As Australian As
Stone, Ty the Tasmanian Tiger… and that’s about it. The number of games made in Australia about Australia is distressingly small.
Now, one self-taught solo developer is seeking to expand that pool with Dinkum, a delightful low-poly life sim in the style of Animal Crossing.
Dinkum is shaping up as far more than just a carbon copy of Nintendo’s cult franchise though, so OnlySP caught up with creator James Bendon to find out more.
“I love games like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley. I didn’t mean to set out to create a game like that, but it has evolved over time.” Rather, Bendon says that his original vision was an RPG “where you would have to pick up things and you can only carry one thing in your hand at a time.” The prototype proved to be as tedious as it sounds.
“Another one of my original ideas was that you were a little kid in a rural town in Australia and you had to mow your neighbours’ lawns for money and ride your pushbike around, but yeah… maybe that will be my next game, who knows.”
Around the same time as Bendon was adding an inventory system and workshopping the core mechanics, he and his partner moved states. The journey from coastal north Queensland to the New South Wales hinterland proved eye-opening:
“After I moved, I thought, ‘Oh well, all these games, I always play them and they have beautiful green hills and stuff,’ but I didn’t see any of that on the way down, I guess, and I kind of wanted to see [what he saw] in a game.”
“We took the inland route, so we saw a lot of the drier areas […] It’s varied. It goes dry grasslands to forests and across rivers and it’s just really nice. When we drive on the coast, it’s a highway with three lanes, and there’s not much to look at.”
To successfully transfer that landscape into a video game, the devil is in the details. In a break from the norms of the likes of The Elder Scrolls, Conan Exiles, and Horizon: Zero Dawn (but entirely in keeping with the antipodean climate), “the further north you go the hotter it gets, and the further south you go the colder it gets.” Dinkum’s publisher, Irregular Corp., was “surprised” to discover this detail, but was fully on board with it: “they said the more Australian elements the better.”
So far, Bendon has implemented five distinct biomes—the northern tropics, the southern highlands, plains, deserts, and a eucalyptus forest. “I have some plans for other ones as well, but I don’t want to make promises just in case I can’t get to them,” he adds.
The differences will extend beyond simple visual variance too. “There are different animals and birds that are in different areas, but the temperature of the area affects what you can plant and what season you can grow certain plants, as well as what pests are trying to get to your crops or your other farm animals.”
The conversation always seems to return to Animal Crossing.
What makes Dinkum different beyond some local colour, then?
“I think it’s a lot more open,” says Bendon. “Those games [Animal Crossing and My Time at Portia] have the town… To an extent, you can’t customise the town that you will be able to in Dinkum. So, you will be able to lay down every single path and place every building exactly where you like it.”
The building aspect, then, sounds more like SimCity or Tropico, though without the need for intense resource management. The buildings are shops and businesses, a town hall, and a museum that, almost inevitably, is “similar to Animal Crossing’s museum but a little bit more documentation-wise so that they’re kind of studying the environment.”
A part of that is the underground exploration that players can partake in, wherein the earth will shift and change, though Bendon is not ready to talk about that in detail just yet.
However, he does point out that “the survival element gives it a little bit of a different feel as well. It’ll feel a little bit more dangerous.”
Sharks have appeared in the promotional materials as a threat, and Bendon confirms that that will be limited to wild animals. Human NPCs will not attack the player, but he suggests that some bigger dangers may lurk out in the wilds: “I want to go more into the mythical monsters and also extinct predators, like the marsupial lion and a lot of megafauna; I’m getting inspired by that.”
“I’ve just implemented a bunyip, like a mythical monster. I showed it to my partner, and she said ‘Oh, that’s too scary,’ and I disagree. We’ll see if I actually show it off or if it’s going to stay in the game because she doesn’t agree that it should be there.”
