«Sometimes it's better to lose a war»: a big interview with Ice-Pick Lodge about «Pathologic»
About development hardships, crunches, commercial failure and what would happen next.
Pathologic 2, a remake-remaster of a cult classic from 2005, was awaited for almost six years. In 2014 Russian studio Ice-Pick Lodge went out and created a Kickstarter project, filling out the initial goal rather quickly. The release date was set to be in 2016.
Something went wrong - the date was rescheduled a few times, but eventually game found itself a publisher - tinyBuild; also the developers decided to release character campaigns separately.
"Pathologic 2" with Haruspex route, one of the three doctors, who found themselves in the City-on-Ghorhon fighting the plague, came out in May of 2019. The ambitious artistic game, which combines a lot of different genres, released to mixed reviews - on Metacritic it is averaged at around 67 out of 100, even less than Pathologic HD got. According to the head of the studio, Nikolay Dybovsky, sales weren't satisfactory as well.
I wouldn't take upon myself to decide what exactly went wrong and why it happened that way. Maybe the game industry has changed too much since then, maybe players were too tired waiting. Or it could be because of the specific game mechanics, developers wanting to do the "misery gameplay", rather than making it comfortable for the end audience. It's more important to know what happens next.
I've contacted Ice-Pick and asked a few questions. The dialog was held between a dozen developers, each commenting on their respective areas of the game.
Dramatis Personae (in order of appearance)
- Ivan Slovtsov - lead game designer, producer
- Nikolay Dybovsky - director, lead writer
- Igor "HalfgidWynac" Pokrovsky - lead animator
- Alexandra "Alphyna" Golubeva - narrative designed (no longer working at Ice-Pick Lodge)
- Danyyl Tyomin - scripting, quest designer
- Oleg Stepakov - programming
- Denys Surdeykin - scripting, quest designer
- Ihor Zinovyev - game logic editor programming
- Mariya Khomenko - game logic programming, technical manager
- Sofia Vasylenko - operational director
- Airat Zakirov - tech director
- Andrey Saraev - programming, lead technical visual artist
- Petr Potapov - technical lead art-director
Campaign on Kickstarted was launched back in 2014. The release date was rescheduled quite a few times and the game was eventually split in three for the initial release, starting with the Haruspex route. You have a rather close-knit community and you, from my impression, work with that community rather well. The question - has the attitude inside the community changed at the end of the production cycle. How do you think - was the loyalty of the community tarnished due to rocky development?
Ivan: Of course, people were just too tired to wait for it. People became cranky, and we can understand them. I really hope that it was all worth it in the end.
Nikolay: We don't know for sure whether an immortal soul exists, but we have to behave as it does. The rescuer doesn't know whether there are alive people under the rubble, but he should work his way through it like there are.
We can't judge on behalf of the community. How can we, when we don't even know ourselves well enough? It's simply impossible. We shouldn't even care whether attitude has changed or not. It's only important to do your part and do it well, due to the respect that you have for those people, no matter what they think of you - whether they're indifferent, hateful or scornful. Not to mention supportive or affectionate.
How much the game changed during the development? Any critical changes? What features you wanted to put in, but couldn't? What emerged in the later stages of development?
Igor-HalfgildWynac: First thing first, our understanding of the game changed. Somewhere in 2015-2016, it has become crystal clear that we just can't remake the same game as it were originally, just using a different engine. The result would just be an anachronism, that nobody wants.
Alphyna: Yeah, it was a multi-staged process. More and more elements weren't sketched on the paper, but rather grew organically - as they probably should've.
For example, we wanted really bad to minimize direct player instructions and map markers for the quests. Twyrine idea emerged from this - consumable that you can drink to get directions to some hidden event. For not to make that a too frequent thing we've also added children's secret stashes, where we put notes from children - just flavor at first, but after that, we've had an idea - why not make them direct the players to the events! On the other hand, a whole quest emerged from those stashes. Things like that weren't planned for the game beforehand, it was something that has grown during the development.
On the other hand, there were things that we've decided to omit, due to different reasons; now only parts of that ideas remain in the game. At day 5 there is a quest where you have to mark suspicious houses; initially, it was designed as a full-blown game mechanic, but eventually, we've boiled it down to a single quest.
I also can say the same about the Grace event at the start of the game, where she offers you to speak with a dead person. Initially, it should've been a tutorial for a repeating mechanic, which would let players talk to the dead sometimes (limited but more than one time), but it was scrapped and only the initial quest remains of it.
I understand that it's a bitter thing, but just recently I've watched through a lot of videos where Bloodbourne and Dark Souls 3 players restored cut content from the games. The last one was cut rather extensively. Remember the animation where you put the sword in the bonfire, while you first come to the Firelink Shrine? It was something they made for the regular mechanic but eventually scrapped it from the game.
