Recently, I conducted an interview with Kevin Scharf, the marketing director for Elastic Games and the indie project game Last Year. Last Year is a game I’ve been following quite intently since it created quite a stir with horror fans and getting the opportunity to speak with Kevin about Last Year was awesome; as he managed to answer many of the big questions that are out there and cleared up a lot of the details people have been asking about.
What is Last Year and how did the idea come about?
In Last Year you’ll experience the nightmare together as you and 5 friends struggle to survive against one player that’s playing as the Killer. Exploring familiar territory inspired by classic horror movies such as Last Year’s very own East Side High School.
You’ll play either as the Killer or the survivors. The teenagers or survivors are based on 5 stereotypical high school characters while co-operating to complete objectives and survive. The survivors win the game by either escaping the map by completing objectives, or by killing the Killer. The Killer wins the game when he has killed all of the survivors, completing what is known as a “home run”.
The game is heavily influenced by 90’s cult horror movies such as Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer and more recently Cabin in the Woods.
“We’re all huge horror fans at Elastic Games. The inspiration for Last Year stems from some of the classic horror movies we all saw through the 80’s and 90’s, and we’re trying to bring those influences and put that into our game, making the locations feel familiar and turn our maps like East Side High into a reality.”
The concept for the game materialized when James Wearing, the creative director at Elastic Games noticed a trend in asymmetrical games and saw the potential in the genre where there was room for some very promising elements from a design perspective. James spoke with a colleague, Alex Halchuk (Lead Technical Designer), where they felt that a horror theme would be a really good fit for an asymmetrical game.
As the discussion progressed, Charles Goatley (The lead programmer), introduced the idea of utilizing the Unreal Engine. The trio decided to utilize Kickstarter in order to reach raise funds to make the game a reality and also to see if the idea clicked with gamers. A backer posted some of the concept pictures out on IMGUR where it went viral and then project quickly surpassed the Kickstarter goal. Seeing this kind of support with people eager to back the project; this allowed the concept to turn from a conversation and emerge into the full-blown project known as Last Year.
What has been the biggest obstacle that the team has had to overcome?
When I spoke with Kevin Scharf, we spoke about some of the struggles that exist for developers in the indie gaming industry. I asked Kevin about how they have approached the task considering the change in dynamics in team size, with James Wearing, Charles Goatley, and Alex Halchuk having worked as industry professionals for an established company previously, now working together in a change of environment.
“Design is always the same process whether it’s part of a big team or it’s a smaller project. You’re always testing, you are always seeing how this is player driven if it’s fun – is this fundamentally going to keep your players engaged minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day having fun with it. You have to approach this way of design from the end user perspective, from a players point of view; trying to establish what the average player’s experience would be and try to work out how people are going to play and then expanding your thought process out from there.”
When I asked Kevin about the biggest obstacle they had encountered, he said: “The biggest struggle we’ve had to work out, although we’d probably think of it more as a fun puzzle for us to solve, is communicating our ideas to the audience. In the development process, it’s always the same and the issue every developer’s faces is the same – exposure. Getting people to know that you have a great idea and that it’s going to come out. Everyone in this industry has great ideas, making those into reality, translating those ideas into something people can see and believe that your ideas are tangible.”
We discussed further the very real issues that face developers that are trying to sell their products via the online platform: Steam. Astonishingly, almost a third of Steam’s entire library of games were released last year in 2016. With so many new games being released in such a short amount of time, the market place can easily appear overwhelming to customers and so many great games go unnoticed in the flood of games that hit the market place every week.
I had asked Kevin what his thoughts on the how the Last Year team would handle the potential pitfall: “I think it’s great that there are so many more indie games that are hitting Steam and it means that we’re heading towards a more vibrant and exciting marketplace, but it means you can’t get by saying that you have a pretty game with a cool concept. We live in an age of quick decisions and social media, for better and worse. You only really get one chance to make that first impression; to explain to people what your product is, so that really makes communicating your ideas to people more important than ever. The last thing you’d want is for people to get the wrong idea of what your game is about.”
Was there anything that you originally planned that you’ve had to remove from the game?
Last Year is still in alpha at the moment, so this is the part of the development phase where a lot of the original concepts are being implemented and tested out. The likelihood that features would be removed at this point would indicate that the feature was either unfeasible or incompatible with the current build.
Kevin had good news to report: “Luckily, most of what we’ve implemented has been successful! Specifically, the predator mode feature where the Killer enters an ethereal state, he is able to plant traps down and can track the survivors, as well as plan ambushes in a physical mode.”
Is Predator mode balanced? Some people think it looks overpowered!
“This is the equalizer that allows the Killer to be able to take down survivors. With our level design and the limitations we’ve put onto predator mode, this works out to be very fair. You can’t spawn within a certain radius of the survivors or in the line of sight of the survivors, so you can’t just spawn in behind a survivor and kill them.”
For those of you interested in the mechanics, there is an exception to the rule: unique ambush points that are on each map, where the Killer will be out of sight when he spawns and jumps through say; the skylight which is highlighted in the predator mode trailer, a grate ambush spot, a wall ambush spot, and more.
