"The Signal From Tölva": An interview with Jim Rossignol

Jim Rossignol used to be a games journalist before he ventured into games development with Sir, You Are Being Hunted. Now, his studio Big Robot is working on The Signal From Tölva, a single-player FPS set on an alien planet. I wrote about this promising project for Der Standard; here’s my full interview with Jim.

You have made the switch from writing about video games to creating them. How did that happen?

Gradually. In 2010 I worked on a project commissioned by Channel 4, and ended up forming a small games studio to get the game - an educational puzzler called Fallen City (sadly now defunct) - designed, produced and published. With the money left over from that, plus a Kickstarter in 2012, we raised the money for Sir, You Are Being Hunted. I didn’t work full time on that, because we needed to pay the designer, programmer and artists, and so I remained a writer at Rock, Paper, Shotgun through most of its development. Fortunately it did well enough that I was able to work full time for past two years on our new game, The Signal From Tölva. It has only being during that period that I’ve really considered myself to be a game creator, although the switch still remains sort of opaque to me, perhaps because of how slowly it has happened..

How many devs, artists and collaborators are working at Big Robot, and specifically your latest game?

Several people have contributed small, vital things to the game. Mondo Ghulam and Ian McQue, both formerly at Rockstar, provided animation and concept art respectively. The main team, however, remains small. James Carey and Tom Betts - the pair chiefly responsible for Sir, You Are Being Hunted - have been joined by enormously talented CG artist Olly Skillman Wilson, and we’ve also had some help from another programmer, Dan Puzey. So we’ve all had to take on a number of roles, and call in specialists to help when we needed them. Consequently the workload is high and the progress slow, but being so heavily involved in all aspects of the process is, I think, rewarding for everyone.

How did Big Robot’s first game, Sir, You Are Being Hunted, fare commercially and critically?

"Gaming, as a commercial and design space, moves faster than anyone could anticipate"

Commercially it did extremely well. It has so far sold over 450,000 copies and more than a third of those were at full price (while many were of course sold heavily discounted in bundles and so forth). Critically it fared less well. Traditional press focused heavily on its lo-fi production (it was made extremely cheaply, because we simply didn’t have the resources for a high-fidelity game) and I think the overall oddness of development (Kickstarter, followed by Early Access) gave people a strange view of the game. The poor reviews didn’t seem to hurt its popularity, of course, and we’ve found it extremely rewarding how many players “get” what we were trying to do.

What’s the most important lesson you took away from working on SYABH?

Probably that gaming, as a commercial and design space, moves faster than anyone could anticipate. When we announced the game there was no such thing as survival games, and by the time we came out it was a flourishing genre, led by Day Z. In the time it took us to make the game Early Access, as a commercial concept, was announced, heavily adopted, and then subsequently backlashed against. Games are extraordinarily prone to whims and trends, of fashion, of commerce, of player attitudes. Any analysis of a game’s development and success (or lack thereof) that doesn’t take this into account is essentially being dishonest.

SYABH had a firm focus on procedural generation, which is absent from your latest game, SFT. Why?

We wanted to try something different. Two years or more on a single game is a long time to work on a creative project, and the length of time focused on that thing is taxing in and of itself. We wanted to make sure we were challenged and served by what we were doing. We’ve also regarded both Sir and Tölva as learning processes. We are still relatively new to game development, despite being old hands in related industries, and so both these games are about us figuring out how we make games, and what we’re interested in. As players will see in Tölva, the specific decision to world build is at the fore this time.

There is a notable renaissance of 70s SF aesthetic in games - most prominently in No Man’s Sky, but also in SFT. What’s so interesting about it to you?

Commentators have been keen to connect Tölva’s aesthetic with that of No Man’s Sky, via the palette of 70s SF, but I think our route to a sci-fi aesthetic has actually been quite different to that of Hello’s game. No Man’s Sky was a very deliberate attempt to evoke those kinds of images - explicitly so - and I think the colours and scenes the game creates strongly evidence that they succeeded in that at a high-concept procedurally-driven level. Our interest is rather more abstracted. Tölva’s world is just one world, and it focused on two concepts, that of “alien highlands” (our initial code name for the project was Highlands) and secondly the art of Ian McQue.

Our focus was to make a game that was faithful to at least some of his personal sci-fi vision. I think it’s absolutely fair to say that McQue’s work has been influenced by 70s painters like Peter Elson or Chris Foss, but his own style is far more painterly and impressionistic, and his themes are strongly related to the ‘kit-bashed’ style (Star Wars’ “used” future look) and also the scrappy, junk-repurposed style of Mad Max and, well, his studies of real world machines and industry. Tölva’s style is, therefore, an interpretation of McQue’s interpretation, which puts us some distance from those 70s masters.

How did the cooperation with renowned concept artist Ian McQue happen?

