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Rock Pocket Games is a small studio that started up in 2008 in Tønsberg, Norway, and they are currently working on their most ambitious project ever, “Oliver & Spike: Dimension Jumpers”. Oliver & Spike is an ambitious 3D adventure game designed with Unity and currently in development for multiple platforms.

Dromble spoke to Natascha Röösli, who works in Marketing and PR at Rock Pocket Games, about the current development status of “Oliver and Spike”.  We would like to thank Natascha Röösli for giving us an opportunity to chat with her about her game.

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Oliver & Spike seems like a very ambitious project for a small team of only 9 to 10 people. How many years has your studio been working on this game? How large are the development costs in making such an ambitious, beautiful 3D adventure game? Also, did the team have to make any sacrifices to keep development costs down?

Ambitious yes, but lets just say we are a bunch of talented nerds who really love our job 😉

If we count the very first time the idea was pitched to NFI for funding (a branch of the Norwegian Government) and assets and mechanics were put in place that would be since 2011. However, we do work-for-hire in between to be able to work on our own IPs, which means we haven’t really have time to work on it full time. All in all it’s probably about a year of development so far. We normally have crazy crunch time before conferences. Something other Devs are surely also very familiar with 😉

In terms of development costs, they are quite high if you consider O&S an indie game. The overall cost for the game is much more than we can cover ourselves. That would also be a problem for kickstarter because it would probably sound super high to gamers but a full 3D world with 3D characters tons of mechanics and story has its price which is even slightly higher here in Norway than in other countries but more on that later.

We have spent most of our hard earned money on the project and a lot of non paid overtime before conferences. Families are not always happy with this but it’s just what we have to do. Especially our CEO Ivan Moen who has done programming as well as project management and design until now, is sacrificing a lot for the project. Personal time to the brink of exhaustion. So far though it was mostly personal sacrifices. We have to see how future discussions go and if there need to be any sacrifices in terms of design or story. So far we didn’t have to make any compromises for the game, luckily. Unfortunately we can’t go to all the events we would love to show the game at due to costs and money at the end of the month can be quite tight.

The whole team is really invested in the project. We believe strongly in it and want to see others play O&S as well as our own friends and family. That is the reason we are basically willing to go a long way to see our dream come true. Whatever it takes!

If we can’t find a partner the future of O&S is unsure.

From a programming and art perspective, what are the biggest challenges in designing a game like “Oliver & Spike”?

Programming wise definitely the Dimensions and the character design and overall look and feel of the game art-wise.

When it comes to the art we went for a style that is hopefully accessible and enjoyable by a wide range of gamers. Even though potential partners keep telling us that they think it’s focused on a younger audience we don’t necessarily agree. There are enough artsy or hyper realistic games out there and if the gameplay is fun and engaging the graphic style shouldn’t alienate anyone.

The dimension switching was of course a big challenge. It needed to be seamless and fast. You are able to switch mid jump and we needed a way to minimize the danger of ending up inside objects if you switch. This has been an issue both for the programming but also the level design and world building part. We found a great solution though and have tools in place to help us with these tasks. Since we have all the dimensions preloaded to ensure instant switching, optimization of memory usage is also something we had to take into consideration.

Also, since it’s not a side scroll but full 3D Game all the areas have to be fully fleshed out and exploreable. After all the player can walk around pretty much freely and explore and talk to creatures and npcs.

Last but not least the story and writing. It can make or break the game so we are very focused on getting the proper talent on board to work with us.

What is it like managing a game development studio in Norway in comparison to other European countries? Do developers in other European countries have it easier or more difficult than Norwegian developers?

I wouldn’t say it’s easier or harder but different. Every country has to fight with their own hurdles. The high living costs in Norway make it necessary to pay quite high salaries (high compared to other countries) and a lot of us have families and lives to pay for. High rents, high infrastructure costs and aforementioned salaries all make it tough. Of course outsourcing would be an option but we have pretty much all we need either in the team or close-by and if we start outsourcing more it also means not using the talent that we have here in Norway which would be a bad move for the whole game developer industry here. If it wasn’t for NFI (The Norwegian Film Institute) it would be pretty much impossible to stay independent as a company and we owe them a lot. They are funding certain projects to a certain percentage and have been incredibly helpful and the main reason it’s actually possible to stay somewhat afloat as a developer here in Norway.

Norway is also still limping a bit behind with the rest of Scandinavia but more and more developers are getting together and share knowledge and their experience. We don’t really have a studio that has been strengthening the developer community in the past but there are several studios and organizations who are now getting together and organize events. Which is a great start to build up better knowledge-sharing and a strong community. It’s also great to see that fellow Norwegians are part of getting us on the Gaming Map.

The main feature of the game is the ability to jump through three different dimensions to solve quests or puzzles. Since each dimension has its own set of rules, does it make designing levels much more complicated?

I wouldn’t say complicated but more challenging for sure. It’s a constant balance act of giving the players as much freedom as possible to use our fun features but the same time make sure the puzzles don’t get trivial or can be solved by just switching. You have to take all the actions, a player has access to at a certain point in the game, into consideration when designing a level, fight or puzzle.

