Beyond Blue: Interview with Steve Zimmermann at EGX 2018

A little something that a lot of people won’t know about me is that I have a degree in Biological Sciences and Masters in Conservation Biology and Genetics. Whilst exploring EGX 2018, I came across a game that instantly attracted the scientist and adventurer in me with E-Line Media’s beautifully realistic underwater exploration game, Beyond Blue.

Co-created with BBC Studios and based on the hit BBC series Blue Planet II, Beyond Blue places you in the shoes, or should I say flippers, of marine scientist Mirai who is the lead on a research team tasked with charting the deep waters of the South China Sea. Mirai has at her disposal groundbreaking new technologies designed to help unlock new insights about the deep sea, including being able to deploy a series of drones to track the marine wildlife.

The game is described as a narrative-driven exploration game with the focus of replicating real-life research projects. The EGX demo showcased a small snippet of this by requiring you to fix research sensors that have broken and in doing so helping you to explore more of the environment around you, thus helping to improve your research and get better readings of the marine wildlife. With my short time with the demo, I truly felt like a real explorer and was in awe at just how authentic the game is. I came across gorgeous Leatherback Turtles and Chilean Devil Ray’s with the real highlight coming at the end of the demo when I discovered a pod of Sperm Whales that really emphasised the sense of scale within the game. I’m excited by the prospect of what the full game has to offer, not only from a gameplay perspective but an educational one too.

I was incredibly fortunate, while at EGX, to sit down and spend a good 10 minutes with Steve Zimmermann, Vice President of Marketing at E-Line Media to learn more about the game. What follows below is the full transcript of my interview with Steve.

SS – Hi Steve, firstly how did your partnership with BBC Studios come about?

SZ – The partnership came about because of a game that E-Line Media made back in 2014 called Never Alone. With Never Alone we got to work with the Alaskan native population and turn one of their oldest folklore stories into a game. BBC got wind of that and really liked what we had done and at some point called us and said, “hey we are going to be making a sequel to Blue Planet II and would you guys be interested in making a game if we gave you access to all of the research, all of the science and all of the footage?” You don’t say no to an opportunity like that and so that’s how the genesis of this project began.

SS – I’m guessing you guys were a fan of the show?

SZ – Of course. I mean, E-Line Media’s big point and one of the things we like to do is make games that are socially responsible and putting a positive good message out to the world. We introduced the world to the Alaskan native culture with Never Alone and now with Beyond Blue we have the opportunity to bring science to the forefront which lined up very much with our core philosophy of not only making games for profit but at the same time putting out a positive social message and give back to the community.

SS – How have scientists and researchers helped shape this project?

SZ – Aside from all the access to the scientists that were used for Blue Planet II, we also have a lot of scientists that are directly involved with our team. We even have an oceanographer who is part of our regular stand up meetings so they are informing, for example, that this fish operates at this particular depth and level and this is what some of their behaviour and patterns are like. Because this game is based in the South China Sea we are making sure that the typography is going to be accurate, though we have a few more caves in our game because caves are great! We are looking at making sure that we are as accurate as possible with the creatures as we can be and running them by basically our scientific review board of sorts that are working with us on the project.

SS – So does this mean that all the marine life are to scale?

SZ – Yes, we are making it as to scale as possible and so like in the demo shown, there is a Mola Mola which is an ocean-dwelling sunfish and they are huge and if you swim up to it you get a sense of that particular scale, the same thing with the Manta rays which are in the demo as well.

SS – Is the game a whole big open world to explore or is it broken down into smaller sections?

SZ– A little bit of both. As mentioned we are basing it in the South China Sea and as you put down sensor buoys and communication buoys you are essentially opening up the range of what you can explore further and further. At the beginning of the game, we are pretty much going to keep you within each sensor buoy, which operates within a 1 km2 radius. You’re not going to get that far outside of that range but as the game continues to develop you will be able to swim a little beyond that limit and so forth. I don’t necessarily want to call it an open world game but it is a game in which you have the opportunity to explore not just along the main storyline path.

SS – Can we expect footage from Blue Planet II within the game or is there fresh footage or documentaries in a similar context to those found within Never Alone?

SZ – Within Never Alone we had the cultural insights and so there were mini-documentaries that we scattered throughout the game. I think there was 50-55 minutes worth of them. Within Beyond Blue, we will have what we are calling Ocean insights so you will have the chance to listen to the scientists talking about the thing you just did, or the importance of this particular creature, and what their habit or trend that you are seeing means to the ocean world. You will be able to get those little snippets of insight when you travel throughout the game and some of it will be footage that has never been shown that was recorded for Blue Planet II, also we are going to be recording a lot more of our own footage from the scientists that we are working with too.

