By Marty Mulrooney
Alternative Magazine Online recently reviewed Chapters 1-3 of indie point-and-click adventure game The Dream Machine, describing it as “not only a game about dreams, but a dream come true for adventure gamers.” We are therefore delighted to present a recent interview with Anders Gustafsson from Cockroach Inc, published today on the three year anniversary of AMO!
Hello Anders and welcome to AMO! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself please?
My name is Anders Gustafsson. I’m from Sweden. I like to make stuff up and shove it in people’s faces. I have problems sleeping and I love to lose myself in projects.
Cockroach Inc. consists of both yourself and Erik Zaring. When was the company founded and what roles do you both play?
Cockroach Inc. was founded by me in 2007, but it isn’t really all that important. It’s not like we’re trying to build it as a brand or something. Having a company just makes paperwork easier. Unless you’re somebody like Valve, nobody really cares about the company. The only thing that matters is the quality of the games.
I have no idea what role I’m expected to play. I do a little bit of everything. You pretty much have to when you’re this small. I like to have an overview perspective on things and I quickly get anxious if I’m pigeonholed into any one role. I’ve had various titles applied to me throughout the years, but they all sound silly and reductive. I hate that moment when you register to trade shows and have to put something down as your title. I usually regret anything I put there, and end up feeling like I have ‘c**t’ written on my stomach for the rest of the show.
How did you meet Erik and how long have you known each other?
We met back in 1998 while attending an animation school here in Visby, Sweden. We had a lot of things in common so we more or less immediately hit it off. We stayed in contact after school and eventually started working on small projects together.
When we started working on The Dream Machine, we were both at a low point in our lives and just wanted to get back to doing something for the heck of it. We had shitty, dead end jobs that we needed to escape. The more we talked about doing a game together, the more appealing it started to sound. Eventually we just said ‘fuck it’ and resigned.
That was almost four years ago now.
You have been making Flash games since 2001 – can you tell us about some of your earlier projects?
Prior to 2001 I’d been trying to make games for as long as I can remember. I used to try to write text adventures on my parent’s old Commodore 64. But since I didn’t know how to program, and didn’t have any friends that knew it either, they all pretty much crashed & burned at start-up.
In 2001 I had the great fortune of having a friend to show me some Flash games he’d done. He showed me how Flash worked and even supplied the source file to one of his games so I could ponder the code within. A lot of black coffee later, I started to figure out how it worked and managed to do a small game of my own. It was a crappy two player fighting game featuring chickens, but at least I managed to complete it.
After that I made lots and lots of small games, just to entertain myself. I put them on sites like Newgrounds to get feedback from players and peers. Eventually I reached a stage where I thought I could make a living developing games, and that’s been the rocky road I’ve been on since.
Erik joined my mad venture in 2008, bumping up the quality of the output by a factor of about a billion.
Why do you use Flash to make your games and what benefits does this engine offer?
It runs on most computers and comes preinstalled on most browsers. That’s a huge factor for us. The file sizes tend to be very small which makes loading on slow connections effortless. I hate loading times myself, so we felt that was an important problem to solve for a game this size.
Flash as a platform is shifting sand right now, and if we’d started working on The Dream Machine today, I’m not sure we would have gone down that route necessarily. But as much as people berate it I just tend to love it even more. I feel this weird loyalty towards it. As a tool, it opened the door to game development for me. I made shitty games and put them on Newgrounds. That was how I got started.
Being trained in visual arts, I could comprehend the concept of a stage and a timeline that I could plonk stuff into. Some of the vector-drawing tools were better than Illustrator’s. It compiled quickly, so I could check what I was doing at really short intervals. That’s how I solved most programming challenges: I wrote a line of code, compiled, checked and adjusted according to result. It was a brute force approach.
Nowadays I’m a little bit more deliberate, but not very much.
Your latest game project is The Dream Machine, a point-and-click adventure game in five chapters. How would you describe the game to newcomers?
It’s a point & click adventure game. The story revolves around a young couple that’s just moved into a new apartment. While trying to get settled in, they discover that all is not as it seems in the quiet, unassuming apartment building…
It’s also worth mentioning that we’re actually building all the visuals out of clay and cardboard. So everything has this odd, tangible feel to it.
Chapters 1-3 have been released so far – when will the final chapters be released?
We don’t have any dates yet. We’re useless at time estimations and every once in a while we have to take on commercial work in order to feed the monkey. Progress on Chapter 4 and 5 is really strong right now, though.
What made you decide to release the game in five chapters, as opposed to a single feature length game?
I think the main reason was to prevent us from going insane while working on the game. When we started out we quickly realised that it would take much longer to complete than we had originally though, and beavering away for two or more years, without any feedback from players, didn’t seem very appealing to us. So in order to get the game out there quicker, we split it up into chunks.
So far, that’s probably been one of the smartest things we’ve done. Player feedback has not only made the game a lot better, but it’s also been a huge contributor in helping us keep motivated and not go insane.
The first chapter is entirely free – do you think this business model has helped to spread the game and fuel its success?
I think so. It lowers the bar for anyone slightly curious about the game. You can try it out and see what it’s about. If you like it, that’s great. If you don’t like it, at least you didn’t spend any money on it. It’s a fair deal, I’d say.
A lot of games try to sell on hype and marketing alone, and don’t offer a demo. But I think most players are smarter than that. You can fool them once with a shitty overhyped game, but they’ll remember you for it.
