By Quentin H. / June 29th, 2022
At the yearly Games Developer Conference held in San Francisco, you can meet a wide variety of people and companies who are in the video game industry. These people range from AAA publishers and hardware manufacturers to college students who are just entering the industry and indie veterans. One such person I met was David Banner, who is one of the people in charge of an indie award-winning developer/publisher called Wales Interactive. During GDC, Mr. Banner agreed to do an interview with me post-show about Wales Interactive, what goes into creating and publishing FMV/interactive movies, and about the company’s upcoming titles, such as Sker Ritual.
In Part Three, we discuss the inspiration behind Maid of Sker and Sker Ritual, all about the gameplay of Sker Ritual, and more!
You can also try out a demo of the latest game by Wales Interactive, Sker Ritual, on Steam through June 30, 2022.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Operation Rainfall: Maid of Sker – why did you develop a game that is based on famous Welsh hymns such as Calon Lan, Suo-Gan, and Ar Hyd Y Nos?
David Banner: Ar Hyd Y Nos means ‘all though the night’ in English. Calon Lan means ‘pure of heart’, and Su-Gan means ‘lullaby.’ As creators you always use inspiration from around yourself, the area you’re from, the memories from where you’ve grown up. Five Dates has to do with Wales in the sense that [you learn about] Welsh culture – the writer, Pual Raschid, is from London, and everything is very authentic because it is about that journey. Even though the stories are made up, that is why it feels authentic, because it comes from the right place. For us, as a Welsh developer, we thought to reflect from where we are from. Even locations in Maid of Sker are from just down the road from where the office is. Sker Point is a real place, you can go to it, and you can see the real Sker House – which looks nothing like our Sker House, by the way. They’ve chopped all the trees and there is no forest. But we use reference points that exist for us, and they are real places. They might not look like the places we’ve created.
The story – you know when there’s an old folkstory or scary story, and every state has the same sort of story but the name of the person might change? So in Wales, ‘Maid of Sker’ is a real story, but in every different town, the name changes and what it is called: it isn’t ‘Maid of Sker,’ but it is a story about an old Welsh song about Elisabeth Williams and a farmer who didn’t think her boyfriend was good enough, and so he locked her in a room and she was supposed to have died of a broken heart. It’s a sad story, right? So we thought that would be great to base a horror game around and expand, using our imagination. So our story diverts from that reality to what we feel about those characters – what her boyfriend would do if she didn’t turn up, and she’s writing to him. That’s the starting point – she has written him a letter.
And then, of course, the Welsh music is coming back to being savvy. Music licenses is really expensive, and we wanted to have a song that we all knew – a Radiohead song, Creep. But it cost too much money for us to use. So, all our music is done in house by an in-house musician. So what we did do was some research, and we knew that there were a lot of Welsh hymns and songs which are really catchy tunes, even if you don’t know all of the words. There’s a real hook to them. But they aren’t in copyright, so you [can] do your own version of them. And they aren’t horror songs. So we thought that in any good thing, if you juxtapose something pretty against something ugly, then you have something. So it became obvious that the emotions in those songs, against the horror background, would transform it into something else. You don’t have to know what all the words are, because the song and the emotion in it sets the scene. They are normally sung in a man’s voice in Wales, so we hired a female singer, Tia Kalmaru. She did a great rendition. Gareth Lumb did the arrangements of the songs. But it added more depth to the thing, and then it is authentic. We are from Wales, and it is really old songs that were written a long time ago. Like Walt Disney used to do – ripping off old Celtic fairy tales – so we’re just tapping into our culture.
