'I will Escape' is an indie game title that has been FULLY produced in Blender and uses the Blender Game Engine as well. It will debut on Steam in one week and today I'm talking to Wesley Blijlevens, founder of Blue Label Studio, to learn more about the creation of this project.
For more than thirteen years I have had the dream to create my own game. Not just a simple game, but the kind of games I liked to play in my teenage years. I am a huge fan of the old Tomb Raider and Metal Gear Solid titles. Now, my own game is about to launch. The game that we created is not only of a genre that I love so much, but it is also developed with the software, Blender, that I like so much.
Thirteen years ago, I was curious to know how games were made. Therefore, I started reading about it and tried to find books about this topic. In a store called “Media Markt”, they had a book called “DIV game studio”. The book cost a 100 guilders (€45), which was a lot of money to me. I hid the book in this shop so no one else could buy it. After three weeks I was able to buy the book, resembling the start of my journey. The book included a CD with a software called Blender. I fired it up and closed it quickly. I did not understand anything of the light grey program with a 1000 buttons ;-).
Two and a half years ago, I owned a company in web design, which was not that successful. I still wanted to be my own boss, therefore I decided to achieve my big dream: Creating my own game. After watching the documentary HOME (which I advise everybody to see, you will be amazed by the quality), I had a topic. Not only that, it also opened my eyes. In the beginning, they tell you “this is your story and you decide what you want to do with it”. I want to show people in another form of entertainment what is going to happen if we do not act.
Since the entire story is too large, I decided to make a trilogy called “I Will the game”. The first chapter is “I Will Escape”. This chapter is about Brian Lowfield, a convicted marine for a murder on a scientist in the quarantine zone. Locked up in a prison far away from the city, he will need to escape. The reason they keep you alive is something you will have to explore yourself when you play the game. You can collect digital files in the game, revealing pieces of information about your circumstances and the world outside the prison. You will have to do this unseen, because you have no weapons. Once you are spot by the enemy, you will need to start the level over again. The digital files will be saved in your so called “Nano reader”, which is a watch that can be unfold into a tablet.
We worked with a small team in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. We had around 6 to 10 people working full-time on the game, of which four permanent team members and the rest interns. The interns were an important part of making this game possible. Due to their low labor costs, we were able to develop a game this big. Some of our former interns showed their talent, and now work here full-time.
At first, we worked at my home and turned my living room into an office. I had saved computers and spare parts for some years, so we had enough computers to start with. After four months, I was tired of people using my toilet and kitchen, and not having a living room to welcome guests. Therefore, I decided to hire an anti-squatting office for a low price.
When I think back about this period, I see the road we have traveled and how far we have come. It sounds nice and romantic “the start-up from home”, but I would not do it again. The line between work and privacy becomes too thin. I have worked two years without a salary and invested everything I had, and in addition borrowed money. The total costs of making my game is around €25.000. If we do not reach the sales target, then from a financial point of view it has all been for nothing.
From the beginning I knew that Steam and Desura were the places to distribute our game, with Steam being our most important distributor. Before I started the game, I set a sales target and made a small business plan about what I wanted to achieve. I can say that no matter what you do, always set goals. There is a reason why most projects quit after three months. When you start, you think you have the best idea in the world, but after one month you realize it is harder than you thought and it will take more time than you expected.
Our first success was when our game got Greenlit in August 2014. We were at 63% of the top 100 games when Valve itself Greenlit us. So far, we are in the last batch since last Augusts 2014. Getting through the Greenlight was not easy. It made me understand that you never can start early enough with promoting your game. We have used different channels for promoting the game, such as Twitter, Facebook, Blenderartist.org, IndieDB, Steam Greenlight, and our website.
However, after a while I realized that this is not enough. We need to get press releases published to expand our promotion and this is not an easy thing. If you want to be successful, it is important to expand your network and try to meet journalists and other (business) people. To give an example, how do you think this article got published on this website? I have spoken to the owner at the Blender conference last October. In five minutes I could tell him what we do, why we do it, and who we are.
My advice, often try to write a press release and send this to journalists and post it on gamespress.com. It is difficult process and can be scary. Many times I thought, why should they be interested in me or my product. But these are silly thoughts you always have, because you are so critical on yourself and your own product. Do not be afraid, you have nothing to lose. I realize the power of marketing and promotion now. I have heard that marketing is 80% of your success and just 20% is the product itself.
We use blender for everything except texture creating. The models, rigs, animations, level design, and logics are all used inside Blender. Using just one program makes the production pipeline simple. The offside however, is that your files can become cluttered. So it was important to make it easy to work with. We created a different blend file for each level, we have a total of 24 blend files for just the levels. We use the layers in the blend giving each its own purpose, for example layer 1 is lights, layer 5 collisions, and layer 8 enemies and waypoints and so on. When you are working with this, you experience how fast it can be. You can edit something and press the button “P” and directly test it. For most assets we create packages and they are added to a group. From there, we link them into the blend files. This makes the model better maintainable. But there are cases where this does not work and we need to append it into the file. As for the logic, we try to work with properties as much as we can. From the programming point of view, we do not want to stay in Blender at all, but get away from it. The reason for this is control and maintainability. If you really want to know in depth, you will have to check it out yourself once released.
The greatest challenge of making a game with Blender, is to keep your mechanics and features cooperate together and come up with an architecture that makes it easy and maintainable for you. Moreover, keeping the performance and graphics quality in balance is also a big challenge. On this part we are still developing, learning, and improving.
To give a practical example, our first character setup had over 35 Empties surrounding it, where do we have to place the menu when opening it? Another Empty when checking for hanging and an Empty once climbing up and so on. Besides that, it had dozens of “if” and “else" statements to check the circumstances and to see what the player could or could not do. This quickly became a major issue. We had to think about what we should do. I came up with the idea of making a State Matrix, which decides what the player could do and couldn’t do. We did three full days of pair (triple) programming making the base, which a year later is still remained unchanged for 95%. However, the code for the character class has to be refactored completely, but unfortunately there is no time to do that anymore. In that light, you can always keep on improving and refining. Setting a deadline for yourself is important, otherwise you will end up working on it for several years.
One of the things we will do differently in the future, is to take more time to setup our game. Do not start too quickly, it may look like you are doing a good job, because you have quick results. However, in the long term you will come across big issues, forcing you to start over from scratch. We have had to rebuild the entire game once, which took a year.
Making games is hard, because it takes a lot of time and once you have started, your motivation will go down. It will make you frustrated and sometimes disappointed you, I have had this feeling for over a year. If you are a modeller, animator or game developer, you know exactly what I am talking about. But I always kept believing and stayed focused on what I wanted to achieve.
Always know your end goal and your scope is always too big. Whatever you want to make, prioritize it with MoSCoW, make a list and cut it into two. You can forget about the second part of your list. We did not do this and I still regret it. Our game is a bit too big, the game has a playtime of 5 to 6 hours (probably even more). If I knew this, we would have made half of the game we have now. It would have saved a tremendous amount of creating assets, testing, and bug fixing. If we get the chance to make the next title, this is definitely something we will do differently. We will take our time to plan ahead.
On December 22, at 7pm (GMT+1) our game will be published on Steam. For as far as I know, this is the first game on Steam created with Blender. I am proud of what we have achieved and sometimes it still amazes me that we managed to do this with Blender. We will finish our trilogy with Blender and after that we will see what happens. We need to sell at last 30.000 copies to make the second part, which will be "I Will Find". The game is open source, you can see how we have created it. It is not perfect yet, but we will keep developing and learning. I hope we can inspire other people. As for me, I have realized my dream and will have to find a new one.