August 2010, and Futurlab, bouyant from the release of Coconut Dodge, are – as you’ll be aware they tend to be – thinking ahead. “I’d be interested to know what you think about this,” says James Marsden, studio head, handing me a brief design document, and so, under what looked like a pretty strict NDA (non-disclosure agreement) I open it up.
It’s about a game then called SpaceShooter (with intentional camel case and occasional, inconsistently placed square brackets) – a title James says they’ll decide based on community feedback – and over the next four or five pages manages to completely click with me.
I digest the text, and soak in the mocked up screenshots. There’s an overview, a backstory, a control listing, structure and rules. It’s more than a basic design map, it’s essentially enough to actually make the game. But even just in print, SpaceShooter showed huge potential, not least of all because it came with – even then – a couple of neat touches.
I have the document to hand. The file, in all its elegant monochrome, neatly laid out and designed, describes the game as a “retro vertical scrolling space shoot ’em up” with a “unique teleport mechanic” that allows a player to “teleport around the screen and back to previous areas of a level to evade enemy attacks and solve time sensitive logic puzzles in order to rescue stranded civilians.”
“The game the minis platform is missing”
And it’s tinged with cute PlayStation near-history, calling itself “the game the minis platform is missing.” That bit’s probably a little controversial, but minis are long gone, and nobody’s holding a grudge – especially not the guys at Futurlab.
“Minis needed a Killer App,” said Marsden, “so we set about creating one, without any regard for how limited the market was considered to be. We put everything we had into the development of Velocity as we wanted to grab the attention of Sony.” One of the major benefits of working with the minis platform was to get that relationship. “We get an account manager to talk to, who can help find suitable promotions for our game,” James explained to me, “Coconut Dodge was included in the Mega Minis UMD bundle for example, and Sony have given Velocity XMB PS3 support for two weeks because they recognise it’s a great game.”
The popular consensus is that Velocity, as the game would come to be known via a innovative multi-site puzzle campaign, did define the upper levels of the PSP’s ill-fated service and by most accounts is “a great game”. When released, Futurlab’s unassuming puzzle shooter offered up a decent amount of levels, a smooth learning curve and a good chunk of hidden secrets and mini-games – it was well beyond the simplicity of some stable-mates.
It’s fair to say the developer’s ambition stretched well beyond the limits of the platform – music from Joris de Man (the mind behind the music in Killzone 2 and 3, no less) was headline enough, but James had also managed to secure several slots on the official PlayStation Blog in an attempt to get the word out about the project.
“If you’ve got a good idea for a blog post, Sony are receptive to it”
“Perhaps the best platform has been PlayStation Blog,” he told me. “We’ve written a total of eight blog posts covering our original pitch to Sony, introducing Coconut Dodge and its journey from Flash to PSP, and the Mystery Puzzle teaser campaign for Velocity, which was cool of Sony to support as it was quite disruptive. It seems as though if you’ve got a good idea for a blog post, Sony are receptive to it, which is awesome as an indie because we tend to have lots of them!”
And to further promote the game, Futurlab made a deal with Sony to get the game onto PlayStation Plus at launch, ensuring that the take-up was at a maximum. The deal’s never been made public, and I’m certainly not privy to any details, but James says the deal was very important, and the game “reached a lot of people”.
“Being on PS+ has been great for us,” Marsden told me back in 2012. “As a relatively unknown studio with limited (zero) marketing budget, we’d have found it very hard to achieve an install base of 100,000 units and more, but with Plus we achieved that in just over a fortnight. The word now appears to be spreading, and gamers have also discovered our previous title Coconut Dodge, which has seen a significant sales boost!”
But before all this, Marsden and the rest of the Futurlab team, needed an ‘in’. As indie developers – full of ideas but with little cash – Futurlab’s drive and verve would only get them so far.
Undeterred by naysayers and confident enough to “have a go”, Marsden and the guys delivered a quirky off-the-wall pitch to Sony – dressed as characters from a still-to-be-developed Futurlab game, and integrating those that would be at the meeting into a specific, tailored build to create more of an experience that would make everyone take notice, Marsden secured Sony’s attention. Coconut Dodge came first, which would later be picked up by EA for a mobile version.
Thunderbirds 2086, Ulysses and Jase And The Wheeled Warriors
And after that, came that design document. Reading back the overview now, after the revised, sharpened-up Ultra, it seems positively old fashioned in its aesthetic goals and aspirations. SpaceShooter would boast “an art style inspired by classic 80s TV shows like Thunderbirds 2086, Ulysses and Jase And The Wheeled Warriors” and a “soundtrack inspired by Turrican, Airwolf and Streethawk.”
And whilst when released the game would look like an Amiga game, it was the central teleporting mechanic that would set it apart. The document refers to this as the Long Form Teleport and Short Form Teleport – terms that would stick – and describes them in considerable detail, along with representative screenshots.
“Using normal controls,” it reads, “a player is not able to turn their ship around to return to previous areas of the map. This is standard for a vertical scrolling shooter where movement is limited within the screen space of a vertically scrolling background. However, in [SpaceShooter] a player is able to make use of a Telepod to return to previous areas of the map. This is achieved using a full screen Telepod Control Dialog which is brought up by pressing TRIANGLE.”
