A 3D survival horror game, with complex lighting effects... for the Nintendo DS? Tiny 3-person Austin developer Renegade Kid, just signed
to publisher Gamecock with Dementium
, is certainly doing things differently.
represents the studio's first independent effort, the team members, led by co-owners Jools Watsham and Gregg Hargrove, have collectively worked on more than twenty published titles, including Aspyr's Stubbs the Zombie
, Midway's Area 51
, and Namco's Sigma Star Saga
Gamasutra sat down with co-founders Watsham and Hargrove recently, and talked to them in-depth about making cutting-edge engines for the DS, and being an indie in today's market.
How did Renegade Kid end up getting started?
Jools Watsham: Greg and I have been talking about doing our own thing for 12 odd years now, almost since we started working together. We've worked together for 12-13 years, starting at Iguana, which of course was bought by Acclaim. We worked at a couple other places as well before eventually starting up Renegade Kid. We're going for a small team, with a pedigree of a lot of experience.
Gregg Hargrove: Yeah - we'd worked on other projects together, and we were just sitting at lunch one day at Iguana, and started talking about starting our own company after three months of working together. The timing never really worked out until now.
What was the thinking that led you to start working on Dementium?
JW: We started working on the idea back in December I believe, and from there started working on it really pretty damn quickly. We'd been kicking around the idea of this type of game, and we've always been really big fans of survival horror, like Silent Hill
... Silent Hill 2
especially... but we're game players so we wanted to make a game we'd like.
GH: I was excited about trying to do a more adult title. I hadn't had a chance to work on it or do that previously in my career, so I always jump at chances like that. I think the heaviest games I've gotten to work on previously were Stubbs
and Area 51
, but on Area 51
I mainly worked on environmental art, not the cool scary aspects. Drawing office building after office building, how scary is that? I wanted to draw something with fangs.
Why go indie for DS specifically?
GH: Well, for me, the handheld market is a cool market to get into. I'm a little older, and so my wife won't let me sit in from of the TV and play for hours at a time, but you can just park and pull out your DS anywhere for a quick fix. With Dementium
, we've got it set up where you save at the start of any room. So if you close the DS and shut down, you can immediately start back up from where you left off.
I also like the DS because of the touch screen, since it really makes for that PC shooter feel. Touching the pen to the touch pad feels a bit more like a mouse compared to analog sticks or the D-pad, which I always felt moved too slowly.
JW: Well for me, the DS is my favorite platform right now, and has been for a long time. The control is awesome and fluid. Sure, it may not have the horsepower of a next-gen console, but I think that if you push something that is limited, and really see what you can pull out of it, I think you can surprise people.
I think the first company to really do that was Rare with Donkey Kong Country
for the SNES. I mean - wow, that was amazing. It seemed like a next-gen game at the time, and that is what we are hoping to do here... to do something you would not expect with our game. And it doesn't have to be an M-rated game. With this technology, hopefully publishers will come knocking at our door, knowing that we have this powerful engine.
How did you get good lighting/3D tech on the DS?
JW: It's been really easy working with our technical team doing the lighting. I mean, we're not going for anything too over the top. One thing that is really interesting are the dynamic lights, which fade off into and out of certain areas, particularly with the flashlight, which offers a great contrast. There is also this idea of fog, which adds a degree of atmosphere. We have some nice moody lights in there as well.
Talking about the flashlight, we were amazed when we got that working... you can really light up enemy characters. It's all dynamic.
GH: Really, we're trying things that are difficult, just to see if it works. And pretty much every time we've found a way to make it work. We try to push the DS as much as we can. In learning from working on the SNES and Genesis, we have learned to pull the most out of the platforms we have worked on. A good chunk of our past has been on working on these systems with limitations... and learning to pull off tricks.
Would you ever consider licensing your DS engine, then?
JW: Sure, absolutely. If it means we get to play more cool games on the DS then I'm all for it. Of course, there's a whole separate business model there with having people to support the engine. If it looks like there is enough legs in the DS market - which by all accounts today, it looks like there is, and if people wanted to use what we've created to make their games, that would be great.
Sound is important in survival horror - how do you make the player listen on DS?
JW: Well, headphones make a difference! Typically you are playing the DS in an environment that isn't the best for sound. We have full surround sound in our game, so if you have an enemy to your left, you'll hear the sound come out of the left speaker. If the enemy is far away, the sound will be quieter, of course, too. We have full 3D positioning with our sound, so that we let the player know where where things are in relation to where they are.
We are putting emphasis on the audio to create the impression of a world outside the real world. It's lower quality sound that you may get on the next-gen consoles, sure... but if you push it, you can really make some really cool stuff on the DS.
Also something we've done with the music is make it completely dynamic. We've created a library of instruments with MIDI triggers. This lets us trigger whatever type of music we want whenever we want. It gives us lots of control.
Why are you doing a non-casual game on DS as a first title?
JW: Because it's difficult to do, plus when it's done it's not going to have all these other me too games comparable to it... it's distinct, and it'll have very little competition. Plus, we are a small studio free to do what we want, so it made sense.
GH: It's our big chance to do something, and this is the sort of game that we feel won't get lost in the shuffle with all the other casual games out there. It's our first shot, and it's a risky shot. But since we're the size we are, we're not risking anyone else's jobs at this point.
Did you draw influence from [Stubbs The Zombie creator] Wideload's outsourcing model? Are you using outsourcing a lot?
GH: Coming from Wideload, it was a great model to go from... and taught me a lot about how to work with people I never saw. They handled it really well. It's obviously a little hard... when you can't just walk over to someone and talk to them. You miss that kind of instant feedback, but as long as you plan for that in the beginning, it's something you can work around. Being as small as we are, it's about the only way we can do what we want to do. Also, having nice group as people as your core group is key.
JW: It also means we need to have our stuff together even more. The more work we can put into the game up front, the better.
How many people do you actually need to make a DS game?
JW: I was talking about this the other day with someone, but it really depends on the game. Generally speaking, the average DS game can be created by a team of 4 to 8 people. This of course depends on your timeline for the game, or how ambitious it is. I know some companies use a lot more than that. Plus, if people have less experience, you may need double that because of more iterations, and more mistakes.
GH: We have found some really good quality people. When you are not taking people fresh out of school with no experience, but instead are using people who know what they are doing, and you don't have to lead them through the processes, it makes a huge difference.
How many people are on your team?
JW: We have 3 core staff and 5 outsourced. The thing to remember is that those outsourced members didn't come on until about half way or third of the way into the project.
What games are particularly seminal for you - and were you influenced by any of them in making Dementium?
GH: I really liked the Silent Hill
games. Even the original Doom
, I would play it on the PlayStation in surround sound... and it would give me tingles. I've always been a fan of arcade racers as well, like the Need for Speed
games. Going back, the first game I really ever got into was on the NES, and that was Star Tropics
JW: I only play DS games these days. The two I have been spending a lot of times with lately are Chocobo Tales
and Pokemon Pearl