When Guerrilla Cambridge shut down in January 2017, it had been running for 19 years. Among its staff were veterans Alex Kanaris-Sotiriou and Tom Jones, who at the time were working on RIGS, a first-person shooter in development for PlayStation VR. The pair had been at the studio for over a decade, and the shutdown came as quite a shock. Today, though, Alex and Tom are keen to take positives from the experience.
“It was tough, we’d been there a long time, but equally you have to be philosophical about these things,” Tom argues. It left the pair with a decision to make: secure a job with another triple-A dev and continue working in a large-scale studio, or make the jump and go indie. Within weeks of Guerrilla Cambridge’s closure, Alex and Tom had made their decision.
“We saw it as an opportunity to do something else that we might not otherwise have made the leap to do,” continues Tom. “We were afforded the opportunity to go and do something new. We both had opportunities to go and work in studios again, but we (both) felt like doing something in the indie scene – essentially doing something where we could be more selfish in what we were making.”
Polygon Treehouse’s story is one that’s becoming increasingly common: talented, enthusiastic developers leave the triple-A scene in order to join or start their own indie companies. An indie setup affords its members a greater creative freedom seldom possible in larger studios. Smaller teams often lack the resources enjoyed by larger studios, but these limitations positively encourage creative solutions.
“Working for Sony gives you access to big teams and big visions and money,” explains Tom, “but it also brings a lot of challenges, such as constraints in game design. Suddenly, when you’re two guys working from home making a game that you’ve come up with, it’s incredibly different. That’s very liberating, but also very challenging.
“At Sony, we made big, blockbuster games with big teams, and that required a lot of effort, especially with regard to art assets. That’s not to say that we hated it – we enjoyed those projects – but we don’t have a team of 20 artists or an outsource department, so we can’t make a game like that.
“We wanted to make something that felt epic, but we can’t do it in that triple-A art style – it’s just physically and financially impossible. Having that constraint from the start allowed us to find creative solutions, hence why we went for something clean and graphical and colourful, with no normal mapping or sophisticated lighting. (Röki) is really focused and something we can turn around very quickly, as well as being something that is very consistent throughout.”
For Polygon Treehouse, the advantage of being away from the triple-A environment is that you don’t have those same professional pressures coming from higher up. This is especially important in a creative industry. A game with a huge budget is a clunking machine; once the design is in place, there’s only so much steering that can be done once it has begun its journey. And the machine doesn’t stop – if you just aren’t feeling creative some days, it’s not like you can pop into the boss’s office and say ‘You know what? I’m not feeling it today, I’ll see you tomorrow.’
“The freedom to be able to not try and brute-force the creative process is really powerful,” says Alex, “because you can’t brute-force the creative process; it’s one of those things where you will just bang your head against a brick wall.
“That’s a really powerful thing, to be able to say, ‘I’m just going to stop. I’m going to stop, go for a walk, or I’ll take the rest of the day and come at it tomorrow.’”
Building Roki’s world
Alex and Tom’s first game under their new studio banner, Polygon Treehouse, is Roki – an adventure game with a setting inspired by Scandinavian folklore. You take on the role of a young girl named Tove, and delve into a magical fantasy world filled with mystery and uncertainty – quite the departure from the fast-paced, twitch-based virtual reality world of RIGS. It almost feels as though the pair were compelled to create something that was the polar opposite of their previous work – although Alex ensures me that such a creative left-turn wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision.
“We did want to make something that was non-violent,” he agrees, “and something that was more personal and had more emotion in it – something that told more of a story. In terms of design principles and visual design, even though the visuals are really different, a lot of the same principles still apply. You still have silhouette and readability of characters, frequency of detail, composition, and so on. Even if the visual styles are very different, the building blocks and considerations are the same. I think that it’s those principles that have made the art style of Röki so appealing.”
Breaking the Mould
During our conversation with Polygon Treehouse, our chatter drifted from the relative serenity of Röki to the violence more commonly seen in triple-A titles, such as the forthcoming The Last of Us Part II. Unusually, Naughty Dog’s forthcoming sequel will – at least according to a Kotaku interview with director Neil Druckmann – attempt to deal realistically with the consequences of violence. In short, the bloodshed in The Last of Us Part II is intended to give the player pause rather than exhilarate. But in the context of a triple-A game designed to sell millions of copies, is such an innovation even possible?
“The gameplay trailer (for The Last of Us Part II), felt like the visuals had gone so far from being a faceless baddie,” Alex argues. “Not just in how well they were modelled and textured but also how well they were animated; they felt so alive that when someone plunged a machete into someone’s neck… it felt kind of wrong.”
“I think it will be interesting to see whether Naughty Dog are trying to achieve the goal with The Last of Us (Part II) of making something that repulses people. If they do, then that’s really good and potentially really powerful. People who are more introspective might look at that and think, ‘Wow, this game is really challenging me.’ My cynical head, however, wonders how many people will enjoy it solely for the ultra-violence.”
The Future of Indie
Players and developers alike are being drawn to indie games in increasing numbers. The Nintendo Switch has been a hotbed of indie games by itself; titles are being developed specifically for the Switch, while older titles, previously only available via Steam, have had new life breathed into them for the console.
“The indie scene is an opportunity for fresher experiences that aren’t governed by the same expectations as a triple-A, open-world game, where you can spend 100 hours doing stuff,” enthuses Tom. “You can make a two-hour-long game, it can just be side-scrolling or whatever, and that’s fun and liberating. There’s a real freshness to that scene because it allows incredibly creative people to do something that means a lot to them and get it out there.
“Unity is free for a certain team size, Photoshop is ten pounds a month, Maya you can get a light version for 30 pounds a month,” he continues. “So it’s not that much money at all compared to when we were at uni, and you had to buy licenses that cost thousands of pounds in total. It’s crazy how now you can just start making things and put it out there. Even if you’re still at school, you can put stuff out there and get feedback.”
For years, small-scale, low-budget indie games have brought us innovation and creativity, simultaneously hindered and inspired by financial constraints. But we’re also seeing the rise of the high-end indie studio, started by passionate creatives who cut their teeth on bigger, more mainstream games. With Röki, Polygon Treehouse is bringing together a mix of industry experience, budget, and creativity to forge a beautiful-looking game that dares to stray from the beaten path.
Small is beautiful
The creative agility of a smaller team can better accommodate the ebb and flow of the artistic process, and it’s where a lot of innovation stems from in the indie scene. It’s a freedom unique to a small team structure.
“One thing that is very quick is the decision-making process.” explains Alex. “We’re able to move exceptionally quickly in terms of creating characters and getting things up and running. That’s one of the nice things about being more hands-on with the work – when you have to make those calls, it gives you a lot of momentum to spring forward.”