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Nerdlocker Artist Interview – David Pittman


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David Pittman is a co-founder of Minor Key Games with his identical twin brother, J. Kyle Pittman.

Prior to this endeavor David was a programmer at 2K Marin and worked on numerous AAA titles. He specifically wrote AI code for Bioshock 2 and led the AI team on The Bureau: XCOM Declassified.

Nerdlocker (NL): David, you are an accomplished game developer, you worked at Gearbox and 2K Marin, why leave major game developers and venture out on your own?

David Pittman (DP): Making BioShock 2 with the team at 2K Marin was an incredibly positive experience for me, and I wish AAA game development were always like that. Sadly, it’s not.

The big difference between making indie games and working within a large AAA game structure is creative control. Big budget games are subject to many influences, both from within and without the actual development team. I found it very difficult as an individual in that structure to feel as if my voice could make any significant difference in the final product.

Big budget games are also burdened with expectations of multi-million unit sales, which leads to bloated, unfocused game designs that try to marginally appeal to everyone. Every game does not need to be a blockbuster, but there no longer is a place in the traditional game publishing model for small- or mid-budget games. That is now the domain of independent developers. I would rather craft something with a precise focus, something which exactly matches the interests of a smaller audience.

NL: Did you ever doubt your ability to create an independent game title? There seems to be a lot of risk going out on your own.

DP: It was scary, no question about that, but my fear was never about making the game per se. I had the years under my belt, including recent experience as a manager, estimating tasks and setting schedules. I was confident that I could finish the amount of work I had planned before I ran out of money. In fact, I finished six weeks ahead of schedule, which is essentially unheard of in big budget games.

The risky and unknown part for me was about marketing and selling a game, because I’d never been exposed to that side of the business. I was never the person out there promoting a game. I had virtually no data about sales expectations for a game of this scope. There was a very real chance that the game would not be successful and the best I could do to secure myself against that possibility was to leave myself a buffer for a subsequent job search. Fortunately, Eldritch has already recouped its budget, so I am optimistic about the future of this career choice.

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NL: Why did you make Eldritch as your first foray into publishing?

DP: From the start, I wanted to make something in the immersive stealth action game vein. That sort of game is my favorite to play, and as an experienced AI programmer, I already had the skillset to do it well.

The constrained schedule demanded a game which would not rely on masses of art assets and other content. Randomly generated levels provide hours of gameplay at a relatively low development cost. I began to envision a 3D stealth roguelike, and it seemed like an exciting juxtaposition of elements which no other game had tried before.

The H. P. Lovecraft theme was the last piece of the puzzle. I needed a setting which would provide the familiar elements of action games: monsters, magic, weapons, and unknown worlds. There have been some notable Lovecraftian video games before, but very few have used his mythos as the setting for an action game.

NL: What makes Eldritch different from other first person games?

DP: Eldritch is a unique hybrid of the immersive first-person and roguelike genres. The player movement and abilities should be familiar to fans of games like Dishonored, BioShock, and Far Cry 2, but the randomly generated worlds provide an endlessly fresh experience.

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NL: Who else helped code this with you, anyone?

DP: I founded Minor Key Games with my twin brother Kyle (formerly of Gearbox Software), but we function more like a collective than a traditional game studio. Eldritch was primarily my project, and Kyle is working on another game which he’ll be announcing next year.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my friends and former colleagues who provided critical feedback during the game’s development, and to my friend Kale Menges who did the fantastic key art.

NL: What was the most difficult part of developing your vision?

DP: Honestly, development of Eldritch has been surprisingly smooth. There were lots of ways it could have gone wrong. The original vision could have been too big to finish in my schedule, requiring significant cuts. Or it might have turned out to be dull or disappointing in practice, requiring me to revisit the core premise and salvage what work I could. But fortunately, none of these things happened. My original vision for the game proved to be a feasible target and very quickly showed its promise as a fun and exciting game.

NL: How did the alpha and beta testing change the final product?

DP: Testing the game with an open ear for critical feedback was a huge part of making Eldritch a successful game. The core structure ended up unchanged from my original vision, but the feedback I received helped me to make it a more fun, intuitive, and inviting experience. In particular, I received a lot of valuable responses about the game’s difficulty curve, some confusing concepts which warranted better introduction and explanation, and a lot of rough edges to polish.

NL: Why a female protagonist?

DP: The games industry has long had a problem with its representation of women. Market research has created a self-fulfilling prophecy that games sell better if they don’t have women on the box cover. When games do feature women, they’re often portrayed in problematic ways: overly sexualized, relegated to background roles, or captured/killed to provide a shallow motivation for a hero. To be clear, each of these aspects may be acceptable in particular cases; but the overwhelmingly common presence of these elements represents a fundamental problem in the industry. It transforms games and the games industry into a place that is alienating or even hostile to a full half of the population.

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Eldritch is not a game that is intended or well suited to discuss social politics, and frankly, I am not the person for that job. In the game, it makes no difference whether you choose to play as a man or a woman. But I can do this one small thing to shift the average toward the center, and do my part to make games a little bit better.

NL: Why are there multiple endings?

DP: Eldritch is a game whose mechanics encourage repeat plays and experimentation with different styles of play. The experience of playing stealthily and avoiding enemies is very different from engaging enemies in combat, or subverting them to fight each other. My hope is that each player will try out all the options and get something new out of the game every time they play.

The multiple endings further encourage replay by hinting that there is more to see. The steps required to get a different ending also provide an extra challenge and create a different experience than a player would have on her first time through the game.

NL: Why aren’t there Boss fights?

