Former University of Portsmouth students create wild new first-person shooter videogame, Stuffed
In the guise of a teddy bear, it is your job to protect the bedroom of a little girl, Ellie, from hordes of nightmares manifesting as evil toys.
Featuring numerous enemies, players battle sinister gnomes, fanged rubber ducks, menacing robots, eerie shadow monsters and many more. This challenging shooter can be played solo, or with up to four co-operatively online, and players can discover various DIY household weapons, including Planky Mc-Bang Bang or Cola Can-non, not to mention explosives like Boom Corn.
This is the premise of a new video game, Stuffed, created by a team of former University of Portsmouth students as Waving Bear Studio.
But getting it ready for release has been a long and challenging road for the four friends.
Matt Busuttil and Lucy Earp were on the animation course, and it was during their placement year that the idea for Waving Bear was hatched. Dan, Matt's brother, and Ashley Wharfe were on the games course a year behind them.
Matt explains: ‘The good thing about University of Portsmouth is that between your second and third year they can let you do a placement, to either go and work for another company, or try and set up your own.
‘Originally we tried getting places at other companies, but a lot of the places we were applying to were small companies, just three or four people, so we thought, why don't we give it a go ourselves?’
The original for Stuffed idea came from Lucy. ‘I was thinking about ideas of simple-ish games to make because at the time our skillset was quite small.
‘So it was a simple fighting or shooting game, with a little girl and that's where it stemmed from.’
Matt expands: ‘And we were all fans of games like Call of Duty, Gears of War, that sort of stuff, and the core gameplay is quite simple – you run around shooting stuff. We thought, maybe you could mesh it together and see what we can do.’
Lucy says: ‘Originally I was thinking like a Monsters Inc sort of thing, but then we changed our minds and thought it might be more interesting if it was more like Toy Story with the toys coming to life.’
Matt soon roped his brother in as a programmer and as they took the prototype game to expos, there was another steep learning curve, as Dan tried to fix things on the fly.
Dan recalls: ‘I was the only programmer working on it at the time, and I was only on it part time, so the builds were very rushed together.
‘We took it some gaming events and it would break on the day, so I would be in the corner trying to fix it. All of that was just trial by fire. We had no idea what we were doing!’
And Matt admits: ‘Most of the people who came and played it were nice, but looking back, it was terrible at that stage, to be honest.’
‘I think there was enough there that people could understand what we were trying to do with it,’ says Dan. ‘A slice of the gameplay there that was enough to capture people's imaginations.’
Ashley was the last to join as the team was trying to raise funds for the game’s creation.
Ashley says: ‘Another good thing about Portsmouth uni is that they do cross-collaborations between courses. Because Matt was on animation and I was on games, we got chucked together for a unit to work together and then someone disappeared for most of that unit to focus on their Kickstarter!’ he laughs.
‘Originally it was supposed to be just like a nice portfolio piece,’ says Matt, ‘see what we can do, and at the end of it, it will help us get a job.
‘We took it to a few events for a laugh – they gave us a free booth, and people really liked it and enjoyed it, so we thought, ok, maybe there's something here.’
The team decided to go down the online crowdfunding route with a Kickstarter campaign, which only managed to get £1,500 of the £60,000 they were seeking.
‘It failed horrendously!’ Matt now admits ruefully.
But Dan adds: ‘I'm very glad that we didn't get it because at that point we knew nothing about the actual endurance it would take to get the studio running and how much that costs.
‘I think what we budgeted was for a year's worth of development for the four of us, but there was no marketing budget, studio costs, lawyer fees, taxes, anything like that.’
Matt says: ‘I think we budgeted ourselves something like eight grand a year each to live off of and we thought, yeah, that'll be fine!’
The game also changed quite radically over time.
Ashley says: ‘It went through a couple of iterations, first of all it was an 18-plus game, the teddy bear was defending against these ducks with blood down their fangs, and the gnomes had bloody axes.’
‘It was quite spooky and scary,’ adds Matt. ‘It's only through going to events that we found that kids loved it, so we thought if they're the ones who are going to be actually playing it, we need to dial it back a bit.
‘If we're trying to market something that people want to play, we have to listen to what they want and get their feedback and see if people would buy it. It doesn't really matter if I wanted to make it 18-plus or this that and the other.
‘I think if we all did what we all wanted, it would be four very different games anyway.’
‘And no one would buy any of them!’ laughs Ashley.
After graduating in 2018, the foursome wanted to push on with Stuffed and found Launchpad, a tech incubator in Falmouth, Cornwall, which would give them a base and funding for a year to work on their start-up.
‘From going to these events and conventions, there was a spark, there was something there – we just needed that time to investigate it and get into it,’ says Matt.
But as their year at Launchpad finished, Covid hit.
Ashley recalls: ‘We were renting a flat at the time, all four of us together, so we picked up all of our equipment from the office, put it on the kitchen table and that was the new studio.
‘The pandemic kept us locked there,’ says Dan. ‘It was great for working and development – but our work/life balance went out of the window.
‘We'd work all day in the same spot. Then it would be 6 o'clock and we’d turn on our PlayStations and play Call of Duty together in the exact same spot – we just didn't move.’
But during this time they attracted some investment cash, which bought them more time.’
Now, five years after its genesis, an early access version of Stuffed can be played on videogame distribution platform Steam, where players can leave feedback and see the game as it now stands.
Through previous test releases for just a weekend here and there, and at the various events, they know thousands have already tried the game.
Dan says: ‘To release a game, all you need is to put it out there on Steam, but to get the visibility is really hard.
‘We've tried to build a community along with us since we've started through social media, with that organic reach, and bring people along with us.’
As always, they are seeking feedback to improve the game.
Ashley says: ‘I think the best phrase for what we’ve done is making it up as you go along – every time we reach the next stage, we don't know how to do it, we have to learn how to do it.
Dan adds: ‘We don't have the option of, “I can't do that”, or “I don't want to do that,” – it has to be done.
‘We've been lucky in that we've surrounded ourselves with people we can talk to - some of our investors are quite business savvy, and there's a bit of a small games network down here with people we can talk to,’ Matt says, and laughs: ‘It's proof that if we can do it, anyone can do it!
‘If we get problems now, it's ok, we can sort that out. But even six months ago we would be panicking about it.’
To play Stuffed, go to wavingbearstudio.com/stuffed.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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