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Making Before: A 'collective consciousness game' of survival

We talk with Bill Lowe, creator of Before, about developing a group-survival sim, signing with Facepunch studios, and getting featured at The Game Awards.

December 22, 2014

17 Min Read

Bill Lowe has been making Before for a while. Screenshots of his beautiful prehistoric group-survival sim regularly shone out among those of other games using the #screenshotsaturday hashtag on Twitter -- so at the very least it's been a blip on the radar for the better part of the year. But it wasn't until Lowe and his game were acquired by Facepunch Studios, they of Garry's Mod and Rust, that things with Before really shifted into gear. The project has now reached a new level after Before had a trailer featured during the inaugural Game Awards, alongside some of the biggest upcoming games on any platform. I spoke to Lowe about how he got from there to here, and exactly what Before is, and is trying to become. Can you quickly outline what Before is, and what your intent is and what you want to achieve with it? It's a tricky one, because I try and avoid just throwing genre names and influences at it, but it can be quite convoluted to describe it without those. So I'll start by saying it's really inspired in part by games like The Sims and Black & White. Those are the two touchstones in my head when I think about why I'm making it. They're not what I want to make but they're the biggest influences. It's not a god game; it's more of a collective consciousness game. You're not a deity but you do have control and influence over a tribe of prehistoric people. Really it's just about their journey through their lives and their world, and your main adversary is the environment, and the other animals and predators within that. You're not really fighting other people, so it's just about their survival, and hunting and gathering, dealing with the weather, the changes of season, all of those things. So one of the most interesting things about it is the art style, and I'm inferring here, but I assume you've gone for this low-poly, rough around the edges art style because you're doing it yourself, and it's easier? I didn't really set out to achieve a particular style for any reason other than I saw some nice illustrations online; there's one illustrator in particular called Timothy J. Reynolds, and he does a lot of 3D illustrations for magazines and online publications, and he just had a really nice style. It's all pre-rendered, so you have lots of lovely lighting and nice variation in tone which you don't always get in real-time rendering. So that was one of my main inspirations. I was trying to recreate that aesthetic in an engine, in our case Unity, and seeing how that played out. The game part sort of happened by accident, if I'm being honest. There's no design document where I started and said "I want to make this game." It was born out of that art style. Did you find that you had that image of what you wanted Before to look like and the game arose out of that? It was really very organic. I started out with the urge to make a pixel art caveman for no particular reason, and pixel art is tricky, so yeah, it's part inspired by that illustration work that I mentioned and also the urge to get back into basic 3D, as I'd been doing a lot of high-poly sculpting in Z-Brush, and was trying to go down that road, but there's very lengthy production times and a lot of learning involved. So by having these low-poly models, does that free you up to do a lot of other things with the game? In theory, yes -- that's one of the bonuses to using the art style, definitely. It's very quick to fabricate lots of stuff, it's very quick to make nice rocks and things, because you don't have to worry about UV mapping, and texturing, and those two, to a lesser extent, are the things that take up most of my time, when I'm developing.

"It's very quick to fabricate lots of stuff because you don't have to worry about UV mapping, and texturing."

It frees up resources that you can use elsewhere, so we're really heavy on the post-processing, the lighting and the shadows, and hopefully we can push that a little further without all those resources being taken up by textures and polygons. But people often call it a ‘low-poly' game, and while that's certainly how it started I'm trying to refine the art direction so that, at a glance, people aren't saying "Oh, it's a low-poly game", hopefully it will be more distinct than that. And how did Before being shown at The Game Awards come out? It's just been kind of like everything in my career so far; it's because of Twitter. Because Twitter is what got me involved with Facepunch and Garry Newman just sent me a message saying "We like the look of the game", and I ended up working with them and making the game with them. It was similar with The Game Awards: Geoff Keighley just sent me a message saying, "It looks cool, would you like to show a trailer?" I panicked and said yes, and we spent three and a half very manic weeks putting it together. It's a cinematic trailer, it's all in-engine, but we're at a point where we're really crunching down on very low-level systems to make sure everything works, so right now it's not a very sexy game to play. So it wasn't the case that we could just load it up and film things going on; it was a very hard thing to pull together. But it was an amazing opportunity to go over to Vegas to show it. It's suddenly gone from a very small level of awareness on Twitter, where a few people know it, and now it's everywhere. And has that put it on the radar for anyone like platform holders and large publishers? No, not so much. To tell the truth I've had little bits of communication with platform holders, and Sony and Microsoft and whoever else have expressed interest in the past. I really think that Twitter is where all this stuff works now, because really, that's where the industry lives, day-to-day. Facepunch has got a really lovely way of doing things, though, and yes, we'll see what works on different platforms, but we don't need to commit to any exclusivity, and as and when that makes sense, that's when we can make those deals. At the time of signing to Facepunch, were you in talks with any other publishers? I had a back-and-forth with a couple of smaller publishers, but didn't really get very far. Really it was because I wrote a small blog entry saying I was planning on running a Kickstarter, and Garry reached out and said "Well I'm sure your Kickstarter will work, but what about this idea?" And really, that seemed to be the best idea. In hindsight, the risk of Kickstarter -- and playing with people's money like that, setting a number, and the risk involved -- I just really wanted this game done, and I'm sure it would have been done, but Facepunch is the ideal place for it. They're, I was about to say "loose," but that's not really fair. We have a very open, free-for-all management style. I don't have to adhere to any particular deadlines. You know, really, it feels like working on a mod team in the early 2000s.

