It began with a leap of faith. They didn’t all make the leap at the same time, but as each developer took the risk and walked away from their jobs to work on a project that had no guarantee of success or security, they knew they had made the right decision. This is a story about how a small group of developers from Pandemic Studios came together to work on a trans-Pacific project: Vessel.
The First Leap Forward
The year is 2008 and John Krajewski is a lead AI programmer at Brisbane’s Pandemic Studios. Originally from Seattle, Krajewski is working on Pandemic’s enormous but unannounced title, but he, like so many other developers, is ready to go independent. He has plans for a game he wants to make -- a game he can't make while he's at Pandemic. He wants to create his own game engine, to equip it with quirky physics features and to build it to a point where it's sophisticated enough to support the kind of game he wants to make.
At this point in time Krajewski still had a job at Pandemic and the studio was one of the largest in the country. But his urge to creative something unique and his ideas for this new engine had opened a new door for him -- a door that led to a project that had no guarantees of funding, success, or even access to a team that would help him make it happen. Despite the lack of certainty and security, Krajewski made the leap and, weeks before Pandemic Studios closed, he and fellow Pandemic developer Martin Farren left the studio, joined forces, and created their own: Strange Loop Games.
“A Strange Loop is this idea of a loop of self-creation, a loop of references intertwined, and the idea that that is where meaning emerges,” says Krajewski, three years on from his departure from Pandemic.
“It’s like the ‘chicken and the egg’ problem; it’s the Escher painting of two hands each drawing the other. There’s a certain mystery and meaning that emerges from that, and that’s what we want to explore with what we create.”
Krajewski has a clear idea of what and his team are doing now and where they want to go, but he admits that three years earlier things were somewhat murkier. When he and Martin Farren left Pandemic to start Strange Loop Games together, he says that they worked on faith until they were able to secure funding for their game.
“[It was] kind of like swimming out into the fog hoping there’s an island out there!” he says.
“It was a leap for us to start off in that direction without funding, but we all went into it knowing it’s something we wanted to do. And even if we didn’t find our way to making a commercial project, the life experience would have been valuable and worth it anyway.”
The game he had in mind that was born from all the time he spent building and tinkering with his hobby game engine was Vessel, a fascinating platformer with ambitious design.
“The idea behind Vessel was to explore a game mechanic that has barely been touched: fluid mechanics,” says Krajewski.
“The game started as a liquid simulation and the mechanics, story and art grew around that, so everything has a connection that feels natural -- nothing is disjointed.”
The fluid mechanics are perhaps the most prominent character in the game, providing context for many of the puzzles and giving the game world an organic liveliness.
“There is a tonne of processing going on to drive the liquid and the liquid creatures called Fluros in Vessel,” Krajewski says.
“Every particle of a Fluro’s body is a simulated liquid drop. It’s all worth it because when you simulate to that level of detail, there’s so much more that becomes available to you. We're simulating the mass of the character's bodies at such a fine grain level of detail, and our game design takes advantage of that."
“Creatures can melt themselves, drink up liquid in the world and add it to their body, regrow lost limbs, and mix with other types of liquid for chemical effects. All kinds of stuff that you kind of get for free once you're simulating across the board. That's what we wanted to experiment with in Vessel.”
A Second And Far Greater Leap
Milenko Tunjic joined Pandemic Studios in 2003. He worked as a 3D and concept artist and had met John Krajewski and Martin Farren while they worked on Destroy All Humans 1 and 2, and also Mark Filipelli, another concept artist who would later join the Vessel Team.
By the time Pandemic Studios had closed, Krajewski and Farren had already left to work on Vessel full-time, with Tunjic moving to the now-defunct Krome Studios to work on Legend of Guardians: Owls of Ga-Hoole. Settled into a full-time role at a large game development studio, Tunjic continued with his work at a concept artist, but something didn’t feel right.
“Working at Krome never felt comfortable,” he says.
