ECHOPLEX Game Director Tyron Talks Aesthetics, Game Balance, and Globalisation

Tyron Janse van Vuuren reflects on the progress of ECHOPLEX ahead of its full release

Written by Cameron Moonsamy

Tyron Janse van Vuuren is an award-winning indie film director who has crossed over into the realm of gaming with his first project, ECHOPLEX.

ECHOPLEX entered Steam Greenlight in October of 2016 and was Greenlit in just 20 days. Currently in Early Access, the game has undergone a series of improvements that promise a unique and immersive experience.

With the full launch of ECHOPLEX coming up, I sat down with Tyron to discuss his journey thus far, and what we can expect from Output Games in the future.

What sets ECHOPLEX apart from other indie games and the games that influenced it?

We have combined live action cut scenes with the game graphics. There’s a definite a focus on trying to create a fully fleshed out narrative.

With ECHOPLEX, the storyline is integrated in such a way that it doesn’t interfere with the flow of the gameplay.

Does the story get resolved at the end of the game?

Even though there is a definite storyline, the cut scenes are shown in short flashes, not necessarily in chronological order. It’s up to the player to interpret them and form their own theories regarding the sequence in which the events occur.

In that way, the player can be involved in the narrative without resorting to ‘option trees’ and ‘dialogue responses’.

An Echo bends time and space in the simulation.

ECHOPLEX has gone down the path less travelled – the Early Access route. What was that like?

Early Access is a weird rollercoaster of experiences and emotions.

However, the most notable benefit of Early Access has been the feedback that we have received from players. Especially when we first launched the game, feedback (in the form of both positive and negative reviews) has been absolutely critical to the development of the game.

Because of the feedback, we have been able to make fundamental improvements to the game which we otherwise might not have considered.

Are there any misconceptions you had about the indie game industry?

I think that there was an indie gold rush between 2010 and 2013 when people were releasing indie games and selling hundreds of thousands of units. That time is now over.

A lot of developers, maybe myself included, have gone into Early Access with the expectation that their game will turn into the next Portal.

The more I’ve connected with other indie developers, the more I’ve realised that (while good for feedback) Early Access is not a very good platform for funding production.

A green screen was used for some of the cut scene footage.

What can players look forward to in the full release of ECHOPLEX?

We’re super excited about the full release of ECHOPLEX. We’ve been doing a lot of work behind the scenes and are introducing nifty new features and mechanics that make the game more diverse.

We will be introducing drones (with their own limited AI) which shoot at both you and your Echoes. Because they’re predictable, they add a new dimension to the puzzles. The drones can be used to take out an Echo that’s obstructing your path to the Memory Fragment, or alternatively you’ll have to try to keep your Echoes alive as you might need them later in the level. Drones also activate switches, so it may come in handy to lure them towards certain positions.

The Memory Fragments will now be smaller pieces that you retrieve throughout the level. This should give you a sense of accomplishment as you move through the level, and it also helps to guide players along, especially at the beginning of the game. This way, any given level should be rewarding at more stages rather than just at the end.

How do you know when you’ve struck the right balance between making the levels challenging and still guiding players so that playing the game is not just frustrating/confusing?

The introduction of Achievements has been a great indicator for us.

We can see from the Achievements where people are getting stuck, and from there we can ask ourselves how to improve the game, whether it’s changing the mechanics slightly, tweaking the level design, or even changing the order of the levels so that the difficulty is more progressive, etc.

Notes from the rAge Expo show early level design.

Going back to production… Why not Kickstarter?

I’ve done a film project with a crowdfunding platform before and it was successful. However, crowdfunding works out to be a full-time job for you and your team. You have to constantly promote your project, message people, and make personal appeals. I was writing, I was on the radio, and even with all of that effort, we just reached our goal. Even though I had the coolest people working with me on that project, the experience was still extremely stressful.

With the crowdfunding approach, you spend most of your time raising money, and not enough time working on the project itself. I wanted to be able to dedicate more hours to making the game an enjoyable experience.

What inspired the colour palette used in ECHOPLEX?

