Inside the Studio Designing the Follow-up to Hyper Light Drifter [New Noclip Series]

Inside the Studio Designing the Follow-up to Hyper Light Drifter [New Noclip Series]

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(keyboard clacking) (pensive music) - [Danny] Hello, and welcome to Los Angeles, California, a city that's famous for a lot of reasons, movie stars, sweeping beaches, and bumper to bumper traffic. But there's something about this part of the world that most people seem to have no idea about. LA and the patchwork of cities and districts that surround it is home to more PC and console video game jobs than just about any other place in North America and perhaps even the world. And it's not just the amount of game studios that are here, but the size of them. Companies like Infinity Ward, Insomniac, inXile, and Respawn.

Santa Monica's home to Activision, Riot, Naughty Dog, Sony Santa Monica, and Treyarch. Nearby in Irvine is where most of your favorite PC RPGs were made. It's still the home of Blizzard, Obsidian, and Ready at Dawn.

International companies like Square Enix, Niantic, and Atlus have offices here. And you also have indie studios like thatgamecompany and Yacht Club, just to name a few. And it's for this reason that just like the silver screen, thousands of wannabes travel to Southern California every year to work at one of these studios, or at least they did before COVID turned the industry's hiring practices on its head.

This city, its job market, and how games development has changed with the advent of remote work will be themes throughout the course of this series. But the beating heart of our story here lies in Culver City, in a studio that started out as a scrappy indie but has grown fast in recent years. Heart Machine broke onto the scene in 2016 with the terrific Hyper Light Drifter, a 2D action role playing game which had been successfully kickstarted a number of years prior. It evoked memories of classic eight and 16 bit games with a story that reflected the personal human trauma of the studio's founder, Alx Preston.

After Drifter, much of the initial team went in their own creative directions, but Alx remained building a new team to tackle their difficult second album, Solar Ash. Solar's development was long and challenging, and that was before COVID split the team apart. It came out in late 2021, and while it found an audience, it wasn't quite the indie sensation its older sibling was. While Solar Ash was in development the studio set up a second team to create another 3D game, this time a sequel to their initial hit. Hyper Light Breaker was announced just a few months ago. And it was during this time that we talked to the studio about covering its development.

The team is currently targeting a 2023 release for early access, and we're bringing you along for the ride, both at the studio, in remote meetings, on the road, and in our COVID compliant interview space just around the corner from the studio. Our goal is to not only tell the story of this game's development, but get deeper than we've ever done before into how game development works. We're gonna cover a lot in this journey, but in this first episode we wanted to introduce you to the team, their history, and the makeup of people who are working to make Breaker a hit worthy of the Hyper Light name. So let's start where it all began, then, and meet the man behind the machine.

(pensive music) All right. Okay, the most boring question we'll ask you today. Please tell us your name and where you work. - My name is Alx Preston and I work at Heart Machine. I'm actually, I'm from Hawaii. My dad's side of the family is Hawaiian.

But we moved out of there at a really young age 'cause I had a heart condition, had to have open heart surgery and all that stuff. So I grew up in Ventura County, which is not too far outside of LA. Moved to LA for college way back when now, I think 2001 is when I moved here. So, and I've been here since. I had made friends with a few different folks in Los Angeles that were indie developers. One of them is a good friend, Ben Esposito.

He would come by our house, my friend Casey and I would have art nights. And we would just like have a night set aside cause we're all doing freelance or whatever else to just focus on creative projects, like personal creative projects. And a lot of things kind of came out of that. And one of the things was Glitch City, which was a collective here in Los Angeles that still exists today. You know, a decade later basically. Seeing how all these other people were making games and everything, I started to very seriously dig into trying again at making my own game after many different failed attempts previously.

And I had hooked up with Beau Blyth. He and I, Bo and I ended up doing a lot of development on Hyper Light. We tried some different prototypes, I had a lot of ideas in mind.

I wanted to learn how to make things in GameMaker. And then as he was trying to teach me things, I decided I don't wanna learn how to actually program in GameMaker 'cause it's not so fun. And so yeah, we built out a prototype together based off of a series of ideas and things that I'd had about this project. Put the Kickstarter live sometime later that year in 2013. And then it kind of blew up. From there I was able to actually hire people full time and like bring in more of a crew rather than just it being Bo and I living on scraps, which was the initial plan was like, yeah, we'll get by in like 30K if we need to, you know, for a year or something.

