A Massive Chat With Dean Hall About Icarus, Development And Learning From Failure

A Massive Chat With Dean Hall About Icarus, Development And Learning From Failure
Image: Icarus

While I’d already posted a small snippet of my long chat with Dean Hall about the success of Valheim and how Valve is going with talk of a New Zealand office, there was an awful lot of our chat left on the cutting room floor. How is Icarus coming along, exactly? And how has the studio fared over the last few years, given the difficulty Dean Hall famously had initially when first setting up the studio and more recent challenges with COVID and layoffs? How exactly does Icarus plan to deliver frequent content updates in a way that doesn’t cause staff to burnout? And why exactly was stone walls so difficult that the studio scrapped their entire art approach for them three separate times?

Those are just some of the things we covered in our hour-long chat. And because it was a fascinating talk that touched on so many different areas — much like other chats we’ve had with local developers — I wanted to post that in full so you can all enjoy the conversation.

Image: Icarus

Note: The chat initially began with myself and Stephen Knightly, Rocketwerkz’s chief operating officer, and we begun discussing a separate Fine Art piece on Icarus. To illustrate what that would look like, I provided a link to a collection Luke posted from Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, which kickstarted the conversation.

Dean Hall, Rocketwerkz founder: There’s been so many aspects to what we’re looking at. What we’re looking through here with Odyssey, that’s an era of video games that has grown up. It’s about storytelling, so it’s quite cohesive. But with a survival game, how do you bring it together cohesively when players are making all the content? So that’s something that has been a real struggle with us.

Brent, our lead 3D artist, we worked very heavily with him, with some very talented artists like [Bernadette Lirio]. Fresh off Cyberpunk and stuff like that, to figure out how do we build stone walls that players can build in a way that actually looks awesome and supports our world. Big challenge, actually, with survival games. So I think I’m quite proud with the work we’ve done there. There’s a lot of iteration, even just around things — you wouldn’t think so — iterating the art style of cutting down trees.

Alex Walker, Kotaku Australia: That reminds me, Naughty Dog do a lot of — I always like checking into SIGGRAPH talks and the ones they do at GDC, especially with the technical art directors. There was one, I think Luke wrote it for [Kotaku US], but the aquarium from The Last of Us 2. I think just building out that particular section took 7 or 8 months to lock in.

Hall: I think I know the talk your’e talking about. We didn’t find a lot of reference in terms of approach that we can use. Because a lot of these games, they’re narrative games and you’re constructing this experience for the players to go through. Whereas in actual fact, our game is very session based and it’s about the players generating their own stories.

How do you generate art in a cohesive way with this world that supports that? I don’t know whether this is fair to say, but I definitely think our genre of survival games has not been great at that. Valheim beautifully sidestepped the issue with an awesome, stylised rendering of things, which let them sidestep some of the issues that I would throw at DayZ, Ark: Survival Evolved in terms of how janky the building can end up looking.

Stephen Knightly, Rocketwerkz chief operating officer: Cohesive was probably a good word, right?

Hall: Yeah. So we spent a lot of time hand crafting this giant level, these giant worlds for the players to play in. And then if we were putting in these structures into the game, it was really hard for us to get them to look like they fitted in. Our aim was, we picked Skyrim. You know in Skyrim, you walked around, “This is amazing.” The buildings fitted in with the environment beautifully. And I would argue Valheim, same thing. The buildings just beautifully fit in. There were some things Valheim did that I think were just standout there. I’m not going to say it was easy for them — because I don’t think that’s true — but the challenge we faced was going much higher fidelity. How do we deliver an art style that people would expect from The Last of Us or something like that, in an open world survival game? Very challenging. I think we’ve gotten most of the way there, we’ve still got a little bit to go with it, but we definitely succeeded on the construction front.

Do you get much help from Unreal on that front?

Hall: A lot of help. Unreal have actually been fantastic; I think they’ve got unfinished business with the survival genre. We’ve had a lot of support, all the way up at a very high level, and they’ve been fantastic actually. Look, a lot of the work that came into Fortnite was directly helping us. So our big challenge has been continuing to upgrade the engine all the time, and we just soak up those new features. Actually, we ended up building on them. There was some cool tech we did around FLOD – so basically every tree in the whole map is chop-downable, 8×8 kilometre area, and every rock is mineable. So we’re able to take that relationship, that special relationship with Epic, and actually build on it.

Knightly: You know we mean a LOD, a level of detail system, a standard feature in many game engines. What’s the F stand for?

Hall: I can’t remember. There’s the FWAD–

Knightly: –or fluid, or foliage–

Hall: We definitely took a bunch of systems and built on top of it. We ended up using it for a bunch of different things.

Knightly: We have weather and clouds is another example of that — [those upgrades] came in in the latest versions of the Unreal Engine.

