At this weekend’s Rezzed event in London, one game that caught my interest was a first person puzzle game by indie outfit Bulkhead Interactive. Supported by Square Enix as part of their ‘Square Enix Collective’ indie publishing initiative, “The Turing Test is a first person puzzler from the developers of Pneuma: Breath of Life that explores the phenomena of consciousness and challenges the meaning of human intuition“. Whilst this certainly sounds intriguing, what really captured my attention was how the game reminded me of slower, more methodical titles such as Portal, The Witness, Adr1ft, and The Talos Principle. Coming out on XBox One and PC later this year, I spoke to Howard Philpott (Creative Producer, Bulkhead Interactive) about his creation, and also got to ask him as to what motivated him and his Bulkhead Interactive team to seek the publishing support of Square Enix.
First question: how old are you, and how old is your team?
I personally am 22. Our team consists of about 12 guys, and we’re all in our 20’s up to the age of 26.
I assume you’ve [all] come straight out of university?
Yes. So our first game Pneuma: Breath of Life was the first game that we came out with after university. We thought, “why not just take the shot of making an indie game? Indie games are booming right now, where this could be our chance to work on our own thing rather than someone else’s”. And luckily, that worked out for us, and now we’re able to make our second game, which is The Turing Test, which is our second puzzle game.
How did Bulkhead Interactive form?
So Bulkhead formed from two studios. We were originally Deco Digital and Bevel Studios, which worked together on Pneuma: Breath of Life. We were two teams originally, working on Pneuma: Breath of life, and now we’re working together on The Turing Test. So we’ve combined our studios and we’re now working as one.
Both teams, I assume, came from university, as part of your respective computer science courses. You’re the Creative Producer, is that correct?
When you have teams who are part of their own indie projects, when they come on board, it’s sometimes the case that they’ve got their own ideas and they’ve got their own creative leads, and there’s a clash of egos and creative cultures. Even though you all came from the same university, and kind of have the same norms and values, how were you able to ensure that both teams were able to synchronize their working habits, and ultimately coalesce together to form one collective whole that isn’t dysfunctional?
Originally, when we were working on our first game, we hadn’t met each other before. So the two teams were working in the same studio together, and it was a bit of a scrap, you know, trying to find out who does what, and how we can work together. But because we worked together so intensely in that office, because we were working really long hours on that first game… It took us six months to create Pneuma. We kind of just formed a bond essentially as we were working so hard together. And we all have different disciplines, so everyone in the team has different areas that they can work in. So we have a fantastic lead designer called David Jones who leads the entire production of the game. He comes up with the story, the way the mechanics work. And the rest of the team, we kind of fit in around that. So we have our marketing guys, we have our artists, our programmers, and it all just gels really well together. And we all bounce ideas off each other. And no one’s afraid to criticize each other’s work, so we’ve got this really good work environment now. And so it kind of made sense for our teams to just join up and form into one studio.
How do you guys support yourselves?
Originally, I was working at a bar when we were working on Pneuma. So I wasn’t paid for the first six months on our first game. So I’d be working 9am until 5pm in the office, and then 6pm until the early hours in the morning…
What sort of hours?
From about 6pm until… usually 3am in the morning some nights. It was pretty intense back then. But we just really wanted to make our own game and luckily it worked out for us. So back then, it was very tough, but luckily Pneuma sold quite well for us. And now we’re able to be self-sustained, completely self-funded, and have complete creative control over our games.
When you say you’re self-funded, obviously you’ve got the Square Enix guys supporting you [via the ‘Square Enix Collective’ initiative] and we’ll come to that in a moment, but did you ever consider going down the Kickstarter route in order to get some more financial assistance, or have you been using the proceeds from the first game to essentially fund your so-called “development lifestyle” going forward?
Yes. So the funds from the first game, they completely got put into two different projects. So we have The Turing Test which is completely self-funded, and then we’ve also decided to Kickstart a second game called Battalion 1944. And so the combination of self funds for both games, plus the Kickstarter funds, we’ve put ourselves in quite a good position to be working on two games now simultaneously.
