Phantom 8 Studio’s Producer Simon Gerdesmann discusses the challenges involved in developing their first game.
Past Cure was only recently released and although it wasn’t very well received, it still has some good ideas in it. In the game, players explore the story of Ian who is slowly losing his grip on reality and this is also reflected in the gameplay to some extent.
To learn more about the game’s development, Gamingbolt reached out to Phantom 8 Studio’s Managing Director and Producer Simon Gerdesmann to discuss the inspirations behind the game, Xbox One X and PS4 Pro development, and more.
"Our ambition was to have varying gameplay, together with a cinematic experience and a good story. We want to show with Past Cure what a very small and experienced team can do with the current technology available."
As a newly started up studio, were there any particular difficulties you faced in getting your first game out there?
Past Cure is our first game ever, also for the 8 team members it is, except for 1 – 2, their first experience of making a game. From the viewpoint of being completely new, we had to learn a lot. Technical pipelines and time it needs to deliver certain items (eg cleaning animations took much longer), limitations of small team in terms of scope and for example how to market a game.
We had to learn everything from scratch and the learning curve was quite high and prepared us to deliver better games in the future. The team is now in good shape, but we cannot deny that it was sometimes a crazy rollercoaster.
Also getting the game out on different platforms at the same time and even deliver an indie game at all is a high achievement that other indies do not even reach. It is a hard business and you need to be sharp on all levels of a game production to achieve a release.
Did you feel like some things were easier or more advantageous due to working as part of a smaller studio?
Communication in the team, between the team members, was very good and led to many good ideas and quick problem solving.
Usually games favor either action or stealth. Have you tried to achieve a balance with Past Cure? If so, how?
Our ambition was to have varying gameplay, together with a cinematic experience and a good story. We want to show with Past Cure what a very small and experienced team can do with the current technology available. This meant for us that we focused on the visual production values rather than on gameplay innovation. We wanted to make an action game but also have stealth elements to give people more strategic options and agency in tackling problems. Also with the more survival / puzzle focused levels, we felt that stealth would serve well there. But the story and especially the experience of an anti-hero and a tormented mind with psychological issues was something we put our primary focus on. This had influence on the voice acting, the level design, special skills, etc.
What inspired you to make a game dealing with the issue of mental illness? Do you see the medium as being able to effectively portray such issues?
A different hero character. In games most main characters are the classic hero. That intrigued us. With Past Cure, we have built a main character that is kind of an anti-hero but grows throughout the game. Games are a great medium to portray elements of psychological or mental issues, as players are forced to experience things a little more, rather than just spectate. On the other side, feedback from early testing caused us tone down the hallucinatory and abstract sequences. Seeing the current reviews, we should have maybe increased it instead. Time to think about a patch that changes that 🙂
Also we believe that people do not understand this major part of the game. Maybe we should have focused more on the gameplay than on delivering an art house story, that takes something to understand. But as an indie studio we dared to go down this route.
Can you tell us a little about what inspired you to make this game?
In addition to the previous point, also the MK Ultra / Project Bluebird experiments of the CIA are part of the games story inspiration. They were a starting point to elaborate what human experiments do with the mind of the people they experiment on. Also movie concepts like Inception (different layers of realities or dreams) and Fightclub (alter egos, psychological issues and how you handle them) drove our inspiration for Past Cure.
On the overall game side, we were intrigued by the technology evolvement of development tools in the recent years. Due to the UE4, motion capture and 3D scanning evolution we saw us challenged to make the best use of those to deliver high production values with a small team.
"We tried to draw on the story telling focus of cinema though, something that a lot of games don’t aim for."
This is a game that has drawn comparisons with titles such as Heavy Rain. What would you say sets apart Past Cure from other games that seem to be similar?
We do not really understand where that comparison comes from. We are a newbie studio and we simply cannot compete (on all levels that make up a game) with the likes of Heavy Rain. The general similarities I can see are more to do with the cinematic look, story driven approach and mature tone of the art style. What sets us apart from a title like that, is our varying gameplay and action and stealth gameplay.
When you look at Past Cure from a small indie studio perspective, the game differentiates in terms of the overall approach. We wanted to show what small teams can achieve in terms of quality of production values. We took quite some risk as this meant that we could not focus on some small core mechanics but had to bring in more and varying gameplay. Otherwise we could have made a walking simulator game to tell only the story. We wanted to give the player more than that.
The superpowers that the main character gains comes at the cost of his sanity. Does this theme tie into the gameplay as well?
