Semaeopus is as small as an indie studio can be with just two developers working full time on their first project. We decided to visit them in London to learn about Off Grid – a video game where your biggest weapon will be other people’s personal data.
The contemporary storyline follows real-world events surrounding data privacy, and gameplay utilises unique mechanics that allow you to manipulate the world and people around you with the data they unwittingly leave behind.
Rich Metson and Pontus Schönberg met on a Master‘s course in game design and development at the National Film and Television School in 2012 and as their final project they were working on a stealth video game. Both of them are big fans of this genre and enjoy such titles as Metal Gear Solid or Mark of the Ninja. The code name of their project was Semaeopus which refers to a species of moth. “When we started working on the game, we needed some name for it. We were looking for random code names, so we opened Wikipedia and clicked the ‘I am feeling lucky’ button until we got something that was only one word,” Pontus Schönberg explains while sipping on a cup of tea in their improvised studio which is actually on a private boat in one of the basins in London.
After graduating from college, the developer duo wanted to continue working on it and so they founded the Semaeopus studio and renamed their project to Off Grid. “The contemporary storyline follows real-world events surrounding data privacy, and gameplay utilises unique mechanics that allow you to manipulate the world and people around you with the data they unwittingly leave behind,” they state on their blog. The game is for PC, Mac and Linux to start and depending on release success Semaopus might consider a console version.
For the players, they want everything to be as smooth and simple as possible.
The company was basically sitting dormant for some time. With no means to cover the production expenses, both developers were taking on freelance web development and animation jobs and worked on the game in their spare time. “We always had this principle when we started Semaeopus that we would do minimum amount of work that we needed to on other things to pay the bills and maximize the amount of time we could spend on working on Off Grid,” Rich Metson says. A grant from the UK Games Fund which they received in December 2015 allowed them to work on their game full time. Working in a team of just two developers with a couple of freelancers chipping in from time to time, they do a minimum of 8-10 hour day and sometimes it can be a seven day week.
One of their main goals is creating a modding toolset for Off Grid which will allow users to create their own content within the game, for example levels or graphics adjustments. For the players, they want everything to be as smooth and simple as possible. In addition to being pretty much required for us to be able to give away easy tools for building levels, this also has the additional benefit of making the level cleaner and easier to work with. “As a modder making your own levels in Off Grid, you don’t need to worry about our camera rig, or setting up different components on the player character correctly, or all the things related to our user interface controllers or inventory system. In fact you’ll never even see those in the LevelKit, we’ll just make sure all those things get loaded and set up automatically when you load your custom level in the game,” they explain.
“We want to build a community around players who are interested in telling stories about data privacy, the subjects and themes around the game,” Rich Metson says. Semaeopus has been invited to MozzFest (a festival hosted by Mozzila) to exhibit at the surveillance and data privacy section. “We’re meeting a lot of people who are interested in those topics but also they happen to play games. For us it’s good to be involved in communities which have to do with data privacy and security,” he explains further.
We want stay small, agile, flexible and able to make innovative games and the bigger you get, the harder that is.
This spring the duo has been working mainly on the intro for Off Grid and tutorialising the first interactions in the game, as well as animating cut scenes. They also worked closely with Jonas Jensen who is taking on the role of a sound designer. Different types of data will have different sounds so the important ones will be more audible in the locality where the player is currently at. Basically the user can’t hear the data which he currently doesn’t have access to. With most of the technicalities sorted out, Semaeopus can now focus more on the content. Stay tuned for updates on their blog, there might be some exciting news coming soon about this adventure.
After finishing Off Grid, the duo would like to start working on their next game and while they might hire more fulltime developers, they don’t want to become a studio which would be too big. “In five years we wouldn’t mind being a 15 person company. We want stay small, agile, flexible and able to make innovative games and the bigger you get, the harder that is. But we’ll need to get a bigger boat then,” Rich Metson says.