A screenshot from Sker Ritual, with a shotgun mid-ejection of just fired shells with embers and smoke wafting from the barrels, and some gross face-chewed zombies and a tree on fire and a tiny crucifix

There’s a Natural Progression: An Interview with Wales Interactive

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Wales Interactive is a name that’s taken many by surprise. To your average player, the independent studio situated in the region of its namesake has grown from a logo on a handful of horror and adventure titles to one of the most persistent developer/publisher hybrid companies in the UK with over 30 released titles to their credit.

Where many in the industry zig, Wales Interactive has made calculated zags, positioning themselves in niches underserved, always punching above their weight. Not only has Wales captured the attention of horror fans with gems such as Maid of Sker or Don’t Knock Twice, as well as shooter enthusiasts with Sker Ritual, but they’ve achieved what many would’ve called the impossible: the resurrection of the full-motion video genre. 

Unlike so many gaming companies, where many would stick to a formula and let it run its course, Wales Interactive always pivots to something new, charting a course as enthusiastic as its co-founder, David Banner. A lifelong “pixel pusher” since “back in the MegaDrive days”, Banner and co-founder Richard Pring have assembled a team that’s become an encouraging haven for fresh faced gaming graduates and bold ideas, harnessing the underrated potential of the Welsh entertainment industry. It’s for all these reasons I was eager to sit down with Banner over Zoom to dig into Wales Interactive’s past, present, and future.

Originally, Banner and Pring founded the studio as two halves of a whole – Pring would handle programming duties while Banner took the helm on design. In the years since, even as their team has grown, each remains actively involved with every project, as Banner puts it: “So everything that you see Wales Interactive makes? It’s either me, Rich, or both of us co-directing.” That’s not to say either studio head opts for a Ken Levine auteur direction, with Banner elaborating, “Rich and I’ll have a vision for [our games] we bring to the team, and then we just steer. We’ll stay on vision, but allow the team to jam and be playful within that vision.”

For instance, with their latest first-person shooter Sker Ritual, Banner explains “It’s not a rigid thing. We design stuff like the miracle system [a key component of Sker Ritual] and that’s Rich’s baby. So that was the thing that really designed to the end degree. For me, I get really engrossed in the look, art direction-wise. So we all just complement each other the way we contribute together. The reality is the sum of all our team’s parts ends up making a game from that spark of the idea from us writing down the name 18 months ago. All just springing from when we thought, ‘Right, let’s be mad and try to make our first online co-op shooter’! Ha!”

From the very beginning, that ambition has been their driving force, making measured leaps with each title. After getting a footing in the mobile space, the studio garnered praise for their indie horror titles like Master Reboot and Infinity Runner, with focus on compact, feasible titles and portability to everything from PC to Wii-U. First puzzles and walking sim-esque experiences with horror flavor, before delving into more ambitious scale and even VR, tinkering step by step.

Another screenshot from Sker Ritual, with lots of streaming sparks over a glowing industrial floor as a man in a suit but with chains wound around his arm bounds down towards the viewer wearing a silly hat and no face

“The reason we’re in the game industry is to make our own things,” Banner says. “Even though we help other people,” such as D’Avekki Studios and Good Gate Media, “and we publish as well,” including for Milky Tea and Prologue Games. “So we’re an unusual company. We’re self-sufficient while making only what we want to make and releasing it when it’s ready. And at the same time, we’ve made enough money to invest in other people’s things and help them publish as well to help them be self-sufficient. That evolved and now we wear many hats now, all while still staying, essentially, indie games developers.”

That indie sensibility is clear when you hear Banner explain how the team tends to play together around the office on breaks and mull on ideas. It’s a highly collaborative experience, which is what led to their attention-getting FMV titles, starting with The Bunker. Much like in Canada, “loads of Netflix shows and Disney shows are filmed in Wales, even though you might not know it, right?” Banner explains with a grin – wealth of actors and production crews waiting to be harnessed. All it took was a chance meeting that led them to collaborate with Splendy Games on The Bunker. The experience helped the team at Wales get to grips with branching narrative and how to assemble a modern FMV title, finally realizing a higher budget, polished take on a genre once famous for nothing but campy nonsense like Star Wars: Rebel Assault and Night Trap.

