It seems as though games are never taken as seriously as other media forms such as movies, television series, music or even books. To many people we simply play a game, a game created without any thought towards a story, the lore or even the characters. We, as gamers, know that not to be true.
However, last year something incredible happened and a mod called "The Forgotten City" won the national Writers Guild award for its script. Proving, at last, that what we create is something that can hold its own against other mainstream media.
Today I'm pleased to give you the Sunday discussion with the author and creator of "The Forgotten City", please give a warm Nexus Mods welcome to Nick Pearce.
Hi TheModernStoryteller, thank you for talking to me today. To begin with please may you let us know a little bit about you?
My name’s Nick Pearce, and I live in Melbourne, Australia. Up until recently, I was working as a legal and strategy advisor for a multi-billion dollar tech company, and modding in my spare time. I released my first mod, The Forgotten City, in late 2015, and it changed my life. I discovered my passion for game development, and the reception was beyond anything I ever imagined: it’s been downloaded over 900,000 times, repeatedly covered by the likes of PC Gamer, Kotaku, GamesRadar, IGN, and won a bunch of awards including an Australian Writers’ Guild Award.
As a result, I decided to take a break from my legal career, and right now I’m making a beautiful, gripping and intelligent story-driven game with Unreal Engine 4, which should appeal to anyone who enjoyed The Forgotten City. I’m hoping to announce it in the first half of 2017, so if you’d like news and updates, please connect with me on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube or subscribe to my mailing list.
It’s great to see mod authors and creators going the route of their own games, are there any out there that have inspired you to go down this route?
Thanks! Making the leap from modder to game developer was a huge decision, and I considered a lot of factors, including the precedent set by the developers of Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable, who blazed the trail. I’m going down a slightly different path, in that I’m not re-creating The Forgotten City; I think that might have been disappointing for those who’ve already played it. My new game is a leap forward; it’s grander in scope and much prettier, and free from the constraints of third-party IP. But I’m incorporating all the lessons I learnt from making The Forgotten City, and watching hundreds of people play it via Youtube!
You mentioned that you are going to use the Unreal Engine 4, do you have any previous experience with this engine or are you going to be learning from scratch?
I’ve been quietly teaching myself Unreal Engine 4 (UE4) for about a year now. My modding experience really helped; I taught myself the Creation Kit pretty quickly (The Forgotten City was my first attempt at a mod) and that experience equipped me with an understanding of how game engines work generally, and confidence that I could easily skill up in a new engine. I also have some very talented local UE4 developers on my team.
Going back a bit, do you mind me asking at what age you began gaming and what system it was on?
I played my first PC game - Snake - at about 6. I was hooked.
Did you have a favourite game back then? What game stirs up some of your best memories?
The first game I bought was The Secret of Monkey Island (1990). I’ve since replayed the Special Edition and after 27 years or so, and it’s a masterpiece, albeit a flawed one. It’s a delightfully funny, wacky adventure full of memorable characters and puzzles.
How about any of the other Tim Schafer point 'n' click adventures such as ‘Day of the Tentacle’ or ‘Full Throttle’, did you get to play them as well?
I loved Full Throttle too, particularly Ben’s (the protagonist’s) unique take on problem-solving; coming across a locked door and being able to just kick it down was very satisfying!
Apart from gaming, do you have any other hobbies that you enjoy?
Spending time with my wife, playing with my dog, collecting liquor, writing.
Your mod ‘The Forgotten City’ has over 125,000 unique downloads and has seen critical acclaim, winning the Australian Writers Guild award for its script (the first for a game) - did you ever dream it was going to be as big, or well received as it was?
I had very modest expectations. My target was 283 downloads; I figured I’d put 1700 hours into it, so if 283 people played it for 6 hours each, that would be a work to entertainment ratio of 1:1, and I could call that a win. Since then it’s had over 900,000 downloads altogether, counting the Nexus (both original and Special Edition versions), Steam Workshop, Bethesda.net and ModDB. It’s hard to comprehend numbers like that.
283 downloads was your target, well safe to say you smashed that figure. How long did it take you to write?
The entire project took over 1700 hours, over a period of 3 years.
Wow, that is some huge undertaking, would you mind giving our community a breakdown of the process from initial idea through to first release?
I was inspired by Vault 13 in Fallout: New Vegas (among other things), a ruined vault in which the player slowly uncovers the haunting story of the people who lived there and some dark truths about human nature. The story left me with chills. It inspired me to tell my own story about the human condition.
I started with a one-page design document, then built the setting: an underground Dwarven city in a state of ruin. Then I thought “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could go back in time?”. So next I built the time travel gameplay mechanic, and re-created the city in alternative timelines, decorating it with lighting, flora, and characters.
Over the next 3 years I worked on it whenever I had spare time, learning as I went, and my design document grew to 100 pages.
When it was almost done, I put out a teaser trailer I hacked together, which got picked up by Kotaku and PC Gamer, and prompted the brilliant orchestral composer Trent Moriarty to contact me out of the blue, offering to compose an original score. Easiest decision I ever made.
The crunch before release was brutal - I worked extremely long hours for about 3 months - and I released it on 3 October 2015.
How many voice actors did you involve in sound recording?
I had help from 18 wonderful voice actors (chosen from over 100 auditions). They’re all really talented and lovely people, and I keep in touch with them via a Facebook group. I strongly encourage anyone making a big, high-quality mod to get in contact with them via contact details on the Nexus mod page, or here.
Your username now seems incredibly apt, have you always been interested in storytelling?
Thanks, and yes I’ve been into writing for a while. I’m half way through a novel, which I know is a bit of a cliche, but my excuse is that I’ve been busy with game projects! Also, several years ago I founded a writer’s group, where a bunch of local novelists would get together regularly and workshop their writing, and facilitated it for about 7 years.
Sounds like you have your hands busy, are you able to tell us anything about the novel or is it under wraps at the moment?
I’m not talking about my novel just yet... :-)
Speaking of novels and literature, do you have any favourite genres or authors?
I really enjoy science fiction (eg. Philip K. Dick) and fantasy (eg. George R Martin), as well as dark and heady classic lit (eg. Fyodor Dostoyevsky). My own style is heavily influenced by those genres: I like to use fantastical “what if” premises to explore serious and dark questions about human nature.
Do you currently write for anyone?
I sure do! I’m currently employed as a writer by the Australian Government to write a new RPG for young adults. I’m also working on my own game project.
Going back to ‘The Forgotten City’, seeing as how popular it is, do you have any plans for either future expansions or a different mod entirely?
Making mods is an incredibly time-consuming pursuit, and time has a monetary value. Making The Forgotten City took me over 1,700 hours, which is worth over $100,000 of my time - not to mention the contributions of the 18 skilled voice actors and the talented composer who were involved. That’s an awful lot of time/money to give away for free (again), particularly when there’s a potentially lucrative market for comparable games. If “paid mods” had worked out differently, I might have been able to make a living by developing high-quality DLC-style mods like The Forgotten City. But things didn’t work out that way, and with no hard feelings, I need to move on - that’s one of the many reasons why I’m making a new game with Unreal Engine 4.
Do you get a lot of feedback from the community? The positive must be great, but how do you deal with the negative?
Yes, the positive feedback is great, and there are a lot of appreciative, thoughtful people on the Nexus. Aside from those people, I’ve found the reaction to be pretty amusing. To illustrate, I’ll use a simple analogy: Imagine modding is like driving around in an ice cream van in the summer, handing out free ice creams to people. In my