In an industry continually striving for greater maturity, it’s rare to hear a studio actually describe a game as ‘grown-up’. Yet, this is the potentially contentious term by which independent outlet PaperSeven has opted to define its upcoming PC and console debut Blackwood Crossing.
“It’s by far the most in-depth and complex project we’ve worked on, which is why we often refer to it as our first ‘grown-up’ game,” explains studio head Alice Guy. “The budget’s bigger. The team’s bigger. We’ve had to have more specialist roles involved.”
The first-person tale struck a chord with judges at this year’s Gamescom, picking up the UK Game of the Show award, hosted by industry trade body UKIE, for being the best unreleased British-made title at the show thanks to its strong narrative hooks and evocative style.
“We had long wanted to develop a story-driven game, and for that story to focus on orphaned siblings,” Guy recalls on the game’s origins. “Indie, quirkier titles such as Gone Home, Stanley Parable and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter were going from strength to strength, but we felt the core stories could afford to come to the fore even more and the player’s emotional attachment to be stronger.”
While Blackwood may mark the studio’s maturation, PaperSeven is far from green itself, comprising senior devs with over 50 years of shared experience from Split/Second outlet Black Rock Studio.
“It certainly helps our general production processes and efficiencies – for example, understanding how best to work with external partners and the importance of bringing in experts when needed,” Guy says of the indie’s triple-A legacy. “It also gave us a solid understanding of publishing requirements, working with localisation and QA teams, and so on – and gave our funders confidence in moving ahead with the project. Lastly, it just naturally pushes us to deliver the highest level of quality we possibly can and gives us a belief in our ability to deliver.”
Blackwood Crossing’s the most in-depth and complex project we’ve worked on, which is why we refer to it as our first ‘grown-up’ game.
Despite the team’s proficiency, moving to an unfamiliar type of game and going it alone did throw up new challenges.
“We hadn’t done in-depth character animation before, so we had to bring that skill in-house,” Guy reveals. “Luckily, we worked with an excellent animator at Black Rock who became available and we snapped him up.
“VFX also feature heavily in the game, and we had to learn some of that stuff as we went on.
“As a studio, our skills in story and script development, as well as vocal performance, have massively increased. As has our experience in marketing and demoing the game.
“The biggest technical hurdle has been developing a story and puzzle system which can be used to try out new dialogue and gameplay ideas. We’ve used a combination of a visual scripting system and an event sequencer to decouple it from the game code so that designers and coders can quickly make new puzzles and story threads without writing any code. This has meant that anyone on the team can contribute to these parts of the game.”
Fortunately, at least one element of Blackwood was very familiar to the devs: the engine.
“We’ve used Unity ever since starting the studio in 2011 so the team’s really experienced in it,” Guy explains. “We love its flexibility when developing for multiple platforms, allowing us to sim ship easily.
“The coders use C#, which is many times more productive than C++ and with experience can be equally as efficient. We can prototype new features quickly and, once we’re happy, convert them into production features with minimum hassle. The renderer also has a powerful set of features that means our artists can create the unique look we wanted.”
With its Gamescom triumph under its belt, Guy says PaperSeven has been reinvigorated as it pushes towards Blackwood Crossing’s release.
“We were thrilled to win,” she enthuses. “It’s such a great feeling, and a glimpse of what we might be able to achieve next year if we continue to push ourselves.
“I think – and hope – we won because we’re a small team pushing for a big goal: providing strong and stylish visuals and an emotionally-engaging story, alongside fun and contextual gameplay. It’s a game that makes you think and feel.”