Clever Beans talks PS Vita, PS4 and the future of the gaming industry

U.K. developer Clever Beans, developer of the recently-released PS3 and PS Vita game When Vikings Attack, talks to PSU.com about a range of interesting subjects, including the story behind its latest game, the challenges of implementing cross-play between the two platforms, and its hopes for the PlayStation 4.


You can read the review of When Vikings Attack here.

Answers provided by Clever Bean’s directors Martin Turton and Andrew Newton

1. Tell us a bit more about Clever Beans. What’s the story behind the name and what are the goals of the studio?

Clever Beans is a company set up by the two of us (Martin and Andrew) approximately 18 months ago. After spending a total 20 years between us in the game industry working at some large 100+ person strong studios owned by companies such as Sony and THQ and we had both experienced many a canned project and had creativity stifled by risk averse investors and management. We saw an opportunity to go out on our own with a vision to create games that put fun first! Although this sounds rather clichéd you’d be surprised how often fun doesn’t take precedence in a lot of studios.

As for the name Clever Beans, I wish we had a fun and meaningful story behind the name; the fact is it was just the first name in a huge list of possibilities that we were both happy with and ticked all the boxes!

2. You’ve been busy working on When Vikings Attack for PSN and Vita which launched last week. The idea of chucking street furniture at each other across urban settings reminds us of those scenes when you see football supporters brawling at the EURO Championships outside a café or through a high street. This is obviously cartoon-violence with no blood, but the gameplay has that chaotic, manic feel to it. What was the inspiration for When Vikings Attack?

We always start a game by prototyping ideas to ensure we are on to something fun before we get too far in to development. For Vikings we set out with two key design goals: “a 100 person beat ‘em-up” and “a beat ‘em up with shoot ‘em up style gameplay”.

The 100 person beat ‘em up idea was inspired by some of those huge bar brawls you see in movies. We thought the idea of dropping the player into an environment sounded great! But upon prototyping this we realised that this isn’t quite as much fun as it sounds. The player can only realistically engage with one other person at once so you end up back at a traditional beat ‘em up just with a queue of 99 enemies waiting to take you on next! From this point we just started to experiment with controlling many people at once, so the game is still a 100 person beat ‘em up except the players would control a whole bunch of people simultaneously. After several iterations (and a few months) we ended up at the game you see now.


When Vikings Attack – the new multiplayer brawler from Clever Beans

You can still see elements of the second design pillar we had: ‘shoot ‘em up style gameplay’ such as one hit kill, power ups, simple controls that are hard to master etc.

3. What was the thinking behind offering When Vikings Attack on both PS3 and Vita for one price? It’s a strategy we’d like to see more of!

The cross-buy idea just makes sense for a game like ours. Our game is exactly the same on both platforms so we just felt that it didn’t seem fair to make people buy the same game twice and we felt like the goodwill gained by offering the game like this would far outweigh any lost sales in people not buying it twice. Hopefully all games will follow this model in the future.

4. What challenges did you face to implement cross-platform play between PS3 and Vita?

We knew that networking would be one of the most difficult challenges we faced in this project so we designed the networking system very early on in the project’s development, back when the game only existed as prototype on PC. Planning this far ahead really did mitigate a lot of the problems we may have faced. When we began development on the PS3 and Vita version of the game it was not a difficult job to maintain network compatibility between the two platforms – in fact we can still play the game cross-play between our barebones PC engine that we maintain for ease of testing, the PS3 and the Vita all at the same time (unfortunately for any PC gamers reading this, the PC build of the game will never see the light of day).

On top of this, Sony have done a great job of ensuring that their online infrastructure such as match making, ranking and trophy systems are compatible between the Vita and the PS3 platforms, even though a lot of this only came online while we were the developing the game – in fact, we were one of the first games to feature shared trophies between PS3 and Vita. Cross-platform invites are really the only feature missing at the moment.

5. Will When Vikings Attack remain playable on future Sony platforms?

If you’re asking for information about PS4, I’m afraid we don’t know anything about it. We’re not planning a sequel right now, if that’s what you mean. As to whether PS4 will be backwards-compatible, we can only guess; but I would think that is something that would be very difficult to achieve. Maybe it could be handled using cloud-based streaming.

6. How have you found working with Vita? Sony called it the “easiest PlayStation platform yet to build on”. Would you agree?

