It’s arguable that in recent times, the advent of the likes of Steam and other digital stores has led to more opportunity for those interested in making a game but worried about the overhead costs that may have existed. The number of independent developers now attempting to make their ideas a reality is encouraging for an industry that needs to be as diverse as possible in the interests of creativity, and digital stores, along with the more affordable game engines that are now available, play a part in that.
Exploding Tuba Studios are another example of the positive impact of the range that now exists in the industry, allowing people who may not have been able to get a game made before to do so now. We spoke to director Chris Tilton, an accomplished musician who has worked on a wide range of scores in TV and games, about the team’s upcoming sci-fi adventure game, Divide; the circumstances in which it has been made; and his experiences making a game for the first time.
In this first part, we will be dealing with the start of the process, and how things started to look more plausible for the company. Find out more about Divide and what makes it so unique in the next installment.
Chris’ path to founding Exploding Tuba has not been a conventional one. He originally got started working as a musician in a different form of media. “I moved out to LA in 2001 and started working for Michael Giacchino, the composer.” he said. “I was and am a composer and wanted to get in to films. I started working for him on the TV show Alias. That was sort of my introduction to the industry, which allowed me to see how everything worked.”
From there, Chris elaborates on how he got in to video games and how music wasn’t his only interest. “I’ve always been a gamer and my roommate at college, who I had done music for, wanted to go in to games, and he ended up being the lead designer on this one.”
“We’d always talked about game design,” Chris continued. “I pursued a music career in games and TV but the opportunity eventually came where I could make the game that I wanted.”
Chris had entertained the thought of designing a game before, and while it didn’t seem plausible, he always didn’t let the idea go while he continued work as a composer.
“A lot of the time I never thought I would get in to this. I had fleeting ideas about game designs when it was totally infeasible to make them on a small scale and so I just never even imagined doing it, but I was always interested in how games worked, why things were working and how decisions were made. I decided to use that to make something.”
He credits timing for making the whole venture possible. “In 2012, the industry was at a place where it was feasible to get a few people together and create something, so I said if we’re gonna do it we should just do it. My old roommate, JD Straw, had been working in the industry for quite a while, so he helped me put together a small team of people who were dependable and experienced like him.”
Together, Chris and JD started to get the ball rolling. “We knew the pieces we were going to need, though the fine details probably went back and forth a lot. I knew I was going to be able to guide the ship, and I needed JD to help design it because he had a lot of experience and was very knowledgeable, so I knew he was going to help me with most aspects of making a game. Anything extra outside of that and any help we had for getting stuff in the game we just ventured out when we felt we needed it.”
What was it about 2012 that worked so well for him? A number of factors were involved in making the game possible, but the fact that it has become easier to get the process started is definitely one of them, as Chris explains.
“It was the timing of a lot of things. I had been doing the music for a TV show called Fringe for a number of years and that show was pretty much going to its final season, so I was thinking about what I wanted to do next. The game industry had got to a point where you could licence a game engine for a reasonable cost, not millions of dollars like it used to be but thousands. Consoles, which continue to be highly important to today’s gamer, were starting to have digital stores, which meant all this overhead of releasing a game was gone. You really could make a game with just a few people and actually get it in front of gamers who would realize it exists. It was actually viable from a business perspective.”
Like a lot of indie developers, the team is spread out, and relies on the internet to keep in touch and update each other. Chris told us about the situation.
“We all have our home offices. Our programmer lives in the LA area with us, but JD lives north of San Francisco, and our animators and environment artists were in Seattle. We would just use things like Google Hangout and Skype to keep in touch, and screen sharing has been useful too. There were certain situations where it would have been easier if we were all in the same room, but being able to do it remotely has worked very well for us.”
“Regular face to face check-ins via video are important,” he added. “If you couldn’t do that, it would be very difficult to make sure everybody was on the same page design wise, tone wise and so on. We all had to make sure we were on the same page and knew what the vision was.”
Chris mentioned earlier that they had assembled a team that knew their roles and could be relied upon, but the actual set-up was, and still is, more complicated than that. He gave us a rundown of his role in the company, as well as what the core members of the team are responsible for, and reminded us that because it’s only a small team, everyone has multiple roles so the team can get to the plethora of things that they have to address, so the roles are quite fluid.
“I started the company and came up with the idea for the game and most of the story,” Chris explained. “I have a friend, Chris Carle, who helped write a lot of the dialogue, which isn’t one of my strong points. I prefer coming up with the story and the emotional arcs involved, and Chris is definitely better at dialogue.
“We’ve slowly been working the story together for a long time, but I’ve also been collaborating with JD, who is our lead designer, on what the gameplay should be like. In the broad strokes of the game I’m the director but I also put together the environment, and am responsible for 80% of the rooms that you walk in throughout the game. JD did certain key sequences, but a lot of the places to explore fell on me to do while he was doing lots of actual design work.
“Then we have our engineer, Shai Kalev, who designed every tool and is the reason that you can see things on the screen. There is our environment artist, Chris Durso who was on with us for about two years and basically created all the art within the game. The way that worked with how I built it is that we deliberately created puzzle pieces that kind of fit together like Lego where he would design a style, which could be a certain kind of floor or wall or furniture that would fit thematically with the set so that I could go in and make multiple rooms out of this one theme.”
“For example it could be an underground themed area which allowed me to create environments and things to explore from just that set and then you go to a different location and we have different location sets. He created all these sets which allowed us to build any kind of room we wanted and made it easier for us to build rooms quickly and efficiently.”
“We also had an animator, Kevin Dalziel, who basically built and animated all of our characters in the game.”
It’s clear that as a team things came together for Exploding Tuba to be able to make the game that they wanted, and that the transition from music to directing a video game had so far been successful for Chris, having assembled the team and made his dreams more of a reality. Tune in for the second part of the interview TOMORROW for a whole lot more on how Chris came up with Divide itself, which includes his insights on the story, the gameplay, the challenges the team faced and are still having to deal with, and much more.