As a continuing refinement of a major project that was undertaken during a Master’s degree, The Little Acre is a point and click graphic adventure game that is currently in development by Pewter Games Studio – a small indie game studio that was founded by students of Ballyfermot College (Ireland). Coming out on PC, XBox One, and PS4 later this month, the game merges the charm of Don Bluth with the wonders of Miyazaki. As such, the game takes place during the 1950’s – a time when unemployment was rife and when the country was undergoing major economic upheaval – as well as in the peculiar world of Clonfira – where the peculiar humanoid residents and ruined relics of humanity contrast steeply against the peaceful greenery of Ireland. As part of this world-building narrative, The Little Acre is centered around Aidan and his daughter, Lily. After Aiden discovers clues as to the whereabouts of his missing father, he inadvertently finds himself being transported to the strange new world. Ever the hero, Lily sets off after him, thus setting the basis for the game.
Having been in development for several years, The Little Acre managed to attract the attention of eminent British video game designer and co-founder of Revolution Software, Charles Cecil, who came on board as Executive Producer and who lent his expertise to the project. Since then, Pewter’s game has improved immeasurably, as the ex-Ballyfermot College students have honed their product under his capable mentorship. And with Curve Digital also involved as publisher, the game looks incredibly polished prior to its release.
I interviewed Christopher Conlan and Ben Clavin, co-founders of Pewter Games Studio, as well as Charles Cecil in order to find out more about The Little Acre. Whilst doing so, I delved into the game’s influences, how The Little Acre caught Charles Cecil’s eye, and how Pewter Games Studio’s first title has improved under his guidance. Enjoy!
What inspired The Little Acre? Why did you decide to make it as a graphic adventure game when the genre isn’t necessarily in vogue at the moment?
Christopher Conlan: With not being in vogue, I think at the very least there has been a bit of a renaissance recently. So they’re kind of coming back. There’s been a resurgence in the genre. They’re not mainstream. I don’t know if they ever will be, not in that form, in the classical sense. The main reason why we wanted to do it is just that they’re the games that we enjoyed when we were growing up. They’re the games we played, games like Broken Sword for example that Charles made. That was just kind of something that we wanted to start off on. So we were going to make lots of games. For our debut game, I guess this is what we wanted to do. What inspired us is games like Broken Sword. Tonally, games like Broken Sword, where it’s subtly humorous, but there are more serious undertones. That’s what we wanted to go for. And that’s really why. It’s just because it’s something that we wanted to play. We wanted to make a game that we would enjoy playing, something that would interest us if we saw it on a store, and we were like, “Hey, what’s that? I want to check that out.” That was what we wanted to do.
Little Acre is your first game. What difficulties have you had in making the game in terms of design challenges, but also in terms of resource management?
Christopher Conlan: Difficulties, as you said, because it’s our first game, so the stuff that I imagine everybody has when they’re a fledgling studio… when you’re trying to get a team together, when you’re trying to get funding and simple things like office space and stuff. So we had all of that, of course. But then also because of the animation style that we’re working with. So it’s a traditional animation style where it’s frame-by-frame. It’s all hand-drawn, and getting something like that working where we’re using the Unity engine and trying to figure out how to go from this hand-drawn animation, get these files into here and make it an animation where it’s a game using these animations. Trying to figure out the best process for that was probably a struggle at the start. And towards the end there, we really found out feet, and it’s something that we’re looking forward to continue doing more efficiently. But I would say that would be the main thing, i.e. using this animation style and trying to do it efficiently.
Charles Cecil… As an industry legend that was responsible for Broken Sword series, how did The Little Acre manage to attract your interest? What made you want to sign on as an Executive Producer?
