One of the more exciting gaming developments that has come about thanks to the rise of tablets and the iPad in particular is the resurgence of the adventure game. Touchscreen gaming lends itself perfectly to this kind of experience, and various indie developers are embracing its potential.
One such development studio is that of Belfast-based Billy Goat Entertainment. The studio is currently in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign for their upcoming title, Her Majesty’s Spiffing, which is a quirky space-based adventure. While the campaign is focused on rewarding PC owning pledgers, there are plans for an iOS release. We took the time to learn more from founder, William Barr.
148Apps: How did Billy Goat Entertainment come about? And why the quirky name?
William Barr (WB): The company came about out of necessity seeing as I carelessly decided to leave a job I wasn’t fond of (despite the meagre yet reliable monthly paychecks) and no one else would hire me! As for the name, I’m very much a child of the 90s, a time when every company needed to have some form of anthropomorphic cartoon animal mascot. I’m also incredibly conceited - Billy is of course a common abbreviation of William. These two factors contributed to the choice of name and the fact that we have a Cashmere Goat as our mascot!
148Apps: What was the inspiration behind the storyline of Her Majesty’s Spiffing and the main two characters?
WB: Naturally, we’re all big fans of old British surreal comedy like Monty Python. We’re hoping that comes through in the humour! Although, when we run out of ideas for gags we just steal them from other people (we do 'borrow' from the Airplane films far too much!).
However, the core story is simply a vehicle in allowing us to be incredibly irreverent toward the institutions at the heart of modern Britain. Everything is very twee. These institutions (the Monarchy, Westminster, Oxbridge etc) have been around for centuries and have inherited traditions that on the face of it have no place in the 21st Century, yet they live on. People in Britain are aware of this and are very much in on the gag. Perhaps more than any other nation we Brits are more than happy to laugh at ourselves!
Our two main characters are from somewhat different walks of life in Britain. Sub-Lieutenant Aled Jones hails from a village in South Wales while Captain Frank Lee English, the character the player assumes direct control of, is a rather stereotypical English gent. English has essentially been lifted from RAF Bomber Command in the 1940s. He’s fiercely patriotic, charming old gent, although perhaps a bit naive about the more negative issues involved with running a global empire. In contrast, Aled’s background is somewhat less privileged. He’s very intelligent and shrewd, often playing down his abilities to get English (i.e. the player) to do the tasks that, as the junior officer, he should probably be doing.
148Apps: How do you hope to make your adventure game different from others?
WB: We very much want to make a game stylistically similar to a Lucas Arts adventure game from the mid 90s, but that feels more like a contemporary video game. We want our adventure game to feel fun to play in addition to having a funny story and silly puzzles. We want the mechanics of how the player moves and interacts with the environment to feel intuitive... We’ve spent a lot of time already on our locomotion system, so navigating around the environment feels as good as it should in other 3rd person games.
148Apps: What challenges have you faced during development?
WB: Ha, it would probably be easier (and quicker!) to list the things that didn’t pose much of a challenge. For such a small team taking on an adventure game, aiming for the quality that we are, with very limited resources, I could just say "everything." I remember listening to a talk that Charles Cecil gave [of Broken Sword fame] and a member of the audience asked, given the rise of indies self publishing on platforms like the App Store, did this mean we were going to see more adventure games. His answer was an abrupt “No”.
These games are so hard and expensive to make because there is just so much dialogue, so much content has to be made that the majority of people playing will never see, and, on top of that, you can’t get a publisher to put any money in because they’re of the opinion that not enough people buy these games. I know that sounds like a cliché that you hear people say in their Kickstarter pitch but, once we started taking our game out there and showing publishers, we realized there was no smoke without fire. Publishers simply don’t want to fund these games because, even if they make a return, they don’t think they’ll get enough back to justify their investment.
148Apps: What do you think Apple could improve for developers such as yourself?
WB: A lot of indie developers complain about discoverability on the App Store. It’s widely accepted that if you can’t get featured, your game is simply going to flop. Other folks will argue that if you made a game that was good enough it would rise above the seemingly endless pile of clones of Flappy Angry Crush Saga. Every time I go to a games convention and meet up with these smaller dev teams, similar in size to us, I’m always blown away by what they’re working on and so few of them (and I include ourselves with this) will ever make a living out of it. It’s awfully sad.
Apple has provided fantastic infrastructure and a route to market that, for indie devs, never existed before. Digital distribution and the relative ease (once you get your head around Xcode!) to get your game online is both a blessing and a curse. I’d like to see more attention given to premium games. Personally, I think the freemium business model is exploitative. Not that I think IAPs are immoral or that people shouldn’t have to pay for their entertainment (naturally I’m not of that opinion at all). But, the only way this business model works is because a small minority get addicted and spend far more than anyone ever should on a video game. These people are taken advantage of as it’s the only way this business model works.
148Apps: How many episodes are you planning overall?
WB: Our story is split into three parts, although we do consider them to each be individual games in their own right. They aren't going to be as long as adventure games from the mid 90s (when millions were spent on these things!) but we're hoping to have a gutsy 4-5 hours of stuff for you to do in each chapter.
The example I've been using when talking about the story is the original Star Wars trilogy, how a New Hope (good first entry) leads into The Empire Strikes Back (the highlight of the saga) followed by the Return of the Jedi (has its moments, not as good as the first two).
Our hope is that our three games will follow that trajectory, good, great, passable.
148Apps: What’s the plan if the Kickstarter fails?
WB: A quote from the great tightrope walker Charles Blondin comes to mind. He refused to use a safety net while preforming his stunts and is famed for saying “preparing for disaster mades one more likely to occur.” Although seriously, if we can’t make our target it’s hard to see how we’ll be able to continue development. It’s taken mostly stubbornness to get us this far, however without outside support we simply can’t make this game.
Thanks to William for taking the time to answer our questions. The Kickstarter campaign has until November 21 to run, and I’m hopeful that if it succeeds in reaching its goal we’ll be enjoying Her Majesty’s Spiffing on an iPad very soon. Adventure gaming always needs a healthy dose of humor and Her Majesty’s Spiffing looks set to offer that.