Just take the water dimension. If you could switch at all times to wherever it would make a lot of puzzles trivial, so overland we limit the jumping with the fact that you have to pickup crystals. On the other hand if we enable Aqual for a puzzle we also always have to keep distance and time you can stay underwater into consideration. It’s a lot of additional influences that we need to keep in mind.

That gets only more complex as the game progresses with more dimensions and mechanics coming into play. It’s very important to have a good overview of mechanics and their strength and limitations.

Oliver and Spike will be available on most (or all) consoles. In an April 2013 interview with Nintendo Chronicle, you said, “I need to mention, O&S is not yet confirmed for Wii U. That still very much depends on a potential partner.” Now that we’re in September, what is the current status on the Wii U version (as well as other console versions)? Have things changed much with your potential partner(s) since April?

Unfortunately not. Discussions are going very slow due to the switch to the new generation of consoles as well as Publishers being afraid of new IPs, especially by a studio who has no previous track record as a team on said platforms. We are currently pitching Oliver&Spike as a second party game and are looking for a close co-operation with a potential partner. When it comes to the platform holders that might mean exclusivity to a platform (timed or not) That is the main reason we cannot confirm anything still. We do think however that Oliver & Spike would be a great fit for a Nintendo Platform and would resonate well with the Nintendo Community. Maybe we just have to make sure Nintendo sees that. Send hordes of fans their way to demand the game maybe? 😉

Of course, finding a partner who can cover publishing on the different platforms would be the best solution. Especially since we have specific and unique features designed for the different consoles.

So Rock Pocket Games would be interested in having Nintendo publish Oliver & Spike as a second party Wii U exclusive title?  Possibly even as a retail title? 

Definitely if they would be interested. They haven’t asked for exclusivity so far during any kind of discussion, though. Retail would of course be a dream! However, we are very aware about not having a track record and are willing to compromise according to a partners needs.

Should we expect any major graphical differences between the PC and console versions (Wii U/PS3/Xbox 360)? Is the game currently running on any console development kits?

We have to work with the restrictions of the consoles, especially the older types but we are trying to make the different versions, graphically speaking, as close to each other as possible. In some cases we might have to recode shaders (special effects/glow etc) or shadows to not sacrifice framerate.

We have O&S running on all major consoles. Not fully optimized due to time issues but yes, it’s running on all of them.

O&S has been shown at many events and shows. What kind of critical feedback have you received from those who have played demos of the game? Are there any areas of the game that your team is really focused on improving?

So far the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. What I love most is the different type of gamers who seem to enjoy O&S. We had the dad with his kid, really happy to find a game that isn’t focused on killing everything, the gamer that grew up with Adventures and Ratchet&Clank looking for a similar experience who is really grateful to have a more colorful game. The funniest experience though was when we were at the Unity Booth during GDC right next to Sony where they showed the new God of War Version. A lot of gamers who came over from trying said game really enjoyed Oliver&Spike as well (and it was hard to get some of them away for others to try). We do get input from potential partners that there focus and strategy is towards core gamers and that they believe O&S is only for a younger audience. We have never agreed with this notion and whenever we show it live we seem to get core gamers equally interested than casual or younger gamers which proves us somewhat right. At least I tend to think so.

When it comes to critical feedback, the character and camera controllers are probably the most important mechanic. It can make or break a game, especially with our gameplay. People have commented both favorable but also gave some good input so we spend a lot of time tweaking and adjusting them.

Rock Pocket Games has created smaller mobile games for iOS in the past. Could you see any of your iOS mobile games being a good fit on the 3DS eShop or PS Vita? For example, maybe something like Monster Mania?

Oh absolutely. We basically just need the time. We are already balancing tons of projects as well as trying to keep our company afloat. Several of our mobile titles would fit well with other handheld platforms. A lot of our mobile projects are however work-for-hire so we have to check with the actual clients as well. “The Package” might be a good candidate as well. After all it was App of the week in the States.

In what ways has Unity made development easier?

Oh wow, where to start. For one it is super fast and easy to create a demo/prototype for some early pitches and to explain about mechanics. Our Artists are also super happy to be able to use Unity and do things on their own without having to rely on the programmers.

Creating ports is also much easier and much less of a headache and the Unity team has been very approachable and supportive both of our games and in terms of technical support. We are also giving a lot of feedback and do testing to return the favor 🙂

I also would like to mention the amazing Nintendo deal which basically negates the license cost to publish to Nintendo platforms with Unity. Truly great move from both Unity and Nintendo.

But to summarize: The ability to create tools so both designers and artists can use it without having to rely on programmers. That is probably it’s biggest advantage.

At the moment, how far in completion (percentage wise) is the game? Do you have an estimated release date set for Oliver & Spike?

We basically have a vertical slice with all necessary mechanics in place and around 1h of gameplay parts from the first Episode. We have created the tools to develop efficiently and the story and design is all done. What is left now is to flesh out the characters and dialogs and get the rest of the content in (additional characters and level design). We just hired a dedicated level designer and are working with experienced industry friends on making sure the story and characters are going to be appealing and engaging. This means all in all there is still about a year of production left.

As far as a release date goes: If we would have a partner say yes today: Autumn next year 😉

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