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Counterspy: Interview with Creative Director David Nottingham

Fred Dutton's Avatar + Posted by Fred Dutton on Aug 14, 2014 // SCEE Blog Manager

In just a few weeks’ time, on August 20th, you’ll be able to play Counterspy on PS4, PS3 and PS Vita. In case you’re not up to speed, it’s a larger-than-life spy caper from Dynamighty, a talented new studio with serious pedigree – its ranks include Lucasarts and Pixar alumni. Counterspy’s blend of stylish 2D side scrolling action and full 3D exploration makes for one of the most entertaining digital titles you’ll download all year. Not only that it’s also one the most stylish and visually interesting games on this year’s slate.

We sat down with Creative Director David Nottingham to find out how his small team have combined the game’s rich cocktail of influences into such an irresistibly idiosyncratic experience. Read on as David takes us through Dynamighty’s sources of inspiration, one-by-one…

  1. The digital revolution
    Make no mistake, Counterspy is slick, polished and exciting, but it also feels personal and charismatic. That’s a delicate balancing act born out of Dynamighty’s experience in AAA development at Lucasarts.
  2. “John [Elliot, Co-Founder] and I had worked together at Lucasarts. I was Project Lead and he was Tech Director for a big new IP. Alas, they did a strategic shift, new IP became too risky for them and it was shelved.

    At the same time digital platforms had started to get big – the iPhone, Steam, PlayStation Network. All of a sudden there were games coming out made by small teams, and we found that super-inspiring.”

    Determined to be part of that sea change, the pair asked Lucasarts to let them take their existing team and repurpose them into an experimental unit dedicated to new ideas and smaller projects, which they christened Labs. It released two games – the 2009 Monkey Island re-release and a puzzle platformer called Lucidity – before disbanding in 2010.

    “We had learned a lot and were ready to build on that, but the company had a change of strategy from the top. Labs got closed down, and John and I decided to start Dynamighty.”

  3. James Bond and the spy classics of the ‘60s
    “Everyone on the team has a slightly different set of influences but I think where our inspirations converge are definitely on the classic spy mythologies of the ‘60s era. Not just Bond but stuff like The Man from UNCLE and The Ipcress Files too,” explains David.
  4. There was a real sense of style to those movies, and the music and graphic design of that era in general. The production design of Ken Adams was a big influence. He did a lot of the amazing sets that you see in those movies.”



  5. Dr Strangelove and the comedy of satire
    While Bond was an obvious creative touchstone, the team was keen that the perennial British spy favourite shouldn’t loom too large.
  6. “Bond is so big that it just hangs over everything. We didn’t want someone to go ‘Oh, it’s a Bond rip-off’ or even, ‘Oh, it’s Austin Powers’. So we stayed away from those things at first, and that initially made the project pretty dark in tone,” remembers David.

    But we realized that as we developed the game that just didn’t fit what we wanted to make. We wanted the gameplay to feel playful and fun, and the world to be bright and vibrant.”

    The turning point came during a chat between David and friend Susan O’Connor, a veteran video game writer who’s worked on the likes of BioShock, Tomb Raider and Far Cry 2.

    “We were talking to her about the struggle we were having over its tone and she said, ‘Austin Powers is parody. You’re not making parody, you’re making satire’.

    That single word opened up the space for us and we started looking at things like Dr Strangelove and Catch 22. And with satire, you can look at contemporary examples like The Colbert Show, but we were also informed by satirical shows we grew up with as children, such as Spitting Image, MAD magazine, even Monty Python. Once we allowed ourselves to see the world through this lens, it really liberated us.”

  7. The music of Lalo Schifrin
    “I’ve always been hugely into music. I listen to a lot of different stuff – jazz, funk, soul – and when I’m working on a project the first thing I do is compile a soundtrack or playlist for that project. I’ll go out and find stuff that I like and then just have that on repeat play to set the mood.
  8. Obviously with the Bond influence you start with anything John Barry, but I then moved onto tracks like Le Blon by The City of Westminster String Band, Danube Incident – which Portishead famously sampled – from Lalo Schifrin, who is the master. Venice After Dark, was a huge influence and a track I shared with our composer Jesse Harlin when he was getting started.”

