Epidemics and apocalyptic situations have become increasingly common settings for video games, but there's a real-life example that has rarely been explored.
Leicester-based developer Small Impact Games is rectifying this with The Black Death, a multiplayer survival adventure set during the spread of the bubonic plague during the 1300s. Currently in Early Access and published by Green Man Gaming, the title challenges players to avoid being infected while working in a series of professions.
We caught up with the team, which includes former members of Rocksteady and Codemasters, to find out more about the project and how it plans to grow a community beyond Early Access.
The Black Death is rather a grisly topic for a video game. Why did you decide to build your title around this?
James Rowbotham, director (pictured): The era of the Black Death was of great interest to us as it is such an important part of our history – it’s one of the closest points the human race has ever been to extinction. When it comes to games, this historical time period is largely untapped and a survival experience in a gloomy Western European setting felt like the perfect fit.
Medieval settings without fantasy elements are rare. Why do you think this is? Is it more limiting for developers, or does that make it more of a creative challenge?
Cameron Small, character artist: We wanted to create a realistic, gritty world and the medieval ages were so culturally rich, with an abundance of interesting people, gruesome wars and catastrophic epidemics that we decided that fantasy elements were unnecessary. We chose to keep the game as historically accurate as possible – although we did employ creative license in one or two areas – because we feel it adds a believability that makes it easier for people to really embrace their characters.
Mitch Small, animator: We definitely haven’t felt limited by this decision, and with the wealth of information that is available about this period we’ve really enjoyed creating a convincing world.
The Black Death is such an important part of our history – it’s one of the closest points the human race has ever been to extinction.
What tech did you use for this game? Any major technical obstacles to overcome?
Cameron: We are using Unreal Engine 4 and the main technical obstacle we encountered was building such a large world without negatively impacting the game’s performance. UE4 has so many powerful tools that we have been able to optimise throughout development, building a strong foundation on which we can continue to develop the world of The Black Death.
What other games inspired the mechanics/gameplay?
Mitch (pictured): The Black Death takes inspiration from many different sources; films, TV series as well as games. Our biggest source of inspiration for gameplay and mechanics came from the role-playing aspect of 'life’ mods, such as Dark RP and Arma Life. We wanted to give players the opportunity to experience the rich variety of lifestyles that existed in the medieval ages.
You have multiple classes, some of which (Peasant, for example) are less focused on combat. How do you ensure the game is still fun for people that are interested in more than battles?
James: Every profession in the game can take part in combat, so you won’t be destroyed by a player who has picked a more combat-focused profession. Playing as a profession that is less geared towards combat brings access to a range of interesting gameplay mechanics.
For example, the Merchant is more orientated towards crafting, and will have the upper hand when buying and selling items. Those who play as a Peasant are able to work the land, growing their own crops and gathering more from resources. Monks have the ability to create remedies and lotions to help fend off infection, and can also brew beer and produce opium. Every profession has its own advantages when it comes to surviving in The Black Death.
Mitch: Working together with other professions allows you to become stronger. For example, a Peasant’s focus could be on producing food for the group, whilst Merchants might sell any spare food at the market for gold, which then allows them to create new weapons for the Militia, who protect the crops. Acquire enough gold and you can buy a house, which allows you to pass on items to your next of kin should you die.
The main technical obstacle we encountered was building such a large world without negatively impacting the game’s performance.
What were you looking for in a publisher before you decided on Green Man Gaming? What support did you receive?
Mitch: To be honest, during early production we were solely focused on the game’s development and hadn’t yet considered publishers, but when the opportunity to partner with Green Man Gaming arose it was a no-brainer for us. It’s been great working with them as they’ve been supportive without constricting us, leaving us to develop the game while they take care of the marketing and setting us up with great opportunities such as our booth at EGX Rezzed.
How do you plan to grow your game going forward using your community?
Cameron (pictured): We have a roadmap of features that we plan to introduce during Early Access that we've just made public for people to vote on features. Developing alongside the community with a transparent development process allows us to gather invaluable feedback, ideas and issues. There have already been some brilliant suggestions in the forums, and we feel this sort of community relationship is integral to producing a great roleplaying game. Our communities’ help is essential in allowing The Black Death to reach its full potential.
What’s the biggest challenge you face in terms of gathering that community, and how do you plan to tackle this?James: By having Green Man Gaming as a publishing partner, we can work on developing the game further while they focus on marketing. We are constantly reading the forums and seeing what people are saying about the game, and we try to be as active as possible in answering questions and addressing issues.
We’d really like to thank everybody that has helped us to date. The amount of feedback we’ve received has been outstanding and we’re incredibly grateful. Whether in the form of a bug report or a forum post, the feedback so far has already allowed us to greatly enhance the game.