Since Lionhead closed its doors last year, various members of its staff have moved onto all sorts of projects, from Fable card games to farming sims. Well before that, though, talent was making its way from that venerated studio out into other areas of UK game development. Adam Langridge and Imkan Hayati - two ex-Lionhead employees and veterans of the UK development scene, with games such as Black & White 2 and Fable II under their belts - left Lionhead some years ago and set up a new developer, Upstream Arcade. Its first game, Deadbeat Heroes, a superhero beat-em-up set in 1970s London, is published today by the Square Enix Collective. It’s a brawler that tries new things in a crowded genre.
"We thought that a movement-based brawler would be something pretty fresh," explains Adam. "You don’t have a block button, if you want to not get hurt, you need to not get hit, which means you need to dash, jump and wall-run around danger. It’s like a weird hybrid of platformer-meets-brawler. We’re both comic geeks, but wanted to do something different. I always liked the idea of a hero without their own powers, they weren’t chosen by luck or fate - from a gameplay point of view, this automatically lent itself to a glass-cannon style of design. You can hit hard, you’re fast, but also fragile, so you need to be careful.
“Of course, the big trick is to steal the powers from the villains you’re fighting. Then the tides turn dramatically."
This power-stealing idea is where the “deadbeat” part of the title comes in. While jumping around enemies and running along walls already feels pretty super, your character is still a normal chump until a superpowered villain arrives on the scene, at which point you can steal their powers with your 'super gauntlet' to become a caped crusader for a short length of time. Deadbeat Heroes mixes up this superhero theme with a distinctly British setting.
"When we started developing the game, we thought to ourselves: what would the 60’s Batman be like if he was British? Bringing that British humour to superheroes felt like a great idea, especially as the character designs got wackier and their scripts got funnier," says Imkan.
"You don’t hear much about British superheroes," adds Adam. "It’s not very proper to put on spandex and punch hoodlums, so we thought it was a great opportunity to create a little world of our own supers. Our writer, James Leach [lead writer on Fable and Black and White 2], is so fantastic, and his dialogue is so silly that we all immediately thought that this slightly odd setting of the untold story of British super heroes would have loads of comedy to mine."
Regional British accents, even caricatures, don't get nearly enough screen-time in modern video games, so it was great hearing a Brummy accent (among others) whilst beating down criminals on London streets. It evoked memories of Fable’s voice acting, perhaps predictably. I was curious to hear whether Lionhead Games had inspired the design of Deadbeat Heroes.
Adam thought so, saying, "there’s definitely some design leakage - some of the things that I was fond about from previous games have made it into this one." Imkan prefers to think of the TV, games and movies he loves, rather than his past work. "I think the three main influences for me were '60s Batman TV Series, Pixar's The Incredibles and old school beat-em-ups."
It was impossible not to ask about Adam and Imkan's feelings about the now-deceased Lionhead Studios, and how their time there helped shape their careers. "Lionhead is - or was - an amazing place,” reminisces Adam. “One of the best things about it was how confident you could grow as a developer, being surrounded by so much talent and creative success.”
Imkan adds: "it felt more like we were a bunch of students creating something amazing together. Even though we had to work evenings and weekends from time to time we didn’t really mind it. As a result, it didn’t feel much like a company."
“In the end,” says Adam, “Lionhead changed in the same way that I’m sure many companies do as they expand - you recognise fewer faces, receive more emails and attend more meetings. Lionhead was, to me, the beating heart of development in Guildford. So many amazingly talented people were drawn to it, and then also went on to do great things nearby."
The transition from big-studio to indie-studio has been an interesting one for Imkan. "Being an indie dev is great. In many ways it’s old school," he says. "It’s what development was like before the big development houses ever existed! It took me a bit of time to get into the stride of things. At first it’s hard because you’re used to working in large teams with a hierarchical structure, you get told from above what needs to be done, and you go ahead and do it. With teams being smaller, also means you get to do a lot of stuff you didn’t have the chance to do in larger companies, even stuff that isn’t in your comfort zone."
"It’s great,” says Adam. “Making games in small teams is what I most wanted to do when I started. The toughest change, though, is having to do all the aspects of game development that other people made look easy. The reason it looked easy was because they were awesome, not because it actually is easy. Level design, balancing, production, performance optimisation, and graphics programming were all things I was happy to just watch and enjoy other people do. Then it became something I had to turn my hand to.
"In some ways, it's been really smooth. Making actual games is easier than ever before, which is fantastic for our industry. However, juggling all the other responsibilities has been a bumpy road! It's liberating, man! It’s much more scary putting games out, but spending your day making something that you decided to make is fantastic."