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Dear Dan. Talking with Dan Pinchbeck. Part 4


(original photo here)

And original post on my blog here.

It’s time for the final part of the super long and exciting talk with Dan Pinchbeck. As promised, we talk about CryEngine, pros and cons of making two games at once, my dream design idea, «meaningless» assets in games, Dan gives advices on Surviva— grr…Survarium and then goes all out with his love and admiration for STALKER series. But we start with an awkward pause from the last part.

Klarden: *awkward pause* Riiiight… I had this question in my head there and forgot it -_-. Oh well, until I remember it, a rather random question instead. Why did you decide to go with CryEngine for Rapture? Was it your decision or somebody else’s on the team?

Dan Pinchbeck: No, it was a decision made by me before we employed anyone. I remember when FarCry first came out and I was playing with modding in CryEngine, I just felt that it was such a fantastic tool. So it always kinda marked as a probable engine, that if we were going to start from scratch and could choose any engine, then CryEngine would be the most likely choice. And the indie terms arrived so it seemed pretty easy to do. And I was at GDC last year and did a couple of presentations on it, and even though I’m not an artist or a coder, the way in which you can link programs up and speed you can iterate change in it, it’s just phenomenally powerful. And when you want to make an open world and decide on the engine… We looked at different engines and I knew that I wanted the visual quality to be at kinda Esther level. But there aren’t many engines out there where you can have that kind of fidelity in graphics and that kind of scale of open world. So we asked a lot of programmers using different engines, like Unity, UDK, Source… And they didn’t have the power to handle that kind of environment, all the things we wanted to do.

So we ended with the engine I wanted to work with, but it wasn’t because I just wanted to work in it, but because it was the only engine that could do it. And I’m really pleased. Crytek is very supportive, really helpful, it’s great working with them. But there are many engines for an open world. But I didn’t want it to look like it was something built with an open world engine. I wouldn’t want to build it in a Fallout engine, because it would’ve looked too much like Fallout.

So how is it… Well, Amnesia and Rapture are rather different games, and they run on different engines, so… How is it, working on two different games at once?

Oh, it’s a bit of a head trip :). So, there are two teams, which are completely separate, and I’m working on both games, Jess is writing music for both games, Samuel, the audio designer, is working on both games, programmer Maarten is doing coding for both games. Then, for Rapture we have Andrew, a great designer who is leading on the design, so I’m more of a creative director on that, and he’s actually doing the design, and then there’s a lead artist and an artist. And in Pigs I’m much more involved in the level design side, and then I’ve got another designer, who’s doing the scripting, and then we’ve got another lead artist and artist on that. So there are two separate build teams, and then the soft asset content management is shared across both games. There’s no way we could have the same art team working on both games. But the core of thechineseroom, that don’t have to be working on incredibly deep specifically technological level with the engines, can switch across both.

And I think it’s good for us. Although really really intense as it is a very hard work. It kind of stops you from getting too locked in to any of the games, you’re always being jolted back out of the game, which means that you have to get back to the game, and you’re kinda seeing it slightly differently. And there’s a rather good cross-fertilization of ideas. And you can look and go: no, we want to push it in this direction and not in this direction, because we’re doing it with this game. And I think for Rapture it’s… The good thing about doing Pigs is that between Esther and Rapture we get a game which is unequivocally a game. And we can make Pigs, cause I love the IP, and I like making a game. And then with Rapture people won’t go «oh, you just make Dear Esther-kind of stuff». We can say: no, we’re making completely different kinds of games. And we might make a much more traditional game after Rapture comes out and we chose to explore this, cause it’s an interesting thing.

So it’s good. The diversity is good… But it’s so fucking hard :). Particularly when you get to milestones, which arrive for both games at the same month…

You’re planning to release Amnesia before Rapture, right?

Yeah, the idea is that… Frictional is looking at Halloween. It’s the target date. So we will hopefully release Pigs on Halloween, if we can. And Rapture, at the moment, is going to be in 2013. But exactly when, we don’t know. We’re talking to some extra investors at the moment. Because we need more time on it.

Oh, I remembered the question. Did you try The Stanley Parable?

