Jon Williams has walked us through the creation of their horror game You Will Die Here Tonight, sharing how the Resident Evil series inspired the title and telling us about the challenges that were encountered along the way.
I'm Jon Williams, the Creative Director at Spiral Bound Interactive. I am originally from Cleveland, Ohio, and have worked in the games industry since 2006, for such companies as EA, Rockstar Games, and Microsoft. My general skill set is in 3D environment art, but on You Will Die Here Tonight (YWDHT) I wore many hats handling the creative direction, art production, and integration of all of the environment, character, and animation assets.
I founded Spiral Bound at the beginning of 2020 just as work on YWDHT started ramping up from its initial prototype that I made in 2019. I met Alex Schearer in 2019 at the coworking space I had joined after leaving Microsoft, the Indies Workshop, and he came on to help out with programming for our original proof of concept Unity demo in early 2020. By the end of the year, we were business partners.
The original Resident Evil came out at a pretty pivotal moment in my life as a young gamer, and for the game industry as well. The PlayStation was still very new, along with 3D gaming in general, and Resident Evil blew my mind in 1996. I had never seen anything like it – both in terms of the graphics and atmosphere, but also in terms of the survival horror gameplay and scares. I had never played a scary game before, and it captured my imagination in a way that nothing had before.
The catch was that I didn't own the game, having to rent it from Blockbuster on the weekends (if they had it in stock). If that wasn't enough, I didn't have a memory card for my PS1, so on those rare occasions when I had the game, I had to try to beat it in one sitting. It was INTENSE. Between the boulder traps in the tunnels late in the game and the hunters, I was never able to beat the game. But I was so taken by the overall vibe of the game that I was always eager to try again. I have never forgotten that feeling, and when the earliest versions of YWDHT started rattling around in my head, capturing that sense of danger and intensity was a big experiential goal for the project. That and the overall mood, returning to Resident Evil 1 is like putting on a warm blanket for me.
As far as things that I wanted in the game, it centered around having a full team of playable characters to choose from, with different perspectives and skills, and much like me without my memory card, very vulnerable to creatures and traps. So many traps.
You Will Die Here Tonight
When I left Microsoft in mid-2019, I had just started on a prototype of the game in RPG Maker. I spent the next 5 months finishing that prototype, which while pretty crude, was a surprisingly complete experience for what it was. A lot of the DNA of that original prototype informed the production of the "final" version of YWDHT, but we learned/changed so much along the way. I also hosted a "Pen & Paper" version of the game with a group of friends to explore other areas of the game beyond what I had put into the prototype.
In 2020, when Alex joined the project, we started from scratch in Unity, trying to make a fancier version of the RPG Maker prototype, as a proof of concept to take to the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in March of that year. At that point, the game very much had its sense of 2 main modes of gameplay, top-down exploration, and first-person combat – but the combat was turned-based, with timing-based attack mechanics, inspired by Resident Evil Gaiden. Then the pandemic happened, and it seemed bleak for YWDHT for a while. But we pulled through!
Over the next year, we iterated a lot on the gameplay systems, moving away from turn-based battles against 2D enemies to fully real-time combat against 3D enemies – embracing the House of the Dead influences fully. But we were still wrestling with some of the larger systems of the game, including how character progression and upgrading worked. Not to mention how progress worked in a game where everyone can die.
We always had the goal to release the game for Halloween, so we knew roughly where we wanted to be by certain points in the year. Last year, we realized we weren't far enough along to release the full game in time, so we did an ambitious demo instead – mostly to get the game out there for people to see. This year, we were able to use that deadline as a way of focusing our efforts on specific aspects of the game each month.
From the earliest days of the project, the goal was to make art that evoked the period and style of the games that influenced YWDHT. For the top-down exploration, we were working with a 2D tile system, but it was important that we 3D modeled and pre-rendered as many of the sprites we were using as possible, to capture that classic Resident Evil Vibe. This was an iterative process of figuring out the pipeline in Blender and setting up special rendering cameras, shaders, and lighting setups to get the look that we wanted. Also, this project coincided with Unity's release of their 2D lighting system, which allows you to use Normal Maps on sprites to get a lot more depth out of the graphics than their previous methods.
For combat, we tried to capture as much of the look and feel of light-gun shooters from that era as we could. Big chunky bullets on the bottom of the screen represent your ammo, enemies that grab onto and directly attack the camera, all the things you would expect from something like House of the Dead or Time Crisis.
Designing the Gameplay
The game had a variety of experiential goals from the start, including the multiple characters, the traps, puzzles, and enemies that were threatening in ways that classic Resident Evil either omitted or profoundly limited such as zombies that can infect you and follow you between rooms. Across the project, especially before we released demos and the initial PC version of the game, we asked our friends and colleagues to test the game, give feedback, and help us hone in on the version of the game people are playing now. This year we embraced the idea of the weekly team playtest, which was super helpful as a means of evaluating our progress and a great shared time for all of us to discuss what was and wasn't working about the game.
One of the biggest influences on mechanics, this year especially, was time. Or the lack of it. As our Halloween deadline approached, it's amazing how quickly things came into focus for some of the trickier aspects of the game's design and overall philosophy. When you know you have lots of time to think about a problem, it's easy to over-scope or over-complicate an issue because the pressure isn't there to find an efficient or elegant solution. When the chips are down though, it's amazing how clarifying that is.
Sound Effects & Music
Early on in the project, I created a playlist of inspirational songs, like a soundtrack for a fake movie version of the game. It had a lot of '90s industrial songs, tracks from horror/sci-fi movie soundtracks, and other miscellaneous dark electronic songs. When the time came to start working with composers to create the music for the game, I always had this soundtrack ready to share.
From there, taking inspiration from the games that inspired YWDHT played a big part. So much of what I loved about playing the original Resident Evil games was getting absorbed in their atmosphere, which was due in a huge part to the music and sound design. It's a total vibe, and our composer Chris was well aware of what we were going for, in addition to providing his own influences and spins on things.
For the sound effects, we worked with a talented sound designer from Brazil, named Gabriel Oliveira, who was responsible for the sound effects and creature/character voices. He had experience in working in horror and did a killer job with the various creatures! I am pretty sure he worked with a small voice-over studio that had never done a horror game before, instead doing mostly edutainment titles and they loved it!
The two biggest challenges to making YWDHT were, first, surviving the global pandemic and, second, managing scope. As alluded to in an earlier question, we had a lot of big goals and dreams in the beginning of 2020 that went right out the window when the lockdown began. My nightmare when I started working on YWDHT full time was being stuck alone in my apartment working on the game all the time. I enjoy being around other people when I work! And then suddenly my nightmare was real – and it sucked. This was by far the bleakest point of the project, and there were times when I considered giving up. But thankfully, a couple of big opportunities popped up toward the end of 2020 that got the project back on the rails.
The other issue, for me at least, has been managing scope. As a first-time indie game developer and director of a game, my instinct was to make the biggest, craziest game I could imagine. Every idea was a good idea and an essential part of the experience. As it turns out – and this isn't news, but less is more – there is a certain clarity that comes from reducing the overall features down to the most essential ones. I think our production methodologies this year played a big part in overcoming this issue. We still built way too much earlier this year, but we didn't get overly precious about any one particular part of the game and were able to flesh out a full experience. Then it was just a matter of consolidating and cutting things down to their final shape and size.
Jon Williams, Creative Director at Spiral Bound Interactive
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev
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