‘There Isn’t A Lot Of Support In Sydney’ For Game Development, Says Winter Ember Director

‘There Isn’t A Lot Of Support In Sydney’ For Game Development, Says Winter Ember Director

Winter Ember is an isometric stealth game reminiscent of the classic games from the Thief series.

Released yesterday, the game puts you into the role of Arthur Artorias, the faceless man. According to the game’s description, you as the player will ’embark on an adventure unravelling a dark tale filled with twisted characters, centred around a militant religion hell-bent on keeping control.’ Based on reviews thus far, the game is an enjoyable experience but also a game in need of further support.

Winter Ember was developed by Sky Machine Studios, a game development studio with roots in Sydney. I happened to stumble across them after work one day, meeting the lead project director Robert Wahby purely by chance and getting to talking about his game. The next day, we organised to have a proper chat about Winter Ember just before its release.

winter ember
Image: Blowfish Studios

What sparked your interest in getting into game development?

Well, I am a nerd, so you have to go back to little Rob running around and playing video games. I’ve always been an avid fan of video games, even back to, maybe three or four years old when I got an Atari. And that Atari was given to me by a neighbour of mine. She was an older lady and she had an Atari for the kids, but the kids moved out, so she gave it to me. 

And it’s actually funny, I remember hooking up that Atari, and I’ve got a scar right in between my forehead, and that scar is because I was hooking up the Atari and I tripped over the cord and fell onto the side of the table. And I was about three or four years old and I was bleeding.

The funny thing is, I got up, looked in the mirror and I was just bleeding. I’m like, “Ah”, and my sister was babysitting me and I ran up to her and I’m like, “Hey, I think I’ve hurt myself.” And she turned to me and she starts crying. So I wasn’t crying at that point, I cried later. That’s actually the initial start of, I guess, my gaming experience from the Atari. 

And then I moved on to PlayStation, and I think the thing that really sparked me on the PlayStation was a game called Metal Gear Solid. That was probably the first game that I really got into that was stealthy, but also very cinematic. And then eventually games like Thief and Splinter Cell came along and that really jumped me into that stealth genre, where you’re sneaking around and hiding within the shadows and that sort of stuff. 

So I guess I’ve always just been a nerd who wanted to play video games.

Then a while ago, there was a friend of mine who was a programmer and he wanted to work on a video game. Eventually, it didn’t go through, as a lot of projects, they fail, and I’m like, “You know what? I can probably still do this. I just need to collaborate with the right people.” 

And so eventually, after I got a taste of making stories and ideas and level designing and all that kind of stuff, just experimenting at that point, I’m like, “I actually enjoy this”. It’s really cool to flex your creative muscle.

And how did Sky Machine Studios come to be?

Well, obviously, I need a company to make a game. The name Sky Machine, if you’re referring to that, it’s a reference to, it’s a song called Sky Machine by a band called Karnivool. That’s actually where I got the name from. 

I thought it would be cool to have a machine that flies in the sky, so that’s where the name came from. And then, obviously, if I needed to create a game, I needed to create a company around that. So that’s where it came from.

Image: Blowfish Studios

So Queensland and Victoria seem to be ahead of the game in terms of supporting indie games and studios. Although your team’s around the world, how have you found working as an indie studio in New South Wales?

Well, there isn’t a lot of support in Sydney itself. The support really came from Unreal. So Unreal, they’ve got this Unreal grant that you can apply for, and so a while ago I applied for that grant and I won, I was one of the recipients of that grant. And then essentially after that, I spoke to a bunch of publishers and started to go with Blowfish Studios as a publisher. 

In Sydney, you really have to find a publisher or someone who’s going to invest something. For me, I had to go to essentially overseas to Unreal to get that support. But in Victoria, from what I understand, they have a very, very strong creative scene, especially in the digital format. 

So I think we are behind when it comes to setting up digital institutions and creative institutions, at least from a Sydney perspective, I think we’re pretty far behind.

Winter Ember is your studio’s first title. What inspired its creation?

So initially the main character was just going to be a little thief running around stealing things. And then as I was trying to create the character, I was thinking, “I don’t want to create a Nathan Drake character, tall, dark and handsome, charming dude. Maybe I should flip it on its head.” And yes, the character, in the beginning, is tall, dark and handsome, and he’s charming, also a bit of a brat and rich and affluent. 

But what if we set him alight and then see what happens when you lose your family, your wealth and your identity and your visual appeal? You have to come back with a different identity, It’s like an ego death. You’ve destroyed your spirit and now you have to rebuild it back up. 

