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Camel 101 Change Direction with Chilling Survival Horror “Syndrome”

Survival horror has undoubtedly found a new lease of life in recent times, particularly in the indie scene where developers can concentrate on the features that make such games most effective. We recently got to chat to Ricardo Cesteiro, a member of the core team of indie developers Camel 101, about the developer’s upcoming survival horror game Syndrome, a game that seeks to maintain that ethos – one that presents a challenge for a company who make their first venture in to the genre.

WHO ARE CAMEL 101?

Like a lot of indie developers, the core team at Camel 101 is quite small. It is made up of Ricardo, his brother Bruno, and Boris Raguza.  “Each one of us is in a different country so our office is online,” Ricardo says.  “I’m in Portugal, my brother is in Oakland, and Boris is in Croatia, so most of our work is done over Skype.”

Their communication online has definitely been important because at the beginning, the whole team hadn’t actually met face to face.

“When we started, me and my brother were in the same place, but Boris and I only met six years later. We released Gemini Wars in 2012 and the subsequent press tour meant we finally got the chance to meet. There was lots of talking and emails via the internet but no face to face meeting until then.”

The three of them are now pretty experienced in the world of games, having worked on seven titles prior to this one, but the early days were just as tumultuous and eventful as you might expect, as Ricardo talks about how they first started in the industry.

“We’ve been working together since 2006,” he explains. “We started as a hobby, which led to a games development contest in Portugal where we sent a prototype and won. After that, we decided that maybe we could work in games professionally and we started our first company that same year. Things didn’t quite go to plan though, and we had to close that company two years later. Then we opened a second company, this one,  which has been going for eight years or so now.”

It’s all come as a pleasant surprise for Ricardo, who reminisces back to a time when a career in video games seemed unlikely, if possible at all.

“I’ve been a gamer since I was around six years old,” he said. “I’ve always loved games but I never thought I would actually be working on them. It was actually my brother and Boris that started working on a prototype, just checking out the technology, and I was the last one to enter the team. It was kind of a joke at that time and we wanted to see what would happen, and after we won that contest it gave us a boost in our confidence.”

It’s hard to know just what to expect when you start a new venture, no matter how exciting it is, and it was a steep learning curve for the trio, as Ricardo explains.

“When we started we were only thinking about making games but then there’s the financial aspect of things, the business, the contracts. There’s a lot of stuff going on besides making games. That’s the first shock that we got when we entered the scene. Then there’s the marketing aspect which is maybe the most difficult thing right now, since it’s a struggle to get our game to be noticed amidst the hundreds of other games.”

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As a result of the size of the team, there are a lot of roles to divide between the three core members.

“My brother is the main programmer, and Boris is the 3D expert. He does everything related to 3D from modelling to animating and texturing. I am also a developer but I am more in the role of production, game design, story…I do a lot of things! Except maybe programming, which is actually my area, My brother and I are both software engineers.”

Working in a team that compact is bound to present challenges, but is there something to be gained from working together so closely? Ricardo explains that the team’s size, while financially viable, is detrimental in the long run.

“In general it’s a hindrance,” explains Ricardo, “though it does have one advantage in that we don’t need to earn so much money to maintain our structure. However, there are some areas where we always need to hire outside help, like everything related to sound, the art and voice acting. We are planning to expand the team but right now we are taking it one step at a time, and are embracing the challenges.”

MAKING SYNDROME

Luckily, in the case of Syndrome, they are collaborating with Bigmoon Entertainment, which means they have been able to do far more than before.

Ricardo said, “When we started work on this game, we wanted to release it on PC and consoles. But for a small team of three guys it’s difficult to work on everything at the same time, so we proposed that they would help us to do the ports because they already have the kits and licenses.”

“This meant we would work side by side,” he continued, “us on the PC version and them on the console version. It helps a lot because it would be much more difficult and time consuming if we were doing everything by ourselves.”

