Interview: Denis Dyack on Shadow of the Eternals, Community Engagement and Eternal Darkness
Posted by Jon Wahlgren
Precursor's chief creative hopes to give players the power of development
Silicon Knights' Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem was hands-down one of the Gamecube's most memorable gems. Its tale of unimaginable death and woe through the ages was all well and good for a horror game in the style of author HP Lovecraft, but the title really carved a name for itself in the annals of gaming history with still-impressive Sanity effects — as characters slowly lost their minds, the game would play tricks that sometimes had players questioning their own mental well-being.
That was in 2002. Despite the game's acclaim, the world never saw an Eternal Darkness 2 — with developer Silicon Knights now on fire after losing a lawsuit with Epic Games over use of the latter's Unreal Engine, it appears very unlikely that a numbered sequel will happen at all. But a spiritual successor, well, now that's a whole other story.
We had a chat with Denis Dyack, former president of Silicon Knights and current chief creative officer of Precursor Games, about how their new game came to be, empowering their community to have a hand in game development, and rebuilding trust with fans.
Nintendo Life: How does it feel to be back in a similar Lovecraftian universe to Eternal Darkness?
Denis Dyack: Love it. It feels like we’ve come back home.
NL: Tell us a little about the story playing out in Shadow of the Eternals.
Dyack: Shadow of the Eternals is a game where you play the lead role of Paul Becker, who is played by voice actor David Hayter. We're really excited about that — he worked with us not only on Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes but also the original Eternal Darkness. He is called to one of the worst crime scenes in Louisiana history: a mass murder where there's two survivors. Bodies everywhere. One of the survivors is in a three-piece suit, clean cut, not a speck of blood on him, doesn't remember who he is. The other is almost the exact opposite: he's got tattoos, scarification, biker colors, and he's also lost his memory. The one thing they have in common beyond that is they both want to kill each other. As you start interrogating them, you start to realize that they're telling you stories of things that happened thousands of years ago.
Our first focus is Elizabeth Báthory, who is known as the Blood Countess, one of the most notorious historical serial killers of all time. She's suspected of killing over 400 to possibly 600 women to bathe in their blood to become eternally youthful. We have a scenario where you're playing potentially her or her lover Claura, who is her handmaiden, who is being coerced by the police to try to find a nobleman's missing daughter.
We think that these type of scenarios gamers are going to find interesting and unique, and something that stands out from the norm. We invite people from our community to come join us in helping make this game the best it can be. Hopefully that'll interest people enough to say, "Yes, this game should be made, we want to support these guys."
NL: How long has this idea been kicking around?
Dyack: The idea’s been kicking around in a sense since Precursor started up. We wanted to do something that was different, original and had a new take. With each major endeavour that I’ve worked on personally, and Precursor embraces this methodology, which is why I’m happy to be here as the chief creative officer, is for every game that we created, there was something new about it that made it stand out from other previous endeavours.
You take Legacy of Kain as an example: we wanted to create an RPG with no text. When we did Eternal Darkness, which was our next game, we wanted to create a game that had sanity effects that broke the fourth wall — very very different — we had 12 characters going through 2,000 years of history. A lot of characters died — and [it had] a really interesting camera system — so from that perspective that had standouts as well. When we worked on Metal Gear we learned cinema, worked with [Hideo] Kojima-san, spectacle and that kind of thing.
Looking at Shadow of the Eternals, the new thing that’s happening now is the community-created content aspect that I think really makes us stand out. We’re about to head into, and in some ways have already started with the Wii U, a new generation of hardware where the hardware’s better and there’s a lot of unique features. You’ve got the new hardware platforms coming out, plus things like Oculus Rift and the proliferation of digital distribution, those are all good, but one of the main pillars of Shadow of the Eternals is that we’re working with the community to create and add to the universe, which is something really new — you don’t tend to see a lot of [that]. If you want examples of indications of possible success, you need to look no further than Dota, which is a derivative of Warcraft 3 created by the community that’s turned into games such as League of Legends and other MOBAs.
We think this particular aspect of Shadow of the Eternals is going to really stand out on its own, and that’s sort of why the game came about — [we said] “let’s create one of these games that is not being made anymore,” because we haven’t seen a game like Eternal Darkness since...Eternal Darkness. Nobody’s really followed up on it. At the same time, we’re going to throw this new aspect of it where the community can participate, and that should take us in new and exciting directions.
NL: The current Kickstarter is the game’s second campaign since Precursor canceled the original drive early, and the goal has been reduced significantly from the first time around. In what ways has that impacted Precursor’s vision for the game?
There’s a definite hardcore group of Nintendo enthusiasts within the Shadow of the Eternals community.
Dyack: I think feedback from the community has changed a lot. We removed the episodic model because it was not popular among fans so we wanted to make sure we deliver a full experience. By and large, the vision for the game is still on track. We still have a bunch of announcements to roll out before the campaign ends, we’ve brought David Hayter on board. If anything, [the game has] gotten better in my eyes. The first [campaign], we had a lot of lessons learned, we had a lot of feedback: we had a split campaign between Paypal and Kickstarter which wasn’t a good idea, so we looked at all that and had a lot of other opportunities and we’re really excited about where it’s going. The impact has been in nothing but positive ways.
NL: As this is your second funding campaign, if the current Kickstarter doesn’t meet its goal, does Precursor have a back-up plan for getting the game done?
Dyack: We’re focusing on the Kickstarter right now. If that happens, you know, we will cross that bridge when we get to it. Right now we’re focusing on the campaign and doing everything we can to meet our goal.