I guess you can say that Pathologic is a "Dark Souls" of cut content.
Danyyl: "People" screen, also known as "Confidant screen", was added to the game on the very late stage. When the system responsible for infecting the confidants became functional, the only indication of it was a tooltip when you hover over the character's house on the map! When we've played with the prevention and treatment mechanics in the scale of the whole town we've understood that we need some kind of "overview" screen.
So the "People" tab happened. Characters weren't split into categories initially, and the checkbox for immunized people was added almost before the release, as well as character infection animation that happens at the midnight.
Oleg: Sadly we had to cut NPCs with pipe guns (replacing bandits that throw knives from the first game). We've made the necessary assets, but it didn't really work well. Maybe we will add them later.
Nikolay: Initially I have naively thought that we wouldn't have to change anything. But yeah. Only a few exceptions - names and topography; besides that everything has changed. What became the greatest challenge for me personally - the idea has changed, as well as the driving motive.
Which stretch goals from Kickstarter are already accomplished, and which aren't done yet?
Nikolay: I will have to write a novel based on the Pathologic. I will do it eventually since I've promised it. Right now I'm not in the place where I can do it any good. Maybe it will be done the next year. Bakers will get it. It's just that I ask them to understand the rate at which my internal reserves can be refilled.
A lot of backers haven't yet received their material rewards: tragedian dolls, masks, artbooks and stuff like that. They're in the making, we have a whole room filled with templates for the masks and dolls, the artbook has been compiled and waiting to be sent to the printing. We will start working on them later, as soon as we get winter season royalties - for now, we just don't have funds to finish everything.
Tell me about working with publisher tinyBuild. How much did they influence development? Maybe the episodic idea came from the publisher?
Ivan: Idea to split the game into episodes came from the harsh reality. It was not possible to complete all three characters in the time and budget that we had. Increasing those two in already late and niche project would've been suicide for the whole studio. tinyBuild helped tremendously not only covering some of the costs (the game would not happen without that funds) but also by helping to produce the game from a necessary "outsider" perspective, which kept us under the resources constraints.
Alphyna: Outsider producer is quite a useful thing. It's a person which comes and tells something alike: "Playtesting shows such a problem in the game. Do you agree? Ok, then I expect the plan to fix it by Friday. How so - figure out yourself, you're the creative types. But do it in a timely manner".
This is the essential kick in the butt, which throws you out of a stunned state where you just can't decide what's best (which I assume happens in each and every team). Disputes, of course, are inevitable, but after all, I got the impression that tinyBuild generally embolden the studio.
Nikolay: From my standpoint, they did influence the process rather heavily. All publishers that we were working with previously, including westerners, didn't push for it, so there were no arguments. But in this case, we were constantly arguing. I would totally understand that their perspective is much more realistic than ours, and were I push for my own agenda that would only bring more risks to the game: most of our arguments were regarding simplicity and accessibility. The story regarding "high difficulty" (translator note: at the release, some of the outlets deemed the game to inaccessible and difficult) showed us rather distinctively that they were right because I wanted to make the game even less accessible. No hints, no indicators, no unambiguity.
Alphyna did leave a comment previously that it's still unknown whether the rest of the campaigns would be distributed as a paid DLC or they would be free for all. Can we delve in that in more detail?
Nikolay: Players who bought the Haruspex campaign should eventually receive the complete "Pathologic". But something else comes into play here. If we were to release "a full game" from the get-go it would cost more: when we set the price for the initial release we did account that it's not complete yet. The difference shouldn't be too drastic, but, probably, we would still like to compensate for it.
As I said previously, decisions like this don't come from our greedy nature (have you seen our salaries questions like that would've been dropped immediately), but merely to keep the studio afloat. We promised to release three campaigns, and we will be working on bringing them at least until the studio will be alive.
How do you organized development planning? Did you shift the deadlines? As I understood, you crunch and don't really oppose it? I'm interested in how things are organized inside.
Ivan: Crunch happens where the mechanism of development fails. Often people imagine crunching of developers bones under the weight of the enormous amount of work they have to finish in rather strict deadlines. An image like that shows how crunch affects people but doesn't really tell why it happens in the first place. If you imagine "crunch" as a crunch in a faulty mechanism - the picture starts to be more representative.
Because of the inner complexity of some of the tasks and unobvious nature of iterative development, it happens that the work doesn't get completed in time and that starts a chain reaction.
Art didn't get drawn in time by the artists? 3D modelers would crunch for the models to be completed in time. Didn't make it? Animators would crunch to be able to make animations in time. Writers didn't finish the quests in time? Script coders would crunch since they didn't have enough time to program the logic. That, in turn, didn't happen in time as well? Writers would crunch since they need to account for the scripters' input in the shorter term as well.
Such a complex mechanism as a game development process will eventually get loose. So how do you avoid the crunch time? Plan ahead and put buffer periods to account for possible failures and mistakes.
