Dark Matter Developer Interview
A week ago we highlighted a Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight campaign for Metroidvania-styled, space horror game Dark Matter. We were so impressed by Interwave’s game that I jumped at the chance to interview the company regarding this amazing looking game.
Even though Metroidvania games are popping up like candy nowadays (Shadow Complex, Guacamelee, even Castlevania Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate), Dark Matter takes things one step forward by introducing certain gameplay elements that are rarely seen in this genre.
The Slanted: It looks like Dark Matter is a nice combo of classic Metroidvania gameplay (even though you’re trying to avoid that term) with spine tingling space horror. Can you tell us a little bit about where the idea of the game came from, and what influences played a part in the overall style of the game?
Interwave: After Nuclear Dawn’s grueling development cycle, we felt the need for a change of pace in the next grueling development cycle. Looking at the games we’d enjoyed playing over the previous years, 2.5D platformers seemed to be a solid, popular choice with good user response.
The idea for Dark Matter itself had been knocking around our heads for a while, and we decided to try and make this game that, in its original design document was called Project “Combat-oriented metroidvania in space with gritty visuals and realtime lights/shadows.”
TS: You mentioned that the enemies will react to changing environmental conditions. Can you elaborate a bit more on that? Do they change their attack patterns, get more powerful, etc?
Interwave: The first, most dramatic change is in the aggression level. Every enemy, from the smallest to the largest, will be less aware of its surroundings in the dark, and less prone to spot you first, giving you a chance to plan the best attack strategy to survive the encounter.
On the other hand, enemies exposed to light become more aggressive, see more, do more damage and even resist some of your attacks. If exposed to light, hive entrances will spawn more enemies, and alien gates will shut closed.
Then, we shake things up by adding a couple of enemies that react to light differently than the norm. Some traps shy away from the light, and can only be crossed if you shine a light on them. Other enemies (a different race you’ll meet later on), actually try and stick to the shadows and can be herded out of your way with judicious switch pulling.
TS: Dark Matter has a heavy crafting mechanic, which involves obtaining components from enemy drops, giving this a very “Diablo-esque” loot-centric feel. Can you tell us why you decided to include this mechanic into a genre that typically doesn’t focusing on collecting loot and crafting?
Interwave: There is no loot as traditionally intended in Dark Matter. That’s one of the game’s internal consistency pillars, actually. Enemies do not conveniently disgorge usable ammunition and weapons, keys and delicate blueprints.
What they do drop are the resources they’d been refining from your ship and dead crew mates. Once you have these resources, it’s up to you to decide what to craft from them.
This mechanism is more advanced than a simple shop, as it’s a completely open system that allows players to disassemble unused ammo and objects, and that requires some fairly rare ingredients to manufacture the most powerful weapon modules and ammo.
TS: It is a bold move to do away with things like ammo drops and health packs and instead tie them into the crafting mechanic. What led to the decision to make players create their own items as opposed to scattering them about the game world?
Interwave: There were several considerations that came together to form the current system, and they have to do with gameplay as much as world building.
Weapons, ammo blueprints and weapon module templates can be found scattered through the levels, in meaningful settings that tell little stories in their own way: an unused shotgun on an out-of-the-way rack, a grenade launcher on a pile of dismembered corpses in the room just before your next objective, and so on.
In order to build a more consistent gaming world in what is often a cartoony, arcade genre, we attempt to suspend belief as little as possible. It makes more sense to find a weapon where the ruling aliens overlooked it, or haven’t scrapped it yet, rather than conveniently have it materialize out of thin air from a creature that perhaps wasn’t even big enough to hold it in its belly without killing itself.
Finally, we attempt to build a tense environment where the player feels the consequences of every mistake they make. Blindly rushing into a room, madly blasting enemies and burning medpacks to keep yourself alive is a perfectly workable strategy, for example.
However, if you choose to play like that all the time, you won’t be able to save a lot, and will miss those resources you wasted playing space cowboy when there simply aren’t enough left for that upgrade you really want.
TS: A lot of focus is being put on enemy AI, which I’m thrilled to see. Judging by the descriptions of enemy AI, it seems you are staying away from the fast-twitch shoot-em up gameplay. Is Dark Matter going to be paced more deliberately, with a heavier focus on outsmarting the enemy as opposed to shooting everything in sight?
