Interview with Bossa Studios' Luke Williams

I Am Bread is Bossa Studios’ follow-up to indie smash hit Surgeon Simulator 2013. The game, in which you control a control a piece of bread in its quest to become delicious toast, has already been met with a positive response from early-access players.

We recently caught up with one of Bossa’s game designers, Luke Williams, at EGX Rezzed, and grilled him (pardon the pun) on I Am Bread, Surgeon Simulator, British humour and more.

Adam Shepherd: Thanks for joining us, Luke. I Am Bread is your second major game, right?

Luke Williams: It’s the second game to kind of… do well, I suppose, to put it bluntly. Surgeon Simulator kind of came out of nowhere, for us. Like, it was me and three other guys, we were messing around at a game jam, and then on the Monday it kind of blew up, and, yeah, we turned that into a full title, and that was for more of a Steam audience. I Am Bread is a similar thing, it was a game jam as well, but this time internally in the studio.

AS: Have you found that regular game jams are a good way to boost creativity?

LW: Yeah, absolutely. I mean obviously we have our core team, and different teams working on different stuff, but this kind of puts people together that they might otherwise not be working with, and kind of just sets them free a bit.

It’s like, three, four, five people, here’s a rough sort of theme, and then it’s like, just go and try and make something, so people just kind of mess around – we’ve been through maybe 40 or 50 ideas and prototypes that you kind of play, and it’s not really there. But then, you don’t go into it expecting to come out with something amazing out of every game jam; sometimes ideas just don’t come together.

But that’s why game jams are great, because you’ve only spent two days, and you more or less can prove if a potential idea works or not. None of this writing up a big-ass document that details it all, then making it, and then being like, ‘Ah, well, we’ll keep doing it and maybe it’ll become fun’, blah blah blah.

We found it easier to just smash it out in two days – is it fun, yes or no. And then kind of go from there. And the result of that is stuff like I Am Bread. And that was a year and a half after Surgeon, so it does take a while, you go through a lot of prototypes, but then you find something that works, everyone’s like, ‘Yeah, there’s something here’ and then we kind of developed it further.

We released a video in October, and then four days later it had over a million views, and that was our way of going, ‘OK, people are interested in this game’. We developed it further, released it in December, and now we’re coming out of early access this month. We’ve been steadily updating it since Christmas, and now it’s ready to be considered a full game, so it’s a pretty exciting time.

AS: Would you say you make your games with deliberately challenging mechanics?

LW: Not deliberately difficult or obtuse. What I like to do is have a challenge from my perspective in how I’m going to control something. Like, how am I going to let the player control something, but still in the easiest way possible.

When we were doing Surgeon, we had the hand, and the fingers – we wanted you to control each finger, and we wanted you to control the hand. We played with all sorts of control types and schemes and different settings and stuff to make that as easy as possible. So with Bread, it was like, ‘Well, how would bread move?’ and we were like, ‘Oh, it would kind of flop around, and do all this kind of stuff’.

We tried all sorts of stuff, with the control sticks, and wobbling it around and everything, and we settled on this one, that let us move the bread in a way that I guess people would imagine bread to move? But then also have a skill cap there. You can actually get really good at the game, even though at the start, you’re like, ‘This is impossible’.

I think there’s that bit where every time you play, you get a little bit further, you do a little bit better, the patient dies a little bit slower; all this stuff. And then that’s the hook, that’s our natural skill progression, where you actually do get good at the game. You don’t unlock new abilities or anything like that; you have the core movement and control scheme there.

AS: Would you say that your games are more traditional in that respect – that it’s more about mastering the mechanics than simply putting more time in?

LW: I guess, to a degree, yeah. It’s more traditional in the sense that back in the day, you wouldn’t really have any prescribed control schemes. Every game you played was like, here’s a sheet of everything you need to know, whereas now obviously, we’re falling into third-persons, and first-persons, and 2D platformers and stuff.

And I think that’s what’s got us a little bit of attention, the fact that everyone’s on an equal footing – no one’s ever controlled a game like Surgeon or I Am Bread, and they have to essentially learn a whole new control scheme, and that’s got an element of the old school way of how you play games, where you’d actually have to… You wouldn’t get far in the first level, you know, you would die. It’s difficult to get past that level.

Whereas now, there’s definitely a thing of, like, ‘Shit, we need to make sure that we get the player through the game’, whereas we’ve gone ‘well, you ain’t getting through the game unless you get better at it’. I think that’s definitely more of an old school sort of approach to it. But I feel like that’s the same thing that’s almost being tapped into now with stuff like Dark Souls, where they’re going, ‘Yeah, get good at the game’, y’know, ‘You wanna get further? Get good at the game’. And that’s kinda cool. That’s exciting.

AS: Would you say that your games are infused with more of a British sense of humour?

LW: Yeah, but I think only because there’s English people making it. It’s not necessarily in-your-face; it’s dark, and we kind of find that funny, that it’s a little bit dark and twisted and stuff. But I think a lot of games are making the mistake of when they do British humour, they try to go ‘haha, tea and coffee, and toff toff, like, posh English person, get it?’ And I don’t think that works, really. The way we’ve done it is, it’s set in England, and we thought the idea of stuff that was shit is funny.

