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"I've always wanted to see a sneeze meter"

Brendon Chung talks about his motivation for Skin Deep, and how it takes more than critical acclaim to solve the discoverability problem

Brendon Chung has made 3D tactical space combat games, first-person short stories, a post-apocalyptic strategy game, and a puzzle adventure game. But he's never made his favorite kind of game, the sort that got him into development in the first place. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz recently, Chung explained how the recently announced Skin Deep is going to change that.

"I love playing immersive sim games," Chung said. "My favorite game of all time is Thief. I really love it when games empower you to play with different tools and different systems. I'm a big fan of the game Far Cry 2 and I always imagined a mold in which Far Cry 2 was the de facto standard for first-person shooters. This is my attempt at riffing off what Far Cry 2 did, creating this really simulated world and just letting you play with systems, manipulate the people in the world and play with them in fun ways."

Chung gave the first glimpse of the game's systems in the Skin Deep announce trailer, a 48-second collection of gameplay snippets that give some idea as to the setting (space) and some mechanics (stealth shooting with explosive decompression, pulling broken glass out of your feet, and a... sneeze meter).

"The idea is that once you put a mechanic in there, to try to explore how many ways you can use it and how many directions you can stretch it"

"I've always wanted to see a sneeze meter," Chung said. "It's funny, but gameplay-wise, you could imagine situations where it could be this exciting moment, where you're trying to hold in a sneeze, make it more quiet, or mask a sneeze with another sound. I think there's something fascinating about that."

In putting together the trailer, Chung tried to focus on elements of Skin Deep that would be most unique to people, things they almost certainly hadn't seen done in other games.

"There are so many avenues of entertainment out there," Chung said. "Not just games, but music, movies, YouTube or whatever. When I see something that I've already seen before, I try to figure out why I would play this instead of that thing that already did it before, and maybe did it better? So I was trying to find ways to show stuff that people hadn't seen before. I'm always excited when people do that, even if it's not something guaranteed to work, more experimental, or trying something new."

The sneeze meter counts as that. The glimpse in the trailer simply shows a sneeze meter filling up as the player crawls through a dusty vent, culminating in (naturally) a sneeze. Other stealth games have had areas where players would alert guards if they lingered for too long, so surely there's more to the mechanic than what was shown. Unfortunately, even Chung himself doesn't know how much more right now.

"It's still in the works, so not a lot of it is nailed down," he said. "The idea is that once you put a mechanic in there, to try to explore how many ways you can use it and how many directions you can stretch it. There's always something fun when a mechanic can be used in multiple different axes."

Chung certainly hopes the sneeze meter and the rest of the mechanics shown in the trailer make it into the final game, but he's reluctant to guarantee anything. It's something he's noticed from chatting with people on the Blendo Games Discord.

"I've been startled by how often I've had to preface every answer with, 'The plan right now is [this], but it might change,'" Chung said. "Or, 'I'm hoping to do this and this, but who knows?' I tend to not really plan out my stuff super hard. I tend to work by just trying stuff out, seeing what sticks to the wall, and organically letting the game go in the direction it wants to go in."

As that answer suggests, Skin Deep is still early in development. Perhaps too early for such a trailer reveal, Chung admitted. But it's something he's had success with before.

"My plan with Quadrilateral Cowboy was to announce it at a time I felt was a little bit too early," Chung said. "My take on it was that I don't really have a ton of money to spend on marketing, but what I can do is use a different resource -- time -- start marketing early and give it enough time to seep into people's awareness."

He talked about Quadrilateral Cowboy early in development, and kept talking about it as the game took shape, regularly posting new GIFs to show fans what he was working on. That worked out well (Quadrilateral Cowboy won top honors at IndieCade and the Independent Games Festival), so Chung decided to follow the same blueprint with Skin Deep. However, it seems to him that Skin Deep has received more attention out of the gates than Quadrilateral Cowboy did.

"Flotilla 2, some people just don't know it exists, or they keep asking, 'Is it out yet?' And it's difficult to convey this information out there. It's something I'm still struggling with every day"

"I thought okay, I'll start small, get an audience, accrue it over time, and hopefully by the time it's released people will be excited about it," Chung said. "I didn't expect people to be excited about it on day one, but that feels good. It's validating."

The success of Quadrilateral Cowboy has no doubt helped Skin Deep get more initial attention, just as the success of Thirty Flights of Loving helped draw attention to Quadrilateral Cowboy. But there's a seemingly limitless number of new games seeing release every week, and even with a few critically acclaimed titles to his name, Chung says discoverability is "100% not a solved problem."

"Attention is a really difficult thing to get from people," he said. "Our attention is getting pulled in so many different directions nowadays that getting even a little bit is extremely difficult. What I feel is my primary advantage is that I've been doing games for a while, and I've been extremely lucky enough that they've sold well enough to support myself. What I've been most fortunate with is that I've existed in the games sphere for eight years, and just by pure osmosis, I feel my stuff is out there."

Even then, he has to work hard and catch some breaks to get his games recognized. Take Flotilla 2, for example; the game launched in August on Steam, and has a total of nine user reviews. Where Quadrilateral Cowboy has an 81 Metacritic average based on 30 reviews from press outlets, Flotilla 2 has no press reviews on Metacritic. As of this writing, it doesn't even have a user score, much less a user review.

"The thing I learned is that I wasn't sure how to connect to that VR audience," Chung said, adding, "Flotilla 2, some people just don't know it exists, or they keep asking, 'Is it out yet?' And it's difficult to convey this information out there. It's something I'm still struggling with every day."

That said, he's not particularly eager to embrace any "indiepocalypse" narratives.

"It's always been difficult to make games, and it always will be difficult," Chung said. "When people say there are too many games out there and it's hard to get discovered out there, I think that's true. But that's true for everything. If you're writing a book, selling a music album, writing poetry, I think you're going to have a tough time. And I think it's pretty natural this is the way things would go."

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