April 17, 2014 12:45 PM | Staff
A strange, wild-haired man accosted fellow Gamasutra editor Mike Rose and I in the halls of San Francisco's Moscone Center last month.
"We are game developers from Ecuador," the man told me with a lopsided smile, gesturing first to his badge -- Estefano Palacios, creative director at Freaky Creations -- and then towards a laptop he had set up on the floor of the hallway. It was running a prototype for a devilishly difficult 2D platforming game -- To Leave -- and wired up with a gamepad that Palacios basically pushed into our hands.
To Leave is the first original PlayStation Network game from Ecuador. It's the commercial debut of Freaky Creations, an independent game studio in Guayaquil, Ecuador formed by student developers who took advantage of Sony's Latin American academic incubation program to take a shot at kickstarting their own careers.
The game, which is coming to PlayStation 4 and Vita this year, challenges players to guide a young man named Harm through convoluted 2D levels filled with lethal hazards -- sort of a vibrant, dreamlike spin on Super Meat Boy, except you're trying to escape the vibrant, surreal city of Candice by flying away on a supernatural flying door.
To Leave tells the story of a youth attempting to escape his comfort zone to find something better, and it's not subtle about laying on the symbolism -- Harm's flight is fueled by incandescent blue orbs of "Drive" that the player must collect in order to avoid crashing and burning.
It's one of the most challenging games I've ever played -- Harm must have crashed a half-dozen times in a row after Palacios passed me the controller -- and it's even more interesting when you understand how it reflects the experiences of its progenitors.
A familiar storyPalacios claims he began making games in earnest at 14, when he entered his private high schools computer science program. Enraptured by the potential and the promise of programming, he and fellow student Jorge Blacio worked together in the lab to try and hack together their own little games during recess, after school and on weekends.
"You could pretty much get away with anything you wanted, as long as it was interesting and you pretended to behave," Palacios tells me, via email. "We were just hacking our way, machete-style, through our own code...trying to get cool experiences with the simplest tools."
The private school that Blacio and Palacios attended, Nuevo Mundo, requires all students to submit a thesis project representing what they've learned before they're allowed to graduate. Naturally, the pair decided to submit their biggest game to date: Lasershock, a buggy multiplayer FPS coded in Visual Basic in which gunfire could revive allies as well as harm enemies.
"Everyone in our class loved the game, and spent hours 'play-testing' rather than finishing their own work," Palacios writes. "It was such a fun, crazy and kinda sweaty experience."
Their experience crunching on Lasershock seems to have cemented their desire for a career in game development, though the game itself had a memory leak that rendered it unplayable after about an hour. The pair managed to graduate anyway -- the leak was playfully treated as an informal time limit.
In college, Blacio and Palacios -- fast friends by this point -- considered joining up with an established developer in order to chase a career in the triple-A space. But Palacios tells me that he felt uncomfortable being part of an industry in which "so many games were about the same thing," and throughout college he brainstormed with Blacio about how they might make a game exploring the causes and effects of chauvinism, or addiction, or loneliness -- topics that
they didn't see well-represented in the game industry at large.
"By showing a different reality through our games, we wanted to open doors for players, just as some books had opened doors to us."
"We wanted to gift the player a perspective, a way of seeing things through our games...without judgmentally pointing fingers at anybody or anything," Palacios says. "By showing a different reality through our games, we wanted to open doors for players, just as some books had opened doors to us."
Both men spent a significant portion of their time in private high school and at their university, Escuela Superior Politecnica del Litoral (ESPOL), reading about philosophy, psychology, game design and the like. Their experience mirrors that of many students at liberal arts colleges, and while their youthful dissatisfaction with "the industry" may not be terribly unique, their perspective on it is. "We started to notice some of the more somber realities of our country," Palacios tells me. "We began asking ourselves how we could show these things...in a way that was nourishing to the player."