Which you can if you don't have like any other responsibilities. But no, we got a lot more money than $30K and so was able to actually have a few really talented people there to help build this game out over the course of two and a half years. It was successful and that kinda led us do more and more things. So here we are today. And we've gone from what was just me originally doodling around in books to like over 40 people.

- [Danny] So tell us about your heart condition. It sounds like it was something you've had from a very young age or since birth, right? - Yeah, it's congenital meaning that I was born with it. You know, my heart was just, came out wrong basically. So didn't really have a, it's missing a valve and it had a hole in it. They had to wait until I was about a year old to do any surgery. And so during that period the story I'm told is that my mother had to prevent me from crying for a whole year at risk of me dying, because my heart wouldn't be able to take the stress of that.

You know, I have to do maintenance on it. I've had a few surgeries after the fact. I have a pacemaker that I got little over a decade ago. - [Danny] Does this affect you in other ways in terms of like your ability to like, exercise or drinks or drugs or anything like that? Is there a sort of a risk element there that other people don't have to deal with? - Oh yeah, I can drop dead at any moment. You know, like that's just kind of par for the course with yeah, it just means I'm at greater risk for practically everything heart related.

So whether it's heart attacks or congestive heart failure or any of these other elements, like I just it is more vulnerable. I am fortunate to be in a higher percentile for my condition, meaning that I am more functional and mobile than a lot of other people with my condition. Like they have it worse than I do. So I can walk around and I can do a little bit of running and you know, I can do some basic activities, but I definitely have my limitations. As a kid I was always the sick kid.

You know, I had the heart condition, I had allergies, I had asthma. I had all the crummy things you can get as a kid. And so there was always a lot of, my parents were very protective. And so it's like, you can't play any sports, you can't even run, you can't do this, you can't do that.

You know, that kind of puts you in a certain mindset of like, well, if I can't experience these things physically, then where else can I go? And so fortunately I have some imagination and creativity and I kinda lost myself in books and movies and comics and games, of course. Anything that I could get my hands on of that sort to escape into other worlds where like I wasn't being told I couldn't do things, places that I could get into roles that are just impossible for me otherwise. - [Danny] The team at Heart Machine working on Hyper Light Breaker are a mixture of folks who worked on Solar Ash and new hires who never touched that project. It's also a mix of people who have long careers in game dev and folks for whom this is their first ever game.

And increasingly it's people who have never even been at the studio in person. There is no singular path into games development. And the people at Heart Machine seem to be as unique as the stories that led them here. - My name is Wolfgang Traenkle and I'm an environment artist at Heart Machine.

I went to Otis College of Art and Design here in Los Angeles, but I kind of did it outta spite because my art teacher told me I couldn't get in. And so I only applied there because she told me I couldn't do it. And then when I got there, I ended up finding out they had that department for game entertainment, ended up doing that.

I started off working in the game department at Best Buy. And I was like, hey, at least I get to talk about video games. And then I worked at an advertisement agency and I was like, hey, at least I sometimes get to use 3D programs. And then after that I joined an influencer who is online, who's completely CG.

Her name is middle Lil Miquela. I was like, hey, at least I get to do texturing. And then eventually ended up finally making it into the game industry.

So that was like, it was always just one step closer. - My name is Len White. I am the technical art director, no, that's incorrect. (laughs) Cut that out. My name is Len White.

I am the lead technical artist at Heart Machine. My first job in games, 'cause I had a career before games in visual effects and I worked on a bunch of movies and commercials. But when I wanted to get into games after finishing with visual effects, I got a job at Neversoft, and that was my first game job. And that was in the valley in California.

The reason I got hired was 'cause they were building up to do Call of Duty Ghosts, which was interesting for them 'cause they're famous for the Tony Hawk games and a Spider-Man game. But they basically were purchased by Activision that was starting the Call of Duty kind of franchise, like for real, where lots of studios all over the country were working on different Call of Duties at different times. So Neversoft became one of those studios. So they were ramping up a lot of more people, ramping up their size to do Call of Duty Ghosts.

And so that was the first project I worked on, and I worked on that for about six months. So I came on at the end of that project. Then Neversoft ceased to be. We actually, I worked there when it closed its doors and they pulled all the cutlery outta the kitchens and gave it away to all the employees. It was an interesting time because they became part of Infinity Ward, which was a nearby studio. So I became a technical artist at Infinity Ward and continued to work on the next title, which was Call of Duty Infinite Warfare.

