Jan 23, 2012

The Dream Machine Interview

Anders Gustafson and Erik Zaring are the heart, brain and hands of Cockroach; the indie game development studio that is responsible for the amazing, episodic and visually glorious adventure that is The Dream Machine. And though I have already loved and reviewed the first two chapters of The Dream Machine, I couldn't help but ask the creative duo a few questions. Here's what they revealed; for your eyes only reader:

Let's start off with something not quite unexpected... So, who are you guys? And why, oh why, are you calling your studio Cockroach? 

Erik: We’re two bona fide Swedish nerds on a mission. Anders is the small good-looking guy and I’m the tall and slightly spherical fellow. We are the only game development studio that will survive a nuclear holocaust. Cockroaches just wait it out and crawl back, ready to re-populate the planet. Pretty much the story of my life.

Anders: I just happened to have a bunch of old cockroach illustrations I’d done on my hard drive. When the time came to start a company, I found them and thought they looked quite striking and iconic, sort of like a company logo. So I just slapped them on the letterhead and called the company Cockroach, purely out of convenience. It’s a decision I’ve since regretted from time to time.

And you've been making games for how long before The Dream Machine? Any particular favourites among your previous creations? 

Erik: I like Gateway 2 and the insanely difficult Soap Bubble 2, but I had no part in creating those games however. Anders made those before our beautiful friendship begun. The Dream Machine took my game development cherry, so to speak…

Anders: I started making games while learning Flash, sometime back in 2000. I’d made a lot of previous attempts – on Commodore 64 and Amiga – but they never amounted to anything because I didn’t know what I was doing.

A friend of mine showed me some Flash games he’d put on Newgrounds, which I thought were really impressive. So I started hounding him with questions about programming. In the end I think he grew tired with me, because he gave me access to the source code, so I could find out all the answers by myself. A lot of strong pots of coffee later, the weird words and symbols started to make at least a bit of sense to me. And that led to me being able to create my first “real” game: a 2-player fighting game, starring chickens. Needless to say, it’s pretty crap.

I still like the first Gateway game quite a lot. I like the vagueness of it, and it was also the first point & click game I actually managed to finish, after a lot of botched previous attempts. It was originally meant to be a tutorial for another adventure, but when I compared them side-by-side I though the tutorial was much better than the actual game. So I just scrapped everything but the tutorial and started over.

When – and most importantly, why – did you decide to start working on The Dream Machine? 

Erik: We loosely discussed making a game together during the winter of 2008 and the spark that finally ignited our collaboration happened during late summer that year. Just prior to that, I had sold my part of an animation studio, since I had decided that I deserved doing something nobler than to be a shit-eating service provider. The big corporate productions really wore me down and I had grown tired of polishing other peoples turds. I propelled myself into the advertising and commercial business hoping for fame and glory. That turned out to be a cul-de sac and eventually I had to fire myself. Then I eventually became utterly broke and found no other way to survive and had to make a game made out of clay & cardboard to get food on the table. That’s the honest-to-God truth.

Anders: It was a really strange time in both our lives as I recall. I’d taken employment, designing cell phone applications for some company. They were pretty much in denial about the whole smart-phone shift, and still insisted that 16-bit 320x240 screens were the future.

They lured me in saying they made a lot of games and needed my help designing them. I soon found out that wasn’t exactly true, but I needed to feed the monkey. Just to stay sane, I’d frequently call Erik (or he’d call me) to vent. During one of these conversations, Erik started talking about getting back to just doing things for the heck of it. “Like we did when we were kids…”

Looking back, that was the seed of The Dream Machine right there.

Weren't you terrified of the sheer amount of work required in order to produce those amazingly handcrafted visuals? 

Anders: When Erik started talking about creating the environments by hand, I just chuckled and dismissed the idea. It would be too labour intensive and would require too much pre-planning for my comfort. In order to show me that it was possible, he pulled an all-nighter by his kitchen table, crafting four or five strange little sets. He sent me some pictures of them in the morning and I didn’t know what to make of them. They looked really rough, but they held so much potential. The paint had fingerprints in it, which I loved. Everything looked skewed, unpolished and patched up. But compared to the corporate GUI:s I was making at the time, they were the most fascinating things I’d seen in months. They made me want to be on the other side of the screen.

I resigned soon after that and joined Erik in exploring this weird clay and cardboard universe. That decision occasionally terrifies me, but I haven’t regretted it for a single second.

Erik: When you put your heart into something it usually means that you show extra care and attention. Alas/thus it takes a bit longer. I didn’t realize what it would take to make something like The Dream Machine in the beginning. Now I have come to the conclusion that the most terrifying aspect of our endeavor is lack of sufficient energy/joy to finish this before the summer of 2012 has ended.

It’s stop motion animation you are using, right? 

Erik: It’s a bit of a mix. All the sets are built and photographed, exactly how you would traditional stop-motion. We also use limited stop-motion for simple animations, like doors opening and closing. For the trickier things (most things involving characters) however, we use 3D. Our characters are built by hand and then we grab their textures and paste them onto a 3D meshes, in order to maintain the look and feel of clay.

Anders: Doing it purely by stop-motion would’ve been too risky. The characters have to travel through a lot of different lighting conditions, and with stop-motion you only get one chance. If they hadn’t looked believable, we would’ve had to start over from scratch.

