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Why one dev left 2K Marin to create a Lovecraftian indie game

A roguelike with face tentacles. That’s what Eldritch is. Minor Key Games‘ debut is a first-person action game that populates an ever-changing assortment of randomly generated levels with the twisted creations from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu universe. No two trips into the game’s maddeningly designed dungeons are the same, save for the fact that, sooner or later, something, somewhere is going to kill the crap out of you.

David Pittman, co-founder of Minor Key Games

David Pittman, co-founder of Minor Key Games

Welcome to Eldritch

Minor Key Games is a two-man operation, but Eldritch is actually the product of just one of them: David Pittman. A former 2K Marin programmer who worked on AI code for BioShock 2 and The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, Pittman left his safe industry job to form Minor Key as a product of the fatigue he was feeling with the AAA development process.

“A lot of people that I really respected and learned from had left the company and that was causing the creative direction of the studio to diverge from what I was interested in,” Pittman tells Digital Trends. He’s talking about guys like BioShock 2 creative director Jordan Thomas and Minverva’s Den DLC lead level designer Steve Gaynor, both of whom left to pursue their own creative endeavors; Gone Home for Gaynor and his crew at The Fullbright Company and something unannounced for Thomas, who left his 2K gig during summer 2013. Pittman noted these departures and started to feel the pull to leave as well.

“It was kind of a gradual thing where I was losing interest in what they were doing and then I had the financial opportunity this spring to finally make the jump and become independent, so I did.”

Eldritch screenshot 1

Minor Key Games is actually a collaboration between David and his twin brother J. Kyle Pittman, who left his own job at Gearbox Software after a successful run working on Borderlands and Borderlands 2. Their new studio is unconventional in that it exists as a collective, as opposed to the team-oriented development approach in place at most studios. David and Kyle are working on their own, separate projects. Eldritch is David’s, and Kyle’s remains unannounced for the time being. Both brothers then shoulder the business responsibilities of running a studio.

“We started programming with BASIC. We went to college together, we went to grad school together.”

The collaboration comes easily for two brothers who have walked very similar paths through much of their lives. “We both learned to program when we were really young, like six years old,” David Pittman tells us. “We started programming with BASIC. We went to college together, we went to grad school together. And then when we got our first jobs in the industry, he stayed in Texas where [he went to school] and I moved out to California. That was six years ago. Now we’re back together at least in the company if not physically in the same space.”

Eldritch is a product of David’s interest in games like Spelunky, the wildly popular 2D roguelike, coupled with a fascination for the fictional creations of H.P. Lovecraft. It’s a first-person action game in which each new playthrough serves up new map layouts, enemy locations, treasures, and so on. The blocky graphics and destructible environments are reminiscent in some ways of Minecraft, but the enemies you face – cloaked beings with glowing eyes, squid-headed monstrosities, and other nightmare beasts – are distinctly carved from the horror mold.

Eldritch screenshot 3

Pittman tells us that it was never his goal to directly adapt the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but rather to channel the creative sensibilities of the horror author. “I’m certain there are Lovecraft purists who will find things to nitpick about the way that I adapted it [in Eldritch],” he says. “I also find Lovecraft to be a little bit difficult to be a fan of, just because he had some very problematic viewpoints. He was well known to be a racist. So I definitely tried to distance Eldritch from the problematic aspects of his writing. But in terms of the world he created, the monsters, that kind of stuff, it makes for a really great video game.”

“In terms of the world [HP Lovecraft] created, the monsters, that kind of stuff, it makes for a really great video game.”

If Lovecraft informs the visual and (loose) narrative identity draped over Eldritch, games like Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac, with their randomly generated levels and replay-driven mentality, inform the overall design. It’s more than just a love for roguelikes, however. Pittman’s background as both a gamer and a developer leans toward less rigid narratives, and an emphasis on player choice. No surprise for a guy who came out of a studio like 2K Marin; the team there didn’t create the BioShock universe, sure, but they managed to deliver a crowd-pleasing take on it.

“I’m a huge fan of the immersive sim genre of games. The stuff that came out of Looking Glass Studios in the ’90s, Thief and System Shock 2,” Pittman says. “I was playing… the first Deus Ex, again late last year – because it’s one of my favorite games of all time – and I had this feeling that I really like the systems in the game, but I’ve played it so many times that I know the levels by heart. That kind of planted the seed in my head. What if there were a game that had these kinds of systems, but where you could go through randomly generated small scenarios?”

Pittman was still at 2K Marin when the original Deus Ex inspired him, but the idea stuck and never went away. When it finally came to a point where he was ready to leave the relative comfort and security of a corporate studio job and go indie, an immersive sim colored by these “randomly generated small scenarios” was the natural direction to go in. BioShock is an obvious, and intended, touchstone, right down to the weapons-plus-magic combat, but the element of randomness is always there to keep things feeling fresh.

Eldritch screenshot 2

All of those pieces are now assembled, and Eldritch is nearly ready for public consumption. Pittman tells us that the game is currently feature-complete, and being put through the final polish and bug-fixing process before its October 21, 2013 release. The game is up for voting right now on Steam Greenlight, and you can pre-order it now at eldritchgame.com to get in on the beta period.

“It’s going to be open beta before the end of September,” Pittman says. “It’s kind of a soft release at that point. There won’t be any new content being added. I’m just giving myself a little bit of a window in case there’s compatibility issues, because I’m one guy and I have one computer to test on.”

Once Eldritch is out, the brothers Pittman will continue to work on growing Minor Key Games. There’s still the question of Kyle’s unannounced game, along with whatever else the brothers cook up for their new indie label in the future. “We have a lot of shared values in the kinds of games we want to create,” David says. “In particular, we’re not interested in doing really linear, story-driven narratives. We like things that invite the player to be a part of authoring the experience. So that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have a game that has a strong story, but it would be something where the player is at least making meaningful choices in that game.”

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