Fri 13 Jan 2012, by Jason
Last week Tomas Rawlings of Studio residents and independent games developers Red Wasp Design came in to the Studio to tell us about their work adapting the classic Role Playing Game (RPG) Call of Cthulhu into a video game subtitled The Wasted Land, which will be launching on iPhone and iPad at the end of the month.
The games are based upon the writings of cult American horror author H.P. Lovecraft, whose stories developed a mythology involving ancient alien beings whose actions are inimicable to the affairs of humanity. Tomas told us how, although the shock value of Lovecraft's work has faded over time, his ideas and the images he described have endured and become a recognizable presence in popular culture, with an array of imitations in films and television and even a selection of internet memes based upon them.
Tomas was a fan of the original Call of Cthulhu paper RPG released by Chaosium in 1981 and managed to secure the rights for Red Wasp to produce the adaptation. The Chaosium game has a massive fanbase, which provides Red Wasp with a large audience ready to engage with their work, but also puts them at risk of receiving a backlash from fans who will be critiquing their interpretation of the game rules and Cthulhu Mythos.
Tomas explained that he felt the main difficulty with adapting their game from the tabletop version of the RPG stems from the original game's openness: the way that all of the atmosphere and imagery of situations are created in the minds of the players and that it allows for the possibility of taking any course of action. This openness is not so easy to reproduce in a video game, where each option given to the player requires a large amount of code to be written in order to facilitate it.
The other major problem facing Red Wasp was to find a way to fit the game onto a mobile device. They have developed the game with highly detailed visuals so that it can be converted onto multiple platforms in the future (including home consoles such as the PS3). Initially they have decided to release it on iOS as the mobile platform lends itself to single player turn-based play and also as it is quicker and easier to get the product to market, start building a community of players and to gather feedback about what works. However, the relatively small screens involved with smart phones poses the design challenge of conveying an atmosphere of horror in the context of a handheld device.
The team solved the problem of adapting Call of Cthulhu's freeform play structure by distilling the essence of the original RPG into a more conventional video game framework, drawing upon the mechanics of other turn-based strategy and role-playing video games that they hold in high regard, such as Incubation: Time Is Running Out and Fire Emblem.
Tomas told us that the numbers of people playing tabletop RPGs has decreased in recent times due to people feeling that they don't have time to get together and indulge in such an open-ended experience. In light of this, working on a mobile platform and creating a single-player experience is advantageous in that it provides a flexibility around how the user can engage with the game, letting them play at their own pace, in their own time.
The use of rich audio and a 3D graphics engine custom built by lead programmer Michael Devereux are key elements in bringing the experience of playing The Wasted Land to life, creating a sense of threat and visceral horror through an unsettling soundtrack and creepy visuals designed by Red Wasp's lead artist Stuart Griffin.
To deal with the problem of size limitations on mobile platforms, the team took a "back to basics" approach to the design of the game, streamlining the experience as much as possible and carefully balancing elements such as the amount of statistical information visible on the screen, making sure there is nothing surplus to requirements.
When coming up with concepts for the game, Tomas returned to the source material: histories of World War One and Lovecraft's original stories, to find ideas for everything from the plot to the weaponry. During his research, he found that there was an interesting mixture of technology and more basic melee weaponry and armour being used in warfare during the period and this is reflected in the range of armaments available within the game: ranging from machine guns to clubs.
Each mission within the game builds up part of an ongoing story that involves a cast of characters including the eponymous scientist from Lovecraft's story "Herbert West-Reanimator" and Tomas's own grandfather who fought during the First World War.
Tomas then showed us some parts of the game, pointing out how the loadscreens between missions become increasingly visually and audibly chaotic as the game goes on, to help build a growing sense of danger.
One of the distinctive elements in the Call of Cthulhu RPG is the appearance of "sanity" as a character attribute, which is effected by the players' encounters with alien forces and can lead to various negative results within the game if diminished. Tomas was asked how sanity would be used in The Wasted Land, to which he responded that they have aimed to make it a tactical challenge to deal with the effects of character insanity, rather than an annoying hassle it could potentially become.
When asked if the limitations of producing a game for iOS were frustrating for the Red Wasp team, Tomas told us that as a small company with a small budget it can be difficult to manage people's expectations of what they could create and that by producing an iOS version first, they were able to focus on reaching a minimum level of completion. If they are able to raise enough funds from the iOS release, they will then be able to develop the game for other platorms, a plan that allows them to balance their creative urges with the commercial realities of releasing a game.
Finally, Tomas was asked if market research about the locations in which people play games had an effect on the design of The Wasted Land. He replied that the game is complex and stat-based and so aimed at an audience of dedicated gamers, rather than passive users: thus such considerations did not have a great deal of relevance. With a shortage of strategy games available for mobile devices, Red Wasp are looking to fill a gap in the market with this release whilst creating the kind of game they themselves would like to play.
For more information on Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land, please visit the Red Wasp Design website at: http://redwaspdesign.wordpress.com/
Lunchtime Talks are an ongoing series of presentations and discussions by Studio residents and associates. They take place at 13:00 on Fridays and are free and open to everybody who’s interested in what we do. For the full programme of talks, please visit: http://www.pmstudio.co.uk/events