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IGF 2011: Anders Gustafsson Talks About The Dream Machine, Life And Punking Journalists

Cockroach's point-and-click adventure The Dream Machine has recently been announced as one of the finalists in IGF 2011. I had the chance to interview them and ended up with a massively entertaining talk about life, programming and how long, ranty replies

Crossposted from TK-Nation. TK-Nation's a South-East Asian gaming site that plays home to news about quality underdogs from the gaming world, indie cosplay and video game collectibles. 

Unsurprisingly, The Dream Machine, a point-and-click adventure by Swedish developers Cockroach, is one of the finalists in this year's 'Excellence in Visual Arts' category for the Independent Games Festival 2011. 

Unlike pretty much every other title out there right now, The Dream Machine does not make use of your standard graphical engines. Instead, the developers have utilized claymation for their game; a pain-staking move that has nonetheless rewarded them with their well-earned nomination. 

TK-Nation recently had the opportunity to interview Anders Gustafsson, one half of Cockroach's development team. What first began as a somewhat standard interview later developed into a full-blown textual exchange about clay, animation, the difficulty of programming and how video game journalists love long, ranty replies to their questions.

Darn you for being so right, sir. Darn you.

1. Adventure gaming has only seen a comeback in recent years. However, these days, games seem to be easier, more approachable and often episodic in nature. Many have theorized that it has a lot to do with the fact that attention spans have grown shorter, especially with the multitude of titles available for play. What is your opinion on this? Has the adventure game genre changed over the last few years? 
It has changed a lot. For the better mostly. I started playing adventure games back in the day where the designers would kill you off just for examining the wrong thing on screen. They wouldn't clue you in that it was wrong either, so you just had to save constantly. Looking at a collection of pixels could just instantly kill you. Story of my life.

LucasArts introduced a lot of the concepts that still provide the foundation for modern adventure games. They sort of calibrated the genre making it more accessible to play. Constantly punishing the player was just a sloppy, annoying way of padding the length of the game. They replaced it with more of a 'Explore & solve at your leisure'-mantra, which largely still holds up today. The fun in adventure games arguably comes from exploring environments, progressing through a narrative, solving brainteasers along the way.

I think this increasing approachability of today's adventure games stems from the fact that designers have better tools for play testing. When you distribute your game digitally, especially, it's fairly easy to send completion data back so you can see how many people solve any given challenge. If the data shows a huge spike somewhere, it's probably a good idea to add some clues or rework the problem entirely. A simple line of dialogue can make the difference between a tediously frustrating puzzle and a fun, challenging one. But if you don't play test you’ll never know.

Episodic games are a logical result of increased digital distribution. I wouldn't explain them due to shorter attention spans or an over-saturation on the market, though that might be valid as well. I think it's more down to the fact that the old 'packaged goods' distribution model came with a high overhead price. Once your game requires a box, a warehouse, shipping costs etc. you need to offer a 20+ hour experience to motivate the jacked up price tag. But now you can make a game that lasts five minutes and charge whatever you think is fair for it.

2. The premise behind The Dream Machine is eerily familiar. I mean, we've definitely seen this setup in horror movies before. A couple, a new place, unsettling neighbors; they're all the good ingredients of a good scare. Yet, at the same time, what you've built up instead is something unsettling as opposed to outright horrific. What drove your inspiration in that direction? Almost every piece of fiction out there can be distilled into a few base concepts. In your situation, what are you looking to show to the audience?

It’s funny that you mention horror films, since our main source of inspiration for the initial setting comes from Roman Polanski's Apartment-trilogy. Chiefly his masterpiece The Tennant, but also Rosemary’s Baby, of course. We also owe a debt of gratitude to the pioneering works in the sub-genre of hand-built adventure games: The Neverhood, The Dark Eye and Blackout.

We use the mundane apartment house setting as a point of comparison. If the game would just be a section of dream sequences, they wouldn’t feel as trippy as they do they're spliced in between something that feels real. It was also a natural way to start the story and gave us a way to deliver the exposition we needed to get across to the player. Since Victor is looking for things in labeled moving boxes we can basically write the whole back-story for the game on the labels. (Writer's note: Protip right there, fans!) If you examine all the boxes in the first room – and this isn't mandatory, by the way – you should get a fairly good idea of who Victor and Alicia Neff are. They've just moved in, so there's a reason they don't know where things are yet. They don't need to have amnesia.