What else would you say makes The Dream Machine the truly unique adventure game it is? 

Anders: For me, it’s all about the marriage of story, gameplay and setting. Creating a full-flavoured experience, making the individual ingredients as tightly knit with one another as possible, without overpowering or counter-acting each other. That’s the goal at least.

We also try to design fair puzzles. They follow a slightly skewed logic for sure, but it’s nowhere near as bad as Ye Olde adventure games. I played Gabriel Knight III when it came out and still get miffed whenever I think about that horrible “cat hair moustache” problem. Or the pixel hunt puzzles in Future Wars. I love the genre, but hate the tropes.

Clay and cardboard still makes us pretty unique. There have been precursors in the exclusive sub-genre of handmade adventures (most notably The Neverhood, The Dark Eye and Blackout) but they all came out more than 15 years ago. We think the world is ready for another one.

Why did you decide to go with the episodic model? 

Anders: Once it became clear how long the game would take to make, we realized might possibly be working on the game for three years without knowing if it resonated with people. That would’ve been awful. So we decided to chop it up and get it the individual pieces out as soon as they were finished.

Looking back, that is one of the smartest things we’ve done so far, since getting player feedback has been invaluable and has really improved the quality of the game. It’s just too bad that we haven’t been able to release them more frequently, but we’re only two confused Swedish guys.

How would you describe your creative process? 

Erik: From my myopic perspective it sometimes happens as follows: Anders (slightly sleep depraved, as always) scribble notes on lots of Post-its using a black Pentel pen. Then he puts them in neat rows on his living room walls. Then he throws some ideas out and put the remaining ideas in a digital document of some kind. Then his slightly spherical companion gets to read it and starts to build stuff. I use foam board, ice cream sticks, Super Sculpey, glue gun and paint to create our sets. I document every step using a Canon 550D. Anders will comment and suggest modifications and eventually approve of my final design. Once lit and photographed, I jump to my next task and Anders starts working his magic, photoshopping and implementing and testing the gameplay.

Anders: That sums it up pretty well, Erik. Sleep depravation, Pentel Sign Pens, Post-its, ice cream sticks, Super Sculpey and a glue gun = The Dream Machine.

You keeping getting back and adding things and interactions to the already released episodes. Is this a cunning scheme to have us replay them? 

Anders: One of the problems with adventure games is that it’s a very fine line between being challenged and being frustrated. Dialling in the difficulty and adjusting the level of hints is very tricky. Especially in an adventure game, once you’re stuck it quickly becomes boring if you don’t receive any more feedback. You start key-chaining, using everything on everything. We see that, so we can go in and add hints surgically.

I also hate the default “That doesn’t seem to work” line. It really breaks immersion for me. All of a sudden the main character turns robotic because the developers didn’t add proper responses. Eventually we’ll cover all of them.

Secretly, I’m also sadistically fond of messing with walkthroughs by remixing some puzzles every once in a while. Creating this type of game is all about getting you to think, and walkthroughs defeats that purpose. If you use them sparingly they’re great, but it’s very easy to get dependent and comfortable. I want to keep players alert and on their toes.

What should us adventurers expect from the final two chapters of the game? 

Anders: Something wonderful...

Erik: We aim for the last two chapters to be like... a metaphorical gun. And then we shot you in the knee with it. You won’t die, but you’ll definitely feel something. That’s what we’re aiming for.

Anders: That’s a box quote right there! “Expect getting shot in the knees, kids. Fun for the whole family!”

Erik: Man, this game sells itself!

Are you happy with the critical and commercial reception of The Dream Machine so far? 

Anders: I’m very happy with how the game’s been received. People seem to appreciate what we’re trying to do, and don’t mind terribly the time it’s taking. It’s such a rush to live in an age were two confused Swedes can make and distribute a game to the rest of the world. That people actually want to go along for the ride is exciting and humbling.

What does the future, beyond The Dream Machine, hold? 

Anders: We’ve been talking loosely about a follow up game, but I’d really like to take some time off and work with a linear medium after this.

Erik: The Dream Machine afterlife? Scary thought. I really don’t know. I’m more of a “right here, right now” kind of guy. There is no future, to quote Sarah Connor.

Anders: Hopefully something less headache-inducing. Hopefully something smaller.

Related @ Gnome's Lair:


  1. They seem like swell guys. I'm no connoisseur of point-and-click adventures, but I played Dream Machine for a short while recently, and I feel like I should return to it. I was intrigued by the look and dialogue, but I didn't play long enough to get sucked in. This interview shows how much substance the aesthetic has, and reading about the physical construction of the environments has given me an additional perspective. These guys really made something with their hands and turned it into a game. Awesome.

    1. The Dream Machine is, as you wisely noted dear Alex, both aesthetically brilliant and an awe-inspiring undertaking in itself. Strongly suggest you properly play it.

  2. Blog Narrator2/1/12, 1:05 AM

    Gnome..please let me shoot him...

    and congratulatons on a most excellent and innovative use of sodium pentothal in a interview...

  3. (giggles like a young female gnome)

  4. Blog Narrator2/4/12, 6:34 PM

    ...you've been playing with the helium again haven't you, I can tell you know...

  5. (giggles again)

    (sniffs more helium)

    And it makes you happy too!