How one vision shaped TimeGate Studios’ future with the new game, ‘Minimum’

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Before TimeGate Studios got wrapped up in the controversy surrounding Aliens: Colonial Marines, it was a Texas-based studio best known for its inventive work on the multiplayer shooters Section 8 and Section 8: Prejudice. Both games are not without their flaws, but TimeGate brought some fresh ideas that showed plenty of promise for future efforts in similar directions. That future is now. Digital Trends sat down with TimeGate at the 2013 Game Developer’s Conference for a peek at the studio’s latest, the aptly titled Minimum.

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The title is apt because of Minimum‘s unique look. You’d be forgiven for lumping the in-progress game alongside the flood of voxel-based projects that have surfaced following the success of Mojang’s MinecraftMinimum‘s world of featureless, colored polygon’s is immediately eye-catching, all clean lines and easily defined shapes. This is a free-to-play third-person shooter that looks unlike any other shooter that you’ve seen. The violent, beating heart at the core of the game is what makes it fun to play – more on that in a bit – but the simple beauty of its surroundings is the cover that you’ll want to judge this book by.

“I walked by his office one night… and got to see a sneak peek of Minimum. No one had known about it. And I’m like ‘What the heck are you working on? What is this thing?’ The incredible thing was that was the reaction from the entire studio.”

Minimum was born from a studio initiative called PitchFest, a period during which all TimeGate employees were invited to put forward any game ideas they’d been sitting on in a 10-15 minute presentation. The studio had just finished up work on Aliens, and the open door invitation to think creatively toward a worthwhile goal – seeing your pitch turned into a game – energized everyone. Concepts were sketched and shown to everyone at TimeGate, then put to a vote.

Enter William Smith, the (extremely talented) concept artist-turned-creative director behind the Minimum pitch. He describes the two-pronged thought process that led to the game’s birth, combining a personal passion for minimalist architecture with what amounts to a studio-wide belief that a game’s lore is just as important as its mechanics and presentation. “A large part of Minimum‘s aesthetic is founded on minimalist architecture,” Smith tells us. “These really simplified shapes. Taking detailed structures and [removing] all of the extraneous elements. [ I loved the idea of ] just making something really beautiful with amazing composition and amazing lighting.”

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A lot of thought also went into Minimum‘s universe and why it looks the way it does. The third-person shooter will launch as a competitive multiplayer-only proposition, but there’s an understanding at TimeGate that universe-building is important. The plan for Minimum is to let the game be shaped by the community – the particulars of exactly how that will work are still being ironed out – and no one is discounting the possibility that the community might demand co-op or campaign play opportunities once they’ve gotten a sense of the world.

So Smith split his time during PitchFest between drawing up his concept art and building a world that those visual ideas could exist in. “Whenever we have an idea, [we can ask ourselves] does it fit with the lore?” he says. “We actually have developed a history for this whole world. Thousands of years ago there was this event, and slowly through the centuries there’s been a de-evolution from very complex forms down to the simple shapes that you see. So this whole world has now devolved down to this overly simplified but very beautiful aesthetic that all runs on energy.”

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“There’s a logic to everything,” Smith continues. “It’s really important to us that we have that foundation, so that any idea, no matter what game mode route we want to go or characters or weapons or anything like that, it all has this foundation. This kind of rule book.”

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The various pitch presentations came and went, and then TimeGate put it to a vote. Minimum won by a wide margin. A “landslide,” as producer Brad Logston describes it. “William was a concept artist at the time [before Minimum was pitched] and he was on my incubator team. I walked by his office one night… and got to see a sneak peek of Minimum. No one had known about it. And I’m like ‘What the heck are you working on? What is this thing?’ The incredible thing was that was the reaction from the entire studio.”

Minimum was greenlit immediately and internally funded, with Smith and Logston taking point on bringing it together. Both shared the belief that the basic spirit of collaboration that PitchFest fostered should be carried over into the game’s development. The focus on community involvement speaks to that, and should become more clear as the details of how it will all work are revealed. Suffice to say for now that TimeGate plans to take a more structured approach to bringing the community in, something that steps beyond simply processing feedback posted on internal forums.

Minimum - Screenshot08So what is Minimum? At it’s heart, the game is a team-based competitive third-person shooter that will be coming to Steam’s Early Access channel on April 16. The official website is now live, with forums, FAQs, and all of the basic info-gathering tools that a gamer might want to find.

Minimum‘s highlight game mode is called Titan, an objective-driven match that sees two teams fighting to control a battlefield as AI-controlled massive Titans march across the map. The Titans duke it out when they meet, though the competing teams have the option of attacking the bigger guys as well. The ultimate goal is for one team to escort its Titan across the map, through a series of walls and into the enemy base.

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There’s a twist though: the two behemoths march on a timer, and both teams have the opportunity to power their Titan up during the downtimes by killing little, spider-like creatures that spawn in specific parts of the map. The more your team kills, the more unstoppable your Titan becomes. A special, rarely appearing and fast-moving golden spider offers an even bigger reward.  The ebb and flow between straight-up versus action and the more co-op-centric spider hunting – with versus elements mixed in – makes for an involving mix.

Minimum - Screenshot09Minimum also has a unique identity with regards to player progression, the core of which is built around a weapon upgrade system that operates on a per-spawn basis. Downed members of the opposing team leave behind a pickup that, when collected, bumps your equipped weapon up by another PowerUp level (out of five in total). The pickup can be collected by anyone, though a kill on its own is rewarded with a half-level PowerUp boost, a nod to the snipers.

Higher PowerUp levels increase your damage potential, but they also change the weapon’s appearance and capabilities. Your basic sniper rifle takes on a blue glow as it powers up, and it eventually fires bullets that freeze the enemy. One katana becomes two, then adds fire effects. The visual makeover that each weapon undergoes as it powers up also makes its wielder easier to spot on the battlefield. The idea there being more effective play in a single life makes you a more visible target for the other team.

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Expect Minimum to start small and grow over time as community starts to use amassed Influence to nudge the course of development. This is the more structured system for feedback gathering that we hinted at above. TimeGate isn’t ready to share the details yet on exactly how it will work, but expect it to play a sizable role in shaping where the game goes from its team-based multiplayer starting point. 

It’s clear enough after a few short matches that there’s a slick and well-thought-out competitive shooter here in Minimum. TimeGate’s knack for coming up with inventive ideas shines brightly here, and the immediately eye-catching visual aesthetic offers a big boost to the whole package. We’ll be watching this one closely as the early access phase launches; look for that on Steam starting April 16.

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