And this is amongst your team of like 24 people?
So originally we were six people.
And now it’s 12?
Now it’s 12, yeah. So we’ve been able to double our team in-house. We work with quite few freelancers as well because that helps with both costs and production, because you don’t have as many people in the studio at once. You’re not talking over each other or whatever, and it just works out well for us.
How did Square Enix get involved, and what’s in it for them versus what’s in it for you?
So our Executive Producer, he spoke to Phil Elliot (Project Lead, Square Enix Collective), and now they kind of talk together. We really just wanted to work with a publisher, but we didn’t want that side that is just like a big publisher – too big. So the Square Enix Collective kind of really fit for us in terms of them allowing us to have complete creative control over the game. They don’t have any input apart from their expertise which is very useful for us in terms of our Steam release, and that works out for us. So it was a great connection for us to make and now we’re working together with them, and they’re going to help us publish our Steam release of The Turing Test.
What do they get out of it though? And what do you get out of it? Do they assist you financially?
So we have no financial assistance from Square Enix. The assistance that we get from them is their marketing knowledge, their connections…
So they’re almost like mentors?
Essentially, yes. So they’re really helping us on the Steam side, because with our original game, Pneuma, our Steam sales definitely weren’t as good as our XBox sales. So yeah, they’re helping us out in that way. The way it benefits them… I think they wanted a kind of connection with us. They want to grow their indie side [as part of] their publishing side.
So it makes Square Enix look a little bit more cool in the current gaming climate?
Potentially yeah. I mean, we’re working on quite few cool projects. Obviously Battalion 1944 is going to be quite big hopefully. And obviously The Turing Test is looking cool. People seem to be liking the gameplay.
What’s The Turing Test about? I know it’s a first person game. Was it built using Unity?
No, it’s Unreal Engine 4. And it’s a first person puzzler.
What made you decide to pick Unreal Engine as opposed to Unity?
Unreal Engine… they have like fantastic tools. We’ve basically worked with them since the start. So we have really good connections with them. And we were the first Unreal Engine 4 game on XBox One.
Do you receive any assistance from Epic?
Not financial assistance, just purely communicative. You know, helping us out if we have issues. We’d submit book reports to them and they’d fix it in the next update. We have a really good relationship with Epic, so it kind of makes sense for us to be working with that engine. And it’s a fantastic engine. It produces great results. It has a great work-flow for our art team, nice and simplistic, and it allows us to create great results.
Why do you think Unreal Engine hasn’t been able to get as much traction in the development sphere, as opposed to say… Unity, which is a newer kid on the block that happens to be so much popular in comparison?
So Unity is interesting… I mean, it was originally free before Unreal Engine. And obviously that made a lot of hobbyists, a lot of indies, pick up the engine because it was free. You know, it’s a great tool for people to use.
There’s always Windows Movie Maker in comparison to Premiere Pro… Why has Unity gotten so much more traction? I mean, even though it’s free initially as a tool-set, but generally speaking, free tool-sets are kind of limited. As you know, Unreal Engine has the backing of Epic who, let’s face it, they did Gears of War. They did Unreal back in the day. They’re one of those AAA publishing powerhouses in the industry. Why has Unity, as the young upstart, gotten so much more bigger so quickly in comparison to Unreal Engine?
Yeah. So with Unreal Engine, when that came free, we’d been previously working throughout university and just in our own spare time with the Unreal Engine anyway. I really think Unreal Engine is on the rise. I think a lot of developers are starting to think, “Maybe we should switch to Unreal Engine”, because there’s a lot of great tools out there. I mean, we did originally start prototyping in Unity, than we felt for our studio… the Unreal Engine work-flow really helped us in terms of the PBR stuff, and the easy ways that we can do things. So it’s really exploding in popularity at the moment. More and more Unreal Engine games are coming out. You’ve got the Bullet Train demo for the VR headset which is inspiring loads of VR developers to jump onto UE4. Especially as they have the UE4 UI inside the HTC Vive headset.