DP: One of my primary values in Eldritch was to support all kinds of play styles, including nonlethal and stealthy approaches. Boss fights tend to be highly structured events, with discrete, specific win conditions. Consequently, they don’t mix well with player-driven goals or rules of conduct. The original release of Deus Ex: Human Revelation was a high profile example of how this can go wrong. (I understand they’ve improved it in the new Director’s Cut version, but I haven’t had the opportunity to play that yet.)

I did experiment a bit with open-ended alternatives to boss fights. The best example of this is at the end of Eldritch’s World 2, where the player encounters a hallway full of especially dangerous enemies, but can circumvent them in a number of creative ways. In the future, I’d like to explore new ways to mesh that sort of open-ended problem solving with the exciting spectacle of a conventional boss fight.

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NL: How do you develop the soundtrack for a game?

DP: My goal for the soundtrack was to make something that sat in the background, without a prominent melody and provided a gloomy ambience as a counterpoint to the game’s colorful visuals. It was performed by making strange noises with my electric guitar, scraping the strings, banging the body, and playing ugly intervals. For each track, I would record a few minutes of that sort of thing, then loop and layer and filter it in Audacity to produce something more structured and coherent.

My background in music is in more conventional pop music songwriting. This was the first time I’d attempted anything of such an experimental nature, but I was fairly pleased with the result, and players have responded well to it.

(Incidentally, the soundtrack is available for just $2 at http://dphrygian.bandcamp.com!)

NL: What was the most satisfying part of this experience?

DP: It’s very rewarding to have people that are excited about what I’m making. I can make a career out of this, and I’m extremely grateful for that. It’s an amazing feeling to have created something of my own and to see it reviewed on sites like Polygon (http://www.polygon.com/2013/10/14/4835136/eldritch-review) and available for sale on Steam (http://store.steampowered.com/app/252630/).

NL: Do you anticipate this will come out on PS3 or X-Box Live Arcade at some point in the near future?

DP: I don’t have any plans for consoles yet, but I would definitely consider it if the opportunity arises. At the moment, I’m working on bringing Eldritch to Mac and Linux. I don’t have a release date for those versions yet, but they’re in beta testing now and should be available before too long.

NL: Steam is a powerful player, what are your thoughts on Steambox?

DP: I haven’t had a chance to go hands-on with a SteamOS machine, but I’m cautiously excited about it. I intend for Eldritch to be available on SteamOS when the devices are ready.

What I really hope for is that SteamOS is a truly open platform, capable of running software beyond the curated list of games available on Steam. We don’t need another walled garden platform in the living room.

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NL: For those who inevitably pirate games, what would you say to convince them to buy Eldritch?

DP: As you say, piracy is inevitable. At Minor Key Games, we release games without DRM because we believe DRM ultimately does nothing to prevent piracy and only hurts legitimate customers. Of course, I would hope that if someone downloads a pirated copy of Eldritch and enjoys it, he might buy a DRM-free copy from our website at www.eldritchgame.com. But mostly, I regard piracy as a separate ecosystem that will never play by the rules, and I just don’t allow myself to worry about it.

NL: What do you think the biggest problems are with software development and the the gaming industry today?

DP: I believe the gaming industry is at a tipping point right now. There are so many big budget games being developed, but only a few manage to be successful or even recoup their development cost. As a result, many professional developers like myself are abandoning the industry to pursue smaller independent ventures. But I worry that up-and-coming indie devs may easily be lost amongst the crowd. And the situation on mobile platforms seems even more dire, with independent and publisher-backed games competing in the same space, resulting in race-to-the-bottom price points and an almost inevitable dependence on “free-to-play” monetization.

I would like to see publishers embrace low- to mid-budget games again. The games industry could perhaps benefit from a Miramax, someone to find and market and distribute games from small or independent developers without compromising their vision.

NL: What games influenced you growing up?

DP: My biggest influences are the games of Looking Glass Studios and the legacy they left behind when they closed in 2000. I play Thief II, System Shock 2, and Deus Ex again every couple of years, and I am amazed how well they hold up years later, and a little disappointed that they have rarely been matched and maybe never surpassed.

I am also a huge fan of the early Super Mario Bros. games, although the influence on Eldritch may be less apparent. What Super Mario Bros. did exceptionally well is to nail the “game feel,” the almost tangible sense of inertia and solidity in the mechanics that the player experiences through the controller and the screen. It is crucially important to me that movement feels good in any game I make. When such a fundamental element of the game isn’t enjoyable, everything else suffers. When movement feels natural and comfortable, everything else feels better too.

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NL: Do you think working in the industry has disillusioned you? Do you still get excited about new releases?

DP: I still look forward to playing new games, but I find myself far less susceptible to marketing hype. I can’t watch a game demo without thinking how much smoke and mirrors goes on behind the scenes, or worrying about the health of the developers who worked untenably long hours for weeks on end to meet the deadline.

Perhaps not coincidentally, many of the games I have most enjoyed this year are smaller games from independent developers: Gone Home, Spacebase DF-9 and The Novelist from my ex-2K friends, Gunpoint and Sir and You Are Being Hunted from a couple of fantastic British developers.

NL: Finally, what is your favorite Zelda title?

DP: A Link to the Past, no question. It has absolutely everything I want from a Zelda game, without the fluff that has slowly crept into the series. And the scene with the Flute Boy in the Dark World remains one of the most mutedly haunting moments I’ve experienced in a video game.

And there you have it, David Pittman! Please check out Minor Key Games at their website – http://www.minorkeygames.com/. You can also purchase Eldritch here – http://www.eldritchgame.com/. After you’ve played, stop back and let us know what you think of the game!

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