Ahead of the release of their newest title, Pitch Black, I spoke to the developers at Purple Jam to learn how they’ve gone about creating an audio-only game, and what they have learned along the way.
Thanks for joining me today. Before we get started, would you be able to give us a bit of background on your team?
Sure thing. So, Purple Jam consists of three audio specialists turned game developers. We first met each other last September when we were powering through our Masters’ at the University of Derby. But it wasn’t until we reassessed our lives did we decide to join forces and create the game of all games – Pitch Black: A Dusklight Story.
In a flash of inspiration, Harry Cooper (commonly known as ‘The Mastermind’), had the idea of creating a binaural based audio game. Naturally, Connor and Jordan were immediately on board with the idea. Together, we had a combined experience in sound design, composition, game development, and narrative construction, so teaming up to create this game was a no-brainer. And as any game developer knows, standing out in a sea of games is tough, especially in today’s market. So, we set on our journey to create a diverse, deep and exciting experience, which hopefully stands out from the crowd.
Great. So, tell us about your new game? How does it work?
Our newest game, Pitch Black, is a narrative-driven, 3D binaural audio game that is entirely accessible to the blind and visually impaired (VI) community. Our game features explorable, immersive sound worlds with a complex dramatic story. If I’m honest, it’s a pretty ambitious project, but we feel it has a scope more significant than anything of its kind. The player controls an avatar that explores and interacts with our sound worlds through auditory abilities
If you want to see this in action, download the demo or watch our YouTube playthroughs.
And what made you decide to create a game that entirely relies on audio?
Spatial audio, particularly the ambisonic and binaural varieties, is something we’re all passionate about. It struck us last year (while working on various ambisonic projects) that one could create a wonderfully immersive experience through the use of binaural audio-only.
We did some research on the genre and found out that, while there have been some excellent audio games, not many have the same scope and depth as their visual counterparts (which meant there’s a massive room for innovation for us). More importantly, there’s currently a considerable rise in demand for accessible gaming. And with blind and VI gamers being some of the most poorly served right now, we saw it as the perfect opportunity to create Pitch Black: A Dusklight Story.
What would you say makes Pitch Black different from other audio games in the genre?
There are a few answers to this. The most obvious is perhaps scope; Pitch Black features over 80 voice actors, several custom-made, unique mechanics, and a large amount of variety within the auditory environments (or ‘sound-worlds’ as we call them) throughout the game. Additionally, Pitch Black was designed, from the start, to do with audio what you can’t do with vision.
The difficulty curve, game mechanics, and information feedback are all based on the fundamentals of auditory perception. Most audio games are translations of visual game genres for the blind and VI community, whereas Pitch Black is, at its core, an audio game. You cannot play it with visuals, because we didn’t build it that way.
There is mention of the environments feeling different – what type of techniques did you use for all of these different sounds and environments?
From a technical perspective, we used a combination of different spatial audio techniques. Which included:
- Using ambisonic recordings,
- ambisonic pre-renders,
- binaural pre-renders,
- real-time binauralisation (through the use of HRTFs),
- as well as the occasional bit of stereo or mono-audio (where appropriate).
From an emotional perspective, we made sure each level featured a sound world that makes the player feel a different emotion. What you hear in the desert is very different from what you hear in a city. The same applies to the sounds you can hear when your character is inside a Cathedral, or in a jungle. We crafted the narrative in such a way that it works with all of these different locations, and gave enough room for profoundly different sonic spaces throughout the game.
To help paint a better picture, here’s an idea of how the story works:
- The game starts with the player walking through an arid desert. To make this feel lonely, baron, and expansive, we mainly focused on the player’s footsteps, the whistle of light wind, and removed any unnecessary noises.
- Further on in the story, the player enters the city. This is hectic, busy, and crowded. To get this idea across, we focused on people chatting, the sound of bags and coats rustling, combined with footsteps, as well as other random city noises (like dogs barking, for example).
- And even further down the line, they enter a cathedral. We wanted this to feel spacious, haunting, frightening. We made it so footsteps echoed, to give an impression of a big room. And to create a more frightening experience, there was little to no background noise. So you knew you were by yourself, in an old, large building.
And do you anticipate any significant challenges for bringing this game to mobile devices?
One important consideration is space. Uncompressed high-quality audio files are rather large, and while on high-end devices and those that allow for external storage space is not a massive problem, it certainly is on mid to low-cost devices. Secondly, price-point is something that has come under discussion often. The full game on PC/macOS is £20.
The mobile version couldn’t possibly cost that much, despite containing the majority of the content. To overcome this issue, we’ll be releasing on mobile episodically via the Pitch Black Platform, which lets us release several different audio mini-games and spatial audio experiences – all set within the Pitch Black universe.
So, what makes this game a AAA title?
‘AAA’ is slightly tongue-in-cheek – ‘A’ for audio. Nevertheless, it represents appropriately the auditory aesthetic and type of experience we’re aiming to achieve, a.k.a high fidelity, polished and balanced.
