An Interview with Kevin Maxon of Ice Water Games, the developers of Eidolon
"Eidolon is a game about exploring a mysterious landscape and uncovering the stories of the people who lived there once before. It is a game about history, curiosity, interconnectedness, and the slow and inevitable beauty of life." - Ice Water Games
Below, Kevin Maxon responds to questions I asked about Eidolon and its development process, and gives some interesting and useful information for aspiring game developers. Many thanks to him for his great answers and willingness to do this.
What are some of the biggest inspirations behind Eidolon? Any non-game inspirations?
"The inspirations which most directly led to making the game were actually academic discussions I’d read about in various papers and books—both the emergent v embedded narrative discussion and, relatedly, the narratology v ludology debate. Eidolon is sort of a manifesto in the shape of a game, in that it was/is my attempt to reconcile these debates. I wanted to free systemic play-narratives from overbearing writers, and free writers from players’ systemic control. Back-story is a part of game writing that never suffered from this, and that’s the part that Eidolon is trying to embrace. (It’s kind of hard to explain, but I wrote a thing about it that’s at least longer-winded if not clearer, that you can find by googling “why eidolon needs to exist”.) We drew inspiration from many games to this effect, most prominently Bioshock and, I think, World of Warcraft (whose immense lore was always more convincing and satisfying than its quest chains).
Rough ideation started on Eidolon a long time ago, maybe 2010 or 2011, so many of the games I think of now as inspirations now actually didn’t exist at the time. However, as they’ve emerged (or come onto my radar), they’ve done a lot to shape the way I think about Eidolon and what’s special/important/valuable about it, and to suggest different directions for development. Games I’d list in this category include Gone Home (very similar narrative structure, strong written story), Proteus (opened up my eyes to slower game experiences, plus we sort of stole their simple/beautiful shader), and Minecraft (a powerful exploration game, for some).
I’d also point to Cloud Atlas, which we borrow a lot from in theme, setting, and structure.”
What made you choose such a distinct, minimalistic art style for the game?
"I’m crazy about flat colors, and about color in general, and a lot of my art outside of Eidolon has focused on that, so it kind of makes a lot of sense to me, but the game didn’t start out looking like this. It actually looked fairly photographic at one point in time—light rays, lens flare, pine needles, normal-mapped bark—but it just didn’t make sense from a development perspective. It takes too long to make a single asset of that style, and then the level of detail means that continuously reused assets are more obvious/jarring for the suspension of disbelief. Eidolon is going to rely on having a large, varied, beautiful world, so we’ve decided to focus on the big picture rather than spending crucial time making assets. Plus, now that we’ve gone this way I just love how it looks."
How long has Eidolon been in production? Has it been a full-time job, or something you’ve done in your spare time?
"The first pre-production stories in the current Eidolon world were written at the end of 2012, and a few months into 2013 was when we’d sort of figured out what engine we were going to use and assembled most of the team. I did a lot of work on Eidolon for college credit through independent study programs, and that’s true for some of the other people on the team as well. I probably spent a little less than “full-time job” hours on the game during 2013, and it was partially for credit, partially in my spare time. I was taking a reasonable credit load outside of the game as well. Since graduating in December 2013, it’s been my full-time job."
How has the game changed throughout its development cycle?
"It used to be visually realistic. It used to be less explicitly magical (documents were supposed to have just inexplicably lasted for hundreds of years, where now players get them in the form of orbs of light / memories). The goal has always been exploration, but mechanics used to be much more focused on hindering the player (brutal survival) and have since moved towards giving the player the means to navigate: compass, binoculars, and more on the way. I think Proteus and Gone Home inspired me with the lightness of their systems and their complete reliance on what they do best: audio-visual and narrative exploration respectively."
How do you market your game?
"Our game is marketed entirely through our attempts to maintain a social presence online. Tumblr is our largest source of new eyes, followed by Steam, Facebook, IndieDB, TigSource, and YouTube. I’m learning2tweet currently so that we’re not completely hopeless on that front as well. Our game had been picked up by some reasonably large publications (I think Indie Statik & Indie Games) just before our trailer came out, and that gave us a large bump of press attention for the trailer itself. We were lucky! We hadn’t sent anything out to journalists, but we plan to do more of that (intentional press releases) when our next trailer comes out (hopefully soon)."
