SMG Studio talk Death Squared, robots & Nintendo Switch in our Developer Interview!
Death Squared is a multiplayer puzzle game about co-operation, communication, and robot explosions – and it’s out now in Nintendo eShop* on Nintendo Switch!
We chatted with Sydney indie game developers, SMG Studio, about the Aussie development industry and the story behind their game Death Squared...
Tell us a little bit about the history of SMG Studio and the team.
Pat (Lead Designer / Programmer): After working together for years on commissioned games for clients, SMG was our venture into the wilderness of making original games just for fun and profit.
Starting with a core team of three people in 2013, we were fortunate to hit the ground running with some early successes and are now 18+ people with a diverse and growing library of titles.
Ilija (Head of Art): We had a small team of highly experienced people working together for years, and the list of things we wanted to do (but never found the time for) kept piling up.
Eventually we decided to take the plunge and start working on our own IP instead of just being guns for hire. At the time, there were grants to help fledgling studios and we were lucky to get that extra wind in our sails.
We’ve had some great success and have now grown from three to twenty people, but we still make sure to stay true to our original vision of trying out new things.
What’s the video game development scene like in Australia/New Zealand?
Death Squared at RTX Sydney 2017
Ilija: Australia has a history of game development dating back to the first indie wave of the 80s. With the 2007-2008 financial crisis, many big US game companies closed their Australian studios and so a lot of skilled people switched to independent development. Also, Melbourne is a thriving indie game dev hub due to generous state support.
The bottom line is that Australia is surprisingly active and successful for its population size.
Ash (Studio Head): It’s punching above its weight in terms of quality and output, and we’re only now just hitting our stride. There’s growing support to bring back government funding, and more and more studios having great success. It’s not long now before Australia has its own mega studio like a King or Supercell.
Tom (Console Porting): We’re a pretty close-knit bunch. There are plenty of teams out there of mostly a handful of people each, and even more solo developers – especially in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. There have been quite a few indie hits out of Australia and New Zealand in the past few years, so I’m hoping we keep the pace up and get our names out there!
Tell us about how Death Squared came into existence. What inspired the game?
Pat: I came up with Death Squared at the 2015 Global Game Jam, themed "What do we do now?". The core idea throughout the game didn't really stray from the prototype at the end of that weekend. We just came up with a lot of different ways to present a team of players with that dilemma.
Ilija: Pat made the prototype for a game jam and originally we didn’t have big plans for it. However, we kept getting favourable attention and great feedback from players, so decided to develop it fully.
Tell us about the robot character design concepts. Do they have different names/personalities?
Pat: The characters have a cube-based design so that players understand their spatial and mechanical relationship with the 3D puzzles and contraptions they need to solve. The players have free movement within the grid, as do certain hazards, but the answers to team-survival are mostly recognisable within the grid.
You can even customise your robots.
Ilija: The game stayed in prototype phase for years and the placeholder 3D models for the robots were just simple cubes, so we sort of got used to that. Also, it was relevant to how the game mechanics worked, so when we set out to flesh out the game fully, it just made sense to give these cubes more personality rather than change them completely. It was a fun creative constraint and hopefully ended in more memorable designs.
We did give bots individual names, but I’m not telling, because we want the players to be able to inhabit the little tin cans.
We see what you did there with the game title: Death Squared. How did you come up with the name?
Pat: I was really tired, and it was about 4AM at the time. I needed to call the first prototype executable something, and I said "death squared" jokingly to the other people in the room. They convinced me to roll with it, and then we never changed it.
Ilija: Pat says the name was crowdsourced during the game jam, but I understand he was very tired at the time and possibly could have just been hearing voices.
Tom: Although we do get called out on not calling it “Death Cubed” fairly often.
Do you have any advice for Aussies or Kiwis looking to get into the video game development scene?
Pat: It's the same advice I'd give any aspiring dev anywhere, but it's to just start making. Start small, and learn how to turn your code/art/design into something you can interact with. Don't wait for a course to start or for the job where you'll learn it all. You have to immerse yourself in it now, connect with people, share progress, and have fun in whatever experiments you're trying. It's equally important, whether you're aiming to get established as a self-funded/solo dev, or whether you want a potential employer to see your willingness to learn and your engagement in the processes.