SS – Sounds great, is there marine life profiles within the game too?

SZ – Yes, there is an interesting mechanic that exists within the game and that is our scanning mechanic. You have the ability to essentially scan any of the creatures you see. When you scan them it’s going to be training the A.I. and it will be able to recognise that creature and then when you get back to spend some time on your sub you’ll be able to be like, OK where is Frank? If you happened to name the turtle Frank, you’re looking for Frank the turtle, so you will be able to check that out. The A.I. will be learning more and more about what a creature’s habit means or what a particular action they are doing is for. For example, if two turtles are swimming back to back with each other, what does this actually mean? We are going to be exploring those types of biodiversity issues.

SS – Obviously a current hot topic at the moment is conserving and protecting our oceans. Are some of these environmental themes showcased within the game?

SZ – That’s a great question. We wanted to make sure that we are essentially staying true to what the real world science actually is. And so we are talking to scientists about these issues. We’re not necessarily putting forth our own opinions but we are having the conversation with the scientists and listening to what they are saying so that way the player has the opportunity to make informed fact-based decisions, which we believe to be important. We are not sugar coating anything, we want to provide people with the sense that yes, there are things going on that you need to be aware of and to be thoughtful and mindful of your actions but at the same time there is a lot of hope that is out there too and what we are able to learn from studying these creatures.

SS – Is there added pressure on you with this game due to the beloved success of Blue Planet II?

SZ – Of course. There’s added pressure coming off the back of having success with Never Alone winning a BAFTA (British Academy Film Awards) and then there is pressure with making sure that we can live up to the standards that have been set by the BBC’s nature documentaries, I mean David Attenborough is a national treasure, I’m even going to say he’s an international treasure because even in the States we revere him for being that. We want to make sure that we are putting forth our best representation of a game because in the end, that’s what we are, we are makers of games. We’ve got an amazing team of artists and engineers that are working on this game. We know that it’s not just going to be our best foot forward but also representation of this amazing diversity and ecosystem that is the ocean, and so it’s not just for our benefit or the BBC’s benefit, it’s for the world to see that the ocean is something that we have not explored a whole lot of and this is a look into that, so that we can be more aware as a whole.

SS – Do you, therefore, hope for the future games that you can look at new ecosystems and even terrestrial wildlife?

SZ – Oh without a doubt. That is one of those things that E-Line Media has been very lucky in, the fact that what we’ve done in the past has opened up a lot of doors for us in the future. We are taking a look at obviously this one section of the South China Sea in Beyond Blue, but that does not mean that in the future, if the game should be successful, which is a hint hint to everybody to please go buy the game on release, that we won’t open up possible things in the Gulf, or the Caribbean, or the Indian Ocean or even into the Amazon Rainforest or the Patagonia region. It’s the same thing with Never Alone, we were having these conversations of what other cultures, or other first-person experiences that we can partner with. For us, Never Alone worked because we were partners with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council from the very beginning, so one of the things that we wanted to do was to make sure that we keep on exploring that possibility going forward.

SS – How do you go about marketing a game like Beyond Blue? I could see it being a huge hit in schools in supporting the curriculum.

SZ – One of the things that we are doing with E-Line Media’s original games is having them basically educational in nature. We have a lot of bread and butter with this as we are the guys that did Minecraft EDU and Gamestar Mechanic and therefore we have a deep history in making games that have educational properties in them. Beyond Blue is a consumer game first and a lot of games we are focusing on now are consumer games first, however, there is always the opportunity to take an entertaining and consumer-driven medium such as video games as a whole and then use them in different exciting ways, not just for playing at home with your friends. So developing a curriculum around this, absolutely there’s a possibility. If there are teachers out there who can come up with making this work then put it in as we are not making a game with jump scares or horror but instead, you are going to have the chance to actually interact with some real science and if you take more from the game, then that’s great. That’s all we are asking of people.

SS – Lastly when can we get hold of this wonderful game?

SZ – It’s going to be out in Spring 2019 on PC and all consoles.

Michael Angst, CEO and Co-Founder at E-Line Media (Left) and Steve Zimmermann, Vice President of Marketing at E-Line Media.

A massive thank you to Steve for such an insightful interview and I’m very excited to get hands-on with the full game next Spring. If you’re like me and eager to keep track on the game’s progress then follow the Beyond Blue twitter page – @BeyondBlueGame for updates. Alternatively, for further information about the game visit https://beyondbluegame.com

Teaser Trailer:

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