“The best thing we can do is to get people talking about difficult subjects” – Wired Productions on its next-gen plans

After a year like this, it’s hard not to look wistfully towards 2021. It has been a challenging 2020 for us all, in new and unexpected ways. 2021 may still be uncertain, but it’s sure to be an exciting time for the industry.

Not only has the games industry seen a boost from social distancing measures, but we’re standing on the precipice of a brand new generation, filled with new possibilities. It sometimes feels a little uncomfortable to recognise that aspects of our industry have flourished during this crisis, but the past six months have shown how beneficial gaming has been to keep people entertained and connected with one another during these difficult times.

One studio that’s looking to the year ahead is Wired Productions – who not only has big plans for 2021, but is closing out the year with the Falconeer, a launch title for Xbox Series X|S. Which they are immediately following up on with another next-gen offering, Martha is Dead, in 2021.

It’s an exciting time for the publisher, who has not only successfully weathered the storms of 2020, but even managed to expand its team during the crisis.

To find out what Wired has planned for the year ahead, we sat down with managing director Leo Zullo.

DIFFICULTY LEVEL

Leo Zullo

The publisher has big plans looking forward, but nobody could have planned for 2020. So how has Wired kept it together during these tricky times?

“You know, we kind of cottoned pretty early,” notes Zullo. “I was actually in Italy, I attended the MCV/DEVELOP Awards, and the next day I flew over and then lockdown happened.

“I decided to stay here, and so I got on the phone to the team saying ‘look, we have to get ready because this is going to happen.’ So we were actually a bit ahead of the curve in terms of when the UK officially locked down, because we were already preparing.

“In our experience, there were some teething problems technically, just to get remote work working properly, and there were some teething problems emotionally because a lot of people were not used to working from home or being on their own.”

Given Wired’s involvement in mental health charity Safe in Our World, it’s not really a surprise that the publisher took the time to look after its team’s mental health. Zullo notes that the team put work into staying in touch with one another – not just for work purposes, but to ensure people felt less alone during this trying time.

“In terms of business, people call it the COVID bump, but yeah, people were at home and wanted something to do. The funny thing is, just a few months before COVID, the WHO criticised gaming, saying, ‘oh, gaming addiction, terrible! Games are bad!’ And then like, two, three months in, ‘games are really good for people!’ I mean, it was nice that they did that. But you know…

“We were lucky in the sense that while we suffered a little bit operationally, the business didn’t. Arguably it just gave us more time to be able to focus on what we’re going to do next.”

Despite the current situation, the company has actually been expanding with new hires recently, such as the addition of Gareth Williams as head of publishing.

“I thought finding people was going to be a problem. We did start to look for staff prior to COVID happening, and we were sitting on about 300 CVs, which we obviously couldn’t get to look at.

“So that all kind of got parked for about three, four months. And then lucky enough, we started employing people who we knew, or people that we knew who knew someone, so our network is pretty good. We employed almost organically, which was nice.

“For a small company based in the UK, we’ve now got about a 22-23 person headcount. We’re in a good strong position for 2021, and we’re even looking at 2022 titles. I think we’re in a good spot.”

FLYING FREE

The Falconeer is a open-world air combat game from developer Tomas Sala

Wired has a lot to look forward to as well, with some big releases on the horizon. The launch of the Xbox Series X|S consoles this November is not only the launch of a brand-new generation, but also marks a milestone for Wired: its first ever console launch title.

The Falconeer is a open-world air combat game from developer Tomas Sala, coming to Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and PC on November 10th. For the publisher’s first-ever launch title, they’ve certainly picked a pretty looking one. Basically, think dogfighting but with massive, rideable birds: marrying a gorgeous art-style with frantic gameplay. It’s fresh and imaginative and will let people show off their fancy new toy this Christmas.

Sala himself has shared his excitement about what can be achieved with the new hardware, promising both a 120fps frame rate mode and graphical fidelity not possible on current consoles. In a recent Unity post, Sala shared his surprise at the power of both the S and X, stating: “There’s no tradeoff between graphics and performance with this generation; we get both! Series X is running on that full PC spec with no compromise. That wasn’t possible on the previous generation of consoles.”

“It’s an exciting time in the industry” Zullo adds. “Things are a little bit messy on the communications side from both format and tech partners, I think COVID has obviously not helped. But yeah, next gen is going to be a big feature for us.”

MARTHA IS DEAD

Wired has a pre-existing relationship with Martha is Dead developer, LKA

The Falconeer won’t be Wired’s only next-gen offering for long. Coming to Xbox Series X|S, and PC next year is Martha is Dead – the latest offering from developer LKA, with whom Wired has a healthy and long-standing relationship.

“We’ve been working with the LKA studio for about four years now. We worked on their first project, The Town of Light, which was an incredibly important title for us as a company. It was a sort of parallel journey, as it spearheaded setting up Safe in Our World. So as a project, it was fundamental to Wired’s growth, our relationship with LKA and setting up the mental health charity.”