Ilija: As an industry it is pretty tough, but as a scene it is extremely rewarding and full of friendly and creative people. My advice would be, don’t wait for anyone or anything to happen, just be making things all the time. It is the only way to get better at what you do, to find your style, and to get noticed. Make prototypes. Go for the simplest and smallest possible way to execute an idea. Don’t be afraid of abandoning what doesn’t work. Make the process enjoyable and you will be surprised to find how good you have become.
Tom: The game development community is extremely welcoming so track down your local community and get involved in meet ups and game jams. The best way to learn is by practising, so get out there and start making games, no matter what it is!
Hamish (Level Design): Everyone’s answer on this one is on the money. Don’t wait for anything, there are so many resources available to you online for free that you can use to develop your skills and make your own stuff. You don’t need great art or programming skills to put something fun together, and when do you do make something, come to a game dev meetup and show it off – get engaged with the community.
Something I would greatly encourage would be to widen your skill set instead of just being great at one thing. As a designer myself, it’s endlessly useful for me to able to script together prototypes. Instead of needing to wait for someone else to program an idea I have, by being able to do it myself, I can quickly see which parts of my ideas are fun and which aren't, which in turn improves my design skills. Also, as the game dev scene in AUS/NZ is small, studios often want someone with a varied skill set who can wear multiple hats instead of just being able to do one thing really well.
Ash: Create stuff daily. Collaborate with people who have skills that you don’t. Communicate with people whose work you admire. Creativity can't be learned, so if you’re not creative, just be really technical. And don’t try and rush it. Mario Bros. wasn’t built in a day :)
Singleplayer in Death Squared is an explosively fun challenge, but in multiplayer co-op mode**, you literally get to cover your friends’ backs (or faces, if we’re talking geometry).
What are your favourite aspects of playing Death Squared in multiplayer co-op mode?
Pat: I enjoy spectating four-player** sessions because every group I've seen has been different, excelling or stalling in different places, and just generally has different team interactions. We try to mix up which colour/player has the deadliest presence or the greatest effect on a puzzle, so it keeps people on their toes.
Ilija: My favourite part is just watching people play it. Death Squared allows for so much freedom in how you approach it, and people’s personalities and group dynamics are endlessly amusing. This became apparent during game expos and is something we made sure to cultivate as much as possible.
Tom: The sense of accomplishment when you work through a tough puzzle with three of your friends can be very rewarding, but it’s also great to see someone’s reaction when their actions send the rest of their friend’s robots to their doom!
Hamish: My favourite aspect is players bouncing ideas off each other, watching the group consensus change and evolve as they try out different methods to overcome obstacles, and the big group ‘ahhh’ moment as they figure out a solution together. It’s endless enjoyment.
What makes the experience of playing Death Squared on Nintendo Switch different?
Ilija: I find Nintendo Switch and Death Squared an uncannily good match. From focusing on local multiplayer and co-operation, to the colours of the Joy-Con perfectly matching the robots, it almost seems like destiny brought them together.
Tom: The Joy-Con make it incredibly easy to turn a single player game into a multiplayer game: just detach them and hand one to your friend! The portability of the Nintendo Switch means you can sit down with four friends for a long co-op session or work through a few puzzles on your own when you’re on the go.
Ash: We have exclusive Nintendo Switch levels as a treat for players, and I think being able to whip out the device and let someone have a go makes the game so much more accessible for us.
Hamish: Nintendo has always had a strong focus on co-op/party games. The Nintendo Switch itself comes with two controllers as part of the deal, meaning anyone with a Nintendo Switch can play Death Squared multiplayer from the get-go. It’s also extremely portable, meaning it’s super easy to take it over to a friend’s house or wherever you want to meet up and have a play session.
Pat: One of the hard things about making a game with a co-op focus is that people need the right setup at the right time. The Nintendo Switch answers that perfectly and just fits the game so well.
What’s the best part about being a video game developer?
Ilija: You get to make really fun stuff that you can share with others. The most rewarding part is people telling you how much they enjoyed something you have made. All the tough times are suddenly worth it.
Tom: It’s so rewarding to see something you thought up in your head come to life on the screen just as you imagined. Then to see other people playing and reacting to what you made is a pretty special experience.
