Q&A: Russell Harding, Chief Creative Officer at Maze Theory on Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom

Vince Pavey had the opportunity to talk to Russell Harding, Chief Creative Officer at Maze Theory about their upcoming crime thriller VR game Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom, after going hands on (and headset on) with it at EGX 2022. Here’s what he found out about gamers’ upcoming trip to Birmingham in 1928.

How did Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom come about? Was it a natural extension of your existing relationship with the BBC after the Doctor Who games?

After completing ‘Doctor Who: The Edge of Time’ we were looking for a new VR project that would challenge us and build on what we had learned. We really wanted to take on immersive drama and something where we had to deal with characters face on, which is often not tackled in VR titles. We were in love with the gritty world of Peaky Blinders and its criminal historical setting, created and written by Steven Knight.

It naturally seemed a world and genre that audiences would love to be transported to in VR.  Though the show was originally commissioned and aired by the BBC the rights belong to the Banijay Group and Caryn Mandabach productions (the show’s producers).

Did you have to pitch it, or did they come to you?

So yes, we had to pitch the concept to both Banijay and Caryn Mandabach which involved a pitch deck containing the premise for the story we wanted to tell, some prototypes and references of the game we wanted to make and a lot of passion for the IP. I think our approach in collaboratively working with the showrunners on Doctor Who helped prove we would approach the project through the eyes of the IP and also that we had experience in working with talent.

What VR platforms is the game coming to?

Meta Quest 2 and Pico are confirmed but we are hoping to announce further platforms soon. The team really wanted to push the boundaries on the most technically challenging platforms and ensure the amazing high-resolution graphics we had created at source could be delivered to the Meta & Pico audiences.

What engine and tools did you use to make Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom? Is it the same tech as Doctor Who: The Edge of Time?

We use Unity as our engine but really had to start again when it came to tools and technology, though we had learned a lot through the development of Doctor Who. Through Peaky Blinders we have now developed a lot of our own tools and systems that we intend to keep building on and making the next projects easier to evolve.

Did you look at particular episodes of the Peaky Blinders TV show for the mood you wanted to evoke?

The earlier episodes of Peaky Blinders certainly influenced our art style and approach to music and audio. We really wanted to capture the atmospheric and fantastical element Steven Knight had brought to Birmingham, Small Heath.

The game is set in the in-between seasons 4-5 and during 1928 so being historically correct with the world we were creating was important to us, just as in the show.

On that note – who is writing the game?

We approach writing in a very collaborative way, much like many of the modern TV shows, by having a writer’s room. This allows us to incorporate game design, concept art and environmental storytelling into the narrative direction driven by our narrative designers. Our lead writer Kerry Kolbe came through a two-day academy we ran with StoryFutures and Punch Drunk. Ultimately the script and narrative are developed closely with the show runners at Caryn Mandabach Productions, and Steven Knight, who approved and contributed to the narrative with new characters.

How did Cillian Murphy get involved with the game? Has he been involved since the start?

It was important to the authenticity to the world we were creating to have the iconic characters from Peaky Blinders played by the original talent. We were fortunate enough to have Cillian Murphy, Paul Andersen and Helen McCrory all agreeing to be involved with the project from the start. Not just in likeness but also agreeing to reprise their roles. Both Cillian and Paul contributed heavily to the script as they have developed the characters of Tommy & Arthur Shelby for nearly a decade. We also captured Paul’s fierce and animated performance using a Mocap studio in London.

Sadly, with film production delays due to covid and then the sudden passing of Helen McCrory we did not have the opportunity to work with Helen. After much deliberation we felt we really wanted to honour Helen, and to really create a legacy of the character in Polly that she had created. Working with the show runners, and family estate, Ruth Gibson was cast. She has done the most amazing and formidable job in really capturing the spirit of Polly without just trying to mimic Helen’s performance.

You’ve promised that the story has branching paths – and I saw as much in the hands-on demo – but how far does it branch out?

So, there is some branching in Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom and characters you meet will reflect on the choices you make. We wanted to immerse the player in the criminal underworld where you feel the weight of making those key decisions.

Does it always sort of come back around and hit the same main beats (but with differing relationships) like a Telltale game, or is it deeper than that?

We are not a game about multiple choice and large amounts of branching narrative, rather the focus has been placed on you being central to the story. Choice is about expressing the way you have embodied the role of Sam (the character you play). VR naturally allows players a huge range of emergent choices. So, your journey will lead you to the same main beats but the individual experience for players of the game will be very dependent on how they engage with the world.

Is the game going to be accessible to people that have never watched an episode of the show, or would you suggest people do their homework on the Shelby’s before going in?

You do not need any prior knowledge of the world. The King’s Ransom is a self-contained story that will appeal to audiences who love action adventure and crime dramas. The gangster trope is also universally appealing and understood. We do introduce the characters and their background stories through a journal that Sam keeps, and collectable items found in the world. I should point out there are no spoilers if you are still watching the series and we know many people that, having played the game, have gone on to watch the TV show for the first time.

How involved are the show’s production team? Has the team been able to visit the filming of the show?

Both Banijay and Caryn Mandabach have been heavily involved in the development of the game. Unfortunately, Covid happened during the filming of Season 6 and any planned visits to the set became impossible.

Have you been hands on with the sets and props?

Most of our development happened during lockdown, we did get a window of opportunity to visit the Black Country Museum, home of Charlie’s Yard. The open-air museum itself is full of props used in the show and from the 1920’s so it was hugely inspiring.

Did you get much documentation from the art team? It looks very accurate visually.

Though we could not go on-set we did have access to all the set designs, plans, props, reference material and graphic design used in the show. This really helped us to accurately recreate the Garrison Pub and Betting Shop, even the beer mats, labels on the Shelby gin bottles, posters on the wall are taken from the show.

You have had the chance to show off the game to the general public at EGX 2022 – what were the reactions like?

The reactions at EGX were hugely encouraging with lots of patient people waiting to have a go on the demo. Events are a fantastic opportunity to see first-hand players interacting with the game and start to bring the development goals to life.

Watching players’ reactions to so many aspects of the game from details like pulling a cork out of a gin bottle, flicking the ash of the cigarette lit by Tommy, throwing darts or Molotov cocktails was hugely rewarding for the team. Ultimately it was great to see everyone’s inner gangster come out and the decision they took with Tommy’s hostage… seeing who made what choices was very revealing… What did you choose to do?

That, reader, I will leave to your imagination.

 

Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom will release soon. If you’d like to follow the game, you can find Maze Theory on Twitter here.

About Vince Pavey

Vince is a writer from the North-East of England who has worked on comics for The Beano and Doctor Who. He likes to play video games and eat good food. Sometimes he does both at the same time, but he probably shouldn’t.

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