As I was walking around upstairs in the indie section at this year’s EGX, one game that sparked my curiosity was a little known student project by 28 year old Paul Dillon. As someone who is studying MA Games Design and Development, I was impressed by Paul’s ability to have his major project showcased at a premier gaming event. And whilst it was (admittedly) the game’s promotional poster that initially caught my eye, as I found out more about the game, I discovered that the Creative Designer behind Vocal was just as interesting as the game he was making. What follows is my lengthy interview with the man where I get to ask Paul Dillon about his game, his previous development experience, and what challenges he has faced as a student. Enjoy!
What is Vocal about?
Vocal is about the idea of part of control in games. Where the idea is that you play as a voice inside the head of a main character, and you’re competing against other voices in that head to gain control of the main character. Once you are in control, you can play the game the way you want to play it. It also deals with the idea of player versus character in games. We’re always given a character and we always assume that we’re the good guy, that we’re doing the best for the character, and I just like to play with that idea. We are taking over someone, but is that necessarily a good thing? That’s where the idea came from.
So, there’s that moral ambiguity?
Yes, very much so. I do like the shades of gray.
The game seems quite high concept… what steps have you taken to be able to ensure that its concepts will be able to translate across sufficiently enough to able to make the game a “fun” game?
I started off with a high concept, and from just experience with friends talking about actually having voices in their head. When we went to a specialist, a professor of schizophrenia, and she talked to us about the symptoms of it and what happens. We thought that it would be very interesting to try and incorporate into a game, then we started building up the story and environments and what the character will be. We were looking at stuff and were thinking we have a really high concept idea that’s kind of “out there”, so we needed to do something that the player can latch on to. We went for the idea of an astronaut preparing to go to space, and you’re training to be this astronaut. Therefore that got us our goal that you’re in a new space race and you’re trying to get Mars. Then that also introduced a lot of gameplay mechanics and game play story elements. We have a lot of training exercises where it can be quite gameplay-esque, but it’s also a very narrative focused game and I personally would like to push that idea of what is necessarily fun. Does it need to be fun, fun? Or as long as the mechanics and the game play is solid that it actually makes it fun to play, even if it is tough to play.
Is there a narrative associated with the game?
Yeah. This scientist, Adam, always wanted to be an astronaut. During the company, the space company, EXIS is what they’re called, they launch projects every year for scientists to send their experiments into space like real life. Adam get’s accepted and his experiment leads to a discovery on Mars that can really revolutionize the company and make them loads of money. So, he gets thrust into the front position of this new space race where other astronauts are competing to be the first people on Mars. It’s set in the future and it’s not the future of our world, it’s a slightly different future. We’ve played around with some ideas of what technology will be available to us. The idea becomes then that the other astronauts are against him and they’re trying to sabotage, to stop him from going to Mars. That’s where you as the player come in, you arrive at this point, because there’s other voices in his head and they’re trying to sabotage him. You have to try and figure out who these voices are, why they’ve infiltrated his head, and how you can regain control over Adam to help him get to Mars.
Do you think these voices belong to God?
I don’t. Again, I’ve been looking into research of voices in the head and there’s like a whole society that deals with people that aren’t considered mentally ill at all, but they just have voices in their head. We’ve been playing around with that. We looked at Folie a deux, shared madness, and we looked at mind control agents, and we’re trying to play around with all of these elements to keep it uneven. We’re trying possibly to add something extraterrestrial just to keep the player always questioning what’s going on, because we do have a reveal at the end of what the problem is but I would like to keep that as more of a surprise.
What genre does the game belong to?
I’ve been trying to describe it as a third person, point-and-click, first person player game. It’s kind of a melding of some genres at the moment, but I would say a narrative and adventure game is what I would try and describe it as. It is quite narrative focused, which is what I like to do, and that’s where I would see it.
What is your background in games development?
I am a student at a Masters course in The National Film and Television School. I started a year ago, I was a two year MA, and before that I had zero background in game design and development. I did post production as an editor in film. I worked on feature films and my last project was a documentary before I applied for the course. I was really into story structure and I really like how editors can… a film can be made, shot, done, completed, and then once it’s given to the editor they can create a completely different story if they’re really clever with the story structure. I find that really interesting. I was always a fan of games, but that was an area where I wanted to really try and maybe get into games through this. Because games are alive all the time, but you can actually as a story person jump in at the 90% complete point and change stuff, and make the game a completely different experience. That’s where I wanted to be in. I applied for the course and luckily I got accepted and we did a crash course in the first year of programming, modeling, scripting, animations, and then for our second year we get to make a game. We were really told to push our ideas, and I feel I’m trying to do that. We’re not in a super safe territory but we’re allowed to fail, and we’re allowed to push our ideas as super far as we can. If they fail at the end, it isn’t a complete financial disaster.
So, this game is your dissertation?
No, we have a dissertation, like a word project.
Is it your major project?
It’s our major project. At the school, all the directors, animators, documentary makers, all get a year to make their major project.