Hamish: There’s a few best things about it for me. You get to be creative on a daily basis, tinkering with something and trying out new ideas until you find something worth holding onto. You then have the pleasure of watching others play and enjoy your creation, which makes all the little work worth it. It’s brilliant.
Pat: For me it's just the love of creating things. I still remember the first time I made some interactive things on a screen with a few simple behaviours. It wasn't much but at the time it seemed like magic to me. I quickly got obsessed with learning every different way I could make something move, respond, or react, and pretty soon knew that I could happily do this forever.
Ash: When you know what you have created has been seen and played by millions of people. Especially when you see someone playing one of your games on public transport!
In Death Squared, players need to guide robots to colour-coded goals, avoiding treacherous traps and hazards.
What’s your favourite Joy-Con colour combination on your Nintendo Switch console?
Tom: I’m still loving my blue/red combination with the added benefit that they match up with our Death Squared bots! Can I make a request for an SMG orange pair?
Ilija: Red and blue for redbot and bluebot, of course! Can’t wait to collect yellow and green to complete the set.
Pat: Gotta be red and blue for me. Aside from how well it matches the game, I really like how the Nintendo Switch looks in general with that combo.
Any pro tips you’d like to share with Nintendo Switch players embarking on their first Death Squared mission?
Tom: Don’t rush. Take your time with each level and experiment with what’s going on. Does anything happen when you move in a particular direction? What’s going to happen when you activate this switch? Each level’s different and it’s going to take some careful observation (and probably quite a few deaths) to solve each of them.
Ilija: “You have to work together” was the only thing we would tell people who were trying out the game at expos. The game can, and will, turn any other assumption on its head, but this one remains a constant.
Pat: There’s a steady stream of new mechanics and ideas that get introduced throughout the campaign, and sometimes an old trick from the early levels will be the simple answer you’re overlooking.
Hamish: Fail fast.
Ash: Grab the person in your life that normally wouldn't “play games”. They don’t know the normal tropes of games and this actually can help, as the game is more about co-operation and problem solving than most games.
Do you have a history of playing Nintendo games? What were your feelings about making a game for a Nintendo console?
Ilija: Arguably the main reason we decided to grow Death Squared into a full game was because we wanted to make a console title. It is no secret that Nintendo has a special place in the console world and the timing of the Nintendo Switch couldn’t have been better for us.
Pat: My earliest Nintendo gaming was on the NES, but highlights from those times for me would be early Mario titles on SNES. I still look at them as a masterclass in game design, and still enjoy the gameplay just as much to this day.
I'm super excited to release on a Nintendo console, and it's definitely something 7-year-old me would never have imagined.
Tom: My first exposure to video games was on a Nintendo 64 and I’ve been playing Nintendo games ever since. I knew pretty early on I wanted to make games so I’m super excited to finally get a game I’ve worked on onto a Nintendo console! As soon as we saw the Nintendo Switch for the first time, we knew Death Squared was a perfect fit for it.
Hamish: Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64 was the first game I sunk my teeth into. To be just about to launch a game onto a Nintendo console is a special milestone for me. It’s an iconic brand, generations in the making. I’m very glad we’re becoming part of that.
Ash: Still remember winning a Nintendo DS in a competition, giving it to my wife and then never seeing it again. She loved that thing and it made her want to play more games.
How do you think robots will go about eventually taking over the world?
Ilija: I am sure they will take the optimal route to get there. :)
Tom: I’d rather not give them any ideas…
Pat: They’re keeping their plans a secret.
Hamish: Something really dumb that humans would fall for, like juicy clickbait that causes your computer to explode.
Ash: Via reality TV.
(Not actual gameplay footage.)
How SMG Studio play Death Squared on Nintendo Switch during work hours…
Check out SMG Studio’s ‘Donut Park’ trailer for Death Squared:
Death Squared is out now in Nintendo Switch eShop – try out the free demo!
Find out more about Nintendo Switch at the official website, below:
*To use Nintendo eShop on Nintendo Switch, you'll need a broadband internet connection and a Nintendo Account.
**Additional accessories are required for 3-player and 4-player multiplayer co-op mode, and are sold separately.