“Once we released that and it did pretty well, making its money back, it’s like “Oh! This is quite interesting!’ So as a company, we started looking around, considering that maybe this could be another thing that we do as well. We were already telling first person story games. It just felt right.”

Realizing the sheer potential of writers, cinematographers, and actors brimming with talent in their backyard, Banner and Pring would meet with Welsh-Nigerian producer John Giwa-Amu, fresh off of Giwa-Amu’s successful production of the Caity Lotz starring indie film The Machine. Having produced since 2004, Giwa-Amu had the connections and experience to help bring their FMV visions to reality.

“We showed him The Bunker,” Banner recalls, “And we said, ‘Look, John, we’re really looking for somebody to partner with to work on these as a series a collection. I mean this, this retro thing that missed its shot.” Banner describes their desire to bring back the genre when considering how many other styles of gaming nearly faded out, only to have comebacks later on: “Can you imagine if you went on any game store and there was only four games on the shelf. I mean, the reality was there was never a concerted effort to make a body of work by enough people to warrant FMVs continuing. Do people need this in their life?” Given the audience reception, despite all expectations – the answer was yes

The collaboration with Giwa-Amu would even extend beyond FMV titles, leading to Wales adapting the producer’s latest horror title into the similarly titled Don’t Knock Twice, leaning harder into the studio’s past with first-person horror tinged titles. In the same breath, they would produce Late Shift, their second FMV title, in collaboration with CtrlMovie. Where The Bunker was a commercial success, Late Shift was both financially successful and a critical success, netting positive praise from gaming and traditional press receiving several awards and nominations for the studio.

What was the change? Why were FMV games suddenly netting success now when the original boom fizzled out in the blink of an eye? As Banner puts it, “I started when we would use 2D graphics, right? Then obviously the consoles evolved, giving us more ammunition alongside demand for 3D games. But they were never, ever ready for film handling – video assets were always badly digitized. So obviously, if you’re a filmmaker, you’re not going to work in that format. You want to work in the highest fidelity, and that essentially the technology wasn’t there. Now we can handle video assets on all the different devices. Right? But also, those games were made by wannabe filmmakers,” with the quality of that era, or the lack thereof, speaking for itself.

Rather than insist they know better than their partners from the film industry, Banner and Pring trust the writers and production crews to take point in these regards. “So what we do is work with talented people [from the film industry]. Like, play Ten Dates. You can relate to this romcom, which isn’t an accident. It looks that professional because it’s made by filmmakers.” Instead, the team at Wales Interactive focuses on advising them regarding the branching, interactive elements, and helping with continuity. “We made a tool called Wist, right? It’s an interactive narrative tool. So every team that we work with, if they’re not into games and strictly are from film backgrounds, we help them think like game designers.”

By the same turn, they grant each script commissioned to have the same freedom, giving broad guidance, helping steer their vision while trusting the instincts of their collaborators. 

As Banner explains, “When we commission other people’s work, we don’t corral them to make something. And that’s why our portfolio is diverse. Because of this, we’ve become the experts in making interactive film since there’s never been anybody that made as many interactive films in the game space as this, right?” he says with a grin. To Wales’ credit, they truly have covered a wide spread, venturing between campy action adventure, heartwarming romance, murder mysterious, and supernatural horror. “Because we’ll make whatever we want to make as a team, right? We’re so lucky we can do that. That’s part of why we’ve done so many film and gaming genres – so we can understand more of what works and and mechanic wise, you know, we’ve been really experimental, honing in the understanding of what it is because it’s entertainment. They’re all games – our FMVs give you different narrative outcomes.”

What’s all the more fascinating is how, rather than a divergent evolutionary strand, Wales’ FMV titles have helped enhance their more recent successes. Their narrative toolset and experience with branching story later came around as a major asset for their hit horror game Maid of Sker, a title inspired by legends surrounding the real Sker House within driving distance of Wale’s office.