So Arthur is like that, where I wanted to not do the typical hero perspective. He had everything that would make him a hero in the beginning, and I just stripped that away, hence why he is disfigured. So that’s how he came about. And then everything came around the world of Winter Ember, where there is a religious undertone to it. And it is a bit Gothic. It is somewhat inspired by Gotham City and Batman and the Thief series and that sort of stuff.

Image: Blowfish Studios

How’s the development process been so far?

In the beginning, very tough. So the first two years were mostly prototyping and trying to get the prototype up and running. And then once we got proper funding, that’s when we could go all at it. There’s a few challenges, of course, but the main challenge came from getting the lighting right, getting the visuals right. 

The one thing that I like in Winter Ember is the fact that if you go inside a building, the entire world goes black, so it becomes quite claustrophobic. Or if you’re behind something, your line of sight is blocked and that’s our fog of war line of sight system. And that was very, very, very, very hard to pull off just because there’s a lot of calculation involved and it’s a 3D game with a 2D line of sight.

And so it’s hard to translate that, especially in a complicated world where you can go up and down and through buildings and through windows and that sort of stuff. So the challenge came from that system, I think primarily, and then over time trying to get the lighting right. 

So we spent a lot of time tweaking the lighting where we essentially, we relied on, I guess, colour theory. Blues and reds work very, very well together. Before we were playing around with purples and that sort of stuff. So trying to get that right was, I think, quite a challenge. 

But over time, things just got easier and easier as our programming in our systems became more solidified. So yeah, that’s, I guess, in a short way, hard in the beginning, got easier as it went by.

As we mentioned before, the studio is all over the world, so you’ve got people in different countries working on the game as well. What was that experience like?

A lot of odd hours. So I remember when we were doing voice acting and the studio that was in the voice acting work, that was in America. And I remember I wanted to be part of it. So I think we started at 1:00 AM. And so I had to be there and make sure everything was going right. Luckily the voice actors were in capable hands and they were very talented as well, so I was more of an observer. 

But then I also had my banking job at that time, nine o’clock in the morning I had to start. So that would end about three or four o’clock in the morning. I have a little baby nap and then jump into my banking stuff.

But everyone is literally around the world. So I had to adapt to the world’s schedule, and it depends, some people like to sleep late and some people like to wake up early. So I had to figure out okay, I can speak to them at eight o’clock at night because it’ll be 11 o’clock over there. So it’s not a nine to five gig at all. It’s an all-round, nonstop gig.

Image: Blowfish Studios

Now you’ve currently got the demo out. So what’s the reception been like, and have you heard anything that might have an effect on the final product?

The reception so far has been pretty good. You get some people go, “Hey, we love the game, but I think this would be a good idea.” 

One of the things I think we need to tackle before release and, we got it mostly from the feedback from the game, was maybe the camera might be a bit too close to the character. So we might have to pull back the camera a bit. 

We’re not sure if we can pull that off because if you tamper with something like that, you might mess up something in the game that we don’t know of. So we probably have to have a look at that, no guarantees that we’re going to pull it back, but we’ll see.

Another thing is that I noticed that combat maybe is a bit frustrating. Granted it is a stealth game so you want to avoid getting into that sort of stuff, but you don’t want it to be too frustrating. And so we’ve already started tweaking the combat. 

So yes, enemies will block and dodge and all that kind of stuff, but we made Arthur’s attacks more severe. Arthur still has a low health pool because you don’t want to make him a tank, but the enemies are less squishy. So we try to balance out the combat, and that’s always going to be the case. 

Even with the dogs in the game, they could be quite aggressive and really tough to deal with. So we had to really tweak that. So I think combat and camera are the two things that we really got feedback from.

What are your plans for the future in terms of possible future endeavours for Sky Machine Studios or coming up to the game’s release?

Yeah, so I have been doing some work for a future title. I don’t want to reveal anything just yet, but there has been some pre-work that is being worked on at this point in time. And as for leading up to the release of Winter Ember, right now, it’s a huge focus on just trying to get this game as polished and as clean as possible. So we’re doing porting right now to place it on Xbox, Switch, all the platforms. 

So right now what I’m essentially doing is I’m playing the game every single day, even to the point where I’m pulling my hair out because playing one game constantly can be annoying sometimes. And so what I’m trying to do and what my team’s trying to do is trying to find any issues or any problems or something that just doesn’t feel right in the game. And we’re trying to fix those. 

So we do have a list of things that we are slowly going through to polish the game as much as possible and possibly add anything extra.

Winter Ember is out now on PC.

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