Last month we had the pleasure of stumbling across the rather bizarre indie gem Dark Scavenger. The game involves an amalgamation of several gameplay styles embedded in a pleasingly silly yet surprisingly meaningful story and universe. Unfortunately the experience was all too much for our reviewer who, after playing the game, found himself denouncing this reality for another one – namely that of Dark Scavenger itself. This was quickly followed by shouting in the street, arrest and incarceration. He did however find time to write a review and conduct this interview on behalf of Critical Gamer with two of the men responsible. They are Dark Scavenger’s designer, writer and project lead, Alex Gold and the game’s lead programmer Jim Otermat. Here’s what they said about their influences, making the game and being an independent studio.
For a game developed by a small team of people, Dark Scavenger comes across as very ambitious in terms of story, game mechanics (you must have had to come up with loads of weapons, items and allies!) and the amount of writing involved. Do you think you managed to achieve what you wanted to? How do you feel about the final game?
Alex Gold: Believe it or not, the original scope was actually even more ambitious! We wanted five unique planets, each with their own plotlines, interweaving narratives and unique styles of play. Once we realized that was an awful idea, we decided to edit it down to just one hyper-focused planet.
Despite the reduced scope, the amount of writing involved was truly a tremendous feat, especially considering the majority of it was done by a single person (myself!). In the end, the game ended up containing over 40,000 unique text strings, including all dialogue, enemy attacks and equipment effects. It’s an achievement that I am happy to attach my name to but I may not attempt it again for a while…
The Equipment itself was a genuine beast to implement. Ensuring that we had adequate content for each piece of loot required us to develop a staggering amount of variables which almost drove our lead coder Jim Otermat and myself insane. Fortunately, we had our near-godly QA Tester Kyle Perry (who is also our Business Development and Marketing Guru) to save the day. That fact that everything works as well as it does is nothing short of a miracle.
Generally, we’re really happy about how we’ve been collectively received. Some people get the game and some people don’t; we have no problem with that. Most important to me is that we stuck with this crazy project to the end and created something wholly original. For that reason, I couldn’t be more pleased.
Jim Otermat: I’m very pleased with how it turned out. It started as a project to maintain my sanity level while unemployed, and blossomed into so much more. I wanted to make a game that I would actually play, and we did that in spades. That Alex and my sense of humour blend well meant that I very rarely needed to encourage him in a particular direction.
Building the infrastructure to make so many distinct weapons, items and allies possible from the ground up just feels fantastic. I got into game programming because I wanted to work on things that people enjoy, I think we’ve done that.
The feeling I got when playing Dark Scavenger was that it was both familiar and like nothing else I’d played before. It seemed to be part adventure, part point-and-click, part first person RPG. Were you initially going for this kind of genre mash-up approach or was it more of an organic development of ideas? And were there any specific games or genres which really inspired Dark Scavenger as a computer game?
Alex: It was definitely not something that we set out to do intentionally – the gameplay came out of necessity and evolved organically throughout the development process. Despite the oddball premise and concept, it didn’t strike me as that weird at the time. Then again, I’m kind of a weird person.
As Dark Scavenger is based off a pen-and-paper RPG I created, it was my goal to capture the lore and systems of that game within a digital experience that everyone outside of just me and my group of buddies could enjoy. There is a lot going on in Dark Scavenger but the game is actually greatly simplified from the original version!
The strongest influences on the game were Munchkin (the card game) and Earthbound, the former for its situational item-based strategy gameplay and the latter for its light-hearted story leading up to an infamously dark finale.
Though I am a huge fan of point-and-click adventures, if anything, we used other examples of the genre as a guideline for what NOT to do, avoiding design pitfalls such as backtracking and needing ultra-specific items to advance.
Jim: I’ve always been a point-and-click adventure fan at heart, so I may have pushed for that style of thing from the get go, and the other pieces evolved as necessary to fit the narrative. It just seemed to make sense in each of the screens to do it the way we did.