It also means that they don’t have to hire as much outside help, since they take on some of those roles. “They’re helping with the sound as well,” Ricardo told us, “they have an amazing guy there who is a sound wizard and he’s always giving his suggestions about it, like where the screams would sound best. They also help with marketing the game. They’ve been a very big help in general.”

So, with more help behind the scenes, Syndrome started to become a far more viable proposition. It has also been part of a very long process for Camel 101, stemming back to more idealistic beginnings when the company set out to achieve as much as it possibly could.

“The first game that we tried to do was an open-world RPG that we obviously couldn’t do,” he quipped. “We didn’t have the experience or the resources or the money, but we wanted to make the best game ever. When we reached the conclusion that we couldn’t do that, we started working on casual games, which are much simpler. After that, with the experience, we started working on strategy games, which is a genre we all enjoy.”

Desiring to branch out on to consoles and weary of the over-crowdedness of Steam, the team decided to work on something new. “We started analysing what we could do, this is a genre that we all enjoy and mixing science fiction with horror is the perfect plan! I am a fan of everything sci-fi related, from movies to games to books so it was a pleasure to start work on this game.”

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The transition to a new genre allows  the team to indulge their passions and provides them with more freedom than they had on previous work.

“Here we have the freedom to show everything that we want. We don’t have to worry about the rating of the game because from the start you know it’s a horror game, it’s expected that there’s blood, violence, gore and everything else so we can let our minds wander to wherever we want. We have much more freedom here than on previous games, and I’m not even talking about the casual market where we had to worry about everything, since publishers in that market were very weary of certain words or images.”

Much like Camel 101’s previous game Gemini Wars, one of the aforementioned strategy games, Syndrome is set in space. This is due to a passion for the stars that has endured, as Ricardo elaborated to us. “From a young age I’ve been a fan of movies and books that featured space, like the Alien movies, so I think it’s my geek side. I love things to do with space. Our next few games may be set there too. Plus, it allows us to juxtapose the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in a spaceship with the vast environment outside.”

It’s certainly very true that there is barely anywhere better than outer space for that.

The game is set in a spaceship, where the player plays a character who has no memory of what happened when he wakes up. “The spaceship is adrift in space, and most of the crew is dead or insane. The others have been changed into something horrible and highly aggressive,” Ricardo explained. “Shortly after waking up, two survivors will contact the player. Both will try to help, but their versions of what happened aren’t quite the same.”

We don’t have to worry about the rating of the game because from the start you know it’s a horror game, it’s expected that there’s blood, violence, gore and everything else so we can let our minds wander to wherever we want.

Things don’t get much better for the player’s character from there. “As the story progresses, the main character will be plagued with visions and hallucinations. Possibly memories from the past, or the effects of cryosleep playing tricks on his mind. So aside from the physical enemies, the player will also have to worry about who to trust, including himself.”

All games have media that influenced their development, and Syndrome is no different. The game’s influences come from a mixture of games and films, as Ricardo went on to explain.”The most obvious is Alien, but then there’s also Pandorum which is a great movie that’s a bit underrated. The Resident Evil games were a major influence in terms of gameplay, because the original games had a good mix of combat and the horror element since the player doesn’t have much ammo, which is what we tried to do as well. Guns can be found but ammo is very limited. We also drew some inspiration from Amnesia, which is a great game, and Alien: Isolation too. I’m always on the prowl for new science fiction horror movies so I can draw something from them as well.”

Influences are always important because they guide you towards your vision, helping your game to be more effective than it was previously. But what makes a horror game most effective? Ricardo weighs in.

“Sound is definitely one of the most important things, but the story is also very important because we don’t just want there to be jump scares, which is just very cheap. If the story is really involving though, it can be much scarier than monsters just jumping out at you. We focused a lot on the story and the characters, because emotional investment is important to more satisfying scares. We’re also constantly trying to improve the sound as well, and make sure that the graphics work well with it.”

