Dream: An Interview with Samuel Read
You don’t need to have seen Indie Game: The Movie to know that independent videogame development is a difficult road to travel. Only a small portion of titles will ever find success and to create one requires a special blend of technical programming knowledge and artistry. It’s only the truly dedicated that will ever make a game of their own volition.
Such prospects didn’t stop a Huddersfield based trio of undergraduates from forming the independent studio, HyperSloth, and the ups and downs of their own development – getting accepted through Valve’s community-voting service, Greenlight, but underfunded on Kickstarter – haven’t deterred them from progressing their aptly named first-person adventure, Dream.
I caught up with Samuel Read, Co-Founder of the studio and Lead Designer on Dream, to learn more about the trials and tribulations of going it alone.
You’ve taken the past year out of University to focus on developing Dream. How has that been?
It’s been really, really good. We’ve learnt so much working for ourselves and doing this as a full-time job for the first time, so that’s all been great. But it has obviously had its ups and downs throughout the year, like I’m sure most game development does. At the start of the year when we saw you at Eurogamer (Eurogamer.net‘s London based videogame expo) we were on a massive high because we had been working on the game for three or four months, and everything was new, so that felt great. And then we went to Eurogamer and we got a Greenlight on Steam, so we knew that people liked the game and we knew that we could make the game. But then when it comes to funding, that’s still sort of a battle we’re going with today. It’s hard to get people to give you money.
How has the exposure you’ve had through Eurogamer and getting accepted through Greenlight on Steam helped?
It’s sort of helped open those doors to talk to publishers and different funding agencies. The only thing is getting to the next step of saying that we can make this game, just believe in us. So I think, to be honest, most of their issues come from two things. For one we are doing, for a publisher, what would be considered a “risky” game in a relatively unexplored genre, which gives us quite a niche market. So there’s that side of it, and then there’s the fact that we’re still students. We don’t actually tell anyone that anymore, because to be honest we would rather not go back to university, we would rather not be students and we’d rather work like we have been for the last year. I think it’s just… if it was one or the other, then someone would get behind us, but because of the combination of these things, the risk adds up.
There seems to be a growing audience for games that deal with personal, human-level issues as Dream does – I’m thinking about games like Vincent Caballero’s Papo & Yo. What kind of response have you been getting from publishers with regards to this aspect of the game?
Well a lot of people, when it comes to this kind of characterisation and the story have actually been turned off by it, but I suppose that it’s not so much that it is a personal story, it’s that because it is an exploration game. A lot of publishers have felt that it would be nice to explore as yourself, as if it was more like you going through these dreams and these environments. Then obviously from a narrative perspective we couldn’t really give people a narrative because everyone is different. Also, because dreams themselves are where ninety percent of the game is set, they’re such a personal thing that it would seem odd to have it based around the player, because everyone is different: those dreams aren’t going to mean anything to the player. So at the start we decided to have this character, have his backstory there and then really have the dreams emulate what he is going through.
You want to tell a story, rather than have something that people could map to themselves?
Yes. We hope a lot of people can relate to the character. When you’re writing anything you want people to be able to relate to it, but we definitely wanted to have this character and a story to tell instead of just environments to explore and a ride to go on.
As you’ve mentioned the game is inspired by personal experiences, but what gaming experiences have influenced Dream?
It was originally our artist Lewis’ idea. He really likes Yume Nikki and LSD and he couldn’t understand why no-one had done a game like those two in so long, so that was really the jumping off point. Then when it came to me, when we first started I wasn’t a massive fan of the exploration game scene. Like I said, we had worked on this kind of stuff before and I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t a massive fan. Then we decided to try and go all the way into exploration with the mechanics, sort of strip it bare. That’s when Dear Esther came out and we saw that those guys had done such a great job with that that we didn’t want to do that anymore. We wanted to try and bridge this gap (between exploration and gameplay) again. So Dear Esther influenced us a lot when it came to that. A lot of people said that our horror sections (claustrophobic maze-like puzzles in which you are chased by a Lost-style smog-monster) seem very Amnesia-esque, but to be honest that wasn’t really an influence. If anything we don’t want to be that scary because Dream isn’t a horror game. I can definitely see where people are coming from, but that wasn’t an influence. I think that my biggest influence was Deus Ex: Human Revolution, because the thing is about that game, all the stealth stuff and all the shooting, whatever way you want to play it, it’s all great. But the bit that I really loved was exploring its environments and hacking into PCs and crawling through the vents, all that kind of stuff. So, I think that was the game that, in my eyes, married exploration and gameplay very well.