I actually have a new build of it… I spoke to Davey Wreden the other day and… He sent me the version of the latest build. They’re working on a new version. And I planned to play it yesterday, but then I realised I had no Portal 2 installed on PC, I had it on console. And I started downloading it and it said that the download will be ready in 14 hours… So it’s there, and I’m hoping to play it this weekend. I’ve seen bits of it and I’m really intrigued. I feel very guilty that I haven’t played it yet. It’s my weekend’s job :).

Yeah, I love how he made it. You are a part of the story in a very interesting way. And while it doesn’t feel like it has an agenda, of criticising games or anything, it is a kind of a satire at the same time… And at the same time it’s also a very enjoyable game. Something that not a lot of developers can do right.

Right, so there was an idea I had I wanted to ask you about. Have you played oldschool jRPGs with all the pixel characters which often looked quite the same?

No, I could never get into them. I remember when I bought the first Playstation, I thought: I’ve got to buy Final Fantasy, I’ve gotta do this. So I bought it, got about an hour in it and just… I’m just no getting it. I can see how great it is, but it just doesn’t work for me.

So I was dreaming once and… You know how you can usually explain to yourself everything you have in the dream, while you’re dreaming. Like: yeah, I’m swimming with sharks in soup, that’s completely logical, I always do it on Sundays. And I wondered why not many games, if any, explored the concept of slightly but constantly changing, in a very subtle way, the game world and characters? So the players might not even notice it until it becomes too apparent. And to have s completely simple and mundane story at the same time, without any reality-bending or time and space manipulation stuff. So you come into the town and some NPC goes the usual: find me my ring. And you do some questing and monster slaying or whatever, return to the NPC and he’s a completely different character, but he goes like» yeah, thanks for finding my ring» as if he is the same character. And I wondered, if it is even possible to do this subtle thing right, especially without some text parser, so the player can actually write like «what the hell is going on», when he notices that something is wrong?

Hmm… Some elements of that are done in some games, yeah. Even in Esther, Rob’s put some things in it, where you have different objects in the environment. So you’re just going «did I just see that? Was that here a minute ago?» I really like this kind of concept. Oh, and Amnesia does this in some places. I think that it’s because of the model… Well, the model is: if you make and expensive game, and you make an asset, you want to get everything you can out of that asset, cause it costs too much. So the idea of chucking stuff away, that might not be noticed, becomes really really problematic.

And, again, it goes to things like what GSC did with STALKER. You can find the entire building complexes, and there’s nothing in them, no gameplay. And in traditional game design, it’s just ridiculous. It’s a laughable way of building levels, because you go: this asset costs money, what is its functional work in the game? But it’s a brilliant game because it has this extra stuff in it. And if you build something extra it kinda goes, that if you’re building something that we should make sure that enough players notice it. And for that we’re going to make it more obvious. And then suddenly the entire point of doing it in the first place is gone.

But I think people should do more things like that. Cause it unsettles you. Because the idea of feeling that something’s wrong, but not quite getting why you feel like that creates a really fantastic emotional state for the player. And if the player is in that state… It’s like why Amnesia is such a good game, cause you constantly don’t know what’s going on. So everything becomes significant. And you start scrutinizing the environment and going: «That was something! What does it mean? What does that mean? What’s this gonna do? What is that?» But no, they’re all static objects, yet you’re doing so much more work as a player. So I think that’s something to explore more in design, definitely.

And the fun thing with games like STALKER is that, it was so long in development and maybe one of those unused buildings was going to have a purpose, but it never happened. And other games, that had more planned, like Soul Reaver, and, probably, Silent Hill also have this stuff. Like in Silent Hill you have this huge town, and most of it is actually empty. There are some small easter eggs, like «REDRUM» written somewhere on the wall, but it’s mostly nothing. And, as a player, you’re always thinking that it does have some purpose. You’re going: well, maybe if I play it like 50 times, something will change on the level, something new will appear? And the player tries that. He plays the game more and every time explores those places. And nothing changes. But he still wants to find something.