Secondly, we wanted to highlight that this is a feature-rich project with real depth in world-building and design. The term ‘AAA’ conveys that to most gamers.
When working on an audio-only game, how do you work around people who use headphones vs. people who don’t?
While it’s possible to play the game without headphones, to do so would mean missing out on the immersive qualities of binaural audio. Not only that but playing without headphones would make navigating within the game significantly harder. So in an ideal world, everyone playing the game would wear headphones. To make sure players do wear them, we’ve placed an instruction on load to put headphones on. Which so far has helped!
Can you talk about how you’ve created audio-only versions of pong and space invaders? What did you learn from these titles?
Well, they’re still in the works. But mostly you have to figure out how to convey the same information auditorily (if that’s a word) that you would with visuals. For Pong and Space Invaders, we essentially made them first-person. When we look at Pong, the ball and opponent become spatialized from the player’s perspective, right and left, which provides enough information to locate and move towards the ball. Scores and things are relatively easy, as they’re just announcer based.
Now, imagine being the pong paddle that’s facing the opponent, and the ball makes a noise. As it comes towards you from the left, you start hearing noises from your left earphone (and the same happens when it comes from the right). As you move your paddle to hit it, the ball becomes in front of you. It doesn’t sound left or right anymore – it sounds central.
How did you find Kickstarter in terms of funding your game? Would you recommend to other developers?
Kickstarter is an excellent experience overall. Here are a few recommendations for anyone looking to use Kickstarter:
- Don’t underestimate the strain it puts on the dev team.
- You should finish your work before the start of your Kickstarter. During the Kickstarter, you may feel rushed, which can lead to making short-sighted decisions – developing before launch prevents this.
- Give yourself a month or two before starting to email everyone you can think of about your campaign.
- Grow a fan base before you launch your Kickstarter.
- Read all the advice you can find online about Kickstarters and take it on board!
You’ve reached your Kickstarter goal! Congrats! Are you able to let us know how you’ve promoted your game so far? And the steps you took to reach your goal?
Thanks so much! Here are the steps we took:
Step 1: We were very active on Twitter
We started using Twitter to comment and interact with developers and individuals genuinely so that they would get used to seeing our name pop up here and there. We also jumped on this social media channel to gain followers who would be interested in this sort of game, as well as other developers in the same area. Our first big boost came from an influx of voice actors wanting to be a part of the game after we put an open call on Twitter, where we asked who wanted to add our game to their credit list and showreel, in exchange for contributing a few lines to the game.
Step 2: We contacted the blind community group on Facebook
After that, we contacted every single relevant Blind and VI community group on Facebook asking for game testers to not only give us valuable feedback but also build relationships with potential fans of the project. I have had many great phone calls with other audio game devs and blind gamers about what the wider community wants and if there’s room for innovation in specific areas
Step 3: We got in touch with blind and visually impaired charities in the UK and US
We then got in touch with every blind and VI charity that we could find in the UK, and many in the US. We also contacted all appropriate YouTubers, Twitch streamers, and everyone else we could think of to further our reach.
I’d like to give a shoutout to Joe Quirk, who’s a fellow audio game dev and was tremendously helpful in putting us in contact with various interviewers in the community.
And do you think your vlog played a big part in the promotion? How long did it take you to grow your community there?
While the Vlogs haven’t had a high number of views, they did add a very personal touch to the company. They’re just us being us, and they show how the three of us have had a lot of fun designing and working on the game. And since we’re not faceless, I think that builds trust, which is so essential for a Kickstarter these days. Plus, as the game’s following grows, it eases off us a bit in terms of content, as fans have a backlog of videos they could catch up on if they wanted to.
Thanks so much for speaking with me today. Before you go, what’s the biggest takeaway you’ve had, so far, from development?
If you have an idea, do it. Anyone can pretty much make anything digitally these days. It just takes a lot of effort, YouTube tutorials, and much frustration. But if you face each new problem (making a game to me is just a series of increasingly complicated problems to solve) as an opportunity to learn something new, it’s such a fun thing to do.
More specifically to audio games, if you‘re not visually impaired, you should playtest with your eyes shut as often as possible. Secondly, ask VI players to try out the game. When you’re developing your game, it’s easy to playtest it while looking at the development view in Unity (or whatever engine you use). But you miss things when doing this.
And what would be your most significant piece of advice to any developers out there looking to create an audio-only game?
After a successful Kickstarter for a game that is different from most of the games out there, we have a few different bits of advice for anyone looking to make an audio-only game:
- Ask people who play audio games what they like and what they want. This gives you a fresh perspective of what’s needed.
- Don’t assume you know your audience; take the time to get to know people on a human level.
- Be genuine. Players aren’t potential sales; they’re people with all the complexity that entails. Keep this in mind when you’re creating your game.
- Be open about your development process. Especially when you’re creating something for people that are currently under-catered for.
- Be ambitious and innovative! Audio games are a tremendously exciting area. Despite being restricting, they also allow more room for creativity because you’re experimenting with ideas that only focus on one sense.