Yes it was the intention that you lose your sanity the more you use them. We could have explored this in more detail and will do now as we see that people like the idea and concept. During the production of Past Cure we had a lot of ideas, but were afraid as to the negative gameplay experience. Here we underestimated the gamers. We are working on this and maybe can find a good way to bring this into the game in a near future patch.
The game is said to have been inspired by films such as Inception and Fight Club. Are your inspirations for this game drawn primarily from cinema? If so, how has this affected the development of the game?
Some of the visual styles and concepts behind those movies definitely inspired us. We tried to draw on the story telling focus of cinema though, something that a lot of games don’t aim for. We also tried to mimic the movie feel by locking the game camera in classic movie 16:9 format with the black bars on top and bottom.
What has the development process for the game been like? Is it something you’re eager to get back to once this game is released?
Yes we are very eager to continue and work on a next game. The team grow and showed that it has the skills to make something nice. We just need to focus more instead of going broader, that is what we learned from the reviews and user feedback. On the contrary we also hope that people start to like Past Cure and understand what the story is behind the game. Players that dig into it and understand it, like it very much.
This is a game with a heavy emphasis on story. How have you strived to achieve a balance with the gameplay and the storytelling?
The story should tie the gameplay together and form the base to allow the extreme switches in environment and gameplay styles. People that want to understand it completely would need to investigate all story items in the game and bring them together to unravel the truth of Past Cure. The story is not easy to understand if you just hop over the game.
"There is a lot that I would advice new game developers. Developing the game is only 50% of releasing a game. Take good care of you internal management, PR and marketing as also external production and communication"
Is there any advice you would like to pass onto aspiring new game developers?
There is a lot that I would advice new game developers. Developing the game is only 50% of releasing a game. Take good care of you internal management, PR and marketing as also external production and communication. No one gives you a hand and tells you what to do with the first parties for example. So dive into the different platforms and their specifics right from the start. What we learned is that you should reach out to fellow game studios in your city or region as they probably have more experience and are eager to help you out with some questions.
Past Cure is now confirmed for the PS4 and Xbox One, which also means it will support the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X. Can you please let us know the resolution and frame rate it will run at on the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X?
We are working on a version that is optimised for both, Pro and X. This will come as a patch in the coming weeks or months. But this is not our major focus atm.
And the resolution and frame rate on the base PS4 and Xbox One versions?
Resolution is currently HD and between 30 and 60 FPS. We also found out that UE4 was more optimised for PlayStation than Xbox.
Given that you are now working on both the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, what kind of technical differences did you found between the two?
We are not working on those consoles at the moment. For example it is not straight forward to even get a dev kit for the Xbox One X, you cannot just order them, they come on a “if available”base.
In a recent interview, Mark Cerny, the lead engineer of the PlayStation 4 Pro claimed that converting a base PS4 game to PS4 Pro version is just 0.2 Or 0.3% of the overall effort. What is your take on this? Do you think that the extra work required to develop an additional Pro version will actually be bigger than the number quoted?
This heavily depends on the engine you use. When you plan for it from the start, I think it is just a little more work. So yes, if you plan it, I would say rather 1-3 % more effort.
"Yes, when you have more freedom on console, you can go to higher specs on PC as well. But all depends on the engine and how well it is prepared for higher specs."
Sony are promising an advanced work distributor in PS4 Pro along with new Polaris features like Delta color compression. What is your take on these features and do you have plans to take advantage of them?
No plans atm. We just recently received our PS Pro dev kit. It is quite expensive to purchase a dev kit for a small indie studio.
Xbox One X has a ton of memory on board (12GB in total and 8GB of that is available for games). Do you think PC game developers such as yourself, will now be setting your PC memory requirements even higher in the future due to Scorpio offering even higher memory allocations?
Yes, when you have more freedom on console, you can go to higher specs on PC as well. But all depends on the engine and how well it is prepared for higher specs. Unreal Engine is getting there on their newest version. The hard thing is that during a project a move from one to the next engine version is not easy to achieve and you are bound to what you can work with.
The Xbox One X has undergone minor but noticeable improvements on the CPU front but Microsoft’s push for DirectX12 for GPU seems to have done a lot of good for the console’s GPU. But do you think the somewhat mediocre improvement in CPU will hold back the Xbox One X?
What we learned is that good mix between artistic direction and technical implementation allows to make high quality production values with limited CPU resources and computation powers.
Is there anything more you’d like to tell our readers about Past Cure?
We are very proud of what we have achieved with this unexperienced 8 man indie team and that we could manage to get Past Cure release on different platforms and all around the world on the same day. Many studios fail way before.
We hope that Past Cure can form the base for many more in the future and that we can grow and learn from Past Cure and enable our team to achieve more.