On the 3rd November 2016, Fireblade Software pushed live an announcement trailer for their game, “Abandon Ship” – You can watch this at the end of the interview – which featured a lot of wonderful naval battles, and a promise of adventure. We were so impressed here at B3 that I reached out to have a chat with Gary Burchall, the Business Dev and founder at Fireblade Software, and ask him some questions about the company, the games visual style, and their plans for it’s gameplay.
How many of you are there at Fireblade Software? What’s the history of you all coming together?
I left my job as an Executive Producer at Climax Studios late November 2015. I’d just finished shipping the Assassin’s Creed Chronicles trilogy and, as a lot of people tend to do at the end of a project, they assess what they want to do next. I was really happy at Climax (I’d been there for 13 years – it was my first full-time job out of University!) – but I’d always wanted to do the Indie thing. I’m friends with Sam Barlow (creator of Her Story) and we’d spent years sat next to each other, so I think seeing what he did and achieved helped plant a seed.
Funnily enough, a coupe of people I used to work with left to pursue their own thing (whether that was before or after I left), and as the industry is small we stayed in touch, and have ended up working together. It can be good to work with people you know, because you’ve been through the development process with each other before – you all know how you fit in as a team and your strengths.
In total there are 5 of us. Myself, a programmer, a Composer (who is also our VFX Artist) and an Audio Designer that have all worked together at various stages of our career. Another artist who we’d never worked with before joined the team as well. I actually first met her years prior when I was mentoring a Student games industry competition!
Why have you, Fireblade Software, decided to create Abandon Ship?
When I got in the Industry, I had two ambitions – the AAA thing – which I tried, and was a tough experience. Pretty much anyone I’ve spoken to who has worked in AAA, from top to bottom has some negative things to say about it.
The second ambition was to go Indie. When I was thinking about leaving my ‘proper job’, I realised that I didn’t want to look back on my life and think “I wish I had been braver” – once I started to lose the fear of not having a regular income, I got a bee in my bonnet about the whole thing, and at that point there was no turning back.
When it came to deciding what to create, I am a firm believer that you should make something you would want to play. I’d always been a fan of systemic Indie games – FTL in particular – and I’d always wondered why there wasn’t a game like that but with Age of Sail ships (which I’d always been interested in) – as I started to work out whether that scope was achievable at my level, I became more and more sold on the idea. I had a lot of ideas of games I wanted to make, but I kept coming back to Abandon Ship. It felt right on so many levels, and I couldn’t get it out of my head!
How long has Abandon Ship been in development, and how has the transition from plan to code worked out for you so far?
When I started in December 2015, I spent the first month doing very logistical business start-up tasks. It was a necessary but frustrating thing to do.
So development didn’t really kick off until January 2016. The plan back then was for Abandon Ship to be smaller in scope and a top-down game – so my prototyping focused on that. I remember there was a screen divide between the ships, but there was a weird disconnect where the projectiles would go from one side of the divide to the other. As we continued prototyping one solution we tried was a single camera at a more isometric view – this solved the issue we had, but we also thought “now that looks cool!”.
For me, that was the point where the game started to become recognisably Abandon Ship.
At that same time, a few other things were in play. I’d decided upon the Art Style (more on that later) and we applied to the UK Games Fund as part of their Round 2 Grant. Despite this being very over-subscribed, we managed to be one of the titles that were awarded a grant, which allowed us to make the game we really wanted to make!
It feels like thus far, every challenge we’ve faced we’ve overcome successfully, so I’m very happy with how things have turned out! Hopefully “Future Gary” will agree with me!
We’ve seen quite a variety of land masses, and of course The Kraken, in the trailer for the game, can you tell us a little bit about the changes from the traditional Age of Sail/ Golden Age of Piracy setting that you’ve made to create this game world?
There were two factors associated with setting the game in a grounded-fantasy world (and by that I mean nothing too far fetched – no floating castles in the sky).
I wanted gameplay to come first, so didn’t want to feel like I couldn’t do certain ideas because they weren’t historically accurate. The second was that I wanted big sea monsters! Now sea monsters may feel far fetched, but at one time big lizards were stomping around the planet, so it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination…)
I think there were a lot of other factors that started to add on to these initial feelings. I wanted to veer away from the traditional, arrrr me hearties Pirates of the Caribbean vibe, as tonally it wasn’t a great fit. Our game has permadeath, and you’re constantly on the edge of defeat – so the ‘jaunty pirate’ tone felt off. As well, the art style inspiration was very dramatic, so we felt the game was more “Master & Commander” then “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Part of this was making sure there was a varied world to travel across – if you were just sailing around Tropical islands it’s easy for people to assume it’s the Caribbean and all the associated thoughts that go with it. I also wanted to have a varied world to explore, as that is more fun for players.
