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Sneak Or Die: One-On-One With The Bastard Himself


Jonathan Biddle, Design Director at Curve Studios and the man behind Stealth Bastard, takes a break from sizzling hapless bald men with lasers and crushing them with walls to talk with us about the genesis and future of his sneaky stealth platformer.

Download the game for free at
www.stealthbastard.com


Sneaky Bastards: Where did the idea for Stealth Bastard come from?

Jonathan Biddle: For the past few years, I’ve always tended to have various spare time hobby projects that I do in my lunch time and weekends, just whenever I get an odd moment. Some time in 2009, I’d been playing around with a 2D lighting and shadow system that someone had written for my hobby project tool of choice, Game Maker, and I figured I could make an interesting Metroidvania with it. The original inspiration was to have a Flashback-style game, with a future setting and loads of cool gadgets, where the player controlled a future spy or bounty hunter who would travel to different planets in his spaceship. I wanted stealth and infiltration to be a big part of that game, so you’d hide in shadows and sneak around behind people, combining the gameplay of Flashback with something like Splinter Cell, but in 2D.

Flashback, one of the primary influences for an earlier version of what would become Stealth Bastard.

I put something together and it seemed to work quite well, but I was well aware that the scale of game I was attempting to make was beyond what I’d be able to accomplish in my spare time. Instead, I decided to first make a game that got me halfway there – just using the stealth elements within a single level environment – so that I could actually get something completed. Once I finished that, the plan was to move the simple project forward to the more ambitious Flashback-like title using my existing framework.

I’d read Edmund McMillen’s article on difficulty in Super Meat Boy and a lot of what he was saying really stuck with me. I decided I’d like to make a game that had that same ethos, something with short levels in which you would die very, very often, but instead with stealth as the main mechanic. I was also always frustrated by stealth games, especially the Metal Gear Solid series, that were great to play when you were sneaking around and in control, but were chaotic swear-fests when you were discovered and were just trying to get back to sneaking. I decided that I wanted to cut all of that out and focus just on the cool bit, removing all of the complexities and frustrations of the bit after you were spotted. The high concept was therefore set as: extreme stealth – be seen and be killed.

The high concept was extreme stealth – be seen and be killed.

 

Borrowing the Metal Gear Solid language of question marks and exclamation marks made reading enemies simple.

What existing games have influenced Stealth Bastard?

I mentioned Flashback, Super Meat Boy and Metal Gear Solid, and those were the primary influences. The popularity of Metal Gear Solid made communicating things in Stealth Bastard a lot easier, since I could just borrow its in-game language – such as vision cones, and question marks – and know that people would understand them.

The 2D Mario games also influence pretty much everything I do in 2D, due to their genius-level implementation of every single one of their gameplay elements. Like many games designers, I’m a huge admirer of Nintendo’s design methods. Unlike many though, I’ve actually made a game with them (Fluidity in the US, also known as Hydroventure in Europe/Australia) and everything that I learned from working with them has had a big influence on all of the games I’ve made since.

On the stealth game front, I’ve never been a big Splinter Cell fan. I’ve only played a few hours, and it seemed a bit too po-faced for my tastes. A lot of people (like yourselves) mention Abe’s Oddysee in reference to Stealth Bastard, but it had no direct influence on the game. Oddworld feels like a fundamentally different experience to me (albeit an amazing one!).

 

The game is good. Why is it free?

There are many parts to this answer, I guess. The game was made in my spare time over about 15 months, and it was only after about 12 months that people started poking me and saying that I had something cool and fun. To be honest, I thought it was OK, but nothing special, but the other directors of Curve, Richie and Jase, insisted that it was worth doing more with. Some of the folk who work with me at Curve, notably Sam and Gaz, two of our designers, had seen the fun level editor and upload system and were really interested in contributing levels, so they came on board.One of our animators, Ricky, did some amazing music as a hobby in his spare time, and he wanted to get involved and write the soundtrack.

At that stage the main character was just a white block without any animation, and there was no environmental art at all, so we contacted our friend Dugan at Tikipod Ltd to get him to give the game a decent lick of paint. Paying for the artwork was the only real cost of the game, so by the time we were finished, we found ourselves with this reasonably high-quality game that had cost us comparative pennies to make.

Now, unlike a few indie studios out there, Curve is actually a reasonably big company. We’re around 35 people at the moment, so we’ve got a significant monthly overhead of salaries, office rent, and so on. When we were discussing what to do with Stealth Bastard, we’d looked at a few sales figures for similar smaller-sized PC games and deduced that – unless we were very lucky – selling the game as it was wouldn’t make a massive difference to our bottom line.

What we thought would be much more valuable would be to give the game away for free in order to raise awareness of Curve and how awesome our games are, and create a popular brand out of Stealth Bastard in the process. We saw the price tag as an obstacle to awareness of our game, and thought it better to have a community of Stealth Bastard-loving players who didn’t pay a penny but would invest in future versions of the game, rather than have a small amount of cash in our pocket right now. I’m pretty sure that this strategy has worked out well for us.

We thought it better to have a community of Stealth Bastard-loving players who didn’t pay a penny but would invest in future versions of the game.

 

Kaplow! Extreme stealth indeed.

How has the reception been? Have you received much in the way of donations?

We thought the game would get a bit of press, but nowhere near as much success as it has seen. We launched at the same time as Super Mario 3D Land, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Skyrim, a Humble Indie Bundle, the Halo: Combat Evolved remake, Modern Warfare 3, Uncharted 3, and the HD remakes of the titles we were inspired by, Metal Gear Solid.

I mean, these are basically the biggest names in the games business! Yet, somehow, we managed to get 35,000 players in those first 10 days, which was absolutely incredible. It’s been steadily increasing ever since, with some universally positive word of mouth and some great reviews.

Doesn't look like spyware to me!

One thing that we loved was that the common theme seemed to be “why is this free?!” A few people even thought it was some kind of scam or ploy to install spyware on everyone’s PCs, such is the distrust of the motives of companies who aren’t asking for money.Many people did start asking us for a way to donate for the game, so we set up the donation screen on the exit of the game in response.

Despite the love, we’ve only seen total donations hit triple figures. It’s fine, though, we love each and every person that wants to give us money despite us not asking for it. We’ll put it to good use taking the staff out to get pissed.

 

What does the future hold for Curve right now? Any plans for more Stealth Bastard to emerge from the shadows anytime soon?

The version of Stealth Bastard that’s available to download now for free should really only be considered a proof-of-concept. It has an intentionally small scope, the campaign is short and has no narrative pay-off, and the overall online experience could be improved dramatically.

We’ve learned a lot from producing this first version, so we’d really like to create a better produced (and professionally coded!) version for consoles, iOS, handhelds and PC/Mac, but we’ll have to see what the future holds on that front. Meanwhile, we continue to beaver away in our labs on some other original titles that are looking fantastic, for release later this year. Look out for them!

Thanks, Jonathan!

Daniel Hindes

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2 Responses to Sneak Or Die: One-On-One With The Bastard Himself

  1. By John, January 22, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    Great, great game. Makes me think of Impossible Mission, an old C64 game, and just about as hard. Nice new site man! Now I’m off to look up Thief 2—

  2. By Jambe, January 23, 2012 at 1:24 am

    A great interview! I was turned onto this site by RPS’ Sunday Papers, and I look forward to reading more.

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