Sony comes to Ecuador, and To Leave comes to PSNPalacios recalls that he and Blacio decided to form a dedicated game development team around 2011, and began looking for like-minded creative types while they were still in school. "In Ecuador, half of the people who want to make games think it's all about playing around," says Palacios, "and coding from time to time."
According to Palacios, original games aren't really made in Ecuador -- dedicated game
developers in the country are few and far between, and they mostly either crank out "advergames" or tackle sequels and port jobs for established franchises.
"There's very few [Ecuadorian developers] to talk to and learn from. We feel a bit stranded."
"A huge part of our culture and work ethic is oriented to offering raw, unpolished things," Palacios claims. He believes that Ecuadorians focus too much on how to process materials -- bananas, chocolate, games that need to be ported to other platforms -- more efficiently, rather than focusing on designing entertaining and original creative works.
"No one in Ecuador knows how to make games for real, and so there's very few people to talk to and learn from," Palacios tells me when I press him about the state of Ecuador's development scene. "We feel a bit stranded."
Palacios claims that the faculty of his alma mater, ESPOL, are different -- that they went out of their way to give Palacios and his fellow student developers the support they needed to make a polished game.
In 2012 Sony opened a PlayStation game development lab at ESPOL as part of an academic partnership between the two organizations. Palacios claims that university faculty encouraged students to start a game development club in response to Sony's outreach efforts, and so he and the other members of Freaky Creations -- most of whom were ESPOL students who had already been working on a few different game ideas -- joined the club and began prototyping games that they could pitch to Sony when the deal was signed. To hear him tell it, the students worked through multiple concepts before settling on To Leave, a puzzle-platformer about a boy trying to escape a city that seeks to drain him dry.
"To Leave was the project we presented to Sony when the partnership between Sony and ESPOL was ready to be signed," writes Palacios. "That first vertical-slice demo of To Leave basically sealed the deal between ESPOL and Sony, which now trusts ESPOL and the talent there."
"I don't know if I would say 'sealed the deal,'" Sony's Bruno Matzdorf tells me. Matzdorf serves as program manager for SCEA's Academic and Developer Incubation programs, and he worked with Freaky Creations to bring To Leave to PSN. "It was more of a slice of approval from all involved that this [academic partnership] was definitely headed in the right direction."
With the partnership in place the the university gave the team a space to work, equipment to use and a financial grant to jumpstart production on To Leave -- which is built using Unity and a handful of hand-coded tools, including a heat-map renderer for finding difficulty spikes while QA testing levels.
In 2013 Sony also began supporting Freaky Creations as an independent studio, loaning them development kits and offering technical support.
Now it's 2014, and the game is still in development. "To Leave was too big a game to start out with," Palacios tells me. The game has been delayed multiple times, and he claims that's because the team rushed through pre-production and didn't adequately plan for the scope of the game they wanted to make. Still, he hopes that Freaky Creations will be able to release the game on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita sometime this month, with a PC release to follow.
Palacios claims the studio has gotten a fair bit of good press by working with Sony and attending events like GDC, but he still has trouble getting people in the industry to take him -- or the burgeoning Latin American game development scene -- seriously.
"I find that presenting your game as an 'indie game from Ecuador' sounds like you are going to present a horrible runner game about some native dude running in the forest, picking up bananas," writes Palacios.
However, he does admit that the trouble Freaky Creations has faced in getting publishers, press and fellow developers to pay attention to its game may have just as much to do with there being a lot of competition in the market -- To Leave is a 2D indie puzzle-platformer, after all -- as with Freaky Creations' geographic location.
Either way, he doesn't seem interested in leaving his homeland any time soon. "The resources for a creative individual are abundant in Ecuador," writes Palacios, who tells me that for roughly $100 he can travel to the coast, explore one of the country's metropolitan hubs or head inland to "mingle with the natives, and eat worms and drink illegal beverages with them."
"In some respects, you have a little too much freedom."