Steel Minions may sound like any other indie start-up on the surface – but the studio has a much more interesting tale to tell. Founded in 2010 by British university Sheffield Hallam, the outfit was conceived in order to provide game production students with hands-on experience within an operational development environment. Fast-forward two-years and the team has just completed work on its first commercial project, a quirky pick-up-and-play platformer named BounceBack.
What sets the release apart from other academic ventures is the fact that the title is available now from the PlayStation Store. Sheffield Hallam is the first university in the UK to submit a game to Sony’s quality assurance department, and have it commercially released on multiple PlayStation platforms. That’s no minor achievement – but it’s something that studio manager Jacob Habgood has been striving towards ever since joining the university back in 2009.
“I left my job at Sumo Digital in 2009 to come and teach at Sheffield Hallam, and the studio was something I wanted to establish as soon as I got here,” the industry old-timer informs us in an exclusive chat. “I’ve worked on dozens of console titles over the years for Gremlin, Infogrames, and, of course, Sumo Digital.”
But while Habgood is a veteran in the space, he’s also aware of how hard it can be for graduates to get their first break. “Getting your first published title is considered a bit of a rite of passage within the industry, and so I wanted to try and provide that for graduates as part of their degrees,” he explains. “[Steel Minions] is a collaboration between the games teaching staff and the research institute, who provide the physical space for the studio in the science park.”
According to the studio manager, Sheffield Hallam’s relationship with Sony dates all the way back to the PlayStation 2 days. “We were one of the first universities to get PS2 development kits,” he boasts. “These days we have the largest PlayStation 3 teaching lab in Europe.”
Sheffield Hallam was one of the first universities to get PS2 development kits, now we have the largest PS3 teaching lab in Europe
For Habgood, the PlayStation platform harbours nostalgic memories. “I cut my industry teeth on the original PlayStation console, and I think it’s fantastic that our students can experience heavyweight game development as part of their degrees. It's a real unique selling point that not every university can offer.”
Indeed, for Steel Minions’ lead designer Nick Abbott it was Sheffield Hallam’s ties to PlayStation that drew him to the university in the first place. “Back when I was looking at universities and courses, Sheffield Hallam’s computer games department was already known for having industry ties with Sony,” he tells us. “Their prospectus showed students using PlayStation 2 development kits, and it was the thought of getting to actually work on real consoles that helped my decision [to enrol].”
Level designer Adam Kaye followed a similar path. “Friends had recommended Sheffield Hallam to me before as being an excellent University for computing degrees, and computer games have always been a big passion of mine,” he says. “When I noticed that Sheffield Hallam offered a course aimed specifically at games development I was very intrigued and decided to go for it.”
While the students were naturally excited about the prospect of joining the well regarded institution, they never imagined that a few short years later they’d be putting the final touches to a commercial PlayStation game. “I had seen examples of final year work before I began the course, but nothing like a complete commercial game had ever been done previously,” Abbott explains.
In fact, the team started work on BounceBack as part of a core module before Steel Minions even existed. “I remember having to help think up names for the studio before we settled on Steel Minions,” Abbott recalls. “We had already begun work on BounceBack for a course module before the studio was fully set up, although at that point it was a very small single level prototype and looked very different. The opportunity to turn it into a PlayStation minis title was suggested to us when by chance we demoed our prototype to [Academia Liaison manager] Sarah Lemarié from SCEE. It was then that work in the studio really began, with BounceBack being the first title.”
While Kaye and Abbott were involved with the project from its inception, other students were brought in later to help flesh out the game. Lead artist Victoria Hall was one such recruit. “I first got involved with Steel Minions in my second year when I was working on a concept proposal for a reboot of the classic Zool franchise,” she says. “Since I was so involved with Steel Minions, I was approached to help revamp BounceBack with new artwork.”
BounceBack was a game created by the students, not a game created by Sony with the help of students
As development on BounceBack was considered an extra-curricular activity, finding the time to put in the work really took its toll on the team. “Trying to balance developing the game with the rest of our full-time degree was challenging to say the least, but fortunately Sony let us have as long as we needed to get the game to a commercial level,” Abbott notes. “We kept in touch with progress updates now and again but the real contact came at the end of development in the quality assurance process.”
And when the team did need support, Sony were a pleasure to work with. “Sony was very helpful with the creation of the title when it came to getting to grips with the tools we were using to get the game authorised and certified,” Kaye beams, adding that the otherwise hands-off nature of the platform holder was a good thing. “It made sure that BounceBack really was a game created by the students of Sheffield Hallam, and not a Sony created game with the collaboration of students.”