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Interview: Trapdoor Studios On Warp And Small-Scale Development

Founder Ken Schachter and creative director Kelly Smith of Fez co-publisher Trapdoor speak out on the background of the company, and the design process behind the upcoming downloadable title Warp.

Game Developer, Staff

May 4, 2011

6 Min Read

Trapdoor Studios came out of nowhere to suddenly co-publish Fez with Polytron and develop its own game, simply titled Warp. Something like Metal Gear Solid plus Portal, it's a top-down stealth game where a small monster escapes from an underwater lab by teleporting through walls and into scientists in startling bursts of gore. While the game does not yet have a target release window, Warp [YouTube video] will launch on digital platforms including XBLA and PSN under the EA Partners publishing label. In this interview, Trapdoor founder Ken Schachter talks about managing a small team of industry vets for the downloadable market, while director Kelly Smith explains the genesis of the game's adorable character and his shockingly violent tendencies. What's your background in the games industry? Ken Schachter: I started working at Gameloft in Montreal and got hired as a producer. The company was about 80 people at that point, at least the Montreal office, and after a while I ended up getting promoted to studio head and managed the growth of that studio from around 80 people to over 350. I was there for about four years and got to oversee many projects, everything from mobile to Xbox Live Arcade to handhelds like DS and PSP. It was at that point, near the end of my run, that I decided to leave and start Trapdoor. What factors led to your leaving Gameloft? Schachter: I had a great experience there. I think the key factor was that the timing was right in my mind to start a company that was focused on original games for digital distribution. I think then that we see it now, as time goes on, that every year the barrier is getting higher and higher, and now we're actually seeing AAA teams take time from their schedule for in-between projects to do smaller games, so the competition is definitely getting tougher. Who is working on this project? Schachter: We have 15 people now. Most people come from a AAA background. We have guys from Ubisoft, EA, Eidos, from a whole bunch of great teams. People who worked on Assassin's Creed, Deus Ex 3, Prince of Persia, Dead Space, Army of Two. What's your role? Schachter: I basically run the company. I've got to say though, in on smaller scale, doing this stuff with 15 people is harder in terms of managing than with 350 people in a big organization, because we don't have the support structure and we don't have this umbrella entity with a vast amount of resources. We're self-funding everything and it's quite challenging going from zero even with funding and top-notch people. Can you tell me a bit about the concept of Warp and how that came about? Kelly Smith: A big part of it started looking at the foundations of things, like how you move around in a game. And that was basically the conception of it, that walls are generally what stop you in a game, so how would we get around that? And after we came up with an ability for that -- which was the warping -- and then just put limits on that, basically everything just came from there. So if you need to see on the other side of a wall, what's a good camera perspective? What kind of creature would be able to do that? How would people react to that? It all kind of started with the warping and it all came fairly naturally from there. Schachter: And even before that, on a higher level, when Kelly and I first started working together, we really wanted Trapdoor to do original and design oriented projects, so it all really, came from this spirit of thinking, "We're going to make this first game and try and do something original people will notice." Can you talk a bit about the critter you play as and the setting of the game? Smith: You have this ability to warp, so rather than some weird space marine or something I though it'd be cool to ask what might have that ability. The setup is to give you motivation, but the underwater setting is because you can go through walls. Being in any kind of normal base you wouldn't as feel claustrophobic, you can't just warp through every wall until you're out of the place. Schachter: Yeah the obvious question would be "why doesn't he warp out of the building?" That does solve that problem doesn't it? Smith: Yeah, going back to the original design again, everything is grown out of those base abilities. I really liked the design of the critter itself. Can you tell me a bit more about it? Smith: Oh my goodness. We went the long road. We were playing with the idea of actually showing people all the concepts that went up to that point, and I think if we made a poster it wouldn't even fit. We went through hundreds of ideas. We started with the obvious one, you know, the badass looking creatures, the standard biped style enemies -- we went in all sorts of different directions. There was a phase where we really wanted him to stand out and be a kind of hard sci-fi alien, so we wanted it to look like something you'd never seen before, something you couldn't even understand, but Ken was good at reigning it in because he still needs to be likable, instead of some monster you can't understand. Schachter: At one point he ended up having no arms, no legs, no eyes, and no mouth. At a certain point we were wary of trying to do too many new things at once, so the idea is that what really makes this game special at the core is the ability, and if we have all of these things happening at once we want to at least have an element that is relatable or appealing, and that's where the new character direction ended up coming from. It kind of carries into everything; the character is meant to be the most warm and inviting thing in the environment while everything else is hard and cold, and that's a big part of his color and his shape and things like that. There's a big contrast between how cute the creature is and how gory it is when you teleport inside someone and frag them. It made me laugh the first time I did it; was it intentional to create that sort of humorous contrast? Smith: The contrast I think came very naturally; we always knew that that's what would happen when you burst out of human. From there it was an issue of going towards the cuter characters which we felt worked even better, it added more interest to it. Schachter: It also reinforced the psychological aspect that Kelly was talking about before. You're in a vulnerable and nasty situation where you're this creature and you have to avoid experimentation and really get out of this really strange place. So the idea of invoking this sense of vulnerability in the physical aspects of the creature came through during our art process. We always wanted the satisfaction of the explosion. One thing we found in the prototypes was that blowing stuff up felt really good, and then it just went along with the character being really appealing.

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