Hall: I love looking at the art analysis for a AAA game like Odyssey or Mass Effect or something like that. Fascinating approach as it goes through. Our challenge, I feel like is, is kind of crappier and harder in a way because it’s not quite as sexy as some of that. And it can be really hard because you’re handing the experience over to the player, and you don’t get control over how the player builds stuff. So it’s a real challenge: we scrapped stone walls like 3 times. We did every stone buildable piece, we just, the art style completely scrapped it three times.

And then once we did the third one, we were like — actually I think it was the second one — we’re like, our building pieces have unique destructions. If a tree falls on this piece, that bit gets lopped off. That was really hard to do then because we’d just made this art style, and we’re like, we love this art style. But now we want to do this, and we had to change that whole asset again. So it was very challenging, because I’d worked on more linear games in the past — a long time ago, like The Clone Wars PSP SKU was my SKU, and that had its own challenges. But we had a very defined art style provided by LucasArts, defined levels to go down.

Was that also just part of the experience; this is going to be the first major project for Rocketwerkz, so when you’re building out and scoping out these new features, [was it] just a reminder to build things in a way that’s scalable?

Hall: Watch Stephen cringe when I say this, but it’s the first major Rocketwerkz project that wasn’t cancelled.

Knightly: I won’t put that down to new team or anything – it’s an excellent senior experienced team.

Hall: But you’ll know this as a games journalist, but for every game that comes out — and it doesn’t matter the level of studio, whether its Bethesda or some indie or something — there’s often 5 cancelled projects before you get anything resembling success.

Knightly: Or two or three cancelled stone wall types. Iteration is what it’s about.

Hall: And we definitely went through a lot of iteration in the studio. And I felt like after DayZ, I wanted to go back and learn how to do a bunch of things I didn’t need to do. And so this reboot of the studio here was a really good chance for us to get everything together. We combined that with pulling together a really awesome team — many of the ex-Grinding Gear, particularly on the concept side — and we got a really strong concept team, putting stuff directly into the game, very broad powers to do stuff.

Knightly: It’s interesting because normally concept people are illustrators, but they also work in technical expertise, biology, ecology, and the like. But they’ve all got the Blender. So they’ve all turned into a pre-viz team.

Hall: But they all kind of were from the start. And I think one of the other big challenges is we specifically said we didn’t want to do bubblegum sci-fi — no Destiny. We wanted that gritty, truckers in space, Alien style. It’s what I love about Alien — what’s the one–

Knightly: Prometheus?

Hall: No, the video game.

Alien: Isolation?

Hall: So everybody says they played it; I played it for 5 minutes at EGX in London once, just before I went on a panel, and I nearly wet myself. A beautiful art style, following very faithfully to the films, but it’s actually quite a hard art style to pull off, that familiar — it’s almost boring. And we really wanted to go for that familiar art style [with Icarus] because, it’s such a — I’m tempted to say sedate but that’s not the right word. But really going for that familiar, authentic feel to really just put you in. We believe this is a serious product. I think video games in general, and in fact particularly our genre, has not grown up and taken itself seriously. And I think, we’re really hoping, that we can.

You didn’t show him the trailer?

I hadn’t been able to watch through all 7 minutes of it; about maybe 4 or 5 minutes so far. I was going to say contemporary when you were talking about that style: that foliage, those forests, deserts, things that people know and love but it doesn’t have that sheen of a more stylised, No Man’s Sky

Hall: That Unreal look.

Yeah, the Unreal look. Glossy, almost. So how do you bridge that gap? Because it’s not just the look, you’ve got to have ambient sound, the right elements that add the underlying emotion to give that meaning.

Hall: We’ve got Andy, our audio director from Grinding Gear. He’s a genius, he’s a savant. Very fun to work with, very demanding. We had to do a lot of resourcing the teams with everything they’d need. So instead of having an audio team who does the audio design and Andy who’s directing it making a request from programmers, we’re like, “You get a programmer. An audio programmer who works for Andy.” And we tried to develop a lot of the game concurrently, mostly with success. Similar to when they were filming the Avatar movies, they film them all at once, or Lord of the Rings, they film all at once. We tried to do the game equivalent of that. We were actually developing many parts of the game concurrently, almost as siloed prototypes, and then merged them together. And to be honest, that worked pretty well especially since we threw ourselves into it.

And that allowed us to delve into that style you talked about. There was always the temptation to go fantastic, and that’s, I think, the challenge is the restraint that’s required from an art perspective. I’ll give you an example. The orbital station’s quite important for our game: it’s where the players are waiting before they go on a drop. It’s setting the scene, the tone, all that sort of stuff.

