TA Interview: Eiconic Games

By DavieMarshall, 7 years ago
In our very Mercury Hg themed Thursday, we have an interview with Eiconic Games to run alongside our competition. We do spoil you so! I dust down my interviewers hat and technique as I chat to Graeme and Neall, part of the Eiconic Games team. Hope you enjoy!

DavieMarshall: We’re talking to Eiconic Games, developers of Xbox LIVE Arcade’s Mercury Hg among many other titles. Let’s get down to business! Thanks for taking the time to speak to us!

Graeme Monk: You’re more than welcome, it’s great for us to have a chance to talk about Eiconic and our games, it’s our favourite subject!

D: So starting at the beginning, how did Eiconic Games come to exist?

GM: There’s a long history of us working together. Neall and I first worked together a long time ago at Eidos. The rest of the team worked together at LT Studios which sadly closed, then got back together again at Traveller’s Tales (Oxford). When TT closed we took the opportunity to set up Eiconic, which is just over five years ago now.

Neall Jones: I thought I’d seen the last of Graeme years ago, but fate conspired against me

D: Was the decision to form a games development unit an easy one, or did it take a prolonged period of thinking things through?

GM: The decision was easy, it was something that we’d discussed in one form or another for some time, much as I guess a lot of developers often discuss. Then came the actual reality of how we went about it and thinking how it could be done. That took some time to sort out and deciding on the types of games we wanted to deliver. We knew then that digital distribution was the way things were heading and decided to concentrate on that. That said our first game, Squeeballs Party, was a boxed product, so we can turn our hand to pretty much anything.

D: So how many of you are currently working in the team now?

GM: We’re still maintaining the original five core members. Each project has different requirements so we expand with contractors and outsourcers, which has brought its own challenges. Over the last five years we’ve managed to build relationships with a number of companies and individuals which gives us great flexibility, depending on how many projects we have and the size of those projects.

D: Do you have an office or do you communicate and work together across multiple sites?

GM: We decided when we set up that we were commuting far too long every day. Most of us had to commute an hour or more to get to the studio, which is a real pain, especially if you run that on to longer days when you’re crunching at the end of the project. So the goal was to properly manage projects, minimise the crunch and eradicate the commute if we could. We’re pleased to say that we still keep that philosophy and work remotely 90% of the time. We get together when meeting clients and brainstorming projects so we still have that social feel. What we really take for granted now is the how efficient this model is, we estimate that we turn out 25%-30% more work and to a higher quality than we would if we were co-located in a studio. It’s definitely the way forward which is growing in acceptance the more people we talk to. It’s a great work/life balance.

D: One thing our community may not be aware of, is the fact that Eiconic Games have spent a lot of time developing your proprietary engine, ‘Moai’. How long did it take to realise the finished version of the Moai engine?

GM: Engines are like games, they’re never truly finished. James, our technical director, had been working on a form of Moai for years before we set up, so we were lucky that he had already thought through a majority of the problems that we might have encountered working remotely. Since then we’ve looked at various engines for one reason or another, but none give us the flexibility or advantages that Moai does. Each project expands Moai’s toolset and capabilities to an extent that it is currently nicely fleshed out; there’s technology and features in Moai that we know other engines don’t have for one reason or another and we’d find it difficult to develop without those comforts.

D: Why did you decide to go down this route? Was there something highly specific you wanted out of an engine that wasn’t available elsewhere perhaps?

GM: When we first set up, third party engines were generally very expensive. Moai allows us to customise different parts of the engine to meet a game’s requirements and allows us to get down to the hardware without having to understand the intricacies of ‘alien’ technology. There are a number of features that we wanted the engine to support such as compressing the games to as small a download footprint as possible. Our data setup allows the coders a really simple way of tracking bugs within the project. James has recently just completed a unique and very efficient way of generating shadows. So Moai expands as we take on other projects and new platforms whilst giving us the ability to be agile in our development.

D: Before we dive into the world of Mercury Hg, you’re a group of developers who like to keep their options open. You develop for Xbox LIVE, PSN, Wii, iOS; is it a very different development process amongst them all?

GM: Personally I think it varies depending on the project and what we’re trying to achieve. The platforms themselves are obviously different in terms of technical ability and players interfacing with the game and platform. iOS has the touch interface whereas the consoles have twin stick controllers and/or some form of motion control. So yes, we do like keeping our options open, but the game always comes first with the players experience and interface of paramount importance.

D: And in terms of publishing to each platform, is there any one which gives you a particular headache?

GM: Not really, each have their own foibles. You’d like to think that given the knowledge and experience that each of the platform holders have gained then the publishing experience would be a simple delight. In fairness it’s not that bad, you just need to bear in mind all the different requirements for each platform.

