With our only experience of zany platformer-cum-party-game Unbox coming at EGX last year, we were keen to get to grips with the finished title at Play Expo 2016 last weekend.
Developed by fledgling British indie studio Prospect Games, Unbox combines a classic 3D platforming single-player experience with the hilarity of local multiplayer games such as Mario Party and Crash Team Racing. Although its inspirations are clear from the outset, its premise is a unique one: rather than taking on a colourful mascot as its protagonist, Unbox centres around a number of self-delivering cardboard boxes that work for the ultimate postal service, GPS.
In theory, the idea sounds a little ludicrous and as though it should probably never work, but Prospect have managed to create a tongue-in-cheek affair that brings players a great deal of satisfaction in seeing their customised cardboard boxes go at it hammer-and-tongs. By either racing each other to the finish line or firing missiles at each other in a death-match scenario, Unbox’s players must determine who’s destined for the shredder.
We had the opportunity to explore both Unbox’s single-player experience and its competitive multiplayer mode at Play Expo, with each allowing us to relive various aspects of some of our fondest games of yesteryear, from the open-world platforming of Spyro the Dragon and Jak and Daxter to the frustration of Goldeneye 007 and Super Mario Kart multiplayer matches. Unbox particularly excels in the latter, and in all honesty we spent far too long battling it out for supremacy as the queue of people waiting to play grew increasingly restless behind us.
After finally dragging ourselves away from the booth, we had the opportunity to sit down with Prospect’s managing director, Andrew Bennison, to find out more about the game, as well as the history and the future of Unbox.
Chris Mawson: The last we played Unbox was at EGX in 2015, so quite a bit has changed since then. First off, could you please introduce those who may be unfamiliar with the game to its premise and core mechanics?
Andrew Bennison: Unbox is a 3D platformer about the ultimate postal service: self-delivering cardboard boxes. The single-player is a massive Super Mario-type experience, where you’re jumping around worlds, completing challenges, collecting things, and blowing up bosses. You can also jump into local multiplayer with your friends: we’ve got four-player split-screen with racing, arena battling, and lots of cosmetics for customising your box. At EGX last year, it was the first time we were showing off the single-player, so what you were playing there was a game that was about a month old. Since then, we’ve 12 months to make it far, far better, and we’ve seen a really positive response in the last few months since we launched on Steam.
CM: What has the roadmap looked like from then until now; has Unbox been through Early Access, for instance?
AB: We started on Greenlight; we chose not to do Early Access. The roadmap has been about as zig-zaggy as possible! The plan went all over the show. Initially we wanted to do a simultaneous release [across PC and console], but it was a bit too much for our small outfit, and we also wanted to gauge customer reactions, and see if people even wanted it on Xbox and PlayStation. And, of course, we wanted to make some money, so we thought, let’s bring the revenues forward, let’s bring it out on PC, and use that to judge what platforms we should bring it to next. And it’s honestly been a resounding success.
CM: Fantastic. Could you tell us a little about your influences for the game? What first drew me in was Unbox’s cartoony, stylised aesthetic, which reminded me quite a lot of some of the early 3D platformers. Were they amongst your inspirations?
AB: We originally came up with Unbox in the Unreal 4 Game Jam, and the theme was “What’s in the box?”, so that’s where we got the core mechanic from. But really, everything else was built up from our collective experiences playing games in the ’90s: everything from Super Mario Kart to Diddy Kong Racing, Goldeneye; there’s even a bit of Doom in there. So everything that we grew up playing in the ’90s; we thought, let’s smush it all together into cardboard form and see if it works – and bizarrely, it did.
CM: Can you give us an insight into some of the different mini-games we’ve been playing here today in Unbox’s multiplayer mode?
AB: The multiplayer is really split down the middle between delivery and arena. So delivery is essentially racing: four players have got to race along a track and get in a box at the end of it. Along the way, they can blow each other up and land in checkpoints across these big maps. And then arena is split up into four game modes. You’ve got boxing, collect, oddbox and thief, and those are all game modes based around basically trying to screw each other over: stealing coins from one another or just blowing each other up.
Adam Lloyd: You mentioned that the single-player is a free-roaming platformer. Do you have different environments in there, or is it just one big, open map?
AB: You start in the hub world, at GPS’s headquarters. From there, they’re going to send you off to three massive worlds, so rather than make lots of small ones we decided to go all-in with the big ones. I think, collectively, the landmass of the game adds up to half of Fallout 4; we really went into it. We’ve got three worlds: Paradise Isles, Parcel Peaks and Isla Cartulina. The first one is a tropical island, the second is a snowy mountaintop, and the third one is an ancient jungle island. It’s kind of like Jurassic Park, but with lots of ancient ruins.
