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Revolutionising the farming genre with mechs: "Big robots don't have to fight Godzilla to be cool"

New studio Frame Break and partner Amplifier discuss farming survival game Lightyear Frontier

A spaceship crashes on a brightly coloured alien world. A mech robot ejects and lands on the surface with a bang. It emerges from a crater with two huge weapons for arms. So far, so very video games.

And then it starts farming.

"We want to push against this constant violence, so Lightyear Frontier is everything except violence and brutality," begins Denis Ferrier, head of publishing at Amplifier Game Invest.

"You play in a first-person or third-person view, but it is always to create, never to kill. There is no death or threat. We believe we will do something never done before. You see this big tractor mech as a main character... and you don't expect something peaceful and a tribute to nature. You expect something that is 'Love, Death and Robots', but it's not like that."

"We want to push against this constant violence"

Denis Ferrier, Amplifier

Joakim Hedström, CEO of developer Frame Break adds: "Mechs are kind of underutilised as a machine of labour. Big robots don't have to fight Godzilla to be cool.

"We did explore combat early on. We had the idea of the mechs protecting the farm from these invading aliens. We tried that in prototyping, but realised this isn't fun... it's just a combat game with a super complex economy system. The player only thinks about the next combat and what they need for that. They don't think about the joy of farming, of taking their time, of decorating their farm and exploring. Everything's just stressful because you need to be strong for the next combat. We thought, this isn't a good game, it's two bad games. Which one should we make? Should we make a mech combat game? We're pretty sure those have been done before. Shall we make a peaceful mech farming game? Yes, that's interesting."

Hedström believes that by combining genres like this, it can appeal to both shooter fans and farming game enthusiasts.

Denis Ferrier, Amplifier

"With the shooter point-of-view... what if we use this perspective without actually being destructive? That might attract people that have not played [shooters] before. Our goal is to make games that will connect people that haven't necessarily played together before. So if we can create this game that can attract both players of conventional shooters, but also farming fans, with a different kind of gameplay... that's our goal."

The story of Frame Break is quite a remarkable one. The team first met during a university game development programme in Skövde, Sweden. The programme involved making a project in ten weeks. Hedström led a team of 18 to create a 'weird' game, and a couple of them stuck together afterwards.

"We wanted to keep making weird games," Hedström. "We don't want to make something straightforward, we want to find a way to twist it, change up the formula, and experiment a little bit. That's kind of been the glue that keeps us together and has been propelling us forward."

The team had an idea for a mech game and pitched it during a competition at the Sweden Games Conference. They won and part of the reward was a one-day coaching session with a company called Goodbye Kansas Game Invest -- a group that would be rebranded as Amplifier. Hedström says they received a huge amount of useful feedback and pointers.

Frame Break looked at other studios born out of university and hoped to follow in their footsteps.

"There are market leaders in the farming space that are very closely followed, but there is so much space in between"Joakim Hedström, Frame Break

"We wanted to breakout on your own, find a publisher and get going that way," Hedström says. "And then maybe, eventually, you can self-publish and start to grow the studio in the direction you wanted. Maybe doing contract work in between."

After missing out on speaking with one publisher, Frame Break were asked if they'd be interested in being acquired by this company called Amplifier. Hedström and the team weren't looking to be bought, but they were fond of Amplifier, so entertained the conversation.

"It became pretty apparent that Amplifier was where we wanted to end up, because it's a place where we can actually grow to the place we want, and make the games that we want, without these compromises on the way," Hedström says.

Frontier Lightyear featured during Xbox's last Showcase

Although it's not uncommon for a game developer to get acquired before they've made a game, typically it's studios made up of development veterans who have worked on big projects before. It's unusual to see this happen with a team fresh from education.

"We don't invest in games, but we do invest in people," says Ferrier. "Frame Break has a unique vision. They're a very good team, they work well together, and they have a solid plan. The game is great, that's true, but sometimes we invest in companies with nothing playable. It's really human first. It is unusual."

Although the team had won a pitch competition for a mech game, and had even built a prototype, they realised it wasn't a realistic project. Frame Break consisted of just three people at the time, and so needed a more achievable that could scale.

"It made us raise these design questions like: How does a mech sow seeds? Obviously with a machine gun"Joakim Hedström, Frame Break

"We looked at things like survival games and farming games, which we were interested in, and we thought there is definitely a gap in the market here," Hedström says.