Where do you develop from? Is it you three guys in a studio? In a bedroom? Do you all live together? What kind of situation have you got?
We all live together. We all used to work from our own bedrooms and then meet up in a large cupboard that we call our conference room. Then Ash started to moan that his room was too cold, so now he works out of the cupboard room and me and Lewis still work out of our bedrooms. We live here, spend time here and everything. If we get funded, next year we would love to move to a studio, because it would really help split up that work/social life. Also, that would give us the option to do things like take on interns or if we had the money behind us, maybe hire extra hands. Obviously it would be unprofessional to get people to come and work out of our bedrooms, but then also would people actually want to? It’s not a great way to find talent, like ‘hey come work in my study’. It would be nice not to do this, but, at the same time, it’s that sort of bedroom coder feeling, it is nice.
Do you feel like you are starting out on a journey?
Yes. It’s sort of, I don’t know, like The Social Network, like many companies were in the 80’s. That kind of thing.
So when was HyperSloth established as a company?
It was actually nearly a year ago. Nearly a year this month, but I don’t know what the actual date is. So a year ago.
And where did that name come from?
We were actually thinking of names for absolutely ages. So me and Lewis, who is the lead artist, used to run like a little studio that we were going to turn into a company called Ambient Journey. For that we wanted to make these experimental exploration games. We thought that was a good name, Ambient Journey sort of sums it up really, it’s a journey you go on with an ambient setting. That was all great and we really liked that name, but then Ash came on board and there were three of us. He was working at a studio as well at the time, and we thought it was weird, obviously with a third of the company, and we wanted it to be new and get away from that name. So we sort of brainstormed new names and we really wanted to try and sum up that exploration type thing, so we went through tonnes of names, and it was just that horrible task of just like, I don’t know if you have every tried to name something, but it’s exactly the same as naming a band. So we tried so hard to come up with a good name that we just fucking gave up, and then we came up with Hypersloth. Ash had a thing about sloths, he thought they were funny. We watched a video with the woman who was in Veronica Mars. She was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the American chat show, and she loves sloths and she started crying because there was a sloth on the show, so really it just came from there. And as you say, the whole oxymoron of having a hyper Sloth was interesting.
Dream is an exploration game with relatively light puzzle elements that are more about how they make you feel than what they make you do. Is that what you were aiming for?
Yes, we really want to make environments that people enjoy being in. I think that is the most important part of it. So, when it comes to exploration, we like people to explore these environments and get deeper into the world. And when it comes to the gameplay elements, I think actually we would quite like to introduce more, but then it becomes about bridging that gap between pure exploration and gameplay. Exploration games are sort of this big emerging thing, you had Dear Esther which was just stripped to the bones with no gameplay elements, and then I’m really looking forward to Gone Home, especially when it comes to collectables and interacting with the environment.
That looks like it’s a bit deeper in terms of its gameplay, but it’s still that kind of exploration game where you are moving through, exploring and absorbing an environment.
So that’s what we wanted to do with Dream really, sort of have this environment that people could explore and then open it up to a wider audience, so we’ve got the interactive environments and then the collectables and items you can use. I think in the future we’ll probably try and bridge the gap even more, so we will make more sort of ‘gamier games’, but at the same time we’ll still heavily focus on exploration and environments, and hopefully VR (Virtual Reality). If VR takes off that’s another thing that just really goes hand in hand with exploration.
How do you intend to utilise VR?
We ordered our Oculus Rift in the Kickstarter. Hopefully we’re going to get that in the next week or so, and then we’ll be supporting that as soon as we can. We won’t push it out of the door straight away, we’ll wait for a new build to be out, but then yes, we’ll hopefully be supporting the Rift by the end of next month. And then we’re also supporting the Hydra. The Razor controllers that you hold in your hands, they have a lot of movement. Currently we’re just looking at button mapping and using gestures to do certain things. You can run by just tilting the controller, so it does make it more about moving your arms around, which is a bit more organic, but when it comes to gameplay, really we didn’t design Dream around the Hydra, so it’s harder to add support, whereas we did actually design some of the game around the Rift. You played it at Eurogamer where we had the sand maze which is quite claustrophobic, and we had the hallucinogenic maze that makes your character sway side-to-side, we really want to try and implement these things that, when you’re playing with a mouse and keyboard or when you’re playing with a pad or with a Hydra, whatever, your still getting that sense of claustrophobia, but then really enhance that with the Rift, and that’s something that is harder to do with a Hydra. Like I say, it works and it’s all implemented within the game, but to pull of these more interesting features is harder to do. And then we are also looking at other VR tech that we can’t talk about yet really, but we’re looking at other stuff that we hope to implement. Obviously with the game coming out late next year, we have a lot of time to do that kind of stuff. By the time that the game is officially out, we hope that will be around the launch of the consumer Rift. That all depends on time. I don’t even think they know when they are going to put it out yet, but we would like to be able to do something with them.