We can do whatever we want in the station. Because we have a huge poly budget in the station, compared to when you’re on the planet. And we can make everything: we get to prerender it, bake it out, do all kinds of cool stuff. But the problem with being able to do whatever you want is you can do whatever you want. So our concept team would overdesign, and we would end up with this overdesigned station and we kept having to reject it. Because we wanted that more ISS feel. The ISS changed constantly over time, it was almost this hodgepodge, so it was really hard process actually for us to go through with that.

Quite brutal, a lot of, “OK we’ll try that, nope.” And you just know when you’ve got it. But it’s been very enjoyable chasing this art style. And you know you always say you want another six months. Luckily we gave ourselves with this chapter approach, we started our first chapter as you’re in those familiar zones, you’re in the terraformed areas. We’ve given ourselves room to grow the experience over time with it, rather than trying to bite it off all at once. Which is I think a mistake that some survival games make as well.

Can you just give me some grounding in the chapter approach and what that means from a practical standpoint? Is that kind of your equivalent of almost milestones for an early access release, or is that just chapters from an internal development standpoint?

Hall: It’s from a content standpoint. It serves two purposes. It allowed us to focus our pipelines on producing one output of a very high quality. So for example if we tried to do it all, you end up with this kind of early access mix which is not a good experience. I think Valheim did this, right: they did their key biomes first, and then they said the new biomes are coming later. Unfortunately, their new biomes are stitched into the world already which is kind of weird. But for us we’re able to make it episodic and say, right, we’re going to nail this experience.

This is what we want for you from First Cohort. We want you to feel like you almost recognise it. There’s a couple of lines in the trailer and more of the lore stuff that’s coming that describe that kind of, you’re going into an alien world, but the place you’re at now is kind of familiar. And then we get to move the player into the story. We draw them in emotionally with what’s familiar, and then we start introducing the other parts. And I think that’s where the serious nature of the game really comes in. A grown up game for me is more about restraint, it’s about nuance, it’s both through the art style and the design of the game itself. And it’s all lining up together. By releasing in chapters, it allowed us to refine the experience in each chapter and focus not only their experience, but our delivery of it much better.

Is that restraint also going to carry through to how you talk about updates that are coming to the game, and updates that are made to existing areas? Is it going to be a situation where updates to these areas are just stuff that people have to manually find and discuss as a community, rather than being like, “We’ve updated this, this is a new thing that’s in here etc.”

Hall: Yeah, so I think you’ve actually hit on a really interesting point. As I’ve been talking to some journalists, some of them struggle a bit with making this session based. What you’ve just described is one of the huge benefits of making this session based. We can actually introduce new content into the game without it breaking people’s experience. And we can do so in a way that people consume that at their own pace. So if we were making the world all together and you just had your one environment, like ARK or Valheim, as we introduce new things it has the potential to screw up someone’s experience either by breaking the game’s economy, or having to load a new environment where the player already has them. It becomes really complicated.

For us it’s really not. We can introduce new maps, new biome areas, we can add stuff to the planet, sorry to the orbital tech tree with no real impact on the game because you can only take a certain amounts of stuff with you. And that, we believe, is the real powerful thing about sessionising it. I believe quite strongly that to deliver on a good survival experience, sorry, to push survival experiences further, you need to be able to deliver more content, more regularly. And our entire machine from an art standpoint, from a design standpoint, has been about how do we build a machine that can pump content to players in a way that’s not going to break their game.

Image: Icarus

And I imagine you’ve also got to think about how you do that in a way that doesn’t break your staff as well. One of the things I think about is the hundreds — I think it’s over 1000 staff that work on Fortnite, just to continually bring content to that. And you mentioned how you had to reboot the studio. A regular cadence of content for a small team is not a simple problem by any stretch of the imagination. So how do you structure it in a practical way so you can do that and still have people working on the game 3, 4, 5 years down the track?

Hall: I think it would have been impossible to deliver on a real evolution — whenever I do something, I want to do something new about it. And I definitely think our approach for making it session based is an innovation, for sure. And that has some benefits and some negatives. I think the benefit for us is that we can take our staff of like 70 and we can focus and provide a great experience in this area while still allowing us to flow through new experiences to the players later.

Necessity is the mother of invention, right? If we were Bethesda or whatever, we probably wouldn’t necessarily have taken that approach. But that’s what so curious about Valheim. Would Valheim had made different decisions if they were a staff of 100 vs a staff of 5? I think they would’ve. But their constraints — one of their key constraints was, OK, we’re going to need a very simple art style. It’s beautiful and it worked so well even with that idea of Viking purgatory and stuff like that. It just flowed through.

Knightly: In our case, we knew this upfront, we knew we wanted to have heaps of regular content updates. So that then informed how Ben set the entire project up from the start.

