In the Middle of the Night
Back to Bed by Dadiu Games
Published: October 12. 2012
Go under the covers with Dadiu Games’ Escher-inspired dreamlike adventure, Back to Bed.
The best ideas often start in very plain terms. “To begin with the idea was very simple,” says Dadui game designer Jonas Byrresen, on the original concept behind his team’s surrealist Web game, Back to Bed. Essentially, they wanted to do one thing: make a game about sleepwalking. Most of their inspirations came from old cartoons, wherein the main character would sleepwalk through a series of dangerous scenarios, but by sheer luck emerge unscathed. “We liked this theme for our game—wherein the player would manipulate the world and bring the character to safety—so the challenge was how to achieve this as a player.”
Indeed, Back to Bed has you play as the “subconscious protector” of a man named Bob who simply cannot stop sleepwalking to his untimely death. The game is dream sequence wherein, as this subconscious guardian of Bob (known as Subob), the goal is to manipulate the dreamworld and the objects therein to guide Bob around dangers and safely back to bed. It’s a world filled with melting clocks, random animals in human’s clothing, and various other ephemera; a bizarre, slurring voice narrates the action, and puzzles are often on the peculiar side.
The game was a school project, specifically for the National Academy of Digital, Interactive Entertainment, itself a collaboration between universities and art schools in and around Denmark. Unity was the recommended software for the students to use, and as it turned out, this proved to be a good fit: “The team had a few members with previous experience with Unity, which meant prototyping began on day one,” says level designer Thomas Thomsen of the development process. “As for a working build that somewhat resembles the final version, I believe it was up and running about a week into the project,” Thomsen continues. “Unity never acted as a barrier for our vision; neither the artistic aspect nor the implementation of our technical solutions. All in all I'll say that Unity is easy to use, and it's especially excellent for prototyping ideas. The engine both allowed for some clever solutions to the challenges, as well as giving creative people and artists a chance to follow along and implement tweak on the game.”
According to various team members, the most difficult aspect of creating Back to Bed was the fact that the team size was relatively large—particularly for a student project at 16 in total, and none of them had any prior experience working together. Help was found online, as well as in one another: “Whenever we encountered problems we checked Unity’s community, [to see] if someone else had the same problem,” says Thomsen. “But I think we [ultimately succeeded] because the team just belongs to a generation who loves games. I know it has been a dream come true to be given the chance through Dadiu to create games ourselves.”
Technically, the team also found itself equipped with the tools it needed. “Unity’s profiling tool was especially useful in the later stages of the project, where we began optimization,” says Thomsen. “It's a great way to get an overview of the performance of the individual parts of your game, and it makes it easy to track down sudden performance drops.” Thomsen also says that Unity’s Inspector also helped out immensely, especially when it came to allowing designers and the director to alter and tweak the features of the game. “To have low-barrier entry of non-technical members of the team was a huge help, [and] helped us utilize our time better.”
> Whenever we encountered problems we checked Unity’s community...
Project manager Klaus Pedersen remembers some breakthrough moments for the team. “The implementation of optical illusions inspired by Escher was very satisfying to succeed with,” he says. At first it seemed like an impossible task, as the team believed it would either need to make some impossible or “faked” 3D models, or alternatively juggle several cameras. “Instead, they simply used the autographical camera and models that where placed at the proper angle. “It’s a great feeling when the solution is actually so simple,” recalls Pedersen, who says a similar thing happened with the game’s teleport doors: “To begin with it seemed like the mad thought of a programmer … but in the end it turned out just to be a question of using more cameras in a clever way.”
Not all solutions to problems were technical, however. Because their main character would be sleeping in the game, the team felt that a standard control marker would boring—they instead chose a “guardian character” for the player to control. These notions combined to create a rather different “get through the maze” concept, as the player’s safety was no longer the primary concern. (The player’s concern is instead for the safety of another being—the aforementioned Bob.)
Now that their game is done and the recipient of several awards (it was nominated for Best Student Project at the 2012 Unity Awards), the team is inspired to continue moving forward. “I Think SuperGiantGames [creators of Bastion] have something special going on,” says Dadiu’s project manager, Klaus Pedersen, when asked about games that directly or indirectly influenced Back to Bed. “In all aspects they are someone you, as an independent developer, can look up to. Also, Playdead [creators of LIMBO] is a studio we admire in terms of making games that don’t compromise on the artistic vision, and are not afraid to take risks.” As such, Dadiu is looking to follow suit: “We’re definitely not looking to grow our team in size,” says Pedersen. “Instead we’d like to grow it in terms of the hours we spend making games. Most of the team has to take part time jobs while developing, since we don’t have a steady income for the studio yet. Ideally, we properly want 10 to 12 employees who could work fulltime, all the time.”
The Art and Science of Making Games
“Generally I think it’s a very exciting time to be a game developer,” says Dadiu project manager, Klaus Pedersen. “With digital distribution and new emerging platforms, it’s never been easier to get a game on the market. And with the Kickstarter, the App Store and Steam Greenlight the game industry has been kind of liberated from the gatekeepers. The distance between the developers and the players is much smaller now than it was just five years ago, and I really think that’s what will spark the industry moving forward.”
(Back to) Bed Time
During the initial production of the game, the team at Dadiu was 16 developers strong, working for six weeks on the game. The latter period of development, which included polishing of the game and converting it to the iPad, was done by a much smaller team of around seven. Now that the game is finished, the team is considering selling several of the assets it created on the Unity Asset Store for others to find creative uses for.