FuturLab on Velocity, Sierra and the Future

POSTED BY Toby Berger April 6, 2015 in Articles
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The gap between AAA and independent titles has been evidently narrowing, with independent studios crafting some of the most memorable, accessible and enticing new experiences on a slew of new platforms over the past ten years. Titles like Limbo, Braid, Gone Home and most recently Ori and The Blind Forest are representations of the growing movement and the change the gaming industry is undergoing. One of the most prominent faces in the independent scene over the past four or so years has been England-based studio FuturLab, a team who’ve released a collection of highly praised, immensely addicting games on both PlayStation platforms and the PC. Recently, the team struck a partnership with Sierra to bring their most recent offering – Velocity 2X – to the Xbox One, along with a promise that the partnership with their new publisher won’t be ending there. I recently caught up with Managing Director of FuturLab, James Marsden, and had a chat about Velocity’s inception, creating its sequel – 2X, the Sierra partnership and what we can expect to see in the future from the studio.

To begin, I want to visit the studio’s rise into creating commercial video games for the PlayStation Nation, as the story itself is quite fascinating.

In 2007, Futurlab was a small studio working on flash games, with the team having no prior knowledge in C or C++ coding. The team wanted to make an Alternate Reality Game that had game characters contacting players through instant messaging, email and telephone calls. Funding was required to create such a thing, as happens to be the case for all games, but sites that were able to fund and publish flash games were few and far between with the one company they sought out giving them a “this all sounds a bit weird” retort. In the end, there was an offer on the table for them, but the team wanted to push higher. Eventually, the idea to pitch the game to PlayStation became an actual thing and a pitch was sent out to Relentless Software – the team behind the Buzz titles. David Amor, Creative Director of the studio, gave the team some helpful advice and told them to bring all of the ideas they’d had (e.g. the text messaging, emailing and such) to the front of the pitch. They did, and a meeting with Sony’s Liverpool contingent was scheduled.

“As you’d expect, this was a little different to what the execs had probably normally sat in on.”

The idea that FuturLab used for the pitch to Sony was to throw the Sony executives sitting in on the meeting into the middle of a real world game event, and to do this the team did a hefty amount of research into the LinkedIn profiles of the execs they’d be meeting with and threw it into the demo. They had a month to practice the pitch, and used one of the producers – Phil Gaskell – as their primary target. It began with a small sentence – “So Phil, thanks so much for traveling all this way to see us in person. Your CV was by far the most impressive.” As you’d expect, this was a little different to what the execs had probably normally sat in on.

During the presentation, the time came to hand the demo over for Phil to have a crack, and during this changeover a key combination was entered that would set off a timer that’d glitch out the game and have it purposely freeze. As this happened, “New User Detected, Phillip Gaskell” emerged on the screen, with “Unauthorized. Checking History” following suit. His LinkedIn biography and recommendations from colleagues came up on the screen just after that, fitting the presentation perfectly. Sony were sold on the idea, and that’s how the team started its fruitful relationship with Sony and the PlayStation brand. A game of this calibre hasn’t been released as of yet, but what came further down the line was certainly something just as good.

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“Velocity was the result of a piece of music I’d written 10 years prior” James Marsden, Managing Director of Futurlab said. “I’d finally got it to a decent level of polish, and it sounded like an 80s space shooter soundtrack. We’d just finished Coconut Dodge, where coconuts fall down and a crab moves left and right with various speeds. With the same engine, we could turn the coconuts into a space station, and the crab into a spaceship, and instead of moving at various speeds, we could make the ship teleport.”

Velocity debuted as a PlayStation Mini in May of 2012, releasing on the PlayStation Portable, PlayStation 3 and a few months later on the PlayStation Vita. The game garnered critical acclaim with its sci-fi setting, addictive gameplay mechanics and absorbing soundtrack.

“My main goal was to get the game featured in EDGE Magazine. For this I knew the game had to be special, so we worked on innovating every assumption about what a shoot ‘em-up is.” Velocity received a 9/10 from EDGE and had a ‘Making of’ feature in the magazine in 2012.

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After the PlayStation Vita launched at the end of 2012, fans made it clear that there was a desire to bring a native version to the system. “The fans gave us the critical mass to convince Sony it was worth doing. We didn’t actually need to convince Sony though, as they were fans themselves!” With that, Velocity Ultra was released on PlayStation Vita in May 2013 as a high-definition remake of Velocity. Velocity Ultra was specifically designed to accommodate the high-definition resolution of the Vita, with the art style also being slightly reworked and trophy support also being added in. Touch controls and the right analog stick were also utilized in the remake, crafting a solid package for fans and newcomers alike.