“As well using the Telepod to move around a game map, a player can make short teleport trips around the screen by holding SQUARE, choosing a destination vector with the ANALOG STICK or DIRECTIONAL BUTTONS, and then letting go of SQUARE,” it adds.
“The player will be teleported to the destination extremely quickly using a smooth animation. A player can abort this maneuver by letting go of the ANALOG STICK before letting go of SQUARE. Short-Form-Teleport can be used for navigating hard to reach areas of space station wreckage and to quickly evade enemy attacks.”
The design brief describes a couple of examples on how both forms of teleportation might work, using some of the game’s more puzzle-based mechanics such as the security system that requires players take out certain parts of each system in order.
Beyond a simple shooter
These elements of the game help to move it beyond a simple shooter. In some cases the game works a little like any other top down blaster of old – Silkworm, Sidewinder, Xenon II – and in others the puzzle aspects come to the front, requiring quick thinking alongside deft controller skills, but the two always feel completely connected and at ease with each other.
It’s also telling that the document describes the game’s vertical scrolling as “similar to the maze patterns in Coconut Dodge” although James admits the ones in Velocity have “far more depth”.
You can see the resemblance though, and it’s not a stretch to think that when you’re hurtling along with the boost button held, darting back and forth down narrow corridors, that there’s the central, playful rote patterns seen in Futurlab’s lighthearted beach-based romp. Left, right, left, right, but with survivors needing rescued rather than gems to collect.
The document even goes as far as to class the latter of the four levels types (listed in the report as “patterns”, “space stations”, “bosses” and “asteroid fields”) as “Coconut Dodge style”.
But the game shifts joyfully from one style to another, the pre-level attract screen pointing out which type you’ll be playing next, along with your best records for that particular section of the game.
On the minis version this was – given the limitations of the platform – limited to your own best scores, but in Ultra, the remake of the game released a few weeks in Europe and today in the US – those scores are joined by those of the best players in the world. Online leaderboards give the game a whole new burst of life, and although excelling in the game’s later levels is well outside of my grasp, I did enjoy a brief stint at the top of the first couple.
Velocity Ultra is Futurlab’s latest, a pixel by pixel re-imagining of the first version, and one designed to run natively on the PlayStation Vita at 960×544, rather than the minis version which was effectively pushing a quarter of the number of pixels. As a result, the blocky 90’s look was thrown out, and in its place is a stylised interpretation with crisp, slickly animated ships drawn against bold backgrounds and married with fancy new explosions and effects.
Definitely the better game overall
“Do you prefer it?” asked James, talking about the new visual style when the game first appeared. I didn’t, not at first. As an old-school gamer at heart I was rather fond of the Amiga-esque graphics Velocity offered; Ultra’s pin-sharp aesthetics were pretty, and they grew on me, but I still don’t know which I’d go for if I could only pick one. De Man’s music remained, too, and that always seemed to connect with the 16-bit approach to the rest of the game – although a remix album (including a version of ‘Protect’ from our very own Tuffcub) balances that out a little.
But the Vita version is definitely the better game overall. The level design remains the same, the added bonus courses and extras match up perfectly and the controls map over nicely, but there’s a few little tweaks that make 2013’s version superior.
James will balk, but I like the way bombs can be fired with the right stick, and on some levels the ability to teleport just by touching the screen is a real benefit. Of course, there’s also the added bonus of the trophies, now matched up with your PSN account rather than just being in-game, and of course the aforementioned leaderboards.
Ultra was teased ahead of its reveal via a URL half-hidden in a press release. The web address – fanpoweredflight.net – was prompted by a subtle marketing campaign based around the Vita version being the version fans of the first game asked for. And in addition, members of the development team took to popular gaming forum NeoGAF to create a feed of usernames and nicks for inclusion in the game. It was inexpensive social networking, and a couple of new PlayStation Blog entries ensured that the remake was given maximum exposure.
And again, at least in Europe, Ultra would see itself part of another PlayStation Plus roll-out, something that had the studio working a few late nights, with the game only passing QA (quality assurance, Sony’s own internal bug and legal checking team) a day before it was due to appear on the PSN Store as part of the promotion.
“Sony actually turned Velocity down three times”
But was an Ultra, Vita always on the cards? Not for Sony. “Sony actually turned Velocity down three times at various stages of production when we tried to pitch it for PS Vita,” Marsden admitted.
“We then applied for the Pub Fund, again for PS Vita, and were turned down. Eventually we managed to secure a PlayStation Plus deal for PS Minis, but this is not where the game should have been. However, once the game was released, and the big review scores and interesting articles started popping up, Sony invited us back and made us an offer!”
“We then had enough cash to give fans and reviewers what they asked for,” he added. Hugely positive reviews followed, including a much coveted 9/10 from the notoriously hard to please Edge magazine, something Marsden’s rightly proud of. And although Europe has had the game for a little while, it’s taken some tweaking and wrangling to finally get the game through PlayStation’s US-based QA.
But with the game releasing this week at least now the studio can start to focus on what’s next. I’ve not seen a design document this time around, although I have caught wind of what might be on the cards – and if it comes off the way I think it might, some are going to be in for a surprise.
Brighton-based Futurlab are on something of a roll just now, and all signs point to the next couple of years bringing more critical success. Can they match the uniqueness of Velocity again, though?
We’ll have to wait and see.