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Meet the Developer Behind Narrative Horror Adventure Perception, The Deep End Games

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Echo Bluff's terrifying Presence.

Merry summer everyone! This week on OnlySP, cool off by jumping into The Deep End Games’ chilling first-person horror, Perception.

OFF THE DEEP END[divider type=”thin”]

In Perception, players solve the mysteries of the enigmatic and supernatural Echo Bluff estate, using echolocation to avoid the nightmarish creatures that stalk its halls.

Collecting nearly $170,000 from over 4,000 backers on Kickstarter, Perception proves that there’s still room for smaller projects and more modest budgets on a platform that’s seen some serious cash in the last few months.

However, Perception isn’t a freshman effort from a group of rookie game devs, but a collaboration between seasoned professionals that have worked on some of gaming’s biggest titles. Fronted by Bill Gardner, design director and head of user experience on Bioshock Infinite, The Deep End Games count a host of talented developers bringing experience from the likes of Dead Space, Thief, and Rock Band among their ranks.

“Games and movies have always been my biggest passions,” says Gardner, founder and creative director at The Deep End Games. “Growing up, my parents actually owned a video store – one of the first around in my area, so if I wasn’t playing a video game, I was shooting a film. We had a silly camcorder, so I’d be in the back yard shooting some kind of goofy horror film or something like that.

“I went off to film school here in Boston – Emerson College. Then shortly after graduating, I spent a little bit of time at Universal Studios where I essentially helped hunt down the script for the next project; at a company called Mostow Leiberman, who eventually went on to do T3: Terminator 3. I spent about six months out there and I loved it, but at the same time I decided that I really wanted to try my hand at video games. I wound up moving back to Boston and took up my old college job at Electronics Boutique. That’s where I met Ken Levine, the creative director at Irrational [Games]. Somehow, I was able to impress him and get my foot in the door as QA, and I worked my way up from there to an associate producer/junior design role, then up to lead designer and design director.”

Gardner held a variety of positions over 12 years at Irrational, before deciding to go it alone with the studio’s closure in 2014. At its height, Irrational employed nearly 100 staff, whereas The Deep End work with fewer than 20. Transitioning to a smaller team changes the pace of development dramatically, and serves up a fresh set of challenges. However, Irrational wasn’t a typical AAA games studio, airing closer to the indie experience than one might think.

“There’s a lot of the same philosophy,” Gardner explains. “With Irrational, we always hung on to that independent spirit. 90% of the time that Irrational was around, it was a really small company.

“With Bioshock, internally, we had 40 to 50 people, which for a game of that scope and quality isn’t unheard of, but is pretty rare. Part of the way that we accomplished that is obviously with super talented people, but we also had a tremendous amount of drive. You didn’t have people punching the clock, if there was a problem, people would step up, take ownership and fix it, that kind of thing. That’s very similar to the way that I think a lot of the indie scene is. Things aren’t going to just get done, you’re not a massive company where you can be like, ‘ah, I’m sure someone’ll take care of it.’ In indie games it has to be you. That’s kind of how it was at Irrational. There was a lot of pressure that we brought on ourselves, which I think is similar to the indie scene.”

He continues: “The big difference is the amount of challenge that we can take on, the scope, the sheer enormity and almost hubris of what we can do. Like you know, ‘hey, we can take on a companion character and make it the most compelling thing you’ve seen in a narrative game’, that sort of thing. I think the big difference here is that we have to be much more selective of our battles.

“I love all of the technical challenges that go on in the industry and I’m really excited to see the way that we keep conquering these hurdles that wouldn’t have been possible two years ago, let alone five. After [Bioshock] Infinite, I wasn’t disillusioned, but I think about all of the challenges that we had to take on to get Elizabeth feeling right, with her eyes, her hair, her dress, her movement, every little thing. And that was awesome, but I didn’t want to do that again. I wanted to focus on telling a very specific, very intimate story, and creating the world of Echo Bluff. Telling the story of this estate, rather than worrying about creating an entire universe – creating as tightly knit a tapestry as possible.”

The Echo Bluff estate as viewed through echolocation by protagonist Cassie.

The Echo Bluff estate as viewed through echolocation by protagonist Cassie.

ECHOLOCATION[divider type=”thin”]

Gardner works out of his home office, with other team members contributing remotely. Cohesive and believable worlds have been a hallmark of his games to date, but this level of polish is difficult to achieve, especially when development is taken out from under one roof and spread across the world. Despite this, Gardner and The Deep End remain committed to delivering a quality experience and uncovering creative solutions to the problems that they face.

