Geert Nellen is knackered. One of the three ‘plus an intern who helped out’ person team at Digital Dreams that brought us Metrico earlier in the month,  Nellen admits to crunching and working around the clock for roughly the last six months. ‘I’m amazed my girlfriend hasn’t left me,’ he somewhat blearily quips.

Escaping from round the torture of being chained to a desk during crunch has been motivation for many working in triple a to go indie. When you’re your own bosses why not cut yourselves some slack?
‘I just needed to finish the game, it’s that simple. You have no other choice than to work hard to get the thing off the ground. My girlfriend was pretty pissed off that we didn’t spend much time together, but in the end I’m happy I did it. People are liking it, it’s opened a lot of doors for us, and we made enough money to make our next project already’.

Metrico impressed with its creative puzzling, spellbinding art and synth soundtrack composed by Palmbomen, a friend of Nellen’s from a university art program. Still, it’s fair to say the game wasn’t designed to have a broad market appeal, and instant profitability is a big deal for a small team project with a vision like Metrico’s. Playstation Plus allowed Digital Dreams guaranteed money (‘we have to wait a little longer for it to come through, so no big vacations yet,’ Nellen laughs) at the cost of bigger margins on PSN store sales.

017_Metrico_screenshot‘It was an immensely hard decision. We had to think hard about how many sales we would lose compared to the money Plus offered us. Now we’ll never know how Metrico would have done on its own, which is a bit of a shame, I think. It would have been nice to know, and potentially we could have made more money, but at the same time it’s not just about the money, but a long-term thing of people getting to know your company. That’s huge for us, and the audience we’ve gotten isn’t something we could have achieved without Plus.’

To many with Vitas or Dual Shocks in hand, the Plus selection process is somewhat of a mystery, especially in Sony’s approach to the service in the PS4 era, where triple A releases that have had their initial runs sold through are shunned in favour of brand new smaller titles. Nellen paints a picture of a shadowy team, working diligently, but also mysteriously, appearing and disappearing without giving much in the way of warning or thinking time.

‘It was actually kind of crazy,’ Nellen comments of Metrico’s selection. ‘We were ramping up to release on the 22nd of July. Everything was going well, we finished, and were approved, so we got through the certification stuff. Then the PS Plus team, they’re a kind of group within Sony that plays a bunch of games and makes these decisions, they played the game and really liked it. They made us this offer all of about two weeks before release, and it just changed a lot of things, obviously’.

020_Metrico_screenshotThe lack of triple A material on Plus, especially on PS4, coupled with publishers like EA starting their own subscription model with Access, might well be a sign of Sony morphing Plus into an indie discovery service. Nellen isn’t convinced that’s the case, but supports the idea.

‘I think there’ll be more triple A games on the service pretty soon; I never thought of it as an indie discovery service, but it’d be a very good thing. It allows for such a wider audience to find out about these smaller games; there are these people who perhaps just play Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty or whatever that could really enjoy indie games, they just don’t know it yet’.

‘I’m not sure Sony sees it that way, but what I like about them is they see Playstation as a place for very unique experiences, and things like Journey, or Unfinished Swan, or maybe Metrico, I hope, are uniquely Playstation titles, Playstation experiences. I really like that, and hope these experimental kinds of games stays a part of the PS Plus philosophy’.

PS Plus meant that Metrico got a much larger audience than it would have (‘(on its own) it’s a difficult sell, because there’s so much to it, it’d be hard to market with a trailer’ Nellen concedes), and this has meant a huge number of Vita owners experienced a game that neatly divided critics in half. While Nellen is buoyed by the public response ‘it’s been almost completely positive, you could count the negative (Tweets) on one hand’, the mixed critical response, with reviews especially hostile toward accelerometer and camera based puzzles seems to rattle him.

‘We made a bunch of bold design choices,’ he admits. ‘It made sense because Metrico is a game about input. We wanted to look at all the input the player gives and experiment with that, encourage the player to try new things; that’s kind of the core of the game. The Vita has so many features that it kind of made sense to play around with those as well. It’s interesting that, if we have a puzzle where you have to jump five times to progress, the player will just do that without asking questions. We thought “why not take that to the next level and have some control over the players’ actions (in real life) as well”? All the hardware specific things in there are us trying to make the player do silly stuff.’

‘We had a hard time when the reviews came in. There were who really liked it, and some really, really hated it and gave us bad reviews. That’s tough, because you work on a game for years… But I understand, we made a lot of bold choices’.

A studio having their first major project (outside of small Flash games and contract work) be a Vita exclusive is a bold choice in itself, a decision Sony had a big say in.

Metrico_screenshot‘We always wanted to make something on console. We had this wish to make a game for Nintendo, Sony or Microsoft. I was a PC gamer before I started to make games, I still am, but I just like consoles. We didn’t necessarily want to make something specifically for the Vita, but when we pitched it around, Sony was interested and said it would really work well on Vita. We thought “OK, we’re just a small team. We have big ambitions but we can’t make a PS4 or PS3 title just yet. The Vita has a smaller screen, and people play games on it in a very different way”(…) We thought the concept of the game really fit the hardware. It made sense, Sony encouraged us to do it, and I’m really pleased we did’.

Now, a few weeks removed from launch, Digital Dreams is trying to unwind, though Gamescom and media commitments have hindered that somewhat. For Nellen though, the wheels keep turning, and his desire to move on to the next project is obvious.

‘It’s so hard to switch off, y’know? I just want to be making things. For Metrico, the idea came to me when I woke up, I made a note and a week later there was this game jam. We made a prototype and it was just really cool. We evolved it from there, but the basic idea never changed. Now there’s so much stuff I want to make. It’s hard after you work so hard for so long to try to find ways to fill your time with things that aren’t work related, but it’s important to do that’.

A well rested Nellen and Digital Dreams certainly have a bright future with Sony or anywhere else, and love or hate it’s more polarising elements, it’s hard not to be intrigued by what might come next.

Listen to the full 30 minute plus audio of this interview below, or subscribe to the iTunes popcast feed for plenty more.

Huge thanks to Geert for taking the time to chat.
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