"We have a very open, free-for-all management style. You know, really, it feels like working on a mod team in the early 2000s. "

Because of Garry's history, he's turned that into a company that works really, really well. Everyone is self-motivated, and we just get on with it, and there's no strict hierarchy telling you how to work. That really suits me, as I've been a freelancer for going on 10 years, and I'm used to managing myself, and managing a few other people, and that's how we're working now. So you would now consider yourself part of the Facepunch team? Absolutely. I work at Facepunch Studios. It's an interesting company in that there's only 10 or so people who work in their offices -- and I forget the exact number, but I think we're 30 or so people now. There's more people who work offsite than on, now, and it's not a publishing setup at all. The technicalities are that now Facepunch owns the property and I work for Facepunch, so I'm not an independent developer in that respect. And to get back to Before: We've had a large influx of survival games in the past few years, with games like DayZ, Rust, and they're all focused on individual survival, and it seems like Before is looking at the survival of a group. How does that change how you develop the game? It's interesting this survival genre thing, because you see in the comments, now that we've been exposed to a larger audience, are saying that "Ugh, it's just another survival game", or "it's just like Rust with different art." I think I've actually made a mistake describing it as a "survival game" on the website. It is, inherently, about people surviving, but really, most games are about people surviving. You've almost always got a health bar, unless you're talking about sport, or racing. So really it's a survival game in that literal sense, as people survive as part of the mechanics, but really I don't think there are very many parallels that you can draw between Before and DayZ and Rust. They're multiplayer, for a start, they're individual, they're first person, they have very familiar mechanics that you'd expect, they have guns, and all the rest of it. So yeah, its kind of odd that they're considered in the same group. But certainly, there are influences, although more so on the roguelike side of things. That's probably where I draw more influences. Is it procedurally generated, the world of Before? Not yet. It's something we'd like to do, but the art style, while simple, I have quite particular ideas around how I want the environments to look. And right now, with the manpower we have, and the systems we're already building, we're not making the whole thing procedural, but we will have levels of randomization with how the world is set up. When the game starts, you're presented with a small group of people on an island that's quite big but not continent-sized, and then we randomize that world, so there's lots of different islands, and lots of different biomes, and all sorts of things. So the islands themselves aren't entirely procedural, but placement of different things within each island will be randomized or procedural. What's interesting to me about that is it seems procedural generation is definitely an avenue small teams are going down, as it allows them to generate a lot of content without having to spend incredible amounts of time creating them by hand. That seems to be true of the art style ofBefore, too, as, as you've said, it lets you create a lot of things quickly.

"The ambitious part of what we're doing is the AI, and the systems, and everything around those things."

Absolutely, and we'll certainly push the procedural side of things as much as we can, but really the ambitious part of what we're doing is the AI, and the systems, and everything around those things. So I don't necessarily think that procedurally generating the entire world would be a brilliant use of our time, at least at this point. In regards to the AI, you've stated before that as the tribe gets bigger they'll begin to worship totems and form rudimentary religions. As this is essentially the birth of religion, is there any intent to make a statement there? Is it something you've considered? No, not consciously. I probably have some intent deep down, but to tell the truth I haven't done a huge amount of research around that topic yet, about the birth of religious and ritual and belief. Although, it's mostly really just the ideas I have floating around, and some we've documented and discussed in more concrete systems, but others are seeing how the systems we're developing play out, and hoping we end up in an interesting place. Social hierarchy is a big thing. Relationships start at a basic family point, so we know every living thing will have a mother and a father, and our social simulation will take all that into account, and it extrapolates from there. The ritual side of stuff could be really interesting. Black & White was very focused on the idea of the deity and worship, and the other game I mentioned as being influenced by, The Sims, doesn't go anywhere near it, although maybe in some of their more obscure expansion packs. Well Ron Humble actually gave an interesting talk on the nature of free will in The Sims, and how the Sims themselves have more free will than we do, which is fairly wrapped up in religion. Yeah, I guess they avoided religion because they didn't want to make a statement about it, and I don't want to avoid anything, but I don't want to make grand statements, necessarily. It's a game with emergent gameplay and systems, and I'm not setting out to prove a point. I don't want you to get to Act 3 of your caveman game and say "Ah, this is where the developer tells us what they think about religion!" I'll leave that out of the game. However it's going to be interesting to see what we can show of ritual and worship with the art style we've chosen. I don't necessarily know if we're going to have the play influence and control how those things develop, whether they'll just be there and be portrayed, but certainly I want those things to grow out of the history of your game, as it were -- the chronology of what happens as you're playing. So if an important event occurs, say the tribal leader kills a sabertooth, maybe your tribe starts worshiping sabertooths, as a sort of symbol, or maybe their culture starts to focus in on an event in their history.