“Don’t get me wrong, it was not Krome’s fault -- the team and I were friendly enough and they accepted and respected me… I just felt that I’d spent too long working for big companies and the more time I spent there, the further I was from my own hopes and dreams.”
Tunjic was torn -- the games industry had been thrust into the global financial crisis and he felt lucky to have a job, especially one at a well-recognised studio, but he struggled to find a way to enjoy his work. On top of that, he wasn’t sure how to explain to his wife and two children that he wanted to quit his job during a time when the rest of the world was experiencing so much financial uncertainty.
“I was worried about what they would say,” Tunjic admits.
“I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to go and what was out there.”
Communicating this to his family was easier than expected -- they understood why he needed a change and were completely supportive of his decision to move on from Krome, even if they didn’t know what the future held for him.
“So I made my decision. In March 2010, I resigned from Krome and started my freelance career.”
Tunjic started off by offering his freelance services to a few Facebook games and an ABC project called Alternator, but around this time he also heard that John Krajewski was looking for ex-Pandemic developers to assist with Vessel.
The two of them caught up and Krajewski showed Tunjic what he’d been working on.
“The tech he showed me at the time was quite impressive, even though it was a 2D game which is not exactly my cup of tea,” says Tunjic.
“But the art was partly non-existent and partly inconsistent due to many people throwing bits and bobs in: some bits were really serious-looking, others were too cartoony. He asked me to contribute a little, and I agreed.”
Krajewski and Farren moved back to Seattle to continue working on the game and offered Tunjic the role of art director. He accepted. Over in the US, Krajewski secured funding for the game, while back in Australia, Tunjic began working on a hell of a lot of art.
From Bits And Bobs To A Unified Vessel
Tunjic wasn’t a fan of side-scrolling games, but he liked the challenge that Vessel gave him.
“I decided that my first step towards freedom and independence would be seeing how different I could make a 2D game look,” he says.
As the art director on a project with only one other artist, Tunjic was also ready to take responsibility for the game’s art style.
“This time I have no one to hide behind, so whatever criticism the art style gets, I have to take it on the chin… and live with the shame if I fail,” he says.
Being the art director on a project with such a small team had its own learning curve. Tunjic explains that while he was creating the concept images he pushed the art and made it over-the-top, thinking that it was just pitch art rather than the standard for the game. He was wrong.
“John and Martin went out of their way to provide all the tools I needed to achieve that level of visual detail… so I ended up digging my own grave,” he says.
Tunjic went to work pulling the ambitious art style together. His first task was to make it consistent. His second was to factor in the technology and work with the complicated fluid mechanics.
“John and Martin created this world driven by the physics, with the fluid sloshing around and dynamic lights bouncing off the surfaces. To have dynamic lights working we needed something for them to bounce off, but we could not have 3D objects in the game… I jokingly asked John and Martin for parallax, fog, depth of field and a few other things, and a couple of weeks later I had all those at my disposal."
“The final style is a combination of art, tech, tweaks, and then balances to keep the world uniform,” he says.
Small Team, Big Ambitions, Big Lessons
With Milenko Tunjic and later Mark Filippelli -- all former Pandemic employees -- on board, Vessel began to transform from a liquid puddle into something that signalled that the team was doing something right. The art started coming together, new characters, levels, and puzzles emerged, and Strange Loop Games were onto creating something unique.
“The thing we do that no one else has done is create creatures out of this liquid,” says Krajewski.
“The story and mechanics revolve around that: you play Arkwright, the inventor of Fluro, a liquid automaton that performs labour and is used throughout the world,” he says.
“But this machine is starting to adapt to the world and evolve, and you must deal with this problem. Mechanic-wise, the things you’re doing in the game revolve around these creatures."
“You’re collecting and distributing liquid using your tools, you’re bringing to life and destroying these Fluros. You’re animating matter into something that then works for (or against) you.”
In 2011, Strange Loop Games brought on Pandemic’s former AI programmer, Kieran Lord, to work on Vessel’s audio. With half the team based in Seattle and the other half in Brisbane, the developers had to push themselves to make the game happen.
