Two local game developers jumped into the fray of virtual reality on Tuesday when they released “Cold Iron,” a new game for Sony Playstation VR and Steam.
The Jan. 30 release was the culmination of 18 months of work for James Cockerham, age 30, and Matthew Cockerham, 24, of Mount Airy. The two brothers’ company, “Catch and Release,” is literally a two-man band as the two men not only design, develop and code their games, the two write and record all of the music in their Mount Airy studio.
“We started out with music,” said Matthew Cockerham. “This was a recording studio,” he said, referring to the spacious second floor studio where “Catch and Release” has its headquarters. They had some success with music. One of their songs was used on the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” another was played during an NFL game, but their biggest paycheck came from a placement on the Discovery Channel series, “Amish Mafia.”
“But music was so uneven,” said Matthew Cockerham.
“It’s black magic,” added James Cockerham. One month the brothers might get $5,000 from “Amish Mafia,” and the next month receive peanuts from two minutes of music played at a Steelers game. “It made no sense.”
“But as game design took over, music got pushed further and further back,” said James. He spoke both in terms of their focus, energy and physical space in the studio. Music and recording equipment now gets about 20 percent of the studio’s space.
The new game, “Cold Iron,” was launched for Sony PlayStation VR (Virtual Reality) and Steam (a version for PC which supports competing virtual reality headsets), and if pioneering has any effect on sales, the brothers are in for a wild ride. James Cockerham said he couldn’t say for sure, but he thinks their game is the first Western-themed shooting game for virtual reality.
It’s still early days for virtual reality. Matthew Cockerham said only about 2,000 virtual reality games were released for PC last year, compared to a whopping 500 non-virtual reality games released every day.
“No one has more than three or four years’ experience in VR,” said James. “It’s reassuring everyone is still figuring it out.”
Reassuring indeed for “Catch and Release” with a staff of two competing against studios with 10,000 people. “But we don’t have to worry about losing the investor’s money,” said James, slyly referring to their lack of investors, and musing if a Mount Airy News story might bring forward a few investors.
The game is set in a surreal version of the American West, and players come into possession of a gun previously owned by a gunslinger who has died. Players must use the weapon to vanquish various enemies that come their way.
But there is a catch. The gun is possessed by a demon. (That’s the surreal part.) Game notes advise potential players to aim for the head if the target has a head. Which is not always useful advice as not all of them do (adding further to the surreal atmosphere of the game).
It’s too early to know how well the Cockerham brothers’ 18-month investment of time will pay off — it will take a few weeks to get early sales results — but initial reviews are positive.
“The feeling of triumph that I had upon beating it is a feeling that I haven’t had for quite a while in gaming. … Cold Iron made me feel supernaturally fast, and wicked smart,” said Gaming Nexus.
The comment game developers want to hear came from PlayPSVR: “I absolutely love Cold Iron.”
But “Catch and Release” wants to catch a wider swath of the market than hard-core gamers who buy a new game on the day of its launch. James Cockerham said, “Our parents are testers for every game we work on. If one of them can’t beat it, it’s too hard for the casual user.”
Star Billions: The Beginning
Although “Cold Iron” is their first game supported by a major console like PlayStation, it’s not their first game. That would be “Star Billions” which the brothers developed for iPhone and Android. James had just completed his degree in biostats and Matthew convinced him to take some time for the two of them to design a game before James took a real grownup job.
The brothers developed “Star Billions” as a game they wanted to play with absolutely no concern for its marketability. It is quirky and story-driven. There are four Artificial Intelligence characters who are piloting a spaceship. Each presents a different solution to dilemmas that arise. The player chooses one of them, and the game moves forward.
James explains it’s like you’re watching an episode of Star Trek, and Captain Kirk says we should do this, Mr. Spock says we should do that, and two other characters make other suggestions. You, as a viewer, choose what sounds like the best idea, and the story takes that fork in the road.
Unlike most computer games which are designed to be as addictive as possible, keeping you playing as long as possible, “Star Billions” might suddenly make you wait 15 minutes to play again, said James.
When the brothers face incredulity that the game would shut a player out for 15 minutes, Matthew laughs and says, “It will make you wait hours. It’s a game that doesn’t always want you around.”
The brothers were offered a deal with a publisher who wanted to monetize the game, allowing players to pay a fee to get to play sooner, but they refused.
“That’s not a game I want to play,” said James.
The casual attitude of “Star Billions” toward player retention gave the company it’s name. They “catch” players and then “release” them.
And if that crazy game couldn’t be any crazier, the brothers released it in three “seasons,” said James.
“Star Billions” got a positive review in “Polygon,” a gaming website, just as James was being considered for a biostats job at Harvard. He said he really wanted to keep going with games and didn’t try that hard to land the job, but his reticence was taken as confidence, and he was offered the position.
Explaining why he was turning down the job was surreal, said James. “Hello, dream job. I’m going to make games now.”
“But it wasn’t your dream job,” said Matthew. “It was someone else’s dream job.”
Advice for would-be game developers
Matthew: “I want someone reading this to realize they can do it.”
James: “Yeah. I wish I’d known how achievable it was.”
Matthew: “Make what you want and respect the people who are going to play. I can make the weirdest game, and it will find an audience.”
James: “Never underestimate the intelligence of your audience. When you dumb it down, your audience can smell it.”
Matthew: “You can make money off being creative.”
James: “Game development is really cheap if you can hire yourself for cheap enough.”
“Cold Iron” is available for Sony PlayStation VR and Steam for PC. It costs $19.99 on all platforms. Further information is available at https://blog.us.playstation.com/2018/01/30/puzzle-shooter-cold-iron-launches-today-for-playstation-vr/