Just a bit over a year later Velocity 2X, the sequel to Velocity, was in development for the PlayStation Vita. “I was convinced early on that Velocity 2X should be a platformer and a shoot ‘em-up in one. Fortunately, Sony agreed immediately, and Velocity 2X was signed at the same time as Velocity Ultra.” Velocity 2X represented a slight change in its game mechanics, keeping with the tried-and-true shoot ‘em-up formula of Velocity but also experimenting with new on-foot, platforming sections that gave a breath of fresh air to the series. This change had a few developers at the studio a little doubtful, but James was convinced – “It was the only way we could continue to make a mark in the industry.”

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The soundtrack featured in both Velocity titles have been a fundamental pillar in crafting the mood the series sets, and the story behind both the original and 2X’s soundtracks are intriguing. “As I mentioned, the original game was inspired by a piece of music, so I continued to write three more tracks for the original, but it became clear that I could never achieve the level of polish we needed for a commercial release, so I approached Joris de Man to see if he’d be interested in finishing the tracks to a professional standard. To my delight he agreed. He was excited about the innovative teleportation controls and wanted to be involved. For Velocity 2X, I spent a few weeks creating a sketch track (check it out here), and once I was happy with that in terms of direction and mood, gave it to Joris to finish up. That led to the track called ‘Rekenium’, and set the bar for the rest of the soundtrack which Joris created mostly by himself. I did some meddling in some of the other tracks to keep them all pointing in the same direction in terms of mood.”

Velocity 2X released on the 2nd of September in 2014 and received critical acclaim much like its predecessor. It arrived on both PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita and continued to show Futurlab’s unique vision and innovation with their games. It was featured as a PlayStation Plus title in September, allowing it to have a wider reach than it probably would have done otherwise.

“We are playing the long game, consistently delivering quality as a result of very hard work – we’re building brand recognition.” – James Marsden, Managing Director of FuturLab

Velocity 2X was never planned to come to the PlayStation 4, as the game was signed to release exclusively on the PlayStation Vita, but Sony posed the question to the team and it went from there. “Sony asked if we’d like to push the production value of Velocity 2X higher for the PlayStation 4. Velocity 2X looks beautiful on the Vita because we started on that platform, but we really had to pull out all the stops on visual effects and optimization on that device to give us room to stretch a little on PS4 in terms of particle effects and explosions.” While the jump to PlayStation 4 may have been questionable, Velocity 2X plays just as well with a DualShock 4 on a 50” TV as it does on the Vita’s OLED or LCD screen.

PlayStation’s PlayStation Plus program is incredibly popular for good reason. Not only does it give back to those a part of the monthly subscription service, it also gives developers a chance to share their games with a massive collection of gamers. Both Velocity Ultra and Velocity 2X have featured on the service, and James made particular mention as to why the studio decided to take that route. “We are playing the long game, consistently delivering quality as a result of very hard work – we’re building brand recognition. Having our games go out for free builds that brand recognition at a pace you can watch happen in real time.”

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Velocity’s art style is particularly gorgeous.

In February, FuturLab announced that they’d partnered up with Sierra to bring Velocity 2X to PC, Mac, Linux and Xbox One. FuturLab would be developing the game, with Sierra publishing. It’s hard being an independent developer, and the move was fueled by not only the ability of having a publisher to help out with Marketing and PR, but by the message Sierra has been pushing – that “quality and passion will always pay off.”

“Sierra has a unique vision for supporting independent development. We knew that as an independent studio we needed to invest in creating cross-platform technology, so our game engine was written from scratch with that in mind. We never actually approached any publishers about Velocity 2X, we were just busy promoting it. It was Sierra that got in touch with us, and what they offered made sense.”

While Velocity 2X will be making the jump from PlayStation platforms to PC and Xbox, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all of their titles will be making the jump upon release. “FuturLab is independent, so we are free to work with any publisher and platform holder – whatever makes the most sense for the game we’re making.”

The future of FuturLab is entirely up in the air, with new ideas for future titles being thrown around all the time. There’s a “never say never” mentality for sequels to some of their other beloved games like Surge, Fuel Tiracas and Beats Slider, and while Velocity 2X is coming to PC platforms and the Xbox One next, there’s a chance a Nintendo platform may see a FuturLab game in the future.

One thing I was particularly interested in hearing about was if a FuturLab Collection on PS4, Xbox One and PC would be something that’d interest the team, with James making particular note that FuturLab are always forward moving. “Our staff are very high functioning, creative people – they get bored if they’re not being stretched creatively, and that is something I value very highly. Doing ports is important for growing our fanbase, but creating new exciting things is where FuturLab has the most to offer.”

FuturLab has come a long way since its humble beginnings back in 2007, and the team continue to impress with their fresh, innovative games. Velocity 2X was one of my favourite titles of last year and I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what they have in store for the future. The Sierra partnership is a major stepping stone in the developers journey, and I’m excited to see where it leads.

Velocity 2X is available now on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita and a solid collection of other FuturLab games are also available on PS3 and PlayStation Vita. Velocity 2X will be available on Xbox One and PC platforms sometime in the future. If you’re interested in games that hark back to the days of chasing high scores and being at the top of a leaderboard, FuturLab’s titles might just be for you.

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