An Interview With Luke Whittaker, Co-Founder of State of Play

Eli Cymet From Snowman Talks to Luke Whittaker on the Art & Craft Podcast

Ryan Cash & Eli Cymet from Snowman have kindly allowed us to share highlights from episode three of their podcast Art & Craft in which they interview Luke Whittaker, co-founder of State of Play and creator of meticulously hand-crafted games Lumino City, Kami 2 and Inks.


So I want to dive right in Luke with a question that I ask everybody at the start of these episodes … if you could look back at your history with the medium, your history with play, do you have a time or a moment or a memory where you went from loving games as things you played to thinking, hey i can make these, or I want to create these for other people?

Yeah I do actually … I find myself thinking back to this moment going oh yeah that was when I realised that this was something that was exciting. Because after school and throughout art college I was making short films and animations and painting and that kind of thing, and I’d lost interest in games really, I felt like they’d kind of become quite samey … they just weren’t really on my radar.

I played a lot when I was younger, I played an Atari ST to death, I broke a thousand joysticks you know that kind of thing, it was great. And yet they were never really something that intellectually interested me. I loved the animation and the rest of it but, when I got to university, coding was part of the course … it was a very broad course, you could make animations but you could make interactive television if you wanted, but I started to make games in Flash and I was outside the university shop and on the shelf there was this Edge Magazine, which is a UK magazine about video games … it just had the Atari logo on it, and it must have struck a chord with me from back when I was ten years old … it was a very plush magazine, in fact the Atari logo on it was a hologram I think and it moved …

Edge covers don’t mess around, I’ve seen a couple recent ones and I feel like they’ve only gotten more ostentatious …

I think it was that they were actually talking about the ideas in the games and that it was about what they could be and I hadn’t read anything about what video games could be before … and it’s at a time when you’re at university and you’re thinking of the potential of what you might be able to do … and it just struck a chord I think … So that was the time and that was when it all came together, I was learning a bit of code on that course and I could bring what I’d learned at art college to bear on that and I think you could now trace a thread through all our work back to that moment when my craft and art side merged with code and it became the games that we make.

What I find to be a really unique wonderful thing about the work you do at State of Play … you seem to have approached games more from the traditional art side … and for those that don’t know a lot of your games have this beautiful sort of melding of digital play and interaction with tactile physical fully realised experiences in paper craft and cardboard and worlds built from hand, and so can you tell me a little bit about your first game experience that you created as State of Play…?

Yeah sure. State of Play came together off the back of freelance work that I was doing, I’d carved out a little area where I was making Flash games where I could do code and the art myself, but I’m not really a coder. I can do it because it makes the art do cool stuff but it’s not something that I wake up thinking about and I knew that it would be good to get someone else to help with that …

So my Flash games had always had some hand made element to them and I have always understood the joy of creation with my hands, like every artist will say the same kind of thing, there’s a pleasure in just doing and then there’s a pleasure in seeing people respond to that, and I think there’s something about how quickly you can get your ideas out and down into the real world, and there’s no sort of barrier, there’s no computer screen in the way if you’re making stuff by hand … whether it’s a drawing or a screen print or a sculpture …

So I found this was working just in Flash games, they were quite an interesting place to explore but they then became just too limiting really … you couldn’t make money out of it really, it was still a good ground to experiment but I remember just wondering now should I switch to doing something bigger and grander, maybe on mobile … and I loaded up one of my games and an advert for Puss in Boots appeared and I had it on full volume … and that was infuriating!

It’s funny on the face of it but i think you’re on to something there … it’s getting more and more ludicrous, and it all happens before that moment of immersion, and the promise of games is this idea of that deeper immersion … this is a world you can have some degree of influence over … so to be immersed and then be immediately removed to see some gaudy advertisement … I think it deeply undermines the very promise of games …

Yeah definitely, I mean you see advertising creeping in loads of places and in games it’s in free to play, it’s popping up an advert half way through … you wouldn’t make a narrative game and do that, it would just completely break the immersion – somehow they do it in a TV drama and I don’t know how it works.

… So you see these ads in your Flash game and you just decide there’s got to be a better avenue, so you looked to mobile at that point?

