Jonathan Biddle co-director of All Possible Futures chats to us about the upcoming story book adventure
THE PLUCKY SQUIRE feels like a world of pure imagination. Jonathan Biddle and James Turner head up All Possible Futures a completely remote studio working on the gorgeous game that acts as a love letter to some of your favourite genres and games of the last 30 years.
Gianni sat down with Jonathan Biddle at PAX Australia to explore how this collaboration came together, inspirations from Nintendo games past, and what to expect when the game hits your consoles next year.
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GIANNI: Hello and welcome to Lightmap from SIFTER. On Lightmap we have conversations and explore the culture of video games and interactive media and you meet game makers, journalists and composers and many many more people from all around the world. My name is Gianni, thank you so much for joining me.
My guest on this, episode of Lightmap, the special edition one recorded at PAX Australia, is co-director and co-founder of All Possible Futures, Jonathan Biddle, who's based in Brisbane.
They are making The Plucky Squire, a 2D, 3D game where you move in and out of a storybook world. I sat down with Bids at PAX and we talked about his journey into indie games after leaving Curve Digital, how he teamed up with artist and co-founder James Turner, who previously art directed Pokemon at Game Freak, and much more. But, before we jump into that, let's find out what's been making the news this week on Walkthrough, SIFTER's weekly news podcast.
PROMO: You're listening to Lightmap, interesting conversations with video game creators.
GIANNI: Now can you tell people, if they haven't come across The Plucky Squire before, what is it?
JONATHAN: The Plucky Squire, well it's a game based around a book called The Plucky Squire and it's full of characters and it's set in the world of Mojo and the hero of the book is called Jot and the book is about him. And during the course of the game the protagonist, sorry, antagonist of the book, he finds out that he is in a book and that he can actually use magic to eject the hero of the book and take over the book for himself. So that's what happens.
Humgrump is the antagonist and he pushes Jot out of the book and tries to take the book over.
So we have a book that is set on the desk and that's part of the world, but the core of the game is that you can leave the book and re-enter it and some of the adventure takes place on the desk.
And we have lots of places within the game which take that 2D and 3D mechanic, the idea of transitioning between book and desk, and we build the whole game around that idea and push that as far as we can.
GIANNI: When I looked at it, it really looks like a greatest hits of all the favorite games that you would have played in the past.
Can you tell me a little bit about incorporating, I saw side-scrolling shooters, I saw punch-ups, lots more platforming, 2D, sort of RPG.
Tell me a little bit about that process.
JONATHAN: There's a lot to that really.
So Jamie and I, Jamie is the other co-director, or James Turner as most people will know him.
We've worked together for a long time.
We first met in 2000, which is about 23 years ago, well yeah 2023, so that would be 23 years, ago. We worked in some company together, that was our first company, sorry our first games job.
And we kind of bonded over a Nintendo, so part of that was just like a love of what they did and the way they approached things. In the meantime, since then, he moved to Japan and he became quite well known for his art and for his work on Pokemon. I stayed in the UK, I run some companies, I did some work also for Nintendo. During that period, we both made quite a lot of games.
I learned how to program in that time and I started to just experiment with lots of games, And kind of the culmination of that is that we got very good at making lots of different things quite quickly because there's a lot of experience there to build on and we would always go back, look at what we've done and we'd be able to draw on that and very quickly, for example, make a side-scroller.
I made a game called Stealth Bastard, which I made in my spare time and it was just a platform game.
So I learned everything about making, how that works, how the controls should work, how it should feel, and took that and very easy then for me to add that to the plucky squire because we we have a canvas, Which is the books pages which allows us to basically explore any game idea we want, And so once we started we have the Zelda style top-down game, which I made the Swords of Ditto Which is the same kind of thing. I understood how to make that.
The the game that I made self-bastard and then we we decided to just push in, In so many directions just take what we loved, We had Jamie's art style and he would come up with crazy situations and crazy characters.
We'd try and think what we'd want to do with it. And one of them was, we had a picture of a giant mallard with two boxing gloves in front of it, like a first-person boxing game.
