This article originally appeared in Volume XX, Issue VII of The University Observer’s Otwo supplement and online at universityobserver.ie
Andrei Marks from Cipher Prime Studios chats to Niall Gosker about the group’s innovative blending of games and music
For most people music is passively experienced. There’s no direct interaction between the listener and music source, which is why games based around musical experimentation, ones that break this long-standing rule, are often so compelling.
Philadelphia based independent developers Cipher Prime Studios have created for themselves a loyal following by playing with this convention, mixing deep musical immersion with exceptionally elegant and reactive visuals, resulting in an unmistakable style.
Cipher Prime had quite an unusual start, one that didn’t initially have video games in the business plan at all. Developer at the studio, Andrei Marks, explains its conception. “Cipher Prime started when the two co-founders, Will Stallwood and Dain Saint, met each other at a party, fell in love with each other’s work, and made a small business baby together.
“Cipher Prime was actually a web design and development company first”, Marks goes on to elaborate. “Auditorium,the game that really launched Cipher Prime as a game company, was initially meant to be a sort of digital business card. You know, to drive traffic to the site and get people interested. But it ended up being so successful on its own that Cipher Prime transitioned into just doing games full-time.”
It was a happy coincidence that led to unintended greatness. Auditorium’s unusual mixture of minimalistic visuals and auditory interaction would set the stage for much of the studio’s design philosophy going forward, as Marks explains. “We’re all very avid music listeners, and consider the meshing of audio and gameplay to be one of the more important parts of development.”
Given music’s prominence in all of their games so far, Cipher Prime is lucky to be blessed in this area with one of the finest talents in the industry, co-founder and composer Dain Saint. His melancholic, piano based soundtrack to 2012 biological puzzler Splice a particular highlight.
“He went to school for mechanical engineering, but he’s been playing the piano and other instruments ever since he was little. He’s really into exploring different genres, and has stepped into chiptunes, classical [the Splicesoundtrack], jazz [the Shimsham soundtrack], dubstep [the Intake soundtrack], and a lot of other sorts of music that aren’t in our games.”
Of course audio is just one half of the presentational aspect that makes Cipher Prime Studios’ games such a sensory delight to engage with. “If the audio is Dain’s favourite child, then the visuals are Will’s baby. He’s a graphic designer by trade, and has his own criteria for what makes something aesthetically pleasing.
“Since Cipher Prime also started as not a game company, we think our standards for how a game should look are slightly different. And since we tend to make abstract games, we also have a lot more freedom to explore our particular style.”
As the company consists of a small team they have more opportunities to experiment, the results of which often form the basis for their next full title. “We make a lot of little prototypes on the side, both as a whole team, in pairs, triplets, and individually. And sometimes it just so happens that we’ll make something that captures the imagination of everyone and we decide to run with it.”
Their independence is clearly something the team values very highly, but Marks is quick to point out that being an indie developer is very much a double-edged sword scenario. “It means being able to set your own hours, working on whatever you want, and working with super fun and creative people. It also means being at a permanent marketing disadvantage and always worrying about money.”
Perhaps the most notable, and tangible, benefit of this freedom has been the opportunity to build and foster a real sense of community and camaraderie with both their fans and other local creators, with their weekly open door ‘Dev Night’ event.
“It started out as a couple of developer friends hanging out after work, half playing games and half motivating each other to finish their personal projects because, you know, personal projects never get finished. Then it turns out we had a lot more people in the local game dev community who were interested in hanging out.
“So we opened the event to the public, and we’ve met a lot of cool people and found that Philly has a lot of great talent that’s simply been isolated. Now we really look forward to Thursday nights, because we get to share our stuff and see what other people have been working on. It’s just a lot of fun.”
Cipher Prime is now set on creating a co-op sequel to the game that paved the way for Fractal, Splice, and most recently, Intake, with the ambitious Auditorium 2: Duet. It had a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012 and since then, development has been underway. Marks concedes that it’s been slow going. “We are easily distractible people. And we will also admit that we’re slightly daunted by the thought of Duet.
“We want it to be the best of our games so far, like, by far. So we’re not rushing it, though now we have mixed feelings about having done a Kickstarter for it, because now we have two thousand people who backed up who may have different ideas about timelines.”
These two thousand backers are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the expectation surrounding the company’s next project; hopefully they won’t have too long to wait for this eagerly anticipated release.
For more information on the studio’s past, present, and future projects, visit http://www.cipherprime.com/