Hall: Yeah, tech. So on the tech standpoint, and particularly the awesome programmers we had coming over from a decade at Grinding Gear Games with Path of Exile, this was like, “OK, how do we want to do this?” And both myself and Stephen, we’d gone through our own iterations of, right, let’s come up with how should we make a studio, and let’s not do that bit again. And so it was just serendipitous timing to come together with a group of people like, OK, let’s try and do it this way.

Knightly: Ben Carmel, our tech lead, how he’s architectured everything within the game is so that designers can add content into the game without necessarily requiring a programmer. And artists can get art into the game themselves, without those dependecies.

Hall: Without falling into the problems that can come from [Unreal Engine’s] blueprint, particularly when it comes to scale. My biggest criticism of our genre is inability to scale, even No Man’s Sky falls over a bit. Astroneers is beautiful but when your base gets a certain amount big, it really starts to fall over. It did present us with a little bit of a challenge: we’re a tech heavy studio, a very tech heavy project. How do we continue to push, because you end up with a very tech heavy game. And that’s been the hard part, how do we put heart into it.

I’d say one of my biggest criticisms of DayZ is that it was too clinical. It didn’t have enough story, it didn’t have enough to draw you in other than that emotional experience. I think PUBG and certainly Fortnite did a better job of providing clear pacing and direction to players, to say this is the experience you’re going to have and shaping that experience better.

But isn’t that also part of the development experience of discovering what your product is? PUBG and Fortnite and Icarus are able to be what they are because of how everybody saw what happened to DayZ, and that gives people clarity on what they want to make.

Hall: Absolutely. And it’s about making sombre assessments of the work that you do — it’s the role of journalists. And one of the fun parts of engaging with the community, either through a journalist who’s kind of, I consider, an academic compared to your customers themselves and actually talking with them like we are like now on Discord and stuff like that. I love that process. Early on in the DayZ mod, I absolutely adored that. That’s why I liked modding. I make something, show it, people give you feedback, and you get excited about it.

And so I think what you’re talking about there, discovering your product and growing it, there was a bad side to early access that I think really started to get in the way of that. Because it’s very easy to make a product that delivered on the cool promise, but it’s that scale, that ability to scale, to deliver content that’s really hard. Stationeers as a product gave us a great way to say, OK, how do we build a project that delivers on content. And if you look at–

Knightly: Are you familiar with Stationeers? It’s one of Rocketwerkz’s other games.

I’m not.

Knightly: It’s a really nerdy space builder.

Stationeers, an earlier game from Rocketwerkz that released in late 2017.

Hall: It’s Minecraft for nerds, in space. Anyway what was really curious, when we launched the game we maxed our concurrents at about 900 people. And game went on for 3 years or whatever, but for the last 3 weekends we’ve been setting concurrency records. So if you look at the number of players and sales, it goes down like this to almost nothing and then it starts to creep back up. And I think if you actually marry it with–early on, you have all this cool promise of your survival game. Everybody’s like, it’s amazing, it’s great.

Then you start to see the problems with it. Maybe you made your game using procedural terrain. Sounds good right? Limitless, you can go anywhere. But that means when you’ve visited one grassland biome, or one of this, you’ve visited them all. And this is the challenge for me with No Man’s Sky: one dice roll feels like another dice roll. And so then you go through this middle phase of a project where you’re facing your project’s fears, and eventually your community sees it. What are the things that didn’t work in your design, as well as what are the things that didn’t work technically?

With a survival game, it was reasonably straightforward for you to build the basic mechanics, but could you make it scale, both technically, both artistically, while maintaining consistency, as well as from a game economy standpoint? And, yeah, so that was a very long monologue from where you started.

Something you touched on as well was managing the two sides– you talked about the initial, joyous side especially when you’re modding. You’ve got that, here’s a thing, you can touch it for the first time, it’s kind of fresh, it’s new and you have that rampant excitement. And then you have the years on as people start to solidify whatever their idea is of what you’ve created, however right or wrong or filtering in the rest of their world experiences into that. And I imagine that that’s something you have to manage very closely with Icarus as well: there’s the initial reveal, people are forming their impressions of what they’ve seen, versus those who are able to do the small beta tests, and then you’ve got to keep people going along.

I think Elden Ring has a very interesting element with this right now, because there’s been so little of the game shown. But people have their own effective fantasies of what they want from it, and now the developers have to deal with the management of that on a community level. So how do you handle that and help your staff cope with the bad days?

Hall: That is a massive ongoing challenge, no matter what the size of your project is. I did a big deep dive–I love nerdSlayer’s videos about the death of a game — I presume you’ve watched those. I love going through those deep dives, what’s gone wrong. I don’t always have time to read all the articles that are out there, and it’s really great for me when there’s a YouTube compliation that goes through and pieces it all together.

