EAN catches up with The Traveller developer Alexander Poone
In February 2022, the prototype for an interesting project was showcased at the 2022 edition of Africa Games Week, which was held in Cape Town, South Africa. The project, dubbed “The Traveller,” is a Hollow Knight-inspired adventure game developed by South African Alexander Poone and his team at Shattered Universe and is based on the company’s comic of the same name.
Though no release date was revealed at the event, after seven (7) months following the reveal of the project, Esports Africa News‘ (EAN) Leroy Hawkson sat down with the game’s developer, Alexander Poone, to learn about the game’s progress so far.
EAN: Alright, so I am here with Alexander Poone. He’s a game developer, and he’s going to tell us about one of his games, “The Traveller.” It’s a game that is coming up soon, and we’re going to learn how far the game’s progress is and how soon we’ll be able to get it as well, but before we get into any of that, we have to learn more about our guest. Alex, tell us more about yourself and how exactly you got into the game space.
A.P: So my name is Alexander Poone. I have always been interested in getting into games since I was a kid. I grew up drawing a lot of comic characters and writing little stories here and there. I picked it up further back when studying film, animation and game design at the Open Window Institute in Centurion, South Africa. So I’ve just been working on a project called the Shattered Universe, in which “The Traveller” is one of the worlds, and that’s about it.
EAN: So the Shattered Universe I’ve seen some comics from The Traveller and it seems like it’s a very interesting comic. I’d really recommend it to anybody who hasn’t read it to go and read it, but we’re not here to talk about the comic book. We are here to talk about the game. So, could you tell us why you decided to go with The Traveller for this game? You could have based it on anything else or created a completely new concept, but why The Traveller?
A.P: So The Traveller is, as you mentioned, a comic that I’m working on, and it was essentially always meant to be two parts, both the comic and the game. The game aspect of it came from inspiration from one of my lecturers. When he saw the comic, he asked, “Why don’t I make it into a game?” and I always thought of making games, but I didn’t necessarily think of The Traveller specifically as the starting point. So I took that further as the comic began to develop. Being that I’m a gamer, the story itself takes place in a world where the main character is a gamer, so it already has a game aspect to it, and I was just turning that game aspect into an actual product.
EAN: So how did development start? When did it start? Did you get the team together or are you basically doing this on your own?
A.P: So, as mentioned, the game has always been something on my mind. The Traveller is a project that I started like five years ago, so like I said, it was part of the Shattered Universe but it was very early in development when I got that idea and started there, so I drafted things like games and documents, but I didn’t have the skills entirely to work on it, but essentially the development started last year. We entered these game design tournaments, Game Jam. So we entered a game jam, and from the people that I work with and the people that know my past, I gathered a team of three other guys. One sound, one head developer, myself as head artist, and another artist to help with the animation. And yeah, that’s how it started. We started as a game jam project, and through that, we got incubated by a company called ITV, and then they sort of funded us into the creation of a prototype, which is where we currently are.
EAN: And, after a year, we saw a sort of trailer at Africa Game Week, if I’m not mistaken. Unfortunately, I didn’t see it and I’ve been looking for the video for a long time and I haven’t been able to find it, so forgive me if I don’t really know exactly what was shown over there, but could you tell us what exactly was shown there and how far has the project come since Game Jam?
A.P: So we worked on it from the game jam last year until March of this year. We currently have a playable prototype, which is essentially one part of it to sort of show the player what he/she will be doing. Since then, it’s been a bit slower but it’s just building up, improving and taking feedback from people that have played, so we have just slowly implemented that whilst we wait or rather look for more funding to make it into a proper finished game.
EAN: So what platform is this game going to be on? Is it going to be a mobile game? Is it going to be on PC or console? What exactly are we looking at?
A.P: PCs and consoles are the main targets. We might develop little spinoffs for mobile devices, but the main project will be on PCs and consoles. I took a lot of inspiration from Hollow Knight, so that’s something I’m looking in the direction of.
EAN: Hollow Knight?! That’s good. That means the story must be killer.
A.P: Very much. Again, I’ve been a writer and a comic book artist, so I know my story. I know it to a certain point, but I have a lot more to learn, but yeah.
EAN: So the reason I asked what platform it would be on is because it seems like many African game developers are moving more into mobile and more focused on hypercasual games because they are easier to make. You can put ads on it and make revenue easily. So going into maybe a AAA game or putting a game on console or PC seems like a lot of work, and I just wanted to get your take on that. What do you think about African developers’ moving mainly towards hypercasual games instead of trying for consoles and PCs, or triple A-type games, as we call them?
