AusGamers Caffeine Developer Interview with Dylan Browne
Post by Eorl @ 10:49pm 07/05/14 | Comments
AusGamers own Daniel "Eorl" Roy had a chance to sit down with local indie developer Dylan Browne and chat about all things Caffeine including developing on Epic's Unreal Engine 4, the Australian indie scene, and more...
AusGamers: Hi there Dylan, and thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat. So I guess the first question is, what exactly is Caffeine?
Dylan Brown: Sure. So Caffeine is a sci-fi horror game built with puzzle and adventure elements thrown in. It’s mainly a psychological horror but with a really strong narrative. The basic story is that you are a young boy stuck on a space station tasked with mining the minerals to make caffeine and you wake up with no knowledge of what has happened or where anyone is.
AusGamers: That sounds like the best start to a horror game. At a glance it's obvious that Caffeine revolves around, well, caffeine, so how did that come about?
Dylan: So originally I was just playing around making a concept level. I made a set of modular assets and started putting them together in Unreal Engine 3. This level eventually became the demo level but I just made it as a test of an environment and I showed it to a few people and they really liked it, suggesting I make it into something else.
I then took what I had and made it a bit different to the original demo, but it was quite similar. I was trying to come up with a story for it, and I drunk a lot of coffee at the time. I figured that just caffeine would be a simple name but also be kind sinister and also quirky at the same time.
AusGamers: Originally you started off, as you said before, on UE3, however, now Caffeine is slated as being an Unreal Engine 4 title. What exactly pushed you to move onto the new SDK, considering the still popular UE3?
Dylan: I went to UE4 because I really wanted Caffeine to stand out graphically, and visuals to me are quite important. Even just for the storytelling part of Caffeine, if you can make it look really nice it adds to the experience. I also just really wanted UE4 and I did contact them [Epic] but I didn’t get very far. Literally the week after I contacted them though they released UE4 SDK to the public and I went straight over to it. The process didn’t take me very long to transfer everything - within a week I had a new trailer for it in the UE4 and had most assets converted over.
As well as that, the performance was much better moving into the UE4 compared to UE3. I found that with the previous engine, it didn’t really like big textures and with UE4 one of the main graphical reason was reflections. In UE3 the only way you can do reflections is by re-rendering the scene again, which takes a massive performance hit and it can only do flat reflections.
AusGamers: With the plan to release Caffeine initially on Windows, Mac and Linux, have you found that the move to UE4 has limited certain system configurations at all?
Dylan: Not particularly, I don’t think. On the whole it performs a lot better, and still has the ability to compile for Mac and Linux I believe. Also they [Epic Games] have just released interim support for SteamOS compiling, which shouldn’t take them long to get out for the main release as at the moment its a bit of an alpha release.
I haven’t fully dabbled in it yet, but apparently the new engine has better support for Linux compiling as well which should help with development. I know that from my personal attempts at trying Linux it involves a lot more but hopefully its a lot easier with the prerequisites for it built in. Also the engine still obviously supports console architecture but you require permission for licensing to those individual platforms.
AusGamers: Well I guess that moves into my next question. Platform-wise you are currently looking at Windows, Linux and Mac, but have you looked at PlayStation or Xbox yet? Have either platform holders approached you at all?
Dylan: I haven’t been approached by either of them yet, but I have applied to both the developer programs. So Microsoft has their ID@Xbox program which I’ve signed up for, and with PlayStation they have their self-publishing developers, but I haven’t had a response from either of them yet, mainly because they were just enquiries. For instance with PlayStation they require you to, even if you are an indie developer, have a static IP and a business address, something I don’t obviously have at the moment. Basically its just a wait and see approach.
If I was to go to a Sony platform it would be the PlayStation 4, and the Xbox obviously would be the Xbox One. At the moment I guess those are just an unknown factor as to whether they will be released, but hopefully at a later stage I’ll be able to confirm it all.
AusGamers: With both console developers rallying quite hard for the indie platform scene, what could you see being improved on that front to help indie developers, or Australian developers in particular?
Dylan:Well yeah they are definitely gunning for the indies at the moment, for this generation, but I mean some things could still be improved. On the Microsoft side, sign up is very easy but then you don’t really get any notification after that, you are just kind of waiting until they decide to contact you. On Sony’s front things are the opposite, in which the signing up is incredibly complicated but I think from what I’ve heard once you are in, everything is straight forward. It would be kind of good if it was the best of both worlds, but it doesn’t really seem like that will change anytime soon.
I think though with Microsoft’s recent announcements that “every Xbox One will be a dev kit,” we may see that process change, but its really up to the console creators to change how the process works. I definitely would like to see it open up more, but while I wait for that I have the PC market which is already well and truly open.
AusGamers: Moving back to development of Caffeine, how do you feel being described as the “first” horror game for UE4? Do you see yourself as the first?