Are you making Dream an Oculus Rift launch title?
Yes, we’d love to do that.
You’ve talked about Dream being reflective of you three and your friends. Is the story a metaphor for what you guys are going through right now?
It’s more, I guess, what we went through a little while ago. Lewis always knew what he wanted to do. He always liked 3D, he always liked art and he loves videogames. He’s never not playing videogames in his free time, so he always knew what he wanted to do. When it came to Ash, who pretty much does everything on the game, I think that he sort of fell into this by accident. He really likes computers and he plays a lot of games, but I think he came to university not really knowing what he wanted to do, so that comes into the story a bit I guess. And then really, for me, what I’ve really enjoyed writing about and developing is when I was at college, I literally had no idea what I wanted to do. I originally wanted to go into film. I loved all types of media, so I originally wanted to go into film and TV, and I play a lot of music as well, so I wanted to try and get into that, but obviously those two are just so hard to get into. I sort of felt myself giving up one day and I was going to go and get a normal job. My parents weren’t pushing me towards that, because obviously they love me and wanted me to do whatever I want to do, but they said I should go and get a job. Then I decided that I wanted to make videogames! So I put all of my eggs in one basket and just went for it. So, I don’t know, I like to think that I’m doing quite well with it at the minute. That’s where the story comes from. It’s about deciding what you want to do and doing it, because no one else is going to help you.
I think there is a certain demographic of people who will be able to relate to that.
That’s what we were really going for. We really want the protagonist to be a relatable character, and I suppose some older people might find it harder to relate to him, but at this point in our life this is the story that we want to tell and people always say you should write what you know, so we’re doing that.
Dream brought you some early successes, but with a failed Kickstarter and funding issues, you’ve had a number of recent setbacks. Do you live in fear?
Yes. Like tonnes. Ha. Again, it all comes down to the money side. I don’t mean to sound big-headed, but in every other aspect we’ve been really successful, and I think that’s just because we know what we want to do – we had a lot of planning. We were planning for like half a year before we started development. We feel like we’ve researched the audience, the platform, absolutely everything, so we know what we need to do. But that cloud of, if we don’t have money then we can’t do it, that’s sort of the fear. Two of us have long term girlfriends. At this point in our lives I guess we should be thinking about graduating university and getting jobs and then settling down, so there are all these pressure that, to be fair, I put totally upon myself, but there are still all of these pressures that mean it all needs to go well, because if it doesn’t I don’t know what I’ll be doing in a years’ time. I guess I put too much pressure on myself though because I would like to think I could get a job in the games industry after doing something like this.
Dream is a good portfolio piece.
Yes, so even with all of that, I live in fear.
How about the other guys?
Yes, I think they do. To be honest I think that I do more, but that’s more because I worry a lot. I think that when we started off we had such a good beginning with Greenlight and Eurogamer and then when it got to Christmas and the Kickstarter didn’t go well, that was at the same time that we got turned down by Indie Fund. All of that stuff came at once and really kicked us in the gut, but then I think everyone was scared. We were starting to look for other jobs then. But then Ash had the idea to sell the game as a pre-alpha on the site, so we got some money from that which was just enough to live off, but not a lot. From that we’ve really picked ourselves up and got back on the development side of things. Hopefully that was the struggle that we had to go through and now it will all be roses, but you never know.
What has the community’s response to the pre-alpha build of Dream been like? Have you had much feedback from players?
Yes, the forums have been great. Lots of really helpful people have been talking to us on there, sharing all of their PC specs, frame-rate issue and absolutely everything. When the game first went out we hadn’t done any optimisation because we work on quite powerful PCs and we don’t have other PCs sitting around to test on, so we needed all of that information. The community was really good to us. We put out a second build that was heavily optimised from that feedback, and hopefully with more feedback we’ll be able to do the same with all future builds.
Have you found yourself dreaming about Dream?
No. [Laughs]. Oh, saying that actually, I sort of had one the other day. It wasn’t a dream really, it was sort of a déjà vu moment. I felt that I had dreamed a dream probably around two or three years ago about jumping off a rock, and then I had that déjà vu moment while play testing Dream, and I was like, oh my god I’ve dreamed this before. I felt like I had dreamt that ages ago.
Dream is due for release on PC in 2014. Visit the webpage for more information.