    Want to hear David’s full Counterspy playlist? Check it out below.

    “Jesse did an amazing job creating an original score that paid homage to all those great espionage theme scores. Jesse was someone else I had worked with before at LucasArts. We recently posted some of our original music on Soundcloud – you should check it out.”



  9. The Incredibles
    Soon after development began Pixar artist Mark Holmes joined the team to define the game’s visuals. With a CV that takes in animated classics such as Wall-E, Monster Inc and The Incredibles, it’s perhaps unsurprising that some of these influences would make their way into Counterspy.
  10. “It’s a good way to make fun of him! We go, ‘Yeah, awesome Mark, looks just like that thing from The Incredibles,’ and he’ll get really mad because he doesn’t like to think that he’s recycling old work,’” says David.



    “The main character designs look nothing like the characters from The Incredibles, but you can certainly see the influence. I think partly it’s that they also tapped into classic spy stuff on that film and looked at a lot of similar design cues.”

    “When people ask for a shorthand description of Counterspy I generally reply, ‘Imagine The Incredibles with a bit of Bond mixed in and some Dr Strangelove sprinkled on top’”

    “I’m not afraid of the comparisons,” he continues. “When people ask for a shorthand description of Counterspy I generally reply, ‘Imagine The Incredibles with a bit of Bond mixed in and some Dr Strangelove sprinkled on top’. Those are three big influences – and three amazing things to draw from. I love The Incredibles. We’re all huge fanboys.”

    Counterspy Interview

    Counterspy InterviewCounterspy Interview


  11. Growing up in The Cold War
    As any child of the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s will know, the East vs West diplomatic brinkmanship that defined the era made it a scary time to be a youngster learning about the world for the first time.
  12. “Growing up in the Cold War definitely had an impact on what we wanted to say with the game,” David insists.

    “It’s very much meant to be an enjoyable, fun game – we’re not heavy handed – but the Cold War was a pretty terrifying time to be a kid. You felt so helpless that you were at the mercy of these two belligerent superpowers. It made no sense as a child. So we wanted to take that and turn that up to 11.”

  13. Project A119
    Counterspy has a brilliantly absurd central conceit that sees your secret agent attempting to stop two superpowers from shooting down the moon. Sounds insane, right? Well, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
  14. “In the classic Bond movies you have the villain with the crazy plot to destroy earth if the government doesn’t pay up. So we took that and flipped it so it’s the government trying to blow up the moon,” explains David.

    “It is actually based on a real world plan to launch a nuclear strike on the moon.”

    “And the government would never do something like that, right? But it is actually based on a real world plan to launch a nuclear strike on the moon that the US developed in the ‘50s. They were falling behind the Soviets in the space race and needed need to make a statement and reassert themselves. That was one of the plans they supposedly came up with!”

  15. Impossible Mission
    Of course, as well as films and TV, Dynamighty also found inspiration from the video game medium.
  16. “As someone who grew up in the C64 and Spectrum era, there are certain games that I played that are burned into my brain for different reasons. One of them is a C64 game called Impossible Mission,” David recalls.

    Counterspy Interview

    “I remember walking into a store and they had a C64 set up with a 14” color TV and Impossible Mission running. I went over and my jaw was on the floor – I couldn’t believe how realistic it looked. It’s always stayed with me, and you might be able to see a little bit of its influence in Counterspy.”

  17. Another World and Flashback
    “There are a couple of games which others have compared us too, which is so humbling: Another World and Flashback – both absolutely beautiful side-scrolling games,” says David.
  18. “Those were the first games I played that really transported me to a world that felt real and fleshed out. The visuals and audio were primitive but you filled in so much with your mind. I’d imagine that beyond a door in the background there was a whole other world I couldn’t quite reach. The reality was that it was just a graphical asset but in your head there was a world of possibility.”

    Another World

    “Those were the first games I played that really transported me to a world that felt real and fleshed out”

    “I want players to feel like we‘ve created a full universe that feels real. We’ve got character bios for characters you’ll never actually see in the game. The main characters might seem fairly anonymised but we know exactly who they are. We’ve taken the time to fill these out so it feels like a real place with rules and logic.”