Sadly, most of our buffer time was spent to reiterate the basic concept of the game (aka "pre-production"). When it finally came to the active development phase, crunching was heard quite often from various corners of the studio. I'm eternally grateful to the entire team, which managed to finish the development and didn't crack, no matter what. Wishing to everyone to "crunch" a little less.
Alphyna: Crunch is a bad thing. It's always something that follows after erroneous planning. Crunch affects a person's health and generally speaking shortens the life span.
... But, could it actually be another way? You always sacrifice something for the right cause. Any work will eventually chip away your health. Our life is not endless anyway (really far from endless), we have a reserve that will be consumed eventually; we can only select on what we will spend it. For myself, personally, it's hard to imagine a better choice than a project that you really love and a project you truly believe in.
My crunch was mostly induced by myself. Tasks, that over-encumbered me at the end of the development, weren't put on me by someone else - I put them on myself because I just wanted to finish a couple of things in the game. Sure, my physical shell didn't thank me for that.
Yet conscience did.
Ihor-HalfgildWynac: If you ask me - prolonged crunches, more than two months - these are undeniably bad, just as deadline rescheduling. The thing is that when you in a state of a rush you wouldn't change anything drastically. And the reality is that there's always a bad piece hiding somewhere.
If you're not in the rush you clench your teeth and redo that bad piece. But when the crunch happens - there's no time for that, so you let it stay. After all of that, we did manage to redo a few broken pieces, and I'm very glad about that.
Denys: Crunch is evil, but when you develop a project of this scale in a team this small it is inevitable. It could be a neat thing, actually - it brings some pleasure to the process - drive, excitement, things like that. Reality doesn't go the poetic way, sadly, especially in the case where you can't control your own free time: the hardest it gets to the family people. I want to say a big thank you to the families and friends who, in spite of all our problems and difficulties on the job, heroically endured us for the whole period - compared to our crunches that were even harder to do.
Ihor Zynovyev: I wouldn't say that during the Pathologic development I had any major changes, certainly not on the industry level scale. Even on the later, most difficult stages of the development crunches weren't continuous, yes, there were a couple of weeks where you had to stay at the office until like 11 PM and work without any weekends or holidays, but there were some breathers as well.
For comparison sake, in my past experience working for a different company there was a time where I had to work until 5 AM on Sunday, then go home, sleep for a few hours and go back to the office on Monday. And that wasn't even the game industry.
You can't really help it when there are competition and ambition to make the best product on the market. Sure, some exceptions happen when you don't crunch and still make a great product, but that's more of a luck type of a thing.
Masha: Gonna tell an unpopular opinion, but I really like those crunch periods! In that particular moments you undoubtedly feel that you're doing the thing that you love and the thing that interests you greatly, life becomes meaningful and you feel a great connection to the people around you. You won't get such experiences on normal workdays. It's like living through the new year celebration page from "Monday Starts on Saturday" (translator note: Russian science fiction classic about institution employees which loved their work so much that they sacrificed anything for it).
It's a journey if you can say it, and for the journey to be a positive one it should be a voluntary thing. It feels like we did manage to save the balance in that regard.
What will happen with "Marble Nest"? If you ask me - it was a great move - make a self-contained story, test core-mechanics and also get some publicity out of it. But the game changed since then. Will "Nest" just be forgotten, or do you plan to release it in some way? I don't want for it to be forgotten because the story was pretty cool.
Alphyna: With your permission, we are going to answer this one in the spirit of V. V. Nabokov: ;) (translator note: Nabokov had a tendency to avoid interview questions and is also attributed with the creation of a smile; the answer was made when Marble Nest was couple months from release)
Did the funds from sales of tabletop Pathologic helped the development in any way? Are you satisfied with the results of it, financially?
Sofya: Tabletop sold rather good. The studio always takes the fair approach (at the very least always tries to do so), and income from the tabletop was split evenly between us and its designers - "CapsLock".
Can you say that tabletop help to fund the development of the main title? Yes and no. Provisional 200-300k roubles (not the real sum) for a couple of people - obviously a good result, but for a company counting 20+ employees its not that much. Still, money from the tabletop helped to smooth some uneven bits in the budget of the main game, which is obviously good.
Anthem creators complained that development was complicated due to the Frostbite engine they were using. They told that unseen complications were a constant problem, and it took development resources to overcome those. Did any problems come from the game engine in your case? Did it affect the development process? What can you say about Unity in general?
Andrey: One of the serious obstacles was our indecision in figuring out which parts of Unity we want to change, and what to use as-is. For example, we've experimented with Unity's global illumination for quite a while. Open world game, that combines interiors with exteriours in a single frame, with day and night cycle - it's not a simple thing. We've tried different approaches, included in Unity, but they weren't a good fit.
