Sheffield has been home to its fair share of veteran game studios over the years, but studios don’t come much younger and fresher than the Steel Minions.
The Steel City that inspired the studio’s name might have given birth to the ninja alien Zool, but these guys weren’t even old enough to hold a joystick back then. In fact, the developers are all students on Sheffield Hallam University’s games degrees and they don’t graduate until November this year. That makes them the first undergraduate development team in the world to publish their own PlayStation 4 game, and they’re pretty pleased about that too.
“It’s been amazing to realise our concept on PS4, but to achieve a world first at the same time is unbelievable,” said game designer Wesley Arthur.
PieceFall is an agile, rhythmic block-placing 3D puzzle game in a world of abstract floating islands. It will have immediate appeal for Tetris fans, but provides a pleasingly new take on the classic concept by flipping the puzzle onto a horizontal plane. The tranquil nature of the environments have been a fundamental aspect of the game’s design, with the music and audio all carefully crafted to ease you into a state of puzzle-playing Zen. Collect enough points and the ultimate level of the Zen Island is unlocked.
But Arthur says it hasn’t been a quick or easy journey for the young developers: “I came up with the original game concept as part of a group project in October 2013. It took three different teams, ten months of development over two years in order to finally bring it to market.”
Programmer Steve Hartin adds: “The game is written completely in C++ using the PhyreEngine. There’s no doubt we could have created it more quickly in other engines, but we wouldn’t have learned as much from the experience.”
Like all games, PieceFall went through various iterations and game changes where complex mini-games, extra bonus levels, multiplayer objectives and additional islands had to be sacrificed to get the game over the finish line.
And learning is what it is all about, according to the Steel Minions’ studio manager Jake Habgood: “University is a lot like a gym. The harder you push yourself the fitter you become at the end of it. If you can write and publish a PlayStation 4 game using C++ then you’re well placed to face any industry challenge”.
Who can argue with that when all five members of the final team who took the game to market already have jobs at Sumo Digital in Sheffield and Elite3D in Valencia?
“Steel Minions is probably the only games studio in the world that actively encourages other studios to poach its staff,” Habgood expounds.
“PieceFall’s original programmer got taken on by Sumo last year, and we’re always having to adjust our development schedules to accommodate our best staff getting placements in the industry, which is great.”
The Steel Minions team benefitted from a dedicated producer from Sony’s XDev Studios in the form of head of PlayStationFirst Maria Stukoff, who took the team through a tough development cycle to get a well-polished game to market.
“This is what we have been working towards, getting the next wave of PlayStation developers to create games and to publish,” said Stukoff.
“It’s been brilliant to work alongside such a talented team of students to achieve something so worthwhile to their careers”.
PieceFall is available on the PlayStation Store and it is well worth the 99p price tag to bring a bit of Zen into your life this summer.