I think it's time for an update on The Intruder. It's safe to say it's been a while.
I tend to postpone these updates over and over until I have something to show that I'm completely content with. As a fan, that really sucks because you basically hear nothing about the project for a really long time. Sometimes you just want to know what's going on, even if things aren't going well. Especially if things aren't going well. So that's what this is.
The truth of it is: I'm running into a bunch of issues with the project. I don't usually talk about this much, but this time around I will. I'll walk you through what these issues are, what I've learned from them so far and how I intend to move forward. Hopefully that's going to give you guys a good idea of where the project is at currently and what to expect from the future.
To that end, before I go into details I want to cut right to the chase: I need more resources to finish this project in a reasonable time frame and I'm not currently in a position where I have those resources or can manage them responsibly. This project is on hold until I can figure this stuff out and I expect that to take a long time. The practical reason why the project isn't flat-out cancelled is because I've seen a lot of potential in this concept and I intend to revisit it, preferably with the same title and while re-using as much as possible of what has already been built over the years.
I also want to quickly remind you guys that this project was not crowdfunded. I knew from the beginning that this game was going to be a risky venture on account of my inexperience at producing games and I tried to make sure that:
While having accomplished that, I do apologize for getting you excited about a game that's not going to come out any time soon or possibly at all. I didn't manage your expectations well and I accept the criticism that comes with that.
I'm going to go into more detail now about how I got here for any fans that are interested in the history of this project and I'll try to work in some screenshots and other never before seen content that might be interesting.
Rather than go for a straightforward realistic style I started exploring the style of faded family portraits to give the game a more unique look.
To understand where it is now I think it's worth to briefly look back at where it came from: Somewhere around 2012 the Slender Man mythos started being adapted to videogames by a bunch of different people. I'd had a soft spot for that character since the original Something Awful posts and the Marble Hornets video series but I was really disappointed by how it was being portrayed. The Slender Man was always just some dude standing in the distance and if you got close there were VHS distortions and it would cut to a Game Over screen.
I was always most excited about the idea of being at home with the Slender Man outside, trying to break in. That wasn't really explored yet. People also started portraying it as having tentacles, though the way I saw that character is that they were not tentacles at all but actually long arms, and he'd use them to walk around, climb, grip things, tear barricades apart. That aspect of the character was also not being explored and that's what excited me about trying to adapt this idea into a video game.
So that's basically the premise: you're in a relatable environment, haunted by a creepy monster with a bunch of arms that interact with the environment in a cool way.
I quickly came up with the following concept: you're in a house and you need to find a weapon and bullets that are hidden somewhere. If you shoot The Intruder in the head several times you win, otherwise it will kill you and you lose. So I prototyped that game in the Source Engine because I loved that engine and had experience making mods for it. Friends played it, they loved it, one of them nearly smashed my fancy monitor when he got so scared that he threw his headphones into it. That was a good sign. Mission accomplished! Now to turn that into a big game that I could sell, because I've always wanted to make a commercial game by myself that I could call entirely my own. What could go wrong? I made this awesome prototype, clearly I know what I'm doing, right?
A glimpse of an early design of the eponymous Intruder.
‘Now to turn that into a big game that I could sell, because I've always wanted to make a commercial game by myself that I could call entirely my own.’
That's basically where it went wrong. What part? To be honest, all of the parts:
To this day I have logged only 3 hours in Playdead's INSIDE, and I love that game to bits. It's very memorable, I still talk about it with friends and I still take inspiration from it. It also stands at a price point of $20, as opposed to the full-fledged $60 that games still tended to cost back when I started. The most important thing is that it was made by a team of around 30 people. That's partly because such high-quality video game requires a bulky staff to finish production in a reasonable timeframe but you also get something from it: the insight, expertise and personal style of others that will help turn one person's vision into a fully fleshed out and well-rounded game.
My point being: the goals that I set for expanding the prototype were misguided from the start. It's totally fine to make a small game and price it accordingly, and it's totally okay to have other people work on your project. It doesn't automatically mean you lose vision. It would have been a more realistic goal to ship a game rather than try and make my first title some kind of grand masterpiece.
Early blockout of what would be the ‘town’ area, one of the most complex areas of the game.
So I had a prototype of a game where you were in a house, frantically searching for a weapon while the Intruder was about to visit. I wanted to expand on that concept. What I came up with was that you'd still have that house, but there's a real-time day/night cycle and survival mechanics. The idea of finding weapons under time pressure was now extended to scavenging an ever dwindling supply of items in a ‘small’ open world, with various unique locations with their own deadly enemies and valuable items. During the night the Intruder would start to come after you and your home was the only safe haven. After a certain number of in-game days even your house wouldn't be safe anymore and you'd have no choice but to barricade yourself in and fight. I felt that it made the Intruder a lot less scary if you could kill it, so I changed it so you could only really drive it back, and the final goal was to stay alive for as long as possible. This idea of exploring an open world, scavenging, trying to understand the history of the town and discovering all kinds of horrible creatures under the time pressure of avoiding this ever-looming threat is great. I soon found out that making an open world game by yourself, on the other hand, is not that great.
One of the houses in the ‘town’ area I started working on.
I was able to make the house, survival mechanics, various items, inventory management, physics interactions and sophisticated AI. At some point I even made this school environment that I'd concepted with its own unique enemies. I threw the levels together pretty quickly using gray blocks for all the walls and floors. But when the time came to ‘dress it up’ I came to two conclusions: 1) making 3D assets is a meticulous process and a lot of 3D assets are needed to properly dress up a location. 2) my ‘modest’ open world of a few kilometers was massive. I had a few buildings planned and also a small village, but just looking at the size of that map the buildings were going to be few and far between. It would be one of those open world games where there's not a lot to do in-between hand crafted areas. Frankly, it would be barren. It dawned on me that it was simply too big of a task to do by myself. I needed to either get more people on board or change the scope of the project.