I’d admired Ian’s sci-fi art for a long time, and had been keeping track of it for a while before he left Rockstar. Once he was working solo we talked and together decided that he’d do some sketches and paintings for us to work from. It was fairly tentative, as he was off to do Hollywood stuff, and we had never really worked with a concept artist, but I think the results speak for themselves. Ian went on to design, robots, weapons and spaceships that would feature in the game. Our primary 3D artist, Olly Skillman-Wilson, has worked hard to create assets that were faithful to this, including using the same splattery brushes to produce our textures, and giving the world a “hand-painted” feel.

"Both STALKER and Tölva are games about landscapes and the life that inhabits them"

A comparison that has come up in regard to SFT and its announced features - AI, factions, open world - is the STALKER series. Would you agree? If you do, what’s the “legacy” of that game for you in SFT?

I think the legacy of Stalker for me as a game designer is that it permanently diminished my interest in the “linear” template for first-person games as set out by Half-Life and others. (I still regard it as the most interesting first-person game to have come out of any studio since Valve made the first Half-Life.) Stalker was also a game about landscape, as Tölva is, and when you create a landscape you need to create appropriate systems of “life” to inhabit it. Both games do that in their own way, and while Tölva and Stalker are very different in many ways, I think they share a sort of spatial and design gene in that sense.

´SFT seems to aim for a bigger audience than SYABH - do you even see it as aiming at a niche?

Tölva is probably more populist than Sir - it’s prettier, it’s more about action and blowing up robots! - but I think it can’t help being niche by virtue of being made by a small team on PC. We can’t compete with the Far Cry’s of this world by simple fact of their vast budgets, and so the experience is necessarily shorter, lighter, more austere, and - for now - limited to one format.

Big Robot’s focus, so far, has been on creating FPS. What’s the most interesting aspect of this genre for you, and how would you describe the current state of the genre, both in Indie and AAA?

I think both “survival” and “walking simulator” genres are a measure of the health of the first-person perspective. Easily accessible tools - Unreal and Unity - have made the genre one that teams of all sizes can readily contribute to, and I think we’re seeing that in terms of output. Perhaps the most interesting trend, though, is in “first person puzzlers”, which became inevitable after the success of Portal. These - as well as walking and survival sims - suggest that combat and violence is only a small area of design in which these games will be successful, and I’m keen to see how new genres will open up when building on those in the future. I certainly feel like Tölva has learned from puzzlers and walking simulators, as players will see when they get to grips with the game. (We’re stepping back from survival tropes this time, however!)

As head of a small indie studio, how would you describe the situation in regard to visibility, the “indie bubble”, profitability and the future of indie?

We’ll find out next year. Sir, You Are Being Hunted benefited from a unique set of circumstances, and was able to trade on the novelty of both Kickstarter and Early Access being new and exciting when it appeared, as well as riding high on the boom in survival games. Tölva will not benefit from these trends and also enters a marketplace that is increasingly saturated with high-quality games. We’re very nervous about that, and keenly aware that we face an uphill struggle to get notice. Exactly how steep that climb will he, however, we don’t yet know!

Is the distinction Indie/AAA still viable?

Yes, I think so. But I think it’s increasingly a distinction of scale and cost, rather than quality. We’ve seen in the past few years that indie teams can make AAA-quality games, but the size and length of them will necessarily be small. The AAA studios continue to make the very large $60 games that have high-production campaigns and a heap of secondary quality stuff. An indie team might just be able to make a game set in Adam Jensen’s apartment, but it’d take a team of hundreds more to make the rest of a Deus Ex game!

“Small” indie releases like No Man’s Sky have had their share of hype (and the ensuing drama) - does that make you wary of an association with a big publisher or platform?

Not at all - I think there’s every reason to benefit from big publisher marketing power, especially in this increasingly competitive space. No Man’s Sky might have generated a lot of bad noise, but it was also a tremendous success in most other regards. Hello have created an extraordinary platform to build upon, a unusual and experience and - luckily for both them and Sony - lots of money.

Looking at games journalism “from the other side”, what is something you feel is lacking? And, inversely, what has improved?

"The problem with games journalism is almost always knowledge"

The problem with games journalism is almost always knowledge. No one knows enough, or can know enough, to really get to grips with games as required by their diversity and complexity. Even the smartest and most versatile journalists find themselves hitting a wall with certain games, genres, or audiences. And there’s really little anyone can do about that.

What has improved, though, is also a consequence of this: journalists increasingly recognise that the games space is so huge now as to be essentially beyond easy survey, and so they either specialise and go deep on specific games, or they work hard to articulate to gamers just how wide the territory is now, and give examples of what can found in there.

Finally, a (maybe duh) political question: Do you, as a game dev, feel that you’ll have to face any consequences from the UK’s decision to leave the EU?

It’s too early to say, really. I expect the UK’s economy to suffer, and that will make all our lives more difficult and expensive. The decision to leave the EU was catastrophically narrow-minded and idealistic, and it will have terrible consequences that no one has yet foreseen.

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