The world of indie game development is a stressful one at the best of times. Those involved often have to work long, unsociable hours, have to deal with innumerable programming hiccups on the path to success, not to mention they have to make a game that looks good, feels good and grasps the attention of the gaming community. In short, it’s quite the undertaking. Well, what if you had all this to contend with plus the fact that you are part of a competition with other developers competing for grant money to fund your project. It might seem strange but this is a reality for our guests, Out of Tune Games.
This indie development company consists of just three employees, Mal Duffin, Matt McCrum and James Brown who is a temporary intern as part of the Pixel Mill training program. They are competing in a competition funded by NI screen which sees them battle against two rival game companies for a cash injection to their studio. They aim to win this prize with their upcoming title Crooks Like Us, a multiplayer party game which ‘combines Overcooked, Worms and Jenga’ culminating to offer a fun and chaotic experience.
So with all these interesting components in play, we just had to sit down with these guys. In this interview we discuss their time at Pixel Mill, how they have found the competitive process, we talk about the concepts that didn’t quite make the cut and we also talk about the games that make these guys tick. Without further delay, here is our interview with Out of Tune Games.
Hitting All The Right Notes
Cal: “Hey everyone and welcome to the VA channel, today we are joined by Northern Irish Indie development studio Out of Tune, you are in for a treat today. We are going to talk about the upcoming games that they have planned, some of the concepts that are still on the back burner and we are also going to be talking about the intriguing and rather unconventional development process that they are going through at the moment. We are going to be letting you behind the curtain on all of that but first, why don’t I let you guys introduce yourselves.”
Matt McCrum: Mal, your the oldest so you go first!”
Mal Duffin: “Ok, let me put away my Zimmer frame. So I’m Mal and I’ve been involved in the video game industry for many years now. Back in the days of the original Playstation, I worked for Sony, then I went on to work for a company called Shiny Entertainment. I worked in California for the best part of fifteen years and then I made my way back to Northern Ireland. When I got back I done a lot of 3D design work and just about a year ago, I co-founded Out of Tune games with Matt.”
Matt McCrum: I’m Matt McCrum and initially I spent a long time in academia looking at stars, in fact, I even have stars on my t-shirt right now. Then I moved into the field of mobile games which is like a one-man show and I released a few games. One of them did quite well, it was called World Rugby Championship 2 and it hit the top 25 games on the app store, which was great. Then at the start of the year, I decided I wanted to meet more people, stop working in a bubble and luckily enough Rory Clifford from NI Screen said ‘I know someone you need to talk to’. He introduced me to Mal and we were both musicians so we thought obviously this was meant to be, hence the name Out of Tune.
James Brown: “Then myself, I am a recent graduate but I’ve always had a keen interest in game development. I’m an employee of NI Screen through Pixel Milland I do temporary placements with games companies across the country. Since July I’ve been working for Out of Tune helping to create Crooks like us and so far it’s been a really great experience.”
Cal: “Thats amazing guys, I wasn’t aware of the level of experience you guys have in the business so that’s great to hear. It’s always good to have a name like Sony that you can pull out of your hat.
Well, now that introductions are out of the way, I want to talk about what your studio is up to at the moment, with emphasis on your time at Pixel Mill. You’ve been taking part in a gaming development competition of sorts that I’m going to hyperbolic and say, is like the TV talent shows like Britain’s Got Talent or The Voice but for game development. As far as I’m aware, you guys are tasked with making a series of games based on themes, you come up with a series of concepts and then you choose one to put to a board in the hope of winning £60,000. I’m perhaps simplifying it so ill let you tell me more about it.
Mal: Yeah, so we got onto the programme which I believe is now going to be an annual programme. You can apply for this if you are a small independent studio and what this programme does is gives you the tools, support and infrastructure you need to create a game. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a full game, it can be an alpha, it can be a vertical slice, it can be whatever but it has to be self-published and it has to be playable.