It's hard to answer what we're looking to show an audience without giving too much away. Show them a good time? If anyone gets enjoyment beyond that, then we’re simply overjoyed.
3. Having conceptualized The Dream Machine, what went into the creation of the game? More importantly, how did you sit down and go, 'We're going to do this and we're going to make it succeed'. There are a lot of indie games out there, after all, and plenty have fallen along the wayside. In spite of such risks, what brought you so far into the proverbial game (no pun intended, I swear!) and how did you keep the inspiration to keep going?

We decided on an episodic schedule quite early on. At first we just wanted to produce a two room proof-of-concept demo to see if the game could be done at all. We knew that the hand built sets would work since we have backgrounds in stop-motion animation. But transferring the characters and making them move believably in all the different lighting conditions required a lot of trial-and-error.

We put off character design and implementation for a long time, because we were so scared it just wouldn't work. But once we decided on how to do it, implementation just took a frantic days work and once we saw the first character in the game all the trepidation just went away. Once we had a finished demo, we put it online and invited people to test it. During the play testing we discovered all manner of strange bugs and we ended up having to rework the engine a couple of times, but in the end the game turned out all the better for it. 

The fact that we're two people helps a lot. When one of us has a low period, the other one can keep working so the production doesn't come to a complete halt. We try to talk to as many people we can as well, through social networks and blogs. People seem to like the game and aren't shy about expressing it to us. That also helps a lot. We love those guys!

4. Speaking of engines, did you design one from scratch? A lot of people have frequently taken advantage of the easy interface offered by the AGS. Did you use a pre-built engine or did you design one from scratch? Do you both have programming backgrounds? If not, was it difficult acquiring the knowledge and implementing what you've learned? What was the most difficult aspect about crafting the engine? Were there any bugs that made you climb the walls in frustration? 

I've never used AGS, but from what I understand it's pretty solid. When I started building the engine, I was just curious to see if I could. Neither Erik nor me have programming backgrounds, but I started experimenting with Flash back in 1999. A friend of mine had released some games on the Newgrounds scene and I just thought they were the coolest things ever (search for "Bubba vs. Igor" or "Drones"). I was studying traditional animation at the time, and equated programming with black arts or alchemy. I wanted to learn how to do it, but I suspected some kind of deal with the devil would have to transpire.

Eventually my friend gave me the source file to one of his games, and with the help of a tutorial book I manage to decipher the Holy Code within. A few weeks later I showed him my first Flash game: a two player fighting game, featuring chickens. It's still on Newgrounds if you want to try it out (search for "Chickadee"). It's utter crap – but you've got to start somewhere.

A few years later I was working at an ad agency in Copenhagen, and because they had a job drought I decided to use the time to improve my non-existent programming skills. I didn't know what an array was, but I'd heard the word and thought it sounded useful. So that was the first thing I studied up on. But just reading through a programming book got boring, so I gave myself a concrete task and decided to build an adventure game engine from scratch, learning programming as I went along.

I’m still using that engine, though it has been entirely rewritten since then. That was six years ago. Was it hard? Yeah, it was hard for me at least, since I've never had the kind of structured mindset required to write good code. Some of my best friends are professional programmers and I'm always in awe of their skill and discipline. I'm flakey and inconsistent. But I've gotten a lot better at programming just by never giving up.

5. Obviously, your efforts turned out fairly well. But did you expect to be nominated in the IGF? What was it like when you first got the announcement? Did you run around, bouncing about, screaming for utter joy? 

We didn't expect to get nominated. We submitted the game last year, unsuccessfully, so we thought we didn't have a chance this time around either. We discussed whether we should enter at all this year, but decided to go for it, considering that the game had changed a lot since the last IGF. 

Last time the judges gave us really thorough feedback. They do that for all the entries, I believe. So we thought, even if we don't get nominated, getting 8-10 game designers professional opinion on the game would still be totally worth the price of admission. Luckily we go a lot more than feedback this time around.

As for our reaction, yeah, pretty much what you described. Being Swedish I try not to be easily fazed, but both Erik and me were very happy about the nomination, let’s just say that. I had to leave my apartment since I was basically climbing the walls after finding out. I ended up grabbing a burger in a greasy, completely empty sports bar. They had cold, flickering fluorescent lights in the ceiling. The kind that makes your skin look a grayish green. It was a shady place, but I didn’t mind. I just sat there gnawing away at my burger, grinning like a mad man because of the announcement.