That was the last game title I worked on at Activision. So Heart Machine, probably two things that appealed to me the most. One was the scale of the studio was super small and I kind of was looking for an experience that kind of made me feel like it was my company more than it had felt at AAA. Like I was kind of a co-owner if you will.

And so I wanted a small company. And then secondarily, Jason Keeney, who's the technical art director at Heart Machine, he basically reached out to me and said, hey, you should come over here. Who'd actually been a never sought years ago as well. He was kind of beckoning me to come to Heart Machine and check it out.

- So yeah, I started working at Heart Machine in 2019. We were at this tiny little shack of a place that was, I think it used to be a garage. The team was probably like 15 people at the time, tops.

Process for working on Solar was basically, we would have one of our designers, we had two designers I think both are still with us now. And they would block out an entire area using basically a gray box, but we use the color green 'cause it's lighter on the eyes. After that it would either go to me or the other environment artists and we would replace everything in that area with our final assets.

It would go back and forth between design and environment art. They're very close knit. They're like brother and sister, we fight, we get along sometimes. They would give me a scene, I'd be like, oh, this collision's gonna be a pain in the ass to try and make like a final asset with. Kind of work together until we're happy with how it plays and how it looks. - Solar Ash was a tough game to make in a lot of ways.

You know, I had set out a very ambitious goal for us. Jumping from 2D, you know, a fixed camera view, pixel art to a fully 3D game in Unreal 4 with 20 to 30 people on your team, ultimately, of a game of that scale, which you know, is not quite open world, but open world enough for the purposes of difficulty to design. It's a wild series of leaps to get there. I set us up for really difficult challenges as the person leading the charge on design.

The fact that we had big giant creatures that you could run all over. I mean, anti-gravity, that's a bananas thing to make. On top of that, we have these wild clouds made of a tech that we had never used. And in fact, most games don't even touch SDF, which, you know, like our whole basic landscape is gonna be used for that. And by the way, you're gonna surf on that. Again, bananas to approach.

And then on top of that, oh, by the way, our characters are gonna be super fast and blaze through these worlds. Which there's a reason why a lot of characters don't go that fast in games because you have to have loading zones and you have to actually stream things. And there's an immense amount of work that goes into making sure that like you can actually, the game can keep up with the speed of that character. That character's super goddamn fast.

And then on top of that, we have these massive worlds and these huge levels that again, while not quite, I'm not gonna say that's an open world game, it's like it's open world lite or open world enough in the sense that like, those spaces are very big. There's a lot of ways you can go. And that in and of itself, like doing level design for that type of structure is intensely difficult on many different fronts. And requires a lot of iteration and careful planning. And the types of roles that it really truly genuinely requires because that step from 2D to 3D is a massive challenge. - I definitely learned a lot about what it takes to put a game like that together.

There was a lot of technology that was unproven coming together. - The lava zone, the big globe of lava that's in it, we had no tools to be able to dec on 360. So it was me turning the camera upside down or dec'ing upside down constantly. It was pretty rough to try and do the back sides of things and always working with the camera the wrong way.

- There was a great engineering team putting together a lot of the tech. But in terms of getting all these art assets into the game and dealing with a lot of the kind of problems, like the unforeseen problems that might occur, say with, you know, surfaces that are completely lava based. And then of course we have a lot of configurations of our platforms and our levels that would break that potentially. So going through and like, trying to create tools, that was one thing I did a lot of, make tools to sort of audit the game and kind of do health scans every night to see if anything was breaking or not building the correct mesh.

We were using Houdini quite a bit as a plugin and that was generating a lot of our stuff. And sometimes it would glitch out so I was writing tools to kind of make sure that every night there was not a huge problem and that the health of the system was only improving and not getting worse. There were a lot of things to do. And that's why the game was delayed.

There was a lot of stuff to kind of pull together and wrangle over the last few months. - Starting on Solar Ash, there was 15 people ish. But then it grew pretty exponentially after that. A few people joined right after me. And then there was kind of a lull right when COVID started. But then when COVID started, we actually were hiring like crazy.

So we doubled in size over COVID. And I think we also kind of learned that we don't really need to be in all the same place. It's like the privilege of working in video games or just working in tech in general.

