Friday, February 22, 2013

There Came an Echo

Welcome back to another Kickstarter Conversation!  Today I am joined by designer/programmer and head of Iridium Studios Jason Wishnov who is here to talk to us about his latest Kickstarter project, “There Came an Echo.”  Thank you for joining us today Jason!
You’re welcome! I have a couple dozen clones running around doing the press circuit, so it isn’t much of an issue.

There Came an Echo is an interesting name for a game, can you give us a rundown of the project along with an idea where the name came from?

Well, I can’t give away too much with regard to the name, as it goes deep into spoiler territory. The game itself, though, is a “voice-controlled real-time strategy game”. It can be compared directly to X-COM and a few other games, but the experience is significantly more narrative-driven than most.

Your game is heavily voice centric both with our commanding but with the characters responding.  So it makes sense you’d look for the best voice actors you could find, but Wil Wheaton?  What do you have on him to make him show up?  

Wil’s a huge gamer, nerd icon, and talented actor. He was at the top of our list, and we managed to get the pitch in front of him...and that’s all it took. He was enamored by the concept, and we quickly worked out a deal.

Also, we gave him lots and lots of our famous Iridium Chicken Sandwiches.

To be honest I have yet to play a single voice command game that works anywhere near the 90% you’re talking about.   What makes your tech better than everything before you?

(laugh) The meat of the interview.

I do want to point out we’re using non-proprietary tech, here...specifically, at the moment, we’re using the Microsoft Speech Runtime Platform 11. (We’re also experimenting with Sphinx 4, for possible ports.)

Still, the last fully voice-controlled game was EndWar, back in 2008...before the recent massive advances in voice recognition technology, largely driven by smartphones. A good analogue to TCAE would be the Kinect-enabled voice recognition commands in Mass Effect 3...they were supplementary to controller input, but by and large, they worked fantastically. Ask the players!

Remember, we aren’t like Siri: we don’t have to listen for literally every word in the English language. We’re only listening for a few hundred, none of which have much phonetic overlap by design. Also, while an open microphone array like the Kinect is decent, a headset is even better: the game’s audio is completely inaudible to the microphone, which is sitting only a few inches from your beautiful, beautiful face.

Are there any non-verbal controls?  

Yes indeed! Despite all that stuff I just said, there will always be a large contingent of people who just don’t like to shout stuff at their screen. For those folk, standard gamepad, keyboard, and mouse control options will be enabled.

So can I really just quote Ghostbusters lines throughout the game as orders?  

You can really just do that. We put up a video a couple days ago showing off some random command aliasing:

I mean, literally anything. It’ll be a simple UI in the options, where you can type in anything you want for any given default command.

How “fast” is your game?  One problem I’ve seen is that yeah it can be fast to “bark orders” but the response time and such always makes it seem like you are fighting with both arms tied behind your back.  

The response time in the video is about accurate. We could make it shorter, but because most commands can be appended with “on my mark”, we have to allow for some leeway even if a full command is recognized...that leeway is currently around 220 ms. You could think of it as the soldiers’ reaction times and/or satellite delay in communication.

Still, I want to point out a key difference between TCAE and, say, Lifeline. You, the player, aren’t using voice commands as a replacement to standard button use cases: you aren’t pulling the trigger with your voice, you aren’t ducking with your voice, you aren’t diving behind that wall with your voice. You aren’t directly controlling the soldiers at all; that’s the artificial intelligence’s job. YOUR job is to give broader, tactical commands to your squad, which you would actually do with your voice in real life. It’s a sense of immersion we’re going for, while taking absolute care to ensure that the A.I. is intelligent enough to not piss you off because it can’t do obvious things like jumping out of the line of fire, or reload at appropriate times.

Is this a full real time game or can we pause and give orders?

We’re still experimenting on this one. We envision it as a fully real-time game, but the option to pause and give orders is...interesting. Similar to a voice-enabled Frozen Synapse.

How different from other squad based tactical combat games is There Came an Echo?  Besides the controls you mention most of the characters aren’t experienced soldiers?  How’s that work?

Even disregarding voice controls, it’s pretty different. It’s of a mildly futuristic bent, so one large component of gameplay is “energy”...every soldier has a certain amount. Active shields slowly drain energy, getting hit by incoming fire drains energy, firing your weapon requires energy, switching weapons requires energy. There’s an ability for one soldier at a time to slowly regenerate, as well as environmental energy resources, but energy management will be a very large, very important component of gameplay.