As for the Kraken; it does fit in with the main Story, but I’ll talk about that in due course!
FTL (Faster Than Light) is obviously a major inspiration to the game; however the overworld screen seems to indicate free movement. Can you give us any hints at how you intend to keep players motivated in pushing towards the end goal?
FTL is one of my favourite titles. I also believe it is one of the best designed games ever – the Subset Games guys are geniuses as far as I’m concerned. Like I said earlier, I believe you should make a game you’d want to play, so that probably explains why I fell in love with the concept of Abandon Ship.
For us, the biggest inspiration is from the crew management in combat. Outside of that, the world will be much freer to explore (depending on where you are in the story of course) and while there will be a ton of incidental events that occur, there will also be a lot of side-quests, some of which will change the landscape around you. Not everything in this world is black-and-white, so there will be some dubious moral decisions to make.
The core loop of exploring, dealing with events, fighting in combat, upgrading and surviving against the odds is a compelling experience, and the Story helps frame everything and give players a reason to keep going.
It’s rare to see a game with such a well defined art style; had you always intended to use the oil painting art style with your game – and how was it that the idea for the game, and visual style, came to be?
Not initially! I remember the moment I came up with the idea quite clearly though.
I knew how saturated the market is, and I was thinking of ways that we could stand out. People (myself included) are very visual, so I knew the art style was a way to gain attention – if I’m scrolling through a website, if a screenshot doesn’t grab me in half-a-second I’ve moved on.
So with those thoughts in mind, it was one Christmas and I was round my in-laws. They have one of those classic Naval Oil Paintings hanging in their living room, and I was stood staring at it – as I often did because I love the style, the ships, the period etc. I was literally thinking “but what art style could we try that would make us stand out?” when it dawned on me. It was staring me in the face. It was a real eureka moment.
It was a perfect thematic and tonal fit, plus I couldn’t think of a game with a similar style so it felt unique. I spoke to a few Art Directors I knew, and they all said “there is a reason you don’t get many games with this style. It is very hard to realise it in a game engine” – so ignoring their advice I set about trying to achieve it.
Really, the credit must go to the team – as aside from the idea, they were responsible for creating it in engine – which was not an easy task, particularly with something as complex as a water system. So they’re the ones that deserve the credit!
One major thing I noticed about the trailer was that yourself, ‘The Captain’, can find yourself without a ship or crew – having to clamber up from scratch. What are some of the ways you managed difficulty in order to ensure that this is in fact not a harder effort for the player than simply restarting?
If you can make it back to port, we’ll always let you start with a base ship and crew in the worst situations, but there will also be some mechanics in place that will mean it’s a set-back, rather then a disaster the player can’t recover from.
Players should feel invested in their Captain and their personal adventure – being in the lifeboat (or stranded alone in the water) is a low point on their career, and survival is not guaranteed – making it back to port is a real against-the-odds “Phew, I made it!” moment.
We’ve seen two ships drawing close in the trailer, is boarding a part of the game, and does this mean we’ll have a variety of ships, and ship appearances, within the game?
Oh yes, boarding is most certainly a part of the game! It’s probably a bit OP at the moment!
Players will be able to choose how they upgrade their ships – some may prefer to keep their distance, others may choose to gear themselves to close-range fighting and boarding the enemy.
There will be a variety of ships with different appearances throughout the game.
Regarding the game’s crew management -we’ve not really had a solid look at how crew is managed yet- is there any control over them during combat, or do they play more of a role during events or interactions with settlements?
Yes, the player positions their crew around the ship, and reacts to the events that occur in battle by moving their crew around to repair, man weapons, heal etc.
The crew are all specialists, so you want your Navigator on the Helm, your Marine fighting off boarding actions etc. You’ll be a lot more effective in battle if you have the right crew member doing the right thing at the right time.
With the different weather systems in place throughout the trailer, how will these affect the gameplay? You have been tweeting a fair amount of GIF’s showing wave physics, do these work in conjunction with the weather?
We have a massive matrix of all of the Biomes, times of day, weather and water roughness combinations in the game, and they all have some impact on gameplay.
This may be certain events only happening in certain areas or times of day, or specific gameplay events – for example in the trailer, we see a Tidal Wave (which can sweep crew overboard) and a Lightning bolt striking the ship, causing a fire. We try to make the systems all pile onto each other and interact in ways that make the player have to factor it in to their moment-to-moment decisions.
A huge thank you to Gary Burchell for taking the time out from developing the game to answer my questions. You can follow the games development on Twitter and on Facebook, as well as going to the official website. I’ll be keeping an eye on the games development, and am eagerly awaiting the release date!