But as soon as we dropped the included shaders altogether and implemented our own global illumination calculations - even other not directly related problems were solved - mostly atmospheric stuff: fog, rain, and smoke. The important thing is to understand clearly which parts you can create and support by yourself, and which ones are better to keep as is, letting the engine developers support them, sacrificing some of your ambitions.
Why would you pick Unity then?
Igor-HalfgildWynac: Back then, in 2014, the decision seemed smart: the team already made a game using Unity ("Knock-Knock"), while Unreal Engine was only just started coming out for general public (for 2014 it was too costly for our studio). We've bet on our knowledge and on huge developers community. As we thought, most of our problems could've been solved if we asked around. Sadly, you can't change some things in the closed engine.
Petr: Ihor's right, the decision did seem reasonable. Not only that, Unity didn't ask for a cut of sales as a part of its license. We've worked with it before, and it was still actively developed and improved upon. One of the strong points was bundled support of Enlighten Realtime GI, which also didn't require separate licensing. We've hoped to realize advanced dynamic lighting, especially during the day/night cycle. Sadly we had to abandon that idea later.
Can you remember the "darkest" day of the development? Was there even such a thing? Was there a moment where it would seem that the development will be ceased shortly after?
Nikolay: It was a day when investment deal felt apart, which we were relying on when we've started the Kickstarter, therefore getting ourselves into a costly and big project. A major Russian company, head of which invested in innovative projects, created a shared company with us; we've signed the agreement, opened the company in Vilnius, waited to confirm all of the details based on Lithuanian auction laws. In April 2015 I got a phone call, telling me that they had to cancel the deal because of the financial crisis.
I've immediately realized that that was a catastrophe, but still hoped that the deal would eventually come through: we've been through meetings, discussing the details, but there was no final decision... friends told me back then: "Nikolay, forget it, just leave it behind!".
And then, in the last two years of the development, the writing process was that hard for me, that it seemed that every day was a "dark" one - with rare exceptions when some long-awaited breakthrough would happen. Thanks to Alphyna, which literally held me above the water line and periodically brought me from the land of the dead, just like that shaman-saam from "Cuckoo" (translator note: a Russian movie from 2004). But there was never a thought that we wouldn't finish the game. It's just that I've morally prepared myself for that I'd have to work on it for a couple of years without any money or the rest of the team.
Alphyna: I've lived through the lack of money "zen"-like, never there was a moment where I would consider that the game wouldn't be released. Didn't doubt that it would. But would it be a good one? The darkest day (or month) was the period during the last release date delay - at that point, it seemed that Pathologic would be released in a very undercooked state.
After all, game dev veterans didn't lie: you put the game together at around half a year point before the release date. And when the date is rather close, but game is still in pieces, with threads sticking out everywhere, you need otherworldly power of will, just to not pull your hair out and shout: "Oh god, we are fucked!", but to clench your teeth and, against all odds, start sewing all those threads in.
Sophia: I had a day like this. Remembering it now I'm still laughing about it.
We've dried out our own sources of financing, and publishers either closed their doors in front of us or put out draconian conditions. And there we are, without any money, splitting a porridge between me and Ivan and laughing about getting out and fighting the doves for their crumbs of bread, meanwhile feeling really, really down on the inside. People have kids, family, rent to pay - but no money. We've shared transportation costs, shared cigarettes with those who couldn't afford to buy a pack today. I was feeling really heartbroken during that period, it felt like it was my fault and the worst of it that I couldn't do anything to help it.
Although it feels like exactly after that period we really become a family, and I admire the team that came back each day and gave it all - and no one even talked about leaving the job!
Igor-HalfgildWynac: Oh, it was a long project. The hardest of days were, if I remember correctly, before the "Marble Nest". There were financial problems, and it seemed that further development would be a sad and hard one.
When you take the "hungry artist" it doesn't really work that way - there's always a temptation to cut the corners and just do it somehow, therefore doing it cheaply. But it's exactly what we don't want to do.
Igor Zinovyev: There was no single "darkest day" of the development. If you talk about periods of it, it was probably the last year, especially from September to March. During that time we had to change things in the core of the game, for the optimization, but at the same time scripting was underway so you had to keep the game and SDKs in working condition. But still, thoughts to drop the development of the game, which we've already put that much time into, and which was awaited by so many, haven't occurred to us.
Looking back at it, at all those years, tell me, please - why it has been so long? Things didn't work out the way they were planned? Development process planning? Not enough people or budget? What exactly? The more detailed - the better. Share the experience with other indie developers, which will read the interview.
Ivan: Development of the game kinda started two times. Release of the Classic HD (around a year after Kickstarter campaign completion) made us rethink the concept of the game and scrap many story elements and most of the technical stuff that was already completed. It made us understand that we can't just remake old "Pathologic", we need to develop a new game.
