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Earlier this week, independent video game developer Robotoki became the first studio to commit to creating a title exclusively for Ouya, the $99 Android-based console that is breaking records on crowd-funding website Kickstarter.
The Human Element episodic prequel will introduce players to a zombie apocalypse and prepare them for the full version of the game launching sometime in 2015.
Robotoki president and former Call of Duty creative strategist Robert Bowling is excited about bringing Human Element to Ouya. So excited, in fact, that he’s pledged $10,000 of his own money on Kickstarter to the company building the console. GamesBeat recently chatted with Bowling about his company’s announcement and new game, and about his departure from triple-A game development.
GamesBeat: Are you at all worried about investing so much money in Ouya?
Robert Bowling: I’m not because this is exactly what I’m excited about. This is the type of stuff that I want to invest in. The stuff that is trying to do something new and innovative. Something that’s going to encourage us as designers to get outside our comfort zone. Because I believe that as much as this is about business — our industry as a business — first and foremost, it’s a creative field. And if we’re not taking these risks, and we’re not taking these leaps, then we’re going to become stagnant. We’re going to become unemotionally invested in what we’re doing, and our products won’t be good.
Could I have made this decision a year ago working on Call of Duty? Possibly not. But this is what being independent, being small, and being nimble is all about. We’re able to make commitments like these and take bigger risks. And what I like about Ouya and what encouraged me to commit to it was the fact that Ouya is different. We’re able to rapidly prototype stuff that’s much more cost-effective and much less risk averse than what we could have ever done committing to some other platform.
GamesBeat: You were formerly creative strategist for Call of Duty at Infinity Ward. Now you’re president of your own studio, Robotoki. Why did you decide to leave and go indie?
Bowling: I worked on Call of Duty for seven years. So it’s a project that I’ve been on since the very early days, and I loved doing it. But the thing is when you’re working on one creative project for that amount of time, and no matter what it is, you’re really creating lists in your head of experiences and characters and moments that you want to deliver and that fit within that universe that you’re creating. But then you’re also creating another list of experiences, moments, characters, and stories that you want to tell that don’t fit that universe for one reason or another. And over time, one of those lists is getting smaller because you’re checking stuff off as you complete them, and one of those lists is getting bigger. And at some point — and that point happened to be earlier this year — that list gets completed. And when that happens, you have to move on. You have to move on and start exploring that other list. The only way to do that for me was to move out on my own and create Robotoki because I needed that extra benefit of being small and nimble. Because what we want to accomplish is riskier.
GamesBeat: Big name publishers are notorious for not taking those kinds of risks.
Bowling: Exactly. And that’s not their job, per se. Their job is to — because they’re public companies that have shareholders — their job is to turn a profit, and they’re legally obligated to do that. That’s why when I formed Robotoki, it was very important to me that, at the beginning, I was self-funding everything. That I was setting up our foundation with my own money and taking that risk off the table for anybody else. That allowed us to really set our foundation on creative principles that were not influenced by the need for outside funding. We don’t plan to do that forever. Obviously, we plan to bring products to market with the help of other partners, but setting that foundation was most important. You don’t have that luxury as a big, public company.
GamesBeat: Tell me a little about Human Element.
Bowling: There are multiple areas that you really have to cover to fully understand Human Element. When we announced it at [the Electronic Entertainment Expo], I was very adamant about saying that we’re not announcing a game. We’re announcing a universe. This is a new intellectual property, and we really want to introduce you to this world that we’re creating. What’s important, what we’re showing with Ouya, what we’re doing on mobile, and what we’re planning for 2015 is an experience that will adapt and change based on the device you’re engaging with. So what we’re doing on mobile is very different from what we’re planning on doing with the at-home experience in 2015, and it will be very different from the episodic content that we’re bringing exclusively to Ouya.
Human Element is a world that takes place 35 years after an event has occurred, and that event is a zombie apocalypse. But this is not a game about zombies. They’re really just a catalyst to kick off these stories of human survival scenarios. What we’re really concerned about is the true threat in this apocalypse, which is that human element. The other survivors are smart and strong enough to compete for what we have, and they have conflicting mentalities and ideals of what the future should be. So that’s what we’re looking at: the physical, but most importantly, the emotional and mental survival of these humans after the fall of society.