That’s right, so this all happened at about the same time as the iPhone had come out … there’s a little package there on screen, this is a self-contained app and it’s something that people can buy and it’s got worth … and that was when we set up State of Play … that was the perfect mix for us … I set the company up with my now wife Kath and we went back to university to do a talk and found a guy called Dan Fountain, and he was the coder that we were after, he’s a genius and so we started work with him and it’s grown ever since. But we’ve never lost that hands-on kind of attitude to how we make our games.

When it comes to making games, it’s easier to look at a phrase like “hands-on” as a marketing term, a buzzword meant to convey warm and fuzzy images of game creators tinkering away with physical material in a workshop like modern day watchmakers. But when it comes to the things that State of Play makes, you needn’t really look further from their very first game to see just how true this is.

Entitled Lume, the game is an adventure where you play as a young inquisitive girl that discovers that her grandad’s house is out of power, and not only is it out of power but the man himself has gone, nowhere to be found. So along with her, you have to follow a trail of clues to figure out exactly what’s going on. But the difference here is that it’s all deeply photo realistic, the whole world is made from cardboard and paper and physical materials, and in a landscape where amazing digital wizardry is increasingly used to imitate photo realism … So I had to know, how did they go about wrapping their minds around building something digital out of completely physical materials?

Yeah, well the scope was massive … you have an inkling of something interesting or a desire to make … And we’d been frustrated not being able to get stories into things until this point, and so I wanted to create some kind of puzzle adventure … and that goes back as well to when I was 10 years old … it goes back to Monkey Island and Full Throttle and loving those games. So yeah we started off with this intention and these ideas grew of this huge city that you could walk around which had lost its power … initially it was all based on one cliff that went straight up, and you climbed all the way to the top and then we realised that’s way too much effort…

When we decided that we wanted to make a puzzle adventure I’d been working with illustrating stuff and then scanning that in and then trying to make that look like it was more physical even than that, I was putting paper textures on top of stuff, and I was trying in photoshop to make the look of something three-dimensional, and then I had this moment where I thought why am I cheating it like this, what if I printed this out and took a photograph of it … and so I did, I took that very illustration I’d done and I printed it out and then cut it out and made a little cardboard model out of it, got my camera, set a nice narrow depth of field, took a photograph and then that was it, as soon as that photograph appeared on the screen it was like oh, wow, that’s it, that was the epiphany if there was one …

You couldn’t go back from that …

Exactly, I was like oh no, now I’ve got to build an entire city like this! But that’s exciting as well, I think I get excited when something seems a little bit impossible and yet you have an inkling of how you might make it happen … the depth of field had given it intrigue and it suddenly looked like a place you really wanted to explore …

And so I just got my digital camera again and made something out of packing boxes … it was basically just folded up to look like a couple of houses, one on top of the other. I moved my camera across it and within half an hour I’d managed to animate an interactive character over that environment and lock her feet to the ground and make it feel like she was really there.

And I was like, oh that was easier than I expected … I’d been Flash animating for a long time and I was very comfortable with that, and I was exploiting kind of a legacy feature of Flash which was that you could put video onto a timeline and then animate along to that, and of course in Flash whatever you animate along a timeline can also have loads of nested movie clips and be interactive itself …

And something that you said it really stuck with me … you said that you sort of had this joy that came from something seeming impossible but being able to figure it out … I feel like that’s a thread that travels through a lot of the games that State of Play makes … is that something that’s consciously a central hook to the things you make or is that a happy accident?

I mean it’s not like we set out to make impossible things but we’re happiest when we are! As long as you’ve got some sort of inkling and just enough confidence that you can get over that hill … and Lumino City, which is the big one after we’d done Lume, we set about making this huge grand city. We didn’t know how we were going to animate something halfway through it, we didn’t know quite what the building at the end was going to look like inside … we’d be like, how do we put a transparent photo realistic bubble into this photographic scene making it animate with weight … we didn’t know, we’d turn up and then we’d figure it out …

… Is there any sense that when you get boxed in or when you hit a creative rut or a dead end that things are so much more worrisome, because you’ve physically built this entire space and now to get out of that it’s so much more difficult, or as you say did you kind of find that you tackled the problem head on and just beat it into shape?…

Yeah I mean there was a lot of work that we had to do beforehand, we almost had to build the thing in our minds before we made any models … I went back to Flash and I’d just use a Wacom tablet and I’d sketch out every scene, and I could make that interactive enough for me to know what the camera angles were going to be, and so that gave us that little bit of confidence, that ok well if we build a model that matches exactly that perspective that I’ve made there, we’re going to be alright …

