Any publicity is good publicity, they say. Unless it crashes your server.
I'm visiting Beatnik Games' office in south London where five of the six are crouched in semi-lit... Okay, it's not semi-lit. As producer Robin Lacey says when I'm shown in, you get far more done when you're in an office space rather than the traditional tiny bedroom you connect with indie development. It's a sign of the times, where serious gaming professionals are looking to places like Steam, PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, the one on the Wii, and other places to make a game they genuinely care about and actually make money.
In other words, the office is clean, spacious and a far finer place than any I've ever worked in. It's got art on the walls from the game. It's got copies of the beautiful Flight comic anthology on the artist's desk. There's a copy of The Master and Margarita on one of the two programmer's desks. It's young, creative people doing a young, creative thing. It's quite the picture of modern games development.
The reason why I'm here is that Beatnik has just released the open beta of Plain Sight, which was then picked up on by all the cheery news sources. Their poor little server had one look at all the dirty internet hordes and feigned death. Things have slowed down since then, with a further beta release to deal with problems. Which makes it clear this really is a proper beta release - the game's there, but it's in progress, with the team interested in feedback and seeing what goes right and what goes wrong.
Plain Sight first caught my attention when I saw Louie Armstrong soundtracked footage of its jazzy, clean-edged game of robotic death and slaughter. It had style. There's not enough style in the world. You play a robot. You have to kill people to gain the most points. Every time you manage to kill the opposition, you get a point. If you get points, you grow in size and power. But the twist in the core mechanics is simple and charming: you don't actually "score" the points until you detonate your character.
So, the more kills you can manage before cashing out by exploding, the more points you get - and you can take out even more people in the final explosion. Whether you cash out quickly after a couple of kills to score points more often, or risk losing it all by squirrelling away points for a larger payout, is the key tactical decision. (Admittedly for me, the question is less a tactical one, and more of me trying to resist the urge to explode for as long as possible. To explode or not to explode? That's not question at all.)
While that's the scoring system, what really catches people's attention is the hyper-acrobatic antics of samurai-sword-sporting mini-robots. While you're able to walk around the levels, the real thrill is jumping high into the air, grabbing onto the scenery and whirring like a bladed dervish to collide with someone else.
In a post-Super Mario Galaxy way, the levels are structures floating in space to which your robots can - currently - affix to any side. You're able to throw extra jumps midair to redirect your character, plus an attack move that sends you flying forward. With the enormous scale and the agility of the leads, it leads to a game which looks like a cross between cool abstract art and Dragon Ball Z.
Due to the speed the game operates at, the combat itself is clinically simple. You're able to summon a shield, which sacrifices mobility - you can't change jumping direction whilst doing it - for the ability to resist a blow. The shield flickers down when you do so, but it gives you time to counter-attack against your rebounding foe.
The characters are also tiny relative to the towering structures they fight upon, and this has led to some really neat visual - and design - touches, which lend the game its iconic look. Characters are followed by a coloured trail, its hue depending on how many points they've managed to amass by slaying. When a character collides with any of the flat surfaces, it changes to their colour. As well as looking nifty, these things mean it's easy to locate whoever you want to be fighting at any given moment. It's where the game's title comes from - that it's a game about conflict where really you're in plain sight all the time.
Of course, that's about getting closer to the combat - when you're in the vicinity it's a web of bouncing around, trying to hunt each person down and predict what they're going to do. Even now, without the fine-tuning the game requires in areas like the camera and control, when you manage to catch someone at the apex of a jump and propel yourself through them, it's katana-blade sharp. Or wakizashi sharp. Certainly sharp, anyway.
At the moment, the game's beta is plain, free-for-all-deathmatch, with an eye on team-games and capture-the-flag-esque modes that are to be added prior to release. Even with this, the game mechanics can be tweaked to offer considerably different experiences. Up the number of leaps and attacks you can perform whilst in flight and you have something that's more chaotic. A game where a hit from an opponent reduces the amount of points you have (and eventually kills you) is a different thing from a game where a single hit kills you, no matter how many points you've managed to amass.
As a whole, the game looks lovely - and lovely according to its own vision - and presents a high-paced online-game that should find its natural audience on Steam. There remains a lot to do before release - the aforementioned fine-detail - which makes you glad that the team has chose to take it public earlier. That feedback loop is going to be absolutely fundamental in making Plain Sight work. With a planned release in April, there's time to solidify their vision into what could be a quirky indie multiplayer joy.
Plain Sight is in open beta, and you can check it out by visiting Beatnik's website.