Interwave: The player is agile, and the weapons responsive. However, enemies hit hard and are difficult to avoid in close quarters.
Playing Dark Matter as a run and gun shooter, without noticing and exploiting the environment, won’t be a wholly enjoyable experience. Rushing through a level, triggering traps and angering every clawed, hungry space parasite in range is not a good survival strategy for a lone, outgunned survivor.
On the other hand, players who cleverly separate enemies from their mates, who notice where the blister patches and doors are so that they can be used against their opponents, and who most importantly use to make the most out of nano ammo will have a much more interesting time.
TS: What was the deciding factor to go with crowd source funding and not with an established publisher?
Interwave: Mostly, it was the freedom to be able to craft the game we’d imagined, without undue pressure from well-meaning executives who really, really would have liked to see wall jumps and slides into the game because kids dig that stuff, and it’s not really going to ruin the tense exploration that much now, is it?
The moment crowd funding options became viable, actual business models, we didn’t give publishers a second try, and put all our efforts into our Kickstarter campaign instead.
TS: You’ve mentioned that the additional 2 months of development time will be spent polishing the game before release. You are also allowing high level backers to access a beta version of the game so they can help assist in the game’s development via feedback in the forums and one-on-one meetings. Why is it important for the development team to work hand-in-hand with backers for the final phase of development? Truth be told, I don’t know of too many developers that would welcome such a hands-on role from the players themselves.
Interwave: Game development is not an exact science, at least definitely not at our skill level.
Players, testers and backers are treasure troves of information on how people other than us would play the game. As well as helping shape the whole experience into something greater than we could accomplish on our own, they keep you grounded.
I’ll give you an example from the trenches: we kept getting tester reports that the game was too difficult. We played and tested and tried to figure out what was wrong because we were all pretty ace at it (except for our lead level designer), and nothing seemed to be too wrong.
Finally, after talking to an uninvolved party that had tried the game with no previous knowledge or preconceptions, we were able to identify a fairly colossal issue with our aiming system. Apparently not every player aims exactly on the pixel they intend to hit, see.
This is a small example of where the point of view of a pure consumer who wasn’t trying to test or develop the game could focus a series of issues that we may well never have figured out on our own.
We need players to tell us the game they want us to make for them, so that we can zero in on exactly what will help them create memorable experiences. We are not infallible, and the game that we want to play may not be that good after all. We need to know, so we can make it better.
Just look at the greatest independent successes of all time: they are all games that were shaped by dogged developer determination as well as the pressure cooker of an interested community. It’s an unbeatable combination.
TS: You have mentioned that the game is built with a mouse/keyboard control scheme in mind so that PC and FPS gamers feel at ease. Will there be any gamepad support for those who prefer it, or is it strictly a mouse/keyboard experience?
Dark Matter was designed with WASD and mouse controls in mind, from an FPS player’s point of view, because we were tired of platformers that force keyboard players to press absurd, bone-snapping key combinations for a simple jump.
However, throughout development we made sure we kept things fully accessible to those who prefer to play on a gamepad. Every team member tests and provides feedback on both systems.
TS: “Dark Matter is the game we wanted Metroid and Castlevania to be when we played through those Nintendo classics. Also, it’s the game we wanted Resident Evil and Silent Hill to be, when we suffered through their atrocious controls ”
The first thing that comes to mind when you mentioned those horror games and a space environment is the Dead Space franchise. Was there any influence at all from that series?
Interwave: Funnily enough, it wasn’t, at all!
We all played and enjoyed Dead Space, and its sequels. However, as we designed and worked on Dark Matter’s prototypes, we kept drawing back to very different games for inspiration, as well as trying to strike out in some new directions of our own.
Dead Space is the first comparison everyone makes, and we do not object to being mentioned in the same sentence as a game of that caliber. There are powerful similarities, that’s true, but they are mostly convergent.
We came to them from a completely different route, which mostly involved trying to recapture that ‘alone in a creaking death trap’ feeling of the first Metroids, and trying to superpower it with modern graphics and techniques. And bigger explosions.
Thank you to Interwave for their time with these questions! Dark Matter is definitely a game worth keeping your eyes on, so stay tuned as we bring you more info on this awesome looking game!