Interview: Endgame Studios and the Long Road to Fractured Soul
Posted by Nintendo Life Staff
An eight year journey ends on eShop
Recently, Australian developer Endgame Studios announced that it was self publishing Fractured Soul on the 3DS eShop, a title that has been eight years in the making. The action takes place over two screens at the same time with platforming, run and gun and shmup sections featuring throughout; it'll be released on the eShop in North America on 13th September.
Fractured Soul is not only a promising title in its own right, but it has a long and complicated development history. It's been a labour of love that almost never saw release, and we've spoken to Endgame Studios co-founder and Managing Director Grant Davies to talk about the project, its long route to eShop and his hopes for its release.
Thank you for joining us. First of all, can you explain the basic concept of Fractured Soul?
Sure. Fractured Soul is a classic platform game in the same vein as Mega Man but with a twist - it is played across both screens of the 3DS at once. The player can switch at any time and as often as they like by tapping either of the shoulder buttons. Switching is necessary to avoid hazards or enemy fire, or to simply navigate the level. The game is comprised of 5 worlds and in each of the worlds there is something distinctly different in the upper screen - for example, different gravity or movement properties - which keeps changing the nature of the switching gameplay. There are some shmup levels thrown in for good measure which also use the screen switching mechanic. Finally, we’ve added online leaderboards so that players can compete against their friends or the world for the fastest and most accurate speed runs.
You've explained a history of this game in your blog, sharing how the project was first written up as 'Slidatron' in 2004. Can you explain how the DS dual-screen setup inspired this, and perhaps share the creative process behind the idea of jumping gameplay between both screens?
When the DS was first revealed by Nintendo way back in 2004, Nick Kovac (the other founder of Endgame) and I put our heads together to see how we could use the 2 screens in an interesting way. Initially, it was a shmup game heavily modelled on the duality of Ikaruga. It quickly evolved to a platformer, mainly because we were both platform gamers ourselves, and we had a lot of experience in working on platform game technology. It was still very much a pie in the sky concept in those days - just one of those “wouldn’t it be cool if” hypothetical discussions. Once we prototyped the first few puzzles involving screen switching, we knew we were onto something quite special. From there, the puzzles just kept naturally evolving and becoming more complicated and - at times - ridiculous.
With the title evolving into Fractured Soul in 2008 and fully developed by 2009, you ran into problems getting it to market. Was DSiWare considered as an option at this stage, and if so what prevented the game from moving onto the download platform?
DSiWare was considered at the time, but we’d heard that the platform wasn’t doing so well. A lot of it was anecdotal because Nintendo wouldn’t disclose download numbers to anyone. The other part of the equation was that we’d already sold the DS distribution rights so it wasn’t our call to make. It would have taken additional resources for us to port it to DSiWare and the distributor didn’t feel as though the equation worked.
Endgame then had unforeseen financial issues is 2010. It had now been six years since the concept was born, what was your instinct in terms of whether the title would successfully see release?
With the way the development has gone over the last 10 years, there still remains the possibility of a giant asteroid colliding with the Earth before September 13 to prevent its release...
To be honest, it has see-sawed dramatically over the years. At times it has been within our grasp and then a month later it has seemed as though the company wouldn’t make it and the game would end up as vapourware. This cycle repeated itself too many times to count. After the Great Accountant’s Error of 2010, at first I couldn’t see how the company would possibly pull through - we had so much debt instantly piled onto us. Looking back I’m still not sure how we made it. We just seemed to survive another day and another day, and eventually those days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, and suddenly there was a realistic plan to dig ourselves out of debt. I’m not sure I still believe that the game is actually coming out! With the way the development has gone over the last 10 years, there still remains the possibility of a giant asteroid colliding with the Earth before September 13 to prevent its release...
Did you ever look into adjusting the concept to release on other platforms during these years?
We did. We investigated PC and XBLA at various times. But basing off the DS version, the low resolution 2D graphics would have translated poorly to these high-end platforms, and we felt it would have seriously hurt the quality of the end product. The other option was to completely re-do the graphics, but this was so far beyond our financial grasp it wasn’t even worth considering. Now that we have a 3D version, it’s a much better fit to move it to other platforms.
A retail publishing deal for 3DS with UTV Ignition Games fell through in 2011. Was it at this point that you considered the eShop route, or was that decision taken this year?
Initially we shopped it around as a retail option to other publishers. We came very close to signing a new deal for retail but 3DS retail was just perceived too poorly for it to come together. Our options were to wait and find another retail publisher when the market conditions improved, or to take the plunge on eShop. We’d had a very negative run with publishers over the years and it seemed too risky to wait on them. So we headed for eShop. Digital is quite alluring because it allows us to have a greater control over how our product is presented as well as having a closer relationship with consumers.
How would you describe the process of getting the game released on eShop? Has Nintendo been helpful, and has the process had any particular difficulties?
For us, the difficulty has been in learning and dealing with all those things that publishers normally handle - everything from the approval process through to the paperwork and then of course the media and PR. For Nintendo, they’re launching a new platform which is quite different from what they’ve done before. We also had the additional complications of moving from a retail release to eShop, and online rankings have caused headaches along the way too.
