Though Bossa Studios may currently have its name in the spotlight with Surgeon Simulator, the London-based developer has more irons in the fire than just that single game. With over 30 staff, only four of who are dedicated to recreating medical malpractice, there is ample room for other projects to proceed in parallel.
“One of which is…” Continuing our chat in the back of an ambulance that may well have starred alongside Gene Hunt in Life On Mars, Bossa developer Luke pauses for a touch too long to be simply dramatic effect. He wrestles with the iPad, closes down the new touch version of Surgeon Simulator, and loads up a video. “As it’s multiplayer it’s hard to convey if we just gave you a build of the game.”
“This is called Time to Live. Six players, multiplayer, online, and basically everyone has been given 120 seconds, which is their time to live.” On a very clean, white background, there’s a large hex-grid with six small characters dressed as monkeys dashing between flashing tiles. In the bottom left a large timer ticks ominously down. Before I get to ask what happens when it reaches zero, one of the chimps suddenly looks pained before his head falls off and rolls across the screen.
Of course if there was nothing more to it then everyone would die at the same time, but the board changes over time. “On each of these tiles one of four things could appear: traps, money, health and snails. Play centres where things appear,” he gestures to a hex that starting to flash, indicating something’s about to spawn there, “as it could be health or cash. But snails slow you down and red tiles take more health. As you see these guys jumped on there thinking it would be a green tile.” We look again and see a group so eager to top up their diminishing time that they jumped on a tile before it had fully spawned only to see even more seconds sapped away. From the video it’s clear that it’s a frantic game, partly due to the very restricted time frame involved and partly because of the highly competitive nature as players scrap for resources.
All of sudden however the game pauses. “Every twenty-seconds it’s shop time,” explains Luke. “The twenty second shop means the game is never over. It changes in an instant as the cards change the dynamics so significantly. In each shop there’s one card for every player in the game and each do different things. They really switch the game up.” Looking at the selection on offer some are quite straight forward as they hand players extra time or cash but there are others that are a little more tricksy. Bombs, damage shields, and freezing blasts all make an appearance.
“There’s a lot of tactics in using and buying the right one. Here’s a very valuable one which is ‘even out all players time’ which gives everyone an average. That might be a good card to keep hold of because you might be doing quite well now but later on if you get on a bad streak then right before you die you can play it, drag them down, you up, and you’re great. But if you’re in the lead you might want to buy it purely so no one else can use it, securing your lead.”
So combined with frantic twenty-second bursts of action there’s a strategic auction stage. Though rather than just choosing the right cards it’s also about choosing the right time to buy. “They’ll all start at a cost equal to the stash of the richest player. So if the richest has got 767 money, the cards will all initially cost 767 and begin counting down. Obviously if you can’t afford it you have to wait until the stuff gets cheap enough, but the guy with the most money can select the cards first.” It sounds like there’s a fine balance between guaranteeing the card you want and bankrupting yourself in the process, and it’s obviously something the team have seen before.
Tom compares it to a shopping channel. “You get this weird Price Drop TV effect where all the money’s going down and everyone’s figuring out when the best time to buy is because they don’t want to cripple themselves by getting rid of all their money.”
As we watch on through multiple shopping rounds the board clearly changes. Not only it punctuated with the use of bombs, traps and a variety of other griefing but the tiles themselves alter. The longer the round goes on for the more hazards there are appearing, making it harder to grab the good tiles without doing yourself a mischief. “Generally they last 6-8 minutes but you tend to get to a point where the red tiles are appearing so readily and the passages of safety are getting smaller and smaller and smaller that you’ll all be over one side and it’ll be nothing but red. Then there’s a thing trail dotted with snails to get to the only green. The route there is such a pain in the ass that by the time you get there it’ll be worth nothing.”
So the point will come where each game stops being about what you can collect and instead switch focus on how you use the cards that you’ve amassed and the combinations seem more deadly as time goes by. Dropping a freeze blast just as players try and scatter from a freshly spawned trap or fiendishly the player with the most health wading in a dropping a bomb on a life-giving green tile. For a game that’s very plain to look at it seems deceptively deep with possibilities.
