Since being first announced as Sabotage, Replay Studios' "James Bond movie in the Second World War" (don't call it a "World War II game") has gone through multiple publishers and a name change.
Now it's called Velvet Assassin, and is set to be published by indie torchbearer Gamecock Media Group for a fall release on PC and Xbox 360. The game, whose protagonist Violette Summer takes a more subtle approach than the front-line characters in most WW2-era games, is a fictionalized account of real-life allied secret agent Violette Szabo.
Marc Moehring, founder and managing director of Hamburg, Germany-based Replay Studios, sat down with Gamasutra to discuss the game, as well as why the company is moving away from internally-developed engines and pulling away from the PC platform after being founded as a PC-oriented developer.
Why did you change the name from Sabotage to Velvet Assassin?
MM: Two reasons: one is that we started the project five years ago, and the team got bored with the name Sabotage. Itís a long story, we changed publishers several times -- it has to do with a lot of problems that happened after 2000.
Which problems do you mean?
MM: Problems with publishers, who were run out of business, the whole industry went down. Getting financing for an independent project was hard. We just started a year ago with Gamecock and part of the idea was to create a much better name. At the beginning, Sabotage was only a working title for us.
The second point is that EA Pandemic is creating Saboteur and we had trademark issues. We're keeping the trademark on Sabotage in Europe and they've got the trademark in the U.S. for Saboteur. Instead of fighting with them and going to court, we decided to give it a new name. It was also very cool with Gamecock because we came up with the name in a couple of days - no long marketing discussions. We are very happy with it.
The game is loosely based on a true story Ė but why have the protagonist die? What does that get for you? From a story standpoint, what can you do with her death?
MM: The original story was just an inspiration for us, but it's great because weíre a German team, and you play a female British agent. We looked around a lot lot for a story before we started with the game concept.
Violet Szabo inspired us and the whole story. Her husband was killed in one of the first actions of the war -- he was an Air Force commander, and was shot down by Germans in the first week of the war. Iím sure she lost everything then, so she started an education in the secret service, and started undertaking missions in Germany and all over Europe. We loved the story - it was a good inspiration in the end.
Itís interesting to me that a lot of German teams make games about defeating the Germans...?
MM: Not necessarily. With real-time strategies, possibly, but when we first started trying to find a publisher, most of the French and English publishers told us, ďYouíre totally crazy Ė youíre Germans and are doing a game where you have to fight against Germans.Ē
But from our point of view in Germany and Europe, weíre totally open. If you were born in the seventies or the eighties, you see it every day on TV Ė the good guys were the Allies, and the bad guys were the Germans -- we could handle it.
If you were making a game where you played as the German side, against the allies Ė the US or the British forces - you'd have a big problem with PR, and internationally.
On the other side, if you look at World War II franchises like Wolfenstein, most have teams of Germans online, so you see a lot of U.S. and UK players playing as Germans. But if Germans play as Germans... It has something to do with the story of the Second World War and the distance between here and there.
I didnít see a whole lot of military iconography in the game. Why was that? Was it just because what we saw was taking place in a prison, or was it purposefully left out?
MM: We're trying to be very unique with our concept, not just deliver another shooter with World War II equipment. Itís more like a James Bond movie in the Second World War, so weíre very particular about that. We didn't want to have all the tanks and all the weapons reproduced like all the other shooters.
I mean the Nazi flags or insignia Ė I didnít see that all over the place.
MM: That's because it's a German version. As a German developer itís forbidden to use Nazi symbols. It might make it into the international version, but for us itís not allowed.
There's an interesting mechanic with morphine, too -- it seems interesting from a story standpoint that itís functionally changing her memory of the events. Does that tie into the story at all, the fact that that changes the outcome or not? Itís also seems like it's reflecting on the character.
MM: Itís reflecting on the character, but it's still a linear storyline. I donít know if you caught the story with the gold in the game?
We're planning an alternate reality game with a suitcase full of gold hidden in the real world, so if you play the game very carefully and overdose on morphine in different parts you'll get hints and a different ending, so as a player you can play the game first and then bring that into the world through the internet. Itís a new kind of gameplay, bringing gamers and the story together with reality.
The first thing I noticed from the demo is the lighting is pretty sophisticated Ė the way that the flashlights work and play over different surfaces like glass. How much was done with that?
Marc Moehring: We started with the real-time lighting system two months ago. Itís an in-house production and and in-house engine, and weíre in the middle of that technology at the moment. At the moment you're seeing just the initial possibilities of we can do with the engine.
The idea behind this was that weíd create a stealth action game where you donít have safe areas that you set up in the level design, creating deeper gameplay involving changing hidden areas, shadows, and real-time lightning.
It starts with putting lights outside the house with the lightning coming through the window. The whole in-house scenario is different -- it gives you more shocking gameplay. Itís really cool when youíre hidden behind a box and enemies are coming with the flashlight, cruising around, and you have to change your position. From that gameplay perspective it's a very nice effect.
Itís all an in-house engine?
MM: Yes, we have an in-house engine called the Replay Engine. We started development on it four years ago, but itís just for Velvet Assassin. After this we will go to middleware, because itís very hard for a small team. In total we have thirty-five team members and itís hard to supply in-house technology.
You don't think the engine is adaptable for future products?
MM: We've already started due diligence on middleware, so from here we will move our next projects to Unreal Engine 3. We don't want to do an Unreal Engine 3 game like everyone else, though, as we're specializing in atmosphere and lightning, so we want to bring that atmosphere to the Unreal engine. Thatís our main goal for the future.
A lot of people have been saying recently that it is really useful to have that Unreal as a base but you have to build so much on top of it that in many ways itís better to keep your own engine. I guess youíve found that isnít the case for you?
MM: No. We're actually moving away from PC development. Germany's famous for its PC market, but we're planning on going to consoles more in the future. Our in-house technology works on Xbox 360, but itís not possible to port it to PS3, so we'll have to change things. We donít want to hire a whole team just for technology.
We also have the Crytek technology in Germany, but it also hasn't moved to consoles at the moment, so it'll have to be Unreal. They've still got problems with the PS3 at the moment, but they're working to fix it, so we think if we are ready to start with a game in summer, we'll be in a good position.
Do you think that the offline PC market is still healthy?
MM: Itís not healthy. The problem is that we are not a huge team, and there are already a lot of good multiplayer games out there, so we're not looking to copy them.
Our game is very story-driven. From an atmosphere perspective itís very deep, has a nice story and gives you fifteen to twenty hours of gameplay, so I think itís different than other online World War II games. For a very story-heavy PC and Xbox 360 game, we think Velvet Assassin will work. For the future, I donít know, but we will go for online for sure.
So youíre looking into that now?
MM: Yes. We have two concepts. We are a second episode of Velvet Assassin to continue the story -- we have a lot of great ideas for that. Weíre also working on our new game called Survivor, and weíre also going with that. That'll be just for next-gen consoles with no PC versions planned.
We are the first team in Germany thatís going console-only. Other teams are trying to keep making PC versions of games, but the PC market is not healthy enough.
Even in Germany?
MM: Yes. Itís going down more to console. I think itís better for us because with PC you have all these compatibility problems Ė new graphic cards, new PC chips, new system versions. Itís hard to handle, with a small team.