You have to be connected to the Internet in order to play The Dream Machine, with the game accessible from within the player’s web browser – why did you decide to deliver the game in this manner?
There’re a lot of benefits to doing it this way. You can play from any computer (home or work) with cloud saved inventory, settings and progress. It requires no installation: you can play instantly, without the game taking up your precious hard drive space. Patching the game is automatic. You simply don’t have to worry about it.
We also consider the game to be a continuously supported service, not a static product that we’re done with. Distributing online allows us to check statistics for how people play and tweak the game. If enough people try to solve a puzzle in a way we didn’t think of – or can’t solve it at all – we can actually see that and act accordingly. This helps us make the game better.
Another factor is piracy. We’re only two people making this game and we don’t have the financial backing of a publisher. We looked at what had happened to Jakub and his team when Machinarium launched. They released the game as a single downloadable file and got heavily pirated because of that. According to their estimation about 85-95% of the played copies where pirated versions, and though we’re quite liberal about piracy, those numbers sounded really bleak.
The Dream Machine is described as being made from ‘clay and cardboard’ – can you expand upon this?
Well, we handcraft all the sets and props using everyday materials such as clay, cardboard, Popsicle sticks and cotton wads. In essence we build small dioramas that we then paint, light and photograph.
How long does each set take to make and what scale are the environments?
That varies wildly depending on what the set needs to achieve. For some we have a very specific idea of how they should look and feel. Those usually take quite a long time to nail. Others are much more forgiving and can be built on a more explorative notion.
Are the characters made in the same way?
Not quite. The characters start out as clay figurines, but when it comes time to animate them we use Maya. The reasons for that are mainly practical and we try to retain the handcrafted feel even though they’re digital.
How do you then transfer these physical environments and characters into the game?
The environments are pretty straightforward. We build them, take a photograph and then use the photo as a backdrop.
The characters start out as painted clay figurines. We then take photographs from various angles and create a 3D mesh using the photographs as reference. We then lift the texture from the photos and apply to the mesh, so it still retains that tangible claymation feel.
Was the decision to make the game in this way a stylistic choice?
Obviously, we think the odd visuals marry really well with the tone of the game. We really love the skewed imperfections, like thumbprints in wet paint. We love that. That’s the main reason behind the decision, but it was also a decision made out of comfort. Both Erik and myself are traditional animators at heart. Erik used to run a stop motion-studio in his confused, sexy youth so he already had the knowledge and the equipment for a project like this.
Originally, the game was set in cookie-cutter suburbia, but once we decided we wanted to build the environments, we realised that building huge detailed exteriors was going to be too tricky. So we decided to set most of the game indoors and went with this dilapidated – vaguely European – apartment complex instead. Everything else fell into place after that.
I mentioned in my recent review of Chapters 1-3 that a hug between Victor and his wife was “beautifully animated and heart-warming” –would you agree that this relationship is the driving force of The Dream Machine?
That’s true. That’s basically the heart of the game: Victor struggling to ward his little budding family from external threats. So obviously we have to establish how these characters feel about each other, but we don’t have to be heavy-handed about it. Narrative is all about engaging the player, making them care about what happens on the screen. One of the ways you can achieve that is through small humanising details. That’s why I loved having the option to play tag with the kids in Skyrim. That one tiny detail made the world seem much more real and alive to me than all the combined lore tomes. Very few games realise that a simple peck on the cheek can be more powerful than an explosion. It’s not the most nuanced medium, but it’s slowly getting better.
What can fans look forward to in Chapters 4 and 5?
Chapter 4 is looking like the biggest chapter so far. It will unfortunately take some time to complete, but it will have a lot of meat on them bones. Chapter 5 will hopefully end The Dream Machine saga in a meaningful way (it’ll end with a gigantic Busby Berkeley-style musical number).
Will the game ever be released commercially (perhaps with voice acting) or in an offline form?
I’m honestly not a big fan of voice acting in point & click games. It’s something you really have to nail otherwise it ends up being grating. I like to be able to make up my own voices for how the characters sound. I really hate how they voiced the Monkey Island remakes for instance. I’d much rather play the voiceless versions. Nothing against Dominic Armato, but for me, as Guybrush Threepwood, he just sounds wrong. It ruins the experience for me.
Once we launch on Steam, you’ll be able to play in offline mode at your leisure.
Who is responsible for the dreamlike music? It compliments the game nicely!
We have a number of composers each responsible for their own section of the game. Since a lot of the game takes place in other people’s dreams, we wanted to have a unique sound for each dream. That’s why we’ve worked with so many different people. Jonathan Adamich did most of Chapter 1. Then Jan Cardell and Douglas Holmquist each did sections of Chapter 2. Ale Speranzaalmost exclusively did the music/soundscaping for Chapter 3. I don’t know exactly who’ll be doing what for Chapters 4 and 5 yet, but I’m sure it’ll sound phenomenal.
What’s next for Cockroach Inc. after completion of The Dream Machine?
Right now, I feel like doing something other than games for a while. I might try my hand at comics, or starting an a cappella group, or fighting feral animals with my bare hands. I don’t know. Something totally different would be nice.
Thank you for your time and good luck with completing the final two chapters!
Thank you for having us! And thank you for your lovely review of the game! I really enjoyed reading it!