The staff probably thought I was on drugs. 
6. Ahem. All right, slight moment of levity aside, what I'd really like to know is why you chose claymation as your medium of delivery? Of all the things you could have used for your visuals, why did you opt for something so painstaking? Having made the selection, did you find it difficult to carry things through to the end? What was the most difficult part of using claymation for your work?

The most difficult thing with this medium is that you have to plan ahead a lot. It’s not as malleable as a vector drawing. If we change our minds about a scene we basically have to rebuild, repaint, relight, reshoot and retouch all over again. It forces us to be a bit more responsible with the games design phase. But you also have to leave enough room for the game to grow organically while you’re working. If you pre-plan everything, the end result can end up feeling dead or forced or both.

The main reason why we chose to make the game out of physical materials was that both of us are huge animation nerds. That’s our background. Erik has managed a commercial stop-motion studio and I’ve worked on several animated TV series. We love games, but find the market oversaturated with bland same-y looking action clones. Call of Halo anyone? Medal of Duty? I honestly can’t tell them apart anymore. Who can?

We wanted to differentiation ourselves from all that and go in the opposite direction, where games are allowed to be whimsical and fun. Not just adrenaline-fueled escapist fantasies for pre-pubescent boys. So we came up with an old school point & click adventure game, made by hand from materials such as clay and cardboard.

That was as far away from Modern Honor as we could come.

7. All right, as far as I understand it, you've worked on animated TV series and Erik has managed a commercial stop-motion studio. Is there any chance we could get a little bit more background on your history with the esoteric art of claymation? In other words, we'd like a little bit of background on the two of you.

I met Erik at an animation school in Visby, Sweden. We both liked things like Cronenberg and Burroughs and immediately hit it off. After school we got separated for a while. He went off to learn the arcane art of stop-motion and ended up setting up his own animation studio with four other guys. I got a job designing locations for various animated TV-series and peddled my firm buns to ad agencies around northern Europe.

We kept contact over the years and always talked about how fun it would be to work on something again. But the opportunity never arose, until one day when we were both just fed up with whatever menial jobs we held at that stage. We discussed how fun it would be to get back to the crazy old days, when you just did something for the heck of it, out of sheer passion. We started talking about building a world by hand – something tangible, as opposed to pixels and polygons. To get our hands dirty with paint and clay, to be kids again.

The more we talked about it, the more it stuck. Erik did some test builds to convince me that sets could be constructed relatively fast, and the test images he sent over just held a world of potential in them. They were dirty and imperfect in a way I had really missed. In games they usually just slap a crud decal on the walls to make it dirty, but you don’t buy it. It doesn't look proper dirty. It looks like a decal. Erik's little simple test sets were proper dirty and I immediately fell in love with them.

So we both resigned. Erik acquired some grant money so we could buy some equipment so we could start working on the game. That was two years ago and I can't exactly say it’s been smooth sailing all the way. But for an inherently autistic project that makes absolutely no business sense, it's actually gone surprisingly well.

We're very grateful for that.

8. There are a few more installments left in the Dream Machine series. After you're done with that, what do you both plan to do? Any hints as to what your next piece of intellectual property might be?

I can't say too much about that, but we have a pretty clear idea of what we want to do after this. Hopefully, if enough people buy The Dream Machine, we get to keep working on this type of games.

I’m sorry I can't reveal more about the content or setting but it’s not even in pre-production so it will change a lot anyway.

It has angels in it.

9. Lastly, here's a rather generic but rather important question out there: what's your advice to aspiring game developers out there?

If it's your first game, start very small. Make a game you’d like to play yourself. A basic understanding of how programming works never hurts, even if you’re an artist. Play test early and often. Don’t skimp on sound design. Don't be shy to market your game, otherwise no one will find about it. Keep your integrity if you can. The platform isn’t the message – the content is the message – who cares what ugly plastic box it plays on?! And always answer interview questions with long ranty replies. 

People love that.

Stay tuned! With the International Games Festival 2011 awards ceremony drifting ever close, we have more interviews and coverage in store. 

Those of you who might be interested in sampling The Dream Machine can go to their website here and check it out. Unless I'm mistaken, the first installment is free:

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