So Sker Ritual, even though it isn’t a sequel, is using the same characters. It isn’t an out-and-out horror story. It is essentially an FPS. There is a story mode we built into it. But again, we are game designers – we like playing a lot of ‘gamey’ games. So what we’ve always done as a company [is] we will do some action things and then take a break. If you look back at our history as a company, we’ve done the same thing every time. After we did Don’t Knock Twice, we did Time Carnage. So it’s not the only thing we’re doing, but what we’ve done is use the characters we’ve created in Maid of Sker so our team knows who they are and what they are, so that even though there is a story, we know where the story is set and the timeline. It’s as if we already know the characters and we’ve introduced them. So it’s a familiar thing for us, and we only have to worry about making a really good game. A lot of the team are fans of CoD [OR Note: Call of Duty] Zombies. CoD Zombies is really expensive – you have to buy the base game and then buy this [expansion]. So we identified: ‘Why can’t we make our own version?’ We had two reference points: CoD Zombies and BioShock.
We literally are having fun making something we can, we are having the live demo at the moment which has gone well. For us, it is something we’ve always done. When you’re in a narrative loop, it’s more about puzzles and there are scripts, and technically, Maid of Sker looks the way it does because we did a lot of work. Everyone thinks it is Unreal, but it’s not – It’s Unity, because the art team spent a lot of time making it look good. It’s never about just the barebones of a game engine, it is about what you’re trying to do with it and make your own. So we literally made Unity look like our own. All the shade work we’ve done, light work we’ve done – we don’t have teams of hundreds of people optimizing the AI program. We’re constantly punching way above our weight for the work we do and the complexity of it.
“We’re learning about servers and lobbies and matchmaking and all of that – as well as making a good game. So during the [Sker Ritual] demo, we are finding out lots of stuff that we didn’t know about.”
OR: What do players have to look forward to with Sker Ritual? Do they have to have played Maid of Sker first in order to enjoy Sker Ritual, or can it stand on its own?
DB: It stands on its own. If you have played Maid of Sker, there will be characters and stuff that will stand out and the environments. There is a Miracle system in there, so there isn’t just the usual perks, [and the system] can be as sophisticated or lowkey as you want it to be. So there is a lot of depth to the gameplay. And it is mission-based as well. So as you go along the episodes, there is a story. If you want to play the story, there will be a story which expands upon Maid of Sker. I don’t think we’ve ever talked about when it is set – but it is set 18 years after Maid of Sker. In the chaos, there is a mission with a point to it, there is a reason why you’re trying to kill lots of Quiet Ones. It doesn’t mean that we won’t do a sequel to Maid of Sker, by the way. Just because it is in the same world doesn’t mean that it replaces what could happen in Maid of Sker II. It just means that we’ve had great success. You know the films and all are connected – the film is the connection for our work, the way that we promote them together. So with Maid of Sker, we just felt that it just needed a buddy, really. So even though it is not Maid of Sker II, it is in the same world.
There will be people who will hate Sker Ritual because they loved Maid of Sker. We did an extra mode for Maid of Sker, which led to this – an action mode. We had done all of the narrative stuff, at the start. But we wanted to do a bit of free DLC where after the game was over, then you could run around with guns and shoot Quiet Ones with a limited story. So that mode essentially became its own game, because it was so much fun to play that we evolved that and we can revisit Maid of Sker. We talk about it as if they are real characters, like Abraham or Elisabeth Thomas. It’s easy to do that. But there’s something new, there’s always something we’re planning, because we have to evolve. We gotta keep moving. But at the moment, that is something which we will take a slightly different direction with the Maid of Sker brand.
Sker Ritual is currently available as a demo through June 30, 2022.
OR: Is there multiplayer in Sker Ritual?
DB: Yes! You can play it in single player, but it is one to four players co-op. I was watching – the demo just went live, and we were watching streams yesterday of people and you can really see them fool around. It’s the same thing, they are chatting on strategies, but there’s things to pick up and learn. It’s really nice to see that there is a lot more depth mechanically than they expected, because the story mode isn’t fully in the demo. If you want to be the one in your group to go off and do that, you can. But equally, with [how] these co-ops tend to be, one or two of you can get on with doing the tasks or whatever the strategy is for it. We’ve done local multiplayer, we’ve never done online multiplayer before as a company. So that is a step up, technically, so that’s another way of us challenging ourselves. We’re learning about servers and lobbies and matchmaking and all of that – as well as making a good game. So during the demo, we are finding out lots of stuff that we didn’t know about. The early tests are good, but until we stress test it, we don’t know how we can improve.
