It’s First Friday. The Old City art galleries are bustling with a fine mix of genuine art lovers and college kids feigning interest, the latter of which are just eager to grab some free cheese and wine. Both groups are swarming into the small boutiques and studios that line 2nd St, each a tiny refuge from the chilly Philly Autumn air. As I stroll down 2nd, making my way towards Chestnut, I spot a small line forming outside of one of my favorite First Friday venues… the office of Drink Philly.
Tucked away above Paradigm and nestled on the second floor, Drink Philly’s annual First Friday gallery and party never fails to disappoint. On this particular day, there is a whole roast pig being carved up in their kitchen as glasses of wine and half-pint cups of microbrew beer make their way around the room. Beautiful people talk and laugh, eat, and ogle the local art on the walls. The smell of roast pig wafts through the air, and I sigh, turning away to visit the office that shares the second floor with them.
Next to the bright red Drink Philly sign, is a shiny, silver and black logo that reads Cipher Prime.
I push the heavy steel door open into the video game studio, where William Stallwood, the Co-Founder & Creative Director for Cipher Prime, is swinging back and forth from gymnast rings hanging from the ceiling. He’s giving directions to his intern, a young looking college kid that towers above me, at least six foot five. Will dictates these instructions while launching himself across the width of the studio, flipping and spinning, like a blonde Bionic Commando. Smooth jazz from Drink Philly’s First Friday event plays in the background, the sound of an upright bass and electric guitar echoing in the open studio, adding to the absurdity of this scene.
After one final powerful swing and a back-flip, Will lands on the polished hardwood floors with a light thunk. He shakes out his arms, stretches and cracks his neck, smiling.
“Ready to check out Splice?” He asks this with a grin, as though he wasn’t just doing circus tricks while explaining licensing to his intern.
For a multiple award winning game developer (including honors from the Webby Awards, MOCHIs, FWAs), Cipher Prime’s studio is pretty unassuming. Wood floors, a small, separate room for interns (likely a bedroom when this place was an apartment), a large central space littered with computers and a few workstations, and big bay windows that overlook Chestnut St. And the Old City view isn’t bad. Right out the window is the Independence Living History building with its bright red brick sidewalk and walls. William affectionately calls it “the wall ball building,” as kids frequently hurl tennis balls at it in on warm Summer afternoons.
Of course, there are also the things you’d expect to see scattered about an indie game studio. Oddities that wouldn’t surprise you, like the blue mini-racing bike on the windowsill or the arcade (Strikers 1945) near their practically-covered-in-scrawl whiteboard.
Also, lots of beer cans.
William leads me over to a dual screen workstation, both monitors displaying a jumble of code I don’t understand. His partner and fellow co-founder / in-house composer, programmer & jack-of-all-trades, Dain Saint, grabs a wireless mouse and fiddles with some stuff on the screen.
“You’re the first person outside this studio to check out the game,” says Dain, fussing with some open windows on the bright iMac. “I’ll load up an OS build so you can play through the Beta. Oh, and here,” he tosses me some large, noise-canceling headphones, “put these on. It’ll block out other sounds and you’ll get the full in-game experience.”
I put on the headphones and sit down at the workstation, running my hand over the cool mahogany desk, the outside world silent; no music pouring in from Drink Philly, Will and Dain’s mutterings to one another now hushed. Dain taps a button on the keyboard in front of me, the screen goes a brilliant shade of crimson, and I’m overwhelmed by a haunting, powerful Phillip Glass-esque piano melody. The game’s title, Splice, floats onto the screen amidst a sea of white flares and particles, moving back and forth with each wave of the mouse.
When I’m done admiring the particle effects and listening to the music, I click, and watch the title vanish in the background, the screen turning to a gorgeous sea-green hue. The new text reads Sequence 01 with a barcode below it in white and green. The game has begun.
Splice challenges gamers to rip apart and piece together pill-like structures into their corresponding outlines, forming bacteria-like shapes, lining up and snapping together with satisfying clicks, gorgeous color palettes and smooth animations. Players are rewarded if a completion takes less than or the exact amount of required ‘splices’ per puzzle, the solved configuration disappearing in the background, floating like the prokaryotic micro-organisms that inspired the game’s design.
As you move from level to level, the puzzles increase in difficulty, tossing new challenges, beautiful colored backgrounds and types of splices into the mix. Deep purple, green with bits of red pouring in from around the edges, and a black and white sequence that plays out like a beautiful Rorschach test; these are among some of the more interesting palettes Cipher Prime uses in the game.
The stress on color, puzzle solving and music isn’t a new formula for the Old City game dev studio. Like their award winning, iPad Game of the Week scoring hit Pulse, Splice blends color and music to create a powerful, engaging atmosphere. It’s impossible not to get absorbed in Saint’s haunting melodies and the striking graphics that accompany them.
When I’m finished working my way through the black and white sequence, the game jettisons you back to the title screening, soaring through the various colors and returning to the deep red title. I take the headphones off, the music stuck playing in my head, and chat with Will and Dain.
“So,” I begin, whipping out my notebook, “this game features the Cipher Prime standards. Lots of color, effects and music. What’s different here? What’s new?”
“Well, like all our games,” says William Stallwood with a grunt, as he once again hops on the gymnast rings suspended from the ceiling, “it has those vivid colors, particles and intense tunes like Pulse. What we’ve done here though, is we’ve deviated slightly from our tried and true formula, working with a full 3D engine. It’s also our first ground up build for a PC & Mac game, running on Unity.”
“And the idea behind it?” I ask, the title Splice still floating carelessly in the red on the monitor in front of me. “Why the bacteria?”
“I had this idea to try and capture this feeling of macro and micro,” says Dain, watching Stallwood bounce off the wall on the opposite side of the room, “this feeling of not knowing whether or not you were working with something really small or something really big. And this played out naturally with our ambient style game-play.”
“Ambient style game-play is what we like,” says Stallwood, still swinging, and unaware of the semblance in this statement as he floats through the air carelessly on his gymnast rings, “it removes the age barrier, the need for tutorials that no one likes, and stops us from insulting the user.”
“What about the music?” I can still hear the piano playing from the headphones sitting on the desk. “What inspired the central song?”
At this Dain laughs. “I wrote it in about 25 minutes, mostly out of necessity so we could submit the game to the IGF (Independent Game Festival). I took numbers, two note assonates, always running in ¾ time, four note autharpeggios. I wanted to create a complex melody that still sounded simple, which is what the game-play essentially is. Simple concept, hard puzzles.”
“Great,” I close my notebook with a smack, “I think I’ve got what I need.” At this, Will jumps off the rings, his feet hitting the floor with a loud snap.
“Awesome! Let’s get a beer.”
Looking for an official release date? So is Cipher Prime. They aren’t quite sure when it’ll hit. Let’s hope for an early Spring drop from this two man, award-winning game studio here in Philadelphia, and be sure to support them when Splice debuts. While Splice might be all about pulling things apart, here’s hoping the local (and national) gaming community supports this new venture, and keeps Cipher Prime strong, together and building new hits for years to come.