AusGamers' Joab Gilroy got down and deep with the team at Digial Confectioners out of New Zealand about their jumping in and helping reshape the long-gestating Depth. Read on for what the team had to say...
When it was first announced, Depth was essentially "Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory: Deep Blue Sea Edition". If you're not familiar with the idea it was simple: a team of divers would sneak through the game-world trying to collect treasure, while a team of sharks would hunt them down to protect their area.
Divers could hide in underwater plants, as if some seagrass will hide you from the ampullae of Lorenzini in a Shark's nose. Both teams had classes, giving players the ability to be different sorts of sharks and divers with different key weapons.
That was four years ago. For almost two of those years, the game sat in limbo as the development team went on hiatus. To outsiders looking in, production had ceased. Cancelled. Gone the way of the dodo, a beautiful dream they'd never get to play firsthand.
Internally that game was dead too. The game they'd tried to make wasn't a game they wanted to make anymore, and so the team decided to take a break. Alex Quick, the creative director on Depth, explains what happened.
“It was pretty cool, there were parts of it that were fun, but we all kind of came to the decision as a team that it wasn't really as fun as it could be and it was kind of burning everyone out,” Alex tells us. “We'd all been working on the game for several years at that point. And I think we just needed to take a break from it and step back from it. Fortunately not too long after that I started talking with James and the DC guys and that's when Depth got a second chance."
DC in this case stands for Digital Confectioners, a game studio based out of Christchurch, New Zealand, with an impressive resume of work in the Unreal Engine space, and their involvement in Depth was almost accidental. Neil Reynolds, game designer, and James Tan, the engine programmer, gave an anecdotal history of the beginning of their involvement.
"They got me working on the AI for it, and I really enjoyed the project,” Reynolds explains. “And then we met them at GDC later that year, and there was something that wasn't 'clicking' about the gameplay... so they went on hiatus. And we talked to them a few weeks after that , because we were really looking for our next big project... we're a programming team and they had art assets."
"We actually had a really random meetup, because I was randomly at GDC and so was Alex, and I'd worked on a game called The Ball, which was published by Tripwire,” James adds. “And I turned up at Tripwire's booth and [Alex was] there. And that was a very random meetup, but it was fortuitous in this case."
"When I saw this project it was really different, it was really unique but it still had a lot of the things that people were familiar with,” Reynolds continues. "A lot of the core concepts really played very well but it was fresh and unique at the same time. And we (DC) wanted to break out with a really interesting concept right from the start."
So the game changed dramatically. It transformed from the SC:CT concept we'd seen in 2010 into an asymmetrical team-fighter -- something close to Team Deathmatch, but with a twist. S.T.E.V.E. (Submersible Treasure Extraction VEhicle) the Robot gives the Diver team an alternate win condition -- if the Divers follow S.T.E.V.E. all the way through the map they'll win. The Sharks need to stop this, obviously. Will Scott, QA Lead and PR Manager, and James detailed the genesis of this new mode, and why it's currently the only one.
"We've gone through a lot of iterations of gameplay, finally settling on the version you're seeing now involving S.T.E.V.E. the robot going around and opening safes,” explains Will. “For the first couple of months that I was on the project it was just one life, one vs three.
"At some stage we had six people and we thought, “Hey, let's try playing this with more than four people”, and we found that when the shark had a partner to play with the game began to get far more tactical -- once they started co-operating. And we decided that “Hey, four vs two is actually a fun game type”. But of course there was no S.T.E.V.E. at this stage, so it was just Team Deathmatch with tickets for lives. But we were having problems with the divers getting just absolutely destroyed by the sharks match after match.
"As soon as we included this objective [that] the divers could get behind that included an alternate win condition of getting S.T.E.V.E. to the boat we saw the divers started working together, we saw them as a team, with more co-ordination from both teams, which was absolutely awesome."
"We're quite a small development team,” adds James. “There's, I think, about eight people full time on it? For a team size of eight people I really wanted to ensure that we had a really, sort of, polished and tight one game mode that we would work with. Rather than trying to be a Jack of All Trades and trying to add a lot of different game modes. It [is] very common... that a lot of indie games would try to do that -- where they would have the standard deathmatch mode, and the random objective mode, and I didn't really want to invest a lot of time into working on those particular game modes when they wouldn't really add to the game."
"Balancing any game is difficult,” Will throws in. “But balancing a game where you have multiple classes on asymmetrical teams and asymmetrical team sizes, things get to be a pretty big headache."
The game they've created seems remarkably well-balanced already. All the games we play together go down to the wire, with either team winning only when S.T.E.V.E. is on his final run to the cages.
Balancing a game in this way is usually the sort of thing that big publishers hand over to large groups of Quality Assurance testers -- that's the benefit a corporate bank roll gives you. Depth has had to take a different route with testing.
"Sometimes we'd go out to LAN parties that were hosted here in Christchurch, and they would give us a lot of feedback,” James reveals. “And sometimes what they'd suggest we'd have [already] attempted months ago. We'd say, “We tried that, and these are the reasons why it didn't work”, and when we did that a lot of people were, like, “Wow, you guys spent a lot of time thinking about the game in general”."
