The East Midlands town of Norwich is somewhat of a hub for game design students in the UK, but one that struggles to retain talent. Due to a lack of salaried studio jobs in the area, most students come to study before moving either back home, or to a city known for hiring students straight out of university. However, what happens if you realise the people you want to make games with are already alongside you?
That’s what happened to the team at Lyrelark, a small independent game development studio made up of recent graduates from Norwich University of the Arts, who are currently working on their debut game Rhythm of the Gods.
“We started working together because we got on really well working on projects together at university, and we just wanted to continue that onwards”, explains the brilliantly-named Fletch Arrow, the studio’s social media manager, concept artist, UI designer, and all-around odd jobs doer.
Rhythm of the Gods is a rhythm-action game which takes place in a world that overlays modern technology and neon colours over ancient Greek architecture.You play as Lyrik, a mortal warrior who has to master rhythm, in an attempt to please all of the gods who are throwing massive parties and causing natural disasters by playing their music too loud. The gods are causing things like earthquakes from their music shaking, and you’re basically trying to be so in-time with the rhythm that the gods will take notice of such funky moves and then, like an elderly neighbour, you can ask them to please turn the music down a touch.
Mechanically it’s a simple game, focused around jumping, slashing, and sliding through environments, making sure you keep the action on-beat. It’s not the first game with this type of formula, but the execution looks stylish, slick and a lot of fun.
“The bulk of the team, we met pretty much our first day at NUA studying game design. The first time we got to work together on a project was during our second year, that was when we first got assigned group projects as part of the course”, explains Erin Gray, who does concept art, general game design, narrative and scenario planning, as well as writing and editing for the small team. “We did a game jam together as a team, and worked together a bit longer, maybe eight weeks, on our second project. After that we attended another game jam together. During that one year we made maybe three games together as part of our course.”
The team got on well studying together at university but, according to Gray, it was thanks to another member of the team that this set of friends moved from working on school projects because they liked each other, to taking the idea of staying in Norwich to develop a game together seriously.
“It was Luke’s idea and passion for starting a studio that got us all to believe we could actually do this, and keep working together after leaving university” says Gray, referring to coder and modeller Luke King. “We were all busy looking at where we might go, where we might move to after our course, and Luke convinced us to stay together and try making something.”
“In Norwich, there’s not much in the way of game development opportunities for all those uni students,'' Gray adds. “There’s a few small studios like us, some that have been doing this longer than us, but nothing big, and not a lot of opportunities to get into an existing group. Starting your own studio or going solo is pretty much the only way to make games in Norwich.”
“Coming here for Uni, then moving to find studios was always the plan I think. They talk during the course about how to find work opportunities, and most of what they teach boiled down to having to move away and find a studio job”
“NUA encouraged indies, but they didn’t sugar coat how difficult it would be”
Lyrelark and Rhythm of the Gods first caught our eye back in 2018, when it was shown off at Develop Brighton. Its expressive art, clear visual identity, and polished presentation would have been impressive from established developers, but at the time the game was barely three months in development from a team of university students. Showcasing the game hands-on at events has been really vital for the team in getting feedback and, ultimately, sustaining their own faith in the project.
“I think for us, Norwich Games Festival was a big deal, for helping us believe we could make this work” says Arrow. “That popped up around the time that we knew we were interested in sticking together as a team, but we were not sure if the project we were working on had a future. It was really useful getting a build of our game in front of people who were not in the industry, seeing them have fun with it, and getting confidence that we had a really solid concept”.
“It really was about encouragement,'' said King. “We’d made this demo for a game, we thought it was decent maybe, but people kept going out of their way to tell us they really enjoyed it. It was a massive boost in confidence”.
For this first-time developer, one of the most exciting things about getting their game in front of the public was watching children get more invested in the game than expected, to such a degree the game couldn’t keep up.
“We had an endless mode in the demo, and this kid completed it somehow,” King says.
“He kept playing and went on so long that the game just couldn’t. It couldn’t keep running”, adds Arrow.
However, for all the positives with Rhythm of the Gods right now, deciding to stick in Norwich to work on the game has not been unanimously positive or easy.
“It’s kind of difficult to interact with other developers in Norwich, because there’s not really that many other teams that make themselves known in the area,'' says Arrow. “There’s some developers who maybe don’t live and work here full time like Dan Scales who sometimes is in the area, we’ve made contacts with folks here like Did You Know Gaming and Ashens, but that was mostly when we were looking for studio space. We ended up getting that through the university instead which helped a lot.”
NUA went out of its way to offer support to the fledgling team.
“NUA have an incubation centre which we work in now, which is great because we have the support of the staff there who are very knowledgeable on the business side of things”, Arrow says. “We still get support from the tutors because we’re still connected. Finishing our course didn’t mean an end to our university career support. Our tutors were really excited about us doing this, they really want to help us and see us succeed.”
As the team formed their studio straight out of university, the logistics of running a studio as a formal business were a little overwhelming initially.
“It was back in September 2018 that we signed the contract for our studio space, which is when we started dealing with proper business paperwork,” says Gray. “Having the University incubator space staff there to go through it really helped a lot, but a lot of our time was taken up just making sure forms were in order. It was less about making the game, and more about setting up the business ready to make the game. That was a lot of our time during what we thought would be the exciting early days.”
Rhythm of the Gods is planned primarily for release on Android initially, but the team are looking at other options including PC. The recent rise of the Epic Store has been eye-catching, not least because the game is developed using Unreal Engine 4, and for a team whose game won’t have a big marketing budget the less-crowded nature is a big attraction.
“The Epic Store at the moment looks like a good place for us,” says King. “Our game’s developed in Unreal 4, so that might help us potentially get on the platform we hope. Epic want as much as possible on that platform at the moment. Steam right now is overpopulated to say the least. You go on Steam and you have to really push and push to get noticed at all”
While Lyrelark seem to have the right ideas about what they’re doing, and have an impressive game well on the way, the team are acutely conscious this will be their first-ever video game release. Accordingly, Rhythm of the Gods doesn’t have to make a bunch of money for them to consider it a success.
“From the beginning, we didn’t want to kid ourselves about this project”, King says. “It’s our first ever game, chances are barely anyone is going to play it. We’re not going to sell it for much, but we are going to put a little price tag on it.”
“For us the discussion was is it more important for the game to make money, or to get our name out there, and at this point I think building an audience is more important to our long-term success” says Arrow. “I think most of us are quite happy to do things like freelance work, part-time jobs, to be able to keep doing development as a team. We have had discussions about not putting all our hopes on this one game.”
“We’ve been really careful with this project to not over-scope it. We have plans for a few more games after this, and they’re all fairly small. We want to get into the, uh I’ve got to say it, the rhythm, the process of getting small simple good games out there, making sure we have an audience before we commit to something big and complicated,” says Gray, finally letting out the pun she’d spent over half an hour holding back.
“We’re not banking our hopes off living off our games any time soon. We’re trying to be realistic. We just want to keep making games here together, and we’ll do pretty much anything to ensure we can keep doing what we love.”
Rhythm of the Gods has been on our radar since we first saw it last year, and it looks even better now. It’s a charming, beautiful and focused game that’s clear about what it wants to be, and made with clear eyes about its prospects and purpose for this small band of developers.
Will it take over the world? Almost definitely not. But what it does show is that you don’t have to be in London or Guildford or Dundee, surrounded by a bunch of peers and support networks and side-jobs, to make a go of being an indie developer. Lyrelark may or may not go on to make beautiful music and games together, or it may split and its members spread across the industry like shooting stars. What matters is it approaches the business of making games, in the small and annoying and form-filling ways that it can be, as a business.