Dream – An Interview with Hyper Sloth

written by Alex ‘Alaric’ Lemcovich on 3.10.12 dream-logo

Team Hyper Sloth is a close-knit group of likeminded individuals who happen to love Indy games. If you were at Eurogamer a few days ago in London and you managed to tear yourself away from the crown jewels offered by some of the bigger names on the shop floor, you might just have noticed the smaller gems scattered around the outskirts.

One such gem is the Indy game, Dream, which is a thoughtful little title dedicated to exploration and surreal puzzle solving. It’s already had the go-ahead vote from Steam Greenlight and will be arriving on the marketplace some time in the next year.

As it happened I had a chance to discuss Dream’s success with 66.6% of its developing team – the third guy, Mr. Sam Read, was supervising curious gamers who were play testing the alpha version.

Hyper Sloth is comprised of fresh-faced Lewis Bibby, Sam Read, and Ashley Sidebottom. Three gentlemen in their twenties who have turned their creative minds to gaming design.

I ask Lewis and Ashley if they assigned themselves specific titles in the development process. Was someone a Designer? Was someone else a Producer?

“No, we all pitch in with every area, specified in some parts, but we all do every job.” Lewis says.

“I do most of the programming and a few assets,” Ashley elaborates, “Sam does design and a few assets, so we’re all pretty mixed.”

So how long exactly has Dream been in development for?

“It’s been in development for about three to four months, since we finished our second year at university.” Ashley says.

And what degree are they studying?

“We’re doing Games Design at Huddersfield University.”

I realise by this point that our young friends have yet to learn the developer method of overloading the journalist with information at every given answer, but that’s not a bad thing. I ask them if Dream is their first game ever, and if they all knew what they wanted to do from the outset for it.

“Yes, it’s our first game.” Ashley confirms.

“Over the last year of university I sort of started developing the concept for it,” Lewis says, “but the main thing we wanted to focus on was creating an atmosphere of exploration. We wanted to do a new kind of take for that genre, so that’s what we focused on mostly.”

Were they inspired by anything in particular when they were looking around for source material?

“I was inspired by a game called Yume Niki, which is about exploring dreams, but it was in 2D so I wanted to modernise the concept and bring it to current generation graphics – and this is as close as we could get. We managed to introduce some new mechanics and we’ve given it a narrative as well. But Yume Niki was the first game that inspired us all; another game was LSD – Dream Simulator for the Playstation One, which was also a 3D exploration game that inspired us.”

Since Lewis brought up the graphics, I wanted to talk about those as they are fantastic. How did a small team just starting out in development manage to produce an alpha version game to this visual standard?

“The main thing that helped was using the Unreal Engine and the Unreal Development Kit; all the tools just made it great for us to use,” Lewis tells me, “We’re not actually programmers, we don’t do much programming, because the Unreal Kit is made to let us design and we’re easily able to get right in there, put our assets in that we made, and start prototyping the game straight away.”

And as far as the story goes, we play as a university graduate?

“Yeah, he’s graduated but he’s pretty much lost in life and doesn’t know where he’s going,” Ashley confirms, “So he daydreams a lot and has these weird dreams. We’ve got three acts: the first act is what we’re showing at Eurogamer today and that’s just part of the first main dream. We tried not to use a HUD [Heads-up display] so when you use the Rift you can feel that bit more immersed in the experience. And you start off in your bedroom, go to sleep, and then you end up in the Hub World from which you can go off into main dreams and from those into side dreams.”

Do these dream worlds have different names?

“Not really, they’re just dreams I guess! The main protagonist has been practicing ‘lucid dreaming’, so it’s like he’s become obsessed with his own dreams more than anything.”

So this is obviously a very personal tale for all of these guys. It looks to have been inspired by their own sentiments towards university and where they end up after the whole thing is over, and they’ve got a year to go. I ask if this game is a way of getting out all the university angst so Ashley, Lewis, and Sam, can focus on making great content for people in the future.

“In a way it is,” Ashley admits, “With uni we get no sleep and Lewis is dreaming a lot, so it’s a bit different there. It’s really good to learn and just put together what we’ve done for our placement year. And it’s just great to support everything in the gaming industry.”

We talk a little bit about the puzzles in Dream, because the ones I played all revolved around negotiating labyrinth-like structures – do the team envision a number of different puzzles being put forward further into the game?

Lewis tells me, “Right now there aren’t very many puzzles in the game apart from the maze and there’s the Grey Guard section later on which is a completely different type of puzzle. This is basically because we haven’t been in development for very long and we’re still trying to implement everything as fast as we can. We’re planning on the puzzles being quite different and varied throughout the entire game. In later parts of the game we might have something that’s not at all like the mazes, more logic-based puzzles, putting things together or something like that. We’re not sure yet and we’re doing a lot as we go along, but we are planning on having a lot of puzzles and not just a few.”

Presumably they have an ending in mind for the game, though…

“Yeah, we do have an ending in mind. The narrative is something that is mostly set in stone right now it’s just how we get to that final point as we go along.” Lewis says.

How big will the game be as a final product?

“The main thing is we want to make it so it caters to two different types of people; the people who want to solve the base puzzles and go through the narrative as fast as possible, and the people who want to search for all the little secrets and things that are hidden away, go to all the side dreams and everything. So bearing that in mind – that two different people could play in two different ways – we’re probably aiming for anywhere between four to eight hours to complete, depending on what those people want to play and how immersed they want to get in the experience. There will be multiple endings depending on how much you explore and how much you do beforehand. At the moment we’ve got five endings finished and ready.”

I press a little more on the way in which Dream plays out, how the structure of the game seems to be that you finish a puzzle and stuff changes around the player’s environment.

Ashley nods, “Yes, so when you complete these puzzles the environment chances – without giving anything away – so later you’re going to have to swap between environments to complete another puzzle.”

We move on to the subject of Steam Greenlight, a market device in which users rate content that’s in the early stages of development so Indy game developers can get feedback on their projects, and with enough positive feedback get Steam to commit to putting their games in its online store. This was Hyper Sloth’s first experience using the Steam Greenlight business model. How have they found it? Do they think it’s a good mechanism for young developers such as themselves?

“Originally we always wanted to be on Steam,” enthuses Ashley, “it’s a nice platform, and when Greenlight came out we got pretty excited. So we put Dream on there so we could get it looked at and get feedback when it went up live, and we’ve had some outstanding feedback which helped us shape the game better. We also had some negative feedback, but that helped as well.”

How did they find the Steam community? Are they a helpful bunch?

“Yeah, most of them are alright…probably.” Ashley laughs, “Most of them; there’s a few people in there who say exactly what they’re thinking in not a very constructive manner, but as I love them being straightforward I don’t mind.”

I smile and bid the two young developers a warm welcome to public gamer life. When they’re finished with their university degrees, unlike the guy in Dream, do they know where they want to be?

“We all probably want to be Indie game designers after uni,” Lewis says, “but we’ve toyed with the idea of working for a bigger studio. Right now I’m pretty set on being an Indy game designer.”

“Being an Indy game designer you’re free to do what you want without causing too much havoc,” Ashley tells me, “but if this goes really well maybe we’ll start up again after uni. There are a lot of people out there doing different and unique things, and it’s nice to see them moving the industry forward.”

I bid them farewell and the best of luck, pausing to ask about their expenses in putting Dream together so far. It turns out to be around the £3,000 mark. A drop in the ocean for established developers, but it gives you an idea of how committed you have to be to make a mark on an industry you love.

Dream is set to release at some point in the next year or so, and it was built by three young students at Huddersfield University studying Game Design. If all goes well, we should expect to see more from them in the future.

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