Play Velocity and you’re piecing together a story, a hectic tale of calamities, hard-won lessons and last-minute rescues. FuturLab’s 2D shooter takes an old template and makes it new, throwing in a teleportation mechanic that allows you to blink through laser fire or zip past any and all barriers. It’s a clear and uncluttered design and it provides a brisk reworking of a much-loved genre.
The confidence on display suggests a game with a painless birth. In truth, though, nothing about this PlayStation Mini was painless. The story of Velocity – and of FuturLab itself – is another hectic tale of the calamities, hard-won lessons and last-minute rescues faced by a small ship buffeted by happenstance in the vacuum of space.
FuturLab didn’t start out making games. In fact, the studio was formed by accident. Owner and director James Marsden had been part of another startup making commercial Flash projects, which spent a year building up a small client base. Then his boss went on holiday to Russia. “[He] met a girl out there that he fell in love with,” Marsden explains. “He decided he was going to emigrate. He came back for about five minutes to say he was taking the company to Russia. I was left with the opportunity to either get another job or take all the clients we’d built up to start another company.”
And so he did, doing as much Flash work as he could for those clients. “Then, about three years later, I got a kick up the arse.“ The kick came from Jade Tidy, a FuturLab producer who has since left to work at Relentless. “She took me aside and said, ’Look, this company’s going nowhere,’“ Marsden laughs. “She said I needed to do what I started out to do, which was games.“
Over a Christmas period, he devoured tutorials on how to make games, read papers from universities around the world and anything else he could find on game technology, and put together something that, at the time, had never really been done before: a really fast scrolling engine for Flash. Well, it was cutting edge for 2004. “Back then, Flash games didn’t have fast-scrolling environments like Sonic The Hedgehog. That got the attention of the BBC, and we started making games for them.“
Young and ambitious, Marsden also used the engine to pitch to Sony. “We didn’t have any experience in game development, so pitching to PlayStation, we realised we’d have to do something a bit out there to stick in the memory. We did this crazy roleplay to pitch an ARG [alternate reality game] that was anchored to the PS3 – real-world actors, text messages, that sort of thing. We devised an in-office game to play with the Sony people. We looked on LinkedIn to find the biographies of the people we were going to pitch to, and we took those testimonials and work history, and incorporated that into our narrative.“
The approach impressed Sony, and although the publisher swiftly decided the project in question wasn’t quite right, it wanted to work with FuturLab. Within weeks, it offered the studio work on an ARG to publicise the launch of Heavy Rain. Marsden signed a two-year deal, and the project gave FuturLab the confidence to take a longterm lease on a large two-storey office suite on the outskirts of Hove and to form a new company, FuturLab Meta, with the directors of Relentless.
“Nine months in, the game got canned, of course. These things happen, but it was the first time it had happened to us. I had to sack everyone. Five people.“
Relentless was impressed with the way Marsden had dealt with Sony, however, and invited him
to pitch a game it would publish on the PlayStation Network. Mere days later, FuturLab was making a music game for PSP. It was a skeleton crew approach, just Marsden and Robin Jubber, a programmer he’d met while looking into XBLIG development. Once again, the future looked bright – a state of affairs that was to last about five months this time.
“Then Minis were announced,“ laughs Marsden, “and Relentless had a change of perspective. Overnight, what you get for a fiver on the PlayStation Store had just changed. They thought, ‘Now there are Minis, we’re not going to be able to charge what we thought we could charge for this game.’ So they canned it.”
An asset FuturLab did have, however, was an engine for PSP. “Robin said, ’OK, we’ve got the tech. Let’s just make a game and get it out there.’ We didn’t have any money, because it had all been spent on a big telly.“ Marsden and Jubber focused their attention on Coconut Dodge, an old action game Flash prototype that saw players controlling a crab and racing back and forth across a 2D screen to avoid falling coconuts.
While Jubber readied the game for Minis, Marsden tried to drum up more corporate Flash work. In his spare time, though, he also renewed his interest in music production, immediately picking up on a song he’d written while at university. “I’d always wanted to see it realised properly,“ he remembers. “I’d go back to it every two years, and could never get it to sound good. One Christmas, while we were working on the Mini, I started to make this track properly. The way I made it sound right was to make it sound like an old-school shoot ’em up soundtrack.“
And as luck would have it, at the same time Jubber was clamouring to make a space shooter that took advantage of the technology behind Coconut Dodge, which was all about enabling fast movements on a 2D screen. “He said, ’We’ve got code we can re-use, and we should do that. I can knock that out in a weekend.’ That was the birth of Velocity.“
Velocity inherited more than just code. “With Coconut Dodge completed, it was clear that the maze-mastering stuff was what was great about it,“ says Marsden. “Short levels in which you’re really challenged for a short space of time – that was a hit. We thought: ‘Let’s reuse the mechanics as well. So the way that you hold a button to go fast in Coconut Dodge, let’s change that to instead of going fast, you just appear somewhere else on the screen when you let go.’ That was the teleportation mechanic for Velocity. It was as simple as that.“
A simple idea, but transformative. By allowing players to warp their ship around a series of scrolling mazes, FuturLab had brought a sense of dynamism back to the space shooter, breaking up the racing line of games such as Xenon 2 to allow for a scenario in which you moved in hops, diving in and out of conflict, and picking a complex path through the world. Teleportation would allow the player to control everything, from the initial approach taken with enemy encounters to the manner in which they hunted for collectibles, while a squeeze of a trigger would let them speed up the rate at which the environments scrolled past. A straightforward addition to the shoot ’em up arsenal had opened out the action completely, in other words, and the design felt both warmly traditional and thrillingly new.
