Follow the leader? OBEY developer Dez on exiting Early Access, overcoming progress challenges

Today, the asymmetrical multiplayer game OBEY makes its official launch out of Steam Early Access on PC. We got to have a few words with sole developer and self-proclaimed Overlord Dez as he delves into the challenges of a one-man creation, the reasoning behind the bunny player characters, and why you should kill your (creative) babies.

Pictured: Developer Dez

After five years, OBEY is finally leaving Early Access. How are you feeling about the official release?

It’s hard to answer this question without telling you the story of how it came to be.  What I mean is, that even to say “after five years”, as long as that is, is not entirely correct. The first conception of what became OBEY started in the summer of 2002.  It actually began as simply an attempt to make the most asymmetrical multiplayer game possible (in 2D in SDL!) with players hiding in shadows from a big tower with each keyboard key firing a different weapon.  After the people I was working with at the time disappeared, I tried to assemble teams to restart it a number of times, but failed.

So in 2005 I began teaching myself  C++ and started coding it using the Ogre3D Engine, but stopped around 2008 due to some life changes. Then, around December of 2013 I had the chance to try seriously again, and I threw out what I had done in C++ and restarted development in earnest using Unity/C#. A year and a half after that, I had something to show and I ran a Kickstarter for OBEY, which failed.  I guess due to a lot of positive responses and my own desire to see it made, I kept going and succeeded in bringing it into Steam Early Access in May 2015 (the date when most people started hearing of OBEY). A month later, I had a child, and around 2016 I ran out of money and had to stop development to get a job.  I had a fun and good job (I helped develop holographic devices with a company called Looking Glass) but I always still had a severe itch in the back of my mind to finish OBEY.  I wanted so badly to get it done, but knew that it would required a minimum of 4 months or so of full-time work to finish.  During 2016 and 2017, I was able to release a few small updates, but it was tough to do a lot while holding a job and also having a little one to care for.

Then in 2017, things got much worse as I went through a divorce and found myself moving 4 times in the subsequent 2 years.  It was probably one of the lowest points of my life. Still, I had left this thing unfinished and wanted to get back and complete it as soon as I had the chance.  Finally now in 2020, as my life started to stabilize and things seemed to be on the upswing for me, the coronavirus pandemic hit and ironically, I found an opportunity in these tragic days to finish OBEY!!  It’s been a huge saga, but as I have said many times, OBEY is the game I always wanted to play and to make, and now with the understanding of this story, I can answer your question: I am simply proud to say: here it is.  Some people will appreciate it, others won’t, and that is fine.

OBEY’s main mechanics feel very unique to other asymmetrical multiplayer games out there. What were your inspirations for the title?

The title came after I realized what the game was going to become, which happened after the gameplay started to manifest.   When I first started creating the game, I planned to name it “Robosaru”, after the robot.  But after some of the mechanics came into a functional state, I realized that I was making a sort of power simulator – even a slavery simulator, if you will.  At a certain point I realized that if any game should ever be called OBEY – it was this one.  I then decided there could be no other, more appropriate title for this project.

I do have to ask: Why bunnies?

I wanted to make the players really innocent and harmless looking.  This is not only to contrast with the visuals of the huge indestructible killer robot tower, but because ultimately the player avatars are metaphors for human beings, especially children.  When I made the decision I had already decided that the tower would have a hard, mechanical robot look, and that the rest of the environment would contrast with it as a magical forest type of space (the idea for this actually came from the sound engineer of OBEY:  Matt Harwood). I considered different baby forest animals but I also even considered human babies.  Although I felt that human babies could be most appropriate (for example, how can a human child grow to be an abuser, a torturer, or a mass murderer – of other grown human children?) I ultimately chose the bunnies simply for being the cutest, most adorable, and utterly harmless looking beings that I could find and decided against making the players human babies because it would have almost certainly made the game very creepy looking.

I was OK with the game being weird and outlandish, but I felt having it be creepy would be distracting.  Being (apparently) harmless was important, as the regular players can not cause direct damage to the robot (even though they sure can cause a lot of indirect damage to that player by destroying items, hiding items, delivering wrong items, lying, destroying the robot’s dropship, or generally causing chaos).  Finally, giving players little power and having them look the part, touches upon another important metaphorical aspect of the game: the question of  “What does it mean to be good?”.

Can a baby bunny or baby human be said to be “good”?  I would argue the answer is no.  What if you gave a baby bunny or baby human unlimited power?  How would they use it?  Maybe this baby that many people would claim to be ‘purely good’ would actually be willing to incinerate hundreds of people so that they could enjoy a cookie, or a colorful toy, or some yummy grass for example.  Hence a being can only be said to be good once it is known how they exercise power (and for the word ‘good’ to have meaning in actuality, it should include the responsible execution of power). This is also why there is a baby bunny at the head of the robot: it’s driver.  Yes, the robot is this enormous monstrous killing machine, but it is at its’ core also 100% driven by a vulnerable baby. How does it exercise power?

What’s your favorite feature in this new release of OBEY?

One thing I am really trying to address in the new release is how to have players keep coming back after they have played a bit, and give them motivation to keep playing.  Hence what I am working on now are achievements and a global leaderboard.  Some of that will be in the 1.0, and there will be more forthcoming post-release.  My hope is that making the consequences of matches affect permanent stats and hierarchical player rankings will make each match matter more.  As far as ‘favorite’ feature of ALL the features in the build?  Well that is corpsing*, of course!

*corpsing is the surreptitious delivery of a charred bunny corpse into the feed box of the robot, which causes heavy points damage to the robot player

OBEY has basically been a one-man job from the beginning. What were some challenges or benefits of being the sole developer, and have you enlisted help afterwards?

