It was at E3 2013 that I was first introduced to a game with one of the most unique art styles and settings I have seen. Dynamighty, a small team co-founded by former LucasArts employee David Nottingham, developed the game in question, CounterSpy.
CounterSpy is an action stealth side-scroller set during the Cold War. You play as an agent for C.O.U.N.T.E.R, whose singular goal is to prevent the superpowers from accomplishing their crazy race to destroy the moon with nuclear missiles.
Other notable employees at Dynamighty include another former LucasArts employee as well as Pixar’s former lead artist, Mark Holmes, who worked on The Incredibles. You can see his influence immediately after seeing a screenshot or trailer of the game.
A short while before the game launched, I had the pleasure of speaking with David Nottingham, the co-founder of Dynamighty. We spoke about his vast experiences within the gaming industry as well as CounterSpy.
How did you start in the gaming industry?
When I started, I was still young. I grew up in the earliest age where you could play games on computers, and I always played games. I’d had various dreams of maybe making games, but back then, there wasn’t really a gaming industry – you had to be an amazing programmer to get into the industry. That wasn’t me, I was always more artistic. I drew a lot; art was the one thing I was good at. I ended up going to art college and getting into photography, but when I graduated college, I had that “ok, what do I do with my life now” moment. I’d been exposed to being a photographer professionally and decided I didn’t want to do that. There’s a big difference between something you love doing for the enjoyment, and a profession. I realized the thing I loved about taking photographs, it was about my own creative direction. But as a professional, I had none of that, it was all scripted for me and all I was there to do was take the picture. I’d supported myself through college by working retail at EB, and I remember there was a magazine with an advertisement for game testers, and I was like, “Oh my god, you’re going to pay me for playing my favorite game, I’m in!” It was super low pay, I was completely broke, but I loved it. This was all before the Playstation came out though, so it was still a small industry. The Playstation brought in the modern era of gaming, 3D gaming on a broad scale. At the time, you couldn’t go to any college for game design; you had to figure it out on your own.
How did your experience at LucasArts mold your desire to make your own game?
So, since the first time I got into the industry and even before, I always wanted to create original games. I was always thinking about worlds and characters and coming up with my own game designs. At the time I came into the industry, development costs went up, team sizes got bigger, and everything was more ambitious. This made it harder and harder for any single person to really craft a game. The higher the cost of the game, the more risks, so developers wanted to bet on something they knew would be a success, and that took creativity out. I also worked at RockStar games, when they became huge with Grand Theft Auto III, and I saw them take off. At LucasArts, I got my dream job; I had to build a team with the goal to create the next big IP. I thought, “I’ve got my shot, this is amazing!” I was even able to pitch an idea to George Lucas, which was also amazing. However, things came along that were outside of our control, and it’s very common that big new IP’s can get derailed. In this instance, there was a change of executive management at LucasArts, the person who hired me was let go, and they brought in a new guy, and his mandate was to focus on Star Wars. Game development is unpredictable, expensive and chaotic. There are so many moving parts, so the company decided to take less big risks. It was a classic example of something we cared about so much, that the team had worked so hard on, disappear because of something outside our control. But at the time this was happening, there was the rise of digital platforms, and games were being made by smaller teams, like Jonathan Blow with Braid. With digital platforms, you didn’t have to compete at GameStop with blockbuster $60 games. So, we pitched an idea to let us keep the team, but make these much smaller digital games. We were called LucasLabs. There, we released two games, the Monkey Island Special Edition, which was a good way for us to get out feet wet in terms of coming together as a team to finish a game and ship it. There are so many failed projects because people can have great ideas but getting to that final finish line is often very difficult. It was great to take a classic game like Monkey Island and remaster it, add new art, and introduce it to a new audience. Our next game was an experimental puzzle-platformer game called Lucidity. At that point, there was another executive change at the top, where it was decided to focus the whole company solely on Star Wars, which I can understand because it’s a mega franchise. Consequently, John, my cofounder, and I decided we were going to leave and create Dynamighty.
At that point, did you already have the foundations of CounterSpy in your head?
Shortly after we left in 2010, we spent a bunch of time decompressing thinking about what type of company we wanted to build. We looked at why some companies went out of business and others survived. Being that we were about to be putting a bunch of our time and money into this, we wanted to ensure it would be sustainable. There ended up being a period thinking about how we were going to build a business. At LucasArts, we were in the protective umbrella of a company. They took care of payroll, healthcare, they’ve got HR and recruitment departments, they have lawyers – there’s so many things you have to think about when you’re on your own. During these few months, we came up with the idea of CounterSpy. We decided to focus on side scrolling games because it would be more distinctive than something like a first person shooter – we thought with a distinctive art style we could carve out as unique a game as possible.
