Race Against The Doomsday Clock In Counterspy

by Jeff Marchiafava on May 07, 2013 at 08:15 AM

SCE Foster City Studio has a history of collaborating with Sony's first-party developers on triple-A franchises like Uncharted, Infamous, and Resistance. Now the studio is expanding into the downloadable space, teaming up with indie developers to help bring unique and innovative projects to Sony's platforms. The first of these games that Foster City Studio shared with us is Counterspy, a 2D cover-based shooter set during the Cold War.

Counterspy puts players in control of their own spy agency, which has been tasked with keeping the U.S. and USSR from engaging in all-out warfare; the Doomsday Clock provides players with a constant reminder of how close they are to nuclear Armageddon. Luckily, players can roll back the clock by completing missions, which take place in procedurally generated levels, featuring different routes, items, and enemy configurations every time you play. However, missions play out in real-time, so those extra few minutes you send searching for items and upgrades bring you that much closer to certain death. The early demo we saw featured a mix of stealth and action, with the player able to sneak up and assassinate enemies from behind, or hide behind cover to pick off guards with a few well-placed pistol shots.

Counterspy also features an asynchronous multiplayer mode, which allows players to compete on the same level configurations. If your friends are killed in a level, their loss is your gain; if you can make it to their corpse, you can steal their items.

Counterspy is currently slated for a 2013 release on PlayStation 3, Vita, and mobile platforms. To learn more about the game we talked with Dynamighty co-founder and lead game designer David Nottingham.

Tell us a little bit about Dynamighty. Who do you have on your team and why did you decide to start a small, independent studio?

The studio was founded by John Elliot and myself. We had previously worked together at LucasArts where we ran a little group called LucasLabs, creating small passion projects such as the Monkey Island Special Edition project and a little-known game called Lucidity. We managed to convince our friend Mark Erman to join us, and then rounded out the core team with Mark Holmes, who joined us from Pixar where he had worked on movies such as The Incredibles and Wall-E.

The question of “why” is probably a separate interview unto itself! The short version is that we love games and we enjoy working together. We wanted to keep building on the experience we had had with LucasLabs, which was such a fun, creative time, so we made the decision to jump in and go for it. This is an exciting time for game developers. There’s a diversity of game content and different creative voices blossoming and we feel compelled to be a part of that. This year has been crazy, challenging, and awesome as things have really started to pick up momentum. We now have 10 people in the studio – all awesome, talented, and a really tight-knit bunch. A bit too tight knit; we are still jammed into a space that the original four of us had occupied for the previous year! We are really looking forward to moving into our own space soon.

Counterspy is based on the spy mythology of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Could you describe the tone of the game? Are you going for serious spy drama, tongue-in-cheek humor, or something in between? What inspiration are you drawing from?

This is something that went through a lot of iterations as we were exploring the world we wanted to create. Mark Holmes and I both have a real passion for this aspect of the process, as it's a deep part of the creative culture at both LucasArts & Pixar.

Early Bond films are an obvious inspiration but we were originally going a lot darker, riffing off the more somber cold war espionage fiction of the ‘50s & ‘60s such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or Funeral in Berlin, the latter of which is a great movie directed by Guy Hamilton, who also directed Goldfinger.

What happened was, the more we went down that path, the more we realized that we wanted to present something more playful and fun. We had all these ideas for the game that we wanted to include that were bumping up against this darker tone. Also, we really wanted to make the world have a bold and vibrant visual style that popped. We’d initially resisted this direction because we didn’t want to create a world that was lampooning the source material, which Austin Powers did such a great job of. We’d also been a little reticent because Mark had already trod similar territory in his work on The Incredibles, plus we were both inspired and intimidated by the amazing Yuki-7 series of shorts from artist Kevin Dart. We didn’t want to simply tread in someone else's shoes. We wanted to establish our own voice for the game.

Once we started exploring, however, we rediscovered points of inspiration from the source ‘50s/‘60s era that were more playful yet had that edge that we still wanted. We looked to TV shows like The Prisoner and the dry satire of the Dr. Strangelove movie to help guide us.  

Where we ended up is with something that we feel comes across in our own voice, that takes what can be a potentially quite dark subject matter and delivers it in a bright, brash, satirical, and hopefully playful fashion.

Counterspy features procedurally generated levels. Are there multiple level types, or do they all fall under the same theme? How do levels change from one mission to the next?

Oh man, this is a tough one. You’re talking to us right in the midst of development when there are still so many moving pieces! We love well-done procedural based games like Derek Yu’s awesome Spelunky, and it’s an element we’re trying to capture in a new and interesting way.

