Yesterday I was lucky enough to get the chance to shoot a few questions at one of the minds behind the upcoming platformer title, ‘Never Alone‘. Here’s what they had to say:
Console Monster: Greetings and thanks for setting aside the time to talk to me today. First off, could you let us know who you are and what is your role at E-Line Media?
Grant Roberts: Hello! My name is Grant Roberts, and I’m the Lead Game Designer here at E-Line Media.
CM: E-Line Media is based in Seattle, WA, correct? There seems to be a strong indie developer presence there. How would you describe the company and has your location influenced your games in any way?
GR: Well, our location has definitely influenced the game we’re making, since we’re a short plane ride away from Barrow, Alaska. Barrow is the northernmost city in the United States, where members of the development team have frequently visited in order to meet with members of the Alaska Native community. We couldn’t have made this game without the constant collaboration with the storytellers, elders, and other community members we’ve met along the way.
Even though we have full-time QA resources and a team of almost two dozen people — and we’re about to ship to three platforms across ten languages worldwide — we still consider ourselves an indie studio here in Seattle. If someone sees something that needs doing, they don’t wait for someone else to get it done. They roll up their sleeves and make it happen themselves. No one is above fixing bugs, moving office furniture, recording footage for trailers, or playtesting for hours straight.
And you’re definitely right about the indie scene in Seattle. An old co-worker of mine, Zach Aikman of 17-BIT, runs a local Seattle Indies group that has regular events in the area. Whenever I get the chance to go, it’s really inspiring to see what everyone is passionate about and talk to them about what they’re working on.
CM: Your upcoming release, ‘Never Alone‘ is a puzzle/platformer set within a harsh, snowy environment; can you tell me a little more of what the game is all about?
GR: Well, you summarized it pretty well there already! We call it an atmospheric puzzle platformer that’s set in the incredibly harsh climate of the Arctic. You play as a young Iñupiaq girl named Nuna and her arctic fox companion, either in single-player or local cooperative mode. Nuna’s village and her entire way of life are threatened by the worst blizzard that anyone has ever seen, so she and Fox set out on a quest to find the blizzard’s source.
Along the way, the two companions use their unique abilities to solve puzzles, make heroic leaps, confront enemies both strange and familiar, and always work together on their journey to save everything they’ve ever known.
CM: What are some of your favorite features or moments in the game? And is there anything that you had to leave out that you wish had made the final release?
GR: We’ve had to leave plenty of things out of the final release, unfortunately. There have been dozens of concepts that we’ve had to put in a drawer or cut entirely because we wanted to keep a laser focus on the story we wanted to tell and the game we wanted to make. Hopefully, if Never Alone is successful, we may be able to bring some of them back someday!
As for my favorite features or moments, there are just too many to list here. I can say that scrambling up walls with Fox and performing acrobatic jumps is always satisfying, no matter how many tens of thousands of times I’ve done it over the life of the project. And some of the puzzles in the game are still really enjoyable to solve even after I know exactly how they work. One of the core values of the Iñupiat people is interdependence, and we’ve really tried to exemplify that in the things you do during the game as well as the way we’ve developed it.
CM: This is your first project on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, correct? What were some of the difficulties and/or benefits of working with new hardware?
GR: Back at the start of the project, our plan was to release for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. But as we got further along, we realized that to really make the game embody the vision that we had in our heads (and to faithfully represent the culture we’ve been lucky enough to work with), we had to target the latest consoles. Luckily, we’re using the Unity engine for Never Alone’s development, which has made both that transition and continuing development much easier than it would have been with making an engine ourselves.
Unity is really great for a team to get something up and running quickly, and then scale it appropriately over the course of development. Plus, if the game is successful enough for us to explore other platforms, Unity will make that much less painful than it could be, too.
The main difficulties we’ve run into with new hardware is simply the short time frame we’ve had to get the game up and running on the consoles. We got our development hardware a little later than we would have liked based on the schedule of our project, so it’s been pretty amazing to watch the Engineering team work their magic. We went from not even having the dev kits in house to the game running beautifully on all three platforms in a matter of months.
CM: The PlayStation 4 has some very unique features such as the DS4’s touch pad, light bar and gyroscopic sensor, and the Xbox One of course has the Kinect Sensor; did you implement any of these features? If so, what purpose do they serve?
GR: Since we want as many people as possible to play the game at launch, we’ve been really focused on the core gameplay experience being as polished as possible across all three launch platforms. Since we’re not a very big team, that’s meant that most console-specific features have taken a backseat to a great game for all systems.
However, as a game designer, all the things you mention are really exciting to me. I really hope we can incorporate more console-specific features like those in the future, along with the unique features of some of the other consoles in the marketplace. Fingers crossed!
CM: I know that Never Alone has deep cultural roots to the history and heritage of the Alaskan Native community, may I ask what attracted you and your team to this wonderfully unique culture and how has it affected the outcome of the game?
GR: The Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) approached E-Line Media a few years ago with the idea to make a game based on the rich storytelling history of the Iñupiat people. Sean Vesce, the Creative Director at E-Line, assembled a team of game industry veterans who were eager to work on something with such a positive message and development process.
For me personally, it’s really gratifying to be a part of a development team like this — and a part of a larger team of game developers, Alaska Native community members, and Iñupiat elders. Never Alone is the most rewarding thing I’ve worked on in my 17-plus years in this business, and I can’t wait for the world to play it in a few days.
CM: What does the future hold for E-Line Media?
GR: Well, like I’ve already mentioned, that depends on how successful we are with Never Alone! I can say that over the course of this project, people from all over the world have taken notice of what we’re doing. The feedback from the press has been overwhelming. The response from gamers at all the trade shows we’ve attended has been phenomenal. And we’ve even been approached by representatives from other cultures who’ve seen how much we care about telling stories through this inclusive development process, and want to work together with us to tell stories from THEIR culture through this new genre of games we’re creating.
But we’ve also grown pretty attached to Nuna and Fox, so I don’t think anyone has heard the last of them.
CM:Speaking of other games, what are some of the current favorites of the team?
GR: We’ve all been working really long hours over the last few months (and for some, over the entire project) to make Never Alone as great as it can possibly be. Unfortunately, that’s meant very little time for playing other games — I hear people on the team raving about Shadow of Mordor, Sunset Overdrive, Destiny, and other recent hits, and I can’t help but be a little jealous.
But hey, I’m a game designer, so I can’t go TOO long without playing something. It’s just that a lot of my playing has had to happen during my commute. So lately, my 3DS has been getting a bit of a workout with Fire Emblem: Awakening, Shovel Knight, the latest Theatrhythm, Etrian Odyssey IV, and other nerdy titles. So much of a workout, in fact, that the top screen stopped working the other day — so I’ve had to switch to my Vita for bus games. Which means more Spelunky and Rogue Legacy than I’m comfortable admitting.
I’ve also had the chance to finally check out some of our peers in the puzzle platformer space while at my desk, usually while waiting for builds to finish. So I’ve really been enjoying The Swapper, The Fall, Schein, and especially Teslagrad. It’s never been a better time to be someone who makes and plays games!
I’d like to thank Mr. Grant Robertsfor taking the time to sit down with me, we wish you and your team all the best!
Never Alone hits PSN and Xbox LIVE tomorrow. Keep an eye out for our review which will also release tomorrow!