How big is your group?
We have eight students, and we have a variety of ages ranging from 23 up to 30. We have a range of different nationalities. We have a Colombian, a Brazilian, and I’m an Irishman as well.
They all work on Vocal?
No, so I personally work on Vocal myself. The other students all work on their own projects.
Vocal is a one-man development project?
I came up with the story, I’ve done the script and game design, the development. I got help with the modeling and the environments, and I’ve also got help with concept art because those are my weaker areas, and I wanted to focus more on game design. Also, narrative designer is where I would like to be.
What do you hope to achieve with Vocal once it’s completed and once you’ve completed your MA?
When we finish our MA we have a grad show. Last year’s grad show was really successful for the students, a lot of them got work out of it, got funding or got sponsored. Ideally if I could continue Vocal or get funding or get interest, here at EGX it’s the beginning of people gaining interest in the game, they might follow it and keep thinking about it. Then trying to receive funding for that to try and push it through to completion. My goal for Vocal would be that I would like it to give an understanding to people that might suffer from voices in their head of what it’s actually like. I think it could be really interesting for a game to try and do that, where it gives you the part to be that voice in the head of someone that’s suffering from this, and just to see how your actions can… What you think is all good intentions could have a real negative impact on the character.
This isn’t a judgment call, and I don’t mean to say this in a disparaging way, but do you suffer from voices?
Do you think therefore, from the casual observer’s point of view… and because you don’t suffer from this experience, would you say that they have every right to argue that your game is inauthentic?
I’m not trying to be authentic, I am very much aware that I do not want the character at the end of this to be like, “I have survived voices in my head, I have beaten it”. I do not want that. If anything I want the game to be is… maybe if people are suffering from voices in their head, when we met the professor and she talked about the symptoms of it, one thing she mentioned was that as an illness you’re not aware of it. If you don’t think you’re sick, you don’t go out and buy medicine just in case, and that’s very much the case with people suffering from voices. They don’t think the voices are actually an illness. I’m not trying to show exactly what it’s like to be inside the head of someone suffering from schizophrenia, I’m not going to try and say this is the schizophrenia game. It’s not about that. It’s about the idea of control.
So you’re not trying to educate people then?
No. I have looked into the educational side of it, I’ve looked into the research side of it. I’ve made a conscious decision that this is not an educational game, this is more of an experiential game. I’m trying to just give the experience of what it might be like, not that this is exactly how it is.
For somebody like yourself who hasn’t really had a background in games development, but who’s been through a crash course in your first year of getting your MA, is your MA part time?
It’s full time.
You’ve been through a crash course in games development, how confident are you in being able to take your game development skills and apply them in a professional context right now?
In all honesty, I’m always in a bit of self-doubt about my own abilities and that probably will be the case until I receive some work and get into the industry and learn firsthand what is expected of myself, and it kind of comes from my previous background in post-production where like, different projects I had included different levels of involvement. Where one was mainly just a data wrangler, and then another was a lot more where I became a researcher and I worked on the production and post-production, I became really involved with the actual editor. It shifts from time to time and in that case I was always constantly in self-doubt because technology always changes and evolves, and I always felt like I kind of needed to keep up, and I’m always just that little bit behind maybe. So, for me to step out now from my MA and say I’m the best game designer in the world, it would never happen. I would need to find myself experience, I need to find myself work, and just hone my skills. That’s why ideally it would be a great thing to find work, and then be able to continue on Vocal, because I feel at the moment that what’s holding Vocal back is probably my own ability at times.
What engine is Vocal created in?
Vocal‘s made using Unity. We’re up to 4.5 I think, Unity 4.5. We also use a range of Maximo for character creation and animations which is really helpful for us to get characters in quite quickly.
For somebody who doesn’t have any experience in games development, based on your own understanding of what you’ve learned over the last year, how easy would it be for somebody who doesn’t necessarily have ability to be able to go to a University and doesn’t have the financial resources to be able to put them through a similar sort of course. What tips would you give to somebody out there who is looking to get into games development and learn the kind of skills that you’ve learned?
First of all, I’ve really struggled these last two years financially. It’s been a real burden on myself and my family who’ve supported me for this. I was never in a financial situation to really take this on, but it was an opportunity that came upon me and I felt that it was probably the best opportunity I’ll have to get some real expertise. Also, at the school we work with a really collective group of people that specialise in areas of sound, music, art, and cinematography. It really felt like this is my chance if I want to do anything. From that I still had to learn and really push myself, and we really pushed ourselves to get here for Eurogamer. Now that I’ve seen people playing my game, it’s reinforced me to maybe double down and go even harder over the next two months to really get work in and get Vocal to the stage where I am happy with it.
