Dot Product’s James Boty on the violently delightful ‘epidemic engine’
It’s just past lunchtime on a chilly Tuesday afternoon in Soho and, just minutes from Regent Street, there’s a serious outbreak of civil disobedience. In fact, as Dot Product’s James Boty and I watch, it rapidly escalates into a full-scale riot. Crowds of civilians surge away from hooded activists as cars are torched and shops are besieged. Blood begins to cover the streets as armed coppers converge on a knot of unrest.
«Blimey. The police are really turning up,» says Boty with a sort of lackadaisical amusement. «Somebody’s set that shop on fire.»
The riot, simulated delightfully in the tilt-shifted, papercraft city of Dot Product’s Wildfire Worlds, continues apace. Norman Foster’s iconic ‘Gherkin’ quivers and collapses whilst a thinly-veiled Battersea Power Station is assaulted by a swell of bouncing green sprites. As the station succumbs to the flames of the protesters outside, the city is plunged into darkness. Boty smiles.
Wildfire Worlds is, essentially, what Boty calls a propagation engine. Looking for all the world like a violent five year-old’s imagination made virtual flesh, it has a functioning traffic and public transport system, power grids and emergency services. People leave their houses and take the quickest available route to their jobs, noticing advertisements on the billboards along the way which influence the shops they choose to visit. Activists, beamed down to the streets with a beam of light, will attempt to convert locals and encourage dissent, whilst the police will exert uncompromisingly direct force to stop them, usually fatally.
Place your activists intelligently enough and you can reduce a city to ruin, remixed strains of The Doors’ The End lilting over the devastation as the police submit to the rule of the anarchists.
«When you destroy everything, the game doesn’t end,» Boty continues. «We’ve got animals. When you destroy the world the roads break down, vines come in – wherever there’s a blood splat, trees can grow. Nature comes back. Animals come back.
«Animals will come in, then larger predators will come in, then dinosaurs will come in. Then the dinosaurs will shit bankers. They’ll then attract more people into the level.»
Then the cycle begins again.
«I want to muck about,» Boty laughs. «I like toys – I like games too but I don’t chase high scores. I’m looking for whether something is a fun thing to do, then I’ll do it again and again with slight variations. I like experimenting a lot. I really enjoy modding – just tinkering with the numbers and stuff. I think that’s why I joined Bullfrog – it was really because they played about and I liked playing about.»
Boty is a man full of ideas, clearly excited by brain-storming new concepts. His games career, beginning with that two-year stint at EA Bullfrog many years ago, is bisected by a much longer period as an advertising man, specialising in 3D animation and graphics for clients’ videos. It’s telling, given that he rarely finishes fully explaining one of the concepts behind Wildfire Worlds before launching into the next, that his favourite part of the creative process is the initial burst of ideas.
«The best thing about advertising for me was pitching. I love pitching. It’s this massive creative thing where you just play around and say ta-da! You do that under loads of pressure with a small team. What I’d like to do in the future is say ta-da and then be off, say, ‘now you can actually make it.’ I’ve made tons of ads, I know how to execute, but coming up with those ideas is fun. This is that iteration every week with a build, a little bit. Getting this team into that is proving interesting.»
«The representation of more and more realistic violence is a dead end and they’re going to hit it eventually. You’re going to hit a point where even 18 year old boys are saying, this isn’t cool.»
That team, now up to five, is working alongside the company’s continuing ad work, a sort of side project – the worth of which Boty’s enthusiasm is yet to convince some of his colleagues of. On board alongside Boty’s slightly sceptical co-workers are also PomPom Games co-founders Miles and Mike, purveyors of hardcore shoot-em-ups like Alien Zombie Megadeath and Mutant Storm Empire. Their influence seems to have been a calming one, ensuring that concepts are made flesh before they’re discarded and forgotten.
«We did a 2D prototype which was just me Mike and Miles mucking about, just to test that the idea worked,» Boty explains. «Just to test the mechanic of anything spreading, a disease, ideas, whatever. That was the idea – to make a simulation of a city and test stuff spreading through it. Anything from the zombie apocalypse to peace breaking out. So we made a little demo with dots, Mike was the arbiter of saying whether it could be a game.»
Boty is far from naïve about the pressures of development, however. As well as that stint at EA Bullfrog, he also sneaked out a game project of his own, in a somewhat clandestine manner, which turned out to be successful enough to warrant the pursuit of Wildfire Worlds as a serious project.
«We did a side project, Zombigotchi, which was me. I did it kind of secretly in terms of the books, so it didn’t show up as a huge expense. I hired one programmer, so it was an excuse to hire a coder. It was a slow burn. The thing about apps is that they just keep selling. I’m quite surprised, but it’s turned a profit.
