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Spilt Milk on: Introducing Lazarus

Spilt Milk Studios are currently working with Improbable to create Lazarus, a top-down multiplayer shooter set in a universe that can be developed, built up and then resets every week. In this, the first of a series of developer diaries, Andrew Smith, founder, of Spilt Milk, answers some questions about Lazarus and developing on SpatialOS.


Who are Spilt Milk Studios?

We’re a small indie development studio based in London, and we’ve been making games for just over 6 and a half years (it’s important to count halves until you’re at least ten, as any child will tell you).

We’ve launched games on mobile and PC (and consoles too, soon!), jammed for science, for fun, for charity and for festivals, with VR, touchscreens and controllers. Most recently we launched Tango Fiesta (a co-op top down shooter taking the form of an alternate history of 80’s action movies), The Legend Of Tango (a short and very tongue-in-cheek JRPG that tells the story of how Tango Fiesta came to be), and A Verdant Hue (a peaceful farming game designed as part of the War Child HELP! Gamejam bundle), all on Steam.

What is Lazarus?

Lazarus is a top-down, action-oriented sci fi twist on Groundhog Day where thousands of players battle against each other and work together in a huge persistent real time world, where dogfights, foraging for resources, and exciting new tech combine into a tumultuous ‘MMO Roguelike’ that turns back in on itself every week like some kind of ultra-futuristic Ouroboros.

Now, this actually started as a touchscreen idea a loooooooong time ago, but it was put on hold when we signed Tango Fiesta… But we never did forget it. Back then it wasn’t multiplayer, but it did have a style derived from those favourite games of our childhood – almost invariably Japanese-developed ‘shmups’ released on Mega Drive, Snes or the Sega Saturn. Back then we knew we wanted to make a game where the moment-to-moment movement and combat was satisfying and addictive.

 

But before we get to “Why Lazarus?”, a bit on “Why Any Game?”

As I’ve mentioned, we’re a small team. We have myself on Design and Production, Andrew Roper on Code, Nicholas Lovell as our non-executive advisor, and a few incredibly talented freelancers we love working with, including Andy Grier (Audio) and Steve Hatchard (Art). The way we work as a little team is very important to us.

Anyone who runs a company of any size knows how much the people and the little quirks of working methods define what you do, and how successfully you can do it. You’ve got to find the right people, the right tools, the right goals (…and ideally a bit of luck), if you’re going to do well.

“What if…?” is a game designer’s favourite question… and a producer’s least favourite.

So we’ve got our process, and it doesn’t revolve around massive technical endeavours as much as good gameplay. Whatever lets us get to the game as soon as possible, and more importantly gets that game being played by REAL PEOPLE, the better.

We like making sensible, informed decisions, and this is the best way to make that happen. It’d be easy to bite off more than we can chew – and heck, we’re making an MMO right? – but that’s kinda the point of this ramble. I think you can probably see the punchline coming, but first a little bit more on the buildup.

 

Why make Lazarus specifically then?

Since Tango Fiesta, we’ve wanted to explore multiplayer more. The fun that can be had in groups of co-operative and competitive players is second to none. There’s an element of us wanting to see wide success, and by producing a multiplayer game you hope to multiply that, but basically it just comes down to watching people laugh and joke and jostle each other playing Tango Fiesta in co-op, and wanting to see what would happen if we really doubled down on that feeling.

gameplay

Following that train of thought, we wondered how we could ever possibly make what amounted to an MMO with our methods, and our team size. I’m sure we’ve got the great ideas and the talent to execute them in and of themselves, but to go so big – to have thousands of players joining in, and ideally affecting each other’s fun in interesting – ways was a whole other thing.

Most MMOs basically try to iterate on the same broad concepts, with large-ish groups of players working together in sharded experiences. Those game take years, with huge teams of developers and the kind of funding that is beyond our wildest dreams. So what kind of game would we be making? What corners would we have to cut, what features would we have to reimagine… It all seemed a bit much early on, but the more we thought about what we could do given the opportunity, the more we felt we had to give it everything and try.

People often talk about the stories they’ve experienced in games, sharing cool moments they’ve had, comparing notes. But what if your experience was truly your own, and not only could you share the telling, but you could share the forging of it? What if your actions didn’t just tick a box that got ticked by hundreds of player before you? What if what I did affected you in meaningful ways? What if our stories were inextricably intertwined?

“What if…?” is a game designer’s favourite question… and a producer’s least favourite.

So SpatialOS, then…

And the punchline comes. Predictable – but nevertheless, true. The “What if”s of Lazarus are going to be enabled by building on SpatialOS.

We started wanting to make something really cool and really multiplayer; we’re now convinced we’re making something actually new.

We first got a glimpse of SpatialOS by invitation at EGX in 2015, and we were instantly a bit enchanted by the promises and evidence of Improbable’s delivery, all made in a boxy white room at the back of one of those giant NEC halls.

I remember it with uncommon clarity partially because of the tech, partially because of Herman’s amazing energy, and partially because we got to meet Image & Form, an incredible indie we’re massive fans of.

Fanboy name-dropping aside, it’s not often you see some tech and can instantly start seeing the cool – and genuinely new – things you could do with it. Back then we were impressed, but it took a few months before the obvious happened – we realised it’s a brilliant platform on which we can build a game like Lazarus, and it’s a platform that’s been made in such a way that we can do it in the way we need to.

The small team, the focus on playable builds, and the fact that it’s able to take the worry and a chunk of the challenge out of creating the kind of game we’re dreaming of, allows us to concentrate on the game itself. Take for example, just getting an online, synchronous action game to work, and by work I mean ‘be playable, responsive and relatively bug free’. If I said we’d managed to achieve that, from a totally blank start, within 3 weeks, would you believe me? Well one of those weeks was onboarding. And all three of them were with one coder (the admittedly talented and very hardworking Andrew Roper). Oh, and no crunch. Of course it’s still an Early Access product, but much as Unity has democratised game development, SpatialOS makes creating online worlds that much simpler.

It’s not just about simplicity, though – it’s about ambition. SpatialOS is offering persistence and scale in such a brutally effective way that, whereas we started wanting to make something really cool and really multiplayer, we’re now convinced we’re making something actually new.

And I never thought I’d say that.

So this is the first of a series of insights into what we’re up to, and next time we’ll delve into more details on some specific challenges, and how we overcame them.