"There are market leaders in the farming space that are very closely followed, but there is so much space in between. There is the realism track, things like Farming Simulator, which is very close to the ground, very realistic, very slow, very methodical. And then you have the abstract cases like Stardew Valley, which moves the camera up from above, every action is basically click on the square, so you're not doing the act of farming per se, but you're getting the aesthetic of farming. We thought there's something in between here, where you can be there on the ground doing these tactile actions, but we bend the rules a bit in the favour of fun and excitement. That was where we started."

The project turned into something exciting when someone on the team suggested introducing the mechs that had been part of their previous prototype.

"When that idea came forward, everything just followed," says Hedström. "Because it made us raise these design questions like: How does a mech sow seeds? Obviously with a machine gun. And so on."

Frontier Lightyear may look like a shooter, but there's no violence

Initially called Farm Mech, the game caught the eye of Xbox. In fact, Frame Break had been talking to Xbox even before Amplifier emerged on the scene.

"They loved the game from an early point," Ferrier says. "As Amplifier, we have lots of studios and we talk a lot with them. So we have a very trusting relationship with Xbox. We believe their new strategy is strong. They understand the market trends and continue to build an ecosystem for gamers around the globe. I hope it's only the beginning with us and them."

Ferrier stresses that Amplifier isn't the publisher of Frontier Lightyear, but they're more like one team.

"Frame Break is actually self-publishing the game," Ferrier explains.

"Amplifier is acting in various areas like production support, as well as global go-to-market strategy. We try to understand their needs and be constantly adapting to their methodology and vision. I would say that's a really new approach... an internal joint-publishing effort.

Joakim Hedström, Frame Break

"We work as one team, we take all critical decisions together, we think together... obviously Joakim is focusing more on the development and I'm focusing more on the market, but we take decisions together. Our relationship is very honest, transparent, and we are very frank. That's why we take quick decisions, which I think it's working well."

Hedström adds: "They really live up to the name of Amplifier. Everything we do, we can do faster, on a bigger scale, easier... if there is something that we don't know about, there is a way we can get that expertise and start learning. They're like [Polyfilla]. All the knowledge gaps get filled. We feel like a tight, solid package even as we scale up."

Not that Frame Break is planning to scale up too much. The team is currently 12 people, and Hedström feels that the company will only grow to around 20.

"We don't know where the cap is exactly, but we'll know when we get there. We want to keep things fairly tight and very collaborative. We have these open door meetings that everyone should be able to contribute to, and there is definitely a people limit somewhere where this gets too big to handle. It's somewhere around 20.

"Part of the hiring process has been finding the right people, not just whoever is the absolute best in a vacuum at this, but also someone who is a very good collaborator, and someone who is interested not just in their own craft, but also the other parts. Our creative process doesn't work if we have people that only do as they're told because we want to build this very creative environment where we can make these strange new games, and we need the right kind of people for that innovation."

"Our creative process doesn't work if we have people that only do as they're told"

Joakim Hedström, Frame Break

The idea of a studio where everyone has input and control over the project sounds good on paper, but delivering on that, making sure everyone is heard and decisions get reached, sounds challenging. And Hedström says that's why it's crucial to have the right people who are open to this way of working.

"You have to make sure there is creativity and structure, and you can have both. Because the game needs to be delivered eventually. We can't just put everyone in a room and throw ideas around. We have a process of: here's a feature, we have an open meeting about it, anyone who has opinions about this can join in... but then we have the designers whose actual mission it is put this into text and quantify it in the design document. They take the input from everyone, and then we have a mutual understanding that they will create something that everyone can work with.

"We have to be careful about who we're hiring so they are open to this. They aren't the kind of person that says: 'Oh, sure I'm collaborative' but then tries to take charge. Everyone has to be somewhat humble and open to new ideas, but also be able to deliver at the end of the day."

He concludes: "We're being very careful about growing without sacrificing the creative environment. The moment we create a system that compartmentalises too much, then the creativity starts to die out.

"But there may be solutions around that. We implemented leads when we had more than one person doing a thing because we have to make sure things get done and that people have the information they need. But it's important that the lead is not a creative director. I'm not a creative director. I see myself as a creative wrangler, perhaps? I make sure people are at the meetings and on time and that they are participating, but we don't have a single person having the very final say on the entire thing, because that's when we start taking the product out of people's hands.

"Sometimes we do need decisions made and there are people that are disagreeing, so we find a way to solve that to move forward. But I think it's very dangerous to have creative control in just a single person's hands. A game is a massive thing, and I don't think any person can keep an entire game in their head."

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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