A.P: So for me, to be honest, it’s always been something on my mind. I’m like a big gamer myself. I mainly play on PlayStation, but that’s just out of preference really, but I feel like with everybody working on hypercasual games, you’re not going to really get deep stories. Consider the Red Dead series, or the Uncharted games and The Last of Us. You know, things that have deep storytelling, where you can express things like African culture within your story. I believe that with such a focus on the hypercasual, games will not provide us with the opportunity to obtain them. I understand why this is the case. You know, as you said, they are easier, have ads and are easier to monetise. In comparison to triple-A games, which are very high investments that do not always turn out well, this is essentially a lower investment with a potentially high return. I’m OK with it, but I feel like a lot more studios coming up should also focus on that (Triple-A) aspect because, as Africans, our stories, our voices are something that must be heard.
EAN: When I spoke, I spoke to Mekan Games CEO, Evans Kiragu of Kenya. He said he tried for a AAA game, but he seemed to get very lost when it came to what exactly he wanted to do. He wanted to do a whole lot. What impact does this have on The Traveller? Have you discovered what you want to do or what you cannot do? Have you already done away with them or are we still at that stage of trial and error? See what works and what doesn’t?
A.P: So, like with a lot of what I do, the Shattered Universe is a project that takes place on multiple worlds. As previously stated, The Traveller is one of the worlds. I have 12 other projects that I have in mind that I’ve conceptualised, drafted outlines of stories and so on, and they also have game elements to them but are very different. So, I’d like to say that The Traveller is a linear story. It’s a very linear story, but there are no branching pathways or side missions. The reason is that I’ve already taken a lot from that. I wasn’t going to attempt to write a 3D game with heavy, intense graphics and ray tracing. It’s more of something that is doable. The story and what actually takes place within the game are still things that haven’t changed from before and it is pretty much set. I know the story from start to finish. So yeah, that phase of deciding what it is, we’re long past that.
EAN: So you know the game mechanics that you’re going to be using for the game. Can you tell us about some of them so we can get a sense of what we’ll be seeing?
A.P: A very big inspiration is Hollow Knight. I like games where you can explore worlds. I like the idea of having worlds, not just a set story, so one of the things we’re going to have is exploration. We set The Traveller in a universe that has 16 different worlds full of different races, so that will form a very huge part of the story, the character, the people he meets, and how the main character meets all those people. One mechanic that I’ve sort of seen done, but we’re taking a very limited one, which we’re calling the Switch Mechanic, where the main character has an ability that allows him to sort of equip multiple armour sets, which come with their own benefits and, as such, change how he plays the game. So think of it like in an RPG game where you create your character, but you have to sort of, over the course of the game, take a different path. If you want to be a sword and shield type of person, you’re pretty much stuck with that. However, what it allows him to do is mid-game switch between a mage-type character that uses projectiles or uses different mechanic simulations to how we tried to get that to work and then switch to a sword and shielding zone and have all the benefits of that. There are other forms. In total, we have nine, but within the prototype we currently have, there are three different forms, which are the paladin or warrior, who use swords. You have the mage who uses more magical types and the tank who is mostly defensive.
EAN: Let me ask you this. There seems to be a lot of competition when it comes to 2D platformers on the market right now. Like you said, Hollow Knight and a lot of them are just coming up right now. Are you worried that your game will probably go under the radar?
A.P: That seems like something that would be a worry to anyone. To be honest, in this world we live in today, everything is oversaturated; movies, series, games. For me, yes, it’s been a worry, but I still push on because my dream is to see this goal realised. Regardless of what it takes, I will do it. In terms of pushing this, and making sure that it’s a success, as mentioned, I am the type of person who likes getting feedback, and a lot of the feedback we received was positive. One example is the art style. It’s a gray-scale game, and that’s apart from the story. We focused a lot on the story again. As a comic artist, I love my narratives; I love telling stories, and it’s not going to be things as obscure as Hollow Knight or Dark Swords, but it’s not also all in your face. There are things that you have to quote, and I feel like there is a place or a space where people enjoy that. Something that’s refreshing, that’s the comments that I’ve received. It is still in early development, but that’s already what I’ve received from the people that have played it.
EAN: Marketing is going to be very important when it comes to this game. As I said, when I pointed out the fact that it might fall into obscurity, that means your marketing must be very solid. So what are your plans in that department?
A.P: So we’re still currently incubated under IQ Labs, right? It’s a different company that is looking into it, so they have their own investors, but in terms of marketing, it’s something that we’ll start focusing more on once we have a proper and very polished game, but it is something that is really important. It’s a very huge part of what we’re trying to push. I can’t really say there’s a proper strategy for now. At this moment, it’s mainly getting the development done. For example, you know, when we showed what we showcased at Game Jam, that was something we felt was possible at the time. In a way, we’re blessed to have a bit more time to work on it. With lockdowns and everything, that actually led to us not having much of a product.
EAN: So then, how long should we expect to wait before we get to see The Traveller?
A.P: I’d say about two or three years. It depends on a lot of different factors, but that’s my fault. Within the next three years, there should be a full product on the table.
This was just half of EAN’s Leroy Hawkson’s interview with The Traveller game developer Alexander Poone. You can catch the rest of the interview on the EAN YouTube channel or by clicking play below.