It was over a year of development, and I was doing my part during the weekends while working a paying game dev job during the week, trying to keep from burning myself out. That disconnect meant that I would build something over the weekend, chuck it back to Alex in whatever time zone he happened to be in, and let him hammer on it over the week. It also meant that time was always an issue, so some of the more interesting mechanics came out of compromises on Alex’s desires compared to the reality of time and space.
One aspect of the game which I particularly enjoyed was the use of still drawings as opposed to animation. Was this aspect of the game an important aesthetic choice to begin with or was it largely the result of economic constraints?
Alex: Still drawings initially seemed like a risky choice as it made selling our game to new players and creating appealing trailers somewhat tricky. However, the style greatly befits the gameplay and undoubtedly paid off.
The style was very much intentional though I’d be lying if I said there weren’t any economic factors involved – we are only a small team after all! We had a choice between having a few decent looking animated sprites or a lot of amazing still-ones. Our final decision worked out perfectly as it allowed us to populate the game world with a wide variety of NPCs and environments that we would not have had the budget for otherwise.
Moving the images around as we do during certain events was spur-of-the-moment craziness that evolved from a much simpler idea. Before I commit to any creative endeavour, I always set out to create it with certain “key-moments” in mind. One of those “key-moments” in Dark Scavenger was a battle that took place entirely based through the dialogue system, a concept that I had never seen fully realized in another game.
Once Jim implemented the feature which allowed me to place those still images anywhere on screen that I wanted to, I kind of went nuts with it, crafting character panoramas to match each scene – sometimes on a text-string per text-string basis! NPCs were suddenly placing swords at the throats of hostages, swerving beneath flying jump kicks and spin-kicking each other in the face. Discounting the fact that it took me upwards to an hour in some scenes to place sprites by hand, it was great fun.
Jim: There was a large amount of art required for the game, and from a logistic point of view it was easier to get one person to own a specific character and spread the work across many people if it was a collection of stills. These were initially just for battles; each pose was used to show states of decay or charging for the character.
Alex did dive down the rabbit hole once I gave him the power to put people wherever during the events, but that was what I was shooting for. If he has lots to work on, I’m free to program other pieces at my leisure.
Psydra is possibly the epitome of an independent studio – small team, eccentric game, self-published and released via your own website. What does it mean and is it important to you as game developers to be independent? Are you happy being an independent studio or is this all leading up to multi-million dollar cross-platform releases?
Alex: One thing that you don’t really appreciate until after you’ve worked at a few commercial companies is how great it feels to truly be working on something of your own accord. There’s no client or publisher at the helm – you’re developing something that you truly care about with absolutely no restrictions or censorship.
As stated before, Dark Scavenger is a work of passion. Despite some hiccups during the development process, it is a culmination of all our creative energies and a great chance to try things we would never get to do in a commercial title. We weren’t in it for the money – we were in it for the glory and that to me is the true meaning of independence.
Jim: If I could make all my funds this way, I’d be down with it. But the bills still need to get paid and working at a larger studio is the way to do that. I have a dream of settling down somewhere and just tinkering on indie projects, but that’s still several years off. The passion gets the game started; sheer force of will gets the game finished.
Can you give us any idea of what you’re all up to after releasing Dark Scavenger? Can we expect another Psydra game? Dark Scavenger 2?
Alex: Dark Scavenger 2 will only be possible if our first title can find an audience and be successful. As for Psydra, it’s hard to say. Making an indie game is no easy feat, especially when you have another job and other commitments that consume your time.
Though our team is taking a bit of a break right now, I wouldn’t count anything out of the question. I myself am desiring something a bit more action oriented…
Jim: *rolls eyes at Alex* Time will tell.
You’ve read the interview, now why not head to the official Dark Scavenger site? There’s a free demo! If you decide to buy, it’s less than six dollars – or, for us UK folk, not much over four pounds.