The Swindle by Size Five Games
Published: August 11. 2012
Director of Size Five Games, Dan Marshall, sounds off on his genre-mashing, heady platformer, The Swindle.
At its core, The Swindle is a platform game. But rather than a platform game where the player runs from left to right, the game is significantly more open: it’s about finding your way in, getting out again, and then returning to the scene of the crime. The game has been described as “Deus Ex meets Sonic the Hedgehog”—a portrayal that creator Dan Marshall says is actually quite appropriate.
“I love that description. It really does work,” he says. “It’s not like you whizz through Green Hill Zone and never see it again—you really get to know these environments and explore more and more as time goes on.” Marshall says he’s a huge fan of the original Sonic the Hedgehog games, and modeled the character control off of Sonic, to an extent. “That’s what feels ‘right’ to me,” he says. The game is full of guns and stealth and hacking, which may be where the Deus Ex ingredient comes from—though Marshall assures that there’s “less talking and complicated politics.
Interestingly, the idea has been rattling around inside Marshall’s brain for about 15 years. “Back when I was making Klik ‘n Play games as a kid, I’d started dabbling with something called Imperium Britannica,” he says, referring to a side-scrolling platformer where the player had to break into buildings to advance. “It was cyberpunk-y, and never really got off the ground because of the limitations of what I what I could actually do with Klik ‘n Play, but I loved the idea and it stuck with me.”
The Swindle itself actually started life as a semi-sequel to Marshall’s own point-and-click adventures, Ben There, Dan That! and Time Gentlemen, Please! Seasoned adventurers Dan and Ben were suddenly thrust into a confusing world of jumping on peoples’ heads and physics. “I’d still really like to do that, but wanted to get away from using those characters again,” says Marshall.
When he was first mulling over what he wanted to do instead—with the platform engine up and running and looking nice—he kept on coming back to that old idea, and iterating on it to a point that he felt could really work. “When I hit on the idea of making it Steampunk-y, something I’ve always wanted to explore as well, it all sort of fell together,” says Marshall.
When it began, the game was developed in XNA, and is currently being ported to Unity. “I’m kind of amazed how quick that process has been, really,” says Marshall. “There’s a bonus in that all the design and graphics have been done, so you’re just aping from one codebase to another. We’re not there yet—enemies and AI are still missing—but by and large getting the whole thing up and running in Unity has been shockingly easy.”
Money’s tight, and I didn’t really have the luxury of swapping engines halfway through development.
The development has essentially been just Marshall, along with Tim James who Marshall says he hired to help him port the game over to Unity. “He’s setting up all the foundations and AI for me, while I make it look pretty and work out how Unity hangs together by doing the more inconsequential things like picking the color of the wallpaper,” says Marshall. He says the fact that Unity is technically a level editor has also helped progression. “That’s a whole side of things you have to consider when making a game in your own engine—it’s such a relief to have that taken care of for me.”
When the game was being done in XNA, Marshall says the idea of being tied to a single platform in what was proving to be such a tumultuous, transitional period for games just felt a little... unnerving. “As an indie, I couldn’t really afford to have all my eggs in one basket, so I took the difficult decision to start over and jump ship to Unity. So far, it has been a great fit—I’m really pleased with progress.”
Achieving the high quality bar he’s set for The Swindle has been a challenge, but it’s one that’s been made easier by smart choices. “When I shifted the game away from XNA, I was really worried about playing catch-up,” he says. “Money’s tight, and I didn’t really have the luxury of swapping engines halfway through development.” He was looking at what he could do to reduce the workload, and decided to try using block, silhouetted tiles instead of individual grass, brick, wood etc. “Not only did it have the effect of reducing my impending workload, it also really helped bring the visual style together. The Swindle has a much more cohesive, unique, unified look—something I’d really been struggling with.” Using minimal resources and cutting corners to your advantage, he says, is key for indie studios to compete on production quality.
While Unity is known to specialize in 3D game development, Marshall has successfully used it for his 2D purposes. “Everyone seems to think Unity’s awful for 2D games,” he says. “I had loads of people telling me not to bother, that it was more work than it was worth. But I have to say, I’ve found it to be completely excellent for my 2D needs.” He’s using Toolkit2D for sprite work, and Smooth Moves to handle all the animations, and says they look really good. “2D is just 3D only flatter, how hard can it be?”
For Marshall, the biggest headache in developing The Swindle has always been money. “Size Five is a tiny outfit with one employee—me,” he says. “That lets me hire in talented freelancers from around the globe to do incredible work, but it’s expensive. People cost money—they need shoes and food and things. As an indie, I’m always on edge about what I can and can’t afford.” His advice those in similar circumstances is to take it steady. He had a full-time job while he made Time Gentlemen, Please!—something to pay the bills while he pursued his dreams. “You’ve got to be sensible. I’ve now got the foundations necessary to make more games, but if I was relying on living game-to-game, I don’t think I’d have the sort of luxury to make The Swindle so polished. The game would suffer as a result of rushing it out, I guess. No one wants that.”
Still, the process has been one that he’s relished since day one. “As far as I’m concerned, the games industry is just one of the most interesting, exciting sectors to be working in,” he says. “Everything from AAA action-fests to tiny little freebie indie games are of such staggeringly high quality, I laugh at the sort of idiots who dismiss video games as being a lower, more base form of entertainment. We’ve just got everything, and it’s just getting stronger all the time.” Exciting times, indeed.
“Everything seems to be taking a fraction of the time to implement, and getting amazing post-process or shader effects up and running to give everything a nice professional sheen has been astonishingly easy,” says Size Five Games head Dan Marshall of porting The Swindle from XNA. “For someone like me who isn’t a natural programmer—I only picked up my first C primer a handful of years ago—the way Unity hangs together in tiny, bite-sized chunks really appeals. I can get my head around it so much easier. It’s visual—I think that’s what really helps. Everything’s laid out in the Scene view for you, it’s not so abstract.”
Two Great Tastes
Size Five Games’ Dan Marshall believes the biggest thing on his side in the success of The Swindle is its uniqueness. “I actually don’t think there’s anything out there quite like [it],” he says “Everything, from the way it looks to the way it handles levels and progression—it feels kind of fresh and different.” The game doesn’t have “levels” in the traditional sense; there will be a few big buildings to break into, but they’ll adapt and change over time, reacting to how you’re getting into them and forcing you to adopt different tactics. Additionally, not unlike Deus Ex, the plot and story adapts depending on your play style; rather than forcing you down a particular route, the narrative reacts to what you’re doing. “It’s early days, but it feels really fresh and exciting,” says Marshall.