Did CounterSpy take on different iterations?
Yes, it always happens. Any well-placed plan is immediately out of date after it’s put into place. Everything is constantly changing. You can have interesting ideas and decide to make a game from them. Then, you start prototyping and building game assets in a low fidelity way, just to get things going on screen. At the beginning, John and I had no artists, but a friend of mine lent us a character model, and we could manipulate it. That was great! We could make it run, but to make it walk, we played the run animation at half speed. Honestly, it looked like crap. But, for us, the most important thing was getting our ideas off the page and into a form that you could interact with. Fundamentally, player interaction is what differentiates games from other media. That phase is when you discover stuff – maybe something you loved just didn’t work, or something else did. It’s almost like game development is a series of accidents along the way, and you kind of have to accept that. Things might come along that don’t work the way you thought, but you still have to go forward no matter what. Also, towards the tail end of the project, it hits you that you have a date in which a polished game must hit the shelf. That’s when important decisions have to be made. If you have a mechanic that’s not quite working one hundred percent, it may have to go. Cutting a feature actually gives you an opportunity to give the rest of the game more polish. As a gamer, you won’t notice a feature that’s not there, but you will notice something that’s broken.
Explain to me the extent of procedural generation in your game.
There are different levels of procedural generation. Games like Spelunky are built 100% procedurally. In our game, we say that it uses procedural systems. There’s basically procedural and authored. In a game like The Last of Us or Gone Home, the developers handcraft the moments and levels to be placed in front of you. Your experience is exactly what the developers have authored. In a procedural game or a game with procedural levels, the levels are built by a computer according to a set of rules the developer has defined. It’s quite complex, because you have to sacrifice a lot of control. In authored games, developers may say, “Hey, we just had an epic firefight, so now let’s have a cut scene and a quiet moment” A big benefit of procedural games is replayability, as well as an element of surprise. Every time you play the game, you don’t know exactly what it’s going to deliver. In CounterSpy, our procedural systems use a level construction tool that essentially takes all the rooms we have built for the game and randomizes them, like Rogue Legacy. However, the level layout within a room is authored, which is why we say our game has procedural systems. Every time you play the game, enemies are in different places, the things you have to find are in different places, etc.. Our intent in designing the game this way it so that players can go back and play the game again with a completely different experience.
How long is the game?
Well, due to it’s procedural elements, it’s very hard to put a number on it’s length. An experienced player could finish the normal campaign in 3-4 hours, but the average player will take about 6 hours. We’ve also got advanced difficulties, as well as a leaderboard where you can beat your PSN friends’ score on a particular level. Our goal was to make a game you can keep coming back to.
What was it like working with Sony Computer Entertainment to publish your game?
In a game like Gone Home, they completely self-funded it, owned the IP and were able to decide the game’s platform. They also took care of all it’s press, everything. Kudos to them, because that’s not easy! Although we as Dynamighty are an independent company, we took development money from Sony to make CounterSpy. We self-funded the company for the first year by doing contract work, but our financial situation was not good enough to make the game that we wanted to make. We needed about 10-12 people for about 18 months development, and an average man-month cost was anywhere between $10,000 and $14,000 per month. We didn’t have that sort of capital, so we knew we needed development funds. We met with a lot of different potential investors, different publishers, but we were running into a few challenges. It was really a huge risk for an investor to hand you piles of cash for a new, unproven IP. We got really lucky by meeting with Sony, since they have been very invested in getting smaller, digital games onto their platforms. The development deal was signed at the end of 2012, and we started hiring shortly thereafter. Currently, we have 12 people. Working with Sony has been wonderful! The thing about Sony that really attracted us to them was that they really do care about quality. Sony is focused on what’s best for the game. If it needs more time, they’re open to that. It’s been a pleasure to work with Sony, and our game wouldn’t be possible without them.
What are your thoughts on indie games?
The nice thing about indie games with smaller teams is that they create games with a lot of personality. That’s one of the most positive things in the industry right now. Indies allow us to experience a much broader pallet of different games than larger, proven games. It gives more opportunity for people to get into the game industry; it’s easier than ever now. Also, with a smaller team, each person is exposed to so much more of the games development than someone at a company like Ubisoft, who might be the head of facial movements. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I don’t want it to go away, I love AAA games. But I also love the fact that smaller teams can express themselves and be successful too!