And no, a lot of these characters are civilians caught up in the struggle. They’ll still obey your commands for the vast majority of the game, but their growth into battle-ready commandos is one that we think will be plenty of fun to watch.

At the $60 level you’re offering backers a chance to audition for the game?  What kind of roles are we talking about here just walk ons or a full time character?  

Full-time characters. There’s no reason for us not to consider all talent pools in the casting of the game...if someone out there is an incredible fit for Grace, why not use her? Of course, they’re going against some of the best Los Angeles has to offer, so I hope they’re ready to compete.

Being in the booth with Wil Wheaton is a bit of a draw, we’d imagine, as well. Though if you get the part, you’ll probably be yelling at him.

A lot.

This isn’t your first trip into the Kickstarter arena.  Your first game Sequence came WAY back in 2010.  What have you learned since then when it comes to running  a Kickstarter campaign?  

The platform is almost completely different now. Backers expect to be more engaged during the campaign, the tiers have to be better thought out and offer higher value, and you’ve *really* got to push from a PR perspective to bring backers to the page...Kickstarter’s “Discover” section isn’t going to be enough to drive any project of significant size.

We’ve also learned that it’s a wonderful platform, and one that allows all sorts of interesting game ideas to come to live. I think it’s safe to say that There Came an Echo would not be funded by a traditional developer.

You’re even giving away Sequence to pretty much everyone who backs There Came an Echo?  

Why not? We don’t really lose much for it, and we thought it’d be a great reward at any tier. People can play the game, and see for themselves if they think Iridium has what it takes.

You state, “The $90,000 we're asking for is primarily for the art department: the money will be used directly to hire an art director and a 3-D modeler for a period of approximately fourteen months.”  I’m not sure of the realities of game development but one of my readers Robert Lee was concerned $45k a year didn’t sound like what you would pay a top end AD and 3D modeler.  I know this is a bit of a “making the sausage” kind of question but are these contract positions and hence no benefits just salary and taxes basically owed on your part?  

Mmmm, sausage.

No doubt, a top-tier industry veteran art director is going to be pulling a lot more than 45k/year. But this *is* an indie game, after all, and we’ve got a lot of experience with finding fantastic talent that’s young, hungry, and on their way up. We think our composing team...Ronald Jenkees and Jimmy Hinson, both utterly a great example of this. If this were five years in the future, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be able to afford either of them.

How did you discover Kickstarter?

NeoGAF, which is where I pretty much discover anything on the internet these days.

A key part of successful Kickstarters is backer participation and how to convert a potential backer into a full backer.   How are you engaging your backers?  What kinds of things do you have planned for updates to give notice to those who just hit the “remind me” button and surf on?  Interviews?  Videos?  Stories from the project?

We’ve already updated the page with a hilarious scene from Wil Wheaton, a video showing off command aliasing, a new pledge tier, a new T-shirt option, and DRM-free copies of the game (at time of writing). We’re planning plenty more to come, including interviews, a video showing off the speech recognition with a bunch of random accents, and more.

Keeping everyone engaged is extremely important to the backing process, and we’re not getting complacent! We’re also joining in for the
“Alive and Kicking” show on Sunday, February 24th, where we join such projects as Dreamfall: Chapters and Homesick!

There Came an Echo -- Kicktraq Mini
What kind of media attention have you received with your project?  How are you spreading the word?  Facebook?  Twitter?  Google+? Youtube?  Advertising?  Are you using Kicktraq to track your progress?  
All of the above, and yeah, Kicktraq is a pretty awesome site. It could use a more accurate prediction model, but the data it provides is extremely useful! We’ve been mentioned at Joystiq, Polygon, Gamasutra, and several other outlets as well.

Do you have any tips/advice would you give to anyone looking to start a Kickstarter?

Don’t be afraid to drop some money into production...a great video and a well-designed page mean the world for potential backers. Make sure your goal is realistic, and send it out to people familiar with the site for great feedback!

Thank you for spending your time with us!  Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

You’re welcome! We want to thank all our backers so far, and if you’re interested, you should definitely check out our Kickstarter page. Let’s make it happen!

Thanks again and I hope to hear good things from your Kickstarter!

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