WARNING: Blatant self-promotional post ahead. Love you!
As many of you will doubtless be aware, I've spent the last couple of years dual-classing as journalist and game developer. I've worked with two friends – Tom Betts and James Carey – to create the indie studio, Big Robot. We are currently Kickstarting our third game, Sir, You Are Being Hunted. With just a week to go, I wanted to talk plainly about why we're making it, what the game is, and what it means to us. Specifically, what it means to me. Because this whole gaming-making business is a complicated, tricky thing, and worth talking about in some detail.
It perhaps goes without saying that if there are traditional routes into game design, I didn't take them. Before Big Robot, the last time I seriously considered making games was when I was a teenager. Inspired by hours in front of my 16-bit-powered TV, I half-finished an Alien Breed clone on the Amiga 500. I did bad pixel art and animation, while a friend did the coding. I'm pretty proud of it in retrospect, but it didn't launch me into a career. It seemed like a nice idea at the time, but I never thought much more of it.
A few years ago, though, I began to find myself being hit with the desire to start making games again. Having spent years and years talking to game developers of all kinds, I had no illusions about the kind of work making a game would entail. Crucially, I knew I would have to work with others if I wanted to get a game made – I've not spent the last decade honing any technical skill and I've been far too busy with RPS to achieve anything useful on my own. I was also acutely aware that the only way to be a game designer is to get on and actually make games. Talking about making them is meaningless, and so I tried not to talk (or even think) about it as I did my day-to-day journalism.
A series of fortunate circumstances changed all that. Firstly James Carey, and longstanding friend, moved back into Somerset, where I live, and we began to frequent country pubs with excited chatter about trends we were seeing in game development. At the time Carey was working on Arma 2, and as that project came to a close he started to look for other work in the gaming space. He was getting to grips with Unity, and we began to discuss the kinds of things that he'd like to make. As James' experiments began to blossom, it became clear that we were definitely going to make something together, we just hadn't decided quite what that was.
Ultimately it was decided for us. Channel 4 were, at the time, looking to hire UK indies to make a series of educational games. Having been looped into this conversation by Channel 4, I volunteered myself and James, who had just started making games – including our manic RPS effort. The result of that conversation with the TV company was Fallen City, our first commercial project. The circumstantial happenings that would push Big Robot towards Sir, You Are Being Hunted did not end there, however. At the point at which we were putting the team together for this, I had also been talking a great deal with lecturer/artist/programmer Tom Betts, and I managed to persuade him to take on the Fallen City project with us. He was a proficient and exciting programmer: full of ideas. It was clear that we were going to be able to turn Channel 4's little idea into something that really worked.
Conversations with Betts generally dwelt on another topic: procedural generation. Before we'd even embarked on Fallen City, we had begun to look at how procedural generation might be used to create game worlds that were different every time. More importantly, we began to look at how proc gen might be used to speed up the tricky process of level design. Not just providing us with a template to then build on, as many game devs do, but actually generating everything from first principles. We made an engine that built an infinite science fiction landscape, that could be explore for hours. We (eventually) called this project Lodestone, and the technology that we produced was spectacular, and enormously exciting.
Once Fallen City was completed, we came back to focus on the Lodestone idea: the procedural generation of huge, living game worlds was going to be where we wanted to go. Clearly, this was a project that would require money, time, and serious research and development. To do it right – to make the game that we had envisioned, with the technology we knew we could build – was going to be one of the most challenging and important tasks of our careers. As we planned the project out, another game entirely sprouted from its fantastical, fertile terrain.
That new idea was Sir, You Are Being Hunted, the game we are making today.
The notion that captured our imagination, and focused our decision-making, was the idea of AI hunting a player. Sir is founded on this idea. The title tells you everything. We loved the feeling of being on the back-foot in games: fleeing as much as fighting, knowing that escape, rather than victory in combat, was the true goal. The fear from being vulnerable. Mix this with a strong stew of British sci-fi and our indigenous terrain and accompanying folklore – moorland, tweed, robots, pheasants, rain, poachers, hunters, hounds, horror – and we had a heady mix. We couldn't resist plunging into it.
We designed robots and sketched out landscapes, with procedural tools making it possible. We created a world where the player is on the run, hunted by hounds and gent-bots, looting old cottages for food, fleeing through woodland and across desolate fields. This design process gave us The British Countryside Generator: a new procedural engine that allowed us to generate blocks of countryside in seconds. For all of us, this was something dream-like. Tom was able to work his procedural generation research into a game, James and I were able to design the kind of open-world, freeform game world that we'd always wanted to play with.
I can't explain the delight of bringing this stuff to life, week after week. As much as my heart as always been in writing, the process of seeing things conjured onto screens and then playing through the result is a unique thrill. To explore a world that is unique of every generation has been a wonder.
And we could do all this with a tiny team, and just a few artists helping us out.
Until, of course, we couldn't afford to work on it any more. The hard truth is that James and Tom need to get paid, so that they can afford to eat and pay the rent. I'm infinitely lucky in having my RPS job, and so didn't need to worry about taking a dollar, but I was worried that we wouldn't be able to afford to get to the end of this thing before we got to where we needed to be. I couldn't do any of this stuff alone: for James and Tom this is a full-time job.
Inevitably, we discussed Kickstarter. Our original interest in Kickstarter didn't even come from games. We'd first invested in Printrbot, a desktop 3D printer project, which was being funded on the site in 2011. James and I have always had a keen interest in rapid-prototyping, and have both interviewed a local guru on the topic – a Bath University researcher behind the RepRap system. We jumped at the chance to build our own.
