Tony Gowland is a games industry veteran, a former Rockstar employee and most recently the designer and developer of the BAFTA Scotland Awards nominated Binaries. The Fountain chatted to him about his innovative puzzle-platformer, what’s changed in the industry over the last few years and the health of the Scottish games scene as a whole.
TF: Hi Tony, thanks for joining us. Let’s kick off with how you felt when you heard about the Scottish BAFTA nomination?
Yeah, it was quite weird. I was watching it on the Facebook feed, Edith Bowman’s there announcing each of the things and they’re doing the categories alphabetically. I’m sitting there waiting for games and finally it’s read out. Then it’s a sort of shock of, “did I just hear that properly?” I quickly went to Twitter and checked and found it was true.
So I work in a shared office here; we’ve set up a co-working space for games-related companies in Edinburgh, but because of the time it was, there was no one else in the office. I was kind of sat there shaking a bit.
TF: Looking around for someone to high five?
I actually got quite emotional about it. It’s funny, Will who did the audio on Binaries who’s also in the nomination, I sent him an email. I think the timestamp on the email is about 5 past 4, and I’m going “Hi, not sure if you’ve seen it, but we’re BAFTA-nominated, so that’s cool. Hope you’re well.” His reply to me was “I’ve got to say that is the most understated email about nomination I’ve ever had.” Yeah, I mean it’s a fantastic thing.
I used to work at big companies like Rockstar and Activision, so I’ve worked on things that have been nominated for BAFTA and that kind of thing before, but Binaries is the first game I’ve released that is probably 90% my work. It’s entirely my design and it’s really quite a personal game to me. To have that be nominated really does mean a lot, it’s quite special.
TF: It’s not the first award it’s picked up though, right? I understand you showed it at Rezzed and picked up an audience award there.
The reception to the game has always been really good, ever since the first few times we showed it. The first public showing was a thing in Edinburgh called Games Are For Everyone, which is a highly inclusive bar night with lots of games. It got a really good response there, and other places. I think the problem with the game is it’s quite difficult to explain it to people. I still to this day struggle to explain the concept – you’re controlling both the characters at the same time but with one set of controls. Once people get into it, then it starts to ramp up the difficulty and they really get into it.
I think there were something like 179 games at Rezzed last year. To have people say this is one of the 20 best games, up there with stuff like PSVR and these really hugely produced things with so much time and effort and people working on them, it just feels… When you’re this close to a project and a game, I think the whole indie game thing is putting so much of yourself into it. Just to have people react well to it and enjoy it, getting that feedback, is just really nice.
TF: I guess we should try and tell people a bit more about the game. Like you say, Binaries is a puzzle game and reading about it is a little difficult. How would you describe it?
We’ve messed around with a bunch of descriptions, currently we’re saying it’s a controller-smashingly tough puzzle platform game where you control two characters with just one stick. So when you press left, they both go left, when you jump they both jump. So if you want to move from one side to the other and jump over a hazard, you’ve got to make sure that you’re not about to jump the other into something.
It’s probably not in the game’s favour that even when people are watching others play, they can’t see the controller in their hands, and they immediately think they’re using two different sticks to move. All of the comparisons come up, but it’s not, because in all of those games you’re controlling both characters separately.
The other way I describe it, which needs some knowledge, is that it’s a lot like playing two different Super Meat Boy levels at the same time on one controller.
TF: It’s interesting that you say that while it does share a lot with Super Meat Boy or N+, it is a really different take on that genre. What inspirations did you draw from games like that? It reminded me a lot of Terry Cavanagh’s games, especially VVVVVV.
The game kind of came about because I like the idea of those kind of games, and I really want to be good at them, but I’m not. So one example is skateboarding games, I really want to be good at Tony Hawks or Skate, but I’m just terrible at them. Super Meat Boy is similar – I can either sit and spend a lot of hours practicing and honing my skills, or I could just go off and make my own. Then I’ll be good at it, because I made it, so I know what you’re meant to do in every level!
The puzzle platformer side of it, N+ and VVVVVV, are definitely an inspiration in terms of the minimalism and the single screen puzzling. Binaries has the speedrunning element, but it is initially a much slower-paced game than Meat Boy, there’s not that immediate push to get through the levels. I always say the point is that you can get through a level and it can take you as long as you need, and the timer’s there for the next level of skill up. But you can play through the whole game absolutely fine taking it at your own pace.
Obviously Thomas Was Alone was a massive influence on that side of things, because it’s a slower-paced platform game, but also in terms of the art. There’s a lot of platformers with retro pixel art, and I really wanted something that was much more slick and modern, clean lines.
TF: I saw you drew some of that from the teal/orange colour wheel jokes that were going around a while ago. It’s nice that it has that modern aesthetic.
With the amount of information you’re keeping track of on the screen, it can’t have visual clutter, it’s got to be as readable as you can make it. If one characters in the periphery of your vision, and you should still be aware what’s going on. That’s why the two characters leave trails behind them, without that it was really difficult to be aware of where they are. I wanted to do as much as I could to make that easy for the player, so the challenge is beating the levels, not being aware of where everything is.
TF: To go back to the point about beating the game at your own pace, it seems that you’re introduced things that militate against that a bit. The timer and medals obviously, but also the text, something that it shares with Thomas Was Alone. It’s got an interesting line in comedy text messages.
It would be so easy for the game to be really dry and sterile, especially with the art style it has. You see it a lot in puzzle games on iPhone – people will make beautiful, clean, modern designs but it’s really easy to leave out the character. Despite the fact that our two characters are just balls with nothing going on, I wanted to personify them a little bit to the player. They do have names and different levels do joke around with them, asking you which one you like best and so on. A lot of it is for my amusement as much as anything else. There’s a lot of jokes about the games industry and indie games in there as well.