A screenshot from Maid of Sker, with a blurry scene featuring a shambling walker, beams of light over rags and sticks and grass all strewn about

As it turns out, all the phone conversations and interactive narrative elements built on the same framework as their growing list of FMV titles. The same can be said for set design, drawing from the same sort of methodology when framing their virtual environments in 3D, with Banner noting, “You’d be surprised how you know, how those skills transfer, you know, So that’s why it’s not alien to us anymore. And that’s sort of how we became this unusual company that some might know us for interactive movies, or for our first-person horror games, or even our shooters like Sker Ritual.

This dauntless habit to change things up every so often is obvious when you look over their library of titles. Every year since 2016, you can find anything from strategy or platforming titles to another film genre brought to life in FMV or a new VR thriller. “It’s a rhythm we’ve always done, actually. So when we make a narrative game, if we plowed straight back into a narrative game, the team wouldn’t be as fresh. And we’ve got to keep making games, right? So we’ve always done this. Even if you look back at Master Reboot, right after, we did an action running game called Infinity Runner. That was a nice little break that did well for us. So what happens when we’re not in uni anymore, you know. So how do we learn stuff? We try it. We started the company during the PlayStation 3’s lifespan., then we’re given the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5. How do you learn? You have to try an experiment. And if you spend three years experimenting, then you’re going to be behind the curve.”

Each step grows bolder in kind, such as 2023’s Mia & The Dragon Princess, featuring Paul McGann, Doctor Who himself, and kickboxing black belt martial artist Dita Tantang. Even Sker Ritual, while at first glance seeming like yet another cooperative FPS, was in the works across several titles, building on the atmosphere of Maid of Sker and the action mechanics of Time Carnage VR. Rather than diving in completely blind, the team’s only real unknown would be the multiplayer aspect, leaning on their storytelling and action experience to craft a final vision born from one of the team’s favorite ways to enjoy breaks: blasting zombies in Call of Duty.

Maid of Sker’s success, drawing from Welsh mythology, going so far as to incorporate centuries old Welsh choir songs twisted from upbeat to ominous tunes, had solidified a setting of monsters in need of slaying. With FMV adventures and more traditional frightful journeys concluded, that itch for action brought about the studio’s latest darling.

“As a team, we needed a little bit of a break from narrative,” Banner recalls, “And then after we finished, we were maybe a little scared that it would’ve been too easy for us to write the same thing again. Plus we needed to R&D stuff as well, and we’d never made a multiplayer game before. So we thought, Well, let’s make one ourselves, you know? Our team knew we could plan for the worst case scenario and still be able to finish this game.” Fortunately, the title’s launch and subsequent updates on Steam Early Access have been far from “worst case”. 

A behind the scenes shot from Mia and the Dragon Princess with the camera in the foreground as a woman kicks a man behind her in the throat while grappling with another to her front while a group of onlookers all look shocked at what's happening in front of them

Despite diving into a contested subgenre of FPS games and surprising fans of Maid of Sker with such a dramatic shift in gameplay, Sker Ritual has found its niche with a vocal fanbase. Everything from the balance of weapons to the inclusion of a friendly dog ally – the latter hotly debated amongst fans – all came about thanks to direct fan engagement on social media and Discord. With a clear roadmap that they’ve stuck to from the start, Wales has defied the often trepidatious reputation associated with Early Access titles: “We’re up to Episode 3 now,” Banner reports. Episode Four is out in a couple of months, then we’ll polish that and we’ll be porting to consoles. I mean, that will all happen. There’s no worries over the timeline these days – we’ve gotten really good at getting things over the line.”

Admittedly, there was some worry if fans would take to the new twist on the Sker series – Banner assuring that a more traditional Sker 2 equivalent is also planned for down the road “Richie and I are already throwing around ideas of what to do next.” Yet when at a gaming expo in London to demo the game for the first time, he proudly recalls all four seats were full “for four days, on loop!” at times even needing to politely ask players to give others a chance. A subsequent virtual demo during a Steam NEXT Fest proved equally successful, getting the experience in players hands well ahead of asking for any purchases. By targeting the niche of Call of Duty zombies fans at a budget price without demanding anything extra, they offered players a bargain one would never expect from their big budget competition. All while still continuing the story of Sker, expanding the lore for even more terrifying tales for fans of the original release.

