Funcom’s Joel Bylos talks about the first person horror title among other things.
Making something different, much less original, in any entertainment medium is tough these days. Funcom may know its fair share about adventure games but The Park was decidedly different by its own standards, skirting the line between horror and dark fantasy. Though the game has been out a while on PC, it will be heading to Xbox One and PS4 soon, thus allowing console players the chance to see what all the fuss is about. What inspired the desire to embark on an idea like The Park? GamingBolt spoke to creative director Joel Bylos about the same and also gathered his thoughts on upcoming games the developer is working on, DirectX 12 and even cloud computing.
"The Park has undergone many iterations even during such a short development time, but the backbone of the story was in place very early. We knew that we wanted a slow build-up and we wanted to plant a lot of possibilities in the mind of the player early on."
Funcom has a very strong reputation with adventure games, as evidenced by The Longest Journey and Dreamfall. Is that what motivated you to return to the genre or was it something else?
Joel Bylos: Funcom has always been a company that likes to tell stories and even though in recent years we have had a focus on multiplayer games, we still tried to develop interesting worlds and narratives within those worlds.
Our motivation with The Park was mostly technical, to be honest. We assigned a small team of developers to learn the ins and outs of the Unreal Engine 4 technology and as a team decided that the best way to learn the engine would be to create a full game from start to finish. Because of our past and our strength as storytellers, it was only natural that we went with a heavily narrative driven game
The Park is very unlike Funcom’s previous adventure titles. Was the intention to experiment with The Secret World’s mythos or were you unsure what kind of game it would ultimately be?
Joel Bylos: We made a lot of choices based on economy in the beginning. We wanted to constrain the gameworld to a small area – Atlantic Island Park was a very good fit for the size of the world we wanted to create in The Park. From there it was a very simple choice to set the game in the universe of The Secret World and to use that style of storytelling in a familiar setting.
So the answer that we started out unsure as to what type of game we would make, but as we constructed our logical framework for such a short production, we quickly saw that The Secret World was the best alternative.
It’s interesting to note the characters of The Secret World but how The Park‘s protagonist is a seemingly normal woman. What can you tell us about the process behind designing Lorraine and her story?
Joel Bylos: Because of the shorter production time and the limited team size, we tried to keep our ambitions for the gameplay in check. This meant that in order to gain traction we needed to build interest in the story. In the end, we’re all the sum of our influences and in the case of The Park, I’ve spent a lot of time the past few years (since my children were born) fascinated by the changes that people go through as they become parents. It’s intriguing to me that in a world with so much information there are still dark sides to being a parent that are not discussed openly.
Lorraine was born of that fascination – I wanted to make a character that could reflect some of those thoughts and ponderings back into the world and build a story around a horrible “What if?”
"As for additional chapters, The Park itself is a very self-contained story which doesn’t really need further chapters or sequels. But more of the same in The Secret World? I’d be onboard with that."
Horror games have made a very strong comeback in the past few years but The Park seems to take a more reserved approach. What can you tell us about the overall atmosphere and how you went about creating it?
Joel Bylos: The Park has undergone many iterations even during such a short development time, but the backbone of the story was in place very early. We knew that we wanted a slow build-up and we wanted to plant a lot of possibilities in the mind of the player early on. Visually, our art team know how to create a story through the environment and they took the first design and ran with it. Originally the world was more open and gradually became more claustrophobic and I think that they managed to carry this over well.
And naturally, our audio team have always been world class and in a genre like horror it really gave our guys a chance to shine. It’s really important to remember that The Park was experimental and so we tried a lot of different techniques throughout the game – each ride is an experiment with one aspect of the technology built into Unreal Engine 4 and we tried to build our game accordingly.
What is your response to criticisms regarding The Park’s length? Does it feel like something worth continuing into additional chapters/games?
Joel Bylos: I think that the criticism is of the value proposition rather than the length per se. People see the length of The Park and the price of The Park and they have to decide whether it is worth their time. And that decision will always be up to the individual, I think. Some people will say “It’s worth a couple of beers or a lunch” and others maybe don’t want to spend that much on a couple of hours of entertainment.
My biggest focus is making sure that the game isn’t full of “filler” content. I’m not a massive fan of the direction many games have taken lately with larger worlds that are filled with collectible content that extends the playtime, but doesn’t add much to the experience. We tried to make The Park focused and intense, with minimal filler.
Some examples of this were making the game more linear (originally you could visit the rides in any order) and making sure that the player had a run button. Both of those decisions decreased the playtime, but in my opinion they increased the value. I’d rather players walk away feeling that they got something of value in 2 hours, rather than feeling that they got something vaguely unfulfilling in 5 hrs.
As for additional chapters, The Park itself is a very self-contained story which doesn’t really need further chapters or sequels. But more of the same in The Secret World? I’d be onboard with that.
Have you considered an episodic horror series in the vein of Telltale Games’ various IPs?
Joel Bylos: I’d love to develop a longer story that we could tell over several episodes and I certainly have some ideas in that direction, but if I told you anything here, I’d have to kill you.
What are your thoughts on The Park coming to Xbox One and PS4?
