How an international team made an augmented reality detective game

Funbakers - a studio with team members based in Ireland - have just released 'Silent Streets'

How an international team made an augmented reality detective game

Silent Streets. Image: Funbakers

With the release of Pokémon Go last summer, augmented reality games finally hit the mainstream.

Although there had been AR games before the prospect received a coat of Pikachu-themed paint (indeed, Pokémon Go is heavily based on developer Niantic’s own cult hit Ingress), last year’s smash hit was the one that persuaded millions of the appeal of a virtual world linked with the real one.

It shouldn’t need to be said that there’s a whole lot of potential in the concept of AR beyond Pokémon. Cameras and location-based play open up plenty of avenues worth exploring, and as the technology improves so too will the games.

One studio with a novel approach to augmented reality play is Funbakers, who have just released their AR title Silent Streets for iOS and Android. What makes the game particularly interesting is the way it marries modern technology with classic storytelling.

The game is set in the fictional Victorian town of Snowport. You play a detective who arrives in town, and quickly finds himself embroiled in a murder mystery.

Looking at some screenshots, you would be forgiven for thinking this is a relatively traditional affair - much of the story is communicated through (gorgeous) static art, voiceover and text.

The writing is unusually strong and characterful (episodes boast intriguing titles like The Devil’s Zoetrope), and you are typically given multiple choice options to advance conversations. When you find yourself in certain spaces, you are tasked with searching the environment for clues - which you can then present to others in a bid to solve the various mysteries that emerge.

It is, basically, a good old-fashioned detective story. Not long after booting up the app, however, the AR-elements kick in.

An augmented reality

When searching an environment for important objects, you can use your phone’s camera to find the items in the ‘real world’. If you decide to travel to another area of the city, you have to physically walk a prescribed distance (don’t worry - the step counts are modest). This can be done in the background, so you don’t have to keep staring at your phone while you’re walking about (those pesky safety concerns that were raised about Pokémon Go don't apply here).

Meanwhile, you may have ‘encounters’ as the app runs away in the background - your phone may vibrate as you walk, for example, to inform you that you have encountered a mysterious stranger in game.

The result is a satisfying mix of the old and the new. The AR elements are less intrusive than other games of its ilk, while lending the whole experience (already blessed by excellent production values) a very welcome sense of tangibility. The game’s vision of foggy, dangerous London gains that extra layer of believability when the player experiences the sorts of physical space involved in moving around it.

Demid Tishin, one of the game’s designers, is based in Ireland, and he spoke to Newstalk about the game.

He said the idea for Silent Streets began with a game for Nokia phones called The Journey - described by its developers as ‘the first mobile location based adventure’.

Demid explained: “[Art and game designer Alex Nitz] played it back in 2009-2011 and suggested we take the idea further, use a different art style, story and setting, implement latest technology and avail of cross-platform development provided by Unity 3D engine. We looked at various augmented reality titles like Ingress and Lifeline, audio games, and of course adventures like 80 Days and The Wolf Among Us.”

Designing the game

Demid said the Victorian setting was an ‘obvious choice’ for a murder mystery, and they got in touch with writer Richard Cobbett (best known for his work on the steampunk cult hit Sunless Sea) after a recommendation from interactive fiction expert Emily Short.

With the idea in place, work on the game begun - and the team found themselves having to deal with some of the limitations and challenges posed by modern mobile technology.

“It wasn't easy to place 3D objects around the player in a realistic way in the evidence collection scenes,” Demid said. “Most phones have only one camera, they don't recognise depth and actual surfaces, so the objects sort of hover in the air.”

Another problem was the perpetual worry for many game developers: stopping cheaters. For AR games, the systems are open to abuse - the pedometer (step counter) can sometimes be tricked by merely shaking a phone, while Pokémon Go shows how third party apps can break systems to give players an unfair advantage over others.

Demid acknowledged they still don’t have an ‘ideal solution’ in place. “We use GPS sensor to check if the player has actually moved and is not simply shaking her phone,” he noted. “The downside is, you can't efficiently collect steps in a gym or doing household chores. The upside is, we incentivise people to get outside and get some fresh air!

“Making a continuous playing experience is yet another challenge, because the dialogue and evidence collection scenes are separated by the walking bits - but overall I can say we're getting positive feedback from players.”

He added that the first major update to the game allows alternatives to walking, meaning that wheelchair users can enjoy the app.

Silent Streets. Image: Funbakers

Making and selling the game

Pricing wise, the game’s first episode is free. Players can then buy the later episodes, while the game also offers the option to take ‘cab rides’ (i.e. watch ads or pay real money) to quickly skip the in-game walks - albeit in a way that stays true to the game's fiction.

Demid explained that their approach to selling the game was inspired by recent episodic games - such as The Walking Dead and the aforementioned Wolf Among Us series by Telltale Games. But Funbakers had to adopt a hybrid approach since they didn’t have an established brand to grab attention.

He observed: “We need to strike a balance and use some free-to-play mechanics, too. That is, we offer the first episode for free and allow players to buy cab rides for real money, and watch advertisements to get free rides. Most mobile players are used to these features, and we do our best to make advertising non-intrusive and well-integrated into the game.

“I personally think the free-to-play model has introduced new monetisation techniques, which is great, but it also made life much harder for developers. The vast majority of mobile games simply flop, so I guess investors will stop pumping money here, and it all will cool down and stabilise. I hope.”

Like many modern development teams, the Silent Streets crew operate remotely. Demid said: “I'm in Maynooth, while Kevin Boylan - our intern programmer from IT Carlow - works from home in Co Wexford. Other team members are indeed scattered all over the world, from Brazil and England to Belarus and Russia.

“We use Slack and Skype extensively, but sure sometimes there's loss of information, and we may spend an hour quarrelling in a text chat! I guess it would be much easier if we physically sat in the same room.”

Whatever the challenges, the end product has been worth it - an experience that’s artfully put together and packed with novel ideas. The Silent Streets of Snowport are well worth a visit.