishers and developers who have considerable more experience… maybe not “experience”
Norma: I mean it’s definitely a very creative, very new concept. I think that the players will enjoy it for its freshness. The games we’ve developed to date are very creative, [and] we’re not trying to duplicate previous games that are out there. They’re new and they’re fresh, and I think that’s one of the big things we have going for us. We’re also here to look for a publisher, to look for the people who have the expertise in marketing and publishing.
Have you approached Sony in maybe trying to get it published through Sony?
Norma: Not to the extent that we should.
You’ve mentioned as to how the game is significantly different from the majority of offerings on the market, but at the same time one of the things that new developers do is that they tend to go for what’s already out there because it’s easily understood, and it’s low risk with high reward. Given that you’ve gone for a more esoteric concept that targets highbrow audiences, who don’t necessarily tend to like games like Call of Duty that ultimately appeal to the lowest common denominator… are you apprehensive at all that the game, despite its level of innovation, might not live up to commercial expectations and the level of investment that has gone into it?
Alvin: Well, one of the games that we used as inspiration for PlanktOs is, well a few games… Mostly Journey. If you’ve ever heard of Journey, it’s an extremely successful game going through the PlayStation Store which in terms of game play is very close to what we’re doing, but it gives a very atmospheric feeling and plays a lot with emotion and just how you feel with the music and it’s not your typical fighting shooting game. That did really well, extremely well. Gamers are really getting sick of the typical game, so I think there definitely is a market for this kind of game.
Haunting and achingly beautiful, Austin Wintory’s soundtrack for Journey was nominated for ‘Best Score Soundtrack’ for Visual Media at the 2013 Grammy Awards.
Obviously this is far off into the future, but do you hope for the game to get a retail release eventually or would you be content with it to be released as a digital only title?
Norma: I’d be content with a digital only title.
Alvin: I’m the art director, so whatever is decided by the creative director and the CFO is what I’ll be happy with, for sure.
Even though the PS4 and Vita lend themselves really well to the game’s concept, especially with the joypad configurations. The PS4 joypad is also PC compatible, do you intend to maybe at some point in the future release the game on the PC?
Norma: If this is a successful game I will put it on every possible platform we can put it on to get as many possible users to enjoy this game as feasibly possible.
Was the game made using your own engine?
Norma: Unreal 4.
What difficulties did you encounter in licensing the Unreal 4 engine?
Alvin: Unreal 4 is a subscription based model, and it’s really competitive. It’s a model we’re comfortable with. The lighting and the rendering in Unreal 4 is incredible as you can see, and the problems with it I guess is it’s so much different from Unreal 3 or UDK in terms of the process, but having a highly skilled team it was just a short ramp-up time to get work done and the pipeline figured out. As you can see after 4 months we definitely got our stride and we’re doing really well now.
The demo is 4 months old?
Alvin: 4 months, yes.
Do you not think it would have been more appropriate to maybe consider another engine that probably has little bit more support and is slightly more established in the market – such as Unity?
Alvin: We actually originally did our first game in Unity, but when we got the chance to see Unreal 4 and see what it was capable of in terms of art, it was a lot easier to set up the lighting and the rendering was so incredible that we decided it was worth it and I don’t think we’re feeling like it was a mistake at all. I think it was a good decision.
What do you hope to achieve with PlanktOs, and why do you think gamers should care?
Alvin: That’s a Justin question.
Norma: That’s, yeah that’s our creative director. The vision is all his, so in the long term strategies it’s his creativity that draws us forward.