Currently, the plan is to offer a mix of Western- and Soviet-based levels that are crafted by us, and also a procedural mode that would present a more “endless” game experience where the player is racing against a countdown.

In terms of the themes of levels, we have a story that is half arms race, half twisted space race. The Cold War superpowers are racing against each other to develop a new, deadly rocket, and the player will be raiding launch sites for each side to prevent missile launches as well as commit widespread acts of sabotage.

Counterspy puts player in charge of their own spy agency to stave off war between the US and USSR. Are there any management/strategy elements involved with running your agency? What will players be doing between missions?

We are super focused on the core moment-to-moment missions themselves. In addition to playing the missions, the player will be collecting blueprints & dossiers, which will give them access to new weapons and secret contacts that can help the player in different ways.

In the presentation we saw, it mentioned that Counterspy will have some roguelike elements. Could you describe these elements a bit?

I’d say we will tread very lightly with any rogue-like elements. That said, I was totally obsessed with FTL for a while, and Spelunky definitely shaped some of the ways we are approaching the difficulty curve of the game. We’d love to expand a bit more on this, but it’s definitely an aspect of the game development that is still in motion.

One of Dynamighty’s goals is for Counterspy to be highly replayable. How are you accomplishing this?

Obviously the procedural element is a big one for replayability. We also have secret locations in the game that can only be accessed with unique access codes that you get by gathering dossiers and then putting the squeeze on contacts.

We also have competitive social elements planned around how you compete with friends that go beyond just chasing your buddy’s high score. We believe this will make things a bit more dynamic during the actual gameplay. Apologies for the ambiguity! We don’t mean to be secretive, though that wouldn’t be unintuitive given the nature of the game. It’s just that at this stage in development, there are still some aspects that we need to try different variants of to see what works. We’ll definitely be less obtuse closer to launch!

A mobile version of Counterspy is also planned. How will this version compare to the console version? How do the different versions interact with one another?

The mobile version is something that we are really excited about. We didn’t want to approach this as just a companion app for the main game but rather to make sure it delivers a full game experience that both connects with and supplements the progress you make on PlayStation.  

On mobile, you play a field operative that has more limited access to the resources of the Agency, experiencing a subset of the same levels that you play on PlayStation. You’ll still collect blueprints and dossiers though, and you will be able to combine the progress you are making across all the platforms. If you sync your mobile game with Vita or PlayStation 3, you’ll be able to share some of the cool exclusive PlayStation content, such as unique spy weapons, with your mobile “field operative.”

What made you choose to work with Sony on Counterspy? Who approached who?

It’s funny, when we started thinking about setting up Dynamighty, John and I both talked about how Sony would be our ideal publishing partner. When we would talk about the type of games we loved, so many of them came about because of Sony support or funding. Whether it’s Journey, The Unfinished Swan, Uncharted, or the PixelJunk series, they’ve always been a home for artistically interesting games that aren’t afraid to take bold risks. That doesn’t happen consistently by accident.

For some reason we had ended up talking to a number of publishing partners but not Sony. They reached out to us and when we went in and pitched our vision it really just clicked. They instantly got what we were trying to do and it kind of all fell into place after that.

What’s it been like working with Foster City Studio? Can you describe the collaboration process?

Man, this is going to sound like me blowing smoke, but I have to say, working with Foster City has been awesome! It’s clear Sony is making a big effort to reach out and empower the smaller independent developers and make PlayStation a good home for them. From our perspective, they’ve definitely been walking the walk. Front and center, they have been supportive of the game being our vision and their role is to support us in realizing it.  

Creatively, they’ve given us the room to let the development process really breathe.  One of the maxims of game development is that it’s kind of like a river current: You set out with a destination in mind but you have to be prepared to also let the currents take you where they need to go, creatively. That can often make publishers nervous because they are looking for predictable results which can mean committing to feature lists and content plans at the beginning of a project when it’s still largely a list of speculative dreams. With Sony, it’s been a very trusting, open relationship from both sides. This has allowed us the flexibility to make decisions in service of what’s best for the game, even if that means we take a left turn at a fork when originally we thought we’d take a right. Sony just “gets” game development and I think this is one of the X factors that make them so great and why the games that they publish are so consistently high quality.

Is there anything else our readers should know about Counterspy?

Just that a team of really passionate people are putting their heart and soul into this thing because it’s something we love. You can see bits and pieces of us in action at our Dynamighty Facebook page, and we’ll be posting our progress on the project through Dynamighty Tumblr.

For more on Sony's involvement with indie game developers, check out our previews of Hohokum and Doki-Doki Universe.