OR: You mentioned a moment ago a ‘Miracle System.’ Could you elaborate upon that, please?
DB: Yes, it is Richard Pring’s baby. He was playing an unrelated game, which had it’s own upgrade system, [Hades]. Richard is a big fan. He thought it was cool and thought about how to integrate it into an FPS, because the two themes of Maid of Sker are science and supernatural. When we designed the game, all the way through Maid of Sker was a bit of science – even though it was made-up science – and a bit of supernatural and trying to work that out.
So in Sker Ritual, we wanted to use science and supernatural [again]. Upgrades – perks – are science. The weapons upgrade because some of the Celtic monsters that we introduce – they have their own abilities that you are harnessing like fire, ice, water, earth. It’s the same thing. So what we do is that this is a different way to upgrade your weapon – a supernatural way. We use that system to upgrade your weapon’s abilities. So you have a fire weapon when you have an ice one, if you have the right Miracle. Different magical abilities that you pick up through the game. And then there is the perks, using machines to buy stuff.
The Quiet Ones are still in Sker Ritual, though this time you are not going to hold your breath. You are going to be having scares, because [fighting them is] your mission [from] the start. There is a female voice telling you to do stuff again – and it is up to you whether you trust her or [not]. We’ve already planned four episodes, so they will all have different end bosses and a continuous story, but at the end of every episode, you are achieving something in the story and in the bigger story. For people who wanted a bit more depth than just a shooter, that’s who we are doing it for. It was very important for us – if you log on and there is no one in the lobbies, it operates as a one-player game. We made sure that [the game] scales based upon how many players, everything is still designed to work for one player. If you’ve got multiple players, then you can do things faster. We kept that in mind, because so many multiplayer games fail because they assume the audience is going to be there. We’re planning for whatever happens – even on console, if there is nobody in the lobby, you are playing a single player game. But hopefully, if it goes well, there will be a community that we will try to hold.
We are not Call of Duty in terms of budget or skill, but it is really fun to play. I know it sounds like ‘yeah, whatever,’ but it is a nice game to play. We are still developing it, and there are loads of stuff that we are doing that are not even in it yet. We were expecting lots of things to go wrong [with this demo], but it hasn’t. The feedback has been mainly about tweaks and things that they would like to see in it – extra content, which is what we wanted. So some of the stuff is already on the list and some of it [we go] ‘Oh! That’s cool!’. We might go to Early Access, we might not – we have to see how the demo goes, and readjust then. But this is the first time that we’ve unveiled it and connected servers.
I’ve been testing it on the Steam Deck, and through various bad internet connections to test latency. Really boring stuff, but stuff we all take for granted as gamers because it is just there and framerate drops or ‘why can’t I find anybody?’ and things like that. Timers, and lobbies – the thing we had was that it is a co-op game for four, and if you haven’t got any friends, then you can pick ‘Quick Game’ and it will find somebody to play with. The extra thing was if you fill a lobby with four, it goes straight into a game. If you’re waiting – how long do you wait? It’s things that developers, if you’ve never come across it, have to [decide]. I want to play, I don’t want to wait for a lobby, and I am happy with just two players – I want to play now. So little things like that – we are on a journey of learning at the moment.
OR: What platforms will Sker Ritual be released on, and do you have a target release date?
DB: It’s coming to PC to start with. Essentially, we are going to make Episode 1 to 4. We’ve already designed a linear game. Depending on the community, we can add more DLC. But if we were to execute it, it would be a one-player game. That will be released literally before the end of the summer. Might be Early Access depending on the demo. But console will be Q1 . But because of the multiplayer nature, we have to stress test it on PC first because we’ve never done one as a company before. We’re really good at publishing multi-platform console games. For this one, we got to slow down a bit while we make sure that we have the underneath correct on how it deals with stuff, because that is unknown to us.
