Tomorrow The Unfinished Swan will be available via the PlayStation Network, and for $14.99 PS3 owners will get a chance to try out one of the most imaginative and unique games on the market today. You take control of Monroe, an orphan that finds himself in the kingdom of a ruler who created the world with a paint brush and his imagination. Using a paintball gun-like mechanic, you uncover the world one splatter at a time as you piece together the story of the world’s formation. For our full review of one of the best digitally downloadable games out today, click here.
We sat down with Giant Sparrow’s Ian Dallas, the director of The Unfinished Swan, as well as the game’s creator. After creating the first prototype for what would eventually become The Unfinished Swan, Dallas entered the game into the Independent Game Festival. He lost, but Sony came to him and offered him a deal to develop the game under the Sony umbrella.
Working hand-in-hand with Sony, Giant Sparrow then spent the next three years developing the game with help from SCE Santa Monica. That time spent working onThe Unfinished Swan has given Dallas a unique look at the world of game development. We spoke about the development cycle, what comes next for him, and finding logic in a chaotic world.
How has it been working with Sony?
It’s been… eerie. I kept thinking that there would be a point where we’d have to butt heads on something and so far they’ve been incredibly friendly and nice about it. It’s just a very good fit because they wanted something they’ve never seen before – that’s why they brought us in to make the game. So they didn’t freak out when the game was really weird and got weirder over the course of development.
So far it’s been incredibly supportive and when we’ve had problems, like in development, they’ve been very proactive about finding other teams within Sony that may have had the same problems, and really helping us to make the game and let us focus on what I consider the interesting parts of development. So yeah, it’s been fantastic.
How do you like working with a smaller team as opposed to one of the bigger, 100+ people developers?
It’s hard to say because I’ve never really worked for a giant team. I [spent] a little bit of time writing for Sam and Max, which was 30 or 40 person company. That’s really the only experience I have working for a developer. So I really like working on a smaller team just because we’re able to focus on, again, what I consider the interesting parts of game development – getting in there and making a game. The amount of time we have to spend in meetings and writing docs to one another is relatively low. You just have an idea and then talk about it and draw stuff on a white board, then get going.
How long have you been working on Unfinished Swan?
Three years at Sony, and I spent another year when it was a grad school project.
So where did the game come from?
I was a grad student at the USC interactive program, and every week in grad school I would come in with a new prototype for how people move around space; that is what I was interested in. And one of the weeks it was just what if you’re in a white room throwing paint around? And the game just started off with that simple mechanic and actually began in the same space that the current game starts in, and just evolved from that.
The thing that I really liked about it was the sense of not knowing. Having a game that really evokes the curiosity and wonder of players, and we try as much as we could to hold onto that as we made it a bigger experience.
So how did you design the physics for it?
The paintballs are actually stupidly simple. Like a lot of things in gaming it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. I was really into doing more complicated splatter effects. I thought that was really important early on. It’s a game about splatting, let’s make sure we do that perfectly. And it turns out that people don’t really notice. There’s a threshold of excellence, where you’re really good versus perfect and amazing, players don’t really notice. So we focused on getting re
ally, really great, and there’s things that when we play the game, we’re like “aw, a paintsplat wouldn’t look like that.” But I think that’s just us being geeks about it and obsessing about it. I think for players it’s perfect.
The splat that we came up with was a texture that came out of throwing real paint against a wall. But when we took a picture of it, it just didn’t look real in the game because you’d see it and it was obviously the same image rotated around. So we kinda had to take reality and munge it up a bit so it was a little more random.
More and more we are seeing some really quality games coming out via digital download. Do you see that as the wave of the future, or is it just the current medium that these type of games are gravitating towards?
