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Not Such a Perfect World

Team Dystopia's Mike Sanders on the process of making an indie game, and how the Steamworks platform could change everything

With all of the negativity rolling around the industry regarding high development costs in a tricky climate, the end of last week saw a refreshing story came to light out of the glare of corporate finance and investor confidence - indie development group Team Dystopia released its Source Engine title Dystopia via Steamworks, to a potential audience of around 15 million PC gamers.

The team, who have been working in their spare time for a number of years, are based on three different continents and their only income is from donations. But they're also working on secret new plans, to be revealed soon, and hope to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Introversion and Splash Damage.

Here, lead producer Mike Sanders explains what it means to have released on Valve's platform, how the team is organised, and how he thinks Steamworks could lead to a development revolution. What exactly is Dystopia? What's it all about?
Mike Sanders

Dystopia is a dual-layered modification for the Source Engine that we put out a couple of years back, and just recently we've given a large update to. It takes place in the cyberpunk genre, so if you've ever read a book by William Gibson or Philip K Dick then you'll know it's along the same theme as films like Blade Runner.

It takes place in 2069 and you play as either a punk mercenary or a corporate security officer, fighting in a very cyber-style atmosphere. It actually has two differing worlds - you have your living entity in 'meat space' which is what we call it, the physical world that we live in, and then you have a cyber avatar that appears when you jack into cyberspace.

You can jack into cyberspace by using nodes in the maps, and actually go in and see a 3D visual representation of the map - you can help your team by opening doors, turning on turrets or capturing objectives. It's all based around an assault style of gameplay, so you have one team defending, and one team attacking - so it's a case of defending or capturing objectives.

It's heavily team-oriented, there's a time limit, and there's a multitude of weapons and implants, which give the user extra abilities, such as jumping higher, using thermal vision, running faster, and so on. Plus you can do things like see through walls with the sound wave triangulator, there are things that give you more energy, plus of course the ability to jack into cyberspace in the first place. Anybody who's read William Gibson will certainly be familiar with the term "jacking in." Tell us about the team behind Dystopia though.
Mike Sanders

Originally the team was made up of about eight or nine guys primarily based in Australia and they began work on the modification a little bit before Half-Life 2 came out, using the Source engine. Valve flew them out to Seattle for a week to work on the mod there, and after that it was pretty much the first full modification released right after Half-Life 2.

The team, after releasing the full version later on, moved into different areas of the industry, and those left behind either stayed with the team - like myself - or took a larger role. We're anyone from old Quake 3 Fortress players to old Team Fortress Classic players. We've been playing games so long, and people that got into modding a long time ago. One of our level designers started off eight years ago doing mutators for Unreal Tournament, and since then he's just learned all about level design.

We have a whole group of talented people who just jumped aboard, and it's a large learning process. Whenever we're not either waiting tables, or doing security guard jobs in parking garages, we're at home fiddling on our computers and being addicted to working on Dystopia.

It's almost like a scene from Fight Club - we go to work, we sit there in front of our computers (or in my case a games console), but when we get home the real action starts, and we're alive and ready to get pumping on some really cool stuff.

It's definitely something we do in our free time, and it's really paid off in our respect for not even just learning, but learning about games and game development. You're based in the US, and originally it was Australia - are you still an international team?
Mike Sanders

Well, the Australian team moved on into the industry, so it became primarily a team in the US. We have people like myself in North Carolina, then we have a couple of people in California and a few in New York. But then we have more people in Australia and some people even in Britain. So how do you organise everybody on such a big project?
Mike Sanders

Well, getting everybody to stay in communication hasn't been the easiest thing, but after a couple of months - probably three or four years ago - we decided to stay on IRC all day. So we use that or IM and Ventrilo as well, and we're on there for probably six, seven, eight hours per day.

We communicate as if we're in an office or a meeting room - it's so invigorating, because we're in there and almost showing things on a white board, but we're just giving each other links. It gives us this really great feeling of camaraderie, of teamwork. How far are you in the development process overall?
Mike Sanders

As of 2005 we released a demo that included one map. Then, a couple of months later we released some more maps, and then a year later we released a full version which was I think nine maps in all, and bunch of different stuff.

