Lab Games has been working on Safe House for a while. According to the developer, it’s been years in the making. Now, however, the strategy/spy game has finally been released. By all indications, it looks like the game is set to be a big hit.
We sat down with Lab Games’ Mark Collins in order to talk about it. Throughout our conversation, we talked Kickstarter, Steam Greenlight and the future of the game. It’s somewhat of an interesting tale. Check it out below. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Safe House is a strategy infused spy game. With that in mind, were there any other games or movies that inspired certain aspects of the game? For example, was there anything that you thought, ‘We need to have that element in Safe House’?
One of the biggest influences actually was Papers, Please, which isn’t so much a spy game, but the general structure very much influenced Safe House. The general idea of doing what would be considered busywork and making it addicting was the inspiration behind a lot of the game’s puzzles, from forging documents and decoding messages.
Speaking of influences, the spy genre normally takes current affairs as inspiration. Were there many real-world events that inspired missions or other aspects of Safe House?
Safe House is set in the mid 60’s, so we actually looked backward for inspiration. It’s set in a fictional nation, which allowed us to write our own story and events, but it was heavily inspired by previous time’s governments and dictatorships were attempted to be overthrown, from Cuba to Bolivia.
The game has been in development for a number of years and even had a Steam Greenlight campaign. What kind of feedback did you get in those early days that helped during production?
We ran a Greenlight and Kickstarter campaign simultaneously and got most of the feedback from the Kickstarter backers. A closed beta was run back in October, and there was plenty of feedback, from simple bug reports to more major things like feedback on game flow, pace, and difficulty. Before the player feedback, the mini-game portion of the game took significantly longer. Lots of players complained that it took a bit too long, and so it was shaved down.
Strategy games are very hit or miss. Having said that, the game brings a fresh take to the genre and manages not to be boring. Were there many aspects of the strategy genre that you decided to avoid, or put your own unique twist on, while you were planning the game?
The game is much more linear than most strategy games, in terms of not just story, but progression. We wanted the game to be more of a strategy/narrative blend, and as such, the missions are always pointing the player to a specific goal, whether it’s completing a set mission or building a specific room. That’s different from the more open-ended nature of other base building/strategy games.
Safe House is linear, which is something you don’t see very much in strategy games – or, at least, not done well. Was being linear something that was important to bring to the game, or was it simply just a better way to tell the games overall story?
Yeah, that was a clear decision earlier on. Part of it has to do with the fact that we wanted the game to tightly tie in with the story, so the gameplay progresses with the narrative. Another fact was that the player is meant to feel like they aren’t fully in control at times- almost as if they’re just a middleman, and someone more shadowy is calling the shots.
The game has a number of different possible endings. So, would it be fair to say that player choices throughout the gameplay a big part? Or does it simply come down to just a few major choices in the game?
We definitely didn’t want the endings to boil down to one single choice right at the end of the game. Instead, it’s the combination of various decisions that the player has to make throughout the campaign. Shadowy figures come and go, and some will present you with various opportunities. Whether you go down those roads will affect the endgame, and some endings will be completely closed off to the player based on that. The decisions go so far back that the player’s actions only halfway through the game can potentially open or eliminate some endings.
Obviously, the game has only just landed properly on Steam. At the moment, are there any plans to release DLC or expansions to the game?
The most immediate thing is to monitor player feedback and look to fix any urgent bugs or issues. After that, we’ll look into postgame content. There are many other missions and room types that would be fun to add via DLC or an expansion.
The game is single player, but it could be interesting to see how it would do in a multiplayer environment. Were there any plans to create a PvP version, or would the mechanics behind that be too difficult to implement?
We had to commit fairly early on to be just single player only, but multiplayer has always been intriguing. One thought that was particularly interesting was the idea of co-op play, actually. Having one player assign missions, while the other actually carried them out as a spy is an idea that we still really like. Perhaps there will be room in the sequel!
Lab Games focuses on experimental and emerging gameplay mechanics. Would you be able to tell us a little more about the kind of mechanics that stand out?
We really experimented with the merging of the three different gameplay pillars: base building, unit management, and puzzles/minigames. On top of that, like you mentioned, the more linear nature of the game was definitely a conscious choice that Safe House explores.
You’re a veteran of the video game industry, having worked on a number of big titles. However, you’ve released Safe House as an Indie Developer outside of that. Was there more freedom to explore as an Indie compared to studio development?
Definitely. In a big studio setting, there are lots of shareholders (sometimes literally). Decisions need to pass through a lot of people to be approved, but as an indie, you can be quicker on your feet. The beta was a good example of that- a player would give some feedback, and we could implement it that night, as opposed to a few weeks later (if at all), that you’d see at a larger studio.
Safe House is available on Steam.