Feature: How a Group of University Students Created a Commercial PlayStation Game
Posted by Sammy Barker
The game itself is a simplistic platformer that sees an anthropomorphic moon collecting gems in order to bounce out of a maze-like environment. Levels are short and snappy, but introduce new mechanics along the way, including switch puzzles and more. According to Abbott, the concept was dreamed up at the team’s very first meeting. “The core mechanics were probably the first thing to come from the initial concept meetings,” he relays. “We always had the idea of getting balls with different abilities through a kind of maze. Like most games the mechanics were modified and improved constantly throughout development. For example each level ends with Lanos [the main character] bouncing completely off the screen. This was originally a bug, but we liked it so much that we worked it into the final game.”
But sadly, as with most commercial products, not all of the students’ ideas made it into the final release. “There were some additional ideas that were in the initial design of the game such as bonus rounds and even an extra character, but due to the time constraints these were eventually cut,” Kaye laments. “The game doesn’t suffer for not having these features, though, and still clocks in at around 3-4 hours of playtime, which we feel is plenty for a PlayStation minis game.”
The studio even took the time to pen a short plot for the title, but Abbott says that the narrative came about much later in development. “The plot was really secondary and written light-heartedly to complement the mechanics more than anything,” he explains. “The final game sees Lanos trying to get back to the moon. In the original story there was nothing cosmic about him, and he was just trying to get back to his home in a leisure centre vending machine! When thinking up other suitable level themes the idea of clouds and space was suggested, which had us thinking, ‘What if you could bounce a ball so hard it landed on the moon?’” It’s a question we often ponder, too.
Like the rest of the project, the game’s whimsical art-style evolved over time as well. “Originally for the prototype the art looked very different,” Kaye says. “Although it served its purpose, getting a proper 2D artist on board was one of the suggestions Sony originally gave us.”
And that’s where the talents of the aforementioned Victoria Hall came in, who was brought on board to spruce up the title’s visual style. “I had already been working on another Steel Minions game design with Victoria [Hall] and offered her the role of redesigning the look of the whole game,” Kaye continues.
Getting a proper 2D artist on board was one of the suggestions that Sony gave us
Playing the game, it’s hard not to notice the similarities between BounceBack and Disney Pixar’s Toy Story, and thankfully Hall confirms our suspicions that the flick was a huge source of inspiration for the title’s upgraded visual design. “Toy Story was definitely an influence, especially in the first level with the blue and yellow star wallpaper,” she exclaims. “The film naturally came into my head when I thought about toys that had a sense for adventure.”
As for the title’s simplistic structure, the studio looked closely to the growing mobile space. “At the time we were really looking into what makes some of these casual and mobile games so successful, and the idea of bite-sized gameplay came across as a big design point,” Abbott says. “We wanted players to enjoy small sections of gameplay at a time rather than have to dedicate a few hours in one sitting.”
But while the studio considered other titles in the space, it was wary of treading on anyone else’s toes. “We did look to other games – PlayStation minis titles specifically – to determine how long the game should be and how in-depth the mechanics needed to be, but we felt we had a unique idea and didn’t want to create a clone of what was already on the market.”
Nevertheless, titles like Angry Birds proved a huge point of reference for the design of BounceBack. “Angry Birds is a fantastic example of [bite-sized gameplay] with its smooth and minimal menu design. It’s what everyone is used to nowadays and we tried to develop our menu system similarly so it would be familiar for everyone to navigate,” Abbott concluded.
With development on the game now complete, we were eager to learn what impact the endeavour had had on the students’ budding careers. For Abbott, he believes that building the title alongside their full-time degrees shows the team’s passion for game development. “That’s the stuff that employers really look out for and pick up on,” he says. “The experience of taking a game from an initial idea to a commercial product has really proved invaluable and definitely puts us a little bit above other graduates. The release of BounceBack has helped us to all secure jobs and internships at top companies like Sumo Digital and Rockstar Leeds.”
Hall adds: “My employees were impressed to see that I had already worked on a published title. The process of seeing a game through until the end, and getting a game to pass quality assurance is something that definitely stands out.”
As for the experience of making the game itself, the students couldn’t be happier with what they have achieved. “It’s a thrill to say that a game I helped create is commercially available, right as I graduate from University – and on a platform as prestigious as PlayStation,” Abbott enthuses.
“It is very fulfilling to have our own title on the PlayStation Store, particularly because it is a little more exclusive than say Xbox Live Indie Games or the iOS App Store,” Kaye concurs.
The release of BounceBack has helped us to all secure jobs and internships at top companies like Sumo Digital and Rockstar Leeds
As for Steel Minions and studio manager Jacob Habgood, the university has another roster of upcoming game developers ready to step into Abbot and crew’s shoes. “We’re almost certainly going to be releasing some smaller iOS titles over the coming months, but we would like to release more PlayStation titles too,” he says. “Our latest cohort of MComp Games Software Development students are working on some party game concepts for the PS3, but it will be 2014 at the earliest before those are complete. Nonetheless our intention for the future is to provide a similar experience in the Steel Minions studio for all students graduating from the 4-year games degrees.”
Meanwhile, Sony is similarly committed to contributing to the education of upcoming game developers. “The PlayStation Academic Development programme is about investment into the next generation of game developers, addressing the need for highly trained talent and providing a meaningful working space for young talent to ‘cut their teeth’ on professional game development tools,” Maria Stukoff, Head of Academic Development at SCEE, explains. “This is exactly what Sheffield Hallam has embraced, and I can’t wait to play the next PlayStation game from Steel Minions!”
Given our current addiction to Lanos’ intergalactic adventures, we couldn’t agree more.
BounceBack is available now from the UK PlayStation Store for £2.49. You can learn a little more about Steel Minions via its official website.