As for Martha itself, the title is a psychological horror taking place in World War II-era Tuscany.? The titular Martha is found dead, with players taking the role of her grieving twin sister as she encounters the horrors of war and a mysterious folklore.

Sounds promising. And according to Zullo, it’s a game that was seemingly destined for next-gen hardware.

“Everything about Martha is bigger and better. They must have seen into the future, because this was actually before anything to do with next gen specs or hardware or anything technical was announced. Because from day one they were already using photogrammetry techniques, 4K graphics… just everything about it was next level in terms of visual fidelity.

“LKA is a studio whose core strength is discussing difficult subjects, difficult narratives, with a backdrop of real settings. They’re an Italian studio, so Town of Light was based in a real-life Italian psychiatric hospital. And Martha is based almost in the same timeline of 1944, but it’s got the backdrop of the Second World War. It has all these sorts of subjects, topics, baked into a wonderful story.”

Due to Wired and LKA’s long-standing relationship, their partnership on Martha felt like a natural step.

“I’d like to think we’re kind of partners at this stage. They’re happy with the way we work, we’re happy with the way they work, and we support each other. It’s definitely going to be a very, very special game.

“It has some incredibly dark moments. It’s going to get talked about. It’s a game that needs to be played, and it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s definitely going to make next gen look good.”

WIRED DIFFERENTLY

Wired and LKA worked together on their previous title, The Town of Light

A game touching on themes of mental health feels quite at home for Wired. Not only is Zullo himself the co-founder and chair of Safe in Our World, but the publisher has a history with titles that explore this sensitive topic.

“It’s a difficult thing to marry difficult subjects like mental health and portray them in games. It’s really, really sensitive. I think it was done really well in Town of Light, because it had, I think, six or nine months worth of just pure research into the subject matter before embarking on development. And obviously, that experience carries through.

“I think it’s important that the topic is discussed and played in games. We also did a game called Fractured Minds, which was touching upon different aspects, whether it’s paranoia, or claustrophobia, anxiety, all these types of things, but it was done in a really sort of nice way, and it got people talking. Town of Light got people talking, Martha will get people talking. They’re not necessarily promoting the subject matter, but they’re definitely going to get people thinking about the subject.

“And I think that’s the best thing we can do as a charity, as a company, and as developers: to get people talking about difficult subjects. So it’s important, it’s an important game for us and it’s an important game for the industry as well.”

While Wired obviously has an interest in starting these important conversations, Zullo is resistant to the notion that the company can be so easily pigeonholed.

“We definitely pick games with either difficult subjects or good narratives. As a company, we don’t shy away from difficult subjects – and I think that’s sometimes important. But it’s also about games that we’d like to play.

“There was a danger that we were going to get pigeonholed into adventure games with horror, or dark aspects to them. Because there does seem to be an internal line. Those Who Remain, Deliver Us the Moon and Close to the Sun… There seemed to be a bit of a theme coming in.

‘So when we announced Martha, everyone was like ‘oh, yeah,? this is a Wired game!” And no, it’s not a Wired game. We just like games that we like. Sure, we don’t shy away from topics that are difficult, but we like music games too, because music is also in our DNA.

Although even in that arena, mental health issues have sadly been a factor, with Wired’s Avicii Invector rhythm title launching posthumously after the suicide of the eponymous Swedish DJ in 2018.

“In addition to Martha, we’ve also got six unannounced games and most of them, if not all are going to be on next-gen platforms, and two of them are going to be VR titles. We’re actually dipping our toe into the VR world. Some might say it’s a bit late, but there’s some interesting things happening in that space now. I think now it’s matured to the point where the markets at work are a little bit clearer. So as a company we’re diversifying, we’re growing.”

PROMISING AND PROMISES

With the company growing, and ready to offer a selection of next-gen titles, it seems that 2021 is going to be a good year for Wired. And Zullo is keen not to lay out just what the publisher can offer developers, but how it can share the wealth during these troubled times.

“A lot of the developers like to work with us, because though we are a small company, we do try and do everything that we can. To be honest, there’s so many publishers popping up now, and everyone’s got their own skill. And I would say we’re kind of a jack-of-all-trades.

“We obviously do digital publishing really well, and we do retail publishing. So every single game will get a global retail release. We do collector’s editions, we bring in soundtracks, we do everything.

“And it’s very much a family vibe. So when we sign a game, we don’t sign many, but when we do, it’s the developer first and then the game. Every single team member has to sign up to it. Because if everyone signs up to it, they’re passionate, and they love the people that they work with.

“We’re doing a day one edition for The Falconeer. It’s the first time we’re doing that. It’s got loads of really good stuff in it, and it’s only 35 pounds. We try to provide good value for both the gamer and for the retailers too, because retail took a bit of a kicking from COVID. Games at retail really didn’t need that, because they’re already on a slightly slippery slope.

“We do what we can to support retailers, we do what we can to support developers and we do what we can to support gamers. That’s the kind of level we aspire to for all our games and all our developers.”

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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