Charting Adrift's journey from concept art to publishing deal

Adam Orth and the rest of the core Adrift development team share what they learned while taking their game from concept art to a polished prototype that netted them a publishing deal.
The story of how Three One Zero came to work on Adrift is interesting not least because the game owes its existence to the waves of abuse developer Adam Orth received in the wake of comments made about the Xbox One's (long-cancelled) always-online requirement. “I applied a specific life experience I went through to the concept of this game, and it went from something I’d like to make to something I have to make,” said Orth. “It just overtook me.” Orth was speaking at GDC Next today about the journey Adrift took from nebulous concept to part of 505 Games' catalog of upcoming games, and he wryly expressed hope that one day, he’d be able to give a GDC talk without having to reference the social media mess that led to his resignation as creative director at Microsoft in 2013. He says that by trying to work through that experience by making a game, initially called Space, he learned some valuable lessons about applying AAA production practices to indie development that other developers might be able to learn from. For example, Orth suggests that developers can find concrete success early on by finding a single image that encapsulates the concept of their game, as Orth did with Adrift. “This was a really powerful moment for me; I knew then what I wanted to make,” said Orth, in reference to an image of an adrift astronaut Photoshopped together using beautiful shots of Earth and Red Bull promotional photos of Felix Baumgartner. “It’s a terrible image, but we still use it today.”
After a bit more conceptual work Orth commissioned an actual concept artist to produce some assets, then used that and his design document for what would become Adrift to pitch investors on funding development of a prototype. He succeeded, and convinced former colleague Omar Aziz to quit his post at Treyarch and help build Adrift. “I had the idea, I had buy-in from peers I respected, and I had some money,” said Orth. "I knew there was only one person I wanted to make this game I called him."

The reality of turning your fantasy into an actual game

Orth left Seattle and moved to Santa Monica, where he met with Aziz and discovered that the former Call of Duty developer had gone ahead and built a prototype of Adrift using Unity, which he says was “refreshing” after working with Treyarch's technology stack. “I was showing him the game at the California Chicken Cafe, we were making feedback lists on our phones, and I realized ‘holy crap, we might actually be trying to do something real here,’” said Orth. Everything snowballed from there, and like many indie developers the Three One Zero team experienced a tremendous initial surge of enthusiasm as they went about starting a studio. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, we have two desks! We’re real!’” said Orth, with a smile, remembering the team’s first office. They began development in earnest in November 2013, with the goal of taking a polished prototype to DICE in February in order to secure a full publishing deal. “Our investment was $100,000, and it was nothing,” said Orth, noting that the studio paid out $40,000 of it before lunch on the day the money came through. “It was gone almost before we got it.” Plus, Orth and Aziz were designers and programmers -- not artists. So they contracted Hogarth de la Plante, an experienced artist who’d previously worked on BioShock and other projects, to build assets for their demo. “I knew from development experience on BioShock that, especially when you’re getting ready to show something to people for the first time, you’re going to move pieces around a lot,” said de la Plante. Thus he produced a number of art assets that could be easily reconfigured after level design challenges, and recommends other developers do the same. “We still use this trick in development today,” added Orth. “We still use lots of modular design pieces, and it’s worked out really well for us -- it’s a great lesson learned.”

The lessons you learn

The team also learned to use trial licenses for software to produce assets; a scrape-by tactic that has the side benefit of forcing you to work fast. They also relied heavily on assets purchased from the Unity Asset Store, and often had to make do with production processes that saw them, for example, sending voice actors into the bathroom of Three One Zero's cramped office to record snippets of dialogue for the prototype. However, the team successfully adapt the production processes they’d learned in AAA development to Adrift; they managed to get it up and running within ten weeks, just in time to fly to DICE. “We finished the prototype at 2 AM on Saturday morning, and we had to fly to Vegas on Monday to show it to people,” said Orth. “It was crazy.” So they loaded it onto their own demo machine they'd built themselves, something they recommend every developer do. “We built our own demo machine, and we lugged it everywhere,” said Orth. “It hurt, too; it was big and heavy and it hurt your hands to carry…” “But we knew we weren’t going to have any issues with it,” chimed in Aziz. “We weren’t going to show up to use someone’s machine only to discover that, ‘Oh, this computer doesn’t have a DX11 card’ or something. I think it saved us, sometimes.”

Emerging technology can be an ace up your sleeve

And when Three One Zero made it to Vegas, they had unexpected success thanks to their decision to lug along a Rift VR headset and incorporate it into the tail end of their Adrift demo. “That just destroyed everyone,” said Orth. “They were in it in a way that… you just couldn’t buy how awesome it was for us. It was the killing blow.” “We put an Oculus Rift on [Shuhei Yoshida’s] head, and he just looked around and said ‘I feel like I’m there,’” said Aziz. “That was just huge for us.” Nevertheless, after DICE the team took the Adrift demo on tour and did more than 75 pitch demos across the country in a bid to find a publisher. “Part of the plan was, if we couldn't sell this at DICE we'd eventually take it to GDC,” said Orth. But they didn’t need to; Orth says he signed a publishing deal with 505 Games in San Francisco, hours before a speaking engagement at GDC. “Immediately afterwards I went and gave a GDC talk; I don’t even remember it,” said Orth. “I just felt so great.” You can catch up on Gamasutra's GDC Next coverage all in one location. GDC and Gamasutra are sibling organizations under parent UBM Tech.

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