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These elements are what make a horror game really work, and involvement in the story is paramount to having a truly powerful effect, as well as astute use of gameplay. “If you don’t have emotional investment, it’s only a shooter really. We want the player to find out clues about what’s going on because at the start the player doesn’t have any idea what’s happening. He finds clues, notes, and meets characters that give him some information, but it’s all very slow. We want that process to be gradual.”

Of course, there shouldn’t be too little gameplay. “We try to make sure that there’s a good balance, that the player doesn’t feel overpowered, but we also don’t want the player to only be able to run and hide inside closets, so there is an element of combat, and getting that mix is important.”

Horror media, from films to games and onwards even to novels, has regularly employed the tactic of keeping both the protagonist and the player in the dark for as long as possible, to maintain suspense.

Ricardo think there’s a reason for this, saying “I think it’s the best way to do it because when the player already knows what’s going on, part of the fear is the unknown and not knowing what’s going on and I think that’s very useful for creating the environment. Lots of movies use a similar system. Of course it’s not a rule, but it’s a great way of setting the mood.”

This all works together with the dialogue, and Ricardo commented on just how much dialogue Syndrome has and the effect that dialogue can have on a horror game. “We tried to keep the level of dialogue minimal. We don’t want the player to have to stop to hear people talking so we tried to keep it short, no more than four or five sentences so that it doesn’t take too much time. If not, we tried to make it so that the player can still play while the dialogue is happening. If we didn’t do that, we risked breaking the immersion and we really don’t want that to happen.”

Making sure that both the dialogue and the story match perfectly with the gameplay is an important aspect of development, and Ricardo told us about just what went in to the story writing process, and whether the task of ensuring that the story was powerful and interesting enough is a challenging one.

“When I wrote the story, we had a basic idea of what it would be as a team. When I came to expanding the dialogues, I came across some things that needed to be rewritten but since everything was planned from the start, it wasn’t the most challenging part; it was actually fun. There have been some minor changes and one major change. When I first wrote the script ,the gameplay seemed to be long, but we actually realized that the gameplay was shorter than it needed to be, so we had to add more things, which meant changing the script, which involved adding more events throughout the game. Other than that, we just did minor alterations.”

It seems that ensuring that the game is the right length was on the team’s mind, but Ricardo said that that isn’t necessarily the case. “Our main objective is to create a fun experience. We are not looking at the length of the game in that way, but we also don’t want to make a short game that’s not worth the money. I had to change the script to add interesting things in the story and interesting events so that the game didn’t feel like it was only being stretched with more keys and more doors and so on. This meant I had to think a lot about what the characters would do and what I could possibly add that would make sense. That part was a bit of a challenge, but it was important to maintain the atmosphere without feeling stretched.”

Since this is a horror game, the voice acting is perhaps more influential than in some other genres that the team have been involved in, since it has to have a level of gravitas that’s in keeping with the level of tension in the game, which means that the team may have wanted more say in the process. Ricardo explained the level to which they were actually involved.

“We wrote the script for the voices and then contacted some people to ask for the auditions. I described how the character would sound with examples of movies and actors. After one or two iterations, I was satisfied with it. I wasn’t that close to the process, but we were exchanging emails about making sure the voice acting was perfect. Even though we’ve had voice acting in our other games, the voice acting here has to be a bit more intense.”

It’s all a matter of maintaining that atmosphere. Since sound has been mentioned so regularly, music seems like another aspect that may be relevant to the level of immersion a horror game has. “Music is very important” Ricardo told us. “We don’t use traditional music though. Generally, we used soundscapes that have a small melody, but it’s normally a mixture of sound effects and distant sounds. We decided not to use a musical score because it can break the immersion if it’s not well managed. It’s difficult to make sure that it’s in the style that we want and in the place that it should be so we tried to keep it minimal to create the perfect environment.”

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Ricardo touched previously on how important the right look is for a horror game when he mentioned graphics. Deciding on the aesthetic for a game is a vital aspect, and he says this took some time. “We first started building a prototype and then we did some tests with lighting and walls. We had to change the basic stuff four or five times before we were actually happy with the way everything looked. We saw some movies that we already had in mind, we took some screenshots and we made some concept art that showed what we really wanted, then we started assembling the game and about four or five iterations later it had the look that we wanted.”

