Screencheat wasn't originally meant to have online multiplayer. This is the first-person shooter that looks synonymous with multiplayer. The game whose logo is basically an advertisement for four-player split screen games.
It was just going to be a couch co-op experience. But Samurai Punk's situation wasn't conducive to developing that.
Screencheat has since grossed $450,000 on Steam. It's certainly come a long way.
"I was forced to move back to Sydney with my family since I was laid off from my part time job and didn't have any time to find a new one," Samurai Punk artist and director Nick McDonnell told me. The team was fresh out of university, fresh from building the Screencheat prototype for the Global Game Jam two years ago.
But rather than riding the wave of attention and interest that came out of the jam, reality struck. McDonnell lost his part-time job. Unable to continue paying the bills, he had to return to Sydney (from Melbourne) to move back in with his family.
It's not a conducive situation for creative thinking. It's harder when your studio's lead programmer is in a separate state from your lead artist and level designer. You can't easily go to your colleague's place for drinks and knock out a few hours of development. You can't just easily brainstorm something in person. It's remote. It's isolated.
The team needed a way to test their own game. And that's how Screencheat's online multiplayer was born.
It seems weird to even consider that Screencheat, a game with over 150,000 owners on Steam, wouldn't have shipped with online multiplayer. But it was necessary for development to continue.
There's an awful lot more to Screencheat than the multiplayer. But there's a reason why it's inclusion is such an important feature: because adding online multiplayer more than doubled the game's programming budget.
It's almost like the accounting of video game development: if online play is done well, you won't notice a thing. If it's done poorly, everything breaks — and there are so many ways for something to go wrong.
It's even harder when you try to implement that for consoles. Microsoft have different certification requirements to Sony. Unity's support for each platform varies. And that's not even mentioning the optimisation required to get the buttery smooth performance necessary on PS4 or XBO for a multiplayer shooter.
"We had no idea how much we would have to internally restructure the game's architecture to get console like flow with multiplayer working in a way that didn't break certification requirements," McDonnell told me. "I think a lot of the issues came up because we didn't research the next gen consoles enough ahead of time as most of our team was thinking from experience mainly in last gen games."
"Porting networking to consoles ended up being a big chunk of the work for the ports overall as both platforms have really weird bottlenecks in terms of the way we need to structure player interactions with each other and what players can and can't do. For example since we have voice chat on Xbox players need to be able to mute each other at all times they can hear each other. So there's a lot of these weird cases that when building the PC version we just hadn't taken into account that led to a lot of refactoring when we came to bring the game to consoles."
Overall, it's been an immense learning process for Samurai Punk. When they coded the original prototype, only one member of the team had any formal experience in game development (and that was only the one project). Developing for consoles taught them the subtleties of the certification process. They learnt the value of keeping pace with Unity upgrades; after being forced to upgrade to the latest Unity version mid-development, McDonnell had to spend a month recoding all the materials and lighting in the game.
But, as they've continued to do so since the Global Game Jam two years ago, they survived. The team excelled enough to secure around $75,000 in grant money from the Australian government. They flourished enough to attract the interest of their publisher, Surprise Attack. They managed to earn around $450,000 in gross revenue just through Steam. And after Screencheat's release on consoles this week, they'll start to ramp up work on their next project.
"I think Screencheat really nailed into a couple of bones for people, the big two being the resurgence of local multiplayer which we've seen other games do really well with," McDonnell explained. "I think it really shows when we see mentions on Twitter of people pitching the game for us to their friends exactly the way we would pitch it at an event."
The split-screen shooter may not be considered a local classic in the way Antichamber, Satellite Reign, Armello or even Hacknet is. But Samurai Punk continues on. They're able to pay their staff. Not much, but enough to live. And they're able to develop their own ideas and passions.
They're an Australian success. Not an interstellar one, but for a small team not long out of university, a success nonetheless.
Screencheat is out on PC, PS4 and Xbox One now.