Wed 30 Mar 2011
I had a chance to chat with Erik Zaring and Anders Gustafsson, the two brilliant minds behind The Dream Machine, and pick their brain about their game, their influences, and their dreams. This is the result.
Jan Jacob Mekes: Who are you, and how did you meet?
Erik Zaring: We first met 1998 in animation school. And I’m the impulsive artist that builds all sets and stuff for The Dream Machine. A Siamese extension of Anders.
Anders Gustafsson: My name’s Anders Gustafsson. I studied traditional animation with Erik on the island of Gotland 1998-2000. That’s how we met.
JJM: And what’s the story behind the founding of Cockroach Inc (not to mention the story behind the name)?
EZ: That one is for you Anders…
EZ: I just recently became part of this fabulous enterprise. Approved member by Cockroach since 2008.
AG: I started Cockroach Inc back in 2007, just as a means of taking on jobs on the side. Previous to that I had a period where I was fascinated with cockroaches and insects, and I had drawn a ton of vector illustrations of them. I even made a screensaver with insects and cockroaches crawling across the screen. I’ve been told it’s gross, but I just found them beautiful and very graphic. When I set up the company I had to file a name and I just thought that if I call it something insect related, I basically have a graphical profile already done. And since everybody loves cockroaches you get a lot of built in goodwill right off the bat.
EZ: What about the Burroughs angle? Naked Lunch.
AG: Yeah. Both Erik and myself are huge fans of Burroughs and Cronenberg.
JJM: How did that influence your work?
EZ: Cronenberg is always present somehow. His visceral visions of the future (Videodrome among others) kind of got under my skin when I was a teenager… And nowadays when I make stuff I feel that it shares the same atmosphere/emotional core as in his movies…
AG: That’s hard to say. I think I would have been more shameful and apologetic about certain topics if I didn’t know about them or their work. I’ve always been a bit too interested in the inside of the human body. I used to borrow anatomy books from the library and my parents had a lot of medicinal books at home. But I never realized how it could be channelled artistically until Cronenberg and Burroughs showed me. Up until that point I had only tried to draw the human body as a drawing exercise.
EZ: And Burroughs’ influence is on a more political level for me…
AG: Any answer I give on this topic is bound to be shit. I really can’t say how it influenced me, but I found a lot that I resonated with in their works.
JJM: Okay, let’s move on to The Dream Machine. How was the idea for that project born?
EZ: I was fed up with work and quit my day job (don’t do it). Felt that I had more to give and wanted to share some of my accumulated inspiration with the rest of the world… so I contacted Anders and convinced him we had a higher purpose in life: To make Gateway 3, which we did not do, various tiny efforts gathered up to something else. And behold: The Dream Machine was born (fall of 2008).
AG: For me it started way back in animation school, when I was interested in John C. Lilly, father of the sensory deprivation tank. I read that he and some of his friends used to experiment with LSD and ketamine to reach a place in the subconscious they thought was real. They thought that by tripping they visited a place that had a coherent geography, so they started keeping a notepad next to the bed, so they could draw maps once they regained consciousness. Their idea was to compare notes and try to splice the maps together so they could chart this new realm of reality. I don’t think they got very far before giving up, but the thought of charting the human subconscious fascinated me. The Jungian concept of a shared unconsciousness.
When Erik asked me about doing a game together I’d already done two botched attempts at creating a game around this core concept, but the notion of building this apartment complex by hand and Erik’s artistic sensibilities kind of just made the whole thing gel.
EZ: Hmm, yeah, my kitchen table experiments really spurred Anders at the time. I had to get up early in the morning (I have kids) to mess around with Super Sculpey clay. I produced a couple of sets that showed the potential of what we can see represented today in The Dream Machine.
JJM: Could you describe the process of creating a set from concept to reality?
EZ: First Anders outlines the main story of the chapter. As we go deeper into detail he presents me with thumbnails, showing a rudimentary layout of the set.
AG: I usually just have a very rudimentary idea of what the room is supposed to look like and I try to draw that. Sometimes I do a little paint-over to indicate if the room is supposed to be cozy or cold or intimidating etc.
EZ: After that I rush into work and end up with something that Anders has a lot to say about. I take pictures and send them to Anders. I incorporate most of his ideas and when he doesn’t say much I know I’ve hit the target.
AG: Once I shut up, everything is good. Story of my life.
JJM: What were some of the challenges you faced in making the game?
EZ: Since we’re a two man team, things take a longer time to develop. And as time passes you’ll eventually lose focus…
AG: I think it’s fair to say that there’s been some motivational slumps along the way. None of us had any idea this project would take this long to make. It’s just taken over our lives entirely, as passion projects have a tendency to do.
EZ: But like I said before, I see myself as the Siamese twin that continues the struggle when Anders goes limp, and vice versa.
