In 2005, the ambitious science fiction epic Advent Rising was released for the Xbox. While the game received a mixed reception that led to the premature ending of a planned trilogy, what the game did right gained co-creators and first-time developers Donald and Geremy Mustard industry recognition, which is almost worth as much as an award winning title. Two years later, the brothers are set to get noticed all over again as Chair Entertainment prepares to release Undertow, their first game for the Xbox Live Arcade. I got a chance to talk to Donald and Geremy about the company, their inspiration, and their hopes for their multiplayer underwater battle game. As The Story Goes... Undertow begins with the destruction of the Earth...at least the dry bits. Having fled from a dying world, aquatic aliens the Elect find their spaceship low on fuel. Desperate for a new place to live, they stumble upon our planet, which would be perfect if not for all of that pesky land. The simple solution? Melt the polar ice caps. Unfortunately, humanity needed those dry bits, and are nearly wiped out. Struggling to survive, the Iron Marines head underwater, only to raise the ire of one Captain Nemo, whose Nemodian followers had lived in uneasy truce with the surface dwellers. To make matters worse, the ice caps melting have revived the Atlanteans, hell-bent on reclaiming the oceans that were once their kingdom.
The single player and co-op story mode consists of 15 missions that follow the three races' struggle. Players choose from one of four upgradeable units per race and are launched into fast-paced undersea battles. Once the story ends the fun is just beginning, as Undertow takes the game online for 16 man multiplayer madness.
The Perfect Chair
If you've read any of my previous articles on Undertow, you know I am fascinated with the name of the company, Chair Entertainment, so naturally my first question was about the reasoning behind the name. I had several ideas as to the origin, all of them hilariously funny, and none of them involving Ancient Greece.
"The name derives from Plato's Theory of Forms," explains creative director Donald Mustard. The theory basically suggests that there are two worlds - the physical realm we live in and a realm of ideas where the perfect templates of everyday objects exist. One example used is a chair. Every chair you see is derivative of the perfect chair, existing in this idea dimension. "It's about the pursuit of perfection...trying to make that perfect game...the perfect chair." And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why he is the creative director.
The Inspiration For All That Wetness
Games aren't often set underwater, which is a shame. Many more games are set in space, when our own oceans are as much, if not more, of a mystery to us.
"There's just so much you can do underwater," explains Donald, who as a child would draw stick figures of warriors doing battle underwater. "You can create a rich, beautiful world underwater and really push the limits of the system in terms of lighting and shadows." And bubbles. I've never spoken to a man so excited about bubbles. These better be some damn fine bubbles.
The setting and story are all about bringing together many different mythologies - Captain Nemo, Atlantis, aliens - together in a wonderfully different setting than your standard space game. I have to admit that Donald's excitement was contagious. It felt like I was talking to a fan at times more than the game's designer, which is definitely a good sign for Undertow.
Cramming a gorgeous single player game and an amazing multiplayer experience into the (at the time) 50MB limit of Xbox Live Arcade games was definitely not an easy task. especially with the Unreal Engine 3 as your backbone. "Unreal Engine 3 isn't exactly the smallest game engine available," explains Geremy Mustard, the game's technical director. "We had to compress things here, trim out features we didn't need, chipping away at it." The result? Probably the smallest iteration of the Unreal Engine 3 you're likely to see in an XBLA game.
The 16 player multiplayer, as Geremy puts it, "Was a beast to get working." You'd imagine that a much smaller game would require less work than say, Halo 3, but you still have multiple players with multiple connections doing multiple actions. It's just as frustrating as working on a big game, but it was all worth it. "When you play it with that many people it's a blast."
Of course several months ago the size limit was raised to 150MB (with Microsoft's approval), but Donald assures me the extra 100MB of space wouldn't have changed a thing. The game would have wound up the same, only less finely tuned. "It turned out to be an awesome constraint, forcing us to boil the game down to its pure essence of fun." Plus, now that they have their engine more streamlined, that leaves all that extra space to make their next title even that much more amazing.
The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
While Undertow has the makings of an amazing game, releasing it on the 21st of November seems a bit risky. Both brothers agree that the season is a time of amazing game releases, and this month is particularly insane. Assassin's Creed, Mass Effect, Call of Duty 4, Rock Band, etc.
"We'd be lying if we said we weren't concerned," explains Donald. "Our hope is that the Live Arcade market is different enough from the retail market." He says that while the majority of retail titles sell the most copies during the first few weeks of release, Live Arcade titles tend to have a much more stable sales rate, sometimes pushing more copies months after the game is released.
Plus, Christmas is coming up, and Microsoft Point cards make excellent stocking stuffers and Secret Santa gifts.
Play With Them
Brothers Donald and Geremy Mustard make an amazing team. With Donald on the creative side and Geremy on the technical side, along with their team at Chair Entertainment they have the potential to create something amazing. I admire them, and in a way I envy them. My brother does construction and I sometimes write entertaining words; the most our brotherhood could come up with is maybe a cinder block end table with a humorous pamphlet on top.
What impressed me even more is their motivation in creating Undertow. Sure, they want to make money and achieve success, but in the end Donald narrowed it down to one driving force. "Undertow is the game we wanted to play. Hopefully people will think it's cool and play with us."