GamesBeat: What kind of game will Human Element be? Is it a shooter? An action game?
Bowling: Well, that changes depending on platform. The at-home 2015 experience will be a first-person survival game. There are a lot of very heavy role-playing game elements. By no means would I call it a shooter, nor would I necessarily call it an action game. It’s a first-person survival game, whereas on tablets it will be much more focused on strategy and resource management. It’s not meant to be the same genre or supplement the experience you’re getting at home. It will feed into that experience in terms of sharing supplies and stats benefits, but it’s a very independent experience. Because it’s an episodic game, we’re looking at very unique scenarios that will occur in this world. We’re able to rapidly prototype different experiences and test them out. We can get player feedback from the Ouya community once this launches and let them shape what’s in the future episodes and content.
GamesBeat: How much of the game is influenced by other apocalyptic games and lore like The Walking Dead, I Am Alive, and Day Z?
Bowling: This is not so much a game that’s about an apocalypse or about zombies, but it definitely takes influence from things they do well. To the guys that join the team, I say if you want to get into that mindset and that universe, there’s a great series on BBC that is no longer on called Survivors. It lasted two seasons. The writing is what it is, but it gives a good [example] of that survivor aspect — of a group of people who are coming across other groups of people who have different outlooks on what the world should be. Should there be structure? Should there not be structure? Is it every man for himself? That’s a great reference point.
Another in-genre reference point that I always like to point people to is the novel The Road, which I think does an amazing job of looking at emotional survival. That’s what Human Element is about. That’s why it’s very unique for an interactive experience. We’re really trying to focus not just on physical survival. That’s only one aspect of surviving in an apocalypse. We want that mental and emotional survival. It’s key in this world.
The original concept [for Human Element] was for a novel I was writing called The Parents’ Guide to a Zombie Apocalypse. When I was younger, every guy and girl who was into this lore had a zombie survival plan. You’re young, and you have no responsibility. It’s typically a very action-focused experience. You’re fighting zombies. You’re fighting survivors. You’re trying to get out of the city. But as I got older — I have a 3-year-old daughter — I revisited that and I realized that none of that applies to my life anymore! I am thinking about survival completely differently. I want to avoid confrontation. I want to rebuild some semblance of society. I want to create fortifications. And that’s really what we want to examine in this game. How your individual identity, who you are, who you’re surviving with, and how your responsibilities outside of your own safety really impact the decisions and the risks that you would take in these scenarios.
GamesBeat: How difficult is it to design a game like that? One that’s focused on emotions and relationships and not headshots?
Bowling: [Laughs] It’s rather heavy. And that’s what I’m finding so fun and interesting about getting started on Human Element. We’re doing so much writing early on to really nail that human aspect. It’s heavily focused on narrative. That’s why when we announced the game, we came out and we said we’re approaching this very differently than we’ve done with games like Call of Duty in the past or other franchises. We’re not focused on building a game around a gameplay mechanic.
GamesBeat: The zombie apocalypse genre…it’s been done. A lot. You’ve already talked about the human element behind the game and the emotions. What else are you guys planning to bring to the table to make you stand out from the competition?
Bowling: One thing that I’m really excited about is the cross-platform plans that we have. I really like that first-person experience. I like sitting down at a console or a computer and having that immersive, first-person feeling. But I know that some people don’t. I know my girlfriend isn’t going to enjoy that experience, but what she may enjoy is loading up Human Element on the iPad or an Android device and [doing] strategy resource management. And because we have an alliance in-game, she can help me. We can play toward the same goal and play alongside each other, even though we’re not on the same device and we’re not having the same gameplay experience.
GamesBeat: How many episodes are you planning to release leading up to the game’s full launch in 2015?
Bowling: Right now, things are very early, so we really don’t want to commit to how many episodes we’ll be bringing. We’re really looking to try to get one out every six months leading up to the 2015 launch. That’s the goal that we’re shooting for, but we really don’t want to commit to a number at this point.
GamesBeat: Will the full game be available on Ouya, as well?
Bowling: That’s yet to be determined. We still need to get in there and work closely with the engineering team on Ouya and see what we can bring.
GamesBeat: What about the other major platforms? Do you have any publishing deals in the works?
Bowling: Not yet. Those are all conversations we’re having right now, and we’ll be looking at the 2015 release and how we can bring that to the other platforms.
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