You want to, yes, I think that’s the point. And it kinda rewards that investment. Cause if the environment is great, it’s atmospheric and everything else, it’s kind of its own reward. And i find those locations, even if they don’t have gameplay in them, rewarding to go in. Because you feel so sucked in the atmosphere, in the game world, that you’re just enjoying it.

Skyrim does this really well too. The best bits of Skyrim for me are outside quests and outside dungeons, where just being in the world is rewarding. It’s that idea in the game design, that if there’s a situation in the game it has to be exploited to the max, it has to stimulate the player constantly and you get only one type of emotional experience if you do that. But if you have the space, just time to stop and take in the world, being in the world… Red Dead Redemption does it brilliantly. My favourite moment in Red Dead Redemption is you sitting on horse, on a hill, watching the sun go down. And you’re so engaged in the game. And it’s why I far prefer Red Dead Redemption to Grand Theft Auto. Because you don’t get those moments of: I’m here, I feel like I’m here, I feel, like this is a real space.

Ok, so since we’re almost running out of time to talk… (We planned this a bit better than the last time — Klarden) You’re really excited about Surv— Survivar— Survarium… Ugh, the Vostok Games’ game.

Haha, yeah.

So what you, as a fan of STALKER, a fan of STALKER from another country, would like to see in that game?

I think, the thing which STALKER could never do was that you could never get those social hubs. Cause it was AI. And it wasn’t the fault of the STALKER design team or the engine, it’s just AI, it’s always going to be just AI. But I remember playing Call of Pripyat and thinking: but if these were players, and it wasn’t like the bandits are gonna get together and wipe out the stalkers, but you’re actually there with someone around, who’s going to say: «Hey, see that guy? He’s been trading a lot of artefacts. Let’s follow him, knock him off and shove him in a boiler and take what he’s got.» Those things will kinda emerge, and i think, if they pull it off, that’s where it’s got its real potential, where you have this human side of it. You know, like: «we’re probably gonna be dead tomorrow, so let’s just go and do this».

The issue they’re gonna have, I think, that if they overpopulate this kind of world it loses its power. So it’s how you manage enough social complexity in multiplayer, while having the space around. And not turning into faction wars, which, I think, was why Clear Skies is least liked. But I think, what they’ve clearly got as a team is a way of looking at the world, which is still really unique. So if they can get that sense, that vision in the world, provide they keep it sparse, so when you see another player, it’s like «oh, I’ve seen someone!» And it may stop being a bulletfest, because it may be the first time you see the player in two hours.

I haven’t still played it, but just installed it, this new mod called DayZ, which is kinda a zombie apocalypse game, but it looked a lot of, what I hoped Survivar— Survarium would do. That you don’t see other people too often, but when you see them there’s a really weird edge in «it’s a person, and actual person! But they might kill me.» And how you manage that. But if you shoot them, if there’s a lot of zombies around, or other dangerous stuff around, by shooting them, you’ve probably killed yourself. Because you need to team up and work together. And if they get that thing of forcing players to work together because the environment is so dangerous, then it can be a really interesting game.

And I really want them to make a great game. Cause I think they’re a really good studio, who got… From what information is publicly available here, that they’re completely screwed. But I think they deserve to make good games, cause they’ve made good games so far. So, I hope it’s not multiplayer in a kinda classic way, with deathmatch and everything and there’s not much of the factions going, and it’s not a highly populated space. But it’s difficult in terms of server costs. If you try and take a lot of players, you’ll have a limited number of players in each game. You need kinda Left 4 Dead kind of recourses. But imagine Left 4 Dead with only 10% of all the creatures in it. And each creature is 100% more dangerous. It would be a great experience. No ammo cache, you start with 6 bullets, you manage the bullets you’ve got left, there might or might not be some things that can kill you by just looking at you. And you’re absolutely relying on other people you have in the squad. That’s a really cool model for a game.

Yeah, and if it has stuff like Demon’s/Dark Souls thing of seeing other players, but maybe not interacting with them, or people who just get in your game world unexpectedly.