And I think what helps a lot is assembling a good team, and that seems super obvious. But I was saying the other day to our tech lead, our art lead and to our principal programmers, that [Icarus] is the first project in a long time that so little has gone wrong on the tech side of it that I actually spend times at night, where I’d be about to go to sleep, and I’d go, “Is the concept good enough? Is the idea good enough?” Normally you’re so obsessed with, oh my god, it’s only running at 20 FPS or something like that. So if you’re at that point, you’re always going to worry about something. So if you’re worried about motivation, working with the best people, which we’ve been able to do I think.

Knightly: And if you’re talking about managing those external expectations with the team internally, it’s also just having a plan and sticking to it. Documents of lore and universe building. We’ve had questions for 9 months: how do we mix hi-tech astronauts with primitive survival mechanics, and we haven’t answered the question … until the trailer.

Hall: What a lot of people don’t realise is, before DayZ had come out, I had quite a bit of experience in the video game industry. I’d been a producer, I’d worked on the PSP SKU for Clone Wars, the PS2 SKU for Speed Racer, so I knew a bit about video games. And Marek [Španěl], the CEO of Bohemia Interactive, had come to me and said, ‘Let’s make [DayZ] into a standalone product.’ And I knew I needed to sit down and do game design; not that it would necessarily be the bible of how we do stuff, but I actually needed to go through the process of what are your pillars, what are your principles.”

So we started doing that, and then WarZ got announced. I panicked. ‘Someone else is going to get out there, we need to get out there, I don’t have time for this.’ And I started coding with Ondrej, Marek’s brother who wrote the ArmA engine, and I just started cutting code. And it was a bad thing to do: you haven’t gone through that process.

So you talk about, making a good point about how do you navigate that and present to players, and I think Stephen pointing to the plan is a good point. Years ago we sat down and over a long period of time, we went through and refined what the pillars of this project are, the design principles, and those to me are assumptions that must be true. That’s a pillar. And I think that made making a plan and sticking to it, and the answers you need to provide to the community more obvious.

The original trailer we did was–COVID happened, all our plans for how we were going to do things before changed. We had this opportunity to go to the PC Gamer show, we took it, and we did the best we could to get it out there. But it really did beg a lot of questions from consumers: why are these people in space suits, stuff like that.

So I think for us the inoculation for what you’re talking about there is actually sitting down and having a really good idea. What are the foundational assumptions of the project that must be true? And I’m proud to say, I think our pillars we chose real well.

So with that experience, I’m going to take a guess here and say you must have felt really validated when you started to see Valheim‘s sales numbers. Not because you looked at–

Hall: I’m so impressed you picked up on that. I think even internally a lot of people were like, ‘Oh wow, this is scary.’ And I was like, ‘This is awesome!’ We went back through our design and a bunch of things we said, ‘Oh, players will never deal with this.’

I’ll give you an example. You build structures: that’s the core of a survival game. How do we make you care about that? And we were like, ‘We should make different crafting benches require shelter.’ And we were like, ‘Ohh, we can’t do that. We tried it and people didn’t quite get it.’ Valheim comes along, validates that. That’s now acceptable. And we’re like, awesome, this is so good. And there’s four or five different things where we were like, people will never do that.

Because we’re not only doing some of the things Valheim is doing, we wanted to do a bunch of other stuff. There’s only so much — I learned this from DayZ — there’s only so much you can throw at your players before they’re like, ‘I don’t get this.’ This is Stationeers‘ problem. It’s quite hardcore in some ways, but maybe it just went too far in that direction. We wanted to make something quite approachable. That’s Valheim‘s genius. It’s our favourite cousin — it just steamrolled this path of acceptable things that we’re able to incorporate. And then we saw their sales numbers as well, we were like, ‘This is just going to make some of what we do so much easier.’

Valheim’s success validated a lot of Icarus’s riskier design ideas, according to Dean Hall. Image: Icarus

Knightly: And it also validated what you called the PvE fork of the survival genre.

Hall: Oh definitely. I definitely breathed a sigh of relief with Valheim really — it’s definitely cut us an awesome path. It’s also just a beautiful idea. It’s like Banished, that game– how did I describe it on Twitter, I described it as a beautiful concept flawlessly executed by a team who had a clear vision. And are there janky bits to it? Heck yes. But they don’t matter so much because it comes together. But I’m glad you picked up on that, because I think a lot of people go, ‘Oh, you must be worried about that.’

But it’s not a zero-sum game. And each of these games that comes out adds to the lexicon of survival games. And Valheim did us some massive favours. And if you look at their source materials, they reference Skyrim a lot. And that’s where we were, there was some commonality in where we were starting as well.

