Properly Spliced and Diced

Splice by Cipher Prime

Published: June 19. 2012

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Cipher Prime explores a new form of gene therapy with Splice.

The spark for Cipher Prime’s upcoming Splice came from a rather challenging place. “Well, Dain started with a very simple idea: How do you make genetic engineering super easy to understand?” says studio cofounder and creative director Will Stallwood. The consensus was actually, well, no you can't, but the idea of playing around with genetic code brought about the basic concept: Simple rules, when linked together, form complex patterns. “That sort of idea that all life on earth is governed by pairings of four measly molecules is pretty astonishing, and really -- astonishing is one of the best things a game can be.”

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Splice asks player to pull apart and piece together genetic components into their corresponding outlines to form bacteria-like shapes. The rewards come in the simple satisfaction of getting it right, and if you use fewer than the amount of required “splices” per puzzle, you’re on to the next one. Much like its previous iPad hit Pulse, Splice weaves color and music together to create its atmospherics, which dovetail with the addictive gameplay. For the look of the game, we went with an aesthetic that's half researcher's computer, half French-noir flick, and wrote a Philip Glass-inspired soundtrack,” says Stallwood. “So, yeah. We have no idea what's going on either.”

Indeed, the sense of abstraction regarding nature’s infinite complexity became essential to the game’s core concepts. “We like playing with the players sense of scale, not knowing if you're dealing with micro or macro, so that informed the free-floating feel,” says Stallwood. Where many games deal with cause and effect scenarios, Splice attempts to actively engage the player in seeing just how much of the process they can understand all at once. “It's a cool mental state, where you’re dealing with past, present and future at the same time, whether you want to or not,” he says, noting that the algorithm that lays out the chain “does bendy things to your brain after a while.” In the prototype stage they put together, the team had just three special ‘nodes’ that were able to create beautiful, recursive gameplay. “I really enjoy that type of complex simplicity,” says Stallwood.

Unity helped bring together the early design phase of the project quicker than any of Cipher Prime’s previous projects. “Since switching to Unity, our production time has pretty much halved on each new project, and Splice has been our fastest build yet,” says Stallwood, who says that the full game, editor, and framework were up in three weeks. The studio has initially specialized in Flash development, and saw much success with its first released title, Auditorium. “The game got popular very fast, and everyone was screaming for ports,” recalls Stallwood. “We were lucky enough to get a couple deals, but it took way too long, and in the end it we saw no monetary gain and pretty much just wasted time.”

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About a year ago, the studio switched over to Unity. “Certain things about the development process are still very slow for us, but the flexibility in the framework coupled with portability solved all our business issues,” says Stallwood. “We're slowly turning into evangelists everyday.” Pulse had been the studio’s best development cycle to date: three months to market, while supporting two titles and creating a large-scale port of its other project, Fractal. “With Splice, we've beaten that,” says Stallwood. “In total, we’ve spent around six weeks of development time. At the end of the cycle, I think we'll probably be right around the same dev time, but our offerings should be much larger.”

> We like playing with the players sense of scale, not knowing if you're dealing with micro or macro, so that informed the free-floating feel.

For Cipher Prime, the biggest technical challenge has been fighting UI on mobile devices. “Having to deal with batched rendering of materials and also trying to get them to look pixel-perfect at the same time is a nightmare,” says Stallwood. “There are a lot of third party solutions like UIToolkit, but nothing has really tackled the problem correctly; the pipelines are just too lengthy. We've been thinking about taking this problem on ourselves soon, but we have lot of faith in the Unity community,” he says with a smile.

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Originally, Cipher Prime was just two developers; Stallwood and his partner, composer and programmer Dain Saint. They’ve since expanded to a modest four warm bodies, but the lines remain blurry. “Compartmentalization has not really been something we’re excellent at,” says Stallwood. In fact, the only clear divisions are that Saint does music and Stallwood does design. “Other than those two items, everyone is responsible for every other ball in the air,” which includes (but is not limited to) customer support, marketing, promotion, advertising, writing, design, development, production and audio. “If we’re lucky enough to be excluded from one of these categories on a given day, we consider that a ‘slow day.’”

Despite Pulse’s critical success (the game was Apple’s featured game of the week), the game was not quite successful enough to fund the development of Splice. “Pulse has done great for us, but at the end of the day it has funded its own development and pays for the customer support of our other projects,” says Stallwood. The studio had in fact signed a publishing deal for Fractal in order to fund the development of Pulse, but the publisher fell through on its obligations. This took its toll on the young studio, and as such it is planning on funding its next project upfront by more newfangled means—namely, Kickstarter. “We'll be using Unity for the project, and we hope to bring a multiplayer co-op experience to our favorite title,” says Stallwood. “By the time we're done, she'll sound sexier and look prettier than ever.”

Visit Cipher Prime’s Kickstarter page.

The Cost of Being Indie

When asked what the toughest aspect of running an indie studio has been for him, Cipher Prime’s Will Stallwood is unflinching. “For us it's cash-flow,” he says. “The real root of the cash-flow problem stems from the fact that we need to do too many things without enough resources. We're quite capable of making great games if that's all we're doing; however, making games is really the smallest part of our job.” He says that game development takes up roughly one day of each week. “If we could get the business stuff off our back, we would be able to focus on what we know and love, instead of spending most of our time on what we hate and are not terribly adept at.” His most important bit of advice overall? “I would say, try not to work alone. Find a friend and challenge each other. Game development is hard work, and running a company is even harder—sometimes you just need a second pair of eyes.”

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Tools of the Trade

In terms of extra components, the developers at Cipher Prime are big fans of the (titularly aligned) toolmakers Prime31. “The Prime31 guys are sick!” says Stallwood. “We've used quite a bit of their tools in all our games. PlayModePersit has been used heavily in Splice, and Strumpy was also pretty helpful in shader creation.” The former quickly became essential for speeding up workflow. “We had some simple saving system we made in-house, but we had to tailor it a lot,” says Stallwood. “We were about to get and make something more expansive, then we found it! Being able to save changed to any component on an object in runtime means we can do things like change the visual design entirely in run-time, then save everything out.”

Read more about Splice and Cipher Prime

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