Inventory management system. In one of the later versions you have a mysterious medical condition that starts showing adverse effects if you don't take medication.
At this point a friend was helping me with some of the design and community management and I hired a freelance music producer to work on the soundtrack, and that was the entire team. I considered scaling up the team significantly, but it just didn't make a lot of sense. Given my inexperience it's important to mitigate risk so that I can suffer a failure without being financially ruined. Doing the project almost entirely by myself goes a long way to ensure that, the other thing that I do is that I don't work on this project full-time. In fact, for years I had an actual full-time job at a game studio while I worked on The Intruder, though the last couple of years I've worked 4 days a week leaving Fridays and weekends for this project. Not only does this mean I have stable income but I can also learn from others and get acquainted with participating in - and in some cases leading - a team of developers.
I was still very much learning the ropes and didn't have a firm grasp of what this project was going to be or how to manage a sizable crew, so from a risk management point of view I was in no position to start investing big lumps of cash into getting more manpower. If I did start managing a big team I would also run the risk of creating a conflict-of-interest with the studio where I work. So far they have been very supportive of my ‘extra-curricular activity’ and I don't want to damage that relationship. Begrudgingly I came to the conclusion that I would have to think a lot more modestly about what this game was going to be. So I looked at the game very critically and re-evaluated the scope.
One of the hallways in the player's house during daytime.
Given that the open world wasn't going to fly, I tried my hand at confining this concept to a much, much smaller area. What I came up with was this: There's a massive blizzard and you're dying of exposure. You take shelter in a house but no one seems to be home. As you walk around you experience flashbacks of the family that lived there. You're still going around scavenging for food, batteries and weapons but it's all within the house. There's still a day/night cycle and the Intruder will still show up at night. All the exploration happens within the house itself although eventually you'll be able to visit some nearby buildings on the same property. Some kind of ritual appears to be set up in the basement and if you find the correct items and complete the ritual you discover the truth about what happened.
On paper that sounds great, and I think there's a worthwhile concept buried in there that can be turned into a good game. Yet I ran into the following issues:
In the end, it felt like I lost something. Some spark of inspiration. It was a down-scaled and retrofit version of an original idea, and it felt that way. What's worse is that even this smaller version was still out of scope. I knew that trucking along this way wasn't going to get me anywhere. I had to go about it differently but I didn't know how.
An early version of the ritual. Each section of the circle contains a sacrifice.
At this point I was pretty much completely burned out on the project. It felt like I had an overzealous and unrealistic idea when I was young and inexperienced, proceeded to show it to the world and got everybody excited about very specific features and married myself to the idea so hard that I was unable to evaluate and evolve it critically enough to turn it into an actual working, cohesive game. Despite all the cool things I had built, the project was a failure from both a design and a production point of view. I knew that there was a spark of innovation in there but I was incapable of harnessing its full potential. It stayed in limbo like this for a while. I played a bunch of games for inspiration and I talked to friends and colleagues for advice but I came to a harsh conclusion: there was no simple fix for this.
A later version of the kitchen area as debuted in the very first announcement trailer
I can't finish this game by myself and it's not in a place where I can throw a lot of manpower at it. In my opinion there's only one way to execute this concept properly: get better at game development. I'm a great programmer and a promising artist, but game design and production management is really, really hard and I've simply been unequipped to execute a concept this complex. The process of going through The Intruder has been hugely educational and working at various game companies has taught me a lot too, but what I think I need most of all is to go through the entire cycle of concepting, prototyping, producing, porting, releasing and maintaining a game that is simpler and smaller. It's worth noting that I have already gone through this cycle many times by working at game studios, but only as a programmer and not as an artist, designer, director or producer. (Side note: I hope to also get a lot of this experience from my day job. I'm currently working as a technical designer and I'm involved in a lot of client calls and high-level creative direction which will hopefully prepare me to take up the mantle of game director in a few years. Fingers crossed)
Aside from continuing to work at studios I'm exploring the idea of going through the development cycle as a producer by developing and releasing a simpler, smaller game that is built on proven concepts and leans more on solid game design than on art assets. The idea being that the goal is not to create a hit game but rather to establish a successful process. I'm very much trying to avoid the pitfalls of how I presented The Intruder to the community and I have no intention of actively discussing or promoting any new titles until they're far along enough where I can guarantee that it's coming out, deliver regular updates and make realistic estimates about the release date.
The neighbour's house, one of the few outside areas you could still visit in the scoped-down version of the project.
I've struggled with every aspect of this project. I've wrestled with the technical challenges of making games using the Source Engine, the design challenges of developing, testing and iterating the various mechanics and levels, the art challenges of creating this living breathing world and lighting it appropriately for all hours of the day, obviously I've struggled with managing the community of a concept that's very much in flux and most of all I've struggled with the production process. Setting realistic goals and adjusting quickly when things don't go as planned is an essential skill in any production and it's not one that came naturally to me.
Despite all that, I've learned a whole lot about game development. Far more than I could ever learn from books or by working at game studios alone. I'm proud of the things we built that work, the music in particular turned out great. I have Sjoerd Limberger to thank for that. Here's a snippet of the soundtrack and you can check out his website here.
Lastly I'd like to say that I've really enjoyed working on this project. I've made friends, went on adventures, discussed duck genitals with the voice actor of Hitman's Agent 47 in the lobby of a fancy hotel (that's a story for another time) and overall I've grown as a person from having done it.
I hope to revisit this concept later and capture its full potential when I have the resources and experience to do it justice.
Thanks for supporting me all these years and I look forward to applying all the things I've learned while I continue to make games.