CM: Can you break down the single-player gameplay a little bit more? Is it a pure platformer with a ‘collectathon’-type experience, or have you got a mix of things in there?
AB: It’s a bit of everything. The main storyline is that you take on the role of Newbie, a new cardboard box at the GPS headquarters. You’ve got to roll out and prove to the world that this self-delivering technology is ready, while at the same time save GPS from the Wildcards, a band of evil, dastardly boxes that have gone rogue and are trying to destroy GPS. So there are lots of challenges built around that process, but along the way there are items that you can collect, secrets you can unlock and vehicles that you can drive around just for the fun of it. We’ve tried to make it where if you just want to blast through the game and complete the core challenges, you can do that, but there’s also a lot more replayability and extra things you can do along the way.
AL: Does Unbox have gated-off areas that require a certain number of collectables to unlock; is it going to be that kind of gameplay?
AB: Effectively, yeah. When you enter world one, in order to defeat the boss you have to collect a number of stamps, which you get by completing challenges. If you beat the boss you get the gold stamp, and that unlocks the next world. We decided to give players the entire world to begin with, as a big sandbox. You can do the challenges in any order; you can even find hidden stamps in the worlds, so you don’t necessarily even have to do a particular challenge if you’re a little stuck. And that process is repeated throughout each world.
AL: Going back to the multiplayer, you’ve mentioned that there are several different weapons; we’ve tried a few of them out today. Which one is your favourite to use?
AB: I’d say the teleporter. When you fire that, when it hits a player it teleports them back to wherever you fired it from. So there’s an art in staying as far back as possible to shoot them, just to see them fly across the map at high speeds and respawn back where you shot. It’s the ultimate troll weapon in my opinion!
CM: We’ve seen a variety of ages playing the game today: a lot of younger kids and older people as well. Has Unbox’s core gameplay been designed with a wide audience in mind?
AB: Yeah, absolutely. When we originally did the game jam, we were trying to make this a product for the 25-35-year-old market; gamers like ourselves who played these in the past, but are now a little more mature and a little more skilled. The game was actually a lot different then: stylistically, tonally and difficulty wise. As we took it to more events, we found more and more kids enjoying it, so we decided to go for a more colourful, fun experience – while at the same time not cutting off that 25-35-year-old market. So the controls have been heavily influenced by that: we came up with a camera assist system so you can actually play most of the game without ever actually touching the right stick, but if you want to, you can turn that off for a more hardcore experience. We’ve tried to make it as scalable and accessible to as many people as possible.
CM: In terms of the box cosmetics you touched on earlier, there seems to be a lot of depth to the customisation options in the game. Are these items unlocked as you progress through the single-player campaign?
AB: Effectively, yeah. Completing challenges, finding stamps, getting gold tape, discovering little secrets – all of those unlock your cosmetics. And we’re going to be adding more and more of those to the game to begin with, so you’ll have a greater variety to play around with if you’ve just got the game for the first time.
CM: Is Unbox exclusively a couch multiplayer title? Does online gameplay exist, or is there the potential for it to be introduced in the future?
AB: We really wanted to make a local multiplayer experience like the old-school days. A part of that is because doing online is really expensive and very difficult, so we figured let’s try local; if people really like it we can consider adding features or maybe consider making Unbox 2 down the line, with some online functionality.
CM: Looking at the Prospect Games team, you all seem to be fairly young developers. Can you tell us a little about your collective backgrounds and what led you all to work together?
AB: Prospect was founded by myself, Jack Bognar and Tim Sherliker. We were all at a games course in Salford, just around the corner from here. We graduated in 2010 and went out into the industry, but decided that actually, we quite liked doing our own thing. So we saved up some money, moved into a flat, found some other people to work with, raised a bit of dosh, and the rest is history. We’re all quite young – I don’t think any of us are older than 27, 28 – but we’ve had quite a lot of experience in the industry already. We figured that before we have kids and mortgages and this whole indie thing becomes a little too risky, we may as well try it out.
AL: Finally, can you tell us where and when Unbox is available?
AB: Unbox is on Steam right now; we launched about a month ago. We’ve had a great reception, and lots of people are asking for the game it on more platforms. We’d very much like to bring Unbox those other platforms, and we’ll have lots of announcements on our Twitter, @ProspectGames, and on Facebook very soon.
Have you had the opportunity to play Unbox? Would you like to see it released on PS4 or Xbox One? Let us know in the comments below.