Dark Crystal Games
Chris Picone - CSH Picone
Viacheslav Kozikhin - Dark Crystal Games (creative director)
Interview by Chris Picone, 07 October 2018
Today we welcome Viacheslav Kozikhin, Dark Crystal Games’ creative director, who joins us for a discussion about his new company, his experience with Larian, and of course his new Fallout-inspired RPG Encased, which is on Kickstarter and set to smash its funding goal any day now. Also, his name is practically unpronounceable for us English folk, so he likes to go by the name Slava, which is a cool nickname when said with pronounced with a thick pseudo-Russian accent.
CSH: Where did the name Dark Crystal come from? It seems unusual for a Russian company to have an English name.
Slava: Yeah, there is a small story behind it. Basically, we all play a lot of RPGs, including some of the multiplayer ones - World of Warcraft, Lineage 2, EVE Online and many others. When we were thinking about the company name, we really wanted to find something medieval or noble or epic, with fantasy or sci-fi vibes, because we focus on making games with interesting worlds and stories. We were thinking for a while, and then someone proposed Dark Crystal, because Dark Crystal is one of the most famous magical sets of equipment in Lineage 2, and several of us spend a lot of time in this game. So we just added Games at the end, and that was it.
CSH: Tell us a bit about your team? Do you have all bases covered, or will you need to call in outside help for voice acting, localisation, that sort of thing?
Slava: The core team is actually more than 15 members now. Those are split up into code, art and design areas. Since we are indies anyway - some people wear several hats and know how to do multiple things. Our mentors and experts are mostly from the design and writing departments. The game is being developed in Russian (with English in mind) and there are multiple writers and narrative designers which help us to adapt it for an international audience and make it really smooth. Several other indie RPGs from our region were struggling to do this, so I had it in mind from the very beginning. There are also talks with other people who are very experienced and will add high-level project expertise, but we will announce that later.
CSH: Effective English conversion is crucial, for sure. I know I’ve backed a couple of games that were extremely promising but proved nigh unplayable because of dodgy localisation. It would be a damn shame to see Encased fall in the same trap, so I’m happy to hear you’ve factored that issue in right from the start.
Anyway, the team boasts an incredible portfolio! Your website lists Divinity: Original Sin 1 & 2, Dragon Age, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and a number of other high profile games. That’s pretty damn impressive. Any favourite projects or teams?
Slava: The game industry is fascinating and hardcore and ruthless at the same time. There are good and bad times during every development cycle, but there are thousands of post-mortems, articles, and analyses written about that already. Our team’s professional stories are no different in this regard: there are sad cases of cancelled projects or projects which got a mixed response, there are gems that are warmed by the love of critics and players alike. There are projects where our staff members were the driving force and made a great impact and there are projects where we were thrown to plug the holes and do monkey work.
But this all is part of the experience. Experience and hardening, and that’s exactly what you need to pull off a new, complex project. Most of us worked at different companies but there is a small core which were involved with Larian Studios’ latest games.
For me personally, my time with Larian remains the perfect memory of a great team with incredible love for what they are doing and their creations. If not for the dream and happy possibility of launching a new studio and directing my own creation, I could hardly be imagine a better place to work than Larian.
CSH: If most of you worked for different companies, how did you all meet, and how did the project come about?
Slava: I've known some of the team members for many years, and some I’ve only met since creating Dark Crystal Games. But the industry is basically very small, everyone knows each other, even if they did not work together.
Acquaintances acquired during my work helped me to assemble the team. Also, having a clear idea of the time frame and scope and scale of the project really helps. And since I’ve had prior experience working on RPGs, people were more willing to agree to such a risky venture.
CSH: For all the dreamers out there, what was it like working for a big company like Larian?
Slava: There are advantages and disadvantages, of course. Bigger companies are normally more financially secure and can provide more bonuses, which is obviously good. You can work on your part without worrying too much about the bigger picture - there are other people to take care of that, which makes life easier. But at the same time, this is a disadvantage - your personal contribution to the project is lower and more blurred, decisions are often made elsewhere and you just have to adapt. Also, a bigger studio means way more people, which means that you will rarely speak to many of them. Maybe even never, if the studio has different offices in different countries. And even in your own office, you are often limited to the bubble of your department. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it has been a refreshing change for me to work in a really small and tight team. We all sit together, we all have an extremely huge impact on the project and the feeling of brotherhood is much stronger. I think for most of teams it is better to start small and gradually increase in size over the course of the projects and years.
CSH: Any funny or memorable moments that stand out?
Slava: Funny moment to remember: I’m very proud of Divinity: Original Sin 2 and once said that if the game sells more than 1.13 million copies, I will tattoo DIVINE on my back. Honestly, I was happy to lose this bet.
CSH: Has the team always worked in the gaming industry?
Slava: This is our first game - which is a surprise, actually. In our region, companies often need to work on multiple projects to stay afloat. E.g., have their own project and do some outsourcing as well. Right now, we have a window of opportunity where we can focus on Encased one hundred percent, and hopefully, things will stay that way. Our Kickstarter campaign will help us a lot with that.
Individually, however, many of our employees have enjoyed rich experiences in and out of game dev. We have journalists, lawyers, cooks, technical support workers, auto mechanics, and multipliers. We are rich in life experience! But all this is easily explained, given that the average age of people in the team is 30+ years.
CHS: Has Encased been influenced by this extensive life experience in any way?