Joel Bylos: It’s exciting! In my career I’ve never actually worked on a console game so seeing that process from start to finish will be very interesting. These days it seems a lot simpler to get on consoles than it used to be, but we still have a lot to learn to get The Park up and running.
"[VR] is almost like the evolution from card games to board games to PC games. There is a new type of design mindset that is going to be needed and while principles will be shared across the all, it is going to require a specific subset of skills."
Furthermore, which platform are you guys more likely to launch on first?
Joel Bylos: I have no idea. I have seen it running on one of the consoles, but again I don’t want to say too much without knowing for sure.
For that matter, what are your thoughts on both consoles in general? Do you see Funcom investing heavily in current gen consoles at any point in the future?
Joel Bylos: I do think the benchmark for getting a game onto consoles is a lot lower than it was last generation. In general the gaming market is converging in a way I haven’t seen before – Valve are focused on bringing the PC experience to the TV screen, but on the flip side, the console makers are making it as simple as possible to bring new games to their consoles from the PC platform.
The important winners here are game developers because we get more places where we can deliver our products and that hopefully means we can expand our fan base as well. Funcom is definitely watching this space with interest!
Is it possible that The Park ever heads to VR devices in the future? What do you think of technologies like Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR?
Joel Bylos: The Park already works somewhat on VR (though we disabled it for launch) thanks to the built in capabilities of Unreal Engine 4. It needs a lot of UI work and design tweaks (unlocking the camera in cutscenes, for example) before we could release it on a VR platform. Whether that is ultimately something we decide to do will depend on the company strategy going forward.
That said, I do agree with the Oculus guys when they said that games should be made for VR and not converted. It’s a different design process and The Park is ultimately not a game designed with VR in mind. VR in general, I think is going to (perhaps has already) become a new branch of the industry (actually a whole bunch of industries). VR will offer an experience that can only really be created using VR technology and I am very excited to see where it goes.
It might be that VR becomes the ultimate platform, given time. It’s almost like the evolution from card games to board games to PC games. There is a new type of design mindset that is going to be needed and while principles will be shared across the all, it is going to require a specific subset of skills.
I can’t wait, to be honest. We have a HTC Vive at work and it really does blow me away with its potential.
So there’s this whole marketing thing behind it and it’s going to be one of the bigger Xbox One games for next year. There’s this whole future technology behind it with cloud computing because people are like, “we’re taking advantage of the cloud. We’ll deliver this kind of stuff. This kind of level we’ve never done before.” I just find it a little strange. Somehow we are consolidating the future talk with the marketing budget for triple A titles, like say Call of Duty or even Assassin’s Creed and such. So I was just wondering your take on that. Cloud computing that going on in Crackdown 3 and where you think that’s eventually going to lead for video games in general.
Joel Bylos: Hmmm, technology is a wonderful thing but it is the impact on gameplay that really matters. I haven’t looked into exactly what Crackdown 3 is doing, but using cloud computing to do physics calculations on the server side and then passing that information back to a client… sure I guess. It’s a cool idea that probably doesn’t alter your immediate experience (the moment to moment) of playing the game that much. And seeing it is a multiplayer only feature, my assumption is that the developers would not be hanging their hat on that particular feature either.
I do think Cloud computing can have a huge impact on indirect activities, but since it will always be heavily tied to connection speeds, I’d be wary of using it for any core mechanics. With that said, imagine an RPG like The Witcher with an AI driven Game Master who lives in the cloud and creates adventures for your player (like a world building version of the AI director from Left 4 Dead). This sort of technology makes these sort of possibilities available.
I like new technology because it always throws a new tool in the toolbox.
"DirectX12 on PC and DirectX12 on Xbox One are slightly different propositions. The bottleneck on Xbox One is the GPU and DirectX12 is not a magical panacea which will suddenly remove that bottleneck."
What is your take on DirectX12 and do you think it will improve games performance on X1?
Joel Bylos: So, DirectX12 on PC and DirectX12 on Xbox One are slightly different propositions. The bottleneck on Xbox One is the GPU and DirectX12 is not a magical panacea which will suddenly remove that bottleneck. And remember that the Xbox One was already optimized to take advantage of DirectX11 at a hardware level.
So the primary advantage of DX12 on Xbox One (in my opinion) will be the optimized draw call pipeline. Which means more things happening on screen – but not necessarily faster or prettier things. If anything it widens the gap between the CPU on the Xbox One and the PS4, giving the Xbox One a larger advantage in the area where it already had one.
The consoles have 8GB of memory. Do you think that is enough to last the next 5 odd years?
Joel Bylos: Hmmm, that’s a difficult question. It will last because it has to. Is it an optimal situation to put developers in? Absolutely not. And VR is coming – that’s going to come with hefty requirements. Who knows what will happen in the end? There are rumors that the PS4 VR has a separate box with unknown hardware inside. Maybe they’ve added a little extra hardware to help with the requirements.
What does Funcom have planned after The Park?
Joel Bylos: We’ve recently announced our intention to release 3 games in 2016. We’ve also announced our renewed interest and partnership with the Conan IP. Keep your eyes peeled!