(Gif via YouTube)
“We had a pretty bad last year between Dain [Saint] and myself. … We kind of just took a life hiatus, to be honest.”
This was one of the first things Will Stallwood, co-founder and one half of local game development studio Cipher Prime along with Saint, told this reporter when asked how he’s been doing for the past year.
If you need a refresher, Philly Game Forge, the coworking space and longtime meeting place for the local game dev meetup Philly Dev Night, closed down at the end of June last year. It was an emotional blow to the tight-knit community but for Stallwood and Saint, who helped bring Game Forge to life back in 2013, it was another burden to top off all the “life drama” they were going through around that time — business problems and health issues for Stallwood were just a couple examples.
Being an indie game dev today, while creatively liberating, often means huge struggles, and Stallwood and Saint have been at it for close to 10 years in the Philly area.
“Both Dain and I were burnt out and we were like, ‘Hey, let’s just take a step back and relax a little bit,’” Stallwood said.
It is with great sadness that we announce today that we are cancelling Auditorium Duet.
— Cipher Prime (@cipherprime) January 11, 2017
So for around six to seven months, aside from attending a Dev Night every once in awhile (and Saint embracing some of his other passion projects), these two developers mostly stayed off the radar. But three days ago, you could say that Cipher Prime made its return by putting out a playable version of their latest game, appropriately called “Jawns,” a slicker and simpler take on chess or checkers. (As of writing, you can still play the game for free here.)
The official version of the game will be released exclusively through next month’s Humble Bundle, which is the same approach the studio used in getting “Tailwind” out to the public (which btw, Stallwood says will still see a full release, just not anytime soon).
“Jawns” came out of a paper prototype Stallwood and Saint came up with around the middle of last year where they wanted to play around with multiplayer elements and just “get the juices flowing.” Humble Bundle ended up seeing that prototype and asked if the two could flesh it out for next month’s promotion, so for the past several weeks, they’ve stayed up till midnight every night to build the game in their free time.
And the two will be staying busy — it was announced at the end of last month through national gaming headlines that Cipher Prime was one of several game developers and studios that would be joining a newly formed “premium mobile gaming” publisher called THE_LABEL, cofounded and headed by Robert Bowling, the former Humble Bundle VP perhaps best known as The “Call of Duty” Guy.
— Robert Bowling (@fourzerotwo) February 28, 2017
Stallwood said it was through Bowling, whom they had developed a relationship with during the Tailwind/Humble Bundle partnership, that they ended up joining the publisher. Not to mention the eclectic group of prominent game developers who they’ll be in company with — developers like Asher Vollmer of “Threes!” fame and Ed McMillen, the mind behind cult hits “Super Meat Boy” and “The Binding of Isaac.”
Cipher Prime has talked and worked with publishers before, like Electronic Arts back in 2008, but that specific experience was not a great one for the duo (for reference, the huge publisher has been named Consumerist’s worst company in America). Still, the need for a publisher has been pretty clear for Stallwood as he realized he didn’t have enough time in the day to make sure the games they develop are ones they’re happy with, while also worrying about the business side.
An 'emotional strategy game' is in the works.
So far, working with THE_LABEL has been a pretty “hands-off experience,” Stallwood said, which is something most game creators value when working with an overseer.
“It’s our game and our IP at the end of the day” he added. “We’re already so happy with it at this point, that we’re hoping to stay under THE_LABEL for our continuing properties in the future.”
The first game coming out of this new partnership from Cipher Prime will be “5Lines” (a working title), something Stallwood describes in the only way he knows how: “An emotional strategy game — think of ‘Inside Out’ paired with ‘Starcraft’ — about a rainbow of emotions and you’re basically playing with this rainbow to get through your day.”
Check out this video back from 2015 on an initial design process for the feel of the game.
Expect to see this new game sometime soon in an upcoming Dev Night, where Stallwood hopes to involve the community in the development through taking feedback.
As for the foreseeable future of Cipher Prime in its new position, one of the big questions the team has considered was whether or not to stay in Philly, a place Stallwood feels he belongs but as a game company, he knows it’s “honestly not a great place for us to be.”
“If the relationship [with THE_LABEL] does work out past this game, there’s really no reason for us to leave,” he added. “We’d be able to fly in and do what we need to do for all the different events and still keep our home base in Philadelphia, which is the place we love.”
Even in the unfortunate circumstance of the two devs leaving, Stallwood has seen firsthand the ability of the Dev Night community, for which he passed down leadership to people like Shawn Pierre and Jake O’Brien to thrive and grow. The meetup has recently partnered with coworking space Indy Hall (where Stallwood and Saint are also currently working out of) to host its game jam kickoff.
— Indy Hall (@indyhall) March 16, 2017
While Stallwood admits he doesn’t think the Philly game dev scene is as strong as it was a couple of years ago, he points to something like Dev Night reaching out to other communities and taking part in more opportunities, like the upcoming Hackathon 2.0 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as the right steps.
If anything, the fact that there are so many new faces for Stallwood to see at recent Dev Nights is a good sign.
“[There were] so many people I had never met before which is strange, running an event for six years meeting 100 people a night and then going into an event I used to run being like, ‘Wow, I think I know 10 people here,’” he said.-30-
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