Oh and things like in Roadside Picnic, where you have all the things in the Zone and no one actually knows if they exist or not. People say that they’ve seen or heard about them, but you kinda know that half of it is bullshit. And if they have those social hubs, one of the things I would do is employing people to go into the space… So, you never actually hardcode the story, you just bring people in, who just say: hey, guys, I’ve just got back from this space and there’s a lot of cool stuff there. And it’s a complete lie. If you go in, rather than relying on Ai or a hardscript, set up this space, have random drops and spawns and everything else, some keyset environments, but then create the story by dropping in people into the game pretending to be just other players, and see the story build this way and develop the mythology, develop those kind of things, like items and other stuff. Has someone, who goes in and says: «There’s a new type of creature we’ve seen, and he’s based in that part of a city. And we’ve lost three people.» And no one’s seen it before, developers didn’t announce any new creatures, is it actually there or not? So players flood in and try to find it. And it doesn’t matter if they find it or not.

And it’s kind of world they were really good at making with STALKER. It felt like there was a lot of unknown stuff. And the thing like they did with the Heart of the Oasis — you hear the thing referenced a few times and you guess that you probably would end up being there at some point, but you don’t know for sure. Because there was stuff in the game, that wasn’t actually as told. One of the coolest things that you could do with STALKER games, is just take all the environments from all three games, batch them together into one big open world and just dump players in it. And that would probably be enough for most players, without any singleplayer campaign. Like that… oh, what’s his name… The Oblivion Lost mod… Kanyhalos! So, yeah, where you could cook artefacts in anomalies. So you finish the singleplayer campaign and you’re released back in the world and it get constantly respawned. So you can take an artefact and through it in the anomaly, then you have to sleep and… It was just a really cool and I got hours and hours out of that. Because it’s just a great world to spend time in. So that’s what they’re good at. That’s what they should focus at.

Yeah, and let the community to make stories for them.

Right, so I think, it’s time up?

Hmm, well, I still have about 10 minutes, if you wanted to ask about something else.

Well… Do you know how big STALKER was for Ukraine?

I can guess :). It was the first game of that scale.

Yeah, we have this joke… I don’t know if it’s a translation or an original joke that «every novice game developer wants to create his own Fallout.» And STALKER was kinda like that. Like: «Wow, we’re going to have Ukrainian Fallout! That’s so amazing!» And GSC did some good stuff before, like, they did the Cossacks games, which were good and popular. And they did some stupid stuff, like there was an unauthorized StarCraft translation supposedly made by them which was completely broken and awful. But Cossacks were great, so people were really excited.

And… I was personally disappointed with STALKER, because I just had so much expectations for it. I still admire the stuff it did, but… I haven’t even played Call of Pripyat yet. I remember, i pre-ordered Clear Skies and I’ve installed it and start playing… And there are people walking on air, and game crashes constantly and… I’m just: «What the hell?! I paid money for it and the previous game, how could you do that?» So I wasn’t really that excited for Call of Pripyat. And the joke’s on me, as from what I’ve heard it’s the best game in the series.

Yeah, but I still prefer Shadow of Chernobyl. Cause it’s kinda like BioShock, it’s never going to be as BioShock 1, cause BioShock tells the best story there is to tell in that space. (I stay silent -_- — Klarden) But what I love about Call of Pripyat is that they didn’t bother to try and make it a big epic thing, it’s a really small story. A bunch of helicopters have crashed, you’ve gotta find them, you’ve gotta find the survivors and get out. And that’s it. And that’s what it does, it doesn’t build up to some world shattering thing, just «that’s it». And I really admire that. And this is all about the Zone and being in the Zone. You don’t want to destroy the Zone, you don’t want to make it different from what it is, the drama is that how you get from one side to the other in one piece. So yeah, it’s really good.

