In all ways, "studio" is a fitting description for the working environment of Loveshack Entertainment, a developer formed by a trio of talented ex-Firemint employees. Sitting — literally — atop Millipede, another creative company whose most recent accomplishment is the absurdly well-polished iOS game Run That Town, Loveshack, in its entirety, occupies a space similar in size to an inner city studio apartment — in New York. Within its surprisingly sunny confines, they chip away at Framed, easily one of the more innovative and refreshing titles currently in development in Australia.
It is a lofty accolade, to be sure, but even a few moments of poking and prodding Framed's comic-book stylings and its elegance and originality become strikingly clear. Currently being developed for iOS, the developer has plans to release on other platforms, including PC.
"We tend to call it a 'narrative panel-swapper' or 'interactive narrative puzzle game'," explains Joshua Boggs, one of the studio's founders and primary coder. The three-year transition from "rosy-glassed freshman" to part-owner of an independent developer has been relatively meteoric for Boggs, whose major credits include lead programmer and eventually project lead on Firemint's SPY mouse, released in 2011.
If the genre of "narrative panel-swapper" doesn't sound familiar, well, it shouldn't. Australia has a hard-earned reputation as a piping-hot incubator of mobile games, but in recent times we've definitely started to play it safe. There are only so many endless runners and puzzle games one can play before the question is asked: Does Australia have anything else to offer the burgeoning mobile gaming market?
It could be argued that revisiting these reliable genres is a good move, especially for a new indie trying to establish itself. This, however, is a sentiment Loveshack doesn't agree with.
"While Framed is certainly risky due to its unproven design philosophy, for me, it would have been more risky doing something that was an iteration of genre that is more widespread," says Ollie Browne, designer, artist and Loveshack co-founder. Browne spent a lot of time in quality assurance, working for developers including Atari Melbourne House and Tantalus, before contract designer work saw him snag a full-time gig at Firemint. "If we have this chance to make a game as a small team, why wouldn't we do something different, even if it's a bit scary doing so?"
Boggs feels the same way. "I actually think going down the beaten path is riskier. It's such a crowded market so if you're not innovating or doing something new in some way, it's going to be harder to stand out."
Framed, hopefully, will be the first of many titles to remind the world that Aussie developers are still innovating their socks off.
The gameplay of Framed is disarmingly simple. As I stand in Loveshack's cosy office space, I'm handed an iPad with a recent build of the game. At first, I see what looks a page from a comic book; frames of action separated by gaps of whitespace that promise endless hours of entertainment, conjured from my imagination and supplemented by the elegant, yet provocative graphics.
It's no accident that the game evokes this feeling.
"I've always been interested in new forms of narrative and have always felt the best games unify the game mechanics and narrative seamlessly," says Boggs. "The concept of Framed came from the idea of having clearly defined actions whose meaning changes based on the context — what came before. I believe that the context an action happens in is more interesting than the action itself."
Essentially, instead of providing the player with buttons or gestures that fire a gun or make the protagonist jump, you rearrange the panels of the comic and the action figures itself out, based on the changing context.
"It wasn't until [I read] Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics that the mechanic flourished into rearranging 'narrative frames'," Boggs continues. "The frames do more than just separate panels ... we use the gutters between each panel to launch the player out of one frame and catch them in the next; allowing the player to relish the time in imaginative free fall and connect the dots between each one."
The entire adventure is wrapped up in a noir-themed story, where even the protagonist's motives are unclear. With a quick swapping of frames, he goes from killer to patsy, cunning deceiver to innocent fall-guy.
Each page of the story can be seen as a puzzle and until you figure out the solution, you'll stand witness to a variety of failures. Except in Framed, getting it wrong is just as fun as nailing it on the first attempt.
Watching on, Boggs comments that people tend to play in two different ways. Method #1 involves staring intently at the panels, analysing the multiple paths the protagonist can take, before settling on what is, hopefully, the correct configuration and watching the action play out.
