Do you remember when video games came not as one-click downloads, but on chunky plastic cartridges? Or when multiplayer wasn’t talking to an I.P. address in Uzbekistan, but a mate sitting across the sofa, who you could punch when they wiped you out?
Released this week, Unbox is a riotous, retro-inspired platformer with a killer local multiplayer, featuring cardboard boxes who must criss-cross land, sea and air to deliver themselves on behalf of the fictional Global Postal Service. It’s the work of Prospect Games, an independent games developer from Manchester, founded by a group of mates – Jack Bognar, Andrew Bennison (pictured above) and Tim Sherliker – who all studied video game design together at Salford University.
After graduating, the team were creatively unfulfilled working on big-budget titles, so they struck out on their own. They’ve spent the last eight years working towards releasing a fun-filled game through the Steam online portal, that would have never got past the managers at major studios.
Unbox began life in a week-long game jam (like a brainstorming session for game developers) where the team thrashed out a new game every four-to-five hours. They kept the core concept and scope of Unbox small to preserve the wackiness and infectious fun they remembered from retro games growing up – something that has been lost in many of the multimillion dollar releases from major developers.
“The main thing we want is for people playing Unbox to have fun,” says Prospect’s Managing Director Andrew Bennison. “That sounds like a no-brainer, but in this day and age a lot of the bigger budget games aim to provide a whole variety of experiences: games that make you happy, sad, make you want to cry or that that make you want to grind-play for 80 hours straight. We wanted to create an enjoyable game that reminds people of the good old days and provides something familiar but new.”
Video games are the fastest growing area of media and the major franchises provide gigantic, immersive experiences with budgets that now regularly eclipse Hollywood blockbusters. “We don’t stand in opposition to any of that, we [indie developers] simply provide a different flavour of experience,” Andrews says.
One of the main ways Unbox differentiates itself from the huge, triple-A franchises like Modern Warfare or Grand Theft Auto is not only its scale, but its focus on local multiplayer, e.g. split-screen fun with human beings in the same room. “Big business has to go where the money is, which is online gameplay and paid-for loot crates and add-ons,” Andrew explains. “But indie developers can thrive in the areas they ignore, like weird physics games, experimental titles or reversing the decline in local multiplayer experiences.”
“We grew up playing Goldeneye and Mario Kart endlessly, and Unbox is tapping into the resurgence of playing alongside mates – which is so much more of an intimate experience than online gameplay because you’re right there next to somebody,” Andrew continues. “We want people to be playing this with each other on a couch, screaming and having fun.”
The indie scene is thriving as gamers look for more diverse experiences and developers chose to free themselves from the constraints of large studios.
Prospect’s belief in what they’re doing has taken them a long way. They started out as a three-person team in a rented flat in Eccles but have grown steadily to take over a small office in Manchester. Without major investors, they’ve had to hustle to keep things moving forward, trading work for free and making smart choices.
Releasing an indie title in such a crowded marketplace is still a huge challenge. Prospect are going head-to-head with the blockbuster franchises and their multi-million dollar budgets and marketing spends, but also facing tough competition from other talented and innovative indie developers.
So, why are the team so committed to staying independent? “We all wanted to be in a room making bizarre ideas come to life,” Andrew says. “There are some experimental titles coming out, but I don’t think you could make a game like Unbox at a big label. You don’t get full creative freedom when you work for somebody else. I really like having the freedom to be able to say, ‘We’re making a game about sentient cardboard boxes’ and then we do it. Everyone here has a similar motivation, we’ve all had negative experiences working in big teams, seeing bad decisions made and not being able to voice our own opinions. At Prospect, everybody has a say and we’re open and honest about everything – no idea is too weird.”