One of the nice things about Lumino City was it was reasonably compartmentalised … and I remember we hadn’t actually sorted out how we’d wanted the ending to be, I knew what feeling I wanted and I knew what I wanted it to reveal at the end, but the actual puzzle and the sort of grand finale I didn’t know and I wrestled with that for about two or three years just at the back of my mind …

It’s so funny you say that, because as someone who does a lot of writing and … working on a narrative game right now, there’s kind of a vision you have in your head about how you want something to feel before it becomes a real thing … there’s this idea that I know concretely that if nothing else I want people to feel the way I’m feeling in my head right now about the thing that I’m going to create …

Yeah, we’ll make it up as we go… And then ask for help half way through and have a breakdown! Thats the indie way …

But in the case of Lumino City …. is it fair to say that was kind of a turning point for the studio, because while it continued some of the ideas in Lume, there’s always the sense that as an independent creator … sometimes you get defined by a work that people know you by … has it become that for State of Play, the game that people often know you most by?

It’s a strange split, we released a game called Kami 2 recently … we’ve made that a free title which has suddenly meant that 4 million people have this game and they know us for that … and don’t know Lumino City and they’re just fans of this puzzle game which you can play for two minutes or two hours … I don’t feel hamstrung by any of them, I don’t feel like we have to create Lumino City 2 …

The number two did have me thinking. There seems to be two distinct types of games State of Play puts out. Those that are driven by game stories like Lume and Lumino City, and in these titles players plumb the depths of meticulously crafted worlds to uncover their secrets and make their way through a set narrative, and then there are simpler but no less beautiful games … where the fun is in simple clever tactile interactions, games like Kami and Kami 2, a series about folding paper puzzles to envelop the screen in colour, and Inks, a paintball meets Jackson Pollock painting game where you knock a pinball about the screen, splattering gorgeous blots of colour across each level as you go.

I wonder if there was any sort of artists rhyme and reason to which games Luke and his team pursued and when. The truth however was much simpler that that … keeping an independent studio afloat is very hard.

It’s kind of a thing that we do which keeps us mentally healthy I think … Lumino City was the big grand project which had thinking about architecture and a narrative and doing all this new stuff that is difficult, and what we did we started what we called Google Fridays … I’d been working on animating in Lumino City for so long I was just going mad, and Dan our developer had this little idea for a small puzzle game where you change colours next to each other and it moves out, and there wasn’t much more than a kind of embryo of an idea at that point but we thought lets just take a day a week and just do this for fun …

And so that was something where I could go back and do something physical again, I was folding paper and scoring paper and trying to work out how this could be something really nice and tactile … and Dan had this intellectual challenge in how he could create loads and loads of puzzles … it turned from one day a week, and then it was two days a week and then it was three, and then it was full time towards the end …

That was whilst we were making Lumino City, and I remember what made us think we’d better make this one count was that we’d run out of money on Lumino City. I think I’d budgeted for like a year and a half and we were a year and one month in and there was no end in sight … it was like right we’re only half way through this guys, what are we going to do?

And I was applying for funding at the time … I went to an investor who gave us one of the best responses ever. He was like yep, I’m really happy to help fund the rest of Lumino City, is there anything else you’re doing? And I said well we’ve got this little puzzle game that’s on the go, just have a play and thought no more of it … and I was actually about to sign the final contract for this money and I got an email back saying don’t sign that, just release this game and I think that will fund the rest of Lumino City for you.

And I was like oh, ok, if thats what you think! … and it did. We put all our effort into launching Kami and it funded the next what, year and a half, two years of development on Lumino City, and that was wonderful. That investor was actually an experienced indie dev who knew what it was like to be in this position and said well you don’t want me watching over you this whole time … and thanks to that Lumino City was able to become what it was.

… I imagine it has been so fulfilling not to have taken that external investment and to have been able to self-fund the project through Kami?

Yeah, it was so freeing for us and proved that the idea worked … financially and then mentally we weren’t burnt out by the end, and we’ve done that ever since, so Inks and Kami 2 were both these small little projects.