So, that’s why we set our games in the ’80s, because the technology is so shit that it’s funny, and I think that the idea of you just trashing a guy’s house, and slowly driving the guy insane – it’s one of those, it’s quite happy, the music and stuff’s quite cheerful and it’s almost like it’s a little old school, or not necessarily old school, but you know like, ten years ago, you’d have weird gaming characters. And so that’s the idea, the bread is that.

But then, we’ve kind of got this dark undertone of you driving a man insane, who’s already… If you just play one of the levels, there’s empty whisky bottles everywhere, and the house is a mess, this guy is clearly going through a pretty hard time, but we don’t bring attention to it. We don’t go like, ‘Oh, d’you get it?’ We just let it be there and then people kind of go ‘wait a minute’, after they’re cheerfully flopping their bread around, they kind of notice what they’re doing. And that’s quite interesting.

I don’t know if that’s British humour or not, but I think we always have that darker side of it. We’re quite happy to make fun of unfortunate circumstances, I guess. We’re quite self-deprecating, and there’s an element of that.

I think players like playing as something useless. With the Surgeon Simulator guy, it’s like, that was funny, but the character was just hopeless. I dunno, we just find stuff like that funny, I guess. Just, stupid stuff that we like – crappy puns, in bread; or just the fact that there’s a three-pin plug socket, and people are like, ‘What’s that?’ and you’re just like, ‘That’s English, that is.’ And you just put an English stamp throughout it.

AS: Was it the Casualty theme that was in Surgeon Simulator?

LW: Yeah, that was the thing that drove it to be in the ’80s, actually, because, well, we were doing a medical thing, and I was like, ‘Oh, what about the Casualty theme’, because back then, it was a game jam, so there was no copyrighting. We quickly had to change it [when Bossa Studios released Surgeon Simulator], so we quickly just threw out the Casualty theme tune, and we found the ’80s one, which was so cheesy, and so weird – cause back in the day, that was a proper, serious soundtrack. And now it’s just comical.

And that was where we went with that – it’s super serious surgery, but if you put this ’80s beat over it, it makes the whole thing so absurd. It’s just like that, it’s just fun. Just, shit stuff is funny. That’s the key thing. Because in Bread, when it’s doing a TV, or something like that, it’s like, ‘What’s the shittest version we can find? ‘Cause that’s funny’. The shittest version of a technology is always the funniest.

AS: How did you get Valve to let you do the Team Fortress 2 content in Surgeon?

LW: So, when we thinking of the theme of the game, the visual look, we wanted it gruesome, but not, like, disgusting gruesome? And I remember watching the ‘Meet The Medic’ video, and that quite slapstick way he pulls out the rib and he’s like, ‘Don’t worry about that’ and blah blah blah. And we’re like, that’s the kind of setting and theme we want for Surgeon, and so it actually just went full circle, where we made the game, it kinda got successful, Valve saw it, they liked it, and then we were like, ‘Yeah!’

And I think it was a drunk conversation at GDC one year, where it clearly came up that, yeah, we did use that as a reference point. And they were like, ‘Yeah, you could totally just make that whole sequence as a level’ and we were like, ‘Yeah, I know’, so they just sent us all the assets; just gave it all to us, and we just built it, and that was that.

AS: God bless Gaben.

LW: Yeah, yeah, exactly. They’re great with that stuff, they just like to have fun with it. So, it’s been pretty awesome.

AS: What would you say your favourite game is that you’ve worked on?

LW: That would probably be our current one, Worlds Adrift. My inspiration for it was Wind Waker and Skies of Arcadia. It’s taking our love of physics, that we’ve had in developing I Am Bread and Surgeon Simulator, but it’s a huge, open world of flying islands, where you group together with whoever you want, and you basically build airships in the sky, with your mates, gathering resources and then you fly off to whatever island you want. ‘See that one over there; see that one over there?’

And then storms and weather and other players will potentially get in your way, but it’s all about keeping your ship alive, keeping it running, and exploring the ruins of ancient worlds. And then we also have a grappling hook thing, where you can swing under the islands and`swing through the caves, swing from ship to ship – proper swashbuckling, crazy physics stuff. And it’s so much fun, and it’s really crazy and over-ambitious.

AS: How far along are you with it?

LW: We’re a few months in. There’s some videos you can check out online. We’ve also got a few dev diaries, stuff like that. So we’re still trying to get eyes on it, really, and so far, the reaction has been really positive; we were talking about it at GDC, stuff like that. It’s pretty exciting stuff – that’s the one that’s like, my dream game, and now we’ve got the chance to make it, so I’m really hoping that takes off. Hopefully this time next year, it’ll be out there, and everyone will be excitedly playing it.

AS: Thanks for your time, Luke. You can check out more from Worlds Adrift over at Bossa Studios’ official website, or watch the latest gameplay video below:

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