"We've just taken our time,” adds Neil. “This game's been in development for a number of years now. We've just slowly gone through it -- we haven't had a publisher to be, like, “This needs to be released now”, so we've just iterated and iterated until we've landed on something we're happy with."
"I think a lot of design aspects are time based,” James continues. “And you can use a lot of people to help speed some of that up, but a lot of it is about how you filter that information. I think a lot of good game design comes from playtesting it for a long time and playtesting it until you fully understand what that mechanic is trying to do. And when I think back to a lot of the games I played in the past, when I was a kid, there usually only was sort of one or two dictating designers on those teams.
"When we think about the Bullfrog games for example -- there was Peter Molyneux and another game designer -- and there was just the two of them and they didn't push it out to thousands of people to test whether the game was fun or not. And I think that's because they sat there and they played the game until they really understood what the game was trying to achieve, what the game was trying to do. Removing things and seeing how that affected the gameplay -- and putting them back in and seeing if the gameplay would change."
"I guess the irony is that some of the systems that didn't work in the past would work with other systems in the future,” adds Alex. “I think Depth's development was definitely a case of listening to feedback, but it was as much trial and error for my part."
It's interesting to see the team so thoroughly reject the dangers of feature creep -- James talked about how indie studios occasionally find themselves in trouble from trying to do too much -- while espousing the virtues of taking an iterative and slow approach to game design.
The real irony is that shutting down production and restarting development almost from scratch is a far bolder measure than simply getting distracted attempting to add too many game modes to the game. Nevertheless it's worked out well for the team -- both sides in Depth deliver dramatically different experiences while still allowing players to compete on a (fairly) level playing field.
The divers in the game are probably going to be at a disadvantage, at least initially. Shark players don't have to learn too many things to find themselves holding their own against the meat-sacks invading their waters. Divers need to learn about flares, mines and the various different guns, while the sharks just need to remember to 'thrash' when they've chomped a diver.
Even when you know what you're doing Depth is a tense and scary game for divers. And while the team was more than happy enough to give me shit (in good fun) about Australia's piss-poor treatment of sharks, there's an ongoing discussion within the team about how Depth represents sharks. They are, after all, big fans of the ocean's apex predator. Ken Churcher, the UI programmer, shared his thoughts alongside Alex and James.
"I don't really think of our sharks as being anything close to an actual... we're not a sim right? This is like nightmare sharks,” Alex enthuses. “The question is: "If a shark had the brain of a human, what would happen?", and the answer is always “Unimaginable violence”."
"We have tried to balance it up in a way,” says James. “The reason the divers are in the ocean is [they’re] not doing something noble. They're down there talking about collecting gold, and they're looking for sunken treasure basically, and they're invading an area that belongs to the sea life in the sea. And because they're not doing something noble it's this sort of interesting counter-play where you've got divers sort of not really caring about the sea life in general, they're just down there to get treasure. So they're placing sea mines, they're shooting guns, they don't really care... so it's sort of like a contrast. Whereas the sharks themselves, they're just being sharks.
"In a lot of ways I would say it's less contentious than say... I don't want to say it... one set of people against another set of people, which is very, very common in a lot of other games. It also feels a little more scary to be up against a sort of enemy that a lot of people have a natural fear of, even if they've never encountered a shark before in their life."
"It's really a cheesy sort of Hollywood portrayal of sharks,” Ken chimes. “They're scary and they go straight for humans and eat them and so forth. I think we're reasonably comfortable with people not treating the game as a realistic portrayal. It's certainly not how we feel about sharks.
"It's something we're still working on a bit. It's kinda hard to find the balance there actually. On the one hand you get a really good action-horror feel, because the game works better when the sharks are big and scary."
"I hope it raises awareness,” James adds enthusiastically. “It does to some degree allow us to do some things that we wanted to do. Sometimes in a game like this people might just be more interested in sharks in general and with our portrayal, it's nowhere near what it's like in real life but hopefully it's something that gets in people's faces -- quite literally -- and it becomes something that they're interested about. It's something we thought of doing. Principally the main shark is the Great White, and what we were wanting to do is just put some information about the Great White Shark in game."
The game is currently slated for a "Soon™" release, and the team hinted that Shark Week, which starts August 10 this year, might be an appropriate release date. More than that, I've created a video preview available here on AusGamers for you to check out -- within it I go a bit further into how the game plays. If you'd like to keep track of Depth's development, you can visit and like their Facebook Page, follow them on Twitter and sometime soon their webpage.
Joab "Joaby" Gilroy is a huge fan of sports games, racing games, first-person shooters and 4X strategy games. He's awful at fighting and real-time strategy games although he'd love to get better. He thinks the Halo universe is hollow and that Arkham City was the real game of the year in 2011 and that AusGamers' managing editor Stephen Farrelly only gave Skyrim the nod because he is a filthy Marvel fan. His top three games of all time are (in no particular order) Deus Ex, GTA: Vice City and DayZ.