It's been a while since we heard anything about Somerville, a side-scrolling (or is it?) sci-fi collaboration between now-departed Playdead co-founder Dino Patti and Hollywood animator Chris Olsen. In an interview with Eurogamer's Robert Purchese in 2017, Patti suggested the end was "in sight" for the project. Speaking to me at Gamelab today, he offered some updates - and a few concerns.
Somerville looks "amazing", Patti assured me, especially now development studio Jumpship has "scaled up the team to a comfortable size". He's particularly enthused for how it will confound expectations for a side-scrolling game, noting that "there are some interesting things going on with the genre, I would say, where you will experience things that will surprise you."
Patti has elsewhere expressed his distrust for the typical genre labels, telling GamesIndustry.biz in April that "if I play three hours and after that I can extrapolate the next 10, I get really bored". Pressed to elaborate on what this means for Somerville, he said: "For me it's just about the whole emotional experience and how you control it. The genre that encapsulates the game doesn't need to be set all the way through. It doesn't need to be 2D side-scrolling. There are a lot of other ways to get those emotions and stories across."
The idea of a game that "breaks off from its genre" recalls the closing moments of Inside, Patti's last game at Playdead. Somerville, he went on, is born of much the same spirit as his Playdead projects. "I have some values within games that I try to keep to always. I really like when I can think about the projects I'm involved in as improving humankind somehow. Games maybe don't save anything, but giving these emotions and experiences to people is positive, I would say.
"Everything I do I want that to be at the core of it. What we did at Playdead touched people, we got many heartfelt emails afterwards. It was helpful for those people. And the new thing, it's the same theme - how can I do stuff that will go worldwide and change people's lives in a positive way. I would love to do that more. Games maybe do it perfectly [but] if you saw me do something completely different, you would see that element still."
If he has full confidence in Somerville, however, Patti is concerned about standing out in a market he regards as saturated with high quality games. He's in the process of arranging partnerships to ensure that the game gets enough visibility.
"We're doing some really good deals already with some really important stake-holders, [working] to get the right exposure when we come out. There are so many games coming out at the moment, and so many good games, I think it's really important to do some deals that give you a certain exposure."
Patti's fears conjure up the spectre of the so-called indiepocalypse, with many developers struggling for oxygen as game storefronts sag under the weight of thousands of releases a year. It's certainly a bit depressing to hear one of the people behind Limbo - one of the most successful and influential independent games ever made - worry about making headway. These are pressures Patti hopes to alleviate, however, with his other forthcoming project, Coherence: a new open source development platform for persistent multiplayer games, co-created with Unity co-founder David Helgason and DICE's Peter Björklund.
Coherence aims to "democratise" gamedev by allowing developers with minimal technical expertise to take their creations online. Patti is hopeful it will open up new business models for teams battling for attention on platforms like Steam. "I think there are so many ways to monetise this," he says, drawing a comparison with the complex economy of CCP's EVE Online. "You could pay old-school, as a subscription, you could pay premium, you can trade things over the store. I like what Valve's doing with between-user trading, having people being able to earn on the platform."
He suggests developers might allow players to transfer currencies between games supported by Coherence, though he doesn't specify how this might work in practice. "If a developer comes to us and says we need this feature to monetise this way, we'll do it. I really want to find new ways of doing business models that are fair for everybody."
You can read a little more about Somerville over on Jumpship's development blog.
This article is based on Eurogamer's attendance at Gamelab. Travel and accommodation were covered by the conference.