Interview With PlaySide Studios’ Gerry Sakkas

It’s no secret that the shuttering of several game development offices in Australia has been a boon to the iOS industry, coupling indie spirit with talent sharpened on AAA projects. One of the teams to rise from the ashes of a corporate office is PlaySide Studios, who are gearing up to literally flood the App Store. We got in touch with PlaySide CEO Gerry Sakkas to find out more about their debut project, Catch the Ark.

Let’s start off by learning a little more about your studio’s background. Of those who worked at EA Visceral-Melbourne, how many ended up banding together to form PlaySide Studios?

There were four of us in total from Visceral Melbourne who made up the development team initially. I spent a week convincing the team not to move overseas or to take any job opportunities (and in some cases, leave the jobs they had already taken) to join together and make a studio that would create amazing games. I was lucky enough to convince all three of my co-workers and get the exact core team I wanted and thought we needed to make a great product.

Now that you’ve been at it for several months, how has the game development process at an indie studio differed from the way things work at a big AAA company? Looking back, is there anything the team misses about the old corporate environment?

We have tried to keep everything very similar to how we worked at EA in terms of the quality of work we do. We create AAA quality assets like we were making a console game, the user experience is still key, and we are ensuring that everything we do suits a mobile gaming experience, so it’s the best of both worlds! As for the working environment, it’s also very similar. One big thing for me when starting, was creating a work environment that looked fun to work in and made you want to get up and come to work, so the studio itself is very cool looking and I’d say more like EA than a normal indie studio.

As for missing the corporate environment: hell no!

You guys have serious guts, tackling the Endless Runner genre with Catch the Ark – you’re going up against numerous classics ranging from Canabalt to Temple Run! What’s going to make Catch the Ark stand out from all the titles that have come before?

I think as awesome as some of the games are that make up the Endless Runner genre – Canabalt was one of my favourite flash games – there is a lot more that could be done. The 3D endless runners have left quite a bit to be desired and we feel like fans of the genre deserve more. We are really taking endless runner graphics to a new level with Catch The Ark and trying to bring a AAA quality feel to the entire game. Along with graphics we are bringing the characters to life with animations that will make you fall in love with them; we are making the game more about the characters and the story than most endless runners have in the past. Also, features like Multiplayer and mini boss battles will add to the overall polish factor.

Where did the inspiration for a game touching on the Noah’s Ark story come from, anyway? The studio’s initial brainstorming sessions must have been interesting!

When I left EA I came up with many concepts for games, ranging from FPS to RTS. I came up with Catch The Ark’s storyline and characters before I even had any idea what type of game it would be, and that was something I felt was really important about the game: for once the story was the key factor. I fell in love with the idea that we could take a classic tale and breathe new life into it. The game concept was actually the easy part. The endless running genre lent itself beautifully to the story and characters, so it was more about how we could improve that genre and show customers something they had never seen before on a mobile device.

How does the game’s interface work, exactly?

The player moves the raft from left to right with buttons on either side of the screen. We initially had an accelerometer based movement but felt it didn’t work for this kind of game. Players can also shoot up ramps and down fast rapids to collect coins. At certain stages in the game the player will also need to swipe up to jump or down to nose dive into the water to dodge nasty hazards.

And what kind of multiplayer modes should we expect to see in Catch the Ark?

Multiplayer is going to be one of the key features for our game. We are doing something that no endless runner has done before, so for that reason, we are going to keep it a secret until launch… And then everybody can copy us!

Have there been any major roadblocks, technical or otherwise, that the team didn’t anticipate? Or have things gone pretty smoothly compared to your original expectations for Catch the Ark’s development cycle?

We have been ridiculously lucky. We took a calculated guess at how long the dev cycle would take and we couldn’t have been closer! We also built our own engine and level editor all within the six months its taken us so far. That was a huge risk in itself, not to use Unreal Engine or Unity, but it was one we felt was important for the longevity of the studio. So crossing fingers, the next two months go just as smooth!

The thing that has me most excited about Catch the Ark is that you’re already thinking about how to turn this from a single game into an entire franchise. If all goes well, what can you tell us about your long-term plans here – do you intend to cross over into other genres while sticking to this game world?

Spot on! I am actually really glad that everyone has picked up on this because we really believe these characters are not your typical iOS style characters, that they have a lot of depth and really encourage the players to love them! We spent months developing the franchise before we even had anything playable, going to excruciating lengths to ensure that the characters had small details like fingers so they could hold objects in future releases, and ensure that they could stand up easily if they were made into figurines. I think Intellectual Property is key to a game studio; Angry Birds has proved that. As for what we have planned, all I can say is stay tuned!

Big thanks to Gerry for taking the time to answer our questions about Catch the Ark, and to Dan Toose at Surprise Attack for facilitating. You can find more details at Surprise Attack’s presentation page for the game, and be sure to keep an eye on PlaySide Studios’ site and Facebook page for the latest news while you wait for the flood to hit.