William Barr - Her Majesty’s SPIFFING interview
Billy Goat Entertainment’s comedy sci-fi adventure Her Majesty’s SPIFFING is quickly approaching its Windows and Xbox One release on the 20th of October, with the PS4 version following shortly after. Our meeting at gamescom enabled me to press director William Barr for details on the quirky 3D adventure, though unfortunately there was only very limited time for a playthrough, and I wasn’t able to see any puzzles in action as the first few minutes of the demo focused on dialogues and control mechanisms.
What I noticed right away, however, was the very sharp and intelligent writing. The game‘s story, involving the foundation of a “Galactic British Empire“, actually sounds pretty loopy initially. Yet based on my early impressions, it seems like a very clever way of being loopy, and the few minutes I spent with the game gave me some excellent laughs. So if you’d like more information on the Queen’s plan for inhabiting new galaxies, read on as my interview with William will give you a good idea of what to expect from Her Majesty’s SPIFFING.
Ingmar Böke: Hi Will, it’s a pleasure to have a chat with you, and find out more about Her Majesty’s SPIFFING. First, it would be great to have some background on Billy Goat Entertainment, and how the idea was born to develop your own adventure game.
William Barr at gamescom
William Barr: Thank you; well, we’re an obscure independent video game developer but it wasn’t always like this! We actually started life as an obscure animation studio, producing animated commercials mostly for Irish TV that, mercifully, it is very unlikely any of your readers will have seen! Her Majesty’s SPIFFING was originally an idea I had for a short film, however it quickly transpired that an animated short is the only thing more difficult to fund than an adventure game. That and we’d started to do some outsource game development work for other studios, so we actually had a team of guys we reckoned could make our characters a bit more interactive. Also I’m a big fan of ‘90s LucasArts games, from which we
plagiarise borrow heavily!
Ingmar: Please tell our readers a bit about the premise of Her Majesty’s SPIFFING.
Will: Her Majesty’s SPIFFING is set in a fictional near-future where an unexpected, very surprising political event has occurred, and Britain finds itself isolated from the rest of the global community. In many ways not unlike current or recent events.
Ingmar: (grins) You’ve seen it coming!
Will: (grins) I’m sorry, but it’s our fault! We knew about this all along, but we didn’t tell anyone because we were looking to maximize the PR for our game. (laughs) I mean, someone’s gotta benefit from Brexit, right?
Ingmar: (laughs) Absolutely!
Will: So basically the queen has decided that enough is enough and she is going to take back control herself. She sets up a space organization called “SPIFFING”, which stands for the “Special Planetary Investigative Force For Inhabiting New Galaxies”. SPIFFING, by the way, means something like very good or jolly good in the British culture. In the game you play the role of Captain Frank Lee English, who’s joined by his colleague Sub Lt. Aled Jones. The two of you are jetting across the galaxy trying to find new planets for a galactic British Empire, and along the way you bump into a couple of other people who are out doing the same thing.
Ingmar: What more can you tell us about Frank and Aled?
Will: Well, Frank was intended to be the embodiment of what is internationally regarded as the quintessential Englishman. He drinks a lot of tea, has impeccable manners, is constantly apologizing for everything and is very self-aware. He’s also a bit of a bumbling idiot, but in a lovable way. We hope people find him endearing; we are asking players to spend a few hours in his company! Aled, in contrast, is a sarcastic and often unhelpful companion. He hails from a village in south Wales and is actually a very intelligent individual; he just doesn’t apply himself as well as he ought to. In typical adventure game companion fashion, players should expect nothing other than ridicule from the chap.
Ingmar: I played a small bit of the game with a controller. What are the other control options?
Will: On PC, you will able to use a mouse and keyboard as well. All of the movement will use the WASD keys to walk around, but you use the mouse to hover over things, and right-click to open a wheel with several options to interact.
Ingmar: Is there anything you can say about the difficulty level?
Will: I think it depends on when you were born, honestly. Maybe a lot of people who grew up with the old ‘90s adventure games would say it’s too easy while younger people might say parts of it are too difficult. It’s very difficult to find a middle ground that everyone is going to be happy with. In saying that, we hope that people will find the game funny, and if they’re stuck I’d like to think they go on Google and find out very quickly how to progress. Again, in keeping with adventure game tradition, if all else fails players can just try combining every inventory item with things in the environment until something happens. I believe that Frank suggests this a number of times in the game. We’re also hoping that people who feel like it’s a little bit easier than they expected are going to be motivated by the story and the humor, nevertheless.