“Frankly, it’s one of the biggest challenges,” says Gardner. “Having a designer or an artist, an animator or a programmer just down the hall from you is an enormous advantage. Being in different time-zones, let alone different states is a huge challenge. People are on their own schedules and I have no interest in turning into this corporate machine where, ‘you have to be at your desk at these hours,’ and that whole thing. Towards the end of my time at Irrational, I started to get really wary of my commute. I think having kids will do that, you start to get protective of your time. I was spending an hour and a half minimum a day travelling, and I was just thinking, ‘what a colossal waste of time’. So there are benefits to working remotely, at the end of the work week, you’re looking at an entire work day, just saved in commuting.

“The biggest thing is being as clear as possible in your communication. I don’t know how possible this would’ve been five years ago, the tech has come so far. How we’ve overcome it so far is to compartmentalise as much as possible. In my experience, working on levels like the Medical Pavilion and Fort Frolic [in Bioshock], I found that a lot of the best advances happened when you work for months and months, then hand it off to someone else. I’d work on a level, then I’d hand it to Paul [Hellquist, Lead Designer on Bioshock], and he’d hand it back to me. And in those short bursts, you’d see tremendous progress. That’s going to be my approach with Perception, that we can cycle around and find as many different creative ways to inject some life into those challenges so that they can become a strength rather than a weakness.”

The Deep End’s decision to take Perception to Kickstarter was inspired by fellow Irrational alum’s adventures in crowdfunding, and for Gardner, represents an invaluable chance to incorporate players’ feedback into development.

“I’ve passively watched Kickstarter in the past; occasionally I’d hear about a project and I’d throw in, but I’ve never been a follower up until The Flame in the Flood, and I helped out Joe Fielder with the Black Glove campaign,” explains Gardner. “At that point I realised how cool the process could be and how there’s a lot of potential there.

“We’re in the middle of a phase right now, I don’t want to say it’s a renaissance, but it is. You look at the last two months alone and there’ve been so many record-breaking and game-changing campaigns, between The Bard’s Tale, Yooka Laylee, Shenmue and Bloodstained, just so many amazing games. I think the industry’s changed more in the last year or two than it ever has in any time period. With the technology advancing so that small teams like ours can take on really ambitious ideas with high polish and feel almost triple-A, even though it’s just a few people working across the country.”

Perception-Presence

Players engage in a “deadly game of hide-and-seek” with the Presence.

JUMP AT THE CHANCE[divider type=”thin”]

“What Kickstarter brings to the table is democratisation of the process,” he adds. “Letting people in early on to see how their ideas can change and shape the course of a project.

“I think a lot of development now is like, ‘we have this big game coming out, and we’re going to keep silent about it until four months before shipping’, and then we’re going to come out and say, ‘here’s the game, do you like it’?

“I ran the user experience testing labs at Irrational for a couple of years, and I just recently finished my Master’s degree in Human Factors. I’ve always really valued feedback from gamers and tried to make the product better, and that’s why Kickstarter’s great, it gives you that opportunity. That’s not to say that everyone does take advantage of that, but I think it’s foolish not to. You have this window into the community and the opportunity to make a much, much better game. I’m going to jump on that.”

In Gardner’s eyes, Kickstarter remains a place for brilliant ideas to find their fans, and its recent resurgence can only be good for gaming.

“I think that we’re seeing a lot of different takes now,” he says. “I think that Kickstarter for games was a very specific thing for a long time; really pure, tiny indies. But obviously that’s expanding now, and I think that’s a good thing. When I said democratisation, I think that’s the root of it. If people want to support giant budgets, by all means do. If they want to support smaller projects only, then do. I think what’s important is to judge each campaign on its own merit.

“You’ll always get some negativity, a few people were like, ‘oh, what do the Bioshock vets need money for? They made Bioshock’. We’re not rolling around in residuals, it was a job at work for us, and we’re starting with next to nothing. Ultimately, gamers need to decide what’s right and what’s wrong for Kickstarter.”

Check back tomorrow for more from The Deep End Games and in-depth details on their upcoming project, Perception.

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You can find The Deep End Games and Perception on Twitter, Youtube and Kickstarter.

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James Billcliffe
Lead Interview and Features editor. Eats, games, and leaves. Tweet at me! @Jiffe93

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