Lab Rat is a new indie project with a pretty interesting concept. The game features a metric-obsessed AI that loves to taunt players as they manage more than eighty puzzles, akin to GLaDOS from the Portal franchise. The main difference being though that Lab Rat sees the antagonist feed off player-data and player-analytics to update puzzles in real time, at least according to the narrative.
Speaking with SegmentNext in a recent interview, Gwen Frey, founder and primary developer of Chump Squad, explained that Lab Rat is “definitely collecting feedback from players and showing poll results for surveys that people complete, and metrics for how real people are progressing through the game.”
However, the data is mostly to “further the narrative and to help select the order of puzzles.” Every puzzle in the game has been “lovingly handcrafted” by real humans and while players “will experience slightly different puzzles than others,” Lab Rat does not feature procedurally generated content.
“It is not easy to find the right balance of puzzle variety and puzzle difficulty with handcrafted content,” noted Frey. “Adding procedural generation would make this much harder to achieve!”
Frey has been giving her all to the indie games industry for the past few years. Lab Rat is only one indie puzzler slated for release next year. Kine is another which releases this fall. Before her focus towards indie puzzlers though, she worked as a senior technical animator on BioShock Infinite and its post-release expansions as well as Marvel Heroes Online. When asked to differentiate the development experience between both worlds, Frey pointed out how indie developers are and need to be extremely passionate and confident in what they are doing.
“When you are an indie developer you are completely dependent on how commercially and critically successful your work is,” Frey explained. “That is incredibly empowering, but it is also a terrifying responsibility. Obviously AAA developers want their game to be successful, but many AAA developers are primarily concerned that their specific job/role is well executed vs the entire game being well executed. This is the result of AAA developers both being more specialized, and being more detached from the business realities of their work.
“Indie developers must believe in what they are doing enough to stake their livelihoods on their game, whereas AAA developers do not have to. Many indie developers forgo a paycheck until their game launches or a publishing deal comes together. Because of this I find most indie developers are intensely passionate and opinionated – you have to be if you are going to be in this position!”
That being said, new and upcoming triple-a games like The Outer Worlds do tend to attract Frey into going back. A small team of developers can only “launch a rocket” as she said, “they cannot send someone to the moon.”
“I remember a specific moment when I was playing Outer Worlds where I opened a door to reveal the main hub of this city-space ship. I saw the lights shining down on a gorgeous interior space and NPCs bustling around the bright, lively corridor… In that moment I honestly considered polishing up my CV and reaching out to that team. A small indie team can’t create a large quantity of beautiful moments like this, and also have compelling gameplay, and also have a witty engaging story, etc, etc.”
However, Frey believes that there is a lot of untapped potential in the indie games industry, particularly the puzzle genre. She might be trying out new genres as well and perhaps only then consider returning to triple-a projects.
“I often find myself playing stunningly beautiful and interesting games where the core gameplay loop involves shooting things. I always found this jarring. There is this disconnect between the actions I am performing and the lovely world I am experiencing – and I hate that. I always wanted more games where you could lose yourself in an engaging story or a beautiful world without combat being the primary player action. At the moment I’m making puzzle games because I think that is one of the easiest ways to pursue that goal, but personally I also love strategy games, tactics games, and things of that nature. I don’t know which genre I will try next, but I do know there is a ton of untapped potential in the puzzle game genre right now!”
Another reason for sticking to indies for now involves a sense of completion, which Frey never experienced before releasing Kine—her most favorite game to develop so far. “I had never made something that felt so completely and entirely my own creation before Kine,” she exclaimed. “I deeply enjoyed the creative process of developing it, and because Kine was successful I can continue to explore more of my ideas at my own indie studio.”
Suffice to say that the indie games industry holds great importance. Frey cannot say if next-generation hardware will greatly impact indie development, but she does believe that Xbox Game Pass will. “As a gamer I find myself less likely to purchase an indie title at full price on Xbox. I know there are a ton of titles in Game Pass that I can explore when I want to play an indie game, so there isn’t as much of a draw to pay full price for even more indie games. I don’t have enough time to explore everything that I already have for free in my Game Pass catalogue!”