In other areas, Bendon has far more readily accepted his partner’s feedback—specifically in reference to Dinkum’s co-op functionality:
“I’ve banned guests from selling animals because I was playing with my partner and I sold three of her chickens and she got really upset. She’d named them all and she had their special little coops, and I sold them. And I thought well maybe guests shouldn’t be able to do this because she’s upset now. So, they’ll be able to do nearly everything except some management stuff.”
Originally, though, co-op was never even on the cards. “I probably worked on Dinkum for about four months, and I decided this is a single-player-only game because it’s just going to be easier to develop, but as I started building it, I realised ‘well, what’s the point of designing a town if you can’t invite your friends to see it?’”
The processes involved in getting that working were frustrating, but a Eureka moment as Bendon was falling asleep one night solved it. Of course, pivoting the game for multiple players caused issues of its own. “It has increased the time. Now, every single thing I implement I have to consider multiplayer, and I had to rewrite a lot of old code with how the animals spawned on the map because if you split up, they have to spawn in separate areas and only the server knows where they are.”
Putting A Life into A Life Sim
For Bendon, Dinkum is a very personal project—and not just because he’s flying solo with it. He grew up in a small town nestled among the verdant highlands of the Atherton Tablelands in Far North Queensland.
“I kind of imagine Dinkum is building that little town.”
That upbringing, combined with his choice to live in regional areas rather than the traditional development hubs of Fortitude Valley, Sydney, or Melbourne, has also limited his potential for local collaborations.
“I’ve looked for game dev meet ups or like game jam groups or anything like that locally, but I’ve never found a group. I’m not saying they don’t exist or anything, just that I couldn’t find them. […] Most people I have found have been on the internet and not necessarily Australian. It’s a bit hard being in a rural area.”
Another perceived obstacle for Bendon has been a lack of formal training. He first began dabbling in the creation of choose-your-own-adventure PowerPoint and Flash games in his early teens. At university, though, he studied graphic design (“because there weren’t many game development courses or game design courses at the time and, you know, I had my parents saying to me like ‘be realistic’ because I really liked web design as well. […] It seemed more realistic, especially to my parents.”).
For the next few years, he worked in retail and labour jobs, designing small, simple projects in his spare time. Those, he would throw away after proving he could do them, but still he felt that joining a studio would be impossible “without a portfolio or something to show off to game developers.”
That is not what Dinkum is for, though. “This is the first game that I’ve followed through and had an idea of at the start.”
Being a jack-of-all-trades has meant coming up against limits in his knowledge and technical skill in some areas, but Bendon has used them as opportunities. He mentions specifically that he is self-taught in 3D modelling—which has contributed to the adorable chibi look of the game.
“It’s just an easier art style for me to do if I don’t have to make things look realistic, and I can get them done a lot quicker.” As ever, though, a mention of Animal Crossing is not far away. “You know, Animal Crossing is a big inspiration, so that’s where the characters came from, right. I like that kind of friendliness. […] I’m pretty happy with the juxtaposition between a friendly looking game with survival elements.”
The online gaming community seems to have taken to Dinkum as well. Bendon admits to having been “shy” and “a fraidy-cat” about the prospect of sharing his work, but doing so has paid off. His Twitter posts certainly attract plenty of positive remarks:
“I can see people excited. That’s a novel experience. There’s a person who comments on all my tweet saying like ‘take my money, I want it now’ on every tweet I do. He makes me laugh. But it’s definitely encouraging, that’s for sure. […] It’s definitely been something that’s pushed me through.”
And it will almost certainly continue to push him through as Dinkum trundles ever onwards towards its early 2020 release window. An exact date remains up in the air, and Bendon attributes that both to the content he is still working on and localisation into “a couple of different languages.”
For now, he is simply prosaic and hopeful that the gaming community will embrace his little passion project.
“It would be great if you could wishlist the game. That’s about all. Yeah, it’s hard for me to talk about it. I’m proud of it, but I’m just excited that people are seeing it. That’s the exciting bit.”
Dinkum is currently expected to be available on PC via Steam early next year.
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