David and Kyle Pittman's story is one we're starting to hear with increasing frequency these days.
The twin brothers used to work at the bleeding edge of the industry in triple-A development -- David at 2K Marin; Kyle at Gearbox -- but decided that enough was enough, and that they wanted to make games on their own terms.
"I love the team I worked with at 2K Marin," David tells me, "And walking away from that was a very difficult decision. But I also found it difficult to remain creatively invested there as the company's goals and interests gradually diverged from my own. I certainly won't rule out triple-A work again in the future -- there's nothing else like the experience of working with dozens of smart, talented folks -- but when the opportunity arose to become independent and make something of my own, I couldn't pass it up."
David notes that his actual tipping point was due to his wife Kim, who works at Skylanders developer Toys for Bob. The huge success of Skylanders had helped relieve a huge financial burden on the couple, and allowed David to pursue his dream.
"For me, the appeal of small team indie development versus triple-A is the complete autonomy."Kyle Pittman
David's brother Kyle had similar reasons for leaving that part of the industry: a desire to let loose and be truly creative, both in terms of overall design and in assembling the game itself.
"For me, the appeal of small team indie development versus triple-A is the complete autonomy," he tells me. "Of course, anyone who's ever played video games has had their own ideas for games they'd like to make, and it is nice to be able to be the mythical 'idea guy' sometimes, but more than that, it's the ability to make fast iterations. If I have an idea for a new feature, I can prototype it quickly and see whether it's worth pursuing. In the triple-A world, that sort of reactionary development is difficult simply because more people have to be involved, but it's also dangerous because it can create confusion among the team without the proper messaging."
The Pittmans together formed Minor Key Games, a company with a clear philosophy behind it beyond simply "making great games."
"As a company, we want to promote positive values and communication," says Kyle. "Something that I'm trying to be outspoken about is improving transparency between developers and players, which unfortunately is often difficult or impossible to facilitate in the triple-A space for a variety of reasons: NDAs [non-disclosure agreements], timing of marketing announcements, risk of inaccurate messaging and so on. A lot of the time, when I read comments on the Internet, it's very much a one-sided discourse of players talking to players, with the only developer voices being in the form of pre-approved marketing buzz. I think we could have a richer and more respectful dialog if developers were allowed to be more open and honest about the realities of development."
"We value honesty and integrity in our communication," adds David. "There are many problematic aspects of the games industry, from anti-consumer business practices to the consistently troubling portrayal of women. While we are a small (and admittedly not very diverse) team, we aim to do our part to be better professionals and better people in this industry."
"I think we could have a richer and more respectful dialog if developers were allowed to be more open and honest about the realities of development."Kyle Pittman
Admirable sentiments, particularly in the modern industry where issues such as those David describes are seemingly becoming more and more pronounced. What about the duo's philosophy of actual game design, though?
"Our games start from ideas that are personally interesting to us," explains David. "I believe that if we make something that we are enthusiastic and passionate about, and we make it well, then players will follow. One of the burdens of triple-A development that wore me down over the years is the notion that every game needs to be everything to everyone. I would rather craft something with a singular focus, and strip away the excess."
The pair's debut project is a first-person action roguelike called Eldritch; a game that combines Minecraft-style visuals and destructible terrain with fast action, enjoyable exploration, a Lovecraft-inspired setting and David's love of games that allow the player to "co-author" the experience.
"We want to make the sorts of games we enjoy playing," reiterates Kyle. "What exactly that means tends to shift a bit depending on the situation; sometimes it's a reaction to where we perceive a void in the market, other times we draw inspiration from existing titles. Eldritch demonstrates this mentality well. It's clear where the sense of physicality and movement was informed by the likes of Dishonored and Thief, but marrying that sort of first-person stealth action to the tropes of a roguelike isn't really something we've seen before. In general, we both tend to value player choice and freedom of expression, responsive game feel, and an attitude of respect for the player."
Eldritch begins innocuously enough; you appear in a library, with a mirror in front of you. Examining the mirror allows you to customize your character's appearance, including the ability to play as either gender. Although you never actually see your character aside from their two hands at the bottom of the screen -- one for weapons, one for "magic" in a nod to BioShock -- it's a nice way to begin the game that allows you to take ownership of the experience and feel like you're playing the game on your own terms. This philosophy -- that attitude of respecting the player and how they want to play -- is something that permeates the whole game, even in its current early state.
"One of the burdens of triple-A development that wore me down over the years is the notion that every game needs to be everything to everyone. I would rather craft something with a singular focus, and strip away the excess."David Pittman
"There is a motto I learned while making BioShock 2," says David, referring to his past life. "'Say yes to the player.' It means that if a player tries to do something cool, the game should acknowledge it and support that choice. I did my best to make Eldritch say yes to the player, and I hope people enjoy their unique experiences with it."
Indeed, there are certainly a number of different ways to play Eldritch, and the way you play throws some interesting choices at you. Do you rush in guns blazing in an attempt to take down the horrific monsters in the room ahead, or do you try to sneak around and take them down silently? Do you loot their corpses -- a decision which causes them to respawn elsewhere in the level -- or do you leave them to rot? Do you look for the "proper" way down to the floor below, or do you simply use that lump of dynamite you just found to blow a convenient hole in the floor? Each of those options is valid, and the variety of items you'll find either lying around the levels or available for purchase in the in-game shops help you to tailor the game to the way you want to play. In many senses, it feels somewhat like a first-person Spelunky; David prefers to think of it as a Deus Ex-like game with an endless stream of small, randomly-generated scenarios, each of which the player can tackle as they see fit, all wrapped in a Lovecraft-flavored outer shell.