After that, there was around a year of trial and error. Only to the release of "Marble Nest" we've understood what exactly we are working on. Full-fledged development started somewhere during that time.
Nikolay: Crisis of 2014-2015 knocked us down: we've counted upon the signed agreement and 2 million dollars, all of which was suddenly recalled. During the next two years searching for the funding was the most important task for me: it consumed all of my will power and all of my attention, which should've been spent on game prototyping.
I could only think of one thing, walked around, like Octavian, from corner to corner, repeating: "Quintilly Var, bring the legions back!". We miraculously managed to find the funds to complete "Marble Nest" and hold on until PAX-2018, on which we 've shown it and attracted the attention of Alex Nichiporchyk. It was like a shipwrecked sailor, only barely managing to swim to the land and losing the consciousness in the process, and, miracle, locals finding him and bringing him back to life.
And, regarding prototyping, the pipeline was erroneously constructed. I've initially thought that you don't need story and gameplay prototyping because the original 2005 game was a prototype in itself: I've thought that the game would remain the same. That was naive and simple-minded of me.
As a result, the precious first two years of development were spent on "solid foundation", innovative story-telling gameplay mechanics, on graphics content, which we didn't even test properly!
For example, models of characters were built without consideration for the specifics of the import process, which would lead to problems with animations and movement of passerby folk.
I have seen different explanations, but still, let's go over it one more time. Why the game is titled "Pathologic 2" for the western release, like a sequel, since it's more of a remake? Why our, estern release dropped the "Utopia" from the title? (translator note: original game came out as "Мор. Утопия", which loosely translates to "Plague. Utopia", but for the remake release they dropped the second word)
Nikolay: First of all, the game is not about utopia anymore. Previously I was interested in the idea that people tried to build ideal society and ideal city and epidemic was the price to pay for that attempt. In new "Pathologic" themes shifted, and the city became not an ideal place to live in, but a mechanism that transforms human nature. And also, wordplay with the name of Thomas More seemed rather interesting and witty back when I was 20, but now I just find it amusing (translator note: "Thomas More. Utopia" is "Томас Мор. Утопия" in Russian, hence the wordplay).
Regarding the number "2", that was something the publisher insisted on, to avoid confusion regarding releases of the first game, dated 2005 and 2015. We've tried to make a play on it in the game (second attempt; rehearsal and the performance; protagonist before meeting death and after), but those storylines didn't come to fruition.
Why the Haruspex campaign come out first? Yes, I remember that this route was less detailed than Bachelor's, so you've decided to start working on Haruspex first. Still, don't you think that Bachelor is just a better fit for the player? He comes to the city from the capital, just as a player he didn't really understand what is going on here, looks at the events with a grain of salt. But Haruspex is already knee-deep in the mythology, he's a menhu and he was born here. You did make him more human-like and more understandable, but still, it seems to be a way more complex route.
Ivan: I think that you can't judge the complexity of the route by looking at the original Pathologic. The new one is a completely different game.
And why Haruspex first? We've started to work on him first, and coming to the moment where we understood that we can't make all routes in time for the release, most of the work done was on the Haruspex route.
This time you've decided to immediately immerse the player in the surrealistic - the game starts with a number of very strange dreams. Me myself, obviously, understand what those dreams meant, but what about players that didn't play the first Pathologic? You did watch the gameplay reactions and player streams - what was the reception of the introduction like that?
Nikolay: Pathologic historically had a slow beginning: epidemic starts only on the third day, there's around four hours of a player experiencing usual, carefree life of the town, where people have completely different troubles. I always like that bit, since you can't show the tragedy of the epidemic (which not only kills people but also frighteningly changes their way of life, their habits and moral standards) without the contrast of what preceded it.
After the re-release of the first game (Pathologic Classic HD) we've noticed that even more involved streamers would drop the game after a few hours, asking, like, where're the adventures? Nothing happens, only talking and walking!
So, we've decided to make a "flash-forward" and show the epidemic and the peculiars of the city from the beginning, literally from the first frames, just for the impatient people like those. In "Marble Nest" this plot did work well too (although Marble Nest was conceived as a "nightmare episode", as a fragment, therefore thing like that was appropriate for it).
But using the same device in the main game, I must say, was a mistake. As we can say now, that didn't really help the situation: players would still either accept the game from the get-go (without consideration for the entry threshold) or simply not. Never should you try to appeal to the "others audience" - as a result, you still won't appeal to them and also cheat yourself.
After all, we did everything that we could so that those "flash-forwards" were incorporated into the storyline well so that the game itself wouldn't be worse with them included: it simply became too different, on the later stages it is not smart to hold on to the old structure - on the contrary, it was interesting to try new plots and devices: maybe it would be a success after all?
First Pathologic crushed the fourth wall bit by bit, but this time you call it a theatrical play from the start. To whom do you try to appeal first? Those, who've played or those who haven't?
