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May 5, 2011

Ten Questions: CipherPrime Studios

Posted by on May 5, 2011

Regular readers of NNAR will know that we love indie games (even more than we love Indy games).  One of our longtime favorites is Auditorium, the addicting and innovative music game built by the fine folks at CipherPrime Studios.  When we heard they had a brand new game coming out, we had to check in with them and see how things were going.  So without further ado: CipherPrime.

1. Who / what is CipherPrime Studios and how did it come to be?

Cipher Prime is a pimp little indie game studio based in our nations birthplace, Philly. Three years ago we were an interactive company founded by Will Stallwood and Dain Saint. After the unlikely success of Auditorium, we are now a game company and have since expanded to be a 3-man team, adding Kerry Gilbert into the mix.

2. Your games are unlike anything we’ve played before.  How did this unique style develop and what do you consider your strongest influences?

Haha… you’re way too kind! Of course, we’ll steal that compliment and never give it back. A lot of the style in our games revolves around the visual style that Will lays down coupled with the audio stylings of Dain and Kerry. We try to keep our gameplay tight and focus on exploiting just one or two dynamics rather setting out to make an extremely involved title. Visually, most of Will’s influences are based on interactive and print design. Very rarely does he consider games to be an influence for his designs. Dain is highly influenced by film composers such as Danny Elfman and electronica acts like Hybrid. Kerry is a baller and loves Steve Reich, Radiohead, and Grizzly Bear.

Auditorium is an audio-visual experience that everyone should enjoy.


3. All of us who have played Auditorium absolutely love the gameplay, the way the music is such an organic part of the experience, and the sense that we are playing an interactive graphic design as opposed to a game.  Do you find that your game design informs your sound and graphic design, or do you start with a picture of how you want a game to look and feel and then figure out how to make it fun?

It’s a pretty symbiotic relationship. For each game we do, we create an internal document we call a “Why Play Again?” where we describe how we want the player to feel, how they’re rewarded, how they know how well they’re doing, etc. So every decision gets held to that standard — if we come up with something we think is cool that doesn’t fit the experience, we ditch it.

In Auditorium, we were all about making things totally seamless. You get to the site, click to play, and *BAM* — you’re playing. No tutorial, no loading screen, just “Hey, I’m playing!”. The way the music fades in, the way you control the stream, the transitions between levels — every bit of the design and music revolved around that feeling of flow.

With Fractal, everything was about feedback. We made sure you’d know, with every action, every possible consequence of what you did — so we had the “Tony Hawk”-style callouts, the screen shakes, the ridiculous particle effects and congratulatory phrases. The music swells and changes tempo based on what you’re doing, the colors react when you’re running low on pushes — everything’s about feedback.

4. You’ve got a new game coming out!  Tell us about Pulse? (I’m Ron Burgundy? It’s called Ten Questions, it had to be question, deal with it).

Pulse is our new baby and we love her very much. It’s a music / rhythm game we developed exclusively for touch devices.

The basic gameplay concept is simple: tap notes in time with the music. We like to think it’s a lot more than that, though. Our goal was to create an immersive experience that made the user feel as if they were actually playing the song. We wrote the music for each level with that in mind.

It’s got some really cool particle effects too. For serious. Two words: Shutter Shades.

Makes me feel warm and fuzzy.


5. One issue that we at NNAR are passionate about (and often discuss at length) is that of Digital Rights Management.  While the nature of Pulse requires distribution through the iPad App Store, your past releases for the PC have avoided including DRM, which we applaud.  What was the genesis of this decision, and did you ever consider the alternative?

There’s a big problem with DRM, and it’s this: if you make DRM that does it’s job anywhere near well, you’ve officially made it easier for someone to steal your game than to pay for it legally. People always follow the path of least resistance. So we make it easy for people to buy our games, and yeah, piracy happens, but by and large the people that steal our game aren’t people that would’ve paid for it in the first place, and it’s another set of eyeballs on our product. Now, we don’t advocate piracy in the slightest. But putting a positive spin on it keeps us from crying ourselves to sleep when someone would rather steal our game than buy us a latte.