And so we ran with that for a bit and tried to figure out what we wanted that to be.
And that ended up, instead of first-person, ended up more like a kind of punch-out game where you're fighting a honey badger instead.
Instead. So that's the game you see from the trailer. And that's it really, we just...
We'll draw on things that we've done and we explore things we're interested in.
And if we find it fun, then we do it.
And that's the process.
Because we're able to do anything we want. No one stops us.
Devolver don't step in and say, nope, you can't do that. And so that's what we do.
We just take some of Jamie's art or my ideas and we make something crazy out of it.
GIANNI: How many different types of games do you have in there or mini segments are there?
How many genres are you touching on?
JONATHAN: I mean, that's really interesting because I guess we don't really...We don't...
GIANNI: You don't think of them as mini-games?
JONATHAN: We call them mini-games.
But some of them are much more complex than you might think.
For the boxing, for example, there's a counter system. You can trade hits.
There's stamina and there's a guard. And you only play it for 60 seconds.
But the whole thing for us was like an exploration of what that would be.
And so we've got this full boxing game that we can then use in other places.
But that kind of approach, kind of mini games doesn't really do it justice, like I would say the Wario games, they're more mini games, very simple, but we like to put more into it.
And so in terms of the amount of games that we have, I'm trying to think we have a game where you catch a fish, we have the boxing, obviously we have the archery game, we have A game which is like a Pokemon turn-based battle, but it's set on a Magic the Gathering-style card.
We have an old-school Mega Man-style game, which is set in a dinosaur universe.
We have a bullet hell first-person shooter, I guess?
Third-person, really. And we have a disco stealth game, which is stealth set to a disco rhythm.
We can do what we want, so we often do, basically.
GIANNI: Look, I'm very curious about this, because a lot of the advice I hear from established developers is when you're making a game, you've got to bring your scope back in, but it kind of sounds like you added everything you possibly could want.
Is that true?
GIANNI: Okay, so some of the benefits of this is, Jamie's worked for a long time in what he's done, I mentioned that, but he's very quick in a lot of things, like animating, drawing, building, and he's very good at those things.
And I'm from a similar kind of mold, really.
Like, I'm a designer that learned how to program, so I learned how to design games first.
And I'd get frustrated having to communicate these things to people.
So what would happen is I would become a designer programmer, which is like cutting two people out of a process, because you don't have to document anything.
You don't have to describe. You make and you react off that, so it's an organic process.
Over and over again, you're doing things.
It means you can work very quickly.
And so I typically can make one of those games in a week.
That's what it's been. Some of the more in-depth ones in a month.
So very quickly we throw in some artwork, we can try some games out, and because we have the experience, we kind of know a little bit about how it's going to go.
Not entirely, but the disco stealth thing was like a one-line thing of how about you play stealth to a beat instead of hiding in the shadows, it would be boring.
And it didn't take much to turn that into a game, and we knew the turns to make, and the corners to cut.
So, yes, your scope should be under control, that's right. But I think we've got away with this because of some of our experience in the past.
GIANNI: Sounds like you must have a good working relationship with Jamie.
Can you tell me how did that all start? You met 23 years ago.
How did you start to work together?
JONATHAN: Well, we were on the same team and actually the game we were making wasn't very exciting or anything.
But we bonded, we just became really firm friends.
And he was at my wedding, he was the only friend I had at my wedding, so we were that close. Basically best friends.
And it wasn't long after that that he left to go to Japan and he first started working at Genius Sonority. I stayed in the UK, but we were just constantly in touch with each other.
We'd just be talking a lot and we were always like, maybe one day we'll make something together.
And the years rolled on and Jamie worked his way all the way up to art director in Pokemon.
And from the way that I think that went, he was very much, he didn't want to see himself be a Pokemon guy for the rest of his life.
Because as you can tell, he's very creative.
So he really needed an outlet for that. And so that was like, time to try something new.
And I'd moved and started my own company.
