NiLo Studios On Asemblance, Being Indie and The Effects of Crunch

NiLo Studios On Asemblance, Being Indie and The Effects of Crunch

Every year there are a handful of games that foster an inclusive community with a strong esprit de corps that acts almost like the game’s collective lifeblood. They work together as one to solve its enigmas, often failing several times before hitting the jackpot. The game in this instance is Asemblance: Oversight, the second episode in the Asemblance series from NiLo Studios, a studio made up of former Bungie and Visceral Games developers. The game’s first episode launched in June 2016, with Oversight following up in May of this year. A long time between drinks to say the least.

We sat down with the studio’s Creative Director and Designer Niles Sankey, and Writer Eric Raab to discuss the reasons for the long wait between episodes, the importance of the game’s community, their experience with crunch and what the future has in store for the NiLo team.

WellPlayed: It’s been a while since we last spoke. How have you all been?

NiLo Studios: Things are pretty good, I guess, all things considered. It’s been an interesting year for us all, I think. After shipping Oversight, we were forced to step back and think about the future in ways we haven’t before, so we’ve all been focused on other projects and finding the right work-life balance and all that good stuff.

WP: The first episode of Asemblance released in 2016 and it’s fair to say that the game had a mixed reception. Was there any particular feedback you took on board for Oversight?

NiLo: We wanted to focus on a more dynamic story experience, one that would feel more like a more ‘typical’ to what more mainstream players might be used to. We also wanted to give people who put a lot of time and energy into unravelling the first one some kind of payoff/continuation to their efforts. So this time around we invested in some more PoV characters that look both forward and backward into the deeper truths at play in episode one and where we hope to go in the future.

WP: You’ve stated that episode one was largely an experiment. What’s the biggest lesson you learnt from Asemblance Ep. 1?

NiLo: Probably just how hard it is to get a game that defies genre and expectations noticed and played the way we intended it to be played. We have a hard time not pushing on our own desire to constantly experiment, with sound, music, imagery, narrative, etc. regardless of what it means to our ability to make the game more popular or ‘successful’. NiLo was born out of a desire for creative freedom so it’s safe to say every release will be an experiment on how to experiment with lessons learned in ways that defy even our own expectations.

WP: Being an episodic game I was surprised at the duration between episode one and two. Was there any reason for the long wait time?

NiLo: Sorry about that, guys. We had some other opportunities arise that we had to explore fully, which could have helped our focus and dev time on Asemblance, but in the end we decided we had to do it ourselves. That means squeezing the development in between other things and life. Which can be exhausting for one-full time developer and two part-timers.

Thanks for the memories

WP: Did you have any fears that maybe you’d left it too long between releases?

NiLo: I wouldn’t call them fears, but it’s just the reality of how long it takes with such a small team.

WP: Did you work on any other projects while working on Oversight?

NiLo: Indeed and always. There were a couple of other projects we had started around the same time as Asemblance but they took a back seat once Asemblance became the focus. After you make any game you need a decent break from it. So there were a few very tonally different projects that we turned to after Asemblance shipped. Niles, being our only full-time developer and creative lead, took consulting work. Eric, who always is balancing multiple jobs, continued his consulting work for other studios like Bungie and Polyarc, and Adam had his first baby and continued his work engineering recording sessions at Avast.

WP: Ohhhhh, back at Bungie. Did this have anything to do with their rumoured Matter game? Or maybe Destiny 3? 

NiLo: I’ve been consulting on Destiny on and off since I Ieft as a full-time employee after the launch of The Taken King in 2015. And no. Anything I (Eric) was working on is out in the wild already.

WP: Do you anticipate there being a lengthy wait between Oversight and the next episode?

NiLo: If two years is lengthy, then yeah. We know where it is we want to go, but realistically it will take us time to get there for all the same reasons we’ve mentioned already.

WP: Has work on Episode 3 begun?

NiLo: To some extent, yes.

Due to a busy workload, Episode 3 may still be a ways off 

We wanted to focus on a more dynamic story experience, one that would feel more ‘typical’ to what more mainstream players might be used to

WP: While the episodes are set in the same universe, they are mostly self-contained experiences. Do you think this helps alleviate any of the lost momentum between releases?

NiLo: Probably not…there are so many games and other media fighting for mindspace, and if you’re indie it’s even harder because most media outlets only cover big AAA games. But we have a plan that focuses each episode on a different core character, so they can be played in any order so that each episode answers questions from another while telling its own story.

WP: It looks like the visuals got an upgrade in Oversight, with some truly impressive vistas (i.e. the mountain view). Did you change engines at all?

NiLo: Nope…Same engine. UE4.

WP: Once again the game’s community rallied together to discover all the shift endings relatively quickly. Are you still amazed at how your game has managed to create such a benevolent community?

NiLo: That was always our goal, but it never ceases to amaze us. The community this time was rallied through Discord rather than Twitch. It was really cool to see a whole new community pull together to tackle the Shifts Folks like RyouShuyin, madcatz1999, Renaise, flooderdooden, superman2015842, shiloh77, and babbu lead the charge and helped newcomers on their journeys. They even put together an ebook-like guide.

WP: Just how important is the community to the future of Asemblance?  

NiLo: Since it’s always been a goal to build these kinds of communities, we’d say pretty important. Without them we’re just like every other game out there.

WP: Prior to the launch of Oversight you did some ARG to promote the launch. What inspired this and is this something you want to do more of in the future?

