This is the story of two Ontario development teams, and all the cool shit that they do.
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Back in Action
The year is 2008. Relatively fresh (in game development time) from the one-two punch of Gamecube awesome that was Eternal Darkness and Twin Snakes, famed developer Silicon Knights releases Too Human to the Xbox 360, where it is immediately shat upon by game journalists from every corner of the Earth. In the resulting shitstorm, Silicon Knights and Epic Games begin a protracted legal battle over various breach-of-contract claims and sneaky royalty stealing. It ends four years later in the defeat of Silicon and a brutal smackdown from the courts: recall every unsold copy of Too Human and X-Men: Destiny, then destroy them. Silicon is decimated by the verdict (not to mention the mixed reception of Destiny), and is left no choice but to start culling staff like deformed Roman babies, nuking entire teams within the span of a few months. Silicon survives, but barely.
Unfortunately for many of the developers, they did not. Games like Siren in the Maelstrom and The Sandman had been in development for years, and when the verdict came down to wipe all assets created using Unreal Engine 3, it meant that anyone who contributed to those titles couldn’t show off their work. Members with a decade of experience were suddenly jettisoned from the company with no portfolio to speak of, nowhere to turn to and few job prospects in sight.
“chaining together impossible shots while still allowing for intense ball locks and wicked multi-ball sections”
It was, as Gordon Ramsay likes to say, all going pear-shaped. A few of the old developers got together to create some sort of portfolio piece, hoping to at least salvage something from their combined years of experience. That was the very first prototype of Rollers of the Realm.
Cue the folks at Phantom Compass, who snapped up a ton of the old hands from Silicon and sailed into the high seas of gaming like the Canadian heavy metal version of the Crimson Permanent Assurance. The two groups melded into a single being of pure light and ascended into space, their dream of an RPG Pinball game beaming out amongst the stars for all eternity.
Then they sent me an email. I was promised Canadian accents and a really sweet high-five, so off I went.
We Caught It On Tape
I met with the Rollers team on Tuesday afternoon, still in a state of slight discomfort after Copenhagen-based developer Julie Heyde attempted to strangle me with my media badge the night before (note to readers: do not beat Julie Heyde at her own games). I was also rocking the world’s gnarliest hangover after consuming one million cups of Stella Artois, and noted to myself that the GDC play floor was ‘really, really too bright.’
The Ontario dev booth was in a completely different state of mind, all high energy and big smiles. True to the proud heritage of America’s hat, they were also extremely polite, allowing me to jump into the game mid-shpeal and test out the pinball mechanics for myself.
For the sake of full disclosure, I will now reveal that I am a pinball fanatic to an almost cultish degree. Back in the mid-90’s I tended to hover around the pinball cabinets at movie theaters and last remaining California arcades, admiring the craftsmanship of the tables and getting a feel for the weight of the ball while my brother traded his tickets for Chinese finger traps. On a good night (and a good table) I could clear hundreds of millions of points on a single play, leading to my current status as reigning virtual pinball champion among all two of my friends who play it.
That also means that I’m very, very hard on poorly designed pinball tables. I grilled Zen Studios’ Bobby Loertscher over the Pinball FX Rocky & Bullwinkle table for a good ten minutes while bemoaning the addition of 3D models to otherwise stellar cabinets, noting that “the dumb, bendy thing is fucking stupid” and “I fucking hate that fucking bendy thing.” If Rollers had shit pinball mechanics, I would have called them out on it.
Then something amazing happened.
The boards, still in a pre-alpha stage, played majestically. The addition of party members as differently shaped balls with special mechanics threw an incredibly interesting curveball into the tried-and-true mix of feathershots and bumper banking, while HP has been mapped onto the main paddles themselves so that enemies can slowly break them apart if you can’t hit them fast enough. Each ball also has a special that allows them to deal more damage to enemies, heal your paddles or tilt your ball all over the arena, chaining together impossible shots while still allowing for intense ball locks and wicked multi-ball sections. A bonus level in a church cropped up at one point, where I quickly found that every row of pews was a giant set of sub-paddles. A boss fight with an angry blacksmith forced me to activate the rogue’s special ability, launching a second, smaller ball into the mix that represented her dog. Apparently, blacksmiths are scared of dogs. Go figure.
“RPG and pinball elements into a mix that wouldn’t push away either audience”
Traditionally heavy-handed story segments were treated with a humorous nod to the idea that characters were represented by metal balls, multi-level stages allowed for launching my characters across rooftops and into the street and the upgrade system for individual characters goes at least twenty factors deep. Want a bigger ball? More tilt influence? Want the knight to stop wobbling around the board because his pinball is drunk all the time? You got it.
In fact, I was so taken aback by the quality of Rollers that I railroaded everyone off the subject of the game and into the processes that spawned it. That’s where I found out about the Silicon Knights refugees and their one final side-project-turned-full-release.
“We had Too Human. We had X-Men Destiny…” they said.
“And that Sonic RPG,” I added.
“Ugh,” they replied. “That wasn’t even the last thing we… anyway.”
I then learned that the entire team, from the handful of full-timers all the way down to the rotating out of house coders and artists, were incredibly happy to be working on a game they believed in again, not to mention one where they could put crazy skills into what might otherwise be a simple virtual pinball game.
“We have a few levels with grass that blows realistically in the wind. Because one of the guys from Silicon was really, really good at making grass blow in the wind.”
They talked to me about balance, about taking RPG and pinball elements into a mix that wouldn’t push away either audience, and the challenges of creating such a game (for a time) on almost zero budget. They talked to me about the incredibly talented people behind Phantom Compass and all the work they’ve done to help create the game. They smiled, and most importantly, they did so while getting on my level, every person there palpably excited for the game that they made.
And it’s a fantastic game. Even in pre-alpha, you can see how polished it’s going to be. How much love these guys have for design both in-and-out-of-pinball. And it makes me excited to get my hands on the finished product.
But first, I owed them some drinks.