Dain Saint and Will Stallwood are the co-founders of Cipher Prime. After numerous emails, a PAX panel, and idle chat in airports, we got these purveyors of fine digital experiences to sit down for a long intimate conversation about their process. Most importantly I got to find out how they view themselves as creators and how they have sustained a small studio for six years in Philadelphia, PA.
For me this romance started back in July 2012 with a game called Splice. I still hold it high above the multitudes of puzzlers I’ve played since then. Having booted up just to remind myself what I liked so much about it, I found myself an few hours later fuddling about in its inner space. The important take away from Splice, which is then echoed through the rest of their portfolio, is the seamless nature of their games. Dain and Will hit on this point throughout the interview about the most important part of development is that last 10% of a project that takes 75% of the total time to complete. It’s removing all the seams, killing your babies, and cutting the fat, so that the end result feels holistically complete.
Since the release of Splice, Will and Dain have gone through the gauntlet of game design and running a company. They took to Kickstarter for their next major game Duet, Auditorium 2: Duet is the full title. This was back in March 2012, well before I became a fan of Splice. In the video you can see them talking about the growth they’ve made in the past few years. They went from a multimedia company to a fully-fledged game studio with additional employees. It’s now November 2014 and Duet is still in development and they are back down to a two man studio. The game industry is tougher now than it has ever been and something they had to pay the price for in more ways than one.
They both admit they made some mistakes. First of which is having a game that was close to completion, a need for more funds, and the fear of upsetting Kickstarter backers for publicizing a different game than the one they promised they were working on. Intake is that other game and it’s a frantic arcade style game where aggressive dubstep fills your ear holes as you frenetically click falling drug capsules in with a color alternating mechanic alla classic SHMUPS like Ikaruga. It’s wild. I like it quite a bit, and I may be one of the dozens of people who actually bothered checking it out. Intake needed to get finished because as many developers know, it’s expensive to make games and Kickstarter can definitely ease that cost, it doesn’t erase it. So even though they just finished a Kickstarter, and having a new programmer that need to get up to speed on Unity, they switched to working on Intake to take it through that final 10% of development.
Nervous to talk about the work being done on Intake, when the game was finally released there was very little buzz around it. Which I repeat is a shame because the game, for what it’s trying to do, does what it does very well.
This is the truth about Will and Dain’s work throughout, regardless of the games appeal and audience, it is well realized. I’ve said the highest praise a game can receive is that it feels like a “complete thought.” While that can sound terrible or low balling, when you sit back and think on this concept it is incredibly hard to achieve. We are in an industry where games are rewarded for appealing to every type of audience. Where more mechanics is supposed to mean more gameplay and we measure the value of games in the hours it takes to complete. All of that is absurd when what it really means is more half-baked systems all ham-fistedly duct-taped together offering succeeding derivative experiences. Exhibit A is Assassins Creed and its latest mutation of jank.
To avoid this they have taken their time and have quite literal trashed hours of work because it just wasn’t working how they envisioned it. This is why Duet is still in development 2+ years since its Kickstarter, and while some are agitated, I don’t mind at all. Reassuring me even more is where they go to ‘fill the vessel’ and keep up the energy to create. Will and Dain obviously play video games like the rest of us, but will be damned if they let it dictate where they draw inspiration from. If it is left unchecked can become incestuous and have negative impacts on your own process.
Inspiration can come from all areas of life and we should never allow ourselves to be pigeonholed into a certain culture of experiences. Dain put it best when comparing it to authors, “You wouldn’t trust an author who didn’t read books, but you wouldn’t trust an author who never left the house either.” To this end both Dain and Will take 3 month sabbaticals to help get the distance necessary to help keep a clear vision of their own work. Currently Will is riding a bicycle around the country, while Dain is working on his next album.
Be sure to listen to the full developer interview with Will Stallwood and Dain Saint because there are some great bits I couldn’t fit in here. And don’t worry; they went on break after making some major breakthroughs in Duet. And from the sound of it Duet seems to be shaping up quite nicely. For now they just launched a new, beautiful website that shows their body of work and has a newsletter sign up. They want to get back in touch with their audience like they did back in the days of DIGG.com so go and sign up and get told when their latest and greatest is ready for you. Until then why not play Auditorium, Splice, Fractal, or Intake? While you’re at it, listen to all of their soundtracks. They are all stellar.