Nikolay: Oh, that's one that hits on the target. During the entire development period, we've all been swearing to each other that it would be a game for new players, which don't know a thing about "Pathologic".
But it's not true! You make a game like this not for the abstract player, you do it for yourself - and for the players from the community, which are almost like friends for you, far from being abstract, you know them and you hear their voices. But, in the first place, you do it for yourself. And you can't trick yourself, you know the old game through and through, it's interesting to make a new layer which would be supported by the previous ones.
And, as a result, while we were trying not to do the game "for ourselves and people like us", we did exactly that. It speaks as a tale of that it's dangerous to come back to your old works, to something that was already done, especially if it was done by yourself and the same team. It's good that we've got new people working on this project, which represented, in some way, a "new generation" and perceived the game with a different set of eyes.
Ivan: We did what we could to make the game equally interesting for both.
"Pathologic" became... more figurative if you can say that. Metaphorical. Dreams and reality flounder, and metaphors come to the front. The first part did seem more realistic, even on the Haruspex route. What is the reason behind it and how, according to your idea, it would influence the perception of the story?
Nikolay: I think it's related to us growing up. "Pathologic" in itself is a metaphor, which mimics simulation of life. But first "Pathologic" was conceptualized in late 90-x, and back then it still seemed that games would become a "true simulation of life": it was just a matter of lowering the degree of game conventions, adding some "lifelike believability", count calories in consumed foods, only "move by legs", look only from the first-person perspective, let characters tell lies and make errors, et cetera.
Now it's obvious that those attempts were naive: a game was and still is an art convention - it's foolish to ignore it and try to make it behave like a "real life". Therefore in the new "Pathologic" environment don't try that hard to come out as real. The abundance of symbolism, mixing of dream and reality is coming from the wish to mitigate that contradiction.
Previously programmer Masha Khomenko said, that one of the main factors in the delay was engine imperfection, which didn't handle ambitious goals. For example - make a fully seamless world. But the old trick, when you can hide from the chase by getting into a home is still working in new "Pathologic". For what were the efforts?
Masha: For the players to be able to see a scene like this:
And the mechanic of the chase doesn't work the same way it did in old "Pathologic". Because of the peculiarities of the city's way of life, people's morals and the structure of the game engine they can't break and enter into others' homes, but can still wait for you outside and give you a beating once you come out.
On that note another question about the city. I've seen lots of criticism regarding fences in the first game. If I remember correctly you've said that you want to get rid of them in the second one. But they are still in. Have you decided to keep them?
Alphyna: Yuliya Lyuricheva explains that in the game. Denys: Come on, it's a core-feature in itself: in the game where 60% of gameplay is moving around in the city, learning the streets, courtyards, dead ends, and side-streets is an integral part of the gameplay.
Also, we've had an idea to make some gates and shortcuts to unlock during the game, as in Soulsbourne, but in the Haruspex route that didn't happen.
First "Pathologic" didn't have much in terms of animations and presentation - on the game engine, I mean. Understandably there were technical difficulties. And so lots of stuff was explained using text and various videogame conventions. But in new "Pathologic" nothing did change in that regard really. Characters are often seen as just standing or sitting with the same animation. Sure, I can perceive it as an art device, but, maybe, there's something more to it? Maybe you've encountered problems, maybe you've initially desired for characters to move around in houses or even walk around the city?
Alphyna: That was how it was in the alpha - but in the release version they just have a couple of pose variations. Yes, most of those are static (Capella, for example, either sit behind the desk, or on the bed headboard, or stand looking at the mother portrait), but some diversity is still there. Pretty much everyone has a couple of poses, either sitting or standing or even collapsed on the floor. Some - for example, Bachelor and Aglaya - even can walk around nervously.
I think that it does make the necessary impression. Each time you visit someone you see a picture - static, but still expressive and reflective of the character state. And those pictures change periodically. Why would Bad Grief walk around if simply royally sitting on the throne made with boxes conveys his character best?
Igor-HalfgildWynac: Wouldn't want for them to walk around. You don't really need it since player rarely looks at them for more than 5-10 seconds. And still, around three of the major characters can meditatively walk around the place. Not all the time, obviously.
Partly that was the intention. We don't need major characters to run around the city or move in their homes like lunatics.
Partly that was because of the development process. Each character should have unique animations, and we didn't have the ability to make half a hundred animations for each major NPC. Oldest ones were made by hand, there were around 3-4 animations per character. Mocap brought some diversity. That's because Bachelor, Mishka, Clara, and others are a little bit more interesting in regard to animations than Grace or Georgy.
Technically speaking it's all possible - thanks Airat. Tragedians can walk, for example. It's just that they don't. If the engine would command them to do so - they would.
Games like Outlast and Amnesia showed that even when there are enemies in the game it's not required to make combat system - instead, you can give them the ability to run away. Did you consider dropping the combat from the remake? Why combat system is important for your game?