Clear skies are a bit… yeah. *we laugh* But you know, what I think? I think, the problem with Clear Skies is that the Shadow of Chernobyl was the hit in the west. And they went «we gotta make the game which is more western-friendly. We gotta try to make it a bit more like western shooters.» And the reason why Shadow of Chernobyl is so good in a similar way to why Metro is so good, is cause it doesn’t feel like an American studio made it. It feels like it comes from a different place, with a different worldview and it’s tapped into all of that stuff. And it saturates the game and gives it a really unique feel. And I like making my students play STALKER (yes, it’s an actual requirement for Dan’s students to play STALKER among the classic games, like Tetris — Klarden), cause most of them are console players. So, you know, if they’re playing shooters, they play Call of Duty. And, probably, a bit of Half-Life. And you put them in STALKER and they come back in a week and go: «It’s just so ridiculously difficult! I’m getting killed constantly!» And I’m like: «Yeah, you can’t play it like that. You will bleed to death. You’ll starve. You will run out of bread. You’ll kill for bread in this game.» And that’s deeply cool. It makes Fallout look like a comedy life of the Simpsons. And I love how bleak it is.

I also remember that when the Shadow of Chernobyl was developed, there wasn’t a very epic story in it. There was a Monolith. And you were going to get there eventually. Probably. Because, there was this concept, that the game could finish even if you don’t get there. Like, when they played with that A-Life AI thing, there was an idea, that AI stalkers could actually get to the end of the game before you do.

Haha, I love this idea.

Yeah, it’s sad they cut it out. I mean, I get why they did it. Because people would go: oh, I was playing it for 15 hours and the game finished without me being there.

But they still did that thing with the Monolith endings. Where if you don’t follow the subquest, you would reach the end of the game but then die horribly. And it’s so brilliant. No big budget western developer will ever have the balls to do something like that. Just going: «You know that little thing you picked up 14 hours ago? yeah, well, you probably should’ve followed that subquest. Sorry, try again!» And you couldn’t just replay the last level to get a better ending, you have to go back to halfway through the game. And I loved it. «We’re going to make no concessions to you.» I was really surprised, given that it was THQ that they got away with that. And kudos to THQ for either missing it or just letting them do it.

[youtube]<iframe width="640" height="360" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/b4mYK08o8Nc" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>[/youtube]

Oh and I remember when Half-Life 2 came out in 2004, and there’s this moment when you’re given your trusty crowbar and there’s a train yard, and some music plays… And we’re sitting in front of my PC with my friend and we just go: «Oh my god, this feels and sounds exactly like that STALKER trailer. Valve were influenced by STALKER!»

Oh, it wouldn’t surprise me :).

Yeah, we were just… Mind blown. And that trailer for STALKER was amazing, by the way. I kinda like it more than the game itself, it was so amazing. And I really wanted the game to be something like that.
But yeah, it was really big. People started live action role-playing before it got released.

Oh, it started before? Cause I’ve seen some of the footage. And it’s just so crazy. Live action role-play over here is just, you know, a couple of people going to the pub wearing fur and carrying some foam maces and going: buy me some ale, barmen! And I’m like: no-no, hardcore live action role-playing is huddle down in sub-zero temperatures with replica or decommissioned AK-47s pretending you’re in the Zone in the middle of Ukraine- that’s live action role-playing.

People started writing fan fiction and doing stuff like that almost instantly after STALKER was announced. We had the amazing movie and Roadside Picnic, so people knew what it’s going to be pretty much about. And the game itself was probably influenced by this fan fiction, live action role-playing and other community-made things. We had those «diggers», or how you call them (according to wikipedia, they’re part of «urban exploration» — Klarden), in the subway tunnels or some abandoned shafts or whatever, role-playing, pretending to be stalkers. So it’s not that surprising that people here got a bit more disappointed with the games, because they were not what most people expected them to be. I guess, it was more of a surprise hit for anyone outside Ukraine or Russia, but here people just went: this is not what you’ve promised!

I’m amazed that they even finished the games. I played with 2004 build of the game and you just kinda go: «Pfft. Yeah, about 20 years more, and you’ll get the game done.» It was… slightly ambitious :).

And with that Dan had to go continue his hard work of managing two projects at once. Hopefully, we’re going to see some more info on Everybody’s Gone to Rapture and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs very soon. And there is a probability, that there is new info available, when you’re reading this. And also hopefully, this is not the last time I had a chance to have a talk with Dan.[youtube]
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About Klardenone of us since 2:37 PM on 08.09.2009