Interview: Connecting the Blocks with Surge Deluxe Developer FuturLab
Posted by Sammy Barker
Brighton-based developer FuturLab may just be the most consistent studio working on the PlayStation Vita right now. Having made its name in the PlayStation Minis space, the award-winning outfit has made the jump to native portable production with the kind of poise that you’d expect from a more experienced team. And with the brilliant Surge Deluxe – an enhanced conversion of its popular PlayStation Mobile puzzler – adding yet another critical hit to the company’s bulging catalogue, we decided to catch up with managing director James Marsden in order to talk a little more about the recently released game, and the key to its success.
Push Square: Surge was originally released as part of your PlayStation Mobile push. Can you talk a little bit about how the project came about? What was your original goal for the game, and how did your targets change during development? What were the biggest challenges that you faced during production?
James Marsden: Just after we’d released Velocity on PlayStation Minis, I noticed on Linked In that [Sony executive] Shahid [Ahmad] was calling for games to launch PlayStation Mobile. I got in touch as he used to be our account manager, and gave him a code for Velocity. He said he’d love to have something ‘slick and FuturLabby’ for PSM, so we pitched him three ideas: Surge, Fuel Tiracas, and Beats Slider. The biggest challenge during development was time. We signed the games in July, and they had to be ready for September.
PS: Match-three games are very much dime-a-dozen in this new age of smartphone software, but your title really feels like a breath of fresh air. When did you have that big ‘a-ha’ moment? Did you conceive the release with the line drawing mechanic in mind, or is that something that came later?
JM: I came up with the idea for Surge when the iPhone was introduced. I figured a really obvious design would be to link two sides of the screen together with your finger, and each year that went by I was baffled that nobody had done it yet, so it was cool to get in there with Surge.
PS: The mobile market is famed for its short production times. As you’ve already indicated, you only had a few months to build the original Surge. That game was so unbelievably polished, though, how did you manage to achieve that on such a short schedule?
JM: We hired a very talented chap named Jack Lang, who was then a Flash programmer, but was knocking at the ceiling of the Flash industry and thirsty for something more challenging. He has a very sharp eye for detail; he’ll spot things and have solutions for them before I’ve spotted them. So we gave him Surge to take ownership of, and he built it from scratch over a period of about three months – four if you include the time he also spent on Fuel Tiracas doing networking and user interface programming. Jack really cares about quality, and all of the glow effects and polish that Surge had is entirely down to him, with a little bit of steering from me. Jack is now working on the PlayStation 4 doing the user interface for Velocity 2X.
PS: Would you classify Surge Deluxe as a sequel, a remake, or a bit of both? Why have you made the decision to switch natively to Vita?
JM: It’s much like Velocity Ultra is to Velocity; it’s the game done properly with the right amount of time and proper infrastructure to do the concept justice.
PS: One of the biggest changes in this version is the addition of new blocks that adapt the scoring system. Can you explain in a little more detail about what you’ve actually tweaked here, and how it improves the experience?
JM: The new blocks are really just there to allow you to build bigger and more valuable chains. The multiplier in the original version was coloured, so if it was red you could only use it in a red chain, which was frustrating, so now multipliers are white which means you can link to any colour.
The combiner block allows players to create their own multipliers, and used strategically, they can make all the difference for topping the million or two million point clearances.
PS: Whether it’s Velocity, Fuel Tiracas, or this game, it feels like there’s a thread connecting them. Is that simply down to your ‘house style’, or is there a deeper narrative at play between these distinctly different experiences that only really you know about?
JM: Wait until you see what the Vokh home planet is called in Velocity 2X.
PS: Joris de Man is back with another killer soundtrack. Can you talk a little bit about how you come up with the ideas behind the music? ‘Pressure Playa’ seems to meander between so many different styles and sounds, but it really works at the same time – how do you do it? Are you planning a standalone soundtrack release?
JM: Well, first of all, Joris is a genius. He knows every reference in popular culture, so I can say, ‘You know, a bit like the training montage in Kickboxer’ or ‘This bit should be like the Autobot versus Decepticon battle’ and he’ll kind of know what I mean, and then he’ll research and study how those production techniques are achieved, and then he’ll just be able to do it. It’s baffling. We’ve got a drum and bass track in Velocity 2X now, and it’s so authentic. There are extremely few game musicians/producers who can engineer underground and exciting new genres with authenticity, and Joris is one of them.
In terms of how we’re able to pull together so many different styles, it’s all about the palette of sounds you use, and being extremely strict and clear about what fits that palette. For example, we’ll never use a guitar in our music without disguising it massively, because guitars don’t sound futuristic. But if you use futuristic sounds to play a guitar riff, it’ll sound futuristic and not like a guitar.
PS: There was a time when puzzle games used to sit on store shelves alongside first-person shooters and platformers, but now the genre seems to be confined to ‘bitesized’ experiences. Have you ever considered completely blowing out the core gameplay mechanic here and applying it to something with a bit of a bigger scale, a la Puzzle Quest?
JM: We haven’t considered that, no. That’s mainly because Surge fit the size of our studio at the time, and, since we’ve now grown a bit bigger with Velocity 2X, a project of Surge’s size wouldn’t sustain the team going forward. But never say never. If Surge Deluxe does well we could expand on the concept, sure. I do love the mechanic and the look and feel that we’ve developed.
Are you already clearing colours in Surge Deluxe? Do you miss the days of, er, blockbuster puzzle games? Draw a line into the comments section below.