"Each of the worlds in Eldritch is loosely inspired by a different Lovecraft story: The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Nameless City and The Call of Cthulhu," David says when I ask him how the Lovecraftian element of the game fits in to its overall design. "Lovecraft purists will surely find errors, but I was more interested in borrowing the general tone of Lovecraft's mythos than producing an accurate adaptation of his stories."
David acknowledges that a number of people have concerns over Lovecraft's outdated racist and misogynist perspectives -- he calls out The Shadow Over Innsmouth in particular for its use of the fishmen as a metaphor for interracial relationships -- but notes that he and Kyle have specifically tried to distance Eldritch from these troubling elements and, in his words, "simply embrace the charmingly bizarre worlds of Lovecraft in a literal way."
"It's not just the randomized worlds that make each session a fresh experience, but the individual choices that I, as the player, make."David Pittman
Eldritch's three worlds each have their own distinct visual theme and enemies to contend with. In the first world, you'll be contending with fishmen, magic-casting robed figures and tentacled horrors amid the gray stone walls of a temple that seems to forever extend deep into the earth; in the second, meanwhile, the appearance has the much warmer yellow tones of a submerged desert temple. Here, you'll be contending with one of the most unpleasant enemies I've ever encountered in a video game: statues that move and attack while you're facing away from them, much like the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who. Learning to contend with the variety of enemies is an important part of making it through the game; thankfully, death doesn't deprive you of the worlds you've unlocked, only the items and unbanked money (or "artifacts") you collected in that runthrough.
"What I love about Eldritch -- and why I still enjoy playing it after so many months of development -- is that the player experience is a little different every time," says David. "It's not just the randomized worlds that make each session a fresh experience, but the individual choices that I, as the player, make. I can play stealthily, teleporting about and backstabbing enemies with a knife, and it feels a bit like Dishonored. Or I can use explosive weaponry to carve a quick path to my destination. Or I can challenge myself to observe certain rules of conduct, like nonlethal or vegan playthroughs."
Eldritch, like the aforementioned Spelunky, doesn't force the player to behave in a particular way. The only requirement for each level is that you make it to the exit -- what you do along the way is up to you. A grid-based minimap in the corner of the screen allows completionists to be thorough about exploring every nook and cranny, while some of the equippable "gear" items you'll acquire or purchase on your adventures unlock special abilities. Pray at an Old Ones statue, too, and you'll be rewarded with a random magic-like special ability -- though your uses of said abilities are limited by the same currency you use to buy things from the shops.
It's clear that David cares deeply about the idea of the game being an "immersive sim" where players have a variety of options to deal with particular situations, but the current popularity of the roguelike genre -- once the hardest of the hardcore niches; now somewhat more widespread, thanks largely to the indie space -- has also had a clear influence on the direction the game has taken.
"Roguelikes -- and especially modern action-oriented roguelikes like Spelunky, The Binding of Isaac and Eldritch -- tend to be entertaining games to watch others play," explains David. "And the rise in roguelike popularity seems to coincide with the rise of the YouTube/Twitch generation of gamers. The high degree of difficulty in roguelikes becomes a source of mirth: we enjoy cheering players on when they succeed, or laughing with them when they fail. Because roguelikes do not generally feature elaborate stories, we can watch them without fear of spoilers. And the evergreen nature of roguelikes encourages viewers of these channels to give the game a try themselves. Viewers don't feel like they have already experienced the whole game just by watching it, so the popularity of roguelike streams converts directly into roguelike sales."
An extremely good point -- but that's not all. David also believes that the growing popularity of roguelikes is tied to some gamers' growing frustration with the triple-A space.
"The rise in roguelike popularity seems to coincide with the rise of the YouTube/Twitch generation; the high degree of difficulty in roguelikes becomes a source of mirth."David Pittman
"[It] may also be a reaction to the increased hand-holding tutorialization in big-budget games," he says. "Some players don't enjoy the frequency of failure in roguelikes and quickly give up, but the sort of people who enjoy roguelikes want to be free to make mistakes, learn and try again. In this way, I don't see roguelikes as a sadistic genre, laughing at players' failures. To me, roguelikes are the parents taking the training wheels of the bike and saying 'you're going to fall, but you'll get back up and figure it out. You've got this."
This is a fair description of Eldritch, for sure -- compared to many other roguelikes, its difficulty starts off towards the more modest end of the spectrum, but quickly ramps up once you start encountering the tougher enemies and worlds. The important thing about the whole experience, though, is that it never feels unfair -- any time you die, you can normally point to exactly what you did that caused your downfall and, just to drive that point home, the game features the option to tweet what killed you after expiring. More to the point, like Spelunky, the game allows and encourages you to gradually get better over time, making it through the early stages more and more quickly before having the confidence to jump straight in to the harder challenges. By the time you reach the end of the game, you'll be adept at using all the options the game provides you with to make your way through a variety of situations in a number of different ways.
Eldritch is certainly coming along very nicely judging by the early build David was kind enough to share with me, and it definitely has potential to be the next "fix" for those who have finally tired of the considerable charms of Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac. Rather than attempting to emulate those popular games, however, Eldritch is very much carving out its own niche -- or perhaps more appropriately, flinging a stick of dynamite from the shadows and blowing up its own niche -- and is definitely a game worth keeping an eye on.
If you want to do just that, the official website is here -- you can preorder the game for $15, which will score you access to the beta later this month -- and the game's Greenlight page, if you'd like to see it hit Steam eventually, is here. Full release is set for October 21, for Windows only initially, though Mac and Linux support is a distinct possibility for the near future.