winter ember is an isometric stealth game reminiscent of the classic games of the Thief series.
Released yesterday, the game puts you in the role of Arthur Artorias, the Faceless Man. According to the game’s description, you, as the player, “will embark on an adventure unfolding a dark story filled with twisted characters, centered around a militant religion bent on maintaining control.” Based on reviews so far, the game is an enjoyable experience but also one that needs some extra support.
winter ember was developed by Sky Machine Studios, a Sydney-based game development studio. I stumbled upon them one day after work, met the project’s senior director, Robert Wahby, by pure chance, and started talking about his game. due form of winter ember just before its release.
What sparked your interest in getting into game development?
Well, I’m a nerd, so you gotta go back to little Rob running around and playing video games. I’ve always been a big fan of video games, even since I was three or four years old when I had an Atari. And this Atari was given to me by one of my neighbors. She was an older lady and she had an Atari for the kids, but the kids moved out, so she gave it to me.
And it’s really funny, I remember plugging this Atari in, and I have a scar right between my forehead, and that scar is because I was plugging in the Atari and I tripped over the cord and I fell off the side of the table. And I was about three or four years old and bleeding.
The funny thing is, I got up, looked in the mirror and was bleeding. I’m like, “Ah,” and my sister was babysitting me and I ran up to her and I’m like, “Hey, I think I hurt myself.” And she turned to me and she started crying. So I wasn’t crying then, I cried later. This is actually the initial start of, I guess, my Atari gaming experience.
And then I moved to PlayStation, and I think what really spurred me on PlayStation was a game called Solid metal gear. It was probably the first game where I really started being stealthy, but also very cinematic. And then finally games like Thief and Burst cell happened and it really got me into this stealth genre, where you sneak around and hide in the shadows and that kind of stuff.
So I guess I was always a nerd who wanted to play video games.
Then a while ago there was a friend of mine who was a programmer and he wanted to work on a video game. In the end, it didn’t succeed, like many projects, they fail, and I say to myself: “You know what? I can probably still do it. I just need to collaborate with the right people.
And so eventually, after getting a taste of story and idea creation and level design and all that kind of stuff, just experimenting at that point, I’m like, ‘I really like this “. It’s really cool to flex your creative muscle.
And how was Sky Machine Studios born?
Well, obviously I need a company to make a game. The name Sky Machine, if you’re referring to that, it’s a reference to, it’s a song called Sky Machine by a band called Carnival . That’s actually where I got the name from.
I thought it would be cool to have a machine that flies in the sky, that’s where the name comes from. And then, obviously, if I needed to make a game, I needed to build a business around it. So that’s where it comes from.
So Queensland and Victoria seem to be ahead of the game in terms of supporting indie games and studios. Although your team is all over the world, how did you find working as an independent studio in New South Wales?
Well, there’s not a lot of support in Sydney itself. The support really came from Unreal. So Unreal, they have this Unreal grant that you can apply for, and a while ago I applied for this grant and won, I was one of the recipients of this grant. And then, basically after that, I talked to a group of editors and started working with Blowfish Studios as an editor.
In Sydney, you really have to find a publisher or someone who will invest something. For me, I had to basically go overseas to Unreal to get that support. But in Victoria, from what I understand, they have a very, very strong creative scene, especially in the digital format.
So I think we’re behind when it comes to building digital institutions and creative institutions, at least from Sydney’s perspective, I think we’re pretty far behind.
winter ember is the first title of your studio. What inspired its creation?
So initially the main character was going to be a petty thief running around stealing things. And then, as I was trying to create the character, I thought, “I don’t want to create a tall, dark, handsome Nathan Drake character, charming guy. Maybe I should flip it on its head. And yes, the character, at the beginning, is tall and dark and handsome, and he’s charming, a little snotty too and rich and well off.
But what if we set it on fire and then see what happens when you lose your family, your wealth, your identity and your visual appeal? You have to come back with a different identity, it’s like an ego death. You have destroyed your mind and now you must rebuild it.