So now we have people all over the world with all different skill sets that honestly, I think made us even better in the end. - Having worked together and all the technologies we brought just to make Solar Ash happen, many of those are still being brought to bear on this project in terms of environment art and design, some in design. I can't say enough about when you've worked with the same people through an experience like Solar Ash, working with those same people is just like, it's easier and you can figure stuff out faster and everyone's more comfortable and happy, I think. - Hello, I'm in a vehicle.

So I'm on my way to this recording for I think G4TV Glendale. Yeah, we're gonna do kind of a pre-recording of this whole reveal thing that we're doing on the 31st, March 31st is the anniversary of release for Hyper Light Drifter in anticipation of the announcement for Breaker. I try not to watch interviews that I've done before too much because then I just start to criticize myself and that's not healthy.

I don't know, I'm trying to treat myself better. I always feel a little strange when I have to do things like this. Not because of the event itself, but because of all the other work that I need to need to be doing, that I need to be focusing on, that it's like, oh, I'm not in these meetings and I can't like sit at my desk and write or chat or draw or whatever I need to do that day. This is part of work, but it's the part of work that gives me the most anxiety because I'm not doing the other things with the team more directly. And thinking about kind of announcement here, going into not just this interview, but going into this week and the trailer that we have that we've been developing for months now. Working with Grackle, the animation crew.

And how much time and efforts have been put into it and kind of the internal excitement around that, I know that team members and our publisher has, and that I personally still have for it. Trailers get really tiring when you're making them, because you look at the same damn thing 1000 times. And you make little adjustments here and there over the course of it. And it's a tedious process to make a trailer.

I am always thinking about how people will receive those trailers that we put out. You know, what kind of impact it'll have, what people will be talking about, what they'll notice, what they won't notice, if they'll care, if it'll get a bunch of views, it'll get enough views for anybody to be satisfied, you know, for myself to be satisfied. I don't even know what that number is, 500? Is it a million? Is it, who knows? But it's the stuff that goes through my head when I'm doing this. So anyway, that's it for now, I'm gonna peace out.

(frantic music) - It might be worth twisting his shoulders a little bit more in that running idle. - Something that I just wanted to note was kind of like this angle of the hat. - And those candidate points are then consumed or used by the runtime that happens when you launch into the level.

- Sorry, my son was running like a maniac upstairs and he cut off your audio for me. Dog needs a what, Alx? - Needs a haircut. - Looks like a good boy. - He feels off balance for a second. When the right foot, when both feet are kind of backwards.

- Jason, I believe that you just put food on your hand to make him lick. - You might think that, but this is just what he does. - I'm just so conscious that we're recording these now. (laughs) It's gonna be in the documentary. - You don't know what's going in or not, so. - All right, well it's 9:15.

I've taken up all the time. I will let y'all skedaddle outta here. Count down, see you in your groups, three, two, one, goodbye.

- [Danny] Remote work has become the norm for millions of people around the world. And while in some industries the return to the workplace has happened quickly, this has not been the case in games development, especially at smaller studios. This has had a knock on effect within the labor market. When game jobs started to be posted as remote, studios that didn't offer remote work started to see less candidates. So because there are so many remote positions available across the industry, it has essentially forced every other studio to offer them. As such, almost half the team working on Hyper Light Breaker are remote.

Some are in LA, but many others are spread across the globe. This new reality coupled with the growing size of the team and the overly long development of Solar Ash convinced Alx to hire a veteran producer to help keep this project on track and on time. - I'm Lesley Mathieson and I'm the senior producer at Heart Machine.

I first worked in games actually while I was in college. I ended up getting a summer job on the Monty Python the Holy Grail. But after that, I decided I wanted to go into film. So I worked in film for a little while. But games sort of kept interesting me and calling me back.

And eventually I decided to take a testing job at Interplay. I was actually a tester on Baldur's Gate. After I moved up out of test, I ended up getting a job at Insomniac. I was one of the three original designers on the first Ratchet and Clank game. That was a fantastic job. And I really learned so much while I was at Insomniac about design, and worked on more Ratchet titles, and then became the project manager and lead designer on Resistance Fall Of Man.