Ingmar: Aside from the difficulty level, please give us an idea of the different types of puzzles in the game.
Will: Gosh, spoilers! OK, seriously we have a lot of inventory puzzles; some things have to be used in a particular sequence in order to progress. Some items require you to inspect them to find something to progress to the next stage of a task. We have some mini-games in there as well that don’t really require any skill to complete, just a bit of lateral thinking. I’m not really selling it very well. Look, I can confirm that there is no pixel hunting; all the other polarizing adventure game tropes are there in spades!
Ingmar: Earlier on, you showed me a hilarious scene involving some very nice gentlemen from France. I mean, there’s a bad way of being over-the top, and – as in this case – a very cool way...
Will: (grins) Yeah, later on in the game you land on this planet, and you find out the French got there before you, and you need to figure out a way to remove them. We try to ensure that we’re even-handed with the ridiculed. Obviously, there are a lot of the traditional English stereotypes, and a lot of the traditional French stereotypes, so everyone is equally berated.
Ingmar: Can you give me a rough idea of the game’s length?
Will: The people who played through the game so far have taken around 3 – 3 ½ hours to finish.
Ingmar: Well, I don’t know if it’s just me, but I prefer a shorter game with 3 hours of fun compared to a 10-hour game which is funny at times but also contains several hours of boring stuff.
Will: (laughs) Things could be worse, though. It could be a 3-hour game with you not having any fun, so I guess that would the worst-case scenario!
Ingmar: Fortunately, based on what I have seen, I’m quite confident that’s not going to happen. (laughs) But anyway… what kind of work on Her Majesty’s SPIFFING is left to do for you?
Will: There is some sound design that needs to be finished up, and one or two animations that are missing and need to go in, but for the most part the actual development is finished. Our original plan was to try and release the game on PS4, Xbox One and PC at the same time. However we've conceded that's asking a bit too much of of small development team, so we've reluctantly decided to push the PS4 version back a little bit. Right now we're concentrating on finishing the Xbox and PC versions; avoiding any huge dramas both will be available at the end of October.
Developing for consoles involves much more red tape than self-publishing on PC; we're going through the latter stages of the submission process with Microsoft at the moment. They test the game quite thoroughly to ensure the game doesn’t break the console, steal all your data, etc. The biggest task is ensuring the game complies with their specifications for things like saving and managing user profiles. But, as I say, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel!
Ingmar: Would you delay releasing the game on PC and Xbox so you can release all of them at the same time?
Will: Honestly, in an ideal world, a world where I had access to a Scrooge McDuck money vault to swim in during lunchtimes, we probably would, yes. However, we've flown quite close to the sun developing SPIFFING and our bank manager often reminds us that our wax wings won't last much longer! (Just to clarify, wax wings are an analogy for huge arranged overdraft facility.) We’re a small developer and have spent all of the last two years working on SPIFFING at this point. We've spent a lot of our own money on it and to avoid a similar fate to Icarus (in this analogy, Icarus's bank manager forces Icarus to declare himself insolvent and closes his indie game studio), we need a few people to buy the game soon! Capitalism, innit.
Ingmar: Well, hopefully, the game is going to sell well, so you don’t end up in prison because of that overdraft. (grins) Let’s say everything works out fine; is there already a long-term plan for Billy Goat Entertainment?
Will: (grins) Oh yeah, for sure! The art guys haven’t been working on Her Majesty’s SPIFFING as much in the last couple of months, so they have been working on the concept for the project we want to do afterwards. It’ll be something completely different, and quite a small game. We don’t intend to take as long developing it as we have done with Her Majesty’s SPIFFING. The idea is that that will hopefully buy us some time, so we can plan what the next project is. We very much hope that Her Majesty’s SPIFFING will sell enough copies so we can do a sequel to it. This is our first… I would say, proper game, and we have a vision for a series of SPIFFING games, and it would be nice to be able to go on to do that!