Ivan: Danger of death (just as the death itself) is really important for the "Pathologic" to feel real. If deadly plague and thugs on the streets would only be in flavor text - the story would feel unimpactful and would be perceived as in the visual novels. But if you could get a shiv in the back immediately after coming out of the house where you had a philosophical dialogue about what the human soul made of - that kind of thing changes the perception of the story.
Denys: I think that initially "Pathologic" needed combat system as an expressiveness device - you can't truthfully show city emerged into plague-induced chaos without violence, you can't ask player questions regarding it if you don't let him decide - flight or fight, show mercy or murder, things like this. But at the same time combat was tedious and inaccessible, so that an encounter would always be a challenge, and the player would want to avoid them when possible. Even the fact that the combat system is there plays an important role.
For me, as a player, and as a developer who was working on the quests, some of which were combat-related, it was an unpleasant surprise on how stealth is handled in the game (dropping the technical details it's pretty much not handled in any way). With the existing stealth system, sadly, it was impossible to design at least somewhat interesting situations, something other than "head to head" encounters - that puts a strain on you - as if the color pallet was missing the necessary paint.
Lots of quests were initially conceived in a much more elegant way and well thought out from the gameplay perspective, but technical limitations held them back. Fate like this befell on quests about Abbatoir, Termitiary, night hunt at the Warehouses and so on.
Maybe if our combat was more lenient and variable, some episodes of the game would play out differently, convey different story and meaning. Game mechanics are important as expression devices.
In the industry developers rarely get a chance to seriously expand upon already released game. You've been the lucky ones to completely remake "Pathologic" of the 2005 year. Which flaws of the original game you were most anticipated to get rid of?
Ivan: Instead of removing things that people deemed flaws we've tried to make them work for us (like it was originally conceived back in 2005). We've kept clumsy combat mechanics, we've kept the fences, we've kept all the walking. Each of these has a meaning in the game, and we've done everything that we could so that the meaning would be right this time.
Alphyna: We've succeeded in balancing the game so that you wouldn't have time to do everything. In first "Pathologic" the same was implied, but it wasn't working well, and the player went through the storyline as it was a linear visual novel. But now the player is being torn apart between storylines, and that obligates him to make the choice (nonlinearity! replayability!) without putting him in front of an ultimatum like "choose, do you want to save Masha or Petya".
Igor-HalfgildWynac: Human faces that don't make you cry. Animations that don't make you ashamed. And, surprisingly, I'm happy that the game became less frantic. You know, in videogames characters always either stand still or move around. It was like that in the first "Pathologic".
But in the new one, they would sit or lean on the wall. Only some of them actually move around. The idea is not only mine - I also heard that from the person we've recorded mocap with.
It did take a lot of work (remember, one character - one complete set of animations), but almost everyone can sit. I guess ours are just that tired.
If I remember correctly, you were planning on getting rid of the scheme "steal from people by day, fix the reputation by nigh". But I've started the game, and the first thing I did was to rob a couple of houses, kill a few people, got some money out of it. I'm unquestionably ashamed of this, but the game didn't punish me for it. I've felt dissonant - I am a doctor, should be working towards good things, but I kill people for food. Why haven't you restricted such actions from the player?
Nikolay: We've tried, honestly. It didn't happen. My heart tears apart just thinking about how many interesting things we didn't implement. AI of the plague? Complex infection system spanning to districts, items, and people? The player as an infection vector? Randomly generated quests in typical characters' houses? We didn't manage to do all of it, sadly. Punishment system doesn't sound like that big of a loss, compared to all those.
Tell me about how the combat system was originally planned. Why did you settle on the current implementation?
Airat: Initially we wanted to make contact combat system. When characters tackle each other or synchronously play out complex animations (which you could actually see in the old trailers). But we'd run into many problems. A major one was that characters have different proportions. Implementation required either hand-making animations for each combination or complex system which would fix IK positioning on the go, which would be too hard for us to develop.
As a result, after trying to tackle it for a long time, we've decided to settle on a simpler combat system. Fast hits and reactions, which mask imperfect animations. Despite it being more on the complex side (group AI, multiple levels of behavior trees) animations and logic -wise we didn't manage to expand it so that it would be interesting.
How well did you QA the game? The demo let's say it this way, wasn't a pinnacle of creation when it comes to technical stuff. I remember the first "Pathologic" vividly when around day 10 it would start freezing and eventually crash. How many people were employed in QA and how strong the support will be after release?
Ivan: "Pathologic" is a gigantic non-linear game, a single playthrough of which takes 20-30 hours. The last three months before release game was tested by more than 15 individuals, and yet they couldn't test all of the possible combinations of our "multiverse".
Despite this on release number of complaints about bugs was even lower than our most optimistic expectations. Thanks to the QA and game logic teams for making a miracle just months before the release.
