It's not that there are too many indie games; it's that there aren't enough hours in a day to play all of them. The Joystiq Indie Pitch curates the best indies to play now and watch out for in the future.
What's your game called and what's it about?
Signal Ops has you assume the role of a handler, in charge of directing field agents on somewhat questionable missions. You do the bidding of one of the government's church divisions, seeking out traitors among other dirty work. As a seasoned officer, you stay back at base while the recruits go out and handle the dangerous bits. You won't be relaxing, though; these field operatives need constant supervision and someone to tell them what to do. It's a darkly comedic tale of clandestine operations, treachery, and doing what's wrong because it is right.
What's the coolest aspect of Signal Ops?
Just take a look! Signal Ops tasks the player with simultaneously controlling up to four agents from multiple first-person perspectives. Not only that, but they must also progress through missions strategically by seeking out power for your squad's radio, which is their lifeline to you. This coordination and tactics-first gameplay leads to tense and often challenging decisions on how to approach the many obstacles and puzzles that are thrown your way.
Gameplay-wise, we were influenced by real-time squad strategy games of the past such as Commandos and Syndicate. The goal was to meld those experiences with first-person stealth and action as seen in games like Deus Ex, Thief, and Rainbow Six. We also loved how older games encouraged players to think for themselves and allowed them to apply strategy however they saw fit in an open gameplay area. This focus on gameplay is something we have taken to heart in crafting Signal Ops, and we hope players see the advantages.
Artistically, we were inspired by dystopian tales such as Brazil and 1984. We also took care not to let the story get too heavy, infusing it with humor in the style of Dr. Strangelove and Blackadder. Add in a dash of espionage from the likes of Sneakers and Mission Impossible, and you've pretty much got it.
How did you ensure the multiple-screen mechanic wouldn't be confusing for players? Beta testing?
The mechanic was always going to be alien to almost everyone. Players won't be entirely sure what to make of it on first encounter. We decided to go with the classic solution of having a tutorial section available before players head out on their first real mission. It was challenging to design the training missions because we had a lot of new concepts and mechanics to cover in a short period of time. We also created an out-of-game manual for those who want something handy to reference.
We want players to really experiment, explore and derive satisfaction from solving puzzles and coming up with their own strategies.
We first worked internally to a point where we felt the mechanics were intuitive and fun. Next, it was on to testing, mostly with friends we could physically get in to watch them play to see where they got stuck and so on. With unique core gameplay mechanics, we had to determine if any issues the player was having was due to a flaw in the design or just the expectation that their hand would be held throughout the entire game. We want players to really experiment, explore and derive satisfaction from solving puzzles and coming up with their own strategies.
If you had to pick, is Signal Ops better as a single-player or co-op game?
Which child is our favourite, eh? Signal Ops was to be a single-player-only experience originally. We thought co-op would be too difficult to implement, but with a little elbow grease we managed to make it so. To answer diplomatically, it depends on what kind of experience you want:
If you are looking for a challenging, strategic game, go single-player. Patience and planning are paramount to survival. You will need to scout out an area before advancing, keep an eye on all of your agents, and carefully order and position the ones you are not controlling.
If you want something more dynamic, give co-op a try. Signal Ops can become a much more frenetic and action-packed game. Having more players means you can afford to be less careful when moving your agents around. This usually leads to more chaotic results, and a heavier reliance on communication and coordination with your friends.
Why develop independently, rather than work for an established company?
Having already worked for established studios, we went independent to have creative control of our own product. Larger developers are risk-averse and would never create a niche game like Signal Ops. We are a two-headed turtle in a world where most are deciding what shade of green their turtle toes should be.
Do you see yourself as part of a larger indie movement?
If you mean movement as in an industry shift, then the answer is yes. We've see a lot of larger studios, and even publishers, shutting down over the course of production on Signal Ops. This is especially significant in Vancouver, where we are located; studios are moving away to other parts of the country to get better tax breaks. Our non-scientific theory is that more and more of those out-of-work employees are having a go at independent development rather than having to relocate.
As far as being part of the indie community, we've been mostly detached. We haven't been to trade shows, we don't have a lot of interactions with other developers, and we are not personally big users of social media. You might say we are as old-school as our game is.
Are there plans to launch on any other platforms, or maybe on Steam?
There are plans to release Mac and Linux versions to stand proudly alongside the Windows version. There will not be any console or mobile version of Signal Ops, unless you are reading this five years later and phones are now powerful enough to run the game under emulation.
We have been on Steam's Greenlight system since inception, bobbing menacingly up and down the top 50 like a delicious ghost apple just waiting to be plucked by Valve's enticing mandible. If you are interested in seeing Signal Ops on Steam, then hop hop hop like a good little bunny to our Greenlight page and deposit a vote in the affirmative.
Sell Signal Ops in one sentence:
Use stealth, strategy and shooting to take on challenging espionage missions by controlling agents whose first-person views are seen through an array of monitors.
As things are wrapping up with Signal Ops, we look toward the uncertain future. A flurry of ideas we'd love to develop into games whirl around in our heads, and deciding which one comes down mostly to how well Signal Ops performs. Support from customers will ensure that our company can be sustainable in funding future projects.Signal Ops is out now on GOG for PC, and would jump at the chance to launch on Steam via Greenlight.