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The Joystiq Indie Pitch: Surveillant

Justin McElroy

Being a giant, beloved video game site has its downsides. For example, we sometimes neglect to give independent developers our coverage love (or loverage, if you will) as we get caught up in AAA, AAAA or the rare quintuple-A titles. To remedy that, we're giving indies the chance to create their own loverage and sell you, the fans, on their studios and products. This week we talk with Martin Wheeler, creator of Surveillant, about his deadly game of hide-and-seek.

How did you or your company get started?

I've been making games for over twenty years, almost since the arrival of home computers back in the early '80s. I was still at school when my first game was published by Virgin Games.

The school welcomed the publicity when the press came knocking, and then did an about-face after it was revealed their star pupil was languishing in lower math and had never been in the computer studies class. (I never did make it into that mysterious room full of BBC micros, even after my second game Sorcery became the top-selling title on the Amstrad CPC.)

As a parting shot my careers advisor pushed a games magazine review back across her desk and told me with absolute superiority, "Computer games are a fad -- not a career, young man." I haven't looked back since.

Why did you want to make games?

As a child my parents would take me on trips to the south coast. Being England, It rained and I found myself sheltering in the amusement arcade, hypnotized by the lights and sounds of the machines. The thrill of playing Space Invaders and Asteroids for the first time had a profound effect on me, having grown up as an only child in a world where games had generally been designed for two or more players.

The interactivity of computers was a revelation -- suddenly there were games that played back with you, communicating their intelligence through a galaxy of pixels. Or maybe I just wanted to blow things up. Either way, I became more than a little obsessed.

Why be independent rather than try to work for someone else?

Because I'd rather be poor and free than a well-paid wage slave. I've sat through too many "creative meetings" where the concept for a game is dictated by marketing people who have no vision and no interest in gaming beyond using it as a tool for brand leverage. It's soul destroying drawing up game ideas for a petrol company or a burger chain franchise.

As an indie, I enjoy creative freedom and can work on ideas at my own pace without the pressures of arbitrary milestones or progress reports. But there's another more pragmatic reason: My daughter has autism, and I wanted to be at home to help take care of her. Not being tied to a nine-to-five office routine allows me the freedom to do that as well.

What's your game called, and what's it about?

It's called Surveillant and it's about keeping a low profile. The enemy is a homicidal CCTV camera. It's stalking you with a deadly laser beam, but the only way to escape it is to get right up close and personal. It's like playing hide-and-seek with HAL from 2001.

Do you feel like you're making the game you always wanted to play?

I am getting there. With the first release I feel I have completed the "proof of concept" stage and now I can really begin to refine the game and introduce new elements to take the experience to a deeper level. I feel I have only scratched the surface so far.

How long did it take you to create?

Just over a year. I had to create everything from scratch, including the music and graphics. And I had to learn to code again, which was something I hadn't done for years and never really learned properly the first time. It was a process of trial and error.

Mostly I worked in the evenings after returning home from my day job at a big media corporation. It wasn't the ideal way to develop a game. I lost a lot of sleep and eventually something had to give, so I handed in my notice.

What are you proudest of about your game?

I'm pleased how the graphics and sound combine to give the game a definite sense of atmosphere and tension. I know the levels down to the last polygon, but I still feel the hairs on my neck tingling when the laser beam sweeps by with this high pitched hum, changing frequency as it hits different surfaces.

The CCTV camera is the focus of the game and it's oddly disturbing how you watch it, to see if it's watching you. I'm trying to build on that sense of dread as I develop new levels.

What one thing would you tell someone to convince them to get your game?

Surveillant is unlike anything else on iPhone. It plays like an arcade game but it rewards vigilance and foresight above quick responses. With its singular objective of defeating the CCTV camera Surveillant is the antithesis of mindless fun, and its sinister and faceless enemy will remain in the back of your mind long after the power has been switched off.

What's next?

I'm working on an update containing new features and levels, which will hopefully be ready by the end of March.

Want to check out Surveillant for yourself? You can buy it right here.

If you'd like to have your own shot at converting our readers into fans, email justin aat joystiq dawt com, subject line "The Joystiq Indie Pitch." Still haven't had enough? Check out the Pitch archives.

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