Gaslamp Games reflects on small-studio success

The Vancouver-based game company learned early that too much ambition can put a project in peril
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Gaslamp Games owes its existence to a video game that was never released. It wasn’t even completed. But trying to make it taught the Vancouver-based company’s founders—David Baumgart, Daniel Jacobsen, and Nicholas Vining—an important lesson about the process of making games.

“We had no concept of managing projects,” Jacobsen said. The game they thought they could make was far too big and unwieldy for a small group to ever complete. Having ideas that are too massive to manage is, according to Jacobsen, a “classic problem” for very small game development studios. “It took us six months to learn that lesson,” he said.

When the trio met with the Georgia Straight in Gaslamp’s small office on the edge of Gastown, they were reluctant to talk about that first game. They described Clockwork Fantasia as an “overambitious tactical RPG mess” that “will never see the light of day”. But Jacobsen admitted that it was a formative experience. “It’s really hard to talk about how the company came together without mentioning the thing that broke under the weight of our hubris.”

Gaslamp’s second game was Dungeons of Dredmor, a dungeon crawler where players try to get as far as possible, improving their character along the way. Jacobsen said that Dredmor was redesigned at least four times as they struggled with the scope of the game. But each time they restarted the process, the time to rebuild was shorter.

“Game development is about iteration,” Vining said. “The more you iterate, the better the game gets.” Dredmor proved to be good enough to be a near-instant success on Valve’s Steam platform. Jacobsen said they were in a daze for a couple of weeks. “We had ‘imposter syndrome’ for a year,” added Baumgart. Success aside, the release of Dredmor proved that they could actually finish making a video game.

The three also learned how to finish things while in university. Baumgart has an art degree from the Alberta College of Art and Design, and Vining, who has a mathematics degree from the University of Victoria, is slowly working away on a PhD in computer science at UBC. Jacobsen was about to embark on a master’s degree in physics when the operations of the studio required a full-time commitment.

Their academic experience has been a benefit, but Vining was quick to point out that they are all highly literate people. “We all have diverse, nerdy backgrounds,” he said. And, as with any small company, they all have to perform various and sundry tasks.

“The game industry on a whole is very inward-looking,” Vining said, “and there’s a tendency for a lot of people making games to only look at other games.” The danger is that the industry ends up “eating its young”, he added, recalling Francisco Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring His Son. “Which was the inspiration for our cannibalism icon,” said Jacobsen, bringing the conversation around to Clockwork Empires, the new game for Windows (Linux and OS X versions will follow) that will be released through Steam’s Early Access program in August.

Clockwork Empires is a “colony-building” simulation game set in an alternate Victorian era based on the British Empire in which players are expanding the realm into the wilderness. Baumgart likens it to the pure Sim games that Maxis got its start developing. In Empires, he said, players are “the invisible hand of the bureaucracy”, creating tasks for the colonists to undertake. Those settlers are organized by class; middle-class characters are assigned lower-class workers, and their attitude will influence their underlings. Each character is procedurally generated by the game and has characteristics such as political affiliations and personal interests.

They are also autonomous, choosing actions based on what they remember, with important memories lingering longest. And there are consequences. Feeling hunger will make them sad. Being sad will drive them to drink. Drinking randomly erases a memory. If the memory that gets erased is the one of being hungry, the character will become more happy. But if they lose a happy memory, they will become more depressed, leading to further drinking.

Then there’s the aforementioned cannibalism. If characters starve, they will start to die. At which point the other colonists know that the bodies are made of meat.

“Knowingly eating human flesh will drive them mad,” said Jacobsen.

There are enemies, too, and depending on how your colonists react to the fish people, those creatures could become a threat. As the settlement grows, colonists might discover some of the “eldritch artifacts” that are in the wilderness and could cause characters to form cults.

How things progress is up to the player and the game’s systems, and there isn’t any particular end to be reached.

“I’m really proud of the fact that there are a lot of strange elements in Clockwork Empires that seem like they’re coming from a lot of different, weird places, but it all really works,” Jacobsen said.

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