It’s the end of the world as we know it
… and Jeremy Spillmann feels fine. The developer behind First Strike and Cloud Chasers on empathy, decision-making and designing games for the apocalypse
Switzerland-based Blindflug Studios is the creator of Hatch launch title First Strike, a casual strategy simulation (first released in 2014) where players engage in escalating rounds of geopolitical intrigue and devastating nuclear combat. In another Blindflug title, Cloud Chasers – also coming to Hatch – a father and daughter are climate refugees forced to navigate the harsh desert landscapes of a dystopian future.
I spoke to studio co-founder and lead game designer Jeremy Spillmann about what motivates him and his team to bring difficult issues from the real world into what is usually seen as a purely escapist medium – and how Hatch might offer more opportunities to let smaller studios like Blindflug find a mass audience.
You’re probably been asked this a lot – but why make a casual game about the end of the world?
When we first designed First Strike there was a big divide on how people perceived nukes, the possibility of nuclear war and the state of the worldwide arsenal. It almost felt like only people who were old enough to witness the end of the Cold War still remembered the constant threat of the world being annihilated one day. Through a casual game we felt that we could not only let people play around with the fictive scenario of Armageddon, but also raise that awareness again. Oh, but times sure have changed since 2014…
The thing that struck me most when I first played First Strike were the matter-of-fact casualty reports. For example, “Karachi destroyed. 14 million people died.” The first report stops you in your tracks. But then you keep playing, and you go around the core loop one more time… and the reports get even worse. But you keep going. Why do you think that is?
Because it’s empowering, taking care of the fate of a nation on such a global scale. Games have this enormous power to put you in the shoes of someone in command of a scenario that you normally have no control over. I guess by being so distanced from the human beings affected by your decisions, you kind of lose context in exchange for the bigger picture. You just want to annihilate the opposition and emerge “victorious”. Sure, it’s just virtual fiction, but it’s a frightening thought, considering world leaders and the military might have the same distance at times of war.
Every game is about making decisions, and the choices available to a player can say a lot about what that game is trying to communicate. What are you saying or doing with your games? What is your objective?
We are deliberately changing the player’s perspective in a lot of our games, putting them in the shoes of acting out and experiencing something that might be horrible in reality. We’re trying to make exciting and innovative games with cores about meaningful topics, we’d say. First Strike was about global nuclear Armageddon, while Cloud Chasers was about surviving a young family’s journey in the desert.
Let’s talk about Cloud Chasers and its refugee-themed story. What’s the reaction been like?
Very welcoming, in fact. Cloud Chasers was heavily discussed in a multitude of newspapers, blogs, magazines and TV formats that rarely ever talk about mobile games. There was a huge interest from cultural outlets to talk about the game and whether or not it can serve as a gateway to understanding the backgrounds and hardships of migrants. We were really happy to see this reception. It was bigger than we ever expected.
Does the team ever get hostile feedback online around these issues? Ever had a troll problem?
Very rarely. Cloud Chasers tends to attract people who are into the idea of trying to fill a migrant’s shoes in a fantasy setting. Those opposed to taking such a view usually just ignore the project. Sure, in the wake of the Syria refugee crisis, we’ve been called opportunistic at times, since the game launched during those weeks. But considering the game had been in production for more than a year at that point, these accusations rarely stuck, but rather reassured us that the topic we chose back then was very relevant indeed.
Your games are also available on other mobile and PC platforms – what do you see that’s different about Hatch?
The feature we are most excited about for Hatch is its curation aspect. By vouching for the quality of the games in its catalog, we imagine players to be way more comfortable to give a title a chance and have a look. Mobile is an incredibly crowded place, so having a selected batch of great games is not only amazing for a player, it’s a great opportunity for smaller devs as well!
Hatch’s platform has unique social features and multiplayer capabilities, making for example online synchronous multiplayer much more achievable for small studios. As a developer, what do you think of such possibilities?
It’s an awesome possibility to have. Especially as a small indie studio, getting over the technical hurdles and the “empty-bar-problem” that only multiplayer brings should really open up that field for smaller teams. These are two major factors why we never undertook such an endeavour ourselves.
What are you working on now?
We are currently working on our first ever console game called Airheart. It is an action-packed, dieselpunk airplane game which picks up the story of Cloud Chasers ten years after it unfolded. It will hit PC and consoles early next year and we’re incredibly excited how it will be received! But we will surely be revisiting mobile as well.