How did you go about achieving Greenlight status?
"We put it up on Greenlight, put links to it everywhere, and then made it as obvious as possible to anyone following us that we wanted them to go click “Yes.” We put links to the Greenlight on all of our Tumblr posts. We occasionally went and uploaded new content to the site, which seemed to bring in some amount of votes. We probably could have done more, but it seemed like a lot of Greenlight was driven from within the Steam community, since you need to have a Steam profile to vote on something. Driving a community/marketing effort like that also takes a lot of time, and we are constantly trying to spend as much time as possible on actually making the game. We’d probably be doing much better if we had a devoted marketing person on-team."
Is the game made in any particular commercial engine, or is it all home-grown? What other major software tools have been used for the game?
"We’re using Unreal Development Kit (which seems to be a kind of neutered version of Unreal Engine 3). It would have been crazy, in my opinion, for us to build an entire game engine when quality tools for making first-person 3d games are out there for cheap. We use Photoshop and Blender for art assets, Illustrator and Flash for UI, and Notepad++ with a little Unrealscript language pack for writing code."
When first beginning the project, were you comfortable in your abilities to complete it without a problem, or has it been a learning process?
"For the first 6-9 months, every time we encountered a new problem on the code side, we thought, “Well, it was a good run, but I guess we just can’t do it after all.” None of us knew anything about Unreal or had ever made a 3d game. I’ve written the majority of the code, and my formal education in programming extends exactly as far as a minor, and not even that far when we started. Luckily, we’ve always (fingers crossed) been extremely wrong about our seemingly-insurmountable problems. I think my experience teaching myself to code while making my first Flash games has helped me stay resilient throughout the process, because I’ve felt all these things before."
What have been some of the biggest hurdles while developing Eidolon? How’d you go about solving development problems you didn’t know the answers to?
"Our lack of experience with professional workflows and team structure has been really inhibiting time-wise, but we’re scrappy and okay with moving a lot slower than a more experienced team would. It’s been mostly a process of deliberate, continued work to overcome that, plus open discussion and the willingness to reorganize communications and expectations on the team-structure side.
Map size limits were an issue, but we fixed that by scaling everything (player, world, move speed) down a good deal. Dynamic loading of objects was an issue, but also maybe everything we’ve written has at some point seemed like a big hurdle, now that I think about it. We don’t have very good documentation on hand for a lot of UDK, so our problem-solving mechanism often devolves into reading old, partially-related forum threads, and hand-sifting through code files other people wrote, plus lots of testing to find out what things really do. It’s messy!”
How did you put together your development team?
"I know a good number of good people who want to work on games, and seem to have just slowly accumulated all of them. At the beginning I approached a few people I’d worked with in the past and trusted (Meagan Malone, Adam Murgittroyd, Jeff Klinicke), and since then people have mostly approached me, asking if there’s anywhere they can help out. I feel a bit corrupt because they’re all good friends of mine, but it’s largely a matter of trust. Opening up an artistic process can be pretty exhausting. Plus my friends tend to be excellent human beings, in my completely unbiased opinion."
Any advice you’d want to give to aspiring game developers?
"There are ‘aspiring game developers’ of many kinds and I think I’d want to give different kinds of advice to different ones, but I’ll just assume ‘myself 5 years ago’ and write to that guy.
Stop reading those horrible “How to Get Into the Game Industry” articles. You don’t need to get hired to make games. If you really want to make games, just make games! It’s completely doable, even if it doesn’t seem so at first. If you’ve got confidence issues, start with something small. I always recommend looking into FlashPunk because it’s free and easy, and because it’s what I started with when I didn’t know how to code yet, so I know it’s manageable if you’re patient and deliberate about self-educating.
Also, if you have any experience with another artistic practice—poetry, drawing, painting, writing, music, whatever—try to use your experience making in those fields to contextualize what you’ll feel while making games. I think it will help you to have a better mindset about everything. Artists working in those better-understood mediums know how to constructively make art, but I think game designers are still learning.”