Charles Cecil: Yeah… I was introduced to the Pewter team by Simon Byron of Curve Digital. And the reason is obviously that we’re both writing adventure games. But these two, bless them, were Broken Sword fans. And Chris actually was part of our Kickstarter community, which is great. But also something that drew us together, which really excited me, was that 23-24 years ago, when I was embarking on Broken Sword, I’d read that there was a college in Dublin called Ballyfermot that was producing animators and layout artists for the Don Bluth Studios. And I went to visit them and met a really talented layout artist who was one of the lecturers called Eoghan Cahill. And he looked at our layouts and looked at me and burst out laughing and said, “These really aren’t good enough. They’re rubbish. I can do a much better job. You need to employ me.” And one of the best things that I ever did was take him up and employ him because he was at the very heart of the quality that we managed to achieve in Broken Sword.
And what really excites me about these guys is they are absolutely Ballyfermot through and through 23 years later. So Chris was at Ballyfermot. The animators were at Ballyfermot. The layout guys, the background artists were Ballyfermot. So it’s like the whole thing has gone full circle. So I played through what they had, really enjoyed it, thought it was fantastic… And I’m very privileged that they then asked me to be the Executive Producer. I came onto the project quite late in the day. So I’ve given them a lot of feedback in relation to some of the cut-scenes, some of the puzzles, how they work… But ultimately, it’s very much their game, with me just contributing towards the end.
Ben Clavin… How many people work on The Little Acre?
Ben Clavin: At the biggest it was 11 people, I think. But rarely would it be that many people in the office together. Most of them were animators. And they had kind of come for the summer, and we got a bunch of work done. But I think there were seven animators in the end, and then programmers and musicians and things like that. But now it’s really just back down to pretty much three or four people.
When is the game out? What other projects do you have in the pipeline?
Ben Clavin: We’re really just putting on the finishing touches such as influence, the last 10 percent. That’s what we’re on. So the game is pretty much done. It’s coming out end of October, hopefully, around that area. And then it’s onto the next game. We have a few ideas. But one thing we’re definitely sure of is the animation style is going to stay the same. We’re going to use that traditional, Don Bluth, Disney, frame-by-frame animation thing… because even though it’s so much hard work, and it’s expensive, it’s also the reason why anyone cares when they walk past it compared to other games.
Will it be a graphic adventure game?
Ben Clavin: Maybe. We’ll see… I can’t see us leaving puzzles behind. It might not feel as much of a typical adventure game.
Graphic adventure games are renowned for their narrative. What’s the basis of the story for The Little Acre, and how much research went into the narrative?
Christopher Conlan: You’ve got the father Aidan and the daughter Lily. The father, Aiden, gets caught into this fantasy world, and Lily decides to go and rescue him. And that’s the kind of setup. And then we take it further from there. Influence-wise, we’re talking The NeverEnding Story and The Pagemaster and Labyrinth and Narnia… All films of this kind about this wonderful fairyland and then the reality. That was always the influence. That’s something we always wanted to do and have it set in Ireland, which is kind of unique for games. You have games that visit Ireland or you have Irish characters, something like that. But we wanted it to just be based in Ireland and preferred to not feel too tokenistic or anything like that. So that was a big thing. And then a big emphasis on the relationship with the daughter and the father. And then the rest, I don’t know where it came from [laughs].
Charles Cecil: Then just to add, and as I said, I wasn’t part of this, but my sense is that the authenticity of all of those elements of 1950s rural Ireland really shines through in the game. And I think quite a lot of work did go into that to make sure that it felt real.
As your first game, and given that Charles Cecil is an Executive Producer who is renowned as an industry veteran for his Broken Sword series, in what way do you think his input and feedback has helped The Little Acre be the best game it can be? I mean he is essentially a mentor towards you…
Ben Clavin: Absolutely, yeah, definitely. We started this as a college project when we were doing our Masters together in Dublin, and it was pretty terrible. And then we scrapped it and we came back. We scrapped and came back a few times. So we’ve known this story that we wanted to tell for quite a while. And then the downside to that is we’ve been head against the screen close to the project. And we didn’t really have the ability to step back and have that outsider perspective on, “does the story make sense, why is this character upset, what’s going on there?” And that’s Charles’s biggest… As well as softening off a few edges. I’m just like, “Oh, get rid of that or fix that puzzle,” the slight things. The biggest thing is character motivation of the story and having that outsider perspective to tighten up what we are just missing because we’re so buried in the material. So I think that’s definitely the best part of the mentoring that we’ve gotten thus far.
