Better Off Red
Dreamfall Chapters by Red Thread
Published: May 16. 2014
Getting to the heart of the matter with Red Thread Games’ Dreamfall Chapters: The Longest Journey
When it comes to game development, Norwegian-born Ragnar Tørnquist has been around the proverbial block. He’s played pivotal roles at the renowned Norwegian studio Funcom, on titles ranging from The Longest Journey (1999) to Anarchy Online (2001) to The Secret World (2012), among others.
On November 1, 2012, Tørnquist founded an independent studio called Red Thread Games, tasked with continuing the beloved Longest Journey IP under license from Funcom. He tells us that Red Thread Games was founded with a singular mission: namely, to create story- and character-driven games with heart and soul. Dreamfall Chapters: The Longest Journey, due out later this year, serves as the perfect launching pad for that mission, as players have been waiting almost eight years for a sequel to Dreamfall and The Longest Journey. “It’s a universe we love, characters we’ve been longing to revisit, a story we’ve wanted to finish telling,” says Tørnquist.
For those unfamiliar (or confused by all the subtitles), the Dreamfall Chapters is a sequel to 3D point-and-click adventures The Longest Journey and Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. The series is set in two parallel universes: Stark, a cyberpunk future version of Earth, and Arcadia, its fantastical counterpart. The latest chapter continues the story of Dreamfall in the year 2220 CE; protagonist Zoë Castillo had uncovered a criminal conspiracy that aimed to enslave both Stark and Arcadia by stealing their residents' dreams.
Tørnquist says that in addition to a desire to finish telling the store, inspiration also came from the growing number of options available to indie developers, from Kickstarter and Steam to Unity and the Asset Store. “With these tools, we knew we could build the game we wanted to build, with a small team and a modest budget—something that wasn’t possible just a few years ago.” Indeed, Dreamfall Chapters nearly doubled its funding goal, pulling in over $1.5 million by the time the campaign had ended.
His development team’s headcount is currently sixteen — over half of which have worked together before, on games like The Longest Journey, Dreamfall and The Secret World. “For me, this was something of a family reunion,” he says. “I get to work with a bunch of amazingly talented designers, writers and artists that I’ve known for ten, fifteen years. I can’t begin to tell you how important and comforting that is.
He believes that the key advantage of a small team where everyone knows each other is that there exists an implicit trust and confidence in one another’s abilities and decisions. “There’s no second-guessing, no politics; everyone knows what they’re doing, and everyone's able to rely on each other for getting stuff done.” Equally important, perhaps, is the fact that everyone knows exactly what they’re making. “With Dreamfall Chapters, the team has a clear vision: we’re making the game we all want to play.”
To see out the large-scale vision for the project with a relatively small team, Red Thread turned to Unity. “We tested a few different engines during pre-production, but none offered the flexibility and ease-of-use that Unity offers—particularly in terms of platform support, built-in functionality, and, of course, the Asset Store,” says Tørnquist. “To us, that’s on of the biggest benefits of Unity: the huge and active community, and the enormous amount of tools and extensions, shaders, effects and systems that we can build on. For this reason and many others, Unity has been a great fit for us, and we have every intention of using it for our future games.”
The team had its first playable prototype up in a manner of weeks—something Tørnquist says he’s really not used to—and it actually looked good enough to show off in a trailer during the Kickstarter, and in a live stream at GDC last year. “I was amazed!” says Tørnquist. While the prototype wasn’t at all optimized and the team ended up reworking pretty much everything, Tørnquist says the quick prototype gave the team confidence in its ideas, designs and direction. “That meant a great deal. The prototype also helped create confidence among our backers and fans, and without it we might not have raised as much money as we did.”
For comparison’s sake, with the original Dreamfall it took Tørnquist and his team around six months to get something they could play around with. “It’s made a world of difference to be able to get things up and running so fast,” he says. “Our production process is implementation-as-design—we don’t rely too much on ‘paper’ designs, but rather on getting things up-and-running and playable as fast as possible—and being able to quickly iterate is a fundamental part of that process.”
The team at Red Thread has built its production pipelines around Unity and connected tools. Some of these tools were developed in-house, for unique features like the conversation system—with complex branching dialogues and story flags—the decision points, and the social mechanics. For other things, like the animation and physics systems, they’ve relied entirely on Unity’s native technologies. “And for everything else,” says Tørnquist, “there’s the Asset Store.”
“The Unity Asset Store has been a real blessing,” he continues. “We’ve bought foliage, model libraries, shaders and full-screen filters, editor extensions and toolkits—anything and everything that might help us make a better game, and improve productivity.” He points to fantastic third party tools like Playmaker and NGUI—and, most recently, Daikon Forge—as being central to the studio’s workflow. “Without these tools, particularly on the game logic and GUI side, it would have been hard for us to produce and iterate as quickly as we do today. We've also been able to minimize the number of tools we’ve had to create in-house to support our pipelines — and that’s a massive time-saver. Tools are very costly, production wise.”
