Cold out, innit? That’s winter for you. Well, that, and the festive debt Christmas cheerfully plummets us into. You need to keep an eye out for black ice, too; the near-invisible coating of deadly frozen water that makes driving to Sainsburys an extreme sport. Basically, the message is: don’t go outside! It’s scary out there! Stay inside and play videogames!
The good news is there’s a much more pleasant black ice to be found – Black Ice, with capital letters. It’s a game you can play on your PC or laptop (and therefore stay indoors), and it’s currently completely free (therefore demanding precisely nothing of one’s overly anaemic wallet). It is of course the game featured in the video above, recorded by Mr Ian D (AKA Flik on YouTube). Black Ice was, and is still being, developed by one man – Garrett Cooper. Garrett was good enough to talk to us about the game appropriately enough through cyberspace; all the while wearing a neon Tron bodysuit (or so we like to believe).
“Black Ice is a Cyberpunk Hack & Shoot. It’s a cross between hack and slash RPG and a first person shooter, and it’s about hacking, so it’s like Borderlands meets Tron.” he says, sadly missing the opportunity to describe it as a ‘hack/slash, hack and slash’ game. “The world is procedurally generated, the loot is ridiculous, and the lasers are loud. You’ll like it, and it’s in open alpha, so give it a try!
And try it we have. Indeed, we started our first hack almost straight away; and not long after that, we came across our first enemy. “Spiders are evocative, they’re instantly recognizable as something to kill.” says Garrett, ever so slightly worryingly. “I also love puns, hence ‘Webcrawler’ for the spiders and ‘Popup’ for the jumping grasshopper-like spiders. That this is a zero budget game, and the model and animations for the spiders were free didn’t hurt.”
Indeed, developing the game by himself with a budget of zero, Garrett has taken advantage of freeware – and he’s keen to show his gratitude. “I like to give credit where I can, and I use a lot of free assets.” Insert Black Ice/frozen assets pun of your choice here. “Most of the people I’ve credited [on the Black Ice website] are just creators of free assets on the Unity Asset Store or OpenGameArt.org. The one exception is V-Axys, who actually created an original soundtrack for Black Ice. He’s a great guy! You can check out his stuff here. I get a lot of feedback from Reddit’s /r/GameDev, which is really great. Actually, the entire indie scene has been phenomenally friendly and helpful.”
Let’s back up a bit. How and why did Black Ice come to be? “I started this game in June, after rereading William Gibson’s Neuromancer and realizing I wanted to experience that take on hacking. The danger of dying in real life if you messed up in cyberspace, combined with the hallucinogenic visualization of data was too good to pass up. I’ve been working on the game ever since, so it’s been in development for about five months. I release a new build to the public every week, so it’s constant work.
While I was primarily visualizing the game as what I read in Neuromancer, I was definitely thinking of Tron too. Other influences: Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Diablo 2, Quake 3, and both Borderlands. I wanted to capture the cyberpunk atmosphere of Neuromancer and Snow Crash, the addictive loot and build variation of Diablo 2, the silky-smooth gameplay of Quake 3, and the humor of Borderlands.”
Garrett’s not done making Black Ice, not by a long shot. Describing the game as being in ‘open alpha’, he’s added tons of features since the first version, and plans a ton more “including multiplayer, biomes, the ability to hack anything (like to turn enemies to your side), sidequests, and of course, a lot more plot. While I don’t like to promise things I’m not sure I’ll get to, I’m fairly confident I’ll get that list done eventually.” He’s got big plans for the game once it’s built up sufficiently; more on that soon.
