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Perception constrained by reality

Ex-Irrational dev Bill Gardner on the financial and creative challenges of his echolocation game

Last week was an eventful one for Bill Gardner. The former Irrational Games developer announced his studio, The Deep End Games, and launched a Kickstarter for its first project, Perception, a unique first-person horror game where players explore a spooky mansion as a blind woman who "sees" the world through echolocation. Unfortunately, the game wasn't quite as unique as Gardner thought; days after the Kickstarter launched, Italian studio Tiny Bull revealed that it had been working on a game with essentially the same premise and gameplay hook.

"It's pretty soul crushing to hear news like that," Gardner told GamesIndustry.biz. "We are a small team, making personal sacrifices to develop this game. We are an independent studio, we are intentionally not working with a publisher so that we can maintain full creative freedom. So for a moment it gave us heartburn to learn that synchronicity appeared to have occurred.

"Games are made by people and this shows that anyone, anywhere in the world, can have similar ideas."

"After letting the news sink in, we have to be more rational than emotional about it. Games are made by people and this shows that anyone, anywhere in the world, can have similar ideas. If anything, it confirms that times are changing - everyone has access to tools that easily bring an idea to life. The interest in this news confirms that there is room for games like ours. We're proud of our game and we're hoping that some of the noise we have generated will help other games like it. We'd certainly like to play them when they come out, because we love making and playing games that have unconventional scares. We feel that fear of the unseen is the most visceral type of fear, and an entire game where you have to feel your way around, fumbling in the dark, triggers a primal and vulnerable reaction."

Right from the beginning, Perception was a game about constraints. Gardner said the idea for the title came while he was working on a master's in human factors in information design at Bentley Unitersity. One day, his professor issued the class a thought exercise, challenging them to think of a brilliant idea by the time they got to their cars.

"I absolutely eat that sort of thing up," Gardner said. "I just love that kind of constraint, that kind of challenge. As a designer, that really gets me excited. I just started bouncing around a bunch of ideas and over that few minute walk, the very seed of a horror game hit me. I remember sitting in my car for like half an hour in that parking lot, thinking 'I have to make this happen' and trying to figure out how I could make it happen."

In the past, that probably would have meant going to a publisher for money.

"I think we absolutely could have gone the traditional publisher route, and that's all well and good," Gardner said. "I've had a lot of good experiences there in the past. But I think to be able to create a game like this, to hit what we want in terms of the narrative, making sure that Cassie is represented in the right way, and making sure we maintained creative control, going directly to the audience would spell the highest chance of success in that regard."

"There's a lot to game development, so many little details you don't necessarily appreciate. But with the approach we're taking to narrative and world-building, there are quite a few battles you don't have to take on."

Of course, the process of making a game as an independent start-up will be very different from Gardner's experiences in the AAA world. Obviously, resources are an issue. The Deep End is essentially just Bill and his wife Amanda Gardner working full-time, with a helping hand from a dozen or so others as needed. At Irrational Games, Gardner said he might have had more than 100 different developers to lean on, and it was rare that people were told no because their ideas were too impractical.

It's a lot different now, Gardner said, but some clever design work can help get around some of the constraints facing the team.

"If you look at the project itself, we have a unique opportunity to create a game where we can very carefully choose which battles we take on," Gardner said. "There's a lot to game development, so many little details you don't necessarily appreciate. But with the approach we're taking to narrative and world-building, there are quite a few battles you don't have to take on."

For example, Gardner said Perception's premise makes the project possible for such a small team.

"Automatically you're thinking a lot differently when you talk about a pure horror game," Gardner said. "You're thinking about how to slow things down, how to really take this grandiose scope of BioShock Infinite and really hone it down into this fine point. In a lot of ways, you're already thinking very much along those lines. The constraints and the goal of the genre go hand-in-hand, I think."

Perception is also more narratively ambitious than technically so, which means Gardner hasn't had the need to hire a programmer yet. He conceded one might be necessary a little further in development, and has set aside a portion of the game's budget for that.

Speaking of budgets, Gardner noted the $150,000 set as the Kickstarter campaign's baseline goal isn't going to cover everything. It doesn't include the money Bill and Amanda have already invested into the endeavor, and it isn't going to cover the cost of properly promoting the game once it's finished.

"My core goal is to complete the game to the level of quality that we want and believe in, and then cover how we get the word out separately."

"We haven't worked out all the marketing spend," Gardner said. "The $150,000 is focused on the development of the game, but the industry right now is such that there are a lot of different approaches to those sort of issues. There are a lot of ways to raise separate funding to address the issue if we need the extra support through marketing. I look at that as a very separate issue. My core goal is to complete the game to the level of quality that we want and believe in, and then cover how we get the word out separately."

As of this writing, Perception is almost halfway to its base funding goal, with 23 days remaining in the campaign. It's on a good pace to get funded, which would be especially great for Gardner considering he doesn't have a Plan B ready to go.

"We talked about a few backup plans but we didn't go too deep into them because this is how we want to approach it," Gardner said. "This is our goal, our dream, and I'm confident we'll be able to hit it. Fingers crossed, obviously."

As far as he's concerned, operating without a net is just another one of those constraints that bolsters your creativity.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry International in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at CBS-owned GameSpot in the US.

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