What traps and weapons are available to the Killer?
There is a wide arsenal of traps and ways to interact with the environment, including the leg trap that features in the predator mode trailer.
Traps work by survivors walking over them, and then they activate. It is possible to avoid traps, but it means that survivors will have to take their time to be careful, which in turn give the Killer more opportunities to catch the survivors.
Kevin posed a question of his own during the interview “What kind of survivors will our players be? Deciding whether to take your time and avoid the traps, or even destroy the traps takes precious time that you could be using to put distance between you and the Killer. Sometimes choosing to go fast and risk getting stuck in a trap, though…that’s a tough decision to make.”
Can a survivor win a game alone?
“The answer is, yes you can! You work better together and earn more points if you are utilizing teamwork, but sometimes leaving your friend to die can be the best play. We want to create those moments where you question yourself and have to decide whether to risk your own life and potentially die to the Killer trying to save your friend, or just escape and leave them to die.”
So theoretically this could end a lot of friendships! In the heat of the moment, you could see how the situation can play out, but thankfully there is a reason for saving your friends: “There’s a risk/reward system where you would earn more points for escaping together than you would alone, so the incentive is hopefully that you would try and save your friend in true movie style! We want to create those kind of exciting moments that friends share together.”
Can survivors kill the Killer?
“100% yes! You can fight back and kill the Killer using the weapons available.” The Items and weapons that have been announced so far include:
- The baseball bat is a blunt weapon used to fight the Killer
- The taser which can be used to fend off the Killer in tough spot
- The med-kit which is used to heal other survivors
- The tracking device (tracker) use to spot the Killer
- The Molotov cocktail used to burn the Killer and the environment
Be mindful though as the Killer will be able to see exactly what each survivor is carrying at a glance.
What killers will be available at launch?
There will be 3 playable killers available at the launch of the game, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. As the Killer, you choice will influence your play style and each of the killers in Last Year feel unique:
- The Slasher – “The Slasher is a good all round character and can do most things quite well. He’s equipped with an ax and utilizes predator mode to ambush the survivors with a powerful charge attack.”
- The Giant – “When you see this guy; run. Just run. He’s the Killer that doesn’t care if all of the survivors are together and with his sheer presence, forces survivors to split up, making them easier to pick off. He utilizes his brute strength and attacks with his fists.”
- The Strangler – “The Stranger has a hook and chain weapon that is great for dragging survivors away from the group. He is more of a stealthy Killer than the others and his strengths include isolating survivors and picking them off one at a time.”
How many maps will be available at launch?
There will be 3 key environments where games will take place. You have East Side High School “Go Tigers!”, the mall after dark which may be one of the bigger, more sprawling maps that require further exploration than you might initially think and the suburbs that feel far more confined and narrow in the dark, where the Killer can use the surrounding environment to trap the teenagers.
When I asked Kevin Scharf about the size of the locales and how much of the area will players be able to explore, “We intend to make these places a reality. Players will get to know all of these locations and explore them in depth, learning all of the time about certain choke points and ambush spots. We’re going to try and make these places memorable and expansive. To us, the maps are characters within their own right.”
On the topic of maps, I asked about additional post-release content: “Any maps that we produce post launch will be free! We don’t want anything that could potentially split our community.”
How will updates, support and post launch balancing be addressed?
Updates and balancing of a game post launch can make or break the loyalty of your backers and supporters, which is why I posed this all-important question to the man himself. So often, we’ve seen updates handled poorly, with games being released and then a solitary patch that fixes old problems and creates a whole host of new ones.
Post launch patches aren’t inherently a bad thing, it offers a means for developers to create a more organic experience. Exploits can be patched out, bugs can be fixed and ultimately the experience can become more rewarding. The issue comes where you have a situation where monthly updates on a multiplayer only game just aren’t enough.
“We read everything. Literally everything. If there is a problem with the game and it’s reported, we’ll know about it. There will be a system in place for people to report issues, should they experience any, but we look at great examples of regularly updated games like Overwatch. Blizzard has a great system in place and I’d go as far to say as that’s really the benchmark of quality we aspire to. We want as little downtime as possible so that people can just enjoy the game.”
Where will people be able to purchase the game?
“The game will be available on Steam. Valve has approved the game page, so Last Year will appear on Steam in the near future. When we have more details, including the beta, we’ll let you know!”
How do people sign up for the beta?
“Our backers are 100% covered. They will receive access to the beta as soon as it’s available in August 2017. People who aren’t already backers will have an opportunity to back the game in some way, which will be the last chance to back Last Year until its final release. Those people will also have access to the beta in August 2017.”
The beta for Last Year at present does not have a confirmed launch date but will be available sometime in mid-August, followed by the final release, which is to be confirmed at a later date.
“Last Year will be available on Steam for PC users. Last Year will not be available on Linux or Mac, but we’re looking into getting it on the console.”
Are you excited for Last Year? Want to find out more? Check out the Last year website for details about the game, and we’ll have updates from the Last Year team as soon as they are released here at the Nerd Stash.