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Q&A with Prism Studios

In a new series of interviews with local Northern Irish developers, we met with Stephen and Anna from the newly established Prism Studios. 

Hi guys, why don’t you start by telling us a bit about who you are and what you do?
Stephen – Hey, I’m Stephen Ferguson, from Northern Ireland and I am a game/level designer. I am a huge gamer, it occupies most of my time and I love analysing games after I have finished them. I want to create awesome content for people to enjoy. Having something that starts as just an idea I visualise in my head and can then craft that into something that someone else can enjoy and explore is great fun.

Anna – Hey! My name is Annemieke Eerkes (just call me Anna), I’m from the Netherlands and I’m a programmer/level designer. I absolutely love puzzles, and programming has always felt like some sort of Lego, where the only limits are your own imagination. Setting up our own game studio is a really exciting opportunity to get to do what I love!

Your first released project was Portal Stories: MEL – What got you into making mods?
Stephen – I have always enjoyed using level editors in games, the first level editor that I really remember enjoying messing about with was for Advance Wars for the GBA. I would set up all sorts of scenarios to see how the AI would react to given situations.

Obviously Portal was a huge game for me, it was incredible, and the sole reason I got my first gaming PC so I could finally run it. Portal 2 was even cooler and when it was announced they were releasing a level editor for it I was very excited. Of course, as is typical with Valve it took ages for it to come out and I didn’t want to wait anymore. They had already released their Authoring tools, which is the very un user friendly editor they use in house called Hammer. I started watching some tutorials on how to use hammer and just went from there.

I submitted my first map to a website called Thinking with Portals, which had a summer mapping contest, think I am came about 17th out of about 30 people. I kept working on custom maps by myself and learning from the feedback, there is a lot to learn when it comes to Hammer and level design and I had my own series of custom maps called Dilapidation, which got spotlighted by PC Gamer.  It wasn’t long before I met Anna who invited me on to the project which at the time only really consisted of the two of us and things just went from there.

Anna – I really loved the Portal games and I simply wanted more, the best way to get more is to actually make more! By working on mods you learn to analyze the entire game and you’ll get a much better understanding of all the mechanics and how they all interact. All the feedback that I’ve received on my work really inspired me to continue making more, improve my skills and surprise people with new stuff. Eventually I decided that I wanted to create a full campaign. This project grew over the years into a bigger and bigger project with more and more incredibly talented people on the team!

How successful was that mod?
Stephen – It’s been downloaded almost 800,000 times in slightly over a year, it has a Steam rating of over 94% at the moment and we won a Game Award for the best fan creation! We also won the “Best Singleplayer Experience” Editors Choice for ModDB and came 10th in the public vote for ModDB Mod of the year.

You followed up with Portal Stories: VR – how was working in VR and how this received?
Stephen – Originally it didn’t even start as a game and was just a VR showcase of one of our favourite levels from Mel. After the Lab came out and introduced the teleportation system for movement I was inspired to actually utilise that as a gameplay mechanic, rather than just a system of movement. I also made a second device which let you grab objects from far away and we incorporated them both into some existing portal mechanics and made some of our own. It was just a short little experience and me and Harry wrote the script for it in a single night, though as it often does when in a skype call with Harry, that meant 5am! It has been very well received and we even got some feedback from some developers at Valve and it has been downloaded over 60,000 times with a 95% positive review rating.

Anna – For me Portal Stories: VR was a whole new challenge. With Portal Stories: Mel we were quite constrained from a technical perspective. Since we were just modding we didn’t have access to the source code, and for some of the more advanced features we’d had to actually change hexadecimal values in encrypted files to get stuff working.
With Portal Stories: VR we couldn’t use the Source engine, since it doesn’t have support for VR. So we had to switch to a whole different engine and we chose Unreal Engine 4. This meant that we had to re-program all the game mechanics. It was incredibly fun to reverse engineer a variety of game mechanics whilst also adding our own. The funniest thing to me was actually accidentally recreating some of the same bugs in a whole different engine!

You’ve now started your own company with your own ip – Tell us a bit about how that’s happened
We’ve received so much great feedback on our previous games, and people telling us that they love what we’ve created. By going full-time with a whole new game we can invest much more time into it. That way we can create better and bigger experiences at a faster pace. By creating a proper company we can actually hire some very talented people to make even better games.

Can you tell us about the rest of your team?
At the moment we’ve got 4 people: the two of us, Ethan McLean and Harry Callaghan.

We’ve worked with Harry on both Portal Stories games, and he’s a very creative guy. He has his own YouTube channel with over 300,000 subscribers (Harry101UK) the skills he uses in his videos are also very useful in our games. He’s great with sound, both soundtrack and sound effects, modeling, some texturing and producing trailers and stuff.
Ethan is a 2D artist who has worked with various companies on a variety of projects, his concept art is incredibly inspiring and makes me super excited to see this all come together in the end!

Your team work remotely – how does that work for your company?
Good communication is obviously the key to success, and this is harder to do with a remote team. By constantly posting our work to each other, show what we’re up to and  providing feedback we stay in close communication. We also make sure that we do fun stuff together, instead of hanging around the coffee machine for a bit we hang out in a game of Left4Dead! We also make sure to have regular calls with the entire team just to make sure everyone knows exactly what’s going on and what’s expected of them.

Can you tell us anything about your upcoming game?

Our next game is called DR01D, we’re still very early in production so we don’t want to give away too much yet, and things are subject to change, but DR01D is a VR first person puzzle game with a strong narrative, based around solving puzzles simultaneously alongside robot companions who you direct about the map to help you complete tasks, retrieve objects etc. The game takes place in the future, you are part of an advanced AI tasked with fixing your space station after it suffered damage during a meteor storm that has wiped out life on Earth. You will do training puzzles before going down to Earth to salvage equipment to upgrade your robots and fix the station.

And finally, what’s you favourite games?

Stephen – Portal 2, The Witcher 3, Left 4 Dead, Spacechem, Metroid Prime would be my top 5

Anna – Bioshock 1 or Infinite, Portal 2, SpaceChem, League of Legends and DarkSouls III would probably be my top 5!

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