Dreadline is the debut game from Eerie Canal, made up of ex-Harmonix artist Steve Kimura and Bryn Bennett from Irrational Games. Dave Cook takes a look.
Left: Steve Kimura. Right: Bryn Bennet: Note: this is not a photo.
Chances are you know this situation all too well: You trudge into work miserable and scared, because it just so happens that today is the day you hand in your notice. It never gets any easier does it? What if the new gig doesn’t turn out all that great and you end up worse off? Say you got on really well with your bosses or colleagues – wouldn’t you feel guilty for letting them down by leaving?
Some things you just have to do, because if you don’t you’ll never know how life might turn out. Eerie Canal co-founder Steve Kimura quit his job at Harmonix – the independent and lucrative developer of Dance Central – to chart his own path. While employed by the studio, what Kimura was being given in terms of financial stability and job security was being muddied by a lack of creativity and a feeling of genuinely going unheard.
The last point is particularly depressing if you’re an aspiring creative-type like Kimura. Regardless he found his departure to be tough, because even though we can all feel quashed at our jobs, he also made a lot of friends there, and of course, going solo is never easy.
“My best ideas almost never made it into the games I’ve worked on,” Kimura told me. “That isn’t to say that all of my ideas were necessarily perfect for the projects. They weren’t really mine, so it was never really up to me in the end. It’s really disappointing that you can take teams of super creative and talented people, full of great ideas and loveable idiosyncrasies, and turn their output into a kind of slick and characterless product for the mass market.”
Enter Bryn Bennett: Eerie Canal’s other co-founder who left BioShock Infinite developer Irrational Games to set up shop with Kimura. Bennett explained that he too felt strong ideas were going unheard in his previous role, “There have been so many times when I’ve hear someone bring up a great idea for a game, then everyone loves it and laughs, and then someone says something like ‘OK, now really, what should we do.’ Eerie Canal tries to do the first part, but not the second.”
Together the duo left the comfort of what we now perceive the triple-a sector to be and founded Eerie Canal. I say ‘perceive’ because you can still produce blockbuster standards and whopping sales figures outside that shallow definition of whatever the triple-a market is supposed to be. Are Minecraft or Angry Birds considered triple-a titles across the board? No, of course they’re not, and that’s slightly foolish.
Kimura explained why he and Bennett decided to go it alone in the first place, “The whole entertainment industry is dominated by giant corporations that are only interested in turning piles of money into larger piles of money in the least-risky way possible.
“That’s why most of what you see in our popular culture is super boring. Following our instincts is mostly about having a loosey-goosey plan to follow our best ideas wherever they take us, embracing that uncertainty, and believing that it will result in something more interesting in the end that we might otherwise have ended up with.”
Those ‘ideas’ Kimura mentioned have culminated in Dreadline, a rather sadistic and hilarious concept in which a young boy dressed as a ghost teams up with a band of monsters to harvest human hearts from the scene of major cataclysms and tragedies. One stage is set on the deck of the Titanic, seconds before the ship collides with the infamous iceberg. The crew swoop in and start slaughtering the passengers and crew. Hey, they were going to die anyway right?
It’s this quirky, positively sick angle that appeals, and it appears to transition well into an action-RTS, RPG genre framework. The game is currently in development for PC, and Eerie Canal is raising funds on Kickstarter. The campaign page also features game art, screens and an announcement trailer, should you wish to check it out.
“I’d planned on leaving Harmonix to work on my own before I’d even heard of Kickstarter,” Kimura admitted. “Our initial plan didn’t involve Kickstarter at all. The closest thing I had to a business plan was to start working on the game, and finish it out before I burned completely through my savings.
“It became clear to us at some point that we weren’t going to be able to finish building the game without additional financial resources. This was around the same time that Kickstarter first really appeared on the scene as a major player in independent game development.”
On the way a typical Dreadline catastrophe plays out – specifically in the case of the Titanic stage – Bennett added, “The monsters warp onto the deck of the Titanic, scaring the crap out of everyone. A bunch of people scatter, making it necessary for the monsters to corral them. Unfortunately, some of the passengers won’t go without a fight. Sailors grab their guns while fathers protect their families. It becomes necessary for the monsters to get more strategic since Ghost is just an 8 year old boy, and easily hurt.
“Mummy can take a lot of damage, so he tries to shield the others. Candice,the wolf girl, uses her speed and special attacks to leap over his shoulder and kill the most dangerous humans. Cuberick uses his life-sucking abilities to leach the souls from the humans and keep the monster’s evil energy reserves up. As each human falls, Ghost gleefully removes their hearts and puts them in his backpack for later.”
Dreadline is certainly founded on a unique, playful idea, and as is common in the industry, unique ideas call for unique tech. Bennett has crafted a bespoke engine called ‘shoe_gazer’ purely for Dreadline, and for use in future Eerie Canal titles. “The engine has definitely been a lot of work,” Bryn stated. “We could have started out with Unity or the UDK, and would have a lot more done by now.
“At the same time, writing the renderer has allowed us to come up with a look unlike anything else I have seen out there. Additionally, since I’ve written almost the entire codebase, it’s really easy for me to change the code based on new ideas we have.”
Change it might, as neither Kimura nor Bennett planned on including multiplayer in the initial build of Dreadline, but thanks to the power of Kickstarter stretch goals, the duo will fashion some form of competitive online play if enough people back the project.
“Multiplayer doesn’t really fit with the narrative of the game,” Bennett explained, “but monster battles would be really cool. I would like to do what the new XCOM game did with multiplayer. It doesn’t make much sense, but it’s a ton of fun. Of course Dreadline isn’t turn-based so it would feel completely different. We would probably have some twisted game modes where the monsters fight over a virgin or something.”
I ask Kimura and Bennett for their thoughts when reflecting on their experience at Harmonix and Irrational respectively. Said Kimura, “I’ve never been really happy working in an office, or working on other people’s projects. To be able to focus on my own project full time was very important to me. On the downside, I have a lot of good friends at Harmonix that I wish I saw more of. There’s also a tremendous weight of responsibility to self-direct, and believe that what you’re working long hours without pay on is really worth your while.”
Bennett added, “It was actually a really easy decision for me. At the time I was really burned out and needed to take some time off to be more creative again. When I first started writing the shoe_gazer engine, it was basically just an excuse to learn how deferred rendering worked.
“After I finished that up in about a week, I added some animation. Then a scripting language. Before long I started thinking that I had the beginning of a game engine that could be used to make a game. That was about the time that Steve left Harmonix.”
Either way both developers are now in it together, and are attempting to make something they can finally, proudly call their own. Complete self-sufficiency is never easy, but Kimura and Bennett are joining a growing crowd of former ‘triple-a’ developers leaving the comforts of the sector to chase their dreams. Few can deny that it’s a brave thing to do, and Eerie Canal certainly won’t be the last to take the plunge.
Dreadline is currently funding on Kickstarter. To make a pledge or to just check it out, head over to Eerie Canal’s Kickstarter campaign page.