NL: The game is a spiritual successor to Eternal Darkness. Are there any fiction ties between the two, like plot, setting or characters? We noticed on the Kickstarter page that the church in the gameplay demo looks a lot like the one that Anthony from Eternal Darkness wandered through.
Dyack: Yeah, there are certainly similarities, but the universe itself is completely original. We may have some homages in there and we may have some light ties but that’s all to be determined. It is a completely new universe with a completely new set of stories.
NL: A big part of Shadow of the Eternals is the community aspect, where Precursor is encouraging input for everything from story elements to sanity effects and characters...
Dyack: More than that! We have an Elder God creation initiative, we’re working with the community to create our zodiac and spell system, our cosmology for a lot of that, we have an enemy creation initiative. What we want to do is have a balance of we know where we want to take it, so we have a structure and an underlying direction that we know where we want to go, and we’re carving out elements where we’re saying, hey, this can have a ton of input from the community. If anyone out there has ever wondered what it’s like to design a game or want to work with people who have worked on a game before, need to look no further. Pledge to the game and check it out. I think people will be excited by what they see.
NL: Traditionally, game development has been pretty opaque. Now that Precursor is taking a more open approach with crowdfunding and an emphasis on community involvement, the development of Shadow of the Eternals is a lot more transparent. How is that adjustment?
Dyack: It’s a tough one, I have to admit. It’s tough but invigorating at the same time. We do not pretend that we knew that this [development approach] would go well or how successful it would be. When we first opened up the community to the Elder Gods we were very concerned if it would go well, and it went exceedingly well. It’s still in development, of course, and history will tell the true tale of how these Elder Gods came out but we’re very enthusiastic about it.
What we’ve found is the more transparent that you are, the more that the truth gets out there, the better off you’re going to be. I think that it’s going to really help our game development, but it’s also very different from anything that I or anyone at Precursor have done. Quite frankly we haven’t seen it a lot in the video game industry, certainly not on the console platforms, so the whole idea of doing this is pretty radical and scary but at the same time really exciting.
NL: What led you to go down that path?
Dyack: I guess we all sat back and thought that something needs to change; that we thought the industry was in a rut, and we didn’t think the path of AAA made sense any more, the traditional console model was certainly under fire and had some issues. The market is something I would call upside down where it was costing too much to make games, and to make money off of that game as a developer is becoming not only increasingly challenging but almost impossible under the current economic environments. We’re even seeing now a lot of AAA publishers are either laying people off or shutting down — they’re not worried about, unfortunately, what games are coming out, you’re just seeing more and more shutdowns.
Something has to change in the industry, and from my standpoint and that of others here, we looked around and asked, what hasn’t really been tried but there are indications that it might be successful? And that’s why we did it. I think that it makes sense and hopefully will work out well. Whether our Kickstarter is successful or not, I can say with confidence that I think our community initiatives have shown nothing but promise and potential. At a bare minimum we’ve sure made a lot of friends.
NL: How has the reaction been from the community? It sounds like it’s been very strong.
Dyack: Overwhelmingly strong. I have not seen such a community like ours. As an example, we haven’t raised as much funding as some of the other Kickstarters have but if you look at our comments section on the campaign page it’s in some cases more than double or triple ones that have raised a lot more money. Our fanbase is...I wouldn’t even call it a “fanbase” as they’re a part of the development team. I think it’s something that everyone believes in, and it’s been just a fantastic experience.
NL: The game is coming to Wii U. In what ways are you planning or hoping to take advantage of the platform’s unique features, like the second screen?
Dyack: I think in every way possible, really. We had a poll on our forums picking between all of the next-generation console platforms plus PC, you know, what platforms do you want to see this game on, and the Wii U won like four or five to one. There’s a definite hardcore group of Nintendo enthusiasts within the Shadow of the Eternals community. Everyone wants to do everything we can to make this game shine on Wii U and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure it is special.
NL: Are there elements of Eternal Darkness that you look back on and think “well, we certainly could’ve done that better” that you hope to revisit for Shadow of the Eternals?
Dyack: Oh, for sure. One of my biggest regrets in Eternal Darkness, and I love the game to death, is that we didn't really have what I call a sustainable economy between magic, sanity and health. Essentially, what happened was that if you ran around, over time magic would just regenerate. Rather than just it being a time-based thing, we'd rather have an economy where players determine what attributes they have left. There's going to be a completely different underlying mechanical system to this game; we want a true economy for the gameplay that goes very deep and is under the player's control rather than just, as an example, if you're out of magic, go off in a corner and run around in a circle, heal yourself and then go back in. [In ED] it wasn't horrible, but it certainly as good as it can be, and those are some of the things that we really want to go forward on.
Another one, which [can] already [be] seen in our demo, we want to be doing things in outdoor as well as indoor terrains. We've got a lot of exciting directions we want to take the game; back when we did Eternal Darkness we were really confined by limits of technology to mostly indoor terrains.
NL: It's no secret that in the past you've been considered something of a controversial figure, and perhaps people may not necessarily be as confident in giving money upfront for a new project. We know that you've said that you want to rebuild that trust with fans, and perhaps that transparency in development is a big step in that. Are there other ways that you hope to rebuild that trust?
Dyack: We're showing what we're showing, being transparent. Come to the community to see what it's like. I think that those that come to the community see it for what it is and what we're doing. We've had, I'd say, an extremely high turnover rate for people who come to the community and say that there is really good creativity and initiative, and that "these guys are really there" — this is a labor of love for everyone at Precursor who want to make this great. We're doing all we can, and hopefully our actions will speak volumes. That's the best way that I think that can be resolved, and that's what we're doing.
We thank Denis for his time.