So at that point, I co-founded High Impact Games with a number of other ex Insomniacs, and we created the Ratchet and Clank games for the PSP. From there, I went on, I had a smaller studio after that experimenting with XBLA titles and independent games. I moved on after doing some contracting to on the side creating actually a robot. I designed a child companion robot that you could speak to and it would interact with you, and that was a fun challenge. But I missed games at that point and that was sort of what led me back to Heart Machine. I think that when you work in game development, in many cases, I won't say all cases, you tend to move around between studios.

That's for a number of reasons. I mean, in a less optimal situation it's because a studio closes. But sometimes it's just because to make the next right step for you, you need to move to a new place. And one of the things I think is really interesting about games is that studios often approach the same problems in very different ways. Some people work more directly through programmers, for example, or they might build more elaborate tool sets for designers to work. Some studios very elaborately plan things out, some studios work more through prototyping and iteration.

Some are in between. So it's sort of interesting to move around and develop a lot of different skills by working in a lot of different methods. The role of producer can vary a lot from company to company, which is an interesting thing.

Some producers are much more about communication. Some producers are much more about the sort of project management and scheduling aspect of things or task tracking. But at its heart, being a producer is about one thing and that's about problem solving. It's about recognizing what problems are happening on the production, within the team, across the board, like in any discipline. And then helping people get those problems solved so that they can do the work that they're trying to do as effectively as possible. Well, my day usually starts with stand up.

Since we have quite a few remote people now since the pandemic, we need a lot more communication with them. So it's attending meetings and just finding out sort of what everyone's working on, what problems they've run into and making notes of what is happening or what might need to be addressed. After that it's looking at whatever are the highest priority issues of the day. If there are any tasks that are going slowly, it's finding out why or how to solve those problems. Sometimes it's looking ahead to what we need to deliver or communicate to the publisher.

Constantly looking for problems in the process and trying to solve them. We're focusing a fair amount of effort into tools, and that's because tools always pay off in the long run. Whatever you build in tools now doesn't just help you now, it frequently helps you next game or maybe the game after that. The tech artists especially have focused on building out tools, Len and Christian have done an amazing job. - Part of what we're doing is a lot of procedural level building.

So we want to create the experience for the player that every time they launch into a level or do a run, it feels like an entirely new level that they've never played before, even if they've played the game hundreds or thousands of times. So to do that, you kind of randomly roll aspects of the level right when they're about to go into it, before it's presented to the player. That's a pretty big challenge.

It's a really big part of what we're doing in tech art right now on Breaker is working through that. And one of the things we found was that artists don't like that. They want to lay out a level. They want to create a composition. They wanted to create areas where the user experience will go from one amazing vista to something else or come out of a cave and see some amazing view.

- Sec dec'ing, or at least like doing environment art for a procedural game, it's completely different. I don't see what the level looks like. I don't get to decide where things go. I just press play in the level and then it populates.

So it's always gonna be different. If I put the city block in this world, press play, I have to run around and find it. - And so what we found was a kind of a middle place was this thing that we're calling hyperfabs for Hyper Dec prefabs. The overall system that decs our levels or creates all the assets in our levels we're calling Hyper Dec for hyper decorating the levels.

And hyper prefabs or hyperfabs are these things we created for the artists that let them assemble like, mini set pieces. And so in kind of the world of Unity, this is typically called a prefab so we're kind of borrowing that naming. And so it allows artists to kind of create a small set piece. So say like, a tree. But then to make the tree look good sitting out in a field, you really want maybe a little rock next to it or a bunch of bushes, because they're all sharing the same water source up on this hill. And who knows what else kind of scattered around to kind of create that little kind of compositional flavor or sweetness.

So we invented this thing that didn't exist in Unreal already, if it had already existed in Unreal we just would've used that, but it doesn't. So we did a lot of work with Python and blueprints to create, and some C++ coding, to allow for these kind of prefabs, these set pieces to be created by the artist. And then when the level gets generated right before the player gets to play it, these little miniature set pieces get internally randomized to some degree, but then randomly scattered, positioned all over the level in kind of smart ways.

- This tool opened up a door for us in a procedural sense, that it could be so much more artfully done, that we can make full scenes. I made a full city block that can be placed procedurally somewhere, instead of just being like, hey, I need 50 of these rocks scattered across an entire world. So the ability to be able to make different blocks of spaces and city spaces and then seeing that populate an entire area is phenomenal. And to be able to find something recognizable in an area is cool. - That was a kind of an important recent innovation that we found really is going to work for us to get the levels done, but also provides a kind of satisfaction for the artists that were getting very frustrated with this idea of just, everything is gonna get procedurally dec'ed or placed in the levels. And that they're not gonna have a say in it, or they're gonna have less of a say in it than they're used to.

