PAX Profile: No Moss Studios
The Sydneysiders behind philosophical blocks, cooperative planetary destruction, and Smash Bros. with spacecraft
Welcome to Super Jump Magazine’s PAX Profile series. As part of PAX Australia 2019, we are taking a closer look at the developers and creations that thrill and inspire us.
Without doubt, the best part of PAX Australia is PAX Rising — an enormous area of the show floor dedicated exclusively to independent projects. Some developers travel from around the world to exhibit at PAX Australia, but by and large, most of the content at PAX Rising is homegrown. The variety and creativity on display is astounding, and the creators’ personal stories are as engaging as their magical creations.
I was fortunate to start my first day of PAXAUS 2019 with No Moss Studios, a Sydney-based developer with a sizeable presence at this year’s event. This magazine has a unique connection to the studio via its impressive founder and managing director, Reuben Moorhouse. Back in 2017, Reuben wrote several pieces for Super Jump Magazine related to the studio’s first major title, Duped (which also happens to be its next release — more on that in a moment). This piece, in particular, is noteworthy both because of its unflinching honesty and its substantial insight.
Not only did I meet Reuben in person for the first time this year, but I also had the opportunity to play three of No Moss Studios’ games and learn more about the team’s creative process.
The fleeting permanence of identity
As mentioned above, Duped is simultaneously the first and most recent game from No Moss Studios (the team had produced a couple of mobile titles prior to Duped, but Reuben really considers this the original tentpole release for the studio). It debuted on Steam back in September 2017. The unique title attracted attention in that same year, too — Gameranx awarded it “Best Puzzle Game of PAX 2017”. And now, No Moss Studios are planning to release the game on Nintendo Switch just next month — October 10th.
I played the Switch version of the Theseus Demo. The team cleverly created an experience that would provide a feel for the game’s themes and mechanics without explicitly spoiling the main game experience.
On first glance, Duped appears endearingly simple. You control a little 2D square that playfully hops and bounces across the screen. Initially you may believe you’re playing a simple platformer, but you’ll soon encounter various environmental puzzles that will require far more technique than sliding and hopping — this is where the game’s namesake comes in. It won’t be long before you recognise that there’s a whole lot of iceberg under the water’s surface, both in terms of gameplay and artistic concept.
Fundamentally, your goal is to move through the level from beginning to end. Your little block is responsive; you can smoothly hop left and right, jump, and double-jump. In addition, you can produce clones of yourself. You do this very simply, by holding the right stick in the desired direction and then letting go — a clone will enthusiastically pop out of your block in said direction. This simple core mechanic folds on itself in several simple-but-devious ways:
- You are limited to how many living clones you can produce at any one time (each level has a different limit). You’ll control any living clones simultaneously, which opens up some unique ways of navigating through the world (for example, you can have one clone jump up on top of your block to reach higher ground).
- It’s possible to kill clones, too. If you fire a clone into a pit of spikes, for example, its colour will fade and it’ll remain lifeless and dormant. Aside from the enormous guilt you’ll feel for killing a clone, the benefits are that you can use said clone as a stepping stone and that dead clone will not count towards the limit of living clones in the level.
My description might indicate why the demo is named after the Ship of Theseus (and why, indeed, this thought experiment supplies the underlying framework for the game’s story concept). You start as a single block. Over time, you’ll create many, many clones — the vast majority of these will die. The final living block that is present at the end of the adventure is many times removed from the original one you started with. Duped continually encourages you to consider your relationship to these blocks, and their connection to each other. Are they all the same “entity”? What about all those dead clones along the way that lined your path to success?
It’s interesting that, early on, I was somehow reluctant to kill clones. My instinct was to preserve them as if I were preserving my own life. But it wasn’t long before I was flinging them into spikes — at one point I had dead clones heaped on top of each other, providing a kind of corpse-staircase, leading me to a high platform.
This somewhat morbid progression is completely intentional, says Reuben (with an unmistakably cheeky grin). At one stage, he earnestly advised me to “build yourself a bridge of dead friends.” These little, lovingly-animated squares were carefully considered by Reuben and the team in terms of how they feel to control, and how they animate in the world:
“That’s why I put so much effort into making the squares feel like they have personality because you feel a lot more guilty if you spent the first 10 or 15 minutes, you know, being like ‘Oh this is kind of cute, it bounces around and feels like it’s got some liveliness,’ and then by the end you‘re just shooting them into the spikes.”
One trend that Reuben finds compelling — and sought to cultivate here in Duped — is the idea that the gameplay itself can “reveal the intricacies of people’s personalities” without necessarily doing so through heavy exposition.
My time with the demo definitely left me intrigued, and keen to play the full game. If you’re interested in Duped, you can pick it up right now on Steam. Alternatively, if you’d love to play it on the go (something I think it’s ideally suited for), you’ll want to pick up the Nintendo Switch version on October 10th.
Adorable planetary destruction
As much as I thoroughly enjoyed Duped, it’s virtually impossible not to be immediately impressed by Beam Team. Like Duped, Beam Team was originally released on the PC. Not content to simply produce a console version, however, No Moss Studios went for something far more ambitious — an enormous, entirely original arcade experience.
The images here really don’t do the cabinet justice. And I was so eager to get my hands on the game at PAXAUS that I completely forgot to take my own photos. Figures. Anyway, as you can see above, the arcade cabinet punches you in the face with vivid neon cuteness in the best possible way.
