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How the Ship 2 project became a ghost at sea

CVG discovers why The Ship sequel vanished, and how it has surfaced again

This isn't just the story of how a cult IP was bought by an unknown studio for less than it costs to refit a kitchen.

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Nor is this just the story of how those that sold the IP had withered away after a big publishing deal turned sour. This is a story that involves Steam, Kickstarter, Ubisoft and an obscure iOS game that bankrolled The Ship's rebirth, but it's also about how everything always changes in the games industry and yet how it never changes.

In 2008, a handful of developers based in Edinburgh believed they were on the verge of a breakthrough. Two years prior they released The Ship, one of the first indie success stories on Valve's Steam portal. The game, which the New York Times lauded for its "ingenious multiplayer", had cultivated a core community that would provide the group a healthy, regular stream of income.

Its creators, known collectively as Outerlight, caught the attention of one of the biggest publishers in the world, Ubisoft, which arranged meetings to discuss the possibility of funding a sequel for consoles.

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Ailsa Bates

"We were a bit na´ve and idealistic, I think," says Ailsa Bates, who worked as operations director at Outerlight during the talks.

"I remember us coming back from our first meeting with Ubisoft, I remember how excited we were - we thought it was our big break."

Bates, along with her managing director Chris Peck, had hoped - like so many indie developers do - that their first major publishing deal would bring them the riches they had promised to early investors, and the unobtainable joy of games development that they had promised to themselves.

This outcome, though beautiful when achieved in their minds, had never materialised. The Ship sequel became a different project entirely and, in reality, had put Outerlight on a path to disaster.

But meanwhile, some 4,600 miles away, a young research assistant at the University of Texas at Austin was building a web interface model for his computer science degree. Soon after graduation he commenced constructing various Flash-based games and releasing them onto sites such as Kongregate.

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Trevor Fountain

The student, Trevor Fountain, began to consider game ideas for mobile platforms such as iOS - at the time a new market segment that, little did anyone know, was about to become the most revolutionary force in games since polygons.

Up until 2010, Fountain and Outerlight were linked by nothing and set thousands of miles apart. And their fortunes were going in different directions.

Outerlight found itself edging ever closer towards liquidation and was no longer working on The Ship 2. The project had evolved into a "spiritual successor", an idea allegedly pitched by Ubisoft, and at the same time the studio was starved of income. Fountain, meanwhile, continued to keep busy building his own games, until one day when the young Texan struck oil - publishing an iOS title that had become a clear success.

As the monthly payments from Apple rolled in, Fountain was completely unaware that, one year later, his earnings would be used to acquire The Ship IP from Outerlight in a bid to resurrect its true sequel.

That sequel is being shown today for the first time.

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Full Steam Ahead

The Ship 2: Full Steam Ahead is in pre-production at new development outfit Blazing Griffin - a studio founded in 2011 after Trevor Fountain emigrated to Edinburgh and entered into a business partnership with a young entrepreneurial artist by the name of Peter van der Watt.

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Ship 2 character concepts

One of the duo's first major decisions came in November last year, when they made an offer to the one remaining Outerlight employee to buy the Ship's IP and codebase for several thousand pounds.

Phil Harris, a communications manager at Blazing Griffin, explains that Fountain's iOS breakthrough - a game called Distant Star - had accumulated enough cash to bankroll the IP transfer.

"Distant Star gave us the finance and funding to purchase The Ship IP from Outerlight," he says.

"Meanwhile, Peter van der Watt pulled together a team to take the studio forwards."

As these early concept images suggest, Full Steam Ahead is a steam-punk reimagining of the original. It will feature a completely revised visual design along with rebuilt AI and new game modes, and will move the game's world away from its oceanic surroundings and instead set it miles up in the sky.

Yet the inherent core dynamic remains: A large group of players will be stuck together on a single ship, each one assigned the task of assassinating another in secret. It is a unique game of spy versus spy, of outthinking opponents and institutionalised paranoia.

"I think the reason we felt we could move The Ship forwards is because of the community," says Harris.

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Phil Harris

"The numbers may have become smaller over the years, but there's still a strong community there who love it. The community is already getting involved on our forums, asking us things like whether we can set a level in a ship that's sinking in an ocean, meaning that players have a limited time to complete their quest - and things like that are great. We are willing to take all these ideas on board."

To fund development the group is turning to Kickstarter. Blazing Griffin will seek $200,000 through the crowdfunding platform in order to finance production.

"If we hit a million dollars, we can make the original game free to play," Harris adds.

"From the feeling we're getting from the community, I believe it will be a success."

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