6. When you’re not designing, coding, and testing your own games, do you find that you have time to play anything else?  Do you tend to stick to games from other indie developers or do you play a fair mix of indie and mainstream titles (or are those other indie guys chumps)?

Haha…those indie CHUMPS! Honestly, most of our peers are badass. One of my favorite competitive games I’ve played in awhile is an iPad game called ShotShotShoot, simple and awesome. There is seriously a ton of indie talent out there and it’s always a ton of fun to see what our fellow independents are putting out.

On the mainstream side, we play obscene amounts of Starcraft 2. The office 3v3 team finally made it out of Bronze league last week (EAT IT, BLIZZARD), so we’re pretty stoked [Editor's note:  Chris and I will take you on!]. But we play what we like — it could be Portal 2, or Nidhogg, or MVC3, or Fruit Ninja — indie vs. mainstream doesn’t really enter into it if you’re just looking to have some *fun*.

7. When Auditorium was first released, it was a web-only flash game, which was very quickly ported to the iPhone/iPod Touch.  Fractal, your second title, has always been Windows/Mac only, and now your newest entry is solely for iPad.  I sense some commitment issues here.  Is there a specific reason for all the jumping around, and what has the response to this from your community been like?

Commitment issues? Come on now! We’re just trying to make the best games we can. Pulse is a really unique concept and couldn’t be executed properly on any other device out there yet, except for the Android tablets. Auditorium has been on many systems from PS3, XBOX360 (even though microsoft won’t release it), PSP, Mac, Windows, iOS. Fractal is only mac and windows for now, but the iPad port is just the start of multi-platform support. We’re not just porting to iPad, we’re rebuilding it for every system. At the end of the day, we don’t want to be locked down by platforms anymore. When we did the Auditorium ports, we spent a lot of time dealing with other development teams and making unique versions of the codebase for each system. That was a huge hassle and the game ALWAYS suffered, no matter how good the team was. Now, we won’t have to worry about that anymore. We’ve switched to Unity and she’s been really good to us.

8. We heard from an anonymous source that your next rhythm game will deal exclusively with Wu Tang beats.  Care to comment?

If this were true, we would not be able to confirm such information because of certain contractual obligations. We have been swapping PMs with RZA on twitter though. We can’t comment any further or Wu Tang’s lawyers could potentially bring the ruckus.

9. Now that you’re done with Pulse, what is next for CipherPrime? New game?  Add-ons to an old game?  Retire to the Caymans with your bags of money?

Cipher Prime is “hella” busy. We’re currently working with Zoo Games on an iPad port of Fractal. Fractal is also getting an uplift and re-releasing on Steam. At the same time, we’re doing monthly updates of Pulse. Every month 4 new tracks will be included in the game for free from other indie musicians mostly local to the Philly area.We’re also playing around with some smaller versions of Pulse for iOS and Android Phones. On top of all that, we have a few other titles in production we’re excited to be announcing soon after the Fractal Relaunch. Then, we might just have to take over the world or grab a beer or something. Let’s face it, taking over the world is too much work.

10. What is your quest?

TO SEEK THE HOLY GRAIL. Which, of course, is a brilliant game that makes truckloads of money that we aren’t totally sick of by the time we finish making it. Pulse fits two out of three. Please send money-trucks to 239 Chestnut St., Suite 2A, Philadelphia, PA, 19106.

CipherPrime: Game developers or international bank robbers? Either way, let's call John McClane.


Pulse: Volume One hits the iPad App Store today, May 5.  We would like to offer a big thank you to CipherPrime for taking the time to sit down with us and chat, despite being in the throes of releasing their newest title.  Expect a review of Pulse from the NNAR team (read: Chris, as he’s the one with the iPad) as soon as we get around to it.