D: Focusing in on your Xbox LIVE Arcade title, Mercury Hg now, you must be very pleased with the critics response to it across the web. Here on TA it’s earned an incredibly impressive 4.3 out of 5 based on the community scoring.

GM: Yeah, we’re very pleased with the response it’s got. And thanks to everyone that has made the effort to review it and/or score it. As developers it’s always very pleasing to read critical acclaim on something that you’re very close to during the dev process.

D: Did you face many challenges bringing the Mercury franchise up to date on current gen systems, or were you quite sure of what you wanted to achieve by the projects end?

GM: When we were first approached by UTV Ignition to update the game it was because I had produced the original Mercury game with the Awesome team in Banbury. Sadly they are no longer in existence so Ignition asked if Eiconic would be interested in taking the franchise on as there was already an appreciation of it. The brief was that Mercury needed to be modernised and appeal to as wide an audience as possible. We set out looking through all the comments and reviews of the previous titles and took those on board. Si laid out a very detailed art style explaining how we would achieve what was required. From the outset we had a very clear vision of what we wanted to achieve and were able to meet that and exceed it. Bringing it to the current gen platforms gave us the opportunity to expand on the technical side of Mercury, so features like the blob are modelled more accurately and behave better in terms of physics, the inclusion of ghost racing blobs from the leaderboards, use of music to enhance the levels, etc.

D: How about challenges in terms of the small team size. Does this help you focus and work more quickly, or do things become very hectic sometimes?

GM: A small team has massive advantages as problems get resolved quicker rather than having a tendency to sweep the issue under the carpet. If there’s a problem you know exactly who to go to for it to get fixed. Feedback happens a hell of lot faster, which in turn means that we iterate quicker and move on to the next feature. More often than not it was quicker to implement an idea or feature to see if it worked rather than write it up in a document or convene a meeting to discuss it. We’re big believers of the agile development process. It’s like Nike, Just Do It! That said, even with a small team things are normally pretty hectic as there are fewer people to get the job done. Which goes back to the earlier point about efficiency; because we work remotely we don’t get so easily distracted, concentration is that much higher. The short dev period meant that iteration had to be done quickly with decisions made almost immediately. Ignition pretty much trusted us to make those decisions, we didn’t have to wait for a committee to make them. When a feature was added or removed the questions would still be raised but we had the answers that made sense, the proof was in the pudding, or blob as it were.

D: Was it a development process made more difficult by the fact that the Mercury franchise has a known history prior to your title?

GM: We had to make some tough decisions based on the fact that there was a history. Early on we discussed the complexity of the levels, the number of game elements such as doors, teleporters, paintshops, etc. Looking at the history of the title and the comments made previously allowed us to weigh those decisions with a certain amount of hindsight which we may not necessarily have had.

NJ: There was also a budget and fixed development period for the game that we had to work too, so this also places restraints on what you can do.

D: So would you class Mercury Hg as a ‘sequel’, or a ‘remake/reboot’?

GM: Definitely a ‘reboot’, so much of the previous titles’ features have changed or been streamlined. The ideas that we have for the future take Mercury in new directions which we’re very excited about.

NJ: The game’s success and future development will ultimately depend on how well it sells and the decision will be down to UTV Ignition.

D: The style of art and use of colour in the game looks brilliant. Was this a style you quickly settled on, or was there a series of alternative presentation styles you toyed with?

GM: Si did a great job on this. He pretty much nailed the style right from the outset. When Ignition wanted Mercury to have a new, clean look Si put together a comprehensive style document detailing influences from games such as Portal and Wipeout through to industrial designs ranging from Apple to medical scanning equipment. He also went through the whole rendering process detailing the layers that objects would have in order to achieve the desired look.

D: Speaking of unique features and styles, the ‘import your own music feature’? Very nice touch! Which tracks got the Mercury party going during testing!

GM: We’re very pleased with this and the work that went in to it. It was a feature that wasn’t in the game to begin with but Dave had some downtime and decided to put it in, he’s like that, gets a crazy idea one evening and plugs it in to see how it works. Everyone has different music tastes but generally dance and techno worked really well. Dave originally demoed the feature with Little Fluffy Clouds by The Orb, try it out, it works extremely well.

D: What about achievements? Who decided to go down the “-ium” route? I can’t pronounce 80% of them!

GM: That was Neall and Simon. The achievements do follow rules in how they’re named so they work very well.

D: Are achievements best used to help gamers to discover elements of the game they may not otherwise find, such as the ‘Bonusium’ achievement?

GM: Some of them are, very much so. Musicium is a great example which encourages players to stream in their own music to play the game to. There were loads of little touches in the game that we wanted to subtly present to the player and the achievements seemed the best method to do this with.