Dylan: I see myself as probably the second, because I believe actually Daylight is the first UE4 horror game. I certainly think, as far as I know, Caffeine is the first sci-fi horror on UE4. There is also another indie game, Wake Up Call, which is a sci-fi FPS.
Besides that, not too many have adopted it with the amount of exposure that Caffeine and Daylight especially have had. I mean its definitely evident with the fact that Epic is featuring Caffeine on the Unreal launcher, something I was very surprised about. When you look at it, there are quite a lot of Unreal titles in-development, but there isn’t much media out there.
AusGamers: So you mentioned puzzle solving for Caffeine, is that going to be the main driving point for players? Or is that just going to be a progression mechanic that only appears for the storytelling aspect?
Dylan: The main focus of Caffeine will be the narrative - the storyline - but the puzzles are there. I mean I personally wanted to put puzzles in that I would enjoy, which are normally simple ones from the PlayStation One era. I’m a big fan of Crash Bandicoot and puzzle platforming, and I like just having that in there.
The puzzles in it are going to be really simple but I think they’ll convey certain things about the environment. Like for instance the one I’ve shown, the hallway is kind of...it's been awhile since anyone has been there, so everything is kind of breaking a part. It also seems like it has been very sudden, whatever has happened in the station. There was maintenance, there was pathways done. The story will definitely be focused with a very sinister element, and then puzzles secondary to that.
AusGamers: In making a horror game, have you found it difficult to scare people? Do you have to stray away from using the cheap tactics like jump scares to convey horror to your players?
Dylan: Yeah I often think its really hard actually, and something I never thought about. This is my first development of a game and I was really surprised by the fact that I was just making - at the time - a really random game and once I’d made a simpler version of the current demo I started showing it to some people I knew and stuff that didn’t scare me at all really freaked out people that hadn’t looked at it and its because I had been looking at it for so long that you just become immune to it entirely. I’ve gotten to the point where I have to actively show it to other people now to see if it is actually scary. It really helps to have a lot of friends that are into horror and enjoy playing it because then I can show it to them and get a real feel for what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong.
With the jump scares, they are often regarded as cheap scares but I really enjoy them as well. I like lots of different “being scared” moments in a game, but especially from a point of view of F.E.A.R, particularly 1 and 2. The jump scares in that were so well done and the music to go along with it was also well done and just really added a lot to the environment in having a jump scare every now and then.
AusGamers: And that is definitely seen through the demo itself that you have available, which while its rather simple and doesn’t represent the end product, the scares are definitely there. So then, my next question is what made you choose a young boy as the main protagonist for Caffeine. Was that inspired by someone from real life or was that just a design choice?
Dylan: Well originally when I was just making the concept level I was quite new to the engine and the first few assets I made were actually to the wrong scale. I thought “well, I have to fix that,” but once I started showing people while still in the process of fixing assets the feedback was rather positive, some even claiming that I could have the protagonist as a dwarf. I then asked testers whether they would play [the game] as a kid and received really positive feedback on the idea, so I stuck with the protagonist being a boy and started making assets to that scale.
I know a lot of people have said that the tables are to the wrong scale and things like that, but it is a space station, and often in tight spaces the roof is quite low. It can be rather cramped, and I wanted to keep that cramped feeling to play to the horror genre. You are quite low down to the floor, but it may seem like the roof is to the wrong scale, but it is exactly like what I intended.
AusGamers: Turning the subject to you yourself, how do you actually feel about the Australian independent development? Do you feel like the local industry is suitable for young, aspiring game designers?
Dylan: I think it is, I mean it is definitely more friendly to indies than to big studios, especially in Australia. When you look at it, we only have one big studio but an endless amount of indie studios which says a lot. It is also just way more simpler than you think as well.
I’ve always wanted to make games for a long time but always thought “nah it would be way too hard to even start,” and then it came to the beginning of this year and I just enrolled into a game development course. Once people started liking what I was making and giving me positive feedback I just decided to make it [Caffeine]. Eventually when I released the first trailer I got ton of really good feedback. It also helps when the online indie game community is really great especially on Twitter and IndieDB, they are all really friendly and that just makes for a really good environment which helps in developing games as an indie studio.
AusGamers: With your point on Caffeine being your first title, you can notice right away going through the demo that it’s a rather beautiful looking title. Have you had any previous background in games development?
Dylan: Not particularly, I’m still doing this course that I enrolled in that’s a rather simple online one that I was doing at the same time, but I just went ahead of that. A lot of the stuff is quite simple and with me personally - especially in the modelling aspect of it all - I’ve been a hobby modelist and renderer for three years, and just self-taught myself in that aspect. I think in coming from that field in really high quality rendering that I transferred that over to the game. I also don’t think like many of the game developers that are taught. They are taught to do really low poly, low cost models where as I always start with quite high detailed stuff and then go down from there.