So Arthur is like that, where I wanted to not do the typical hero perspective. He had everything that would make him a hero in the beginning, and I just took him away, hence why he’s disfigured. This is how he was born. And then it all came around the world of winter ember, where there is a religious connotation. And it’s a bit gothic. It is somewhat inspired by Gotham City and Batman and the Thief series and that sort of thing.
How has the development process been so far?
At first, very hard. So the first two years were mainly spent prototyping and commissioning the prototype. And then once we get adequate funding, that’s when we can go all out. There are some challenges, of course, but the main challenge is having the right lighting, having the right visuals.
The one thing I like about Winter Ember is the fact that if you walk into a building, the whole world goes black, so it gets pretty claustrophobic. Or if you’re behind something, your line of sight is blocked and that’s our fog of war line of sight system. And it was very, very, very, very hard to pull off just because there’s a lot of math involved and it’s a 3D game with a 2D line of sight.
And so it’s hard to translate that, especially in a complicated world where you can go up and down and through buildings and through windows and that sort of thing. So the challenge came from that system, I think primarily, and then over time trying to get the lighting right.
So we spent a lot of time tweaking the lighting where we mostly relied on, I guess, color theory. Blues and reds work very, very well together. Before, we used to play with purples and that kind of thing. So trying to get it right was, I think, quite a challenge.
But over time, things got easier and easier as our programming in our systems became more solid. So yeah, it’s, I guess, in short, hard at first, got easier as you go.
As we mentioned before, the studio is present all over the world, so you also have people in different countries working on the game. How was that experience?
Lots of odd hours. So I remember when we were doing dubbing and the studio that was into the dubbing work was in America. And I remember that I wanted to be part of it. So I think we started at 1:00 in the morning. And so I had to be there and make sure everything was okay. Fortunately, the voice actors were in good hands and they were also very talented, so I was more of an observer.
But then I also had my job as a banker at that time, nine o’clock in the morning I had to start. So it would end around three or four in the morning. I take a little baby nap, then I jump into my banking business.
But everyone is literally around the world. So I had to adapt to the world’s schedule, and it depends, some people like to go to bed late and some people like to get up early. So I had to manage, I can talk to them at eight o’clock at night because it will be 11 o’clock there. So it’s not a nine-to-five concert at all. It’s a complete and non-stop concert.
Now you currently have the demo. So what was the reception, and did you hear anything that might have an effect on the final product?
The reception has been pretty good so far. You make some people say, “Hey, we like the game, but I think that would be a good idea.”
I think one of the things we need to address before release and, we mostly got it from feedback from the game, was maybe the camera was maybe a little too close to the character. So we may have to move the camera back a bit.
We don’t know if we can achieve that, because if you change something like that, you might mess up something in the game that we don’t know about. So we probably need to take a look at it, there’s no guarantee we’ll pull it off, but we’ll see.
Another thing is that I noticed that the combat is maybe a bit frustrating. Granted, this is a stealth game, so you want to avoid getting into that sort of thing, but you don’t want it to be too frustrating. And so we’ve already started tweaking the combat.
So yeah, enemies block and dodge and all that stuff, but we’ve made Arthur’s attacks tougher. Arthur still has a low health pool because you don’t want to tank him, but the enemies are less squishy. So we’re trying to balance the fight, and we always will.
Even with dogs in play, they can be quite aggressive and very difficult to deal with. So we had to really tweak that. So I think the combat and the camera are the two things that we really got feedback on.
What are your plans for the future in terms of possible future endeavors for Sky Machine Studios or going forward until the game is released?
Yeah, so I worked a little for a future title. I don’t want to reveal anything just yet, but there has been preparatory work that we are currently working on. And as for preparing for the release of winter ember, right now we’re very focused on trying to make this game as neat and clean as possible. So we’re porting it right now to put it on Xbox, Switch, all platforms.
So right now what I’m basically doing is playing the game every day, even to the point of pulling my hair out because playing a game all the time can be boring sometimes. And so what I’m trying to do and what my team is trying to do is try to find issues or issues or something that doesn’t feel right in the game. remedy.
So we have a list of things that we are slowly going through to polish the game as much as possible and possibly add something more.
winter ember is now available on PC.