Then as for the process, you have a weekly routine that you have to adjust to. It basically boils down to you being given a theme on a Monday and by Friday, you have to have to present something playable that fits the brief. It’s a very intense process but it’s a great lesson on how to start and finish something in a short period of time. Then from there, you take two games which you expand into vertical slices and focus your attention on just two projects. Then finally, for the final seven months, you take just one of the concept and work solely with that until you are left with what is your final product.”
Cal: “Awesome, it sounds like a really intense process, like a pressure cooker for game development. Well, let’s talk about the game that came out of that process, Crooks Like Us. For those unaware, this game is a multiplayer game where you have to build-up the most money by stealing the most stuff in a certain area. You play as crooks that have to get items into your getaway van and rack up the highest tally before the time is up. It’s got that same chaotic feel that the likes of Overcooked and Moving Out have but it also has certain unique aspects too that help it stand out. I guess I’ll start off by asking, where did this idea stem from?”
Mal: “Well, we actually pivoted one of our vertical slices and changed the approach altogether. Initially, this game was more like a social deduction game like Talk and No One Explodes but rather organically, this game turned into more of a tactical brawler. We made this decision based on the skill sets that we have within the team. We are a much more technically competent bunch and for that reason, we thought a multiplayer party game that offered more depth was the way to go.”
Matt: “Yeah, as Mal said, it was a very organic process. We essentially picked up where we left off with the older ‘Talk and nobody Explodes’ vertical slice and as we were adding more features to it we would often change the camera for example, mostly for convenience when adding things. Though, when we did, we found that we actually preferred it that way during normal gameplay. Then from there we started playing around, adding things that we liked based on stuff we were interested in and eventually, that’s when Crooks Like Us began to really take shape.”
Cal: That’s great, I’m glad that it’s all coming together nicely. So for the sake of the readers, how would you describe the game for someone that hasn’t seen anything about it before?”
Matt: It’s quite a hard one to describe but ill give it a shot. As Mal said, it does look quite like a brawler type game and there is a tendency to see it as a bit of an Overcooked clone. Though, when you actually play it, you begin to see that it’s actually much more than that. There is a risk-reward system with the stacking mechanics that test your skill, the games can change on a dime with those in last place jumping into the lead. If I was going to sum it up, it’s like Overcooked meets Worms, meets Jenga.
Cal: Well, to me that sounds like equal parts fun and mayhem which is exactly what you expect from a game within that genre. So with regards to the development of the game, where are you with it at the moment and when can everyone expect to get their hands on the game?
Mal: In terms of a finished game, it is still very much a work in progress. However, we were talking with Amber Barnett and she encouraged us to make use of ‘the socials’ as the kids call them. So we will be doing an online event on St Paddy’s Day where twenty-four streamers will be playing the game and getting the word out and this will mark the beginning of the game being available on early access. Plus, I also have an exclusive for you, Callum.
Along with the game coming out on Windows, Mac and Linux, we have also got it up and running on the Nintendo Switch as well. So we intend to get the game ready to launch on the Switch at some point too which is really exciting.”
Cal: “You heard it here first people! That’s great to see that you guys are going for multiple platforms and I’m really looking forward to seeing the final product. However, I want to move on to those concepts that didn’t quite make the cut. I’m sure there were quite a few of them so feel free to give answers on a postcard, but would you like to share the ideas that you had before settling on Crooks Like Us and also tell the readers the themes you were working with.
Mal: “Ok sure, so first of all, we will share with you some links to the prototypes so that the readers can play them if they want to. Just a disclaimer, we are very proud of these concepts but they are still only two days work and they play as such. Though, we would still urge everyone to check them out.
So the first theme we had was ‘Eighties and Nineties’ so we decided to go for a beat-em-up style game inspired by Streets of Rage and Double Dragon. In this title, you have a totally destructible environment and you would gather voxels which you could equip to your fist for more power or to your leg for more protection and in a sense, this was where our idea for a ‘tactical brawler’ first presented itself.
