“Any chance of a PlayStation Vita version?” Worth a shot, I thought, but Fireproof Games’ Mark Hamilton, the guy behind most of the artwork and the design of The Room, says the studio is simply too busy. That’s obvious enough, it’s still a small team and the runaway, unexpected success – “we had no idea anyone would like the game” – has meant the guys are straight back in with an expansion pack and a brand new sequel to one of 2012’s best games.
I ask Mark how it’s been moving from Criterion (of Burnout and Need for Speed fame) into doing his own thing. Turns out that it’s not been a simple flick of the switch. “We actually had a long gap between leaving Criterion and making The Room,” comes the reply, “where we both [he and Rob Dodd] worked on a lot of smaller games for other companies so we were used to it by the time we got to work on our own game.”
Hamilton tells me that previous experience with working on big triple A games (although he “hates that term” has helped a lot. “We have both been well drilled in the values of polish and iteration and are not afraid to chuck out a bunch of work if feedback from the other Fireproof guys tell us its not good enough,” he says. The team, based in Guildford, has grown recently, and the studio now employs thirteen people. “We have grown the team a little, Rob was the only coder on The Room but now that we are working on porting the game to different platforms, building an expansion and a sequel, he was getting a little stretched!” Mark jokes.
I ask Mark, the company director, how the game breaking even after just a week has opened up the studio to other things. “Its certainly been a weight off our minds,” he replies, although he’s keen on keeping things fairly quiet in terms of numbers as a result. “We don’t want to staff up massively though,” he says, “it would be easy to go mad and make the sequel some massive, expensive epic but the charm of the first game was the intimacy and isolation of the player alone in a dark room with a box and that kind of experience doesn’t really need a big team.”
Mark tells me they’re hoping the next one will be a little longer, but before that releases (at some point towards the end of this year) there’s the bolt-on level to the original game. “The expansion will pick up right after the first game ended and will hint at the setting for the sequel,” Mark says. “It has taken longer than I would have liked to make the expansion but I needed to plan out the sequel first so I was sure it all joined up. I hope that the expansion and the second game will keep an air of mystery to the setting but also link a few of the more disparate elements so it feels like a more cohesive world.”
For anyone not familiar with The Room, the concept is simple although the execution is almost flawless. The idea is that, without ceremony, you’re left in a dark room with little more than a safe in front of you. By tapping, swiping and sliding (and a couple of other neat gestures) you’re tasked with first getting into the safe and then unraveling the secrets of a further two smaller, although more complicated puzzle items. No spoilers here, but it’s worth mentioning that there’s a certain air of darkness and dread laced throughout the game, communicated via some subtle audio cues and a series of increasingly revealing notes left by an unknown author.
“When we started on The Room we didn’t think you could properly pull off a horror game on a mobile platform,” Mark says, when I ask him about the notes the player can find (and read, if they choose). “We had actually planned to make the game a lot darker in theme but decided that it wouldn’t come across on tablet as the relatively small screen and portability would break any sense of immersion the player might have. It turns out that we were totally wrong about that though, so many people have described the game as being really immersive.”
And will the sequel continue down this path, and bump up the fear factor? It sounds like it. “There are plans for a few more scary moments in the sequel,” Mark tells me, but I don’t want to stray too far from the first game now that we have established the tone.”
Fireproof managed to make the game feel tactile and tangible, something not always easy with just a glass screen like that of the iPad. “We didn’t want to make a game that was a compromised version of a console game, where most of the dev time is spent working out how to cram a joypad on to the screen or trying to make a one button FPS,” Mark states. “The original game idea came from thinking about what kind of movements and manipulations were best suited to the touch screen then working out what kind of game we could make from that.”
“Getting the controls to feel right wasn’t easy though, it took a couple of months of trial and error to get them working the way they are now.”
Another thing The Room does well is gently guide the player towards a series of interconnected, rewarding conclusions without ever feeling too linear (although the game is resolutely one directional, when distilled down to basics) and yet never causing a fail state or a wrong path. “I’ve got no patience for puzzle games where I keep getting stuck so I was trying to make a game that didn’t stump the player too much,” Mark says in response. “Everyone in the office was playing the game all through development and taking it home so their families could play too, if they had a problem with any of the puzzles we would go back to the drawing board and try to smooth things out.”
The game features a hint system, though, with increasingly blatant clues for those that find themselves stuck. I ask Mark why they opted to not charge for the hints via IAP (in app purchases) like so many games on the platform. “If you charge for hints you open yourself up to accusations that you have made certain puzzles hard deliberately to get money,” he replies. “There are definitely a few puzzles that lots of people get stuck on,” he says, gesturing one that I’ll not spoil, “we would have hated people to think that we did that on purpose for a quick buck. Also, the immersion thing again, if you are trying to set a tone and atmosphere having in-app purchases all the time would totally pull you out of the game.”
That’s also why Fireproof didn’t add achievements, I’m told.
So, although the game only takes three or so hours to complete on a first run, it’s a compelling, exciting few hours that hopefully most people will see to its end. “We can tell how many people have completed the game but not much else,” Mark says, when I ask him if he knows how many people finished it without cheats. “Our email inbox is a great gauge of what bits of the game are too hard but I would still love to know how much people relied on the hints or walkthroughs to get them through,” he confides. “Next time we will probably try to put a better telemetry system in the game so we can get more detailed data about how people play the game.”
The critical reception for The Room [the iPad version has 48,422 reviews, averaging 5/5) was something of a shock for Mark when the game was released. “We had no idea anyone would like the game” he tells me. “Everyone we showed it to before release said it was really good but there was always a niggling feeling that they might just be being polite! Its been interesting to see games like Journey, Dear Esther and The Unfinished Swan beating massive 100 million dollar franchises at awards ceremonies this year.”
“Everyone is coming round to the idea that you can create a great game with a small team, which is awesome for us,” Mark says.
Indeed, it’s very much a British success story, with worldwide acclaim for this individual, unassuming game. Oh, and that Vita version? Let’s just say they “wouldn’t rule it out.”
The Room is available on iPad (requires an iPad 2/mini or above), Android and iPhone, where there’s a single level demo for those curious called The Room Pocket. Mark tells me that conversion from the demo to the full game is about one in ten.