Charles Cecil: As an outsider, I think the point that you were saying earlier, it is extraordinary that this is their first project. It is a beautiful, beautiful game. It’s really well crafted. And I think the fact that Curve chose to take it on amidst the hundreds of games, it is a real testament to how talented these two are.
Charles Cecil is an Executive Producer on this project. Do you maybe see yourselves working with Charles Cecil in a more collaborative capacity going forward?
Christopher Conlan: We hope so.
Ben Clavin: We can record maybe an answer to this while he is in the room. And then we can record when he’s not in the room. Would that be good? [Laughter] Yes, we’d love to.
Charles Cecil: I’m not leaving.
Ben Clavin: Damn. Yeah, I’d love to. I mean we’re big fans of his work. It would be silly not to suggest that that would be something that we’d be interested in, definitely. He’s not going to get rid of us that easy. He’s let us in now. We’ve got his email address.
Christopher Conlan: We have his phone number. We sound sort of stalkery now.
Charles Cecil: I would love to. I’m really excited by this. And I’d love to continue to collaborate with these guys on their projects. I mean it’s very much their project. But as I said, I think for a first project, it’s extraordinary. I’m also excited by what they say in terms of wanting to continue to write narrative-based adventure games, not necessarily point-and-click. But I certainly feel that the narrative of an interactive medium, even though we’ve been doing it now for 25-30 years, still has a long way to go. And a new generation of game makers coming through have an awful lot to contribute. In my heart, I think the idea of a bit of experience and new ideas coming together probably is fairly fertile in coming up with new game ideas.
I remember interviewing the developer of Kathy Rain, which is a graphic adventure game by a lone, one-man developer in Sweden. And that game didn’t do too well, even though it got like 8s, 9s, and some 7s across the board. Charles, you are one of the great godfathers of graphic adventure games… Why do you think graphic adventure games have fallen out of favor to such an extent where even a great game nowadays finds it so hard to be able to go up against the likes of Call of Duty and those types of games?
Charles Cecil: Do you mind if I’m like a politician and answer a slightly different question?
Charles Cecil: And that is that at the end of the ‘90s, the publishers decided that graphic adventure games had no place because they felt that they were old-fashioned. The PlayStation, which I believe launched in 1996, was so successful. The retailers that had little shelf space devoted more and more of their space to PlayStation games. And their feeling and the publisher’s feeling was that the audience wanted visceral 3D games. Broken Sword launched in 1997 on PlayStation and sold half a million units. It was a 2D game. And yet still, Virgin didn’t want to commission Broken Sword 2 despite the success. So adventures did die for a time, even though the audience was still very enthusiastic. And the resurgence came with the move from physical, where there was that fight to get distribution, to digital where effectively you have an infinite store front. And what was wonderful from our perspective, what all developers have benefited from, is suddenly there’s sort of a surge of enthusiasm because we never had the opportunity to communicate directly with our audience before. Previously, we worked for the publisher, and the publisher worked for the retailer. And the publisher would commission games that they had confidence that the retailer would want to stock when it was finished.
Now, for the first time since the early ‘80s, we have the opportunity to communicate directly with our audience. And they clearly want to play games like this. So adventures are a niche genre, without a doubt. But they’re a very significant niche. And the fact that the audience can now decide what they want, whether it be through crowd-funding, whether it be through buying games at retail, the resurgence comes because there was always demand. But publishers and retailers (for a variety of reasons, some good, some bad) didn’t value it as a genre. They didn’t want to support it. So it’s great to see games like Little Acre, which I have no doubt will be successful.