I’d love to see Nintendo develop its relationship with indie developers as it moves deeper into the digital space - providing services like marketing & PR resources and advice would be invaluable to indie studios.
The approval process takes time, and for a developer like us after such a long wait, we’re just so desperate to get the game out into the hands of gamers, it can be frustrating. But at the same time, that longer approval process is what gives gamers the confidence of knowing that there is quality on the eShop. Compare that to something like the App Store where it’s just a bazaar of all sorts of rubbish. I think it’s good that Nintendo maintains its long-time association with quality content, both as a gamer and a developer. I’d love to see Nintendo develop its relationship with indie developers as it moves deeper into the digital space - providing services like marketing & PR resources and advice would be invaluable to indie studios, so maybe that’s something Nintendo can evolve towards further down the track.
With five zones, 30 levels and challenge zones, how much game time do you predict for an average gamer?
This is always a tricky question, but from our observations and estimations it seems about 8 hours to get through the main game, plus many more hours to maximise star counts and unlock all bonus levels, and then of course competing for the best times should keep the hardcore players entertained for some time!
How does this version differ from the completed DS game of 2009, both in terms of visuals and features?
On the visual side, we re-imagined the game from the ground up. Not only because we intended to build the game entirely in 3D, but because we wanted an edgier, more modern look for the 3DS version. We wanted to give a Mirror's Edge kind of sci-fi flavour rather than the traditional 80s sci-fi with dark metallic corridors. So we took inspiration from Mirror’s Edge and 5th Element and then thought about what we could do with that to make it ‘fractured’, in keeping with the theme of the game. We were lucky enough to work with a very talented art director (Marcus Mestrov) and a team of superb artists, and I’m really happy with how the game looks. It was certainly a struggle to get the 3D scenes with all the visual effects rendering at a good frame rate on both screens, but we were also lucky to work with probably one of the most knowledgeable guys in the world when it comes to rendering technology (Mark Wayland), and he managed to accommodate all our crazy requests - mostly with good humour too!
As far as features go, one of the things we were immediately excited about on 3DS was the online rankings technology offered by Nintendo. Speed running is a very important aspect to Fractured Soul.
As far as features go, one of the things we were immediately excited about on 3DS was the online rankings technology offered by Nintendo. Speed running is a very important aspect to Fractured Soul - at least for the hardcore players who want to get really good at the game - and being able to show your score to the world (or just your friends, if you like) is central to that. When we were working on the DS game, we had a shared document with all our best times on it and we’d come in each day and cross each other’s times off as we beat them (accompanied by an appropriate amount of gloating!). It was just so obvious for that to translate to online rankings, it was a must-do for us on 3DS. Of course, the audio is higher quality too, since we can stream CD-quality music on the fly on the 3DS which is virtually impossible on DS.
With play across both screens, how have you dealt with the stereoscopic capabilities and widescreen ration of the top screen?
Fractured Soul does not use the stereoscopic 3D of the 3DS. Since the game involves moving your eyes between screens fairly often, it would have been a terrible idea to implement stereo 3D on one of those screens - there’s no way that your eyes could adjust quickly enough. It turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise, as we then realised we could use the extra processing power to render 3D on both screens. So it was definitely the right result for the game.
As for the widescreen upper screen, all it means for Fractured Soul is that you get to see a little further on that screen. We briefly considered letterboxing it to make it the same size as the lower screen, but it does no harm to let the player see a tad further on the upper screen, so we just left it as-is.
As a release eight years in the making, how excited are you to see Fractured Soul hit the eShop?
Incredibly excited! It’s been such a roller coaster ride over the last 8 years, if nothing else it should demonstrate how strongly we believe in this game that we’ve forged through purely for the joy of making this game and bringing it to gamers - either that, or it merely proves we’re stupidly stubborn. To us, just getting the game to market is extremely rewarding. And over the last week or so since the trailer release, reading the genuine excitement of gamers is certainly making it all worthwhile.
How much will the game cost in North America?
Is there any news on the European/Australian release date?
It’s something we’re working on right now. In fact, we’re in the process of getting it approved by Nintendo for sale in Europe and Australia. These things take a little time, though, so I’d tentatively guess somewhere around November. Being a Melbourne-based developer, we are certainly keen to get the game out in Australia, and gamers have made it pretty clear that they want a European & Australian release asap, so we’re doing all we can to make that happen.
Based on your experience so far, do you have any plans or concepts for future 3DS projects, or are you interested in exploring the home console market with Wii U?
It’s probably taken us way too long to realise that we should specialise in what we know best. And we know platform games best. Probably because we play them ourselves, and have for many years. It’s unlikely you’ll see us diversifying too far from that in the near future. We do have another hardcore platform concept that we’ve been kicking around for a year or so but it’s way too early to talk about yet - after all, it takes 8 years to make a game, doesn’t it?
I would say, though, that we’re very interested in the home console market, and we also see a lot more in the future of Fractured Soul - assuming gamers like it of course!
We'd like to thank Grant Davies for joining us here on Nintendo Life. You can check out the eShop trailer for Fractured Soul below, and we'd love to read your thoughts on the game and its long development history in the comments below.