This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
In Duskers, players will find themselves scrounging for scrap parts, combing through derelict freighters in the cold void of space. It's much too dangerous to go out there on your own, though, and so players are forced to send drones to do the work, issuing orders through command lines. This doesn't seem daunting, but with threats looming on each ship, and power and parts growing scarce, every second counts, and every mistake costs dearly.
With death being permanent and procedural generation making every run random, players will need to get good with their command line work, learning to speak a machine's language fluently while dealing with surprising dangers.
This design, showcasing a lonely bond between human and machine, and desperately learning to speak another language in order to survive, earned developer Tim Keenan a nomination for Excellence in Deign from the Independent Games Festival. Gamasutra caught up with Keenan to discuss the thoughts the went into his design, and learned about the dev's love of junky old tech and the connections we make with it.
I majored in Computer Science, but tended toward anything artistic, and then out of school I went to work at Rainbow Studios, a AAA game development house in Phoenix. After that, I went to Dreamworks Animation for ten years, and then when I came back into games, I decided to do my own thing. That’s when I became indie – that was around 2011. Then, I did A Virus Named Tom and then Duskers.
I love co-op games, as you can tell from A Virus Named Tom. I loved the idea that you and a partner would go into a derelict ship – and one of you would run to the control room and the other one would explore. So, you have that kind of vibe when you’re in a heist film and there’s the hacker guy and he’s opening up the doors and cracking the codes and the other guy’s running through and risking his ass.
And then, I thought “God that’s 3D and it requires a lot.". So, I thought about how I could do that with one player. Because I thought the control room was kind of the cool thing, or at least that was the role I wanted to play and I was like, what if, instead of being that other person, you were a drone? That you could control a drone and then I thought “Well, if you can control one, why not control multiple drones, right?
So, that idea collided with another idea I had, which was gonna be a more puzzle-y game about powering the ship and worrying about where the electricity was flowing and stuff like that. So, those two things sort of had a baby which was Duskers– which, originally, was actually a game where you would go in with the drones and it would be like a tower defense type of thing where you were pushing in with your drones, but then you’d open up doors and make sure that enemies couldn’t get back to your ship. And then, that had an optimal strategy which was placing all the turrets at the pinch point and so, I stopped focussing on combat and I started focussing on exploration and trying to avoid combat, actually. And that’s when the game kind of took life.
We used Unity this time. We used XNA for our previous game and we also used Maya for modelling and Photoshop for texturing, stuff like that, but it was pretty much… Pretty much Unity.
I think somewhere around three years.
I wanted it to be kind of like this sort of buddy comedy, like you have with Han Solo and Chewbacca or Cowboy Bebop, right? Where you got like these two characters and you’re trying to loot space ships. That’s your get-rich-quick scheme because you owe Jabba or whatever bounty hunter a lot of money.
That was my original concept. So, I always loved Star Wars – When I saw space ships that looked junky, right? Cause up until then I feel, at least for me, whenever I’d see things in the future, everything was slick - everything was better. And, all of a sudden, I’m looking at these space ships and I was like, “These look like junk.”
It’s kind of like right now, you see old cars on the road, you see junky things. So, I was always kind of in love with that and I loved how they would hit the side of the ship and then something would turn on. I was always sort of in love with that.
It made sense if you were going into derelict space ships that you’d be more about isolation because you’re alone. And that’s where we turned it to a much more somber, much more dark, apocalyptic sort of thing? And then, that worked really well with the green tech. I love the notion that we use technology and technology enables us, but it also constrains us. Like, we are able to communicate with people like I am you, across borders and everything, and that’s amazing, but it’s very different from actually sitting down in front of each other and knowing each other.
And so, there’s this dual nature we have with technology and I really wanted to explore that a little bit. So, that’s where this sort of command line comes from too, right? And it’s all part of it – it’s all part of feeling. The thing that you’re interacting with is foreign to you. It’s not a person. You’re typing commands into a console and you’re speaking in the drone’s language and it reminds you that there’s no one in that space craft with you – that there’s not another human that is alive that you know of.
