Interview: Eerie Canal

Ex-Harmonix and Irrational developers Steven Kimura and Bryn Bennett left their jobs developing AAA hits to work on Dreadline, an RTS/ARPG with an air of Diablo and Freedom Fighters about it. Naturally they’ve taken to Kickstarter to secure funding. I spoke to the pair about Kickstarter troubles, the decision to go indie and Bryn provides a compelling reason for why space marines are so damn fashionable.

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In 2011, a group of Harmonix, Irrational and Iron Lore Entertainment employees part ways with studios responsible for some of the hottest videogames properties and strike out as independent developers. They rue the autocratic nature of developing AAA videogames. Desire creative freedom. They throw aside steady jobs and financial security to create the game they want to create, Dreadline.

It’s a yarn so often spun in the blurry wake of the Kickstarter boom that it’s all but lost its punch – the idea that the AAA business is so stifling that people are willing to buck the financial safety net in favour of creative autonomy. Perhaps, though, with the perfect storm of Kickstarter’s czar-like presence and a spreading malaise as the seventh console generation staggers to its grave there’s never been a better time to make a go of it alone.

For ex-Harmonix dev Steven Kimura, the bureaucracy of AAA development had taken its toll. “You have to feel inspired if you’re ever going to do the best work you’re capable of,” says Kimura. “I wasn’t built for office life. Too much of my energy was devoted to the stresses of being in a place I didn’t want to be, and too little went into making art.”

For Bryn Bennett, it was more a matter of embracing a new challenge. “It’s very easy to get stuck in a rut. Oh, you’re the AI programmer, or you’re the graphics programmer, or you do UI. When I started writing games when I was 10, I used to do everything, and I really missed that.”

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The two left their respective posts to found Eerie Canal where they began work on Dreadline, an action role-playing/real-time strategy hybrid that speaks to fans of Diablo and Freedom Force. It’s a comedy game (a coupling of words so rare they’re doomed to sit beside one another with a curious awkwardness), casting players as a belligerent eight-year-old with a ragtag band of ghouls and monsters for friends. They’ve got their paws on a time machine and share a hunger for human hearts. Chaos ensues as the rapscallion troop travel back in time to revisit some of mankind’s dustier tragedies (the Titanic takes precedence in the reveal trailer), where they set about killing the doomed with remarkable gusto.

A teaser trailer for the game beguiles and delights in equal measure and for anyone tired of the portentousness that has festered in so many corners of the industry, it’s weapons-grade stuff.

“Steve and I have always had dry and dark senses of humor,” Bennett explains. “It’s probably the reason we ended up hanging out at Irrational, back in the early 2000s. The original idea for our game was to play a group of humans in an alternate universe that started out as a Tokien-esque Middle Earth brought into the modern-day. Humans, being the most versatile of races, hunted monsters for sport. Unfortunately, the idea didn’t seem funny-dark… it just seemed dark-dark. So then we tried to flip it around and it somehow transformed into monsters with a time machine killing people who were already doomed to die.”

My interest is piqued and I’m curious why the duo think comedy and videogames are such an awkward mix, and, if not awkward, then at the very least uncommon. Hollywood has, after all, built an empire out of laughter.

“I think there a few reasons for this,” Bennett says. “First, I think humor is difficult to get across in an interactive medium. Comedy has a lot to do with timing, which doesn’t work when instead of listening to the punchline, you decide you want to shoot someone. Additionally, I don’t think a lot of the gaming industry is concerned with being funny. We all basically want to make up for getting beaten down in school so make games about space marines.”

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So it’s witty and creative, trades on a faint bed of nostalgia (with homage paid to Diablo and Freedom Force) and comes from the collective mindset of a group of industry veterans with shared experience working for some of the most treasured AAA developers. You might expect a Kickstarter campaign for a game of that pedigree to flourish, but 20 days in and the funds tally rests at a disheartening $18,000 [as of writing]. That’s a lick over 10% of the total Eerie Canal hope to pocket. And while $167,000 sounds a large figure, Kickstarter projects in the games field netted a collective and princely $80 million in 2012. What gives?

“Being an indie developer really means that everything is working against you,” says Kimura. “We’re building something out of nothing. There’s nothing more difficult. Longtime insiders pitching nostalgic re-hashes of games that were built and sold from within the publishing and media structure is really uninspiring.”

“Having no name recognition for Eerie Canal is definitely a negative,” Bennett adds. “Then again, when we first announced the game, we were given tons of press.”

Having pawed through the Kickstarter, perhaps the most alarming omission is any thorough gameplay footage. Past Kickstarter campaigns have come under fire for not providing gameplay footage and with just over a week left on the clock, there’s still nothing doing. The teaser trailer offers fetching but not-demonstrative-of-gameplay video, a better advertisement for the developer’s custom-built engine, with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of genuine gameplay during the closing moments.

But Kimura believes offering gameplay footage isn’t necessarily a boon. “Once you see somebody playing a game, it’s very easy to assume that it’s completely representative of what the final game is going to be. People have to remember that a game isn’t ever really done, ’til the last day of production.”

Back on the Kickstarter page the developer claims Dreadline is the type of game you make when you don’t have to convince anybody of its worth. And yet in Kickstarter the two have found themselves caught in a familiar web. I ask if there’s any frustration felt on their behalf that, much like before, they’re pitching original ideas to another group of people who are hesitant to greenlight them, particularly with the current trend of successful nostalgic-Kickstarters.

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“Not at all for me,” Bennett notes. “We knew a ton of things about this game were risky, but that’s the type of people we are. Everything from the concept, to building it with such a small team, to building our own technology was a gamble.”

“I think there’s been a shift in Kickstarter from a platform for supporting projects that are basically economically unfeasible, but still worth making, to a store,” Kimura adds. “That’s been great for some people. Video games have a cultural relationship with pre-sales that has made it a great way for some studios to get some of their sales cash up-front. We’re not really in that place though. As much as we’ve tried to represent exactly what people are going to get for their hard-earned dollars, the game is eight or nine months away from completion, and is going to go through all kinds of changes.

“Games in the current Kickstarter market really seem to be driven by really polished pitch reels. We haven’t spent the last year working on a polished mock-up of the game though, we’ve been making the game itself. It’s a result both of how Bryn and I are comfortable working, where the public doesn’t see a game till it’s 95% done, and that we didn’t initially intend on relying on Kickstarter to fund this project.”

Kimura had hoped to have a game wrapped up and released as far back as eight months ago, and with no direct source of funding for Dreadline there’s a mounting pressure on the Kickstarter to succeed.

“Time is running out for those who have run out of time”, the trailer voiceover avers with a delightful playfulness, and, perhaps, a tinge of prophecy.

This interview was originally published on BeefJack.

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