Now to answer the question, I have no idea why the other game, which I don’t recognize the name of, wasn’t successful. But there are plenty of games like The Walking Dead… Broken Sword 5 did very well. There is plenty of scope and there is a demand. The Telltale Games, the Daedalic games. One of the reasons that, as adventure developers, we actually collaborate wherever possible is because we’re not competitors at all. If somebody buys Broken Sword with Little Acre and they get into adventures, then they will play all of the major adventures, and there aren’t that many of them. So I think that there is a very, very healthy market because the audience is so loyal to the genre. And there really aren’t that many games out there that are of a quality that people want to then go and play.
Charles, you’re considered to be amongst the pantheon of greats. You’re up there with the likes of Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer, Jane Jensen… And the guy who did Leisure Suit Larry as well.
Charles Cecil: I’ll remember his name in a minute…
I interviewed him a couple of years ago. Out of all of those people, and I know that you have a different tone to your Broken Sword games, but who would you most like to collaborate with if the opportunity came about- especially given that you did talk about collaboration earlier…
Charles Cecil: I honestly would much rather collaborate with a young team with new ideas than with somebody like myself who’s been doing it for 30 years. It’s Al Lowe by the way…
Yeah, that’s him…
Charles Cecil: Al Lowe is considered older than I am, but he’s very much molded to what he did. Jane Jensen reinvented herself with Pinkerton Road, but clearly it wasn’t enormously successful. So I would much rather look for new ways of telling stories because otherwise it’s a real risk that you kind of keep going in the mold that you’re in. And the audiences change. The technology changes. Tastes change. It’s much better to be able to reinvent it with mixing the experience that we have with new ideas that are coming through. It sounds like a sycophantic thing to say, but in answer, I’d much rather collaborate with young, new people coming through than with legends from the past.
Anything else we haven’t covered?
Ben Clavin: No, I don’t think so. I think there is the need to evolve as well. There is this kind of classic adventure game. And there are people making them still. But I do think just because you’re making an adventure game doesn’t mean you need 50 items in your inventory and 40 combinations with a certain thing. Not being afraid to streamline it and bring it kicking and screaming into the modern era is going to be crucial for keeping the genre going. And that’s hopefully what we’re going to do with Little Acre [laughs].
Christopher Conlan: Yeah, you’re asking why X game might not do well whereas another might. I think it’s just because each game succeeds on its own merits, not necessarily because of the genre that it’s in. So it’s down to what art style is that game is using, what kind of game design philosophies is that game using… I think that might be why one would do better than the other. And hopefully, that’s something that we’re taking into account and trying to do well on with our own.
You guys have done really well with Little Acre being your first game. You’ve gotten publishing support from Curve Digital and have gotten Charles Cecil on board. For all of those other people out there who are looking to make their own graphic adventure game… given the success that you’re experiencing and you’ve had so far, what tips would you give to fledgling game makers who are also embarking on their graphic adventure-style game-making journey?
Ben Clavin: I think the biggest thing – and that we’ve always asked ourselves – is would you buy it? Would you play it if you just came across it in the store or on Steam or whatever? So it’s one thing to want to just make an adventure game. But to make one that you would stop and look at and be like, “Whoah! What is that? Would I play that?” And that’s what we’ve constantly tried to ask ourselves whilst making this. It wasn’t just “Let’s make an adventure game.” It’s “Let’s fill a void that we’d want to see a game in.” And I think once you do that, there’s the classic saying that people say… if you fail in making something you really liked, it’s going to feel way better than if you fail to make something you didn’t like. So if you’re making a game for other people and it doesn’t work out, you might feel pretty bad about that. But if you made something that you really wanted to do and you felt it was missing from the marketplace, then I think it’s going to work out, even if it’s just to a small niche. But someone out there is going to have that same instinct about what’s missing. I think that’s our thing, really. It’s just make something we wanted and fill a void that we saw there.
Charles Cecil: And just finally, to add to what Ben says… We’ve got a character that looks… he’s got bags of character. We’ve got a cat’s tail. We’ve got an angry-looking seagull. And somebody walking past that screen would immediately turn around and want to be drawn into it. So if somebody is going to write an adventure, they have to come up with a graphic style that looks interesting and new and would immediately draw you in. I think that’s what these guys have done.