Primary components of a technical artist at almost every studio is problem solving. And it makes it very difficult for production to schedule us out because we'll say, oh yeah, that should be done by Thursday. And then the next two days was some crazy fire that only a technical artist could really deal with and that took up all our time. So then everything kind of gets pushed and we have to be very agile to deal with that change.

- Okay. Well, it was suggested that we do some video as we're coming back into the studio. We gotta record this voiceover for all these different characters. And we do have a room here that, not too familiar with cause I've been working with the company for two years. But yeah, actually started a couple months after COVID on Solar Ash.

So I've known that we've got this room, which is a pretty decent room. And I'm gonna try to evaluate it for recording. So I see I brought in some of my, like a quick and dirty recording setup, some of my own personal stuff. So Audio-Technica mic, little ZOOM recorder, H6.

Has XLR inputs and can do Phantom Power. So I can just run a mic. We're just gonna kind of see if I can soundproof a corner, pick a corner, see if it sounds good. Hopefully we can actually start getting some of these characters in soon. - I would like to go into the studio certainly more than I'm going into it now. We've been very cautious, which I've definitely appreciated.

Alx has been very careful of everyone's health. As someone who is immunocompromised and can be affected very much by COVID, I certainly appreciate that caution. So I have been there a few times, but not yet a lot. I would certainly love, as I think all of us would, for case numbers to stay low so that we could all feel safe going in on a daily basis.

- So when it comes to going to the office, we are really strict about how we go about it. We post the numbers in LA every day, if they're over 3000, we don't go in. We have air filters in the office. We wear masks.

We do everything we can to make it a safe place to be. Just because it's not big in the news anymore doesn't mean that it doesn't matter, especially 'cause a lot of the people who we do work with are immunodeficient. So it is a big deal for us to make everybody comfortable. Even before COVID, people didn't come in every day. Some people worked from home half the time. It was something that we already had established at our office even before we were put into a position where we had to.

So people would come and go whenever they wanted, as long as they got the work done that they needed to get done then that was that. - Sometimes the problems are easy to solve if you're there in person. Remote, I have some stories on Solar, our previous game, where we were trying to get Houdini, this plugin for Unreal, working. And there was one artist that it simply would not work for. And I went through tons, dozens of little techniques saying how about this? Check this, check that.

And he's all, it all checks out, it all checks out. And then I was just pulling my hair out. Just what could it possibly be? I'm sorry, I guess we'll look at it tomorrow. Driving me nuts, always wishing that I could just sit at his machine and see it with my own eyes and maybe see that little thing that he didn't think was relevant at all and I hadn't thought to ask him about, but when I look at it with my own eyes, I'm like, oh wait, that's wrong.

And sure enough, it had something to do with the way that he had installed certain software. We eventually figured it out remotely, but man, I'm looking forward to the days when many of us can be local. I know that there's going to be several employees that are always remote, probably a decent fraction of our total employees, but some of them will be local and that'll help. So I'm looking forward to that. - Heart Machine has always cared about health.

I mean, it's even in the name, having to do with Alx and his ailment. So I feel like that gave him a very special view on what's truly important. And that's making sure that people are in a good place and a healthy mind to be able to do the things they wanna do and be creative. There's been instances where people have taken some time to themselves or only worked certain days a week because they wanna care about their health and they're not feeling in a good place for that. I've taken two weeks off because I was burnt out and it was totally fine, nobody bats an eye to that.

We probably have the best insurance possible to us. They pay almost everything. And that's not something you could find in a lot of studios. Especially that was from the beginning, 15 people there, and we still had the best insurance possible. So that was really great to see. And I guess a more personal end, like my dad died from COVID over COVID.

So I took some time to be able to deal with that. I took like a month off, nobody bats an eye to that. And it's just a part of the process.

Nobody's gonna care if you need to take it, they're just there to be helpful and try and let you be able to take care of yourself first. - [Danny] Right. I'm really sorry to hear about your dad.

