Conducted By Adam Ames
Alex Gold, Project Director from Psydra Games, talks to TPG about the fantastic point-and-click adventure game, Dark Scavenger. You will learn about their time at Harmonix, testing, setting difficulty, DRM, piracy and how Dark Scavenger was funded with the power of love. Plus much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Dark Scavenger.
I’m Alex Gold, Project Director, Designer and Writer of Dark Scavenger. I was primarily responsible for the story, dialogue, systems, items, character + level design, and cat herding.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
This project basically came about from myself and our lead engineer Jim Otermat needing a change of pace. We had both been working at Harmonix on music titles for a while and were craving something different.
The idea of a point-and-click resonated well with both of us so we just kind of set out from there.
Where did the idea for Dark Scavenger come from?
Dark Scavenger came from a Pen and Paper RPG that I designed back in high school. Most of the lore and systems from the title is directly lifted from there, though heavily modified and simplified from its original form.
One of the original players of the game Kyle Perry has actually joined the Dark Scavenger team as our Business/PR/QA guy. Crazy how things work out sometimes.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Dark Scavenger?
We’ve been pleased at how players have reacted to the dialogue and overall weirdness of the game. The story and the way it was told was a bit experimental weirdness and we weren’t sure if everyone would get it. Thankfully, most players seem to enjoy it and take different things away from it which is really cool to see.
Many people have cited the lack of animation as being an issue which initially surprised us. This was an intentional choice of ours as we feel it lends itself greatly to the style but if we pursue another title in the future, we may consider a different approach.
In its current form, how close is Dark Scavenger to your initial vision?
As with any project or game, Dark Scavenger changed drastically from the way we originally conceived it, but all of us are pleased with the way it turned out. There wasn’t too much we needed to cut out of it though there were some mechanics that changed almost completely from when we started.
The most notable change is that the game was going to take place over the course of five planets, meaning that the game was going to be five times as long. Fortunately, Jim was able to (literally) smack some sense into me before we pursued that avenue.
Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Dark Scavenger and if you faced a similar challenge.
A lesson that I had learned developing smaller titles a long time ago is that you cannot balance games for yourself – you need to engage outside perspectives during development.
For Dark Scavenger, we balanced the difficulty to the point where we could just barely beat it and then reduced that by half. This seemed to land us near the right difficulty for most players. Once we had created a baseline, we had Playtesters come in and run through the game several times, tweaking various parts of the title based on their collective comments and our own intuition.
The one exception to this rule is a certain optional secret foe that most players will not discover. For this opponent, we tweaked him until the dev team itself could just barely beat him. Good luck to anyone who runs across him!
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Dark Scavenger would run on the various PC system configurations?
There were definitely some issues with resolution and optimization that took us quite a while to nail down. Although we don’t have animation, there is a lot of raster art in the game which led to some major RAM usage. It was tricky to manage all of it and make it run smoothly on PCs with lesser specs (like mine!).
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Dark Scavenger.
Our art style changed a few times over the course of the project before we finally settled on something final. Sean Kearney, our initial character artist, kind of set the tone and then we just kind of ran with it. Although we had the opportunity to insert some animation within the game, we ultimately decided against it to avoid breaking consistency with the rest of the title.
We actually created the game chronologically, which isn’t conventionally done (and for good reason!). Every chapter was a milestone for us. Following a rough blue-print, we developed… no, conquered the project one area at a time in a crazy uphill battle to see how far our tiny team could make it. As we ventured further into the title, we all saw improvement in ourselves as developers, which is why the game seems to get crazier and more detailed as you get further in!
Upon reaching a new chapter, I would create a rough map of every room the player would encounter and the order in which they could progress through them. Next, I would list out a ton of different scenario ideas that fit within the theme for that chapter. Once I had compiled a solid list, I started attaching those scenarios to each room as if I were piecing a puzzle together. After this initial pass, I’d go through and create the storyboards for the area so the artists could get started while I filled in the details.
We brought in Harmonix audio-wizard Joe Kelly in to do the score and sfx. Me and Joe were in a band together and he had expressed interest in the project, as it catered to a part of his massive repertoire of skills that he hadn’t gotten to use for a while.
We decided that we wanted the songs to be a throw-back to the 8-bit and 16-bit era but without being actual chip-tune. The music is intentionally super-catchy but simple and accessible. We only have a couple central themes but those themes change depending on what area of the game you’re in. We couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out and it seems like most players like it too.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Living off it, no doubt. I’m not saying it can’t be done but it’s certainly only a small percentage who can. Almost all of us on Dark Scavenger in fact are double-developers, the majority of us currently holding other jobs within the game industry. I myself am a Game Designer up at Other Ocean Interactive.
The most important thing to us however is that we had an opportunity to make an outlet for our creative energies and develop something that people enjoy. We’ve had many players write in and tell us how much they enjoy the game; that kind of thing makes all of it worthwhile.
How did you go about funding Dark Scavenger and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
Dark Scavenger was funded with the power of love.
Not really. In fact, it wasn’t funded at all. It was simply the creative brainchild of myself and all other developers involved. Everyone did it simply for the hell of it and agreed to take a percentage of profits from the final released product. Anything beyond that came directly out of our pockets (usually, my pocket…).
