EGX Rezzed: Interview with Luke Thompson (Sublevel Zero)
It’s unusual to be given a business card at a games show giving the title of ‘Dr’, but Dr Luke Thompson’s does. “I finished my PhD about a year ago, I started finding the indie games scene in Manchester and decided to try and make a go of it. And this is my first game. It’s going really well!”
You can see how well that is by the crowds around the display for his game, Sublevel Zero, in the indie room at Rezzed. Part of that can be attributed to the crowd building effect of an Oculus Rift (“We’ve had quite a few people just take [the headset] off and go “that’s mental! That’s awesome!”” he says), but even the regular version of the game is holding a fair few peoples’ attention.
Of course, it is unlike anything else at the show, a game that harks back to classic shooters such as Descent and Forsaken, before everyone forgot about the six degree of freedom genre (6DoF – something I realised I had no way of expressing before hearing Luke pronouce it “six dof”). However, this isn’t just a modern version of an old, forgotten shooter sub-genre – Sublevel Zero is meant to be played with some thought as well as firepower.
“The moment to moment gameplay is as you see,” he tells me, as a player tries to evade an enemy’s gunfire while returning his own. “But [...] it’s all this idea of things taking a bit of time, and being thoughtful. As much as it’s combat, an arcade kind of experience second to second, the real goal of it is to have some sort of weight and meaning to every decision the player makes. That it’s not just on rails. You actually have to make these choices and weigh up options – “well, I’m running out of inventory space, do I pick up this new gun or do I use it for this health pickup I really need right now?””
The issue with collecting weapons isn’t as straightforward as what you’ll use immediately. The game also has a crafting system, where two items can be crafted into a third, superior item. “If you craft together two really good things then you’ll get a really good thing. If you craft together the first two things you find it might not be very good, so you have to weigh up “do I want this? Do I want this weapon now, or do I want to wait until I get a good precursor to make a better one?””
Of course, waiting is a big gamble in a game with permadeath, one of the roguelike elements the game has adopted. Others include procedurally generated levels, randomised loot, and a strong difficulty level not least due to the limited ammunition and health available.
And that difficulty was evident when playing, even in the demo with fewer enemies and more ammo; trying the Rift version with a three minute timer, neither of my two sessions lasted the entire time before I was shot down – although even between those two goes there was a clear improvement of ability. It was clear that my attempt to rush ahead was doomed, although there is something very satisfying about gliding at speed along the corridors between rooms.
I also got to try the game with a twin joystick set up, which had only been added to the build three days before Rezzed began but Luke described as already being his preferred way to play.
“It really makes you feel… you know, the immersion? It’s all that stuff, you feel like you’re in that cockpit, you feel like you’re controlling it in a physically realistic way, whereas with the controller you’re aware you’re playing a game because it’s an Xbox controller!” Being a 6DoF game, more movement is needed than is freely available with a controller too – changing height is as valid a movement as side to side strafing; rolling can be used to line yourself up too (and is strangely disorienting with the Rift). Without maps being generally flat like a first person shooter, more movement can occur in the game.
I realise I can’t remember the last time I played a game using a joystick, and admit to this. “It feels like actually Elite has done us a favour in that sense,” Luke says, “because suddenly people have good joysticks again, which is really cool.”
That said, a control method using a regular Xbox pad has been worked out, and was proving popular with players while we were speaking – the joystick controls also having a steeper learning curve to cope with, and some of my panicked flailing with the sticks when under fire were more physical comedy than calm, collected gameplay.
Of course, there is a plot as to why you’re taking all these risks. Set in a far future two centuries after a major event caused disruption, the universe has been falling apart since. “You don’t know what that is, but you belong to a clan of people who are determined to find out what that is, and hopefully revert it.”
Luke doesn’t want to give away too many details, but promises there is a back story to uncover while playing. In terms of gameplay though, what he will confirm is “the idea is that you’re in this facility because your clan has got information there is some really important tech in there that could be key to this whole universe ending thing. So, as you go through the game, the current set up is that every other level there is a [different] boss to destroy, and the boss is guarding [...] some major piece of technology.”
I ask how far along the game is in development, and Luke mentions a few things that still need to be adjusted or added. Perhaps the most notable is a map to prevent disorientation and backtracking in the fully 3D environment. “We will have a map, which will be better than Descent‘s map! We’ve got a few ideas on how to improve that. [...] And we were trying to make sure that each room looking a bit different to the other so you can go “oh, I’ve been here before.””
Ultimately though, the core content is there. As Luke puts it, “we have a game there already,” and the steady crowd around the stand seemed to be an agreement.
Sublevel Zero is due for release this summer.