The last time we spoke to Nick Pearce, he was flying on a high: The Forgotten City, a mod that he'd spent more than 1700 hours building, had just won an Australian Writers' Guild award. It was the first Australian screenwriting award given to a video game mod, a staggering accomplishment given it was a mod borne entirely out of love.
Since then, Pearce has been thinking about what the next stage of development looks like. He quit his full-time job, and after fielding a bunch of offers to work with other studios, Pearce decided to walk a long and difficult path of his own: turning his Skyrim mod into a game of its own.
For many, turning a project like The Forgotten City into something grander would be the logical next step. Pearce, however, was initially against the idea.
In a conversation with Kotaku, the Aussie developer explained that he met with three developers from League of Geeks, the makers of Armello. "They were just really good guys who are keen to help people find their way in the games industry. They asked if I'd considered making the mod into a standalone game," he said.
The problem, as Pearce saw it, was threefold:
- He didn't have the time, or expertise, to make a game from scratch;
- He wasn't sure he'd get legal approval;
- and he wasn't certain fans of The Forgotten City would want a repeat experience
Part of the help came from the wisdom of others: Dan Pinchbeck, who worked on Dear Esther, told Pearce that their fan base wasn't perturbed by the mod being transformed into a standalone game. That helped immensely: at the time the gaming community was still divided over the debate surrounding paid mods. "It was unclear how [the modding community] would react to somebody re-imagining a mod as a stand-alone game - it could have been anywhere from apathy to hostility," Pearce said.
Getting legal clearance wasn't a small feat, either. "It took well over a year of sending very polite emails," Pearce explained, "asking if they were cool with me disentangling my IP from theirs and develop mine into a standalone game. Those emails led to a phone call with their lawyer. To their credit, they were pretty reasonable."
With that sorted, there was just one other problem to untangle: actually making the damn game. So Pearce took a leap of faith: he quit his job, and used the money he had to hire Alex Goss, a programmer who'd worked on the VR space-walker Earthlight.
A shot of a placeholder level from the The Forgotten City, which formed part of the prototype that was submitted to Film Victoria. Image: Supplied
At this stage, Pearce had some professional help. But he still didn't have any experience building something from scratch with modern engines. "I researched Unreal, Unity, and CryENGINE/Lumberyard, and downloaded and tinkered with all of them," he said.
When he fired up the Unreal Engine, he spent an afternoon playing around with a level, incorporating assets he'd picked up from the Unreal Marketplace. He wanted to recreate the mod's first scene, and after producing the image above, he "uninstalled the other engines not long afterwards".
After building out the rest of the placeholder level, Pearce then used iClone and Character Creator to assemble 3D characters and some animations. "I fed my original audio recordings from the mod (stripped of all references to any third party IP) into iClone to generate lip sync, and recorded some full body animations using a Perception Neuron mocap suit," he explained.
"I brought those characters and their animations into the game level and essentially re-created the first "Act" of the mod in a generic fantasy setting, being careful to avoid infringing anyone else's IP, which is something I'm really mindful of."
Through that process, Pearce was able to rebuild a vertical slice of The Forgotten City's first act. This end result was this:
The pitch and presentation of the game was good enough that Film Victoria's panel awarded a crucial grant. "If they hadn't, we would have run out of runway very quickly," Pearce said.
That experience was also a good example of the value of prebought assets in development, something that's not always understood. I asked Pearce what he thought of the recent discourse around pre-bought assets, and he pointed out that not only were they crucial in the prototyping stages — it's hard to build everything by hand until you have a visual structure around how everything will fit — but it was also key in keeping the cost of games down.
"We want players to come away from it with a sense of understanding and pride and elation, and maybe a tear in their eye, and to rave to their friends about the Nolan-esque mind-fuck they just had," Pearce said. "We want to bring that experience to as many people as possible, for the lowest price possible (in our case $20), and since most indie games never turn a profit it's a risky business, so we need to be sensible about our budget - as do all indie developers."
"That's why a lot of indie devs, including the team behind PUBG, use original artwork supplemented with AAA-quality artwork they've licensed on a non-exclusive basis, to bring down the cost of developing their game, and make it more affordable for gamers. That's why PUBG costs $30 and not something like $80. So it's good for devs and good for gamers."
None of the assets used in the prototype were brought over, he added.
After the prototype was complete, Pearce worked with John Eyre, an environment artist who's worked on Hand of Fate 2 to overhaul the mod's original setting into an ancient Roman city discovered in the present day. AIE lecturer Christiaan Gerritsen also came on as a technical artist. Image: Supplied
Another interesting element, one that Pearce hadn't shared with me last year, was that the characters were all based on clients and people he'd met during his time as a lawyer. "Some of the characters in The Forgotten City are inspired by former clients of mine, like the vulnerable and disadvantaged people I got to know while volunteering at Community Legal Centres for several years."
"It's sometimes said that a legal career is an adventure in applied ethics, and I think that's absolutely true, and it's why The Forgotten City has at its core these heart-wrenching ethical dilemmas and open-ended philosophical questions, like can authoritarian rules overcome the problems with human nature and bring us closer to utopia, or is the cure worse than the disease?"
And that's ultimately what encouraged Pearce to take the plunge: the ability to tell stories.
"I get a constant stream of messages from fans telling me which endings brought them to tears, which twists made them jump out of their chair or scream at their screen, which characters broke their hearts, and how they wish there were more games like it," he said.
Once he'd surpassed the hurdles originally stopping him from creating a standalone product, Pearce realised he was largely sitting on a once in a lifetime opportunity: he might make another game, another mod, write another story, but they might never have the groundswell of success and interest that he'd created with The Forgotten City.
"If it works out, I'd love to keep telling awesome stories in bigger and better games. If not, I'll take the extraordinary skill set I've accumulated on this adventure, and start a new one. Either way, I'll have a hell of a story to tell."