That can make you feel isolated and that can make you feel like your best friend is this piece of metal and, you know, that drives the Wilson Effect, that I call where you start to imbue these drones with personalities and they’re your friends and… I’m just trying to make people go insane. I mean, really, you see how it all kind of branches out then it all comes back in, right? Like all of these different aspects that were all touched by this one thing – which is this sense of isolation and how that can be created and, sort of undone in two different strokes of technology.
So, I thought that was kind of core to the game – to make that feel genuine and make that feel real. I felt like if it was a slick interface with, you know, I drag select units and I right click where they go and stuff like that – I was just missing an opportunity to convey that.
I liked how it added this notion that every run isn’t so precious, but it also adds this air of tension, because if I screw up, I screw up, right? And there’s nothing I can do about it, and Duskers is definitely a game where everything’s going right and within a minute, everybody’s dead.
I started getting obsessed with realism. Not in the sense of, having the budget to make some photo-realistic stuff, but I can make you feel like you’re some remote drone operator and you’re behind a monitor and you’re seeing a filtered view. I really started to think with realism and I was like, if you really are going into a real ship, opening up random doors and this is your life on the line, you know, because if the drones die, you can’t progress any further – you’re dead.
The procedural generation, at first, was somewhat my frustration with some things. When I made A Virus Named Tom, we had to make all these levels and then, even though we put in all these levels into the game, people would still beat it in 8 hours. So, I kind of wanted to have a game where people could continue to play it and have a longer play through.
But then, as I started making the game, the procedural generation made it so that I could iterate on the game and have fun doing it. Instead of playing the same levels over and over again, all these different situations would happen, so, I played Duskers probably more than any game I’ve ever played in my life. And, not only that, but I feel like before, with A Virus Named Tom, I was sort of designing things and then putting them in the game and with Duskers I was playing it and I was feeling what was right and what was wrong and then I was altering the design based on that.
So, I’m either a really crappy designer or that’s a good process. I have no idea.
I played a bunch of them over the Christmas break. I played Overcooked with my family. That was fun and clever with how you’re passing things off and you get better at it. It reminds me a little bit of A Virus Named Tom with the whole four players at once, couch co-op thing so, that was fun.
Event and Quadrilateral Cowboy, you know, both got that whole command line interface thing. Who’d have thought that, you know, we’d have all these games this year with command line interfaces? With Quadrilateral Cowboy, I love the fiction, and I’ve always enjoyed Blendo’s style. The whole late ‘70’s kind of crazy, camera, very cinematic. That’s always been really fun for me. And I love the idea of rehearsing for a heist - playing out the simulation and trying to figure out how you do these things.
With Event , that fiction resonates with me? How there’s no one there and something’s gone wrong. Of course, it’s a daunting task to try to make some kind of AI respond to the things you type. So, that’s always exciting and inventive whenever you have something like that.
Inside, I mean, that’s an amazing game. I loved Limbo. Basically what you want, or at least what I wanted, cause I loved Limbo, is I kind of wanted Limbo but different enough that it didn’t just feel the same. But, the same enough that I didn't feel they just went off and did something totally different. And I feel like the needle was right in the right spot. It was gorgeous and there were just moments in that game that were really cool.
I guess that the hurdle is the opportunity. I mean, there are more and more games. When I launched A Virus Named Tom, I feel like there were either one or, at most, four games that came out that day. It was kind of its day, you know? And when Duskers launched, there were twenty.
So, obviously, we have a deluge of content, which means it’s harder and harder to stand out. I was making this crazy command line interface game and, this year, I feel like there was five of us or more doing the same thing and that’s crazy because years before there was none. So, it’s not like you can just sit there and pick a gimmick and think “Okay, this is totally unique and different.”
At the same point in time, there are more and more players on Steam and making PC games and making games, in general. So, I feel like, in a weird way that while I had to compete with more games, I also had the eyes of way more gamers. So, you could make a weird command line interface, godlike, roguelike, rts-like, weird thing that I made and there’s an audience there that I found and I was able to pay back indie funds. That’s really cool to me. You can kind of have your cake and eat it too, in a way.