I used to run Curve Studios as well, but I left to start One Bit Beyond to do the Swords of Ditto with Devolver. Everything kind of came together at the same time.
And that was really when we're like, okay, finally we get this chance to do it.
So he moved from Japan to the UK, and I moved from the UK to Australia.
We're really smart. That's how we work.
But even with that time zone difference, that relationship stays the same.
We're both strong where the other is weak.
I work from the bottom up. I'm mechanics-based. I'm not really interested in character or story.
I like making a game work and understanding what's behind it and what's going on behind the scenes.
All that stuff, really, I love it. Jamie doesn't like that stuff so much.
He's character, he's world, you know, he's like much more top level.
Don't get me wrong, he understands games, he understands game design very well, but when we meet, we meet from different directions. So that's the kind of strength that we have.
We both like augment each other.
GIANNI: How long have you been working on the Plucky Squire? I'm curious how the process has been and, you know, when that all started, you know, what does it first look like when you're just putting white boxes on a stage?
JONATHAN: That's really interesting, actually, because I'm about to do a presentation on exactly that tomorrow, which shows The Plucky Squire start at zero, ends up today.
When I'm making the game, I record everything that I do, because I like to watch the problems that occur.
So I've got videos going back to day one, all the way through to actually yesterday, the day before yesterday.
So 4,000 videos. So I actually documented that quite clearly.
And I know exactly when we started and how long it took to do certain things.
So it was the middle of 2020 when we started, which is like-
GIANNI: Good time to start a game.
JONATHAN: Yeah, it was, yeah.
And we spent a year on a prototype for Devolver. We took the idea to them.
We showed them some stuff we'd done. We were learning Unreal at the time.
We'd made a game previously just in Unreal, just as a practice.
It wasn't a proper game.
And so we spent a year making that prototype. And what we did for that is we focused on the things that were different about our game, and we didn't really try and do much else, because we know there's a lot of good 2D games out there, there's a lot of 3D games out there, and we can't really compete with them.
You know, we're a small team.
Our strength is the 2D and 3D when they're combined.
So we took those ideas and what it means to work, play with a book, what a book is physically, and how you can interact with that, and we made a demo just about that.
And it was great. It's like a lot of the stuff that's in there is pretty much what we've got today.
So we took a lot of early leaps very quickly.
And since then it's been about fleshing that out and fleshing the world out, fleshing the art out.
And that's really about volume and it's making more of the idea.
And that's a lot harder. It's a lot harder. I'm curious, why did you start recording your entire process? Is it something you've always done? Was there a moment that you thought I should keep track of what I'm doing here?
It's not about keeping track. It's about when I program something.
It goes wrong most of the time.
And then you're trying to figure out what went wrong? And you like run it again and you, oh, that went wrong.
Or you could just record it every time.
And when you record it, you see it go wrong. And then you look at, you play it back in slow motion.
You can see what's happening.
It's a development process.
It just so happens that I still have all those videos. So it's an accident that I've documented everything we've done.
GIANNI: Well, tell you what, I think game archivists like Digital Eclipse, for example, might be quite thrilled to know that you've recorded every moment of the creation of this game, because I think it would be quite a fascinating way to look back into it.
I'm curious, thinking about your history starting with Curve and stepping away from a bigger company to go indie, what was the thoughts behind doing that? I mean, you did that in 2015-ish.
JONATHAN: Yeah, that's right.
GIANNI: Why did you want to leave and move off? and was it just that you needed more of a creative space to do what you wanted to do?
JONATHAN: Yeah, it was never really anything negative.
It was really, we built Curve to a certain point, like we were making our own original games.
We made Hydroventure or Fluidity for Nintendo and then Sequel for that, and we had Stealth Bastard, also Stealth Inc.
And we were doing really well at that, but then it became really difficult as a studio to get work in that area. You'd have to pitch a game to a publisher.
They'd have to fund you the money. And those studios were getting bigger and more expensive at the same time that indie developers were coming in and being quite cheap.
So we started to look less appealing and we started to pick up less work.
So we ended up helping existing developers port their games to console instead.