D: Do you worry a lot when it comes to the day after/of release and the internet sparks to life with reviews and ratings?

GM: No, not at all. We don’t have Google alerts set up scouring the Internet for reviews, constantly refreshing review sites to see if the game’s been reviewed yet, visiting Metacritic every 15 minutes to check what the rating is, or getting wound up when major UK review sites don’t carry the review, particularly when they’ve been banging on about supporting home grown talent. No, we don’t do anything like that at all...

D: One of our community written reviews here states that Mercury Hg is; “too much of a hidden gem to miss up the chance of playing”. Do you ever worry about becoming ‘buried’ and a ‘hidden gem’ on the Xbox LIVE Arcade Marketplace with it’s iterative release process?

GM: That’s always been a danger of digitally distributed games and that’s become even more of an issue since the launch of iOS. There’s just so much content out there it’s very difficult to rise above the noise as it were. This is where the publishers come in and help with securing marketing and PR for the title. The market is constantly evolving and getting eyeballs is very challenging. There are various techniques to help raise that awareness, but the most powerful tool in the arsenal is word of mouth and recommendations.

D: Let’s talk about the price point of Mercury Hg too. At 400MSP to be quite honest there is genuinely no reason not to pick it up. Many games tend to release at the 800MSP point now. Was this a decision by Eiconic Games or your publishers UTV Ignition?

GM: Ultimately it was UTV Ignition’s decision, although we all discussed it at length, weighing up the pros and cons. There were discussions about releasing it at 800MSP but the final decision, I believe, was to leave it at 400MSP, make it an impulse buy and get it out to as many people as possible.

D: Well it was a popular move that many gamers here saw as a big positive when we covered the announcement. What is your opinion on the Xbox LIVE Marketplace ecosystem? Would you prefer a straight forward price tag in pounds, Euros and dollars, or are you OK with the MSP approach?

GM: Personally I think it’s an interesting approach using MSPs. I mean everyone knows the relative price of something in their own local currency but when it’s a currency you’re not quite used to then it becomes kind of like toy money. When you go abroad and you purchase something for a couple of dollars or Euros then you do the maths and make the conversion, but there is also part of you thinking, ”Well I’ve got these notes, might as well spend them”. I think MSPs are very similar, potentially worse as you can’t convert them back in to cash, so once you have them you have to spend them. Or am I just being cynical?

D: With regard to other developers and games on Xbox LIVE Arcade, which titles do you hold a lot of respect for?

GM: Everyone, they’re all brilliant! Chair definitely, loved Shadow Complex, the Twisted Pixel guys have got some funky stuff out there, Stainless’ work on Magic I’ve enjoyed. I think there’s also stuff out there that is overly hyped and too far up its own backside, but others like it, so each to their own. This is the great thing about digital though, is that so much great, interesting and innovative stuff comes through this channel, just need more time to play it.

D: And what’s next for Mercury Hg?

GM: So there are two DLC packs coming out, both having 30 Discovery levels, 10 Bonus levels and 5 Challenge levels, you may have seen the relevant spaces for them already in the Periodic Table/level select. As for what’s next, well we have some ideas that we’re kicking around and want to develop. If they don’t happen for Mercury then we’ll look at putting them in to one of our other games.

D: How about Eiconic, what is your next venture? We hope it involves the Xbox 360 in some way, shape or form!

GM: Can’t say for certain to be honest. We have a project on the go at the moment which is under very close wraps. We have a bunch of ideas that we want to do including a great game for Kinect, just need to find the funding to get it done. But we’ll definitely continue supporting the Xbox360, it’s a lovely platform to develop for and has a fantastic community around it.

D: Thank you very much for you time and for speaking to TrueAchievements, we really appreciate being able to do this with you! Is there anything you’d like to say here? Your chance to say whatever you’d like to the community at large!

GM: Thanks for letting us get out for once! What to say to the community? Keep playing and keep experimenting with games. You guys are driving force for small devs and indies and help keep us alive, otherwise we’d all be off working in some cubicle somewhere. Oh, and Kevin Smith is a god!

NJ: And shame on those players that have used modded controllers to achieve faster times. After I found out I did some research and achieved better results in my offline tests, but I didn’t want to taint my own scores/times on the public leaderboards by cheating. For anyone wondering, my gamer profile is Oppositesnake – and curse their ingenuity

GM: He’s so desperate for friends, it gets embarrassing sometimes...

Another big thanks to Graeme and Neall for speaking to me and taking the time to complete this interview, not to mention the brilliant Mercury Hg give-away we have on the front page too! We wish them all the best in the future, and let's hope the Kinect idea comes to fruition!

Now you're clued up, don't forget to get your entry in for the related competition!