The upshot of this was that both James and myself felt awed and excited by the entire Kickstarter concept. The very idea of crowd-funding was, we believed, one of the best things that internet has created. There's been a lot of rhetoric tossed back and forth about what this means, and what it is for, particularly in the last six months, but one thing stands out for me: people's generosity. The internet folk who want to help projects of all kinds get made have a people system for doing so. We want to see people make cool stuff, and we will pay to make that happen.
That's a life-affirming kind of realisation. Kickstarter actually demonstrates that people want to put their money down on things they believe in.
It's an amazing thing, and nothing can detract from that beacon of light.
We wanted to be part of that.
Anyway, it's also true that this year Kickstarter began to overflow with games. If anything, that gave us most pause for thought: if we went this route, would we just be drowned out by the wealth of other projects – with the likes of Obsidian and Double Fine taking to the platform? We weren't sure that our offbeat procedural first-person adventures would really cut the mustard any more, not with all these high profile beasts stepping into the action.
The question of whether these big companies and famous names should be on Kickstarter, especially in the light of "nostalgia projects", has been posed in our direction a few times, and I have mixed feelings about it. I can see why people think that the likes of Molyneux and Braben shouldn't be going to Kickstarter for their money, but on the other hand, I want to see a new Elite and a new Populous. I just don't want those to drown out the smaller projects by ambitious, small teams. It's a confusing feeling.
And I understand the established guys wanting to go directly to their audience. I understand the appeal of being part of the Kickstarter thing first-hand, and why wouldn't they want a piece of it, too? It's new and exciting for everyone, and we're just beginning to understand how it's going to work.
So, yeah: the Big Robot team took a step back and considered our other options. We'd had a bit of publisher interest (mostly from console types), but didn't really want to give the controls of our project to an outside party. That road seemed rocky, with the possibility of being raildroaded. We didn't want that. We could also open up pre-orders, do “the Minecraft thing” or any number of other permutations that indie game devs had been exploring. But which one would make sure Tom and James could stay focused on our goal?
Would people even be interested in our ideas? Kickstarter was a terrifyingly public way to find out.
We had to be quite brutal about what we needed to do. We knew the amount of money that – at an absolutely minimum – we would need to keep the guys working full time, and to actually get something out. Kickstarter could do that... Couldn't it? Maybe.
We ummed and ahhed. We made tea and thoughtfully drank it. It was a hard question.
Meanwhile game development continued, and we began to feel the fun of being hunted. Our faith in what we were doing grew a great deal in the weeks leading up to the decision to go to Kickstarter, and by the time James was producing the gameplay videos – even with the game furnished with largely placeholder materials - we knew we were on exactly the right track.
Ultimately, Kickstarter was the best option, because it allowed us to talk to a lot more people than we might otherwise have done, and it made us take seriously the idea of deciding what the game would be, and what sort of things people should get for pre-ordering outside the game itself. It's been a fantastic experience.
There were moments of abject terror, of course – realising that the UK system did not use Amazon payments, and did not display the amount in US$ was one – but we've managed to get past them, swallow the terror and carry on.
Honestly, though, this has been a gruesomely long month. I have seldom been so aware of each passing hour.
The reception we've had for our Kickstarter has been amazing, exhilarating. Having made digital things for so long, it's actually been super-exciting to see the physical rewards from that tier and hold them in my hands. The poster has gone up on my wall. And that has made all this seem all the more real, all the more nail-biting.
We'd love to push it further, of course.
Back on the topic of what we're actually making: I'm extremely proud that we've been able to show so much of the game. It's definitely unfinished and unpolished, but with out gameplay vids we're able to let you see a prototype of the kind of thing that we are building. Our two gameplay videos are missing all kinds of visual polish – animation being the most critical one – but I am excited when I watch them, because I know I can actually go away and play this thing, just as you will be able to do in a few months time.
This is the “big” game for us, not just because it's about keeping our developers at their computers. It's big because it's the game that showcases our ideas and ideals, while at the same time being exactly the sort of thing we ourselves want to play. It contains solid examples of applying things we're really excited about in games: procedural generation, stealth, AI autonomy and life in the world. (We're aiming to have groups of robots meet, and then either get into a fight, or stop and chat, drinking tea and smoking pipes. We're obsessed with the idea of games which get on with their “life” without you, even when you are at the heart of the action.)
We're acutely, agonisingly aware that it might not all work the way we've intended. This is, after all, the great, perilous danger hanging over Kickstarter projects as a whole: that they might not live up to expectations. We are asking people to pay for something that is not yet done, and that's always a tricky business. It's scary. Very scary. It's even scarier when we see people assuming we have the time and resources of a AAA team. I know people don't always understand what goes into making games, but I hope the majority will understand what an ambitious undertaking this is for a handful of developers. Other game-makers seem to, and they've been fantastic about wishing us luck.
I hope it's clear, though, that we've committed to this idea completely. I've put everything I have into it. Our hearts and minds are right in there. For me this is a chance to make the kind of game that I've been day-dreaming about for years, complete with tea, cheery ironies, and a mixture of comic themes and violent horror. Even with a tiny team of just a handful of people, we're going to make something that I will enjoy, and I hope some of you guys will too. We've got a long road – we've been looking at just how long this week – but we can see to the end of it.
And, thanks to the past few weeks, it looks bright.
I suppose I should finish rambling, and point you to the comments if you have any questions. I just really wanted to explain where we were, and how myself and the guys are feeling at this strange, intense point in our project. Thanks to everyone who has backed us. We've got just a week left, and we're already way further along than we'd ever expected. I'm beginning to understand why people give so much of themselves to make games – I know why the Molyneux cries - and I'm looking forward to spilling out more reflections on that process, what we've learned and the difficulties we've stumbled into, in the coming months.
Meanwhile, I'll put the kettle on. Cheers.