If you look carefully, you might be able to spot the spread of a papercraft revolution in the South of England. Media Molecule’s Tearaway is the friendlier public face of this, but an indie PC, Mac and iOS title called Wildfire Worlds exposes the seedy underbelly, where anarchy rails up against police brutality in the heart of London… but in a really cute and funny way.
I’d been watching Wildfire Worlds’ development since the end of last year, and eagerly jumped at the chance of being able to pre-order and play it via their newly released alpha. It’s a big step from the tech demo which just lets you watch these little card people mill about on their daily business, turning it into a game where you can tear down the very fabric of society.
I sat down and had a long, rambling, sprawling chat with James Boty and Michael Michael, two of the co-founders of Dot Product. Unfortunately, you won’t get to read many of the tangents about C&C: Generals, or James jokingly stating that Notch is Satan, but since I was curious as to where this little team of developers had come from, I think that’s as good a place as any to start.
“I worked in the games industry at EA and Bullfrog for a few years,” said James. “I really loved it and met cool people, but I came to feel games took too long to make! I couldn’t really hang around making something for five years at a time, so I left and started an animation company.”
He hands over to Mike, who continues, “Me and our third partner, Miles Visman, were at Pompom Games, doing that for twelve years, about the same amount of time that James was doing animation. We made a bunch of games, just small indie shoot ’em ups, and stuff like that.
“But we were still friends with James, because we worked at a company called Cranberry Sauce, way, way back. We went our separate ways for twelve years, and eventually we came back together again.”
“Things have just got more interesting in games,” added James. “It’s been less AAA and more diverse in the last few years, which has slowly drawn me back into it. So when I had this idea, I sounded out Mike and Miles, mucked about with a little prototype, and got to a stage where we thought this could work. Then we went into ‘full production’ last summer, for want of a better term!”[drop2]
My first attempt with the game came a few builds back, and it’s already evolved quite a bit since. I hopped in, giving the instructions a cursory glance, plonked down one of my many anarchist and chased after people to try and convert them to my cause. Then I was hit by a bus. My next anarchist exploded in a bloody mess when a copper whacked me on the head with his truncheon.
This carried on for a while, before I did eventually get a little group of green hooded anarchists together, and started trashing buildings. All too easily I’d lose a handful of guys on my travels, get taken down by a couple of hardy coppers, or be ruthlessly mown down by the chaotic London traffic when trying to cross a street! Always look both ways, kids.
The difficulty has been toned down quite a lot in the last couple of weeks, though, so it’s now much simpler and quicker to get a decent mob together, and rampage across the cardboard London, smashing up buildings. So long, Gherkin! Take that, BT Tower!
As I tear the city to pieces on my rampage, there are loads of wonderful touches which I notice, and far too many to mention. From the splatters of blood from those killed might spawn trees, where squirrels will one day live, to the little cries of “Jimmy Choos!” as a pedestrian has a fleeting urge to buy some shoes and amusingly brutal radio reports from the police. Many of these tie back into the game world, so that if at night time you destroy lights, or one of the power sub-stations, the lights flicker and die all and pedestrians will be slower to flee. It’s an obvious little touch when you think about it, but very nicely implemented.
“I’d say that the core thing is that we’ve got this table with recognisable systems from this urban setting,” related James. “You can get into the fact that people on their phones are communicating using phone masts, and if you take down those masts they can’t phone anybody. All of that sort of stuff hopefully becomes clearer as you play.
“The focus at the moment is to keep honing the mechanics of trashing the place, but to make a world that regenerates. So that you can go through all the stages, but it’s not necessarily something you have to game the whole time. You can just leave it and watch it recover”
That’s actually something I’ve done quite often. If you damage property, an engineer is dispatched to fix it up. However, I have several times now reached the point where all the buildings were destroyed, with plant life gradually consuming them. At this point I’ve “won”, with anarchists milling around all over the place, slowly getting bored of life until their heads explode. Except the battle wasn’t actually over, as I spotted a handful of gun and grenade wielding rozzers still battling against the roving hordes.
It was a moment so brilliantly surreal, the first time I saw it, that I just sat and watched as this handful of veritable John McClanes endlessly backpedaled, popping heads and chucking grenades until all my little hell raisers had either been killed or died of boredom. Now it’s part of my end-game ritual to take my hand off the reigns of my mob of thousands and scroll around the map to see what else is happening, and watch some grizzly coppers fighting to the last man. It’s all part of the undeniable charm and ties in with the irreverent sense of humour in the game.[drop]
“This is what we want,” said Mike. “We want people to poke it and laugh. If you want to dilute it down, I don’t want people sitting there with this brain ache. I mean there is strategy there, but at the core of it we want you to poke it and laugh.”
James continued, “It’s working out that if you hang around in the schoolyard, you’re going to infect loads of children and your game’s going to be easier. If you take that seriously with little bits of card, then good for you. If you’re sensible and see that it’s a bit of a joke, then you get it and you’re going to have fun.”
That’s something that has been really key for them during the early stages of development, getting people that get what the game is all about invested in the title and contributing feedback and ideas in their forums.
When I asked them about the kinds of information they’d been getting, a fortnight ago. Mike replied, “It’s too hard. We’re not giving enough information within the game…”
“That’s the joy of it being such a soft release,” added James. “That you haven’t got everybody staring at you, and only have people engaged who want to be who are going to go ‘yeah, that’s stupid’ or ‘that’s too difficult’.”
“Plus, we debate a lot.” said Mike. “James likes ‘A’, I like ‘B’, and ultimately we just say ‘lets see what people say?’ We can argue all day long, and unless you expose people to this alpha and see what these guys think, it’s pointless trying to decide.”
Aside from just making the game easier, the feature set is gradually expanding. Last week saw the addition of a system to let you lay a path for your protestors to follow, and finally let you take your finger off the left click.
James explained, “So we’ve got a new control method on right click, where you can draw playbook instructions, and they’ll follow that dotted line. Time slows down as you’re doing that, so it’s two mechanics married together.
“The other thing we’ve got coming is fire, and that can be used to set fire to everything, obviously, or we’re giving it to the player in the alpha as a thing they can paint down, and everyone will react to it. So people will huddle in a corner, they’ll catch fire…”
“Screaming,” chipped in Mike.
Beyond burning the house down, James and Mike continued to explain the myriad possibilities. Adding a full editor some way down the line, adding further systems like petrol stations and ambulances, and more. Different maps, having zombies instead of anarchists, people dancing like an infectious flash mob, or spreading peace to a wartorn city.
It all depends on the feedback they get along the way, as to what they tackle next. So much of it is still very much up in the air, as nebulous as a real roving mob mentality might be. However, there are some certainties with regard to the release platforms.
Putting it simply, James stated, “It’s PC and Mac. We can do Linux no problem, and then we’ve got iOS, running on iPhones and iPad.”
But delving a little deeper into the iOS experience, Mike continued, “It will be unlike the usual thing of ‘Here’s a PC game and that’s going to be running on iOS.’ The iOS version’s going to be tailored. I’ve often debated that on PC you’ve only got a cursor and two mouse buttons, but on a touchscreen you’ve got multi touch. If you want to split a group in two, you can use two fingers to do your pincer movement, rather than right now you draw a path both ways.”
It sounds like the perfect fit for an early morning commute, to me.
There’s obviously a very long way for this game to go before release, but unlike countless Kickstarter projects which I’ve backed and forgotten about, I have a feeling I’ll keep coming back to check in on their progress quite regularly.
You can find out more over at WildfireWorlds.com. Take a look at the city in action in the alpha build, though the ability to place protestors and play the game is only for those who have pre-ordered, which starts at $15.