The colour palette was created by Henk Scheepers. Although Henk is the lead developer for coding, he has also played a major role in the art direction of the game.

My original idea for the palette was red, white and black. I took some convincing at the time when Henk suggested CMYK, because I felt that the colour palette was too strong.

It’s taken a bit of time to refine the colour palette but I’m really happy with where we are now. This colour palette is eye-catching and unusual, yet still appealing enough to implement throughout the game.

How does this colour palette influence the atmosphere of the game?

For me, it’s so interesting to set a horror atmosphere with brighter ‘print’ colours, because you don’t see this often, and as such, it creates a really unsettling effect.

The first use of the CMYK colour palette in the ECHOPLEX prototype.

Other than with the cut scenes, did your film making experience help in any way with developing ECHOPLEX?

During the course of my professional career, I have overseen graphic designers, live events designers, light designers, musicians, sound designers, user interface designers etc. That has given me a very good basis from which to create a game, because a game brings together every possible medium of which you can think.

How did you piece together the team working on ECHOPLEX?

Game development started with Henk Scheepers and myself. We had worked together in the past and I’ve always thought that he is incredibly talented, so when I came up with the concept for ECHOPLEX, he was the first person I thought to approach.

When we wanted to take the graphics to the next level, we brought in Ronnie Wong Ho Hip (another ex-colleague) who is an excellent 3D modeler and animator. Ronnie modeled the Echo and he also worked with his team to do the visual effects for the cut scenes.

From there, it’s been meeting and connecting with people and finding common ground. Let me put it this way: I’ve never had to put out an ad and interview people. We’ve always sort of gravitated toward each other, and I think that has been a key strength of the production – the fact that everyone is really interested in what they’re doing and everyone loves gaming.

Approaching a Memory Fragment at the end of a level.

What’s the biggest difference between working with an indie game team as opposed to a team in a corporate environment?

The biggest difference has to be the level of personal investment in the game. I’ve even ended up arguing a lot with some of my main collaborators, which barely happened with my other projects.

With client work, the director’s word is law and everyone just does their job to get paid. In a game, people are much more personally involved. People are investing their talent, taste and time to a project, all of which sometimes amounts to much more than you can afford to pay them [laughs].

Conversations with people like Henk and Revin Goff [the composer] end up being much more intense. There’s a lot more at stake, and a lot more passion involved, and hopefully this translates into the end result.

What do you think about the local (South African) gaming scene?

It will be really interesting to see where the gaming scene will be in a couple of years from now. We’ve already seen the likes of Free Lives and SMAC Games releasing games and doing really well.

Evan Greenwood [of Free Lives], certainly, is a big inspiration to me, as is Shaun Wright [of SMAC Games]. They have been really helpful with giving me advice, and their success is inspiring in that they weren’t limited by South Africa’s current lack of economic status.

With games, our market is the world, and the Internet allows us to step right on to the world stage and show that we’ve got what it takes to make great games. South Africans are really stepping up to the challenge.

An intrigued crowd gathers around the ECHOPLEX stand at the rAge Expo, October 2016.

I think that what you mentioned about the Internet is really important. A lot of South Africans think, “If I want to be successful, I have to work abroad or emigrate.” Do you have anything to add to this?

To that, I would say: It’s not really about where you do the work from, but it is important where you show the work.

One of the most important things that we’ve done with ECHOPLEX is to localise the game for China. As a result, more than half of our sales have come from China. This is very telling, because only 5% of Steam users are Chinese.

I think that the reason for this low percentage is that a lot of games aren’t localised for China, when in fact, China is potentially the biggest market in the world. So, again, it doesn’t really matter where you are, but it does matter where your audience is.

Are there any other exciting projects in the Output Games pipeline?

Most certainly! We aren’t ready to talk about them yet, because they’re still in prototype phase, but I will say that we’ve learned a tremendous amount from the process of making ECHOPLEX.

Our next project will probably be something quite different, but it will build on the strengths of what we’ve done so far, and we will improve on what we have learned in the process.

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