What will happen next
So, a couple of months passed since the Haruspex route release. I've heard that sales weren't satisfactory. Is that so? How do you rate the game's success and how it would affect further development?
Nikolay: Yes, it is true. Further development will be affected severely. Most of the team will dissipate, the studio will shrink to a couple of employees again - exactly the same happened after "Cargo!" failure.
I think that the same thing would happen after - we would find salvation in a smaller mobile game. Only after which we could start working on the rest of the game - Bachelor and Changeling routes - since the studio simply can't continue without employees and funds.
Also, it's apparent for me that by that time the game industry would change.
When will the rest of the routes and console ports come out?
Nikolay: I don't know. You can't plan those things. It's all dependent on the future state of the team and how we will spend remaining funds (Haruspex route sales would only go down from here) - so pretty much on whether we bet on the right thing or not.
I'm thinking that we will spend those funds on a small mobile game, which would bring in money to complete Bachelor and Changeling routes - moreover, we will do them each as a different genre. It is clear that not many people would spend another 20 hours playing mediocre survival only motivated by a new storyline.
How do you perceive the mobile market? Apple risks to make a change there (translator note: reference to the launch of App Store Arcade). Maybe you want to get in there with really creative projects?
Nikolay: Yes, we want to try. We don't have much experience working with mobile platforms, but you have to start somewhere.
What's your opinion, why it was the "Pathologic" that found the most success, compared to your other titles?
Igor-HalfgildWynac: Obvious thing - a right mix of old and new, of philosophical and mundane. Even some rough parts and general naivete did end up being a plus. Small details in "Pathologic", even clothes on the characters reminded you of the real-world just outside the window.
The first time I've stumbled upon it by chance - came into "Buka" office (translator note: publisher of the first game) and saw something peculiar on the monitor. On one side game wasn't a typical product in testing, on the other - immediately brought feelings similar to those I've felt playing my favorite games.
So it happened that someone, who doesn't like highbrow stuff and someone, who tries to find something out of this world could both relate to "Pathologic".
Alphyna: Well, depending on how do you measure success. The most successful game, commercially speaking, is "Knock-knock".
Ice-Pick Lodge titles were always famous for their unique identity, being games "not for everyone". Is there a difference in reactions between now and back then on the original "Pathologic" release? Are there more players now that don't dismiss the game straight away?
Nikolay: Everything remained the same if you ask me. Although there are so many games "not for everyone" that they are almost "games for almost everyone" now.
The saying in itself, "game not for everyone" has lost its meaning. There are so many innovative and original titles, game-experimentations, they already cover a wide spectrum of demands, it's just that each one caters to a specific audience: and either it does make it to the audience or it doesn't. And it becomes harder and harder for it to "make it" since we have around a thousand titles released monthly, it's just too much noise.
I understand that it sounds like a nag from a developer, whose game didn't sell well, but I am sure that even if "Pathologic" sold millions I would say the same thing.
Dozen of novels came out based on cult classic S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (translator note: popular Ukrainian video game franchise). Why there were no books based on "Pathologic" (or even just a collection of short stories)? It seems that the "Pathologic" universe has way more rights to make its mark not only in video game history but also in literature.
Nikolay: There is absolutely beautiful fanfiction coming out based on "Pathologic". For example, "Cross on Saturn Line" could be a published book. But you have to understand that the "Pathologic" universe is not that popular, compared to "Stalker" or "Metro 2033", and things like this are usually publisher's projects, not writer's. Or a result of PR from the developer itself. We didn't even have a though to spread the message about how "great" the game is. Personally, it had appeared to me (and I still think this way) as blunt and unnatural.
What will happen next?
Nikolay: Team would, probably, shrink to 4-5 members. We will earn money to cover expenses for "Kickstarter" obligations. I, personally, plan on spending a great deal of time on education. It's obvious now that I have to correct my world view somehow.
You know, in historical works you often hear an opinion, that it's better for a country to lose a war: defeat is a clear signal that you need to immediately make reforms and change. And the commercial failure of "Pathologic" is exactly that, the signal from which I need to make correct conclusions.
People! Based on the comments you didn't grasp the situation well. The interview is already three months old, and answers were made both just after the release and in recent time.
Second thing, who told that we're closing off? It's opposite from that - we've answered that we will work despite everything, right up to the finish line. Most of the team will leave - sure it's sad, but nothing fatal. Given that the key people will still be there it will be running.
Third thing is that console versions are in the works, both from our side and from the dedicated team for ports. We still work with tinyBuild. We're making an addon, which would appear on PAX the next week. Apart from this, we will launch a small mobile game, which is already on the working prototype stage.
The studio is living and operating. It would stop doing so only when I myself will kick the bucket.
We will also fulfill Kickstarter obligations soon. This is a priority number one.