And I imagine from an investor level, you can turn around and say, look, here is another thing that’s a massive success, bigger than a lot of AAA properties, it just shows these things are still massively successful but players from one successful game will float to another successful one — and they’ll come back, too. Because that revival of survival games is very much baked into the Twitch ecosystem too.

Hall: I’m going to disagree with you — I would say publishers and investors have learned nothing at all; all they’ve learned is that they missed out on Valheim. I guarantee you that none of them would have greenlit Valheim, never in a million years, other than smaller ones and stuff like that. They’re only capable of picking up on it afterwards. And this is, I think, the great challenge our industry faces. Early access looked like it might help us with that by allowing customers, who are the only ones that matter. What I think, what you think; we’re just along for the ride. It’s the customers who decide whether something’s validated or not.

I don’t know what the answer is. I hope it’s us as developers pushing and accepting some failures along the way — of which I’ve had plenty — to try and find the right answer. We have to continue pushing and doing things that are different, and I hope when people look at Icarus, they say, ‘Hey, they’re trying something different here.’ And I’m really proud of that. But unfortunately, investors and publishers will not draw the correct conclusions from Valheim Which is hey, we should be looking at the games that are made, looking for the things that are resonating, and coming up with new ways to deliver them.

I feel like everyone’s going, yeah, Valheim was an obvious idea. Well, no it wasn’t. Those guys really pushed out on the edge, and full credit to them. That was 5 people who got this vision of a game that I bet you publishers wouldn’t really touch. And it’s those 5 people that drove stuff forward. If you’ve ever met Notch, for better for worse, he’s a character but I’d call him a friend of mine. He doesn’t maybe always come across so well on Twitter.

But he had this vision in his head, and it was him who pushed it through. And I don’t know what the answer is there, but we need to find one. Because the stakes are getting so high in making games — look at CD Projekt Red, the amount of money they’ve spent making Cyberpunk. It’s a huge bet. So how do we make these bets while still innovating? I don’t know the answer to that.

One publisher that might get it — if publisher is the right way to think of them, but I guess platform is probably more accurate — is Valve. And I was wondering now especially that things have calmed down in Australia certainly, and in New Zealand–

At this point Hall picks up the laptop and turns it around to a window and a wall with four photographs. Hall is pointing out the window to an object far off in the distance.

Hall: That’s Gabe’s [Newell] boat, apparently. It’s also my apartment.

He has a lot of board games on his boat, I was told. Is anything concrete coming out of what Gabe was saying about moving to New Zealand; is there any concrete change from COVID to the New Zealand industry that might be tangible beyond 2021?

Hall: I really like Valve: I’ve had many friends who worked there over time. Chet Faliszek took me under his wing with DayZ, really mentored me, took the rough edges off me a little bit. But Valve time is, like, glacial, even just waiting for updates to Steam. That’s not how I operate – ‘We do this now.’

Knightly: Putting on my hat as a board member for the New Zealand Game Developers Association, our chairperson Chelsea and I caught up with Gabe at the end of last year. While he would love to, I haven’t heard any specific announcements about anything happening. The comment he made, and why he would love to bring more developers to New Zealand, is because of how New Zealand has handled the lockdown.

The way Gabe describes it, New Zealand has a productivity premium. We’re just able to work 10, 20 percent faster than people who have doing it remotely over lockdown. And I think Icarus has really benefited from that. Our competitive advantage is that we can all gather around the same whiteboard together.

But now we’re in a phase where that competitive advantage is starting to settle.

Hall: What has New Zealand done with it? Nothing.

Knightly: What did Icarus do with it? Stay on schedule and stay on budget.

Stephen and I were talking earlier before you were here Dean about that was one of the things in Australia, there’s a lot of increased talk about doing something. But then the actual step about doing something to actually making something meaningfully permanent just isn’t there. And it seems like New Zealand has that same problem. Because I remember when you first set up Rocketwerkz, you had a lot of trouble with, I think, it was New Zealand with some of the programmers you were trying to bring in. And it was a massive nightmare around that.

So why is it so difficult to get some of these concrete things in place? Is it just that games are still seen at a certain level of legislator and policymaking as this kind of almost a piss-take activity that you grow out of?

Hall: The example I’ll give is that people know they want a result, and they know they’re here. But they don’t really think about connecting those two things. I think a lot of people will maybe describe me as abrasive. But I’m just a very pragmatic person. I want to know: if I want to be here, then I want to know what all the steps are to get there. It doesn’t matter whether I work from this point to here, or in the opposite direction. I don’t care; I don’t care where the good idea comes from. I don’t care if the cleaner walks in and tells me the answer. I just want to know that something’s going to work. Try, and honestly assess whether it’s worked or not.