Reaction to his project has been overwhelmingly positive so far (“I’ve been surprised and extremely grateful that people almost unanimously enjoy the game”) but getting Black Ice in front of people in order for them to have an opinion at all is a job in itself. “They say that half of an indie’s job is programming, and the other half is marketing. I’m very active on Twitter, which helps. I seek out people on YouTube and Twitch to encourage them to play the game publicly. My greatest source of traffic, however, is Reddit […] Let me be absolutely clear: I LOVE LET’S PLAYERS! To say nothing of the excellent exposure, I get great feedback just by watching other people play. There’s only so much I can learn from playing the game myself, I need to get it in front of people. I actually have a disclosure on my website that people are allowed to create and monetize videos of Black Ice as much as they want. All I ask for is a link back to my site. I also love going on Twitch and answering questions while the streamer plays my game. It’s a lot of fun.”
How you play the game is of course entirely up to you, but Garrett likes to think it caters for every sort of player. “I was definitely aiming for gameplay that was possible in brief sessions. I think a lot of older players might appreciate being able to hop in and make meaningful progress in just a few minutes. That said, I think the game is well suited for long play sessions as well – there’s no reason not to keep going. I’d love to implement something like Nephalem Glory from Diablo 3 on console, which gives a great feeling of momentum to the game.”
Black Ice is the first game Garrett has made, and his enthusiasm and hard work is plain to see in the constant stream of updates. Given how many hours he has piled and will continue to pile into the project, it was perhaps inevitable that it won’t be staying free forever. “Once I add multiplayer and do some cosmetic updates, I’m going to start selling Black Ice. My plan is to price the game rather low at first, and raise the price over time, all the while providing free updates. I would love to get Black Ice on Steam and the Humble Bundle – I actually promised my wife I’d get a Black Ice tattoo if I do. So you’ve heard it here first – if you see Black Ice on Greenlight next year some time, and you want me to get a tattoo, vote yes!”
Two things caught our attention over his plans; the hasty (yet sincere) tattoo decision, and the idea of raising the price over time alongside free updates for existing owners – as seen with other indie projects, such as Spin The Bottle on Wii U. Once there is a price tag, it’ll still be possible to play the game for free (“While I definitely won’t be demanding that old versions of the game be taken down from the internet, I might get rid of my copies. I wouldn’t want people to get confused and think that the alpha is the final version”). Why go for that business model?
“I’m planning on this sort of model because I personally enjoy games like that. It makes sense – as the product gets better, it should cost more. And I always liked games with free updates, it keeps you coming back to play again. This is especially important considering that I designed Black Ice from the ground up as thoroughly replayable. I really want people to see an update, come back, and have fun again. This is how I played Minecraft, which followed a similar model. To some extent, so did Diablo 2 – while they released a paid expansion, the free content updates were amazing as well. Another advantage is that this will allow me to start selling the game earlier, which will allow me to fund things I need for further development, like Unity Pro, art, models, etc. Actually, I’d love to add Oculus Rift support for the game, but I’ll have to buy one first.
I can only think of a few disadvantages to this model. I might be diluting my press coverage over time, but with how unknown I am, I feel like getting the game into people’s hands as early as possible could only be a net benefit. It’s also possible that early adopters might spend more money on the game later, but there are several factors that counterbalance that – they’ll spread the word, giving more coverage and therefore players, and they’ll give feedback to improve the game. Honestly, while making a ton of money would be nice, I really just want to make a super fun game. If I just wanted to make money, I’d make a F2P microtransaction game and pay for a bunch of advertisement. I’d rather have people show their friends how much they enjoy the game.”
Wait! There was that dirty word… ‘microtransaction’. “One thing, I kind of hate microtransactions, so don’t expect to see any of those in Black Ice. I could maaaybe see myself offering something that doesn’t affect gameplay, like hats, but I would rather spend my time making the game play better. I’ll definitely be offering a demo version of the game alongside the final version. With luck, I’ll be able to offer a demo version that would let you continue your demo game in the main game, so you could just upgrade and keep playing.”
Interested? You must be if you made it to the bottom of the page! Head over to the Black Ice website to start playing the alpha for free, and see the neon-flavoured fruits of Garrett’s labours for yourself.