“We only have four people on our core team, so everything is our problem,” says Krajewski.
“Being indie is a pretty different experience to working at a large studio with a team of a hundred where you have a much smaller role and it means a lot of stuff is ‘not your problem’ and you can just not worry about it,” he says.
But Krajewski welcomes the change.
“I actually prefer the type of games you can make with a team of four, because you are infinitely more agile and you can take bigger risks and do things that have never been done,” he says.
“A team of 100 has a budget in the millions -- you can’t gamble with that kind of money. You have to make something proven to sell, or else no one will give you the millions you need in the first place."
“Our team can do things that haven’t been proven. That’s what interests me most as a game developer and a game player, so that’s where I want to be.”
Over in the art department, Tunjic echoes Krajewski’s sentiments.
“Working for big studios is both a blessing and a curse,” he says.
“You’re paid well, looked after and respected for your skill. At the same time, you’re chasing someone else’s dream, drawing someone else’s pictures, and creating someone else’s fantasy.”
“On the other hand, you learn all the nooks and crannies of the trade and, if you’re keen and curious, you pick up many skills. You also learn patience and, most importantly, you learn how to finish what you started.”
Tunjic says that working in a big team can be quite frustrating for a concept artist, especially when the final product looks nothing like the concept art that was initially drawn and there is little the artist can do about it. He’s thankful for the training he has received at large studios, but is ready to take full control for Vessel’s art style.
“If you compare big game companies to an orchestra, a small guerrilla indie team would be a little rock band (or if it sounds too pompous, a quartet), with fewer people each playing many instruments,” Tunjic says.
In the Strange Loop rock band (or quartet, if you prefer), Tunjic is no longer just responsible for concept art. After drawing it, he passes it onto Filippelli, who generates a normal map for it. This then gets passed back to Tunjic, who colours it and places it in the game world. Filippelli then looks after the particle effects and assists with building the game world. On top of that, the game is big. The team may be small, but Tunjic says there was a lot of it to create.
“Building worlds was the biggest chunk of work that had to be done,” he says.
“With side-scrolling games, the world keeps rolling forward forever, and I had to dress every bit of it.”
So with a team situated on opposite sides of the world, how does the game even get made?
Kieran Lord, who joined the Vessel team six months ago to create the audio effects, says that it can be challenging, but there are a few surprising positives to it.
“Time zones make meetings really hard, and not being able to just walk over and talk to someone takes a lot of getting used to,” Lord says.
“Skype is the main communication tool that keeps us together. There’s a group chat running at all times that the whole team uses to communicate, and we have an audio call once a week to see where everyone’s at.”
As for the positives?
“Vessel’s levels are incredibly complicated, so we have a rule where only one person works on any level at a time,” he says.
“This would be a major issue if John needed to work on the same level as me, but because he starts work several hours after I stop every night, he can take over from where I left off. It’s like having people on different shifts.”
Krajewski also says that working with an international team has turned out surprisingly easy to manage.
“We’re all driven on the project and take the initiative to get things done … if we had people that needed more supervision, it would fall apart,” he says.
After years in development, Vessel is almost ready for release on XBLA, PSN, and PC. Making the game with such a small team has been difficult, but Krajewski believes that had they not done it this way, the game might not exist at all.
He says that if had a large studio made Vessel, it would probably be similar to games that already exist and lose some of its weirdness.
“It would probably be longer but less interesting,” he says.
“The core liquid mechanic took a long time to research and create before we could even start the game, which is not usually the way games are made at a larger studio, so it might never have been made at all.”
Tunjic says he probably underestimated what he signed himself up for, but he has no regrets.
“Holy crap, it was a massive undertaking,” he says.
“I don’t think I’ve had a weekend for the past 18 months where I didn’t put at least a few hours of work in every Saturday and Sunday.”
“And if I had to, I would do it all over again.”
Vessel is due to be released in winter in the US (summer over here) on XBLA, PSN and PC.