Will you be taking advantage of the upcoming VR headsets?
Maybe. I’d love to. It’s a very cool thing that’s happening in the industry right now, and I personally would like to jump on the hype… We don’t have anything currently planned for our current games, but it’s definitely something that we’re looking at. As you can see, it’s really exploding right now. There’s lots of cool opportunities to make really unique games, and that’s what we like as developers. Those unique opportunities, they can only happen in video games, not in books or in films or anything like that.
The Turing Test is coming out on PC and XBox One. Is it coming out on any other platforms such as PS4?
So The Turing Test is a timed exclusive on XBox One and is also coming out on PC simultaneously at the same time. Other consoles… maybe in the future. But right now, we’re focusing on the XBox One and PC.
Even though it’s a timed exclusive with Square Enix being involved, and they’re obviously taking care of publishing duties, what is the likelihood of The Turing Test coming out on a Nintendo console in future? Have Nintendo been in touch with you at all?
We have actually spoken to Nintendo briefly. Not for the Wii U, but the NX is very interesting to us. We haven’t contacted them specifically about it. But if they would like to have our games…
Do you know much about the NX?
No, we don’t know much about the NX. We don’t have too much contact with Nintendo. But if they want to approach us, that would be awesome, because getting our games out to more gamers, that’s what we want to do. So if they approach us, that would be fantastic. And if it could support UE4, that would be fantastic as well.
Do you know if Unreal Engine is supporting the NX going forward?
I assume Epic are probably looking into it. I don’t know. But it would be great if they were. So we’d definitely jump on that hype if they were to do so.
What inspired The Turing Test?
The Turing Test is inspired by quite a lot of things. So if you look at films like Interstellar for the story, the way that space exploration is kind of blowing up in the film industry right now, we really wanted to look at that aspect of like, exploring, and what’s out there. So we were inspired by films like Interstellar, but also other puzzle games, like The Witness recently. That game is very interesting because it takes a methodical approach in the way it teaches the player. So we wanted to kind of take that and put that into a 3D world which we thought is really interesting. And what’s really interesting to us is the idea of space and exploration, and AI and stuff like that. So The Turing Test kind of combines all of those things and puts it into a game where you learn throughout the gameplay. There’s no text and tutorials. You kind of learn as you play. So all those things combined, we kind of merged together to create The Turing Test.
Is this one of those games where, and I don’t mean to say it in a disparaging way, but… this might seem like a bit of a populist view, but do you get to shoot people?
There’s no shooting people in The Turing Test.
So it’s been like Gone Home then?
Does that not mean that there is a possibility that The Turing Test might end up being dismissed by traditionalist gamers who’d argue that The Turing Test doesn’t necessarily qualify as a videogame?
Yes. So what’s interesting about that is that The Turing Test is definitely fully a game. And so we have full on puzzle mechanics that make it a game. You have to solve puzzles, progress through the story. But we also have Gone Home like elements. So in-between all the puzzles, we have these story sections where you can pick up and interact with objects just like in Gone Home, and interact with audio logs and other things to really immerse yourself in the world. But that’s completely optional. So if players just want to go through and solve puzzles, like for example The Witness where you’re just doing puzzles, that’s excellent. You can do both. So we kind of merge two things together that are really good in the industry right now. That is obviously these great narrative exploration games. There’s also these great puzzle games. We just want to merge them together and make it a fuller experience. Why have two different experiences? Why not have both? So The Turing Test we’re hoping encompasses all that together.
Last question: what do you hope to achieve with The Turing Test? Why would people want to play The Turing Test? Quick elevator pitch… Go!
So The Turing Test is interesting because we’re trying to push games forward as a medium. That’s what we’re trying to do. We don’t want to be like a film or a book, which is just a passive medium. We really want to take videogames into the forefront of why the interactive medium is important. And The Turing Test does that. It’s all wrapped around a story about deception and control, and really interesting puzzles. So yeah, that’s kind of what we’re trying to do with The Turing Test and hopefully people [will] like it.