Then secondly we had the theme of ‘idle games’ like your cookie clickers or My Name is Mayo. So we went with a gradual curve design where you would have to upgrade your gear to keep rising. We played around with the design and thought about using rocket ships in space that needed to enhance their engines to keep traveling but eventually, we settled on a band that has to play gigs to make money and upgrade their equipment. Yeah, we quite liked this one, and Cookie Clicker was a big inspiration for this concept. Then for the third one, I think Matt should speak about that one.
Matt: So, the third theme was ‘humans and nature’ so we went with a farming sim type of game. However, it was more of a dark and adult version of these games. Just picture an adult Stardew Valley where you can sacrifice your children to make your crops grow and that’s basically the idea. It plays on the theme of witchcraft and I think we might revisit this at some point and flesh it out a little more because I really liked this one. One of our taglines for this one was ‘you cultivate your crops and then you cultivate your cult’ with the ultimate goal of taking over this sleepy town and becoming their ruler.
Mal: So then that brings us onto the fourth one and we decided that for our last three, we would make them multiplayer. I guess we didn’t think single player was challenging enough or something. So the theme was ‘Co-op with a twist’ and the twist was that the players would be doing slightly different things. So picture a slapstick Hitman but he has no weapons and arguably no skills and there is someone off-site in a van that’s giving info and instructions to guide them through the heist.
Then next, we had the theme ‘Board game’ so we broke down the key components of what makes a board game such as, is it turn-based or not or is there going to be time constraints. Then with that, we came up with a turn-based shooter concept that was inspired by the silliness and absurdity of duels from ten paces from back in the day. Though you could pull crazy poses to dodge bullets and counter-attack. At one stage we even considered trying to adapt it into a multiplayer Superhot-inspired concept. We never quite made this one work but it was inches away from being a great idea.
Then the last one was a free theme where we could do whatever we liked. So we came up with a concept where a group of campers are sitting around a campfire telling horror stories. Then when each camper told their story, the players would be transported into the narrative of the story and play through the events as they unfolded. There were PvP aspects where an invisible man would be coming to kill the other player and they would have to hide. We also explored the heartbreaking story of banshees. It’s a lot of fun ideas but it never really came together as a cohesive gaming experience. So yeah, that was our different concepts during this process.
Cal: Amazing, a really eclectic set of ideas, and honestly, I would love to see you go back and flesh those out more. Especially the not-so-wholesome Stardew Valley concept as that game is a personal favorite. Now, I want to quickly move back to the process itself and the guys you have been working alongside and competing against. What has it been like working with Coffee Box and Far Few Giants? Has there been a lot of communication and idea-sharing between the companies and how have you built a strong working relationship with those guys?
Matt: “Before we answer properly, I just want to say that there is great coffee at Pixel Mill and I miss it so much!”
Mal: Yeah, we never got the time to enjoy it. Because of lockdown, I don’t think we even hit double digits in terms of days physically spent in Pixel Mill. So in truth, we never got to work in close proximity to these guys. We still got to feed off each other to an extent and the guys would share their opinions and offer feedback on our projects and vice versa but I suppose lockdown has limited us in many respects.
Then as for communication, we have actually been in closer communications with Rory Clifford from NI Screen and your fiancee Ella Walsh from Go Testify Ltd. They have both been very helpful throughout the whole process and have helped us form the best strategy to see this game get to where it needs to be. Plus Amber Barnett has been a huge help at getting us to understand the importance of social media. Though, as for the other companies, it’s been limited contact but what little we have had was pleasant and helpful.
Cal: I see, yeah it’s a shame you guys didn’t get to bounce off each other as much but at least you found the positives throughout the situation. Well, I’m going to begin to wrap up and there’s no better way to do that than asking you guys, what have been the games that have inspired you, both growing up and as a developer today?
Matt: Mal, weren’t you around for the birth of Pong?
Mal: Yep, I was around when tablets weren’t touch screen and use used a hammer and chisel. Well, for myself, I have always loved the arcade era of gaming. The core gameplay loop where you would play for thirty seconds at a time and if you were really good, you could last for a few minutes really appealed to me. Plus, with the visual limitations of the time, the games lived and died by their playability, so you knew that if an arcade game was successful, it was a really fun game to play.