The second approach — the one I employed — is to arrange the panels in an assortment of progressions, knowing full well that you've got it completely wrong. I found myself enjoying the various narratives that could occur and it seemed a waste to jump to the conclusion without exploring everything there was to see.
It turns out this design choice is intentional and as a result, Framed becomes a toy, in a way — even though the square peg will never go in the round hole, one has to try anyway, lest their curiosity eat away at them.
The game, the design, feels seamless, though I can tell from my own experience as a developer, that significant work has gone into perfecting the gameplay.
"It's been pretty tricky ... but it's gotten easier as we gain experience with it," explains Adrian Moore, Loveshack's final co-founder, designer and music guru. Moore has an extensive résumé, which includes stints at Bullfrog and Lionhead. He's worked on Theme Hospital and Syndicate Wars and was the lead designer on SPY mouse while at Firemint.
"The biggest challenge is breaking our minds away from where we've seen before — something I've been struggling [with], anyway. Framed requires a whole new way of thinking. There are many levels to it as the context-changing occurs scene-by-scene but also each act and in a larger sense as the acts themselves can be interpreted differently, depending on how the game is played."
The game also throws up its fair share of artistic quandaries.
"The most challenging thing for me is working out how best to frame each panel in a scene," says Browne. "So, we have these distinct actions that occur (or don't, or something else occurs) in each panel ... So I have to take into account the actions that may occur in each panel, make sure they'll all be interpretable visually and hardest of all, then make the panel and all possible actions within it appealing aesthetically."
I mentioned elegance before. It's a quality not only of Framed's gameplay, but the development process itself. For instance, putting together a new sequence of panels is done by storyboarding with Post-It notes and once finalised, can be transported somewhat directly into the game.
Oh, there's a bit of programming and art involved too.
"We iterate the overall story, the tricks, illusions and overall mystery of the game and it's story — but we don't have a wordy design document always on the go day-to-day: we use cards instead, stuck up on the wall," says Moore. "The cards contain themes, items, story beats and inventions in visual form. They come into being through a process of us huddling over blank pieces of paper, applying a design process we've come up with mixed with dreaming up new ideas.
"There are individual panels within each scene. Scenes form the acts, or chapters. Panels, scenes and acts themselves all change in context. As you can imagine this is a great challenge for us but it's extremely rewarding."
Moore explains that once they're sure of "at least 90 per cent of the design", the team will go ahead with the actual building phase, leaving the last 10 per cent to work itself out as the ideas are implemented.
Loveshack remains coy on a release date for Framed, with Boggs confidently offering "Before Half-Life 3". Basically, it'll be done when it's done... though hopefully long before the third instalment in Valve's venerable shooter.
One thing is for sure, Moore, Boggs and Browne are happy with their new lives as indie developers.
"I've really enjoyed working at bigger studios mainly because the projects have been fun and my co-workers have all been great, so I wouldn't rule it out in the future," states Browne. "That's still the case at Loveshack but I get to work on something that I co-own creatively and have a real influence on and responsibility for. That's probably the main reason."
Moore is reluctant to say he'll never return to a career at a big studio, but the odds right now are slim. "Seriously — probably not, as Loveshack is too much fun and we really believe we'll be able to make it work ... I have had some great times at other people's big studios over the years and am grateful for those experiences and have learned a lot but independence is my middle name and this is the time."
For Boggs, he felt he needed to rediscover what making games is about: to find the fun again, as it were. "I fell into somewhat of a depression after feeling like a what I did each day didn't make a difference. I'm not sure I could go back to being another resource on a publisher's project. I got into games to create something I would be proud of. I grew up playing games, they've shaped me in a way, and I want to help shape what games will become. I don't feel I could do that in a larger studio, at least not in a traditional sense."
Rest assured, the indie spirit is alive and well at Loveshack. Framed is as unique as it gets and if other mobile studios can follow its lead, Australia will be well on its way to reasserting its credentials as a gaming innovator.
For more information on Framed, head over to Loveshack Entertainment's swanky website. Thanks to Adrian, Josh, Ollie and Stu for taking the time to meet!