Well, the biggest, most obvious challenge is that production basically gets done by a ‘single threaded processor’.  Any kid in the forum that needs to be moderated, or a snafu or assistance needed in a translation, the adjustment of a button in the GUI by 5 pixels, or my need to do the dishes, or my attendance at a birthday party, this interview,  taking any break, and of course attending to the personal challenges that accompany any human being’s life automatically stops 100% of ALL progress being done on the project.   Hence, being alone also requires being very selective about features, since things can add up very very quickly.  Having said that, there is also a significant advantage of having 0 communication overhead when changes and plans need to be made.  Since the flow of the assembly of the game, and the integration of all it’s systems are all in my mind, I already have a fairly good understanding of what will be involved in doing any particular change and can automatically coordinate the dependencies to execute the change or add a feature.

Usually in a ‘normal’ game production environment, design decisions are made by committee and coordination with art and tech takes a ton of time.  This is the job of production teams, whose need is completely eliminated in my case.  I want to add here however, that the feature scope of OBEY is probably beyond what any single person should try.  I mean, of course I have done it, but it was almost as a challenge to myself to see if I was even capable.  So yes, I guess I am capable, but did I actually have to execute it to know this?  The amount of work involved in the development of this game for one person was an almost inhuman task to take on, if I am being honest.  OBEY truly is a labor of love.

As far as help, I did hire some:  My good friend Matt Harwood (Frontlines: Fuel of War, Homefront, Bit Trip, Infinite Crisis) did the amazing sound engineering for OBEY and it’s trailers, and Joel Corelitz did the amazing composition for the theme song.  I am so happy with the way the sounds turned out for OBEY.  Then, I hired Indie Bros to help me with promotion.

What were some obstacles in trying to market the game throughout the years?

Marketing is by far the biggest challenge of an indie, in my opinion.  This is because social engineering (the strength of a socially oriented mind), is typically outside of the set of strengths of what I will call a ‘nerd mind’:  a mind that is naturally oriented towards mathematics and logic.  A game can hardly be made at all without the nerd mind, but paradoxically, if one is serious about trying to achieve a commercially successful product, marketing also has to be a priority from day 1.  I did do that for OBEY, but I also had to contend with the additional challenge of working on an indie game that is a competitive multiplayer game.

In essence:  how do you get a party going when you start the party with 0 people and the first people to get there automatically don’t see a party and leave.  Accordingly, OBEY has experienced a number of waves of players and of lack thereof through the years.  To keep players coming, I think an indie needs to budget something like 50% of their time to non-development marketing and promo tasks, perhaps even more nowadays, as the market environment in which OBEY was first published in Steam in May 2015 has changed significantly.  There are now way more projects out there competing for attention, and it is harder than ever for an indie to get it.  To be honest, I think business wise,  the market is flooded  (this is what happened to the mobile app stores as well, by around 2013).  The only way to overcome that is with marketing money and muscle.   This is why I partnered with a promo team called Indie Bros to help promo OBEY during this latest 1.0 release push.

In your own words, what’s the importance of having a tight-knit community of gamers in the indie scene?

To answer, a developer first has to first decide what is important.  Who is the game for and why do you think it should be made?

It doesn’t necessarily follow that a tight-knit community is important.  However, in the case of OBEY, I do think it has been critically important, and certainly the players have been instrumental in balancing OBEY, guiding the feature set with their feedback, and helping development with their bug reports and translations.  There’s no doubt that many of them have spread the word to their friends, as well.   In short: OBEY would have been impossible to make without the many different players who have each contributed in different ways to it throughout the last 6 years or so.

Like everybody right now, COVID-19 has probably affected you. What have you been doing to pass the time during the past couple of months?

I hate to say it like this, because this pandemic has been a horrible tragedy for a huge number of people; hundreds of thousands of people have lost loved ones, jobs, businesses, and livelihoods.  I mean, the whole world is struggling, and here in the US we even seem to have a dumpster fire in the White House complicating things while the economy tanks and people die and the livelihoods and savings of those living go into the toilet.  It’s nearly certain that a lot of my neighborhood businesses will never reopen, and that many of my neighbors are not even able to pay their rent.  I mean, there are mass graves a few miles from me! WTF?!

Having said that, for me personally… besides not being able to go to my regular climbing gym and food joints, COVID has actually been pretty great!  It’s been a huge opportunity to finish this game AND spend a lot of time with my daughter.  Further, for a nerd like me, being in quarantine really speaks to the side of my personality that just wants to sit in front of a box and code in my underwear, while not speaking to anyone for weeks at a time!  Going out and socializing is important (and I do sometimes find myself missing it, nowadays), but generally it is something that I practice outside of my comfort zone while experiencing social anxiety.  I guess that in my heart, I am a homebody and intellectual that just wants to read, code, and quarantine – even in normal times!

While this game is multiplayer-only, have you considered any single-player options in the future?

I did consider it, and I decided not to do it.  OBEY is a social game.

Now that the game is out of Early Access, are you planning on porting it to other consoles?

There is currently no plan to do this. However it is something I would definitely reconsider if OBEY became very popular.

After OBEY launches out of Early Access, what other plans do you have in terms of other projects or development?

This question is slightly sad for me, having been a game developer since 2002, I of course have a mountain of game ideas I would love to execute.  The question is always:  should this idea be made?

Although I do plan to publish some ports of smaller projects that are already done but sitting on my hard drive,  if I am being perfectly honest, I am not sure if I will ever make another video game.

I’m feeling some more life changes coming for me, but I guess only time will tell!

Finally, any other last words or advice you can give to our readers?

The best advice I ever heard, if you are thinking about becoming an indie developer, or artist of any kind is:

You must be willing to kill your babies.

You can buy OBEY now on Steam. Stay tuned for more news here on Gaming Trend.

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