With the time limits, you can never fail a level by running out of time, it’s always just there to try to give people an extra level of replayability. There’s 101 levels in the game, but eventually if that was all there was, you’d run out and that would be that. With the timer, there’s an incentive to come back and shave a few seconds or find a new route. That’s something I’ve seen, people taking paths I’d never expected.
TF: Let’s talk about the music, something that’s really important to making the sense of forward flow work. How did you start working with Will?
I originally knew Will because he’s ex-Rockstar as well, although I don’t know whether we’d interacted while we were there. People who’ve left though, it’s a bit of common ground to bond over, and he’s based up in Fife so he’s still very local and quite active in the Scottish scene. I’d started work on the game and was getting round to thinking about the music, and another friend mentioned working with Will on a different project, so I thought I’d drop him a line to see if he was interested.
We got chatting, and it turned out he was doing a lot of AAA stuff with his company Solid Audioworks, working for EA. He’s really interested in getting involved in smaller indie stuff that he can tinker around with and experiment a bit more, so it was really good for us both. The beauty of working with someone who is really into their audio is that he’s not someone who will just write you some bits of music and sound effects and drop them off, we had really good discussions on the style of the music.
The idea came up of having a dynamic soundtrack that reacts to how you’re playing the game – if you’re taking it slowly or if you’re dying a lot the music strips back layers and becomes ambient, whereas if you’re doing well and collecting a lot of pickups it really comes in much more full force and excited. The whole idea of that came from Will. I sent him a video of a couple of minutes of gameplay and he did an audio paint-over of his ideas and it was fantastic. Pretty much everything he came up with was spot-on the kind of thing I wanted for the game.
He’s a really hard worker as well, even on things like trailers. The bits of music that are in the trailers, I said to him we needed a piece of music edited to the right length, and then he sent me it back with an entirely new piece of music specifically for the trailer. Then he went on and did it as an actual track for the game as well.
TF: Sounds like exactly what you want from a collaborator.
Ant Workshop is a one-man studio at the moment, it’s just me sat here doing my own thing and using collaborators when I need to. The worry with collaboration is that I don’t want someone that’s just going to be fleeting and drop some files off, I want people that are as excited about the game as I am, that want to make it as good as it can be. Will is absolutely that kind of person.
TF: So on the development, I understand the basic mechanics were hashed out in the first Flash game in 2011?
That’s right, yeah. At the time I’d been messing around and wanting to learn Flash, and there were a lot of platform game tutorials out there, so it was quite easy to quickly get going. Then, I accidentally duplicated the player character, and it made for an interesting and different kind of game. That’s essentially where it came from.
Then, even in the last five years, I didn’t see another game that did that mechanic in puzzle games. So I took the ideas I had on how to improve it, and that’s why I came back to it.
TF: So what changed in that time that made it feasible, was it something in the industry or something you needed to do?
I think when I made the original Flash version, I don’t think Unity was as good. There are tools that have made this a lot easier now, even in regards to distribution. Flash games you just put on websites like Kongregate or Newgrounds, but actually distributing as a paid product was a little bit trickier. Now, you’ve got things like Steam Greenlight, which makes it almost trivially easy to get games out there. Even Playstation and Xbox are a lot more accessible than they ever used to be – a couple of years ago I couldn’t possibly imagine having a game that I’d made available on Playstation. But here it is now.
TF: So Binaries went through Greenlight very quickly, and that service often comes in for a lot of stick. What was your experience like?
I think a lot of people have a downer on Greenlight, a lot of really good stuff gets stuck on there and seems to take forever to get through, and there’s very clearly some quite poor games that have got through. I’m not sure that Greenlight necessarily performs the function that it’s meant to, and as the months go on there are fewer and fewer people visiting to vote on things. The ones that do have very specific ideas about what games on Steam should be, so you’re playing to a very specific crowd on there. As it goes on, I expect to see Greenlight changing.
TF: One last thing about development in Scotland then. Obviously we’ve got big companies like Rockstar, but what does the scene look like outside of that?
I think Scotland’s scene is generally in a healthy place at the moment. It’s easy to point at companies like Rockstar and 4J doing Minecraft, and say Scotland’s scene is punching way above its weight, but I always think of those two as outliers. Even outside of that though, there’s a growing number of companies that were small, that are solidly building up their size and ability to make successful titles. That sustainability is what you need in an ecosystem.
For years the Scottish scene did really well out of mobile phones taking off, so there was a huge number of tiny 3-4 man companies around the place. That’s fine, but if they’re not able to employ people and hire in, then that scene can’t really grow. People have to set up their own companies to be a part of that. What we’re seeing now with Outplay and Tag and Blazing Griffin, there’s a whole bunch of companies that are steadily building up in a sustainable way. I think that’s fantastic.
As the scene gets more of these mid-sized companies, it becomes easier for everyone to attract talent to the area. What you often see with Rockstar is people that move to work at Rockstar North, will leave Scotland when they leave the job. That’s because there aren’t a lot of other job opportunities in the area. When try to attract or retain talent in the region, there’s a part of people’s thought process that thinks about their options there if it doesn’t work out. That can put them off, but if that ecosystem is there and there’s a lot going on, it’s healthy for everyone.
And in terms of the social scene, the Scottish scene is fantastic. There’s a number of different groups where developers from the whole range of games jobs can come together and chat and help each other out. I’m also on the board of directors for the IGDA Scotland chapter, and that’s one of the things we’re doing there, putting on these monthly meetups with a range of different topics to get people interested and involved with each other.
I think we’re in a really healthy position and there’s just great people up here. Everyone’s just been very supportive. I moved up here six years ago now, and it’s just fantastic. I’ve got no plans for moving away, it is just a lovely community.