Slava: The key word here is "experience". We believe that we need to know those things that we mention and depict. And here our past helps us: our people are experienced with gunfire – how it sounds and its impact in reality. We know a little bit about military structure, how to disassemble AK-47s, and how 4-stroke generators are different to 2-strokes. We know how manufacturers compete with each other (sometimes with questionable methods). There are people who have experienced how the morning in the desert feels, and know that it there is more to a desert than just sand - there are also flowers, wild and beautiful. There are people who have seen how Pripyat looks like after Chernobyl disaster. I can go on.
CSH: Life experience is so often undervalued, but it is crucial if authenticity is the goal. As if we weren’t excited enough already. Tell us a bit about Encased?
Slava: Well, that’s easy in some sense. We are just making a perfect “Fallout 2.5”, if you wish. There is nothing wrong with later games of the series but we are building our own alternate timeline, where Van Buren did not happen and Fallout 3 didn’t exist yet. We analyse and take all the best aspects from the original games and then return to our reality and implement those features with all our soul and best efforts, keeping in mind that this is 2018 and certain things need to be modernized a little bit.
And the more formal description is: Encased is a post-apocalyptic isometric role-playing game in the setting of science fiction and post-apocalypse.
CSH: Give us some insight into some of the main characters?
Slava: First of all, we believe that characters move the story forward. In our case, such characters are the leaders of the five main factions fighting for power under the Dome after Maelstrom broke free. All these guys are very expressive and typical: “Iron Lady”, managing the New Committee; a cunning strategist and tactician, who calculates everything many moves ahead; the commander of the Special Forces with a huge guilt complex; an ever-quarrelling married couple; and a crazy bandit queens. And then the player arrives...
CSH: Encased involves a post-apocalyptic 70s retro-future setting, under a dome. Of all the settings you could have chosen, why the 70s? Why retro future? Why post-apocalypse? Why the dome?
Slava: We like the Seventies because it was such a controversial period. On the one hand, the seventies were expressive and bright, but on the other hand, it was a time of conflicts, protests, and crises. In our opinion, the fiction of the 70s is very introspective, drawing much more attention to the inner essence of things, rather than their external manifestations. And retrofutures are cool. The dome helps us to limit and isolate the world, and because it is not what it seems, but more will be revealed about that later.
Post-apocalypse is an important plot-creating instrument. Encased is not about the player killing some boss and everything becoming good again, it is about building a new world. And where else to build a new world, if not on the ruins of the old?
CSH: What makes Encased more than “just another Fallout clone”? What sets it apart? With a game so similar in concept to Fallout (isometric RPG set in a post-apocalyptic retro future), how have you tackled the issue of nostalgia vs innovation?
Slava: Fallout fans especially appreciate the feeling that it creates: an open world, freedom of action, atmosphere, style and a variety of options. Actually, we are trying to preserve this sweet feeling with all our strength, but otherwise, Encased is a different game.
CSH: Just like Fallout, you’ve elected for an isometric RPG with a turn-based combat system and a single protagonist. Aside from modern graphics, what other modern features can we expect?
Slava: Modern usability and modernized mechanics. No encounters where enemies are just bunch of critters (e.g. rats) attacking you. Improved level design, where all the locations are not just flat - there are different “floors” with hidden corners and more rewarding exploration. Dozens truly unique random encounters, with minimal repetition. The list goes on, we are not done yet.
CSH: Has the game been inspired by any other media?
Slava: Yes. A number of films and books have played a significant role in shaping the background of the story and the language of the story itself. We love Wells, Strugatsky, Rushdie, Harrison, and even adore hyperrealists like Fante and Bukowski (although they are completely far from fiction). Also, serious movies in the spirit of Interstellar, Solaris and Arrival, and crazy movies like Doomsday, Mad Max, Bad Batch, etc. have all had an influence.
CSH: I imagine your work on Encased must feel all-consuming, but even the most dedicated need a break every now and then. What do you do with your down time?
Slava: We are geeks (in an exclusively positive sense). We love books, board games, good movies. The animator has two beautiful fluffy cats, and the writer collects computers and weaves bracelets to cope with stress.
Your question about the hobby raises one important problem: game development always takes a lot of time, especially if it's a small team and a project that we sincerely love. And we also have families and friends and we spend our free time with them, we owe them a lot for the support they provide to our passion.
CSH: I expect the Kickstarter to go well, both on its own merits and the efforts of your team, as well as Larian and RPG Codex’s recent support. If you bring in enough backers to make Encased as amazing as your wildest ambitions, what could we expect?
Slava: We will do our best to make Encased the way we planned it: a real RPG, where the dialogues are filled with hidden options and inaccessible variants (they will be available when passing through the other wing and a fraction). Where do you dismantle a dozen guns, and then assemble just one, but which is really cool. Where your companions will quarrel over the last can of canned food.
Wait for the game that will never reveal all its secrets at once. A game where player actions really change the world.
CSH: It’s only early days yet, but what do Dark Crystal have planned for the future?
Slava: We are far from completion. Early Access is in sight, but overall there is A LOT of work ahead. This company was initially founded with an ambitious goal to create many good games and compete with the best. To establish a respectful developer in our region, which is not related to free-to-play games, mobile, gambling or just pure outsourcing work power. To give a home for those who dreamed to make a change for a while, for years, who almost abandoned games because there is often was no bright spot in sight. So yeah - we are together for a while and hope to show our full potential.
Cheers for the chat, Slava! The Kickstarter campaign’s still nearly at the funding goal already, and you’ve still got more than a week left on the clock, so I look forward to watching you smash out the stretch goals on what already looks like a very promising RPG.
Find the website here: http://darkcrystalgames.com/
And why not have a crack at making your own Encased NPC? https://cronus.darkcrystalgames.com/en/