"So if an important event occurs, say the tribal leader kills a sabertooth, maybe your tribe starts worshiping sabertooths "

Sort of how Dwarf Fortress creates legends out of the events of your game? Dwarf Fortress is an easy comparison, certainly, with what we're trying to do, but it's one of those games where I've only really scratched the surface and the depth kind of intimidates me. I know that we are creating something that's more accessible, certainly, and maybe the depth is more implied than literal. Have you found during the development of the game has allowed you to avoid a lot of complex problems that other periods might create? Cavemen aren't that smart, they don't do that many things, so I imagine their needs are fewer. Yeah, definitely. It does. The way you think about how prehistoric people might have lived is quite simple, really. There are only so many needs and desires, and the technology was fairly simple as far as we know. But on the flip side we are taking creative license and I'm sure someone will tell us off for having a bow and arrow, and this particular type of abode, and perhaps we've got it wrong, but then that's part of the fun. At least we don't have dinosaurs. You've said it's very system-driven, and one thing that is compelling to me about cavemen is that they were figuring out how the world worked, and there's the well-known idea that they drove the mammoths to extinction because they realized herding them off cliffs was easier than hunting them. Is that element of systemic discovery going to be part of Before? My least favorite shot in our trailer is actually of a mammoth rearing up on the edge of a cliff. It's a terrible shot, and didn't really technically work, but certainly that's something that we have in mind. Learning how the world works is a big part of the game. You have your little tribe and you have to discover how to keep them alive. They're autonomous to a certain extent, and they'll follow your orders to an extent, but really there's two things I really want to nail in Before, and that's the push and pull, the tug of war, between the player and the AI, because I really enjoyed that in Black & White with the pet, and your individual sims in The Sims. It can be really rewarding and really funny, and I really enjoyed that. And the other thing, and this is also present in Black & White, and it's that idea of teaching. In Black & White you're doing that with the pet, and you were always slapping it about or stroking it, which is a little too direct and abusive for me, but I like that idea of guiding your AI, and showing them how the world might work, and hoping it takes root and they take notice, then seeing their behavior change, and be passed on as the game progresses.

"I like that idea of guiding your AI, and showing them how the world might work, and hoping it takes root and they take notice."

So is the player's interaction not giving direct orders to their AI? We're going down a certain vision for how the interaction works at the moment, where you can select units and tell them to do basic things by clicking on certain stuff. You're not commanding them so much as influencing them. By giving an order you're not making them do something, you're adding a desire to their list of existing desires, to go and walk over there. It's not commanding like an RTS, it's not binary. About halfway between Dwarf Fortress where you essentially say "I'd like this done", and an RTS where you say "Do this"? Yeah, definitely, it's more of a "I'd like this building built," or "I'd really like this building built." We're still working out that tug of war, because our AI is obviously still very much in development, and it's really quite a complex structure of systems that will take quite a bit of time to get to where we want it to be. So our initial approach is really quite direct, commanding like an RTS, but that's something I'd like to leave open, and maybe we'll explore some other stuff and try to innovate there. What would you say has been the biggest challenge so far in the development of Before? That's tricky. I think it's been a strange journey with Before, because I started by building prototypes, and I'm really not a programmer by trade, I'm a jack of all trades, and hopefully master of some. So I started by building prototypes, and layering them on top of each other and, that was a mess, to tell the truth. And when Facepunch came along and I was able to start on it full-time, and hire who I wanted to hire, we scrapped everything and started from scratch. The biggest challenge has been getting that baseline foundation done, so we can iterate on those systems and develop them. We're still doing that, but we're very very close to our first major milestone of playability. So that's been the biggest challenge, really, just getting things up to a standard. And when remaking those systems did you discover new ways to create them, and ways to be more efficient? Absolutely. The prototypes I made worked, I had the baseline of this game working, I had cavemen and women going about their business, hunting and sleeping, and that was it, really. But it was buggy, and it was convoluted, and it was messy, so it's been great to go back and tidy things up, and address some of the problems I found. I think, where we're at now, we're building a very very robust foundation of those low-level systems, that we can really iterate on very quickly, and we can add increasingly complex and interesting systems, so yeah, the biggest challenge is still ongoing, but we're nearly there.

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