A procession of commercial work allowed Marsden to hire Kirsty Rigden, a producer from Relentless, as well as John Steels, an artist who would provide the game’s visual approach. “The look of the game was to be kind of a modern manga look,“ says Marsden. “I didn’t want to go pixel art, as we eventually did. I wanted traditional, old-school gameplay, but brought up into a modern look with these modern mechanics. That’s the same thing we wanted for the music: retro chiptune, but with modern production and all the rest of it.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t go that way. John spent about half a day trying to get that style to work and just decided it wasn’t going anywhere. He did pixel art instead, and the level of detail he put into it was really impressive.“
Steels worked on the project for about eight weeks until he had to “get a proper job“, as Marsden puts it. Meanwhile, a prototype was coming together, with 12 levels that showed off all FuturLab’s core ideas for the game. “To be fair, those first 12 levels, they were no good,“ admits Rigden. “We’d just crammed everything in. All of the mechanics were introduced within a handful of stages. We had a big barbecue and we invited everyone around to focus test it. We realised they liked it, but they couldn’t get to grips with it. There was too much going on at once.“
Running low on money again, but with a promising – if problematic – prototype, FuturLab approached Sony for a PlayStation Plus deal. “We got it, but it’s complicated,“ says Marsden. “Basically, you get a big chunk of cash by going with PlayStation Plus, but you only get it when the game’s finished. We still had to find the money to finish it.“
At the time, Brighton’s game developers had started having monthly social drinks. 2011 was a difficult year for a town that had once been a hub for major development in the UK. Black Rock Studios had recently closed, and former big-team development staff were now trying to make a living as indies. Some of them were still feeling generous, however, and one of them – Marsden’s cagey on who precisely – liked his ideas enough to give him a bridging loan to finish the game.
The loan allowed FuturLab to hire another level designer and it also provided three months of uninterrupted work on Velocity. “That was the period when we made it,“ says Rigden. “It had the assets in it before then, but that’s when we made the actual game.“
“It was there right from the start, but that’s when the game really came together,“ agrees Marsden. “Levels were being constructed and our new designer, Jack Lang, was able to work out the alien path editor system that Robin had implemented and which nobody else could get their head around.“ The scrolling shooter finally had something to shoot.
Velocity was seeing fresh mechanics implemented in almost every other level: bombs to fire, allies to rescue, glass structures that could be shattered to open new routes. One of the last of these ideas would really alter the game. Short-range teleportation had sped up the basic shooter pace and provided new kinds of routes through each stage. Long-range teleportation, which hinged on the ability to drop respawn points throughout a stage, turned Velocity into a sort of puzzle game – now you could go back through levels to explore multiple paths and get involved in numerous locked-door challenges.
“The idea of being able to go back through the same level and take a different route very quickly seemed like a good idea,“ says Marsden. “It’s not rewinding time, it’s rewinding space. It’s taking that maze-mastering element, and just pushing it as far as it could go. The game calls out for it, really. You should be able to drop telepods and go different places. That’s how it works in Flashback. It was a perfect storm.“
The end result, according to Marsden, who doesn’t hold back his pride, “felt like the best game on the platform. The best Mini.“ For all its ideas, however, Velocity could have been an exercise in empty cleverness. Teleporting makes the design interesting, perhaps, but it’s the controls that make it joyful. It’s the elastic feeling as you stretch a cursor across the screen to pull off a jump, the manner in which you fling bombs away from your vessel, and the explosions of glass and steel as you blast a path through the levels.
“Ultimately, that’s down to getting as many variables as possible and tweaking them and tweaking them,“ says Marsden. “I was tweaking the controls before we started even making the game. While Robin was prototyping the mechanics, I was just saying we needed to try it this way or that way. He must have re-coded the short-form teleport ten times, because it just wasn’t feeling right.
“By the time we came to make the game, we had these rules that we basically wrote down. We knew how wide teleport gaps should be, how many tiles you could have on either side while going sideways. That time was invaluable. This stop-start development and all these disasters weren’t an ideal way to make a game, but they had their perks.“
Perks indeed: the protracted development resulted in a game that’s struck a chord with audiences, allowing FuturLab to teleport its own way up the food chain, with several new projects in progress and a strong presence on the PlayStation Mobile platform. “It’s been a massive boost for our profile,“ says Marsden. “People know who we are now. People at Sony are now using Velocity as an example for other developers, too, which feels very good.“
Beyond all that, Velocity provided Vita and PSP owners with an uncommonly punchy Mini to
thoroughly lose themselves in for hours on end, one that uses the handhelds’ wide screen to draw you right through its pixellated universe. Give in. Load it up, jam on the headphones and squeeze the trigger. Pick an empty spot on the horizon and teleport into the distance. Blink and you’re gone. Goodbye.