AusGamers: And I guess that also translates well to the UE4 in that it can handle those higher-textures and its a lot easier to implement.
Dylan: Definitely. UE4 has stated that 8K textures is what they designed it for, whereas Unreal Engine 3 supported 8K textures but that was its max limit and didn’t really handle them well. Now it just feels way more fluid and to the point where I’m adding stuff in and even contemplating bumping the textures up. Currently most of them are 2K textures but some of them are 4K.
AusGamers: Obviously you are developing the game by yourself, but are you getting any help from anyone else? Are you doing the music by yourself?
Dylan: The music isn’t done by me, it was composed by a guy named Adam Clingman from Tamper in the US and he’s from Bay Drive Sound Studios, who is also doing another Unreal 4 indie game by coincidence. I’ve found them to be really good to work with, and I actually discovered them by uploading the first trailer which contained some royalty free soundtrack. Their composer found the trailer, composed a piece that night and when I woke up they had sent me this video with music and a note saying “we had to make the music for this!” It was really good music, and so we worked out from there a deal and now they produce all the music for the game and its demo. Other than that, the only other help I’ve had is from a friend of mine who did the space skydrop.
AusGamers: Following from that, if your current IndieGoGo campaign is successful, will you be looking at pulling in anyone else for the project?
Dylan: I think I would stay as myself full time, but I might bring in a few other people. There is an animator I know, as animating isn’t my strong suit, so definitely taking that under consideration in terms of your own body in the game. I think it would be really cool to have self-awareness and see your own feet when looking down. Other than that I would really like it to stay as much of a hobby/pet project as possible, allowing me to really enjoy working on it and trying out different ideas.
AusGamers: This is always a common question asked with independent developers, but did you ever see your hobby turning into a possible career?
Dylan: No, I didn’t really see it as that. No, it kind of hit me when I was getting some really good feedback on everything, and it really hit me when publications covered it without me contacting them. I just woke up with a massive spike in traffic, wondering where in the world that was from and I realised that from that spike the real importance of trying to market indie games.
A lot of indie games have no online market presence and it really shows when going through IndieDB. Even the top 10 games on IndieDB have usually 10 to 20 followers, and it really helps to even use Twitter advertise that around. I also found that with IndieGoGo, most of my traffic was coming from Twitter with almost 30% making up the contributions so far, and that proved that spreading your word is really important.
AusGamers: So you are obviously a fan of the horror and sci-fi literature, what influenced you with Caffeine?
Dylan: I’m a big movie and TV buff, and sci-fi is pretty much my favourite genre other than thriller, so a number of titles helped shape Caffeine. Definitely the colour scheme with the industrial, bright white walls was inspired heavily by the movie Moon and a lot of the dark hallways which were done at a later date were inspired by Alien and a little bit from Solaris. Just in general a lot of influence was from the 70’s horror style, with the white-washed view which really did influence me a lot.
AusGamers: What will your plans be if the IndieGoGo project doesn’t succeed? Will you be looking at different areas to gather funds?
Dylan: Well if IndieGoGo doesn’t meet its target, obviously I’m still going to work on it with whatever I get from it, putting the raised money towards things like domain costs for example. After that there are a few options I can do. I can continue working on it in my free time, which will obviously take a bit more of my time which is something I’d like to focus on but other than there is the possibility of moving over to Kickstarter. That’s always a possibility but I guess we’ll just see what happens.
AusGamers: You’ve mentioned previously that Oculus Rift is going to supported, so my question is where do you stand with other virtual reality devices like PlayStation’s Project Morpheus?
Dylan: Ever since I first heard about the Oculus specifically, I always wanted one but sadly I haven’t gotten around to getting one yet. Its definitely in there though as the dev kit is relatively cheap, and some of the IndieGoGo money will be going towards that. However if the game happens to go to say PlayStation 4, I would definitely support Project Morpheus. I really like the prospect of virtual reality, it adds a lot of immersion and kind of focuses your attention on the game especially in one that looks nice.
AusGamers: My final question is a rather simple one, do you have any advice for aspiring developers in Australia looking to go big with their next game?
Dylan: Best thing to do is just go for it. You don’t need anything to do it specifically, there are heaps of kits out there and even if you want brand new tech like the UE4 it’s like $19 a month. You don’t even have to keep paying that, it’s a subscription and so you can pay $19 to try it and cancel afterwards. If you don’t want that you can learn UE3, which is currently free and all of its assets can be transferred over to UE4.
I’d also recommend just starting with an idea, or even better no idea and start creating stuff in hopes that it might turn into an idea, you never know.
AusGamers: Thanks for your time Dylan, and all the best for Caffeine!
Wanting to try Caffeine out yourself? Check out the newest pre-release demo to experience it all first-hand.