A player costs us money – we got to pay for the server, so we gotta work out the business of it as well. The demo is free to play, the base game won’t be free to play. We’ve got to work out what it is – and from these early stats, how much per player it costs. There are really boring stuff that you don’t think of that we have to. It’s exciting, for the team, it is the first multiplayer online game that we’ve made. And then watching other people play, not just one [at a time], with four people running around trying to break it or making jokes. So that’s a different experience for us.
“[Making video games is] all that I know now – making something from nothing and selling it, and collaborating with people who have the skills to make it happen. I couldn’t do it on my own, I need to have a team.”
OR: Do you anticipate cross-platform co-op for Sker Ritual?
DB: Yes, if we can, we will. Xbox is a natural for us – not going to say it is earlier, but there is a natural synergy to releasing on PC and on Xbox. Whether we will be focusing on next-gen platforms – we will probably aim at them to start with. Still, the userbase that have PlayStation 4 and Xbox One [are also important]. But because we have made something that is higher level performance-wise, we need to hit it because there is a lot more everything. More AI, more particles, more everything. I was surprised at how optimized it was, but it still does lag in places. That’s what really slows down console – with PC, you turn down the settings. With console, if you know it works on one iteration of console, then it works on all of those consoles. There are some things that may not work across all platforms, so we have to work that out [when] we port those things.
OR: Final question. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received in your career for someone who wants to get into the games industry?
DB: That’s a broad one. The reality of it is, there is more opportunity than there ever was, but it is still about opportunity and your initiative. I was an artist who wanted to try to make a living in the games industry and I became a designer doing art. But I made that happen, it didn’t come to me. My enthusiasm and will – I basically used lots of initiative and wrote to lots of games companies. So what we have now is that we have easier access to games companies, and there will be a lot more competition. But I would say that I’ve never seen a time in the game industry that has so many jobs being advertised. And the great thing now – back in the ’90s, people thought you had to be a programmer. But they expanded it to ‘you can be a programmer, but you can be an artist.’ And now you can be an accountant, you can be tech support. There are so many different jobs in the gaming industry that if your passion is games, you don’t necessarily have to be the person making or promoting the games. You might be the person supporting the making of games. That initiative is still important to figure out where you fit in the games industry, that initiative – whichever that is, I suppose.
In 2020, just before the pandemic, my university, De Montfort University, which is in a place called Leicester, England – they honored me with an honorable doctorate. So I became, which is funny, a doctor of technology. I’m not the guy to fix anything technically – but when I turned up, they said that they wanted me to do a speech. Silly me, I thought it would be in a small room but it was on a 360-degree stage with all of the people graduating and families there. And they wanted me to make it inspirational. So the advice I gave was based on games – and it is exactly what it is I do. I play video games, I explore the map, I don’t always go down one route [because] you get the bigger rewards going off the maps sometimes. And the other was that life is not a single-player game, you’re going to need that support network sometimes throughout your career of friends or family or whatever. So I used the analogy of what we do in video games, the life lessons to be learned. It went down well.
The reality of it is – I love working in the games industry, and I have for 27 years. I haven’t lost the passion for it, because I have evolved with very different skills than where I started. It’s all that I know now – is making something from nothing and selling it, and collaborating with people who have the skills to make it happen. I couldn’t do it on my own, I need to have a team. And that is the fun of making something – you’re on the precipice of failure. I think Sker Ritual is my 50-something game that I’ve made. They aren’t all massive, but I’ve made a lot of stuff, and I enjoy making stuff and problem solving. Especially when I’m doing stuff and people say ‘Don’t do that stuff’ – that’s the kind of stuff that I then do. When people say no, it makes me want to do it more – which is a weird thing to have, but that is the indie way. Trying not to fall, trying to carve out unique niches.
OR: Thank you very much for talking with me.
A very special thank you to David Banner for taking the time to talk with me about all things Wales Interactive. I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to chat with me.
Have you tried out the demo for Sker Ritual? Let us know in the comments below!
David BannerFMVFPShorrorinteractive moviesMaid of SkeronlinePCSker RitualSteamVideo GamesWales InteractiveWelsh