I think a lot of people have fear about failing. So they don’t try, or they talk themselves out of it. I think it’s a real New Zealand problem, but I definitely think that New Zealanders are not good at failure. We ditch our sports team when they maybe fail and stuff like that. And so I think when people get caught with this fear of I might fail, or what if I do the wrong thing, they end up doing nothing. And that’s a symptom of things here. It’s like, OK, we’re all going to work and that. But in order to capitalise on that we have to make some decisions, and some of them might be wrong and might not work so super well. And I think people just get oscillated in that. Like I say, the time for us to make changes to the education system to deliver people into video games, the time for us to capitalise on that stuff was 4 or 5 years ago.

We have to capitalise on that stuff now. I personally believe a lot of the answers to what we need comes from me and Stephen and the rest of the team driving the change here — that’s in our sphere of influence. We’re trying to say, hey, we’re making this creative project here in New Zealand, it can be done, we can do it, here it is, screw you politicians, you’re all lazy.

Knightly: The New Zealand games industry is doing incredibly well; it’s larger than Australia’s.

Hall: But it could be way bigger.

Knightly: There’s a fantastic games education system, really collegial environment, particularly because we export everything across the world. So no games studios in New Zealand really see each other as competing with each other, so they help each other out a lot.

Hall: Well, maybe that’s part of the problem as well.

Knightly: Government always follows behind where industry leads. New Zealand just has a great games industry, looking at places like Grinding Gear Games or Ninja Kiwi who had their exit last week. (Note: Knightly is referring to Ninja Kiwi’s acquisition, where they were bought out by Modern Times Group, the same company which owns esports organisers ESL, Dreamhack and the Kongregate group, for approximately $187 million.)

Hall: There’s often powerful people, powerful internally who just had this vision like with Valheim and were pedantic about following that through. And I think that that’s, we’re missing some of that. So if you’ve worked a lot with Americans, they all think they’re supposed to be the next star or President or whatever. They have this idea that failing is this thing that happens to them. It’s not them. They fail and they do something else. It’s just a temporary delay. Whereas I feel New Zealanders, and maybe Australians as well, we internalise that failure a lot.

And another issue I have with our industry is people not seeing each other as competitiors. You’re damn right I see all those other studios as competitors. This is a business, and if it’s not, we should get out of this office space. I think we need a little bit of cutthroat in there.

But that’s good competitive spirit too. Media has a very similar thing.

Hall: You’re competing, you know. You’re an athlete: sure you’re going to go and hang out with other athletes. Maybe it’s the soldier in me. But you’re always wanting to be a better soldier than the other soldier; doesn’t mean you don’t get on. Like you say, it’s a competitive spirit. And in our industry, people should decide: are they’re in it as an art or a hobby, or are they in it to get good and get better? And I think every day I wake up and I look at what I’ve done, and I say, ‘Man, I can do a much better job of that.’ And I just hope I get more days where I get better than where I get worse.

Knightly: I hate to be that guy, but should we divert the conversation back to Icarus?

I was going to say! So obviously there’s going to be the start of — gameplay reveal is probably not the right question, it’s more consistent ongoing streams, so gameplay streams rather. So you’re going to tease it out, play with the community that way, if I’ve got that correctly. So what’s the kind of scope in terms of there’ll be more interest when you start doing that. So how are you planning to expand?

Hall: I think it’s test and adjust as you go. Good old military OODA loop: observe, orient, decide, act. We have awesome plans, and I think one of the best decisions I ever made was hiring Stephen, because Stephen is amazing.

Knightly: One of the best decisions I ever made was hiring Lorii, our new community manager.

Hall: Lorii’s fantastic. I love her. Coming to work here, everyone is just awesome. Half the time I say, we should do this. And then I find out it’s already happened.

I think that’s a two-way answer of saying, we’ve got a really good plan but we’re really just assessing that plan at each stage. We’re starting to talk to people like yourself, because we’ve reached a point of comfort with the game and the pillars. We’re comfortable with it. And then we’d already identified areas of confusion with the product, because we’re really on the edge of our genre. And you watch that documentary trailer and you’re like, ‘The fuck is this?’ But in a good way, and an intriguing way. And so when you’re on the edge of something, you are experimenting with how to talk to your customers about it and how they experience it.

So yeah by releasing some of the lore, the universe we’re building with it, as well as revealing the game and development of the game, and then we see how as a community engaging with that, what is the most useful mechanisms we’re getting feedback through it. And then basically focusing on those, test and adjust. And that’s our huge competitive advantage over Rockstar, Cyberpunk and all that: we can be super agile. Because the decision is ours alone. And I think it’s guerilla warfare — you’ve got to fight where you’re strong and they’re weak. And that’s ours: we’re agile.