JJM: So you’re leaning on and supporting each other.
AG: Yeah. It’s reassuring to know that the project moves forward if you happen to have an unproductive day.
EZ: Yes, if we don’t go limp at the same time. Then we just collapses in a pile of human debris.
AG: But we’re just two people, so any minor disturbance (if we get sick etc.) means that progress on the game slows down. We’re pretty vulnerable that way.
EZ: But slowly we rise from our pyre and gain strength/momentum yet again.
AG: We mistakenly announced release dates for the coming chapters back in December, and people latch on to those dates like it’s the word of god. Making games takes time and is extremely difficult to time manage.
JJM: Is there any advice you’d give to people who are making a game of their own, or thinking about it?
EZ: Make small games. Add personal touches. Don’t force yourself to be inventive.
AG: Don’t be shy to talk about your game. No one will do it for you and if you don’t mention it journalists won’t know it exists.
An advice for ourselves: Get it done. Don’t get stuck on unimportant things. Don’t wait to make a game until you have the perfect engine or tool set, because you’ll never achieve perfect. Good enough is good enough.
JJM: Getting the word out can be a problem for indie developers, who usually don’t have a dedicated PR department. How do you find the time to promote your game in addition to working on it?
EZ: Anders wrote a brilliant press release and since the concept of “handmade point & click adventure” is a rare thing it got picked up most of the time.
AG: You just have to make time. Most of January was dedicated to answering questions from journalists. It was a bummer not having as much time to work on the game – and realizing that the schedule was slipping because of it – but if we don’t talk about it people won’t know about it.
EZ: Competitions can sometimes be a good way of spreading the word about your game.
JJM: Another question about The Dream Machine: Because the game is online, you can “look over the player’s shoulder”, so to speak. How does that work, exactly? Have you already made alterations to the game based on what you see players do?
AG: Yeah. I change the game all the time. Mostly it’s just minor stuff like adding more interaction responses. But anything is open for alterations if it makes sense. We have a system that sends back interaction data to a database, so if players try to use objects in ways we never thought about we can add new rules for that. I’m really fascinated with that concept. Design by hive mind.
JJM: Do you think more games will/should work like that?
AG: That would be interesting. Some of them already do, I guess. It’s basically the same concept as emergent gameplay, but done in a point & click game and with waaay more latency.
JJM: How do you see adventure games evolve?
AG: I view Portal as the next generation of adventure games. It has all the elements I love about traditional adventures, but none of the clunky interface.
EZ: Some people say Heavy Rain is evolution, but I don’t know really…
JJM: Is there a future at all for the genre as we know it, or do people really need to come up with new ideas, like the online hand-crafted game you’re doing?
AG: One of the biggest problems with traditional adventure games is that if the player gets stuck on one puzzle, there’s not much else to do. They start wandering the locations looking for clues or something to pick up, but that’s not a fun state. More non-linearity solves this to some degree but also adds to noise level of the puzzles.
EZ: It feels like the genre is surfacing again gaining more fans… I don’t feel like a necrophiliac nowadays enjoying adventure games. Thank you Amanita/Telltale for rejuvenating the genre.
AG: In most adventure games you’re left trying to figure out what the designer was thinking. Rather than solving the puzzles on your own terms.
EZ: Yeah, and you just start to randomly click everything, frustrated. Been playing a couple of those.
JJM: I recognize the feeling.
AG: The death of adventure games is also hugely exaggerated. They’re actually making more money now than they did during their golden age, but back then they were the biggest selling genre. Nowadays the military FPS is the number 1 seller.
JJM: True, they just went off some people’s radar for a while. Okay, the final question. What are your dreams?
EZ: Good question. In life?
JJM: Yeah, in life, for the future… anything.
EZ: Or last night’s dreams?
JJM: Those as well if you want to share them. (If they’re not too graphic or anything, heh.)
EZ: Hehe. I dream of a house situated in the north of Italy. I have a studio there. I drink wine, eat cheese and good meat. Have just enough money to go around. My family is in good health. And I’m free to do stuff I believe in.
JJM: That sounds great.
EZ: No bullshit.
JJM: I assume the same goes for Anders, since you’re practically Siamese twins?
EZ: Haha, true, we actually discussed this and we share the same dream but his is slightly more urban. He’s living in Paris or something…
AG: I dream about the day when the game is finished and I can get my life back. Not that I’m complaining: I’m having a blast. But it would be nice to readjust to normal life again. Maybe hang out with some friends.
JJM: What about Paris?
AG: I’ll take it! I love France. I’ll take anywhere to be honest. Anywhere is better than Sweden during the winter.
That concludes this fascinating interview. My thanks go out to Anders and Erik for a delightful conversation!