Then as well as that, I really enjoy bigger adventure games with an emphasis on point and click adventures like Escape From Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle. So to summarise, I think what I enjoy most are the well made and timeless retro games that are still popular today.
Matt: I think I would agree with Mal here. For me, it’s not all about the visual spectacle of a game but more about how it feels to play. Just thinking of games that I’ve played a lot in the last decade. I recently finished playing Dead Cells and loved it. Then the Dark Souls trilogy, I’ve played them absolutely and utterly to death and I love Super Meat Boy because it feels class to play.
I guess I gravitate towards a challenging single-player experience but then saying that, I lost a whole weekend playing The Outer Wilds, it hooked me. Plus, since I’ve bought myself a Switch, Mal informed me you could play old SNES games on there, so I’ve been playing some Super Metroid and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and that’s been great too. But yeah, for me it’s all about games that feel good to play and I’ve enjoyed all of those.
James: So I’ve grown up my whole life around games and growing up I had a Windows 95/98 set up to play them on. So I first memories of gaming would have been games like Creatures 3 and Incoming. Then when I moved to console for the first time, the most prominent memory is the first Worms game, which I think has inspired the development process of Crooks Like Us.
Then with regards to the games I’ve played that have affected my development process. I would say that the mini-games and quirky gimmicks you see in Rayman: Raving Rabbits would have played a role. As would have some of the social and mechanical aspects you see in Among Us. Plus, I love a Japanese game series called Katamari and the mechanics of that game that allow every object to be usable and interactive is great and something that we have incorporated into Crooks Like Us as well.
Cal: That’s a great selection of games for sure and you can definitely see aspects of a lot of those in your game too. So I just want to quickly touch on the NI gaming scene in general. As you guys know, our gaming scene is not the most mainstream and talked about out there, but it has a lot going for it and some great gaming content is being made here. So I just wanted to ask, aside from yourselves, in your opinion, who are the ones to watch out for?
Mal: “I think if we base things off of the recent NI Game Awards that happened just the other night, we would have to say that Brain and Nerd are a studio to watch out for. They won studio of the year. Plus I’ve heard that they are a great studio to work for, they are mindful of their employees well-being and they avoid crunch at all costs. So they are definitely worth keeping on your radar.
Matt: Also, the guys at Coffee Box are working on a very interesting game called The Pale Beyond that looks incredible. It’s very narrative-based and it’s got a great, hand-drawn visual style and I think they are aiming to get that out before the end of the year, so they are definitely worth taking a look at.
James: It’s worth saying as well that there are a lot of individual prizes that were awarded at the NI Game Awards as well which highlight individual successes. So for the readers, it would definitely be worthwhile watching the awards and getting an in-depth look at everyone in the scene that is on the way up.
Cal: Perfect guys, so last question guys. With regards to Out of Tune’s future, where do you guys see yourself a few years down the line? What kind of games are you going to focus on making and what kind of company personality are you going to try and establish? It’s a big question so don’t feel pressured to give a detailed answer.
Matt: I think the best way to answer that is to focus on the origins of the name and build outwards from there. When myself and Mal sat down to think about the kind of games we wanted to make, we thought about what it means to be out of tune. It’s essentially playing the wrong notes, either on purpose or not and seeing as we are both musicians, we would hope that it’s on purpose. We came to the conclusion that it’s either done to unsettle or you’ll often hear it done in Jazz music to give an unconventional sound to the music.
So we took that and ran with it. So the games we want to make might be unsettling and make audiences uneasy like the adult Stardew Valley game. Or alternatively, we might embrace the absurdity and silliness more as we have done with Crooks Like Us.
Cal: I love that, I think that’s a great approach that will work well for you. Well, that’s us guys. Thank you so much for joining us and readers, if you haven’t already, head over to the Steam page for Crooks Like Us and keep this one on your radar. We will be giving away a free code to the lucky winner of our next giveaway so keep an eye on our giveaway page. Plus, this game will be available on early access as of St Patrick’s day this year, so be sure to get in on the action early, we certainly will be.