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8th July 2021

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“The world we thought we were building this game for is not the world we are currently in”

Strike GameLabs' Ella Romanos and Martin Darby on their unique roguelike Underzone, and why they probably need a games publisher

One of the most eye-watering statistics to come out of 2016 was related to Steam.

According to Steam Spy, some 4,200 games were released on the platform in 2016 - which is 38% of the entire Steam catalogue.

That's a daunting figure for any developer looking to release a game on PC today. And it's a statistic that has weighed on the mind of UK studio Strike Gamelabs. The firm began working on its upcoming roguelike Underzone in 2014 - a time when the notion of a studio going alone and releasing a game on Steam was a difficult challenge, but not an impossible one.

Now, with the game approaching release, the sheer level of clutter has seen commercial director Ella Romanos and design director Martin Darby look for a publisher to help their game cut through the noise.

"I have spent hours going through Steam Spy, and you can see that it has become harder to sell indie games because there is a lot of noise," says Darby.

"At the same time, the ones that succeed you can see why they did versus the ones that don't. It is quite a complex scenario. In terms of how it impacts needing a publisher, I think it comes back to this idea that you need eyeballs on what you are doing. If you think you are doing something of quality then you want people to see it. When we started this project, the world we thought we were building it for is not the world we are currently in. Does that make it harder for us to get eyeballs? Probably. Does that mean we need a publisher to do it? Quite possibly, yeah."

"If we don't get a publisher, then we need money to do the marketing, we need the resource, the skills, the relationships."

Ella Romanos, Strike Gamelabs

Romanos adds: "We have to market this game. And marketing can mean a lot of different things. Somebody has got to work that out and do it. That requires money, it'll involve some resource and some skill. If we don't get a publisher, then we need money to do the marketing, we need the resource, the skills, the relationships... we have some of those, we've been around for a while, but it's likely a publisher will have more relationships, and they might have more skill and can do things more efficiently. At the same time, we've been building things like our website and trailers in-house, so we don't want to simply hand off to a publisher. We want to work in partnership with someone."

Underzone is the first project from Strike Gamelabs, which was formed by former Remode staff in 2014. Darby and Romanos had worked together for seven years at that studio, which primarily developed work-for-hire projects.

"We didn't want to do that anymore," Darby says. "We wanted to focus on making an original game, which is what I've always wanted to do. There was the funding available, the indie games market seemed to be on an upward trend, and we had the people. It just felt like the right move."

Strike Gamelabs' development team includes Darby, technical director Gareth Lewis (formerly of Lionhead and with 25 years in the business) and various artists who have changed depending on the needs of the project - so there's effectively only been three developers at any one point working on Underzone.

Gareth Lewis, Martin Darby and Ella Romanos - the Strike Gamelabs team

Gareth Lewis, Martin Darby and Ella Romanos - the Strike Gamelabs team

The game is currently set for release on PC later this year, although Lewis' varied experience means there's an ambition to release the game on consoles, too.

The game is what's called a roguelike, a niche genre that is characterised by procedural levels and (typically) dungeon crawling. Games including Rogue (hence the name), Hack, Moria and more recent titles like Binding of the Isaac, Spelunky and FTL: Faster Than Light are all considered roguelikes.

"Maybe six or seven years ago, when we were making a game called Mole Control, our artists got hold of a game called Spelunky, which wasn't the game that's famous today," Darby says. "This was effectively freeware on the internet. We used to play it at lunch and all of the levels were randomly generated. I always thought it was interesting back then, and that was before the genre started to get big. Then when Binding of Isaac and some of the other games came out, I was very impressed with how these fairly simply games were proving to be captivating."

He continues: "Before we started this project, I remember reading that Binding of Issac was one of the 20 most streamed games on Twitch. And Twitch is one of the biggest website for internet traffic in the world. That really shows that there is an appetite for this thing that has almost come out of nowhere.

"However, I thought the work that had gone on in the genre could be taken further. There were lots of things about the genre which I thought were cool, but if we made one there are certain things that we could innovate upon."


Underzone is set in a futuristic London

These things include procedurally generating not just the levels, but the weapons and baddies, too. Darby says: "The thing for me that propels interest in the genre, is the idea that every time you play the game you do not know what you will be faced with. So any thing that you can do to magnify that emotional experience for people, the better."

It has a different visual style, too. Rather than a top-down view, the game adopts a 3D side-on viewpoint. It's also not a dungeon crawler, instead opting for a sci-fi setting based underneath London's streets.

The London setting is interesting, particularly given Romanos' work promoting the UK games industry tax breaks. To receive tax relief, developers must show that their game can be considered culturally British, and a London setting would certainly achieve that.

"Actually we would have easily qualified for the tax breaks even if the game wasn't set in London."

Ella Romanos, Strike Gamelabs

"Actually we would have easily qualified for the tax breaks even if the game wasn't set in London," Romanos tells us. "So it wasn't that at all. We just thought it was an interesting place to set a game. A lot of games are set in LA or wherever else, and London has quite an interesting underground world.

Darby adds: "Also, I view the metropolitan culture of London from the outside. For me, I find the revitalisation of the city and how quickly it changes fascinating. We had a meal in Canary Wharf about five years ago, and I'd never been before, but it reminded me of Philadelphia where my dad was living at the time. I sort of thought that everything is going to be like this in the future.

"I caught a bus from Stansted airport back to Liverpool Street a few months back, and we drove through the East End and you can see that more than ever - skyscrapers are just going up everywhere and it's a city that's constantly changing. I was just interested in the idea of what a futuristic city would be. I sunk countless hours into looking at the geology, the civil engineering of putting up skyscrapers, the historical context of the Underground and what it meant, the different phases the city has gone through. The game takes place during a nuclear disaster, so I looked at what that would mean and how the UK has dealt with those kind of challenges and threats in the past. There is a huge pool of stuff that I have essentially distilled into, I hope, a reasonably comprehensible narrative."

"I just wanted to create a little world that you could wrap yourself in. I don't think being cutesy or outrageously funny is the only way to do that."

Martin Darby, Strike Gamelabs

It is certainly an impressive level of research for a company that totals just a handful of staff. Although triple-A studios often have the resource to conduct extensive research projects, it's hard to imagine many other indie developers investing hours upon hours into understanding the history of the London Underground - particularly for a genre that's not known for its narrative complexity.

"If you were being skeptical of my process, you could look at our game and think it is a bit po-faced," Darby suggests. "A lot of indie games riff on humour, but for me as a creator, I don't just want to do something just because everyone else is doing it. If you look at Call of Duty, or other triple-A titles, they're not laden with humour but they're very popular all the same. So I don't feel like I am doing anything wrong. I just wanted to create something that was a little world that you could wrap yourself in. I don't think being cutesy or outrageously funny is the only way to do that."

The fascination with the future of London aside, it was clear during our conversation that Darby and Romanos have put some serious thought into the title's commercial potential. The team has been inspired by the popularity of The Binding of Isaac on Twitch, and has taken steps to ensure Underzone is a pleasure to watch as well as play.

At the same time, Darby concludes, this isn't just another cutesy, retro, roguelike.

"Underzone is basically a box of fireworks," he says. "So we always knew that those kind of bullet hell visuals with a realistic style would come across well on video. I don't think we ever felt comfortable just doing another pixel art game. There are a lot of games out there that seem to ride on that sort of nostalgic, retro feel. If you look at Rogue Legacy and Enter the Gungeon, you can see that has been done. Even back in 2014 you could see that was going to get milked. So when we started we knew we needed to plan for where we think the gaming world will be in the future, and not where we were at that time."

Celebrating employer excellence in the video games industry

8th July 2021

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