Then last Friday, as of 4:23pm EST we released over Steamworks, so you can just go to, download Steam and then download the game right to your computer if you have any Source-powered game. So Left4Dead fans will be able to play it, or if you have a copy of Team Fortress 2, or if you still have your old copy of Half-Life 2 lying around, you'll be able to just download our mod - it'll be that easy. It's a quick 30-40 minute download for anyone.

That release broadens our audience, and it's really cool to be included in the small group of mods that have actually been released over Steamworks - all highly-polished mods. To clarify, you're talking about PC versions of those games, right?
Mike Sanders

Yes So if you've got a PC version of one of those Valve titles - that's potentially a huge audience... what's Valve's motivation for doing this?
Mike Sanders

To be totally honest I don't think they've given us any official answer. On the surface level it might be that they want more sales or something, but really in hindsight, when you look at Valve's extensive history, they have so much experience when dealing with modifications - they're really one of the only houses out there besides probably Epic that I could name that give as much to just any player, in order to mod the game.

It could be that they just do feel like it's important to support their community - and that includes the modification community. When Steamworks was first announced it seemed like an interesting idea - what are your thoughts on it, as somebody releasing through it?
Mike Sanders

Some would say that the seven mods now released through Steamworks are perhaps like tests, guinea pigs. But it doesn't really seem like that - Steamworks is highly polished and it's a great application we can use to get any game over Steam, almost effortlessly it seems.

Valve's been super-supportive about doing it, and it definitely seems like it could be a platform for use by anyone in the future. It allows for Achievements, it allows for all these different plug-ins you can put in, so that people can see when you're playing, what you're playing, what you've achieved, how long you've played - all these great little features that seem to be what Steam has been building up to, to rival something like Xbox Live.

Steam is getting to that point, and while Xbox Live has XNA, Steam has Steamworks - it's powerful enough that we can display all this information. Looking at the overall industry, and core games particularly, it's hard to get away from the rising development cost upward spiral. Is Steamworks bringing it back to basics, opening it up and democratising it?
Mike Sanders

I would almost say that it seems like we're entering into somewhat of a gaming revolution, from where we don't really see a large game from publishers. Valve just really publishes their console variants through EA and it seems evident that they're opening up the crowd to anybody in their garage.

It could be anyone from a bunch of kids trying to make in indie game, to a large developer who doesn't really want to pay for publishing, testing, and so on. Steamworks allows for all that, so it's really a good choice for anyone to just jump in and be able to put a game on Steam - and do it the right way.

It seems like it's the building off the base of what some called 2008 as the 'Year of the Indie Game' - it seems it's building off of the success of that. What sort of feedback have you had from Valve?
Mike Sanders

So far it's been pretty good - it's been a real joy working with them. Over the last couple of years, whether we've been flown out to Valve, or just through the emails we've had from them, or the support they've given us - it's definitely been positive so far.

There have been little hiccups, the things that will show up every now and then, but they came out of the blue and asked if we'd like to start utilising Steamworks, and use it to our advantage. It's not a decision you can really turn down. Clearly you love doing this, but do you stand to earn anything from it?
Mike Sanders

We do take donations, and if you donate you get extra perks, packages and that sort of thing. But us, as a group, we've been working on something else in the past two years that we really hope on making a splash in the industry pretty soon. There's some really good stuff that we've been working on that we hope to show off, and that's moving away from the realm of modification. So Dystopia is a bit of a shop window?
Mike Sanders

Yeah, it could almost be like that. At this point we just do really want to put our talents on display, and then further down the line... A good example of a company that's done that recently would be Paul Wedgwood and Splash Damage - would that interest you?
Mike Sanders

Without giving too many details about what we are working on, I'd say that people like Introversion, Splash Damage - they're some of our idols at the moment. What we're working on mirrors their models. So you'd hope to bring the guys you've been working with across the time zones together, and set up a proper development company?
Mike Sanders

Yes, definitely - we already have plans to move to the same area near here in North Carolina. There's such a great area for gaming here with Epic and Red Storm. Obviously out of the country it's a little harder to do that, with things costing as much as they do, but there are plans. They're a little more than plans at this point...

Mike Sanders is lead producer at Team Dystopia. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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