Is Sker Ritual as grandiose or bursting with guest stars as Call of Duty’s undead hordes? No. Neither are their FMV titles going to rival a Michael Bay movie. They’ve never intended to – instead, offering compact, memorable experiences at a pace few other studios can match, all without a dip in quality or deathmarching their developers. “There’s a natural progression, as random as our games sometimes might seem,” Banner explains with a chuckle. “Especially, I suppose, if you go from Ten Dates to Sker Ritual. But if you look at what we’re doing – it’s all really connected. You know, the story stuff is obvious. Whatever story is, whether it be a romcom, a horror story, or a sci-fi thriller? We’re telling those nonlinear stories and that’s what we’ve been doing for a long time. So it kind of makes sense, maybe not from the outside, but when you look under the bonnet, it all comes together.” 

What’s undeniable above all else is how excited Banner is at every turn. In an industry plagued with burnout and exhaustion, Banner looks forward to the next project as much as the last, “What’s your favorite game? It’s always the one you’re working on because that’s the one your problem-solving wins. Yet there’s always a little bit of unknown because hopefully we’ll always test ourselves. Brave our unknowns! So when people say funny little things like, ‘Why are you doing this?’ It’s like… you know, it’s a crazy thing to do, but in the UK, there’s this tall mountain, Ben Nevis, which is the highest peak in Scotland. Right In Wales is Snowdonia and in England is Scafell Pike. Right. Probably millions of people have climbed those over the years. It doesn’t stop me wanting to go to the top of them myself, you know. So that’s the analogy we use. We’ve never made a multiplayer game as a company, so that’s why we want to make one. Other people will use our projects as their own reference points and try to, you know, see what victories and failures were for us. We’re under no illusions that we’re going to release games that try new things. We know how hard it is. But we’ve had success – we’ve sold millions of games, right? So the point is, our body of work doesn’t just leave us, it can always evolve.” 

Banner sees it as not only a creative endeavor, but a means of survival reflecting on how since his days working on the MegaDrive and PlayStation, gaming has evolved to incorporate digital releases, with all manner of price points and models for release. Where once the playing field was a single route, now there’s countless vectors, not unlike the branching narratives Wales Interactive are now famous for.

“We’re still young, you know, as an art form,” he elaborates, “So when you think about films over 100 years old now, but at the beginning film was black and white and slapstick and silent type. So games are still in their infancy. So for us, our success is not creatively just making lots of stuff and having fun, it’s surviving and thriving with all you know. There’s an incredible amount of games released now. And yet there’s so many big companies in ten years they’ve gone bust. So we work hard but make sure we can stay passionate about what we do. We’re not afraid of taking risks and experimenting. If people say ‘you shouldn’t do that’, we’ll probably do it anyway,” he laughs. 

“I mean, because we can’t. That’s the beauty of being indie. When you’re your own boss and you don’t answer to anybody, then you’ve got carte blanche to have some fun, really. But equally, we have to make money back so that we can pay the team. It’s a commercial age, after all. Granted, most of us here would do it for free anyway – because that’s part of the way we – even I just express myself. Through designing something that somebody will interact with and maybe have fun, or get scared, or even have a good, heartfelt cry. That’s the joy of being a creative, and that never goes away. Scary as the industry is, it’s really nice I’ve got a game studio where I live. I’ve got a son now – a teenager. He loves playing, you know, Sker Ritual, even if he might not play, say, Ten Dates.”

It’s that drive to move and excite, to carefully push themselves a little bit more every step of the way, that’s becoming Wales Interactive’s defining success. As major publishers balk at the idea of niche genres and experimentation, the humble Welsh studio carries on, continuing to defy expectations time and again, offering a prime example of what other teams of their size can accomplish in the growing AA-tier sector of game development.

———

With over ten of writing years in the industry, Elijah’s your guy for all things strange, obscure, and spooky in gaming. When not writing articles here or elsewhere, he’s tinkering away at indie games and fiction of his own.

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