People like Jasper Byrne for Lone Survivor and Mike Bithell with Thomas Was Alone. We did The Swapper.
We did a lot of games like that. and it helped those guys and it helped us as well.
It turned from really just that into being an actual publisher.
So we started to sign games, publish games.
I'm not a publisher, I'm a games developer. So at that point, it was like, well, this is just not a position for me. This is not what I do.
And so I left Curve to do that so that I could continue my development.
So I basically took what Curve's creator side was and took that with me, effectively.
Being an independent developer since 2015 is quite an achievement, I think, if you can continue on to do that for such a long time, because it's been a really tricky time during that space.
GIANNI: And I'm curious, you know, what were some of those lessons that you had to learn when you were out on your own, versus having, I guess, the machinery of a bigger company and the processes and of all of that behind you?
JONATHAN: You have to do more with less. I think that's the biggest thing.
And I tried on the swords editor, I didn't try to do too much. I think I was doing six people's job at one point. And that's the hardest thing because if you're used to a larger, like scope and team, if you do end up trying to do what you can do, with yourself doing six roles, that's difficult.
It's very troublesome. So I would say scope, which is what I've completely ignored, is probably something to worry about, certainly.
But also, it's the people, the people you work with. It's not that it was never a thing when I was running Curve, but certainly when you're a smaller team, everyone has a bigger impact, or a bigger part of what you're making.
And that relationship you have with those people and what they mean to the game, you have to respect them and make sure that they're happy and that they feel like they're making an impact and that they're autonomous.
And that's more important than it is in a bigger company.
GIANNI: Do you prefer being a designer or a boss?
JONATHAN: Oh god, no, I hate being a boss.
Yeah, like I have to do scheduling, spreadsheets, I have to worry about other people's stuff.
GIANNI: You're doing that currently though, right?
JONATHAN: Well, partly, but I also still program and still design.
But when I've got that out of the way, that's my pleasure to get back home with the kind of crafting side of things.
Yeah, that's what feels best to me.
GIANNI: Tell me about the team that you've assembled at All Possible Futures.
We're kind of completely international. The way that we split it is that we have code and design in the east, which is New Zealand, Australia, Tokyo, Osaka, Philippines, and actually someone on the west coast of Canada.
Who works evenings. But that's design and code.
In the west we have the art department, which is but our animators and our background artists and 3D artists.
And that kind of starts at South Africa and through to Amsterdam and then across Europe in London, all the way to the East Coast of America in Boston.
So we have this split of professionals that are linked effectively, mostly by Jamie and I, because we are the heads of those departments and we direct things that way.
But obviously everyone's working on Slack, everyone's working remotely and asynchronously at the same time.
So everyone on the team needs to be pretty good at what they do because there's a lot of autonomy.
We don't set... We don't set any times. That's for them to worry about. And people, they have their own lives and they have children, some of them, and they have things to do and things to crop up in life.
So that's something we just expect.
And the people who come and work with us, they really appreciate that.
But that for us is like a key part of having those team members.
And they're all, they work so much more happily as a result of being respected, I think.
GIANNI: How do you keep it all together? What does your production process actually look like?
Is it, you know, I'm just curious, because you've got people jumping in at all different times.
Do you have to organize it? There's a crossover time zone when everyone is online, or is it just departments that meet each other, and then you chat to Jamie?
JONATHAN: We certainly have a few challenges, yeah. Like sometimes I start meetings at 6 a.m., and then finish other meetings at 10 p.m., in the same day.
So there's a lot of time zone problems.
We did previously just have Jamie and I looking after it, but it's become too much because there's so many things on the boil now that we have a producer, she's coming in to help us to look after it.
We generally let people discuss things between themselves because we find that the better the team meshes, then the better the result really.
Everything goes through me or Jamie becomes a bottleneck and things stall.
So we need to make sure things are fluid and things keep moving.
Also great communication really. It has to be. It's just really tricky to do across those countries.
GIANNI: Tell me a little bit about, the game is in progress at the moment.
