PAX East 2017: Ogre Head Studios and Nyamakop Bring International Style to the Show Floor
PAX East feels like an American convention. It could be from the historical Boston setting, or the opportunity to pay $15 for a ludicrously sized cinnamon roll. Interjections of Japanese culture make an appearance at places like the Square Enix booth, but even those are often overshadowed by what this year was a literal giant curtain with World War II branding.
That’s why it’s so refreshing to make it to the smaller booths and see what developers outside of the US think of the show, and how their backgrounds affect the ways they approach game design.
The first of the two distinctly international games I played at PAX East is called Asura. Developed by the Hyderabad, India-based Ogre Head Studio, Asura takes its inspiration from Indian myth, a well from which games don’t typically draw.
Asura leans heavily into its mythological muse by designing its characters, world and general aesthetic with Indian influence. The opening cutscene is voiced entirely in Hindi. Words like “bestiary” and “skills” are swapped out for their Sanskrit counterparts, Aukaad and Shastra, respectively. Bosses are modeled after characters in Indian lore. The inclusion of the Veda, or glossary, is a nice touch for those who want to familiarize themselves with another language.
As for gameplay, Asura is a rogue-like dungeon crawler. You hack and slash your way through a randomly generated map, picking up 120 different items of weapons and armor and learning new skills. In my short time with the game, I thought the core attack-and-dodge mechanics were a bit simplistic, but I can see how the desire to find new bosses and loot could keep players coming back. The randomly generated skill trees with new abilities each time keep playthroughs fresh, too.
I found the premise of Asura, a child being captured and burned at the stake only to come back as a demon and seek revenge, admittedly a bit too self-serious for my taste. But the story of how Asura came to be makes that air of serious determination more understandable.
Studio co-founders Zainuddeen Fahadh and Neeraj Kumar have spent time developing games, but their work was portions of development outsourced to India. They would put the work in, but they wouldn’t get the recognition or creative opportunities. So, given some time, the pair gathered their money on the side, launched Ogre Head and started work on Asura.
With Asura, the team is hoping to make a game that’s distinctly theirs, that’s unique to their culture. They’re hoping this game will inspire others in a similar situation to follow in their footsteps.
Semblance is taking the perspective of an international developer in a completely different direction. Made by South African studio Nyamakop (a delightful portmanteau of the Swahili word for “meat” and the Afrikaans word for “head”), Semblance is a jiggly, squishy puzzle-platformer where your big-eyed blob smashes into a malleable world to move around in creative ways. As team co-founder Ben Myres told me, the default of the world is soft and bouncy, and you have to push away the hardness that’s reared its ugly head.
Dash into a platform to bend it into a higher plateau and reach the top of an area. Make the floor bend and snap back into place once hit hits a beam of light to reset it, and you slingshot into the air. The end of the demo teased a bit of deforming the character itself later in the game. It’s smooth, it feels good and the puzzles are challenging but not irritating. If you get stuck, you can always come back to a stage later once you’ve mastered the skill you didn’t know you needed the first time.
According to Myres, working out of Johannesburg has its share of challenges. The five-person team deals with infrequent electricity, spotty internet and a market that’s half a world away. Myres tells me the player base in South Africa is more interested in large triple-A affairs, so they appeal largely to players in North America and Europe. For instance, look at Broforce, a game that satirizes American Patriotism but is developed by the Cape Town-based Free Lives.
“Coming to events like PAX here is so important for us, but it’s also super expensive. Coming from South Africa to the Game Developers Conference [in San Francisco] is one of the most expensive flights in the world,” Myres said.
This cost of travel, added to the difficulties of developing a game where they are makes the few opportunities with press and players that much more crucial for Nyamakop. It adds an extra layer of complexity to planning out convention appearances.
Eight months into development, Semblance has a few months to go until it’s finished. Myres and his co-founder Cukia “Sugar” Kimani are looking at an August release date, but they’re currently working to balance the draw of adding in more mechanics with the desire to release Semblance and move on to their next project. As of now, the game is set to come out on PC, but Nyamakop wants it on as many platforms as possible come release.
It’s always encouraging to see how playing games impacts people across the world, but the juxtaposition of how those people approach game development makes a place like PAX feel all the more inclusive.
Asura is expected to launch April 14 for PC, Mac and Linux. You can follow the development of Semblance on Nyamakop’s Twitter page.