Interview: Phospor Games Technical Director Dan Nikolaides

One of the great things about game jams are the established game developers who show up to coach and mentor the jammers. At the Chicago Game Jam last weekend, Dan Nikolaides of Phosphor Games was gracious enough to let me corner him for a quick chat about game development, Chicago, and Phosphor’s new PC title Nether.

Tell me a little bit about your role at Phosphor.
I’m the technical director at Phosphor, and so basically that means I lead the programming team. And also try and prevent the art team and design team from getting themselves into too much trouble (laughs). Most people probably know that what we’re working on right now is Nether, which we’re going to be releasing in early access next week [editor’s note: this interview took place before early access began. The closed beta is currently underway].

And that’s if you preorder, correct?
That’s for preorder. Well, there’s going to be beta keys, kind of like DOTA 2, where there are beta keys that you can share if you sign up for the beta. Then if you want, you can preorder the game and that’ll get you an automatic, guaranteed beta key and a couple of beta keys to share. So that’s how we’re doing that. It’s launching next week, so our studio is working kind of hard on that right now.

Oh I’m sure. Do you have any idea how long Nether is going to be in beta?
We don’t actually. That will be something that depends a lot on what direction the community wants us to go in, and how long it takes us to get there. We’re leaving it a little open-ended. We don’t really know what kind of response the game is going to get. We’re shooting for making the early access version/closed beta a great foundation for a game, but there’s a lot of stuff we want to do that’s not done yet. There’s TOO much stuff we want to do that’s not done yet. So we want to figure out which of those things are really important to the people who seem to gravitate towards the game and really try and make those things a priority.

So if people are like “We want you to make combat more strategic” or “We want you to make cool stuff like base jumping off buildings, parachute and hang glide around the city”, “Add vehicles and motorcycles”, whatever. We can focus on that stuff. Or we can focus on more survival aspects, we can focus of crafting, maybe setting up a camp, barricading a building and taking it over with your clan. There’s so many directions we can go in. We really need to figure out the set of features that we think would encapsulate a game that’s at a finished level of quality, and that’s still a good ways off. So this early access version is really: “Here’s what the game will offer, baseline. Now imagine what we could do with A, B, or C.”

So how do you feel about the development scene in Chicago in general? I know it’s a broad question, but do you feel like it’s a good scene for game development? The cities that tend to get the most attention are Boston, Seattle, Austin, the various cities in California. How do you think Chicago fits into the overall game development landscape, indie or otherwise?
Actually I think it’s a really good scene, for two reasons. One, historically we’ve had some pretty big studios in Chicago. Some of them have closed down, but you haven’t really seen a lot of those people leave the Chicago scene. You see them tend to stay in Chicago, which is great. We’re pretty good at retaining talent here.

And on the other hand, you also have a huge influx of new talent coming in from really great places like DuPaul and other game programs in the city. When I think back to when I started in the industry almost a decade ago, when people were just moving into the industry – at least from my perspective as a programmer – you would come out of school and you wouldn’t really know how to actually make a game. Maybe if you were lucky you did some extracurricular work, but you kind of just had your fundamentals and you really had to just learn on the job. People coming out of these programs today are pretty much professionals right out of the gate. They hit the ground running, they contribute, they know exactly what to do. It’s really amazing, the level of quality you get from a person on their first day.

The game world of Nether is loosely based on Chicago. How recognizable is it? Any landmarks we should look out for?
Yeah, you’ll recognize that it’s Chicago if you are from Chicago, or even if you’re not. But in order to put recognizable trademarks in a game you kind of have to purchase the trademarks. So we’re doing more reminiscent things. And we’re trying to recreate the feel of the city pretty faithfully, so you’ve got the elevated tracks, and you’ve got a lot of the architecture and the bridges and rivers and the way that the city is laid out. All of that is there, so you’ll get the feel of Chicago even if it’s not literally “Oh, I know that street corner, it’s where I live” or whatever.

Was that decided because the team is based here, and because many of you are Chicagoans?
Chicago definitely influences a lot of our games. I think most of our games that we set in a city, we push for Chicago. From both an art perspective, and just being Chicagoans, we just love the city. We think it’s just a great city to recreate. Our art director and our creative director are just in love with the architecture and the way that the city looks, so we have that reason for it. But also the fact that we’re Chicagoans, we love trying to make the city more of a world-recognized city in terms of a visual quality.

And obviously New York’s been done to death, Los Angeles has been done to death…
Right. And you get people who would see Gotham City in [the Batman movies] and not realize that’s Chicago, or that the Transformers movies are also filmed here. It seems like a lot of movies are starting to get to that point where Chicago is kind of this generic metropolis. And we want to give it more of an identity of “This is Chicago, this is what it looks like.” It’s very distinct, and different from a lot of other cities.

One of the features I started on The Chi-Scroller is “Chicago Moments in Gaming History”, where I highlight games that take place in Chicago. I’m still debating what to do next.
You get into murky territory when you get into cities that are inspired by Chicago. In video games you get a lot of cities that aren’t explicitly Chicago, they aren’t called Chicago. I think we’re calling our city Bridgeport, but it’s of course very reminiscent of Chicago.

I’ve always wondered about that. Like you have the GTA games for instance, and they have to use the name “Liberty City” for their version of New York City because they couldn’t get the city’s permission or whatever. How does all that work?
You basically have to go to each individual building owner and get copyright access to the building to put it in your game, which is a huge undertaking. And then if you get three quarters of a city but you don’t get the other quarter of it, then suddenly you have a three quarters faithfully represented New York City and the rest of it is somehow different. So if you’re a New Yorker, you’re walking down the street and these three buildings are familiar, but then this one is like “Where’d that one come from?” And to a degree you have artistic license if you recreate the entire city perfectly, but people rarely have the ability to do that. You can’t really make all of Manhattan in a game, right? You can’t even make all of downtown Chicago.

Well and precise representations of real world cities aren’t necessarily interesting gameplay environments.
Right, and not only that, but it’s also just the scale of it is way too much. Like just Manhattan is still way bigger than all of GTA IV. So you’re going to settle for enhancing it in some way, and interpreting it in some way, but you’re still going to need those landmarks. And then once you do that, you need the copyrights since you’re not free-form creating it, you’re just exploiting the landmark itself. So it’s dicey, it’s a tough line to walk.

Anything else you’re playing right now not by you guys? I know it’s hard around crunch time to really play much of anything else.
(laughs) Yeah, it is hard. I still have to get through The Last of Us, I still have to get through BioShock Infinite. I owe friends on each of those teams a playthrough. I keep holding them off, every time I talk to them I’m like “Oh, I haven’t had time to play your game yet, I’m sorry.” Like you said it’s really hard to play games while you’re crunching. But I keep returning to DOTA2 and TF2, those are kind of my go-to’s. I’ll play all the other games, and once I’m finished with them I’ll go back to DOTA2 or Team Fortress.

Okay, well I know you’re here to mentor the game jam and you’ve also got a game to get back to making, so I won’t take up any more of your time. Thanks a lot for talking to me, I really appreciate it!
Sure, thanks a lot!