A few people have seen it and played it. And I'm just curious, what are you most proud of so far about how the game is at it is right now?
JONATHAN: For us, I think that we're exploring that initial idea really quite effectively.
It was a lightning strike moment when we thought that we could take this book with Jamie's artwork, make a 3D book of it, but then actually leave to explore the surroundings of that desk.
And I think for us, the promise of that mechanic is very rich and there's a lot of things you can do with it. we've really done some interesting things.
What we're doing is definitely unique, it's different. No one's really done it, and it's very tricky to do.
There are games like Mario Odyssey where you jump into 2D things.
But I think what we're doing is almost the reverse and also more ambitious than a Nintendo game, which is insane.
But I think the way that we're doing that successfully is, you know, I'm very proud of that.
And I think that people will enjoy it, definitely.
GIANNI: What have people told you about the game so far? People who've played it for the first time?
JONATHAN: Yeah, there's lovely words I get thrown, like, you know, joyous and warmth and happy.
And this is really important to us, is that we like cute things.
And, you know, we like making people smile. And it just so happens that being able to make something like that does make people smile.
We certainly stand out in, like, a lot of the kind of games that are around at the moment.
I'm not pointing other games down, but we seem to be coming from a different area.
I know when we were announced, we were shown alongside a lot of first-person shooters and horror games, and then suddenly there was this weird, colorful game about this boy in a book who hits badgers in the face, and people really want to it.
And I think that that's what people, when they play it, is that it makes them smile.
It makes them forget some of the troubles in their life, and they're like, this is what we're after.
You know, it's what we formed the studio for, was to make people feel that.
So that's really nice to be able to do that.
GIANNI: To me it feels very much like a Nintendo game. Right, yeah.
That's a comparison you're welcome or not, but I'm just curious, you know, is that the sort of space that you want to sit in, and you know, something that potentially anyone of all ages could be able to play?
JONATHAN: Yeah, we want to appeal to as many people as possible. We're kind of platform agnostic, and we just wanna make as many people happy as possible.
But yeah, in terms of it being a Nintendo game, so Jamie's made a game for Nintendo, he made Harmonite, and I've made two games for Nintendo, the Fluidity games, Hydroventure games.
So there's a lot of that DNA in there, and we've learned things from that that we are directly applying to the game we're making.
We're not necessarily trying to make a Nintendo game, it's just that I think-
GIANNI: The design language of it?
JONATHAN: Yeah, I think the design language is something that's natural for us to work in now.
And obviously, Jamie's artwork, it has those sensibilities anyway, that kind of, you know, Pikmin-esque, Mario-esque, Kirby, Captain Toad adventures.
You know, that's very similar kind of ground that he's treading.
Not on purpose, it's just because of what he likes. So I think a combination there of the design ethos, as well as the visuals, that really evokes that kind of Nintendo feeling.
GIANNI: How long until people can play it? The general public?
JONATHAN: I would say it's not too long, but long enough for us to finish it and make it good.
We don't want to rush it. You know, 2024. We don't want to say too much, but yeah, hopefully soon. But don't rush us. You want it to be good.
GIANNI: A delayed game is better than a game that's rushed. I think that's a famous Miyamoto quote there.
JONATHAN: That's right.
GIANNI: Bids, it's been a real pleasure speaking to you. Thank you so much for sitting down.
Taking the time to have a chat to me at PAX Aus and good luck with your presentation.
JONATHAN: Yeah, thank you. Thank you.
PROMO: Australia's best video game podcast. This is Lightmap. Get every episode free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and sifter.com.au.
GIANNI: That's all for today's show. Thanks for listening and checking out The Plucky Squire
We've got heaps of PAX Australia and Melbourne International Games Week coverage on the SIFTER website. That's sifter.com.au.
Now, SIFTER is produced by Fiona Bartholomaeus, Daniel Ang, Chris Button, Kyle Pauletto, Adam Christou, Mitch Loh is our Senior Producer, and my name is Gianni Di Giovanni and I'm the Executive Producer.
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