Video Game Developer Interview – Just Add Water

One of the games that most people will point towards as being one of the most impressive (yet challenging) platformer games of the 90s is Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysse, with good reason: it handled very mature topics even by the standards of games today, it was beautifully designed and it did it all so well that it is still highly regarded today. As such, remaking it is a task that many would have been terrified of, yet Yorkshire-based developers Just Add Water pulled just that off excellently last year with Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty. We decided to try to get some behind the scenes information about the company and see what they’re working on now, and company CEO Stewart Gilray kindly agreed to take some time out of his schedule to answer our questions.

What got you interested in games development?

SG: Well, it was the 80s and, if you didn’t have a game to play you wanted, you made it. As such, I’ve been creating games since 1985 or there about. Wow, that’s 30 years this year!

How did Just Add Water form?

SG: In September 2006, my son was born and I decided at that point that I wanted to be my own boss, so I started talking to various people at starting a company again, and that was it really. We started up in October 2006 and we’ve not looked back since. We worked on a number of small titles for 3rd party companies under sub-contracts at first, which is why we don’t talk about those projects, but it was on systems like PS2, GBA and Wii.

While you are probably best known by most people for your remake of Oddworld Inhabitant’s first game (Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysse) and doing the HD remasters of Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysse and Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, your first game that was released to the public was 2009’s Gravity Crash, a multidirectional shooter. What was the inspiration for that game?

SG: Actually, Gravity Crash wasn’t the first game we worked on. It was the first to be published with our name clearly on it, but there were others. It came around after a coffee shop discussion with then contractor Dave Parsons. We were sitting in a coffee shop in London and I said I think we can get this game onto PS3 and I think Sony would pay us for it. He didn’t believe me, so I proved him wrong.

What design challenges did you have to overcome while making the game?

SG: The design was extremely retro! It was based on titles like Gravitar in the arcades, Thrust on the ZX Spectrum and Oids on the Atari ST, we took ideas from each of those games and applied them to a game with crazy bright graphics and powerful soundtrack.

Last year, you ported Gravity Crash to PlayStation Vita. What was the biggest challenge about porting the game to a touchscreen system for you?

SG: It was 4 years since the PS3 version came out when we start the VITA version and we knew we had to make it 60fps on the VITA at native resolution. What surprised us the most was realising that the VITA was extremely powerful for what we wanted to do. As such, we ended up doing a x10 on the visuals, so the VITA version is actually the better version: there’s more particles, better gameplay balancing, better use of visuals certainly. We improved a whole raft of things within the editor, which meant you could have more intricate detailed levels than the PS3 version, so it was more about knowing when to say enough is enough and to ship the game.

Is there anything about Gravity Crash, with the benefit of hindsight, that you feel didn’t work as well as it should have done and, if so, how has this influenced working on your later games?

SG: I think the biggest thing would have been to spend an extra 3 months or so on the PS3 version to improve some of the areas, especially the ones we addressed in the VITA version in terms of the difficulty. I think the biggest learn was that sometimes, it’s better to spend a little more time to get it right rather than hitting a specific date.

You and Oddworld Inhabitants started working together in late 2010. How did your working relationship with them start up?

SG: A friend I’ve known since the mid-late 90s moved to the US around 10-12 years ago, he actually ended up becoming friends with Lorne Lanning, and at GDC 2009 introduced us. As a fan of the original games, I was a little tongue tied, to say the least, but over time Lorne asked us to do some stuff for them which didn’t come off, but a deeper conversation was had and we ended up starting the Stranger’s Wrath PC version after another developer had let them down, on the back of that we signed with them to do the PS3 HD version and it went from there.

What were the challenges you had to face with remastering Munch’s Oddysse and Stranger’s Wrath?

SG: Munch was a whole can of nasty, we had NONE of the original tools. As such, we ended up having to reverse engineer the data format JUST to be able to inject higher resolution textures into the game. We couldn’t change ANY of the level geometry at all, but we did manage to get the characters replaced with much better modelled/textured versions. Stranger was a different beast all together, but a good one. We had access to EVERYTHING used to make the original, so we went to town on it, higher res textures, completely new character models (85 of them), higher quality audio, we re-encoded the movies at 720p, just lots and lots of stuff.

When working on Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty, you had to basically rebuild the original game (Abe’s Oddysee) from the ground up. What was the biggest challenge you had to face while doing this?

SG: Just time really. As you said, we had to re-create it from the ground up, we didn’t use a single asset from the original project. We also changed engine to Unity 9 months into development, which meant we essentially had to re-start the project.

What are your next Oddworld affiliated projects going to be and what can you reveal about them so far?

SG: Right now, we’re not working with Oddworld Inhabitants on anything else, and I don’t think we will be for some time if at all, who knows.

Your other non-Oddworld affiliated games are I Am Bread (a game where you play as a slice of bread trying to become toast) and the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita ports for Volume (a stealth game), both released earlier this year. What was the inspiration behind I Am Bread and what challenges did you have to face while designing the game?

SG: Well, both I am Bread and Volume are purely port projects for other companies. They didn’t have the internal bandwidth/ability to create the titles for console as such we handled those duties for them, so that’s really questions for them rather than me.

What challenges did you face while porting Volume to the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita (the latter of which is still due for release)?

SG: PS4 was literally the deadline: it was to be released on Aug 18th, and time was really a major factor. Vita, it was getting the UI onto the handheld. The UI was specifically designed for 1080p displays, we don’t have that on Vita, so making sure it looks and works effectively on Vita has been the major concern there for us, well, obviously ensuring as good a frame rate as possible too!

You are also working on a PlayStation VR game at the moment. While it is probably too early to give any concrete details about this game at the moment, what can you reveal about the game and what are you hoping to achieve with it?

SG: Again, this is for Mike Bithell games and it’s an addon for Volume, but dedicated to PlayStation VR. It is too early to talk about it, but we are making good progress on it.

Are there any other non-Oddworld affiliated projects you are working on at the moment and, if so, what can you say about them so far?

SG: Yes, but I can’t talk about them yet. One was actually stealthily announced at GamesCom back in August, but, as I said, we can’t talk about it yet.

What advice would you offer to those who are looking to get into games development?

SG: The best piece of advice I can give is this: you have to have a WANT to do this, you have to be creative, in whichever discipline you follow. This profession isn’t about playing games, it’s about MAKING games, both 2 very very different things.

Lastly, what games are you interested in (either as a developer or as a gamer) that are due for release in the next few years?

SG: I’m currently super excited for Rime by Tequilla Works and No Man’s Sky by Hello Games. Also, the new Red Dead Redemption game being made by Rockstar: even though there’s nothing official about it, I just feel that it makes perfect sense that that is what they are working on now, and I’m super excited to see where they take the franchise!