How much confusion are you expecting from that documentary trailer and either not understanding that it is going to form part of the official in-game lore, or watching it and thinking, ‘Why did you put the time into this instead of showing more of the game’. You know that kind of divisive reaction you get in games.

Hall: I’ve watched it a thousand times, so I’m probably way too close to it. But what I would say is that a huge regret of mine with DayZ was not investing time into the universe or world. I think, I am quite a technical person at heart. So I want to make sure my contribution to the genre is one that scales. You hear me say ‘does it scale’ all the time. I think I neglected building a world for the players. And I think if you look at the failure of Anthem, how could that happen to Bioware? That just doesn’t compute in my mind.

But when you look through, how do you take this world and this narrative and introduce it to players in a multiplayer concept, I think I’m really good at multiplayer. And same with many of the people at the studio, there’s real good pedigree with multiplayer. So we’re experimenting now, how do we build a universe for players in a multiplayer game. And I think that the recipe that we’re trying is the way to do it, but the proof is not in the pudding, but in the eating. So I guess we’ll see.

Knightly: And also to answer your question: yeah, you’re right, we know people will want to see the game. So we’re here to start being quite open about our development.

Hall: I don’t think survival games have grown up, and I think it’s about time they did. I think grown up media — and you guys cover this quite a bit, which I quite like — grown up media is complicated, because life is complicated. And some of my favourite movies are complicated movies. My reaction to them is complicated. And so my hope is that it’s intriguing, that it feels adult, restrained, interesting, like the science fiction that I like. It’s complicated; the characters are complicated; they’re multi-dimensional. Our product is multi-dimensional, which means that is a challenge for us to relate to people. But it’s one that we’re excited about.

I imagine that’s an interesting challenge from a marketing perspective; that’s quite a nice quote to say, but it’s not exactly something you can put on a Steam description or put simply into an elevator pitch. It doesn’t quite connect to what is the loop, how it all comes together, even though that is actually the essence of what you’re trying to sell.

Hall: What I love is our writer Henry, who I’ve worked with for a long time. We’ve had many failures together. And that means it’s very easy to work with him, because we’ve both reached this really pragmatic point where we know what’s working and what’s not. And he went through our Steam page and was just really happy with the copy he came up [with]; you just sort of get that moment where everything start lining up. So that’s giving me confidence with our approach. I don’t think we’re going to get everything right, but I’m certainly very proud of the efforts we’re making on it. And I think that’s about all you can hope for; we can’t surprise ourselves. We’re on the edge of our genre; we’re trying something new and innovative. That’s what you get when you’re there.

Just to zoom out a little bit — I know we’ve only got a few minutes left. One of the things that wasn’t really a thing when you were working on DayZ, and not even when PUBG or Fortnite came up and expanded a lot of people’s ideas of this type of scale of games, was models beyond straight up paid-for and models beyond straight up free-to-play.

Now we’re looking at the expansion of Xbox Game Pass, but there are also people are starting to change the way they think about things, even PlayStation Plus. And you have other side models like Humble Bundle and stuff. So from your perspective, are you at a point where Game Pass and a subscription base, putting Icarus through a service like that, is something you’d actively seek or work for?

Hall: I think you really hit the nail on the head in that this is sort of a conversation and a process that you work through. I think that’s where we’re at. The key part of that is the community. This is where I think our competitive advantage of being able to go out and talk with people, discuss it openly and assess stuff, gives us a point of difference and I think a competitive advantage over other companies. We can do that because we’re little, we’re agile. Whereas if I look at Evolve — it was a good game and its monetisation really hurt it. Our inoculation to that is talking. So our official position–

Knightly: Our official position is we don’t have any launch dates, or pricing or platforms–

Hall: But I see that as the opportunity for us, saying we want to get it right. And we don’t have some crappy publisher — you can quote me on that, at the moment anyway — who’s going to hurt us on that front. And I think I could rattle off for hours the amount of games — and I’m sure you can as well — that would be hurt by that. And I think we have a responsibility as an industry to make sure that we’re modelling how our games come out in the right way. That means not undermonetising them either, because how can you afford to provide the content that you’ve committed to if you haven’t done it right? So I want to find the right answer, whatever that is. And I think the people who decide that are your customers; there’s no-one else. It’s not a board, it’s not me, or anyone. We decide what we try. They’re the ones who decide whether it’s success or failure. So I want to hear from them.


The first chapter of Icarus, titled First Cohort, will be released on PC through Steam. You can follow more gameplay through the official Icarus Twitch channel here.

Correction 20/04: Fixed a mention where Modern Times Group was listed as Modern Times Games; apologies for the error.

Comments

  • Looks like Planet Nomad, lots of companies try to make realistic looking and feeling versions of these ground to space survival games but ultimately fail pretty hard. However Space Engineers and Empyrion have come a long way, they look pretty dated now.

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