“Internally when we play with six people in the same room and it’s madness. There’s swearing as people screw each other over; there’s so much bad language,” says Tom.
Luke chuckles and suggests it’s gone beyond a simple lunchtime battle. “It’s turning psychological as we’re beginning to learn people’s favourite cards. So Tom likes his damage shield – a power that literally damages others close by – and so if we know he’s got it we back away. He hasn’t even had to use it but it’s the threat that keeps us back.”
The game is built to be easy to play but hard to master. A simple tap-to-move and tap-to-play cards interface lends itself to the cross-platform play Bossa are striving for, an aim that should see them with a potentially huge playerbase. Both tablets and PCs can play against each other and it’s all down to who can click or tap the fastest.
With the gameplay already well establish I ask Luke about the very simplistic look going forward. “We want to keep that same very clean aesthetic but the monkey stuff is changing. We want to add a lot of customisation as it’s a very gloat based game. When you win the camera zooms in on you and you get to do a little funky dance and show off you character.”
Tom chimes in, “We’ve got loads of taunt animations to and it’s about being…” He struggles for words and looks back to Luke who helps him out. “… an asshole.”
The focus is clearly on the personality of the player rather than swamping them in a more decorated world, but the minimalist background reminds me of something. The use of hexes puts me in mind of board gaming, of the likes of Settlers of Catan and a great many others, and so it’s interesting to hear that Time to Live also started out on the tabletop.
“This started life as a board game come card game. It was originally prototyped last year and before we got around to doing the digital prototype the guys who game up with the idea were just playing it real cards and tiles. Although they weren’t running around they were affecting the arena. They took it from there to a brief and we just knocked it up in a few weeks.”
Whilst not an uncommon approach for a games studio, spending time on less risky pen-and-paper prototypes before investing engineering time in a product, it’s yet another success of Bossa’s internal success. Between Time to Live and Surgeon Simulator, they seem very adept at seizing on the potential of small ideas and bringing them through. It’s also one that clearly enthuses the staff.
“Anyone in the company can pitch an idea,” Tom tells me, “and it goes through a greenlight process where some people vote on what ideas they think are the best. If it’s an idea that we want to take further and make it into a prototype then we send it to the prototype team. And that was me – I was the prototype team until Surgeon Simulator came along – and I’d make a new game every two weeks. At the end of the two weeks we’d all play it on the Friday and see how it went.”
And it seems Time to Live could have emerged sooner if they hadn’t been distracted by their current success in medicine. “It was one that really stood out, that we kept coming back to. Even after we’d finished it people wanted to come back and play it which we took as a really good sign. This got taken off track as Surgeon grew so quickly but now Surgeon’s under control and other projects have eased up we can put more of the team on Time To Live as we felt so strongly about it.”
Nothing has come out of the digital prototypes recently to match the strength of their current projects but it the management are heavily invested in their team’s creativity. “Two days a month there’s an internal game jam. Anyone can submit an idea and build up a team in the prior month and then at the game jam get together and make a game and see what happens.”
“With the success of Surgeon being based on a game jam, that’s brought Bossa to do more. I mean we did them every 3 or 4 months but now we do them once a month because they’re powerful things.” It’s not just from a product perspective either as Luke and Tom both spoke highly of just how much these little breaks from the normal run of production motivated the staff. “You give people a strict time limit and people’s creativity goes nuts which is great. You never know when something awesome is going to come out of them.”
The conversation comes back round to Time to Live. Despite not being ready before next year the pair are obviously still excited about it, no doubt fuelled by lunch time sparring. “We think it’s got a cool unique mechanic. It’s such a competitive game that it’s perfect for LAN parties; it’s got the most casual and easy to understand interface but it’s incredibly hardcore in nature. When you get down to it and start learning all the tactics and the double bluffing and it’s really brutal.”