Ex-Harmonix and Irrational developers Steven Kimura and Bryn Bennett left behind their jobs developing AAA hits to work on Dreadline, an RTS/ARPG with an air of Diablo and Freedom Fighters about it. Naturally they’ve taken to Kickstarter to secure funding. We talk to the pair about Kickstarter troubles, the decision to go indie and Bryn provides a compelling reason for why space marines are so damn fashionable.
In 2011, a group of Harmonix, Irrational and Iron Lore Entertainment employees part ways with studios responsible for some of the hottest videogames properties and strike out as independent developers. They rue the autocratic nature of developing AAA videogames. Desire creative freedom. They throw aside steady jobs and financial security to create the game they want to create, Dreadline.
It’s a yarn so often spun in the blurry wake of the Kickstarter boom that it’s all but lost its punch – the idea that the AAA business is so stifling that people are willing to buck the financial safety net in favour of creative autonomy. Perhaps, though, with the perfect storm of Kickstarter’s czar-like presence and a spreading malaise as the seventh console generation staggers to its grave there’s never been a better time to make a go of it alone.
For ex-Harmonix dev Steven Kimura, the bureaucracy of AAA development had taken its toll. ”You have to feel inspired if you’re ever going to do the best work you’re capable of,” says Kimura. “I wasn’t built for office life. Too much of my energy was devoted to the stresses of being in a place I didn’t want to be, and too little went into making art.”
From Titanic to rowboats
For Bryn Bennett, it was more a matter of embracing a new challenge. “It’s very easy to get stuck in a rut. Oh, you’re the AI programmer, or you’re the graphics programmer, or you do UI. When I started writing games when I was 10, I used to do everything, and I really missed that.” The two left their respective posts to found Eerie Canal where they began work on Dreadline, an action role-playing/real-time strategy hybrid that speaks to fans of Diablo and Freedom Force.
It’s a comedy game (a coupling of words so rare they’re doomed to sit beside one another with a curious awkwardness), casting players as a belligerent eight-year-old with a ragtag band of ghouls and monsters for friends. They’ve got their paws on a time machine and share a hunger for human hearts. Chaos ensues as the rapscallion troop travel back in time to revisit some of mankind’s dustier tragedies (the Titanic takes precedence in the reveal trailer), where they set about killing the doomed with remarkable gusto.
A teaser trailer for the game beguiles and delights in equal measure and for anyone tired of the portentousness that has festered in so many corners of the industry, it’s weapons-grade stuff. “Steve and I have always had dry and dark senses of humor,” Bennett explains. “It’s probably the reason we ended up hanging out at Irrational, back in the early 2000s. The original idea for our game was to play a group of humans in an alternate universe that started out as a Tokien-esque Middle Earth brought into the modern-day.
“Humans, being the most versatile of races, hunted monsters for sport. Unfortunately, the idea didn’t seem funny-dark… it just seemed dark-dark. So then we tried to flip it around and it somehow transformed into monsters with a time machine killing people who were already doomed to die.”
My interest is piqued and I’m curious why the duo think comedy and videogames are such an awkward mix, and, if not awkward, then at the very least uncommon. Hollywood has, after all, built an empire out of laughter.
“I think there a few reasons for this,” Bennett says. “First, I think humor is difficult to get across in an interactive medium. Comedy has a lot to do with timing, which doesn’t work when instead of listening to the punchline, you decide you want to shoot someone. Additionally, I don’t think a lot of the gaming industry is concerned with being funny. We all basically want to make up for getting beaten down in school so make games about space marines.”