Noticing the Details

ONE of  gaming’s brightest rising stars SWEARS by his latest creation — but hopes it doesn’t shock his family.  Double Bafta winner Jon McKellan and business partner Omar Khan run indie firm No Code and even employ their relatives to work alongside them.  But Jon reckons returning to their native Glasgow to set up the firm saw them ramp up their bad language on new game Observation — a sci-fi thriller set in space.  He says:

“I wrote all the dialogue for the game and I thought it wasn’t too bad, but I was wrong — it’s  very aggressive and full of swearing.  I think that’s because I am back living in Glasgow and I swear a lot more.  Here, it is the norm.”

Creative director Jon and audio director Omar have known each other since they were four after being raised in Chryston, Glasgow, on the same street — and they roped in their family when they decided to take the plunge by setting up their own business two years ago.  The No Code team includes Jon’s wife Lee (2D artist), his brother Graeme (lead designer), brother-in-law Ben Hall (game designer) and Omar’s mum Rosalind (cleaner/fridge stocker).  Jon says:

“When you think about a family business you think of butchers or bakers, but not game developers, so it’s a very interesting space to work in.  Because we’ve known each other for so long it’s much easier to work together — we know how we all tick.  A lot of teams will say they ‘feel like family’ after working together for many years, whereas we started with that.  Thankfully we’re a close family and all good friends outside of work too, so it feels like a crazy and fun adventure we’re on together.  For those in the team that aren’t family, we do our best to make them feel like they are.”

It certainly helps with all that swearing in the game.  Jon adds:

“We’ve all got a standard Scottish-issue dark sense of humour so it’s no surprise to people.  And Rosalind has been a mum to us all at some point, she knows what we’re like.”

Jon started his love affair with gaming as a kid but his bid to make it a career stalled at the first attempt.  He joined Grand Theft Auto and Lemmings creator Dave Jones at Realtime Worlds in Dundee, but could do nothing as they shut down.  He worked as a motion graphics designer for five years before moving back into games, while Omar worked freelance doing post-production TV work.  Jon joined Creative Assembly and worked on Alien: Isolation in 2014, then had a brief stint with industry giants Rockstar.  But he soon realised being at a big firm was the  wrong move for him.  That’s when he teamed up with childhood pal Omar to set up No Code.  They brought out their first game, Stories Untold, in 2017  —  and it won Jon the Bafta Scotland award as Breakthrough Brit and the studio gong for Best Game (New Talent).  Jon says:

“At the end of Alien, I was leading a small team working on the downloadable content.  I just enjoyed being with a small team.  Then I took the Rockstar job and it was a machine.  There were 700 people and you had one job and you’d do it forever.  I just felt I had made a bad move.  We went to Dave Jones and he helped get us started up.”

Omar adds:

“We decided it was a really good opportunity to do something together.  Observation was really the game we had set out to make when we started the company.”

The No Code duo may be making a big noise in the gaming world, but they have no plans to go large.  Jon explains:

“There is much more pressure but I think that’s because I am still developing as well as the lead of production, so I am still doing work at the coal face then managing things when I go home at night.  Omar is the same.  He does all the audio and sound during the day, then does the accounts when he gets home.  We are a small enough team for that to be an option and it’s sort of what we want to do.  We have no intention of getting so big that we’d have to spend more time in the boardroom and sacrifice our passion.  We have just finished a project and, as a small team, we can talk to the guys to see what our next move will be.  If you’re a big team, like Rockstar North, you can’t do that.  If you have no work for everyone to do for a month, you’ve just spent about £10 million for nothing.  We are 11-strong here, with a few down south.  That’s enough people to worry about from one month to the next.”

THE No Code duo have pulled off a major coup by getting permission to use Irn-Bru in Observation.  Jon says:

“We reached out to Barr’s because the captain in the crew in the game is Scottish and we thought it would be cool if he had Irn-Bru.  We contacted them and, about a week before launch, we got to add a few cans of Irn-Bru.  It’s a nice touch that adds a bit of character other games will not have.”

Jon reckons it’s good to have a Scots voice in Observation — which follows the story of Dr Emma Fisher and her crew, who mysteriously vanish from their space station.  He adds:

“Just having a Scottish character in the game has been nice.  Every company has it to a certain degree — where they are and who they are made up of will be part of their game.  If it isn’t, they are doing something wrong.”

A spokesman for Irn-Bru said the firm is delighted to be involved in the sci-fi thriller.  He added:

“Our fans have always said Irn-Bru is out of this world, and this blasts Bru into a whole new stratosphere.”

JON managed to get one of his heroes — Guns N’ Roses and Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck — to provide music for Observation.  Omar explains:

“We were over in San Francisco launching Stories Untold and we were hanging out with US publishing firm Devolver.  Robin knows a few of those guys.”

Jon adds:

“Yeah, I basically fan-boyed him for about an hour.  I’ve been a huge Nine Inch Nails fan since I was, like, 11.  I know I geeked out but he was a really lovely guy.  We chatted for an hour about Nine Inch Nails and what the last 30 years were like.  Then he started talking about what we were working on, which was really surreal.  We explained about pitching Observation and he said,  ‘I’d love to work on something like that’.  We eventually got to do the intro credit track with him.  It was a really nice way to get him on the project, as well as for me to work with a hero.”

Observation is out now on PC and PlayStation 4.  This interview originally appeared in a shortened format in The Scottish Sun on the 19th July and is produced in full here.

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Stuart Cullen

Scotland’s very own thorn in the side of the London gaming scene bringing all the hottest action straight from The Sun… well… The Scottish Sun at least, every week!

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