The making of Subversives


An explanation from our game designer.

"This all started because I wanted to play in a virtual mini-sub. So I built a prototype... and it sort of snowballed!"

Warning: There are quite a few words coming up, to explain things, so only proceed if you're REALLY interested in obscure background details and thought processes. Otherwise, the pictures are worth scrolling through!


The initial prototype (project 'Toxic Sea') went right back to first principles, playing with coloured bricks, and it grew quite organically from there. The results were really promising and I was having so much fun that it took on a life of its own. At this point, let's remember that I'm a designer and although I have many varied skills, I'm not a dedicated programmer/artist/sculptor/musician/whatever. I'm just throwing some crude blocks onto the screen and then poking them to see where the fun bits are.


Shots of the initial prototype running on Linux (unreleased). Tap any image to enlarge it.


However, building the game in 3D was slow and heavy work, so I went back to the drawing board, to take an alternative approach. The next prototype would be in 2D pixels, for speed of development and for gaining a different perspective. Literally. Clearly this work only touches the surface of the idea. The bigger vision is customisable subs, missions, trade, battle and an expanding storyline, presented with style. The sea will be full of mystery, danger and adventure. It could be a solo or multi-player game. There's lots of flexibility to the concept.


Early thoughts about theme.


Subs are pretty cool toys but what's the point? What are they for? What do they do? How do the people inside them live? What's their story?

I wanted the game to be meaningful, as well as being varied and entertaining. So, taking cues from the first prototype, I came up with a general setting, narrative and flavour, while working in a set of possible game mechanics. Of course there's a tonne of research, sketching and experimentation behind my decisions, which is mostly invisible, but we don't have space or time for that here. The germ of the idea was inspired by Dive Alert for the Neo Geo Pocket Color, mixed with a thousand other influences, from Jules Verne to Hayao Miyazaki.

This is a broken world, where many people live in survival subs. A story about post-apocalyptic existence unfurls, with a message of environmental awareness and overcoming adversity. Everything is a threat: Nature, decay, hazards, gangs, authoritian soldiers, pirates, predators, a vast conspiracy looming over the planet. There's more but that's enough for now. It's a dark setting and that allows for emotional depth and range. The gameplay can be fun to counterpoint the gloom, with multiple distractions, easter eggs and little rabbit holes, some of which will just be silly. Tongue always in cheek!


Mission types (friendly and hostile locations).


Right from the offset, I've considered an array of different aspects to the game, such as world building, gameplay mechanics, potential monetisation, future expansion and even a few merchandising options. My guiding philosophy at each step is "simple and understated", or "less is more". I would expect a team of talented creatives to use this preliminary work as the basis for an amped-up reboot, with much more flourish.

I've made a series of deliberately off-beat yet rational choices, to arrive at a game which isn't based on shooting, wanton violence or performing abstract activities. The subs in this prototype are missing swathes of gameplay but those are secondary mechanisms. The point of this exercise was to make the submarines part of a wider universe, which will then inform how the subs feature and interact.


A simplified view of how the code flows.


Rather than opting for an obvious steampunk, fantasy or space-opera setting, I wanted a slightly more believable environment -- somewhere that feels logical and relatable, yet just "otherworldly" enough for some creative freedom. I also wanted to tackle a few real-world issues but without ramming them too far down player's throats. So they form the backdrop. While designing Subversives, I gave it a social conscience. I was looking for a game of substance, which was gender-neutral, inclusive, diverse, non-violent (per-se) and yet somehow still fun to play.

There's nothing "tacked on" or "on trend" about these moral choices. They're an authentic and vital part of the game's DNA. Obviously I've made my own life more complicated, by working on many esoteric layers, but I believe the result of such an approach is a richer and deeper experience.


Initial character design work, to replace the brick-people in the original prototype.


vi) TONE
It's too easy to make games about murder. I believe, when it comes to violence, use of lethal weapons should really be a last resort and should challenge a person's ethics. At least there should be consequences. That guy (or thing) you shot (or pummelled/fried/sliced/blew up) has a family. Who's going to tell their loved ones?

Games are influential, so why not impart responsible messages and values? What are we promoting? However, when we try to avoid being complete psychopaths, there's always a danger of being too cute, childish, prudish, fluffy, preachy or politically correct. Ironically, I've taken a stab at finding the right balance, aiming for something responsible, friendly, casual and engaging, yet with a darker, anarchic undertone seeping in steadily.

The cartoonish retro visuals are easy to change but I needed a jumping-off point. I figured I could produce the assets by hand if I kept everything primitive. Even so, I've muted the colours and aimed for a more sombre mood. In the game world, people are on the brink of extinction, in an eco-system that's dying violently. The only bright, natural colours are inside domed buildings. There are no factories making bright clothes any more. Dyes are hard to come by. Some industry thrives though, like sub maintenance and trading in parts. In a higher resolution, there would be grit and decay. Trash and debris litter the world. Money can be earned salvaging and foraging in the flooded cities, full of grim, unpleasant fish. Human bodies wash past. Gunfire. An automated drone splashes into the water.

At the core of the game, however, there's an upbeat attitude and jaunty sense of humour, offsetting the bleak melancholy. The story is about finding hope, in a giant tortured metaphor, with an underlying theme about overcoming depression and self-doubt.


Early sprites and tiles for populating the crude 2D engine.


As a thematic device, I've aimed for a game experience which starts small and expands continuously, setting expectations at zero and then steadily unveiling little surprises. I imagine a gripping TV series with episodic cliffhangers... "Previously on YOUR game!" Equally, I'm already pushing my non-programming skills to their limits, so I've cheated *a lot* just to get the concept across. This is only a teaser.


Couriers working under the radar.


When it comes to player input, the first prototype used a typical gamepad with sticks, triggers and buttons, which worked really well, if you're a traditional "gamer" sitting at home and familiar with the controller. So this time, for balance, I've thought about a different audience and chosen one-finger touch input on a mobile screen, with plenty of inspiration from Zelda on the DS.


Both prototypes turn images into playable locations, by scanning the color of each pixel.


The "finished release" of this game would be an adventure that feels simple, accessible and immersive. There would be an emphasis on exploration, work and trade to make progress. The submarines easily lend themselves to a multi-player online game and potentially, the community of players could unlock the story by working towards goals together. It would even be fascinating to bring factions and crowd dynamics into the mix.


Friend or foe? This may be a mercy mission.
Marine life is ultra-rare now!


Seriously, there's so much missing from this prototype, especially the submarines, which are the real hero characters. Travelling, salvaging, customising and upgrading, battles, etc. would all be hugely absorbing but they need an overall sense of purpose, so I focused on the bigger picture. Now there's a more solid context and structure that I can expand the subs within. This prototype was always about the "player journey" rather than the vehicles themselves.


Sub controlled with one finger. Still needs a slider for changing depth.


I'm loving the essence of the project and I feel super-enthusiastic about filling the dead oceans with games and activity. That's where the real fun will happen! Get in your own custom sub, survive at sea, ply a trade and unravel a giant conspiracy.

However, until I have a team of creative ninjas around me, I lack the highly specialised skills necessary to make the final game -- but it's great to share the general idea in a semi-playable format. This is my mark in the sand. Now I can refine the concept, referencing the test models and any feedback generated. In that respect, the Subversives prototype fulfills its intended purpose.

As I said at the beginning, I'm just throwing ideas around here, sketching. The prototypes were never intended to compete with finished products. They are suggestions for a game and I'm still developing the concept. If anyone has fun interacting with Subversives, that's a bonus and I'm delighted!