I think we’ll see more and more games in general in downloadable formats, and certainly for the near term I think downloadable is where players are going to find the coolest, weirdest, strangest games. I think players have shown that they’re happy downloading games. I think there was a concern a couple years ago that people wouldn’t find these games, that they would fester and no one would ever know about them. But certainly with a game like Unfinished Swan that gives players something they’ve never seen before, people are pretty vocal about trying to find it – they seek it out. It’s a game with an active fanbase that are clamoring for different experiences. So a game like Journey or Swan, people are willing to walk a little farther. Maybe it’s not at GameStop or wherever they be used to seeing games, but they’ll find it.
A lot of titles like Swan and Journey seem to tap into new potential for games.
Yeah, and it’s funny, with Unfinished Swan we find that it really appeals the strongest to two very different groups of people: people that play a lot of games and are kind of tired of that – they’ve had those experiences; but it also really appeals to people that don’t play games at all because they don’t like what games are usually about, like they just don’t have any interest in zombies or whatever. So two very different extremes there, but that’s where we’ve found the biggest audience for this game so far.
It is kind of nice to occasionally step away from the mainstream.
Yeah, it’s exciting. It kind of reminds you what it was like to play games for the first time.
After you’ve finished with Unfinished Swan and it has hit the general public, what are you going to do next?
Work on the next game. I really like making games. I think that’s one of the dirty secrets about game development is that you end up not playing a lot of games because actually making games is more fun than playing them a lot of the time. It scratches a lot of the same itches. For me what I really like in games is to explore and try things out. What I like most about games like GTA or whatever is “what would happen if…” Making games is that times 10. It’s like “what if,” and you throw together a prototype and do whatever you want.
So probably what I will do next is start thinking about the next game and working on that.
Has the development cycle been stressful?
This is my first game ever working as a developer. On previous games I was a writer, you’re not really in the heart of things. It’s been stressful because I think every game is little stressful; there are a lot of things you just can never predict. There will be problems, or there will be awesome things that aren’t problems. So there’s a lot of stress coming from just not knowing what’s coming around, but Sony’s been incredibly cool about removing a lot of the stresses we normally would have. If we have a problem we can just ask. The lead programmer from God of War came by to help us out with a problem. We can go straight to the source for people that really know their PlayStation 3.
Are you already working on a follow up?
I can’t say because it hasn’t been approved…
But in your head you’re already planning something, aren’t you?
Yeah, it’s a game that I’ve been thinking about for the last year or so. In the beginning it started out as a completely different game from Unfinished Swan. It’s odd that as it gets more along and I start to figure out what the game is going to be, there are a lot of parallels between the kinds of experiences that players have in Unfinished Swan and what the new game is going to be like. That is a little bit scary, and also a little encouraging because I think a lot of the artists that I really like, like Terry Gilliam or guys like that, their work is very different, but there’s a through line to it that you can see it’s the same person working on these things. So creating experiences that evoke a sense of awe and wonder is definitely what gets me excited, it’s what gets me up in the morning and thinking “how do I do that.”
You mention Terry Gilliam. Who are some of your other artistic influences?
I think the biggest influence was Alice in Wonderland, and creating a world that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and seems kinda random, but when you look at it there actually is a through line to it. There’s a sense of order that may not be apparent when you see it in the beginning. I think it also mirrors the way that children see the world. For a child, everything seems totally chaotic, but you trust that there’s some logic to it, and hopefully there is that you understand when you’re a little bit older.
Any games coming out that have you excited?
I gotta say Assassin’s Creed III is pretty exciting, even though it could not be bigger and louder and more AAA. I’m excited about exploring Revolutionary America. I love that it’s a space I’ve never been in before, and I’m really curious. I think that’s a good use of 600 people, or whatever the number is, to really model out Boston. So I’m pretty excited about not even playing the game but wandering around the city as a virtual tourist. Should be pretty fun.
And certainly The Last Guardian. I’m beyond excited about The Last Guardian. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus was an obvious inspiration here as well, but who knows when that is coming out. I’m trying not to get my hopes up there. I’ll be surprised.