Emotional support was a lot more important. Most of us were kind of a wreck by the end of this project. There were some explosions, a few internal fights… you know, all that fun stuff which happens when you attempt to do something worthwhile.
We also accidentally revealed the game too early when it was still in a pre-alpha state. Although it certainly generated some buzz, our game doesn’t exactly look like Call of Duty and the internet isn’t known for its empathy. A few people on our team got crushed by trolling commentary and it took some real work getting their energy back up.
Fortunately, we were all there for each other. When one person began to fall apart, someone else was there to try and put them back together. Sometimes the pieces didn’t fit anymore, but we jammed them back in anyway. It was a trying affair but the generally positive response has made it all worth it. I don’t think anyone on the project regrets a single tear they shed for it.
Tell us about the process of submitting Dark Scavenger to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
After announcing our game and receiving some positive press, several distributors such as GamersGate got in contact with us. Working with these distributors has been a really positive experience and we’ve been pleased to have them as our partners.
Others though have been just dreadful. I won’t mention names but a few sites that distributed us have done absolutely nothing to help promote us, not even mentioning us in their newsletter when we first launched with them. There are few things that can make a struggling indie dev angrier than neglect.
Some of the other big gatekeepers don’t want anything to do with us either despite having decent sales and positive critical & user reviews. We can’t say we’re surprised considering our genre and style but it certainly makes it harder for indie devs trying to break in to gain some of that necessary exposure. I could mention Greenlight, but that’s a can of worms you don’t want me to open…
It’s a tough world out there for indie devs, especially niche indie devs.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
We did a lot of research and discovered that most titles like our own launched at exponentially higher prices, some valuing themselves at $9.99 or $14.99. We originally went with the former but, since this was our first game as a team and we really wanted to make it accessible for more players, we pushed the price down to $4.99.
The important thing to us is that people play and enjoy the game. It would still be great to accrue enough funds for another project down the road though but that was our secondary objective.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Dark Scavenger from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
We definitely appreciate the feedback and actively seek it out. It helps us figure out what we need to improve for future projects and validates our efforts if people like it!
This is a creepy thing to say but if you’ve ever posted anything anywhere about an Indie Game (or most commercial titles even), there’s a good chance that it is being read by the original developers. So I guess, be careful what you say on the internet?
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Dark Scavenger professionally?
We definitely value any opinion that players have on Dark Scavenger, professionally or otherwise. Relating to the previous point, we appreciate all the feedback we can get!
We’re fortunately not married to the same constraints that many larger developers are plagued by – none of our staff will be murdered if the title doesn’t get above an 80 on Metacritic. It’s clear to us that we made a solid title for a certain audience and we don’t mind if it doesn’t appeal to everyone.
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
Although these bundles and promotions are great from a consumer standpoint, they tend to devalue indie efforts. The game industry is actually at a point now where many studios are pursuing Freemium models because the average player seems to hold a candy bar at a higher value than a title which a team spent years of their life on. Priorities and stuff.
When people told us that $9.99 was too expensive for a game like ours, we were initially confused, having first-hand knowledge of the amount of effort and resources that went into it. However, due to the current state and practices of the market , we decided to drop our price down to ensure that it could gain a larger audience.
We are always on the look out to participate in bundles and other promotions as it’s a great way to gain exposure and only real way that the majority of indie devs can make any sort of money right now.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
To be blunt, DRM irritates me. If someone really wants a game, the only thing DRM will stop them from doing is acquiring it legally. Which leads to that second issue you mentioned…
Although I’m not big on piracy myself, I can appreciate the fact that most people who pirate a game probably weren’t going to buy it anyway. At the very least, it puts your game in the hands of more players and helps you gain exposure to people who maybe would potentially support your cause. So yeah, I guess it’s not all bad.
It also gives people a chance to try your game and then buy it later if they like it. That’s usually what demos are for, but you know, whatever.
I personally am not a big fan of piracy myself (I have never pirated a game or movie) but complaining about it isn’t going to stop people from doing it. For those of you out there who do pirate titles, please, consider purchasing them if you like it. Devs can’t make more games without your support.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Dark Scavenger?
It doesn’t bother me at all. Playing a game is a completely different experience than watching it and as a dev, there is nothing more exciting than seeing someone else play something you worked on. That’s why we do this after all.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
The idea of DLC is great but the execution leaves something to be desired, especially from some of the larger companies and publishers.
I love the thought of extra content becoming available for a title down the line but when content is specifically removed from a game to be sold later, that’s when it irks me. I don’t like paying $60 for a game, only to find out that I later have to pay for content that should have been there in the first place.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Dark Scavenger?
I would be honored. If someone liked our title enough to pursue such a project, we would be thrilled.
What advice would you give up-an-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Make something that you want to make. At least, that’s our creed. We definitely wouldn’t have gotten any of our exposure if we had made something typical or uninteresting to ourselves. My parents used to say “It can’t be important to someone else unless it’s important to you.” That’s still the creed I live by.
We would like to thank Alex and everyone at Psydra Games for allowing us a peek into the world of PC gaming development. You can pick up Dark Scavenger via the official site, and Desura. Also remember to cast your vote on Steam Greenlight.