From a standing start, it’s probably easier to develop for than PS3, because it’s based on more off-the-shelf hardware. The most challenging thing for us was to produce the game on both PS3 and Vita, and to keep the performance as close as possible on both. While the Vita is a powerful bit of kit, it is still a mobile platform, so it’s no anywhere near as powerful as the PS3. For a game that features a lot of physics, animation and character rendering, this imbalance can be quite tricky to deal with.

7. How do you see Vita’s position in the current gaming landscape in an era where many people are getting their portable thrills through their smartphones and tablets?

Vita has its place – it’s got some interesting control options; in particular the rear touch and of course the twin analogue sticks. Those sticks give it an arcade feel that you just don’t get with a phone; a game like ours would never have worked on something like an iPhone, because of the control scheme. There are a lot of iPhone and android developers doing interesting things with touch and swipe mechanics, which is great, but for certain games, those sticks are essential.

8. How do you see the future of casual games on Vita and next-gen hardware? Do you think we’ll see more games aimed at that specific audience?

Well, mobile phones cover that really casual end of the market pretty well. We think that the Vita is really suited to mobile versions of more core games.

9. What are your hopes for PlayStation’s next-gen console? Do you think there’s anything Sony can learn from the PS3 to make its next console more developer friendly?

There’s always a period of learning with a new console. PS3 has a steep learning curve but is actually pretty good to work on once you know it.

We have no insider info on the ps4 but from what we hear it sounds like its architecture is more like a standard PC so the learning curve may not be too steep.

The PS3 store has been improving but still needs a bit of work to streamline the discovery and purchasing process; hopefully they’ll fix this.

10. What’s your opinion on the rise of cloud-based gaming and its future in the industry? Do you think a time will arrive when there won’t even be the need for videogame hardware?

Not really. It’s difficult to predict where technology is going to take us in the long term, but in the short to medium term, we see little point in this. Internet bandwidth and latency across the world generally are still patchy at best, whilst the technology required for (non cloud-based) gaming is all the time becoming cheaper, more mobile and more ubiquitous. So there doesn’t seem to be a lot of point in streaming games from the cloud.

It could be a good delivery mechanism for demos, which, as a lot of people have speculated, may be why Sony decided to invest in Gaikai.

11. In 2011, reports suggest that approximately 100 game studios were shut down. Moving forward into the next-gen cycle, how do you see smaller studios competing against the bigger developers and keeping afloat?

The great thing about the diversity of the industry (and the market) is that small studios don’t really need to compete with the big boys. By occupying a slightly different area of the market, smaller developers can survive simply by doing something different. In fact, small studios find it much easier to innovate, for various reasons – they are less risk-averse, and less likely to have shareholder pressure or conservative management.

A bigger problem is actually competition from other smaller developers, since from the ashes of every one of those 100 studios that shut down, there are likely to have been two or three small startups born! But we are not really complaining, since this is good for the health of the industry as a whole.

12. Electronic Arts has been very vocal about its plans to switch from retail to digital delivery. Do you think we’ll ever see the day when digital distribution will be the only way we can buy videogames? Do you think the death of retail is inevitable?

This will probably happen eventually, but in the meantime, the contents of a blu-ray is still way too much for everyone to realistically download from the internet. For a game (and a studio) like ours, digital distribution is ideal, but we think the death of retail is a long way off yet.

13. Among your credits, in previous work for other studios, we noticed you’ve been involved with a fair few racing games, including the likes of WipEout HD, Juiced 2, Blur, Juiced and Need For Speed Underground. Do you have any plans to create your own game within this genre?

In short: no. The main reason that our CVs are so rich with those sort of titles is that the North West of England has traditionally been an area where that sort of game is made (with Bizarre Creations, Juice Games, Evolution Studios and of course the Liverpool Sony/Psygnosis office all close by). But actually, after working on racing games for so long, most of us are more than ready for a change. Also, the market for this sort of game is extremely competitive. If we were to make a racing game, we would have to give it a really unique twist, to make it interesting.

14. What’s next on the agenda for Clever Beans?

We’re working on an update for When Vikings Attack! containing some features that have been most requested – for example, ad-hoc networking on the Vita version. And there may also be a DLC pack with some new levels. After that… it’s back to prototyping some new ideas for our second game!