In fact, it’s this sort of constant progress that’s made working on the game so gratifying for Tørnquist. “For me, personally, seeing the steady progress we’re making on a daily basis—that never ceases to amaze me, and makes every day at work a day worth remembering,” he says. “I can’t wait to get in every morning, and I usually have to force myself to go home at the end of every day.”
Having come from working on huge projects with enormous budgets, Dreamfall Chapters has been something of a creative reset for Tørnquist. “I’ve learned—or rather, relearned—that making a game with a smaller team is a lot easier, faster and more efficient than with a large team. A lot less stressful, and a lot more fun! You can’t produce as much in volume, of course, but it’s amazing just how much you can create, with the right tools, the right engine, the right people, and the right atmosphere.”
“Everyone at Red Thread is really enjoying themselves and taking pride in what we’re making,” he continues. “On larger teams, some people may end up feeling like cogs in a machinery, like they have no impact on or influence over the game, and that’s the unfortunate truth of AAA development. When you have hundreds of people on a team, it’s really hard to make everyone feel valuable and appreciated. Everything I’ve ever learned about making games with big teams is transferable to a small team, of course — but there’s so much you don’t have to contend with, so much you gain from knowing everyone, from sitting in the same room and sharing your work with the whole team.”
Not that it’s all a walk in the park, of course. “At the same time, you really do have to focus. You can’t just throw resources at a problem anymore. You need to be smart, you need to cut, you need to be efficient, and you need to understand what your game is about. The key is to do less, but to do it really well. That’s been a key lesson for me: to have razor-sharp focus on the core features and content. And nothing else.”
Looking back on what his team has been able to accomplish thus far, Tørnquist notes some stumbling blocks. “A few things have proven quite challenging,” he says. “The GUI and controls—that’s never easy. You can’t screw that up, and it’s something we’ve always struggled with in previous games, but I feel we’ve really nailed it on Chapters now, and the feedback from players has been very positive.
AI and pathfinding were tricky as well, particularly given the constraints. “Both in our large, open, urban environments, with dozens of characters going about their lives in what’s supposed to be a realistic manner, as well as in tight, narrow spaces—that’s tough!” he says. “We’re still working on getting that to look good and function properly, but we’ll get there eventually.”
He’s extremely proud of how beautiful the game looks overall, however. “It’s visually ambitious, and everyone we’ve shown it to have been positively surprised—both by how quickly we’ve been able to produce, and by the fact that it’s made in Unity,” he says. “But I think that’s changing: there are so many great-looking Unity games out there, which raises the bar for us all. And that’s fantastic!”
“But what I’m most proud of is how the game feels,” Tørnquist continues. “It feels like a game set in The Longest Journey universe. It feels like a true, next-generation sequel to Dreamfall. It feels like a game with heart and soul. That’s so important to us—after all, it’s our mission statement.”
Tørnquist’s faith was buoyed by the game’s first focus test, which took place few months back. “We let a dozen people try the game without any hand-holding,” he says. “We stepped back and released our baby into the wild. Yes, there were issues, of course, but the fact that the focus testers liked it as much as they did—it was such a huge, huge relief, knowing we’ve made the right decisions, that we’re making the right game. That’s the sort of affirmation you want and need as a game developer.”
“We had no idea!” says Red Thread founder Ragnar Tørnquist when asked what he and his team expected from their Kickstarter campaign last year. “A couple of minutes before we clicked the big green button and launched the Kickstarter project, I spoke to the team and told them there were no guarantees we’d meet our goal—in fact, we might fall flat on our faces.”
Tørnquist says he’d had many sleepless nights leading up to that point, and was amazed to see how quickly the money rolled in once the project went live. “By the time we got back from lunch that first afternoon, we'd crossed the $100,000 mark—in just a couple of hours. I was speechless,” he says. “That was really the first time I dared believe we might make it, and it was a huge, huge relief after months and months of intense preparation, and betting all of our futures on the new studio.”
“Crossing our target a week into the campaign, and finishing up with more than $1.5 million—that was amazing, and very, very humbling. Definitely one of the most incredible and emotional moments of my career. Tears were shed!”
Dreamfall Chronicles: The Longest Journey is one in a surge of recent titles that recall an earlier time, when point-and-click adventures ruled the roost. Red Thread Games founder Ragnar Tørnquist points to titles like With The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Broken Sword and Broken Age, along with many other Kickstarter-funded games on the horizon.
“We’re in the middle of a modern adventure and storytelling revolution,” he says. “People crave good stories, they want to be challenged intellectually, they want games that aren’t factory-made to appeal to the lowest common denominator—they want something more than a ‘product’. They want games that are emotionally complex and mature. These games may still be too rare, but look at Gone Home, Papers Please, Brothers—this is an incredibly exciting time for story-driven games, and 2014 is looking very promising.”