“We started this studio to make the games we want to make, and we want to do that forever,” says Forrest Dowling, creative director at The Molasses Flood, currently developing The Flame in the Flood.
Dowling’s journey into the industry began after his decision to no longer pursue fine art. “By my senior year, I was getting disillusioned with the idea of trying to end that world and that space. I realized I didn’t want to create things designed to be decorations for the very wealthy,” he says. Instead, he made some levels for Unreal tournament in 2001, which became his senior thesis. That, he says, is when he first discovered his love for level design. After many years of working at an Apple Store by day and as a level designer by night, Dowling was hired at Chaos, in New York, the studio responsible for a mod called Desert Combat for Battlefield: 1942. “They took a chance on me, and I know the hardest part is always getting your foot in the door. I was lucky to find a group of people who took me in and kickstarted my career!”
Dowling soon found himself working as Lead Level Designer on Bioshock Infinite at Irrational in Boston. There, a large part of his contributions were in the first few levels of the game, widely considered it’s best. “I find it hard to take credit for anything in games,” he says, “because the number of people involved in a project of that scope is staggering.” He continues, “I can point out things I worked on, sure, but those things wouldn’t have been possible without a huge amount of work, effort and support from the entire team.” Dowling explains that as the player plays the game, they see buildings, but when he’s done with his work, you see giant cubes. This is called greybox – raw geometry with flat textures. Another large responsibility of Dowling’s on Bioshock Infinite was event scripting. Examples of this include when you’re about to step into Columbia for the first time, you put your hands on the door and slowly open it as the light pours in and the music starts. Dowling built the button allowing the player to open the door, and told the animations to begin once the door was opened to a certain angle. According to Dowling, “it ended up being surprisingly technical in terms of problem solving, and [he] enjoy[ed] the challenge.”
After Irrational parted ways with many of its employees, Dowling co-founded The Molasses Flood, an independent development studio. But why name your studio after such an incident? “One of the easiest answers is that it was available. People tend not to name their companies after major industrial accidents,” Dowling begins. While it is pointedly difficult to find a company name that’s not already taken, that isn’t the primary purpose of the name. “There’s this idea that truth is stranger than fiction, and so we look to history for ideas and inspiration,” he says. “We also founded this company is Boston, a city which is no longer the game development metropolis it once was. For that reason, we wanted a name tied to local history,” Dowling continues. The most important component to the name is that “[we] want to make content that is simultaneously interesting, dark and funny – and The Molasses Flood exemplifies that.” The incident is not well known outside of Boston, so when Dowling travels, he often has to explain to people that there was a tank with millions of gallons of molasses that exploded, sending molasses flooding through the city at 40 miles per hour. “Naturally, people laugh when they hear this story,” Dowling says, “but they soon realize that it’s dark and tragic. I like the contrast of a thing that is funny at face value but dark as you explore it further.”
The Flame in the Flood will be The Molasses Flood’s first game following it’s successful funding on Kickstarter. Of course, Kickstarter is the premier crowdfunding platform, so once The Molasses Flood made the decision to use crowdfunding, Kickstarter was a no-brainer. However, a lot of thought went into that decision to go down the crowdfunding route. “Self-funding wasn’t an option for us because we all lost our jobs after Irrational closed, and were working completely from savings while we build the Kickstarter,” Dowling explains. “In fact, we still mostly are; we don’t pay ourselves anywhere near competitive wages.” Self-funding and crowdfunding are not the only funding options, though. Dowling highlights some others, “You could go with a publisher, though getting development funding for a smaller title from a publisher isn’t easy,” Dowling says. “You could go for an external investor, like a venture capitalist, although anybody who gives you money does it because they want more back. The way you do that is through taking considerable revenue from the game. Investors are often looking for you to present an exit strategy: how in five years you plan to sell the company for this many millions of dollars and return their investment ten-fold. That’s not a route we wanted to take.” Dowling doesn’t expect, nor does he desire, the game to sell millions of copies, “I want The Flame in the Flood to sell a few hundred thousand units, enough to pay the team and fund the next game. That’s why we went to Kickstarter; we thought that a successful campaign would mean we wouldn’t have to trade the companies’ ownership.”