NiLo: We had such a good time on episode one offering the ARG-like component of the emails, and wanted to try to tempt those players back into the Asemblance state of mind. But we also hoped by taking this approach we could grow the interest in the ARG communities. But in the end, we delivered a pretty low-key basic version of an ARG, but given the right time and resources it is definitely something we would do more and better versions of in the future.

How’s the serenity?

WP: Asemblance’s gameplay is simple yet complex. How hard is it to balance the puzzle design’s difficulty?

NiLo: Pretty difficult, at times. Once we have a direction or a set of puzzle solving techniques it gets a bit easier, but then you still have to fold it into the context of the character’s story, which is another layer. Like any game, you don’t want it to be too easy or too hard, but you want to give the right reward to the most dedicated players.

WP: You’d only recently left Bungie prior to episode 1. Now that you’ve been living the indie life for a couple years now just how different is it to the glitz and glamour of the AAA rat race? Do you ever wish you were working with AAA budgets still?

NiLo: It’s a whole other rat race, but for us it’s the only way to make Asemblance. And who doesn’t want the budgets of AAA?!?! Making a game is hard work and dedication to the idea, while thousands of others are out there doing the same thing. People think ‘gamer’ or even ‘indie gamer’ is just a vast sea of ‘like-minded’ consumers, but that is definitely not the case. So to be able to market, test, and translate the game for its desired audiences is something all games need to reach their ultimate potential. And sadly only AAA and a few lucky indies really benefit from those luxuries.

WP: There’s been a lot of awareness recently about ‘crunch’ and how it affects developers. What has been your experience with crunch? Should the industry be working towards eradicating such practices or is it a necessary evil in some cases?

NiLo: Short answer: Yes we all have past experience with very stressful crunch schedules and yes, the industry should be working toward eradicating crunch, specifically the larger AAA game development studios.

The longer answer is a bit more complicated: Every industry suffers through development ‘best practices’, especially when it’s in its infancy / toddler years, as many believe video games to be in. The game industry is in a difficult position at the moment, especially the AAA market. Technology advancements continuously require larger development costs to stay in business (and keep their staff employed), and a lot of companies go out of business. As a result these game studios get desperate. They overwork their employees and/or introduce deceptive ways of compensating for development costs (loot crates, DLC, and all that bs). It’s not ethical but…is it better than going out of business laying everyone off?

We do a good job of staying small and efficient here at Nilo, but the AAA market is a different beast. I have no idea how this is all going to land for the big studios. I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

WP: Can you see Nilo Studios working on something other than Asemblance in the near future?

NiLo: Yes, indeed. We have a few different game demos that aren’t Asemblance related. That said, if we were to fully develop any of these ideas, then Asemblance Episode 3 would be delayed by years. So, it’s a difficult decision to make.

WP: Can you give us an elevator pitch for one these demos? What sort of game would you like to develop?

NiLo: “You are playing a game and the game is playing you!” Also, comedy games. Because after building an Asemblance game, it’s necessary to laugh a little, you know?

Yes we all have past experience with very stressful crunch schedules and yes, the industry should be working toward eradicating crunch, specifically the larger AAA game development studios

WP: Is there any potential for the NiLo team to expand, easing the burden on you three and helping get Ep. 3 into players hands sooner?

NiLo: Cost vs revenue is really tight for these games. We’d probably have to partner with a publisher to help with funding. While not opposed that that prospect, it would have to be the right partner, maybe someday that will happen.

WP: Last time we spoke you were exploring the possibility of bringing Asemblance to VR. Has there been any progress with this? I still believe Asemblance is a great fit for VR.

NiLo: Unfortunately, not much. There is only so many hours in the day, but if there is any VR engineers out there willing to port it for a piece of the action, email us at info@nilostudios.com

WP: For Oversight you got Johnny Goss to compose the soundtrack. How did he come to be involved with Nilo/Oversight?

NiLo: He was actually involved on episode one, too. This time around he was in on the development from the beginning, composing tone pieces early on. We had the desire to release a soundtrack album for episode one, but things got tied up in logistics, so Johnny expressed being a sole composer on a future project. We were lucky that we were all so tonally aligned. The music is brilliant. Check out the soundtrack on any streaming service!

WP: For a game with minimal dialogue how important is the soundscape in Asemblance?

NiLo: It’s one of our top priorities for sure. Having a great looking and great sounding game are the key pillars for any NiLo release.

Another victim of crunch or something more sinister?

WP: If you had to explain Asemblance in one word what would it be?

NiLo: Mind-bending? That was what Kotaku said and it seems apt in many ways.

WP: What about an emoji?

NiLo: Emoji?  🧢 (Blue Hat Emoji)

WP: Aside from Oversight, what has been the best game you’ve played this year?

NiLo: Hmm…let’s see. Dead Cells was pretty fun. Beyond some obvious answers (e.g. Spider-Man) I feel like it was a bit of an uninspiring year for games that I’ve played. I’m not sure if it was a slow year or if the market is becoming too saturated and presenting choice paralysis. So if anyone has any recommendations…email us and tell us what we should play!

WP: Can you leave us with a juicy teaser for Episode 3?

It’s Christmas Time in Hollis?

WP: Thank you so much again for your time. All the best for the future!

NiLo: Same to you, man! Thanks for the continued support!

Asemblance episodes 1 & 2 are available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC. You can read our reviews for Episode 1 and Oversight by clicking the links.

Zach developed his love for gaming thanks to the Sega Mega Drive and the Capcom games of yore, such as Resident Evil, Onimusha and Dino Crisis. Outside of gaming he is an ardent sports fan that supports the San Jose Sharks, Carlton and Burnley FC. Get around him on Twitter @xackclaret