So for anybody that doesn’t the financial support, I know you can get Unity for free and that’s what everybody says to do. You really just have to go for it, and commit yourself and be willing to do insane hours. If you’re like me coming from a standing start with no previous background, you feel you’re getting left behind straight away. I just had to make so many notes on my first day, go home and read over them and review them. Anytime I didn’t know anything I would make a note of it, then when I went home that day I would read through the notes and Google everything and just try to get insight as quickly as possible. If I got stuck on something from the programming side of it, I just went on Google and would go through Unity forums and see what people were doing there. I would take their scripts and bring it into mine, see how messed up it becomes, and then try and pick through to understand what each line is doing. It’s a gradual thing, it’s never a light switch moment, and it’s just more, “I remember doing this here, let’s try this here. Okay that works, okay now I know what that does a bit more”, and you keep evolving that way. I have anyway.
In your experience as a games developer, albeit a learning games developer, what have been your biggest successes and your biggest failures?
In our first year, we had courses for each of the modules to do. I was really happy with my app project that I made. This was our first real introduction to programming and scripting, and my game was an underground mining game where you tapped the ground to reveal diamonds that you collected in your little mine cart, and you’d have to get so many to pass the level. I was really into the idea of Curiosity and how people just like tapping, and I liked physics, so the idea of having to get the right taps and then there were also puzzle elements. So, I thought it was a really good idea of game design and mechanics. Everything seemed to work quite nicely, there was a few little issues just because I was learning the fundamentals of it, but I was really happy with the outcome of that.
For something that was more on the failure side of things is just probably this constant questioning of where I’m at, like should I be doing better? I feel like if I’m not a certain point by the end of the term I might consider the whole two years a failure, so at the moment it’s as though I’m always on the cusp of my failure. I’ve never seen nothing where I go, “That just did not work”, I’ve learned something from every time, but it’s to the end goal. Will I prove to be a good game designer that can get jobs? I think that will be determined by if I’ve learned enough. If I feel like I should have done more or studied harder during my two years, that would be the failure.
How many hours of private study did you apply yourself to in the first year?
It’s kind of difficult because we are a five day a week course. 10 to 5 each day. We did 10 to 10 for a lot of the days, we would also come in on Saturdays and Sundays. For our first year we had our own games lab, so we had our own computer and stuff where we were free to come in and work at it as long as we wanted. I did a lot of work especially during our first project, ‘Hello World’, where we had to create a group environment that we could navigate around. I spent a lot of hours there trying to get my 3D modeling up to scratch so that it would work inside the same world everyone else had made. Then just continued on from there. I never went home and sat reading books or anything like that. It was like, continuing to work past the point where we would be done for the day with schooling, it was instantly going to work on the project, improving parts and so on. It’s kind of tough to calculate.
So, full time plus overtime basically?
Yeah it’s a very full on course.
Game courses in general, they have a negative perception amongst the gaming industry because a lot of people within the gaming industry argue that game programming and designing courses don’t really teach the necessary skills for people to be industry ready by the time they graduate. What is your view on this?
It’s always difficult, but maybe that’s because I haven’t come from an undergraduate side of game science or computer science and stuff. But, I can completely see talking to other people who’ve done it, they’re given so much stuff to do and so little time to really be experts in it, that you come out with a mix match of everything. A jack of all trades, but a master of none kind of thing. So I can completely see why that is, and I can only go from the stuff I’ve been studying, we’ve been taught everything. We’re being taught to be independent developers, that’s kind of what we’re trying to be, whether we’ll succeed or not is a different thing. We’re given tasks to do, and we use what’s around us to get past certain blockades, like assets from the Unity store to help you along the way. When I got my degree with post production, we did a lot of everything, and then we focused on editing for only a couple of months in the last year, it really didn’t prepare me. My very first job outside of school, we used a completely different camera that was 4K that we didn’t cover in school, they have a completely different way of processing all the footage, and within a day you’re told this stuff and you have to remember it and pick it up and move on, and that’s probably what happens all the time.
Do you see yourself becoming an indie developer after you graduate?
I don’t have the financial capabilities to do that, I would like to, but it all depends on the feedback and reception that the game gets if that becomes a possibility. There’s not a way that I can start a new game from scratch as an indie developer, it’s just not something I can afford. I would prefer to work in a company, just to learn how a company works and best practices for certain elements would always help understand the world.
Paul, anything else you’d like to say?
For games, I’m walking around and people are saying how there are a lot of “cookie cutter” games these days. At our school, people will come and say these are the only interesting things that are at EGX coming from the school, I feel that there’s a little hint of everyone patting each other on the back in a way. But, there was a couple people that came up and said this actually sounds like a really interesting idea, and I think if anything I think that’s a sign that I’m doing what I hopefully want to be doing, which is make something interesting, make something different. I’ve loved games all my life, and it’s getting to the stage where there’s really a divergence happening between if you want to take the “Hollywood” blockbuster path or the more independent stuff. Independent stuff isn’t just indie focused, but it’s just starting to branch off into different areas and explore different territories, and that’s where I would like to continue to be.
So you’d like to make indie small time games?
Yeah I would like to try and make something experiential, something different and if it’s experimental or grounded in something different, I’m up for that.
Paul Dillon, thank you.