How Studio OwlBear is breaking the ice

The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

So begins William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, a seminal work that helped launched the cyberpunk genre of science fiction.

It’s a movement that analyses the effects of tech on society and stars hackers, criminals and augmented humans. And it’s this genre that Studio OwlBear is hoping to recreate with its upcoming hacking game, Ice Breaker.

We wanted to take cyberpunk back to the source material and analyse the discrepancies,” animation director Kristian Andrews tells MCV.

With Gibson, there are so many concepts that he coined in terms of what we are experiencing in the internet generation, such as cyberspace. But there’s also a lot that he missed. None of the protagonists have mobile phones or anything – they’re relying on magnetic tapes and these obscure bits of obsolete tech. We were quite keen to bring that kind of stuff back to the genre and focus on the funny inconsistencies, and try and stay as true as possible to the source material.”

"We’re looking into how we can
develop Ice Breaker in a professional
way, and we’ll potentially be
looking for publishers."

Kristian Andrews, Studio OwlBear

OwlBear is clearly hugely indebted to Gibson’s work. On the firm’s website, there’s an image of a cyberspace deck [laptop] featuring the Ono Sendai logo – which is a hardware company from Neuromancer. So did the developers ever consider attempting to acquire the licence to those books?

That would be amazing,” Andrews says. To secure those IP rights would be great. But I can’t imagine the Gibson estate will grant them to some tiny start-up indie studio. For now we won’t approach Gibson for any of the rights. And we’ll end up editing Ono Sendai off our cyberspace deck. At the moment it’s a bit of a springboard into the material, but we want to avoid any potential lawsuits.

We are making a homage to Gibson, but also all of the other cyberpunk greats that are out there. But we don’t want it to be an absolute carbon copy of any of that stuff because there has to be some creative room for us to express ourselves. We’re borrowing from a lot of this stuff but we’re trying to do things a bit differently from the way that other developers have with similar source material. We’re trying to cut out a little niche where we’re able to have a play in this big great genre playground where there are all these fun things to explore.”

Ice Breaker is, in fact, the firm’s second game. OwlBear released its first, dungeon crawler Barbara-Ian, on Steam Greenlight earlier this year. It was self-published, but the developer is keeping its options open for Ice Breaker.

Barbara-Ian was a real fun side project, to see if we could make and release a game,” Andrews says. The joy of it has been doing things immediately and making things happen ourselves. We’ve come to the end of that creative journey and so we don’t see the advantage of bringing on a publisher at this
stage. Had the timings been different, we might have explored the option of getting a publisher on board but it felt more like this fun little visceral experience that people are going to be playing for 30 minutes and then discarding.

We’ll probably look at Ice Breaker in a slightly different way. We have an idea that we are really proud of and we want to do it justice. We’re looking into how we can develop it in a professional way and potentially we will be looking to publishers and development funds to try and make it the best it can be.”

He continues: We’re just about to get a prototype out there for Ice Breaker. But it’s very much a proof of concept. In the next three months we hope to approach different publishers and look for opportunities to get it made to a level we feel it should be. The burden of responsibility is on us to show what we think is an experience that is fun to play.

If we don’t get it through that prototyping stage and realise it isn’t going to work, or isn’t going to be fun, then we’ll have a re-think. It’s a testing time for us.”

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