    Not long to wait now until you get to find out. Check out the latest trailer below to whet your appetite.

//Add Your Own

25 Comments   5 Replies

1

+ smartham on August 14th, 2014 at 6:53 am said:

The more I see, the more I like. Look forward to giving this a try!


    Fred Dutton's Avatar

     

    + David Nottingham on August 14th, 2014 at 11:38 am said:

    Only a few days left! :) Aug 19th in NA, Aug 20th in Europe.


2

+ Deadpoolian on August 14th, 2014 at 7:04 am said:

I saw a trailer for this game play before the Gamescom conference started. That was my first time seeing footage of the game and I was really impressed with how it was a combination of 2D and 3D gameplay. Awesome art style as well! Gonna have to check this game out.


    Fred Dutton's Avatar

     

    + David Nottingham on August 14th, 2014 at 11:40 am said:

    Hey Deadpoolian, thanks! We feel like the 2D/3D combo is our own thing that we wanted to bring to the side-scrolling genre. It created a few complex design challenges that required deep prototyping, so we were really happy how it turned out!

    We are so glad people are responding well to the art too. It’s a passion for us to create a vibrant, playful world of espionage goodness.


3

+ ResistanceGTA on August 14th, 2014 at 7:07 am said:

Wow, I haven’t commented on anything on the Blog for quite a while now. Everything I read/see from you guys makes me happier and happier that I preordered Counterspy. Hopefully this will be the game to respark my interest in gaming.

Amazing work, can’t wait ’til next week.


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    + David Nottingham on August 14th, 2014 at 11:41 am said:

    ResistanceGTA wow glad we were able to have that effect on you! We really focused down on making the bets game we could, which for us was being easy to pick & and play, accessible in that old arcade style way, and fleshed out with an interesting beautiful world to explore. Really hope you enjoy the vibe!


4

+ Mercenary09 on August 14th, 2014 at 7:08 am said:

Got my copy pre ordered and ready to download it on Sunday. Can you guys tell us if there is a Platinum trophy or not?


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    + David Nottingham on August 14th, 2014 at 11:44 am said:

    Hey Mercenary09,
    Thanks for the preorder! It’s really awesome to have people place a level of trust in us around the game we are delivering.

    Sadly there is NOT a Platinum trophy. I;m not sure if you know how it works, but you kind of have to make a choice as a digital title around whether to focus on one big Platinum trophy or spread them out across multiple Golds. We decided to create more Gold trophies so we could offer some interesting different challenges for players.

    We’ve definitely got a lot of questions about the Plat though, something we will bear in mind in the future!


5

+ CrusaderForever on August 14th, 2014 at 7:14 am said:

Really looking forward to playing this. I have it preordered and wish it was available now. All 4 games from Play 2014 look great. That’s why I bought all of them. 3 played and 3 enjoyed so far. Thanks for this great article. You really found inspiration from a lot of things I like.


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    + David Nottingham on August 14th, 2014 at 11:45 am said:

    Yeah Rogue’s Legacy is such an amazing game. Haven’t had the chance to try The Swapper yet but also excited to dig into Hohokum. Also love being able to offer the pre-order savings for players plus the benefits of Cross-Buy & Cross-Save.

    We feel honored to be part of such a lineup of diverse awesome games!


6

+ xClayMeow on August 14th, 2014 at 7:19 am said:

Interview was a little dry, but doesn’t take away from the fact that I’m super excited for this game and kudos to Dynamighty! I was already excited when it was first announced, which makes me even more surprised at how much they improved the game in just a year’s time.


7

+ DanteMerfi on August 14th, 2014 at 7:40 am said:

I’m fascinated by the art style of this game. I hope it doesn’t disappoint.


8

+ FernandoAD on August 14th, 2014 at 8:11 am said:

I still think it looks like Rolling Thunder :D Let me see! Cool game: checked. Cool old spy theme: checked. Pre order: checked. Can’t wait till aug 20.