Recently, a number of articles surfaced regarding Kickstarter funding and what it represents. Some journalists postulated that the discrepancy between how much funding a game asks for and how much money it actually takes to make that game is damaging to people’s understanding about the cost of making games. “I saw comments on our Kickstarter saying they could make the game for $70,000, which is pointedly not true,” Dowling says. “If we paid ourselves competitively, the budget for this project would be around $1.2 million. While we’re not necessarily paying ourselves competitively, things like wages come into account as you get older with a family and familial responsibilities.” Game developers have the same skillset required by companies such as Google and Apple; these are talented software engineers often choosing wage cuts to do what they love.
“I’m not sure that it really matters how well people understand how much it costs to make a game,” Dowling begins, “but there’s a reality to face that the number of people willing to pay for a game on Kickstarter are just a fraction of the people willing to pay money for a game.” Kickstarter’s ceiling, if you will, is 100% of the people with a Kickstarter account who are interested in games. Some of the bigger games may get close to that ceiling, but there are other limiting factors as well. For instance, some people will NOT back any Kickstarter game. “If you ask for what something would really cost, very few games would be funded through Kickstarter,” Dowling says. Not even investors give the full amount required for a project; there’s often one investor spearheading the cause and lots of others giving $20,000 here or $50,000 there. “The fact that Kickstarter can’t cover 100% of what you need can be quite dangerous because you make a guarantee to your backers that you will deliver, even if your funds run out,” says Dowling. “The reason we were able to set a $150,000 target and feel safe is because of how much time and effort we were willing to put in as a group for nothing. To work off of savings and survive at the bare minimum as a team.” Dowling explains that the reason they were able to do this is because, barring audio, 100% of the resources they need to make the game were themselves. They didn’t need to hire contractors – no artists, and no developers. Had they been required to do this, a $150,000 goal would not have been nearly high enough.
The Flame in the Flood is a rogue-lite river journey through the backwaters of a forgotten post-societal America. The inspiration for that journey did not spring about whole cloth; multiple ideas synergized into one. “One of our starting ideas was a procedurally generated survival game that focused more on crafting than combat. We even thought about a turn based survival game, although that’s been done,” Dowling explains.
“We wanted to stray away from this idea of building a base in which you could house your supplies. Survivalists like Les Stroud will never build a cabin and stay there; they figure out how to survive the night and walk far enough the next day in order to get closer to civilization. We needed a way to keep the player moving, which is where the river came from. The river led to the atmosphere and the aesthetic.”
Progression in The Flame in the Flood is your inventory that you build up over time. There’s no skill tree, no experience points – when you die, and you WILL die, you start mostly fresh. In The Flame in the Flood, you travel with your feline companion, Aesop, who has this handy little backpack in which you can store a limited amount of items. After you die, Aesop will retain the items you chose to store in his pack. “You’ll never get a medallion that makes you impervious to hunger, but you will progress in things such as clothing,” says Dowling. “You can make rabbit and deer and wolf and bear pelts that will get progressively warmer against the cold and better at fighting hypothermia. But unless you store that pelt to Aesop’s inventory, you’ll lose it when you die.”
The Flame in the Flood promises to be procedural, although that term can have vastly different implications. “We’re using procedural generation to populate the world using hand authored pieces,” Dowling says, “The river, for instance, has all of these hand authored pieces, and the program figures out how to string them together to form the river.” The river isn’t the game’s only procedural element, though. “The code may decide that maybe one-third of the islands you encounter need to have docks on them so the player can visit. For those islands, the code will also decide to place a church and wilderness and gas stations and other structures,” he explains. “We’ve essentially got this giant bucket of Lego pieces, and the code puts them together.”
Acclaimed alternative-country musician Chuck Ragan is making the game’s soundtrack, and if the song he wrote and performed for the Kickstarter video is any indication, this will be a unique, innovative soundtrack. Almost every song on the album has lyrics, a significant departure from ‘traditional’ game music. “We’re having quite a bit of fun working with Chuck to make this soundtrack – it’s unique and refreshing,” says Dowling. “The soundtrack is authored in such a way that whenever you leave a dock and get onto the river, or whenever you leave the river and get onto a dock, there’s a certain percent chance that a song will play.” Most of the songs encountered while on the river will have lyrics, while most of the songs you encounter while exploring will be isolated, instrumental tracks. Dowling jokes, “There are points where I know I should stop at an island because I need supplies, but I don’t want to because it will end the song!”
On July 8th, The Molasses Flood released the backer beta of The Flame in the Flood, and have since been working around the clock to iterate on the game based on player feedback.