«That did alright, Apple put us on the front page, it was strong graphically, because that’s what we do, and had strong animation. It was a silly little thing, not so much a game as a toy. But I got no response from the gaming press, probably quite rightly because it was a toy rather than a game. We put some games in the back end but they were extras, I don’t think that many people even saw them.
«But that did do alright, and that gave me the confidence to say, okay, I want to do a proper game now. A bigger, proper game. So I said, it’s not like I’m going to stop making commercials, I just want to do a game. He just said: «fuck that». He said you’ll lose all your money and I said tough shit, that’s what I’m going to do. So that was a bit of a parting of the ways in April over this, but it’s the best thing I’ve done, because I’m enjoying myself again. I’ve done 12 years of making commercials, you just get bored. And I’ve started playing games again.»
The games that Boty has enjoyed very much fit the casually irreverent nature of Wildfire Worlds’ playschool uprisings. Hotline Miami is mentioned as a favourite, as is Wingsuit sim Volo Airsports, procedurally generated environment tool Proteus and the Tropical Island sandbox of Just Cause 2. Reiterating that he enjoys the toy-ish angle of these games more than any simulation, Boty also cites Introversion’s forthcoming Prison Architect as an inspiration – for the business model as much as anything else.
«They do explore serious issues, but they don’t always come to a conclusion. I like that.»
James Boty on the «South Park test»
«Did you know that Introversion charge more for the Alpha of Prison Architect than the actual game is going to be? I thought that was brave. They’re basically saying, it takes us effort to service these people. It’s a privilege not a right to have that level of input. I just never thought of doing that until I saw it. It’s worked out pretty well for them, so I’m thinking about doing something like that.
«We’re looking at the balance between a toy and gamifying it up to the hilt with achievements and all the rest of it. We’re hoping to do that in public. I think Prison Architect is the model we’re going to emulate. I’ve always been a bit wary of Kickstarter. The business model… One of the things that attracted me to games – at the minute I’ve been making ads, films, special effects for people – I’m a service. They come to us because we made little short films and things like that, that they like. Then they want to squeeze us into a pot. You can only do that for so long before you start to think, ‘Why am I doing this?’
«The biggest problem for me is that I don’t have any direct contact with the people who are consuming my product and I want that. It’s almost like I want retail. I want the people who like our stuff to be the people who tell me what to do.
«Because of the digital market right now, becoming a substantial thing, this is the time to do it. You only need 10,000 people and you’ve got a sustainable business. And they’re people who actually like what you want to do, as opposed to people who want to change it. I’m really interested in that whole loop of listening to the people who are invested in it with you. I wanted to do that, that was one of my main interests in the business model – also flexible pricing and the idea that people will accept an alpha version.
«I think Kickstarter is lovely, but I’m not comfortable charging people for something that doesn’t exist yet. I think a lot of people feel like that. It’s not a model I’m comfortable with. So it’s about getting us to the point where we can do pre-orders, because that’s something I’m comfortable with.»
Again, I’m reminded that the business aspect of this project is probably not Boty’s biggest concern. I ask him if he’s made plans for any zeitgeisty additions like Facebook integration.
«Not really,» he laughs. «It all just flows naturally, doesn’t it? I’m not massive on a business plan. The business plan is see what happens and see if people like it. Then the other stuff will come.
«I’m not massive on a business plan. The business plan is see what happens and see if people like it. Then the other stuff will come.»
«Some of my more serious friends have asked: what DLC will there be. How can you ramp up the development team. Yeah… Whatever. It’s not like anyone’s going to die if we’re a week late on something. We’re not promising anything at a specific time at the moment, and I want to keep it like that.»
The brightly coloured environment currently being torn to pieces by Boty’s ‘activists’ can potentially just as easily play host to infectious diseases, political allegiances or any other concept which spreads through society. Hidden sliders mean that almost everything in the world is adjustable, giving modding communities a tool which could prove every bit as flexible as Minecraft, despite Wildfire being targeted at «the 90 per cent and not the ten, in terms of how much they’ll be able to play around with it.»
«Mike wants to do the Vatican,» Boty tells me just sheepishly enough to suggest that even he may think this might be pushing it a bit. «He wants to have kids on one side, priests on the other and you have to protect the kids. You could do anything, it’s just fun. We want to do football stadiums, modelling hooliganism… The civil rights movement would be a wicked one to do.»
«Because it’s cute I think we diffuse the more unpleasant aspects. It’s not meant to be too serious, it’s sort of the South Park take on everything, that’s my touchstone on it – would this pass the South Park test? That’s quite a low standard, but it’s about my level of humour.»