9

+ FJ1100_rider on August 14th, 2014 at 9:16 am said:

pre ordered , just waiting impatiently to play it
@4 Mercenary09 , its actually monday at 9 pm , not sunday . if you have it in your download queue the game will not download sunday like the date says , it will give an error and you’ll have to add it again monday to the download queue
the same has happened with all of the play 2014 games , the download data is off by a day


10

+ Lonerbynature on August 14th, 2014 at 9:17 am said:

Will the ps4 get any other features besides the share play? Will we ever get media features with mp3 or media server support?


11

+ Neil on August 14th, 2014 at 9:51 am said:

I’m surprised Rolling Thunder 2 wasn’t cited as influence.

This game really interests me but the over the shoulder shooting parts have turned me off a lot. How often do those instances occur?


12

+ Dionysus-Jones on August 14th, 2014 at 10:40 am said:

Loved Rolling Thunder in the arcades growing up.

Pre-ordered.


13

+ mooteh on August 14th, 2014 at 2:01 pm said:

Very nice trailer. Looks promising. There have been a lot of these side scrolling platform action games recently, but this has caught my attention. Reminds me of of the Rolling Thunder franchise + Dick Tracy on the Sega Genesis. Both games which I enjoyed. Keep up the good work and good luck!


14

+ Matrix_Lion on August 14th, 2014 at 2:34 pm said:

So far so good.


15

+ Amnalehu on August 14th, 2014 at 4:32 pm said:

WOW! I am so glad I pre-orderd this! I am really enjoying all 3 games in the Play 2014 collection and Counter Spy looks to be the cherry on top of an already delicious pie! Well done David!


16

+ tusunami on August 14th, 2014 at 4:59 pm said:

I like the play line up games thus far and this will be great to play I will pre-order this along with 3 other games that i’m pre-ordering tomorrow.


17

+ DelicaGunz on August 15th, 2014 at 9:42 am said:

This is probably the most detailed post I have read.

I was already sold to this game but the more I read the more I want it.

I hope future game developers take the time to really detail their game and influences just like this Mr Nottingham did.

Great post!!


18

+ scarritt82 on August 15th, 2014 at 9:41 pm said:

Am I right to be getting a Shadow Complex vibe from this? Even if not, this looks really fun!


19

+ TravisS23 on August 16th, 2014 at 6:57 am said:

I’d preorder it right now if the PSN was working properly =(


20

+ pinsnpushers on August 16th, 2014 at 11:24 am said:

some people seem to think that huge AAA games are what they want for there vita but why? These short indie games are way better on the vita and huge games are better on my PS4. If they only release indies on vita, I’ll be fine with that. I would like a Loco Roco on vita, though. I’m buying counterspy as soon as the store updates on Tuesday.


21

+ WhiskyBravoRomeo on August 17th, 2014 at 5:29 pm said:

I went to pre-order this online and it says PS3 only. While I still use my PS3 a lot, I’d like to see it available for the PS4 which it was advertised on/for.

Maybe tonight I will try the PS store on PS4 and see if it shows up for the same price and for PS4. Cross platform is nice and all, but PS4 should come first these days.

I am digging the Impossible Mission (C64 fanboy here) and old school spy themes. It also reminds me of the graphics of Evil Genius a little bit, although I know those are two totally different games. (on that topic, I would pay CASH MONEY for an uprez 1080p Evil Genius on my PS4! Make it so!)


22

+ WhiskyBravoRomeo on August 17th, 2014 at 5:31 pm said:

What I can’t edit a comment? Conspiracy! I forgot to mention the Rolling Thunder references that everyone else made. I loved that game as a kid, even if I was terrible at it. Right up there with Elevator Action.


23

+ WhiskyBravoRomeo on August 17th, 2014 at 5:46 pm said:

Yep I was able to order it from the PS4 store. Done and done. Better not disappoint!!! (shakes fist)


24

+ mratfrezghi on August 18th, 2014 at 3:56 am said:

cool


25

+ Woebetide on August 20th, 2014 at 12:59 pm said:

Wow such a nostalgia trip. This game reminds me so much of Rolling Thunder. I’m really enjoying it.. that and the fact I don’t have to have a pocket full of change if I make a slip up :D


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