Syndrome is a game that features its fair share of monsters, and creating them must be one of the fun parts of creating the setting and aesthetic. Ricardo thinks so. “Since our monsters are all a mixture of machine and flesh, we had to imagine very disturbing beings with multiple heads and bits everywhere, so it was very fun to create them and we had a lot of fun with it.”

The amount of work that goes into getting the graphics and aesthetic right is proportional to the effect it has on the game, and Ricardo says getting the graphics right here has been more important than on previous games the company has worked on. “Our previous games were strategy titles so the camera is far from the action, which means that the models don’t have to be so detailed. Here, the camera is right in the action because it’s a first-person game so we had to focus on the small details and make everything look perfect. It’s been interesting because it’s been more engaging to work on.”

With the rise of virtual reality comes opportunity for horror games, who seem perfectly suited to a medium that drops you right in the action. Ricardo explains that while he’s on board with virtual reality, it does actually lead to some issues with the game that they hadn’t expected.

“Mostly we found that cut scenes don’t work at all in VR. It completely breaks the immersion. There are also some problems with the inventory and also when interacting with the environment in order to pick stuff up but overall, VR creates another world and it’s a great thing. We hope to make some changes to the game so that we can release the game to Oculus because it would be perfect there. There are some tweaks that need to be made because it’s more than doing a port, so there will be both large and small changes in order to accommodate the new system.”

It does, overall, have a beneficial effect, in Ricardo’s opinion.

“I think it makes the game more immersive,” he said. “The first time I tried the Oculus it was a demo version, and I remember that I went up some stairs and I looked down and I felt like I was looking very far. It was like my brain felt that it was there. The VR immersion is out of this world, but the games need to be completely prepared to work with VR. I am definitely a fan though. It’s an amazing experience.”

THE END GAME

As Syndrome nears the end of its development, there are various aspects, from marketing to audience testing and feedback that need to be sorted. One particular aspect of that process is the trailer for the game, and Ricardo weighed in on the process of making the perfect trailer, and how it might be harder than you perhaps expect.

“Making the trailer was a fun process, but yeah there’s the problem of not giving too much of the game away. In our first draft, we weren’t even showing combat but then we thought that if we don’t show it, players will think it’s not part of the game. We made about fifty versions of it in the end until we said yes, now it’s ready. It takes a lot of time just to make a one minute trailer!”

With the game coming closer to the release date the team are aiming for, taking a look at any feedback they’ve had on test versions is a good gauge for how things are coming along, and Ricardo is happy with the response that they’ve had.

“The feedback we have had so far has been very good. We had a few suggestions from the players and that has been very important. We did a testing run with a small group of people in order to get some more general feedback about whether the story is clear or not and whether the gameplay is fluid, so that we can look at things that we could change. During the development process, that’s very important.”

Ricardo also weighed in on what they want Syndrome‘s audience to get out of the game. “The most important thing is that they have fun. We hope that they like the story and the twists, and we hope that they find the game scary and entertaining.”

It seems that the working relationship with Bigmoon has also continued to be a great success, and Ricardo is hopeful of the team working together again in future.

“We’ve known them for almost ten years,” he said. “It’s good to have this collaboration so we can focus on our strengths and they can focus on theirs so hopefully we will work together again.”

Are there any future projects in particular that this might be relevant to? Not at the moment, Ricardo says. “Right now, we are almost 100% focused on Syndrome, so we don’t have any concrete plans about what we’re going to do next. There are four or five projects on paper, but it all depends on the timing and what happens with this one.”

Syndrome is a game that intends to bathe in its atmosphere, something towards which every aspect of development is focused upon. From ensuring that the dialogue is at a minimum in order to maintain immersion to its use of subtle soundscapes, it’s geared towards building up that tension for an inevitable big release when that hideous creature comes around the corner. It is slated for release on PC and consoles in Q2 of this year.

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