Inks came about … from Lumino City I think, there’s a pinball table in Lumino City and we’d had fun doing that. I’d made a real physical table to put in the game and Steffan who’s a designer at State of Play and Dan had started playing real pinball, and they went to a couple of competitions, and we all came together and thought right, this has got real potential … so that turned into Inks, and Kami 2 came about because Kami had worked and there was still a lot more that we wanted to do …

Right, and so Inks, something that I … find so fascinating, is that there is somewhere in the world a physical Inks pinball table?

That’s right, in our studio at the moment.

That’s unbelievably cool, and so is it life size and you can play it as a pinball machine?

Yeah, so we designed a pinball table with an architect friend of mine, and that was cut with CNC cutting and we embedded a 4K TV in that and wired it up, using proper pinball buttons and switches and it works, and we’ve got a backboard with Inks that lights up and we love it when we switch it on … it got into “Now Play This”, which is a festival of games in London at Somerset House, it was there last year and it was there this year as well, and it’s great to see people play that for real and get so much out of it, it’s something different to just being on a phone …

Do you feel in any way that that’s the thing that defines State of Play now, games that combine these physical tactile materials with digital play? Is there a sense that you can’t make anything that isn’t that now in any way, that you’re boxed in by that?

I don’t feel like that, and I feel it’s part of the fact that we’re self-funded and we don’t have anyone saying, right we need another hit … We follow our noses with stuff and we love making things for real but we’re not going to always be doing that kind of thing … we don’t define ourselves by that, it’s more like a feeling, it’s more if we’re going to create something just in a 3-d world, it’s still got to feel tactile, it’s got to have that feeling that you understand it in the same way that you understand the real world, because we just love communicating in that way.

… You said there’s another big narrative project on the horizon, maybe we can talk a little bit about that, and tell me a little bit about how you’re approaching this new narrative space that you’re building?

Yeah sure well, it came out of again something that goes back to when I was younger and I used to read a lot … so I just wanted to see how much more we could experiment with narrative in games, and a lot of games to do with the present … the story is about getting to the next area where you shoot stuff … games are often trying to copy cinema and they use a lot of the techniques of cinema to get their point across, and they do that pretty well … but going back to books and all the ways that we tell stories in this world, games don’t really do much in terms of character … they don’t explore the past very well and so this is all the stuff that I was thinking and wanting to explore more, and I actually ended up writing a book to work out what the narrative for this game could be.

Luke brushes over it like it’s a trip to the store, but I’m pretty sure he just said that in order to get inside his characters head, he wrote an entire book? As someone who’s bread and butter is writing this blows me away … there’s this old quote attributed to Hemingway about writing, which I can relate to. He’s reported to have said on writing, “There’s nothing to it. All you do is sit down at a typewriter, and bleed.” So when I hear Luke wrote an entire book as a precursor to making a game I can’t let it slide. I have to know, was it painful?

Yeah it was, I mean you touched upon it … you were saying you just have a feeling that you want to communicate and you don’t quite know how you’re going to get there … you don’t know what you’re going to write you don’t know what the plots going to be … what that did it totally reframed how I was thinking about the game, ideas emerged from that process that are now core to how the video game is going to work, and this involves flashbacks and things to do with memory, and there’s the kind of things that you can do in a book, you can go into what the character’s thinking, you can go back into it’s history to explain what it’s character’s like, and games don’t do that much …

I think it’s impossible to separate the act of play from the telling of stories, because play is something that gives people their own freedom to create narrative …

I think we value things and we value art where there things are withheld, like the best art is often just something that kicks you into going, oh my goodness I recognise that feeling. For example one of my favourite paintings is Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”, and I don’t know why I just remember seeing it once and just almost being knocked off my feet … it’s something to do with the relationship that’s going on with the characters, the lighting … but if it was written out very literally … or even tells you the point of it then it’s too literal and I think this is how we can make good an meaningful experiences, by giving just enough and withholding the rest for people to put themselves in there and make it meaningful …

Absolutely, thank you so much Luke for joining me … For future reference because people should and need to find you and State of Play online … where do they find you…?

Ok, well our website is stateofplaygames.com, at twitter we are @state_of_play … you can find us on Facebook and shoot us an email any time, we’re always interested in hearing from people doing cool stuff.


Thanks to Ryan and Eli at Snowman for allowing us to share this interview. You can hear the full episode on the Art & Craft podcast.

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