- Oh, that's okay. - I like working with a tight knit group. When you start to get into the higher dozens, that's when maybe I'm starting to feel like, mm, not as engaged with everybody. It's harder to be in the trenches with every person when you get to a certain threshold. But at the same time, like these projects, kind of the ambition that I personally have and I think that others at the studio share is to keep growing to suit the needs of these projects and to keep making bigger and more fascinating and more, I guess, believable worlds. Ultimately my goal is to make stuff that you can fully embed yourself in, that you get that escape velocity basically.

And what I mean by that is stemming back from my roots of being the sick kid that my avenue for escape was media. With having done Drifter, you know, through the course of that, early on it was clear to me that the next project that I wanted to do at least was a 3D project. You know, that was the next step. And I had started planning out Solar Ash about a year before we shipped that project.

Like I was, after I do my day of work on Drifter stuff, I'd go home and, you know, start plotting out Solar Ash stuff. We were very fresh faced and green on that. And so I'm a bit of a, I guess, wild dreamer around certain things. And feel like, eh, fuck it, let's do it. You know, at the end of the day, there's a lot of planning that goes into it.

Of course it's not just hand wave away, we're gonna do it. But I don't know how much time I have left. You know, I don't know, I could drop dead in this interview. I could drop dead tomorrow. I am more likely to die than anybody else that I know of my friends by several orders of magnitude. Each day my body's trying to destroy me.

And some days it really succeeds most of the way. You know, I'm near or at a hospital a couple times a year at the very least, at the minimum, in a good year. And so I try and make the best of the time that I have right now and push as hard as I can to get out the things that I feel like I need to say.

And put in the work for that creative output to kind of realize all the things that I want to creatively. And that I feel like will maybe leave some legacy behind, maybe speak to somebody on some level. I'm very fortunate to be able to have people that want to work on these projects, people that want to collaborate on this stuff at the end of the day, 'cause as much as this stuff is like, creative vision's coming from me and being creative director and whatever else, I can't do practically any of this without all of the incredibly talented people that work at Heart Machine.

And so it's a thing where I feel again very fortunate to be able to pull people in like this. And at the same time, be able to push on the things that I feel like I wanna see in games. Ultimately the things that I feel like personally affect me that I would wanna escape into ultimately. And maybe have others who have been in positions like me or worse, 'cause there are a lot of people that are a lot worse off than I am.

You know, I'm sitting here talking and you know, I can walk right outta the studio and there are a lot of people who can't do that. And so if I can leave a mark where it speaks to somebody else who has experienced things like me or worse... If I can speak to other people who are in a position like me or worse off, and give them something back that they can feel positive about, that they can feel like they can experience new things in that they otherwise wouldn't be able to, then to me that's more important than a lot of other things.

So, 'cause that's what helped me and continues to help me get through all the bullshit that I have to go through. And you know, everybody's got their own own stories to tell and own garbage to deal with. But you know, I wouldn't wish my life or my body on anybody, not even my worst enemy. So it's a lot of stuff that I repress to get through the day. You know, that I power through and learn to live with because I have better shit to do than to dwell on what's happening to me in ways that aren't gonna be useful. So my best bet is to be as useful as possible, to be as functional as possible.

I don't really give a fuck if I'm in the hospital after a heart procedure, because what good does that do ultimately? When we have such precious little time to exist and do things that we're capable of doing and also be able to do it with other amazingly talented creative people and enjoy it. It's hard work, but it's enjoyable work at the end of the day. If the work that we do at Heart Machine can affect anybody in a positive way, can help them to escape from things that they're experiencing and to do things that they've always wanted to do in a way that they couldn't otherwise, then that's a satisfying legacy for me to leave behind.

I feel like ultimately in order to satisfy those goals, you know, there's growth required. There's a trajectory there to like, build out that team, to keep pushing on those projects, to really fully realize the vision that not just I have but the team has for all these different aspects of an extremely complicated art form. You know, we're building worlds, we're writing, we're making music, we're illustrating. And then it all has to come together in a cohesive way that people can experience any kind of emotional resonance with. So it's an extraordinarily difficult thing to create games, as anybody who's made games knows.

And it's even more challenging to make something that will affect people in anyway whatsoever, but positively, especially. And that can speak to people on any personal level. To have a fully realized world for people to enjoy and for people to get lost in. (uplifting music) (pensive music)

2022-08-04 13:09

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