It turns out that No Moss Studios were approached at PAXAUS last year by LAI Games; they were interested in building an arcade cabinet for Beam Team. Reuben, apparently undaunted, thought the idea was “awesome” and a year later, the final version of the cabinet sits proudly on the show floor, beckoning passing gamers with its impressively bold design.
The premise of the game is simple:
“You and your team are interstellar diplomats from the planet Yoofo, and you’ve just received your latest orders: find and destroy the other planets in this quadrant of the galaxy.
At least… you’re pretty sure that’s what they said; the signal gets spotty out here. It’s an unusual mission for your department, but hey, diplomats are nothing if not adaptable.”
No Moss Studios
I’m used to the idea of saving planets, but the goal here is to obliterate them. All the better, too, if you have a buddy to help you out.
Beam Team absolutely nails the essence of a great arcade experience: the mechanics are incredibly simple to pick up quickly, movement feels wonderful thanks to the bespoke arcade controls, and every round represents is own fast, unique challenge.
You pilot one of the little flying saucers on the screen; you’re either blue or red, your spacecraft corresponding to one of the glowing wheels on the cabinet itself. Movement simply involves rotating the wheel, which in turn flings your vehicle effortlessly around the planet. There’s no need to press anything to fire your weapon; whenever you’re stationary, you’ll automatically fire. The second you begin moving, firing stops. The added complication here is that on each level, dynamic obstacles will attempt to thwart you — either the planet itself will attempt to defend itself (in one awesome example, an angry planet tried to knock us out with little volcanoes that moved across its surface), or you’ll face obstacles that appear from off-screen (on one level, we were bombarded by comets and planetary attacks at the same time). If your little ship is struck by any of these obstacles, it’ll crash into the planet — however, your buddy can quickly fly over to you and use a tractor beam to pull you back up into orbit. You can also fly up close to your buddy for a combined attack that deals more damage. As well as your regular attacks, you’ll build up a Fever Pitch meter — once full, you’ll be able to smash a huge button in the middle of the wheel to release an ultimate blast.
Conceptually, Beam Team feels like a combination of a cooperative boss rush experience combined with a bullet hell shooter. Playing it on a huge screen with the physical wheel really brings the whole experience to life in a compelling way.
“One of the great things about about making a game for an arcade cabinet is you actually just get to design the control scheme you want from the ground up. So we got to actually make a specific wheel control scheme with these big old buttons that fit so well for our game.”
Interestingly, it didn’t take long for the right control scheme to emerge. LAI Games had been building these kinds of cabinets for some forty or fifty years, according to Reuben — as a result, they were able to suggest control options based on the mechanics, which were mocked up and tested by the studio for their approval.
Smash Bros. in space?
One theme was becoming evident as I explored No Moss Studios’ offerings: every single experience was entirely different from the last, and each one had a clear design thesis underpinning it. The final game I looked at was Salty Space, a title that, as Reuben explained, “is almost too early to show off”. Thankfully, there was a spare TV available, so the team decided to make use of it. I’m glad they did, because Salty Space — despite obviously being early in development — is another solid concept.
Salty Space is a four-player competitive space-shooter-brawler (my own made up genre, based on what I played). You’ll begin by choosing a character; as you’d expect, each character sports their own special attributes (so you may choose a character with more firepower, who also has a bigger, heavier ship that is slower to manoeuvre). The action plays out from an overhead perspective, and the controls feel akin to something like Asteroid or even Geometry Wars — you can turn your ship with the analogue sticks and thrust forward or backward to move. As you build up speed you’ll also build up momentum, so precision movement can be tricky — for this reason, I suspect many players will explore the different characters and choose one to focus on until they are proficient. On the surface, gameplay is quite simple; destroy your enemies. Every player has a clearly-visible life bar for you to whittle away until you win the match.
Of course, the game folds another layer of strategy into the mix (beyond the inherent character traits) by also supplying each character’s ship with three abilities that all possess cool down timers, meaning that you can’t simply spam opponents with the same attacks repeatedly. And though most attacks are designed to target enemies in front of your ship, you’ll also have the ability to perform attacks behind you as well. In one case, I dropped a bomb that, once it exploded, created a small gravitation field — it actually sucked both my opponent and I into it, damaging both of us. In addition, each map sits within a large red barrier — similar to the circle from Apex Legends — that will harm any players who fall outside it. So, even if your aim isn’t great, you’ll still find that you can push enemies outside the barrier to further reduce their health bars.
Salty Space is only a couple of months into development, and Reuben is pleased with the progress so far. No Moss Studios are hoping to ship the game across all major platforms.
Birth of an idea
I am always keen to understand how developers come up with ideas for their games. Interestingly, the team have adopted a framework that seems to work effectively for them. Essentially, they will spend two weeks on an entirely new game and then add it to a concept backlog. What’s great about this is that the risk is minimal, and each of these concepts is functional — not simply a design document. From here, backlog concepts are continually revisited and re-validated over time.
“Once you try something for two weeks, you already kind of know whether it’s going to be good. There’s zero percent chance of us working on something for longer than two weeks at the start. We will get back to the good ones eventually anyway; we know we will, once we have time for them.”
If an idea survives beyond its “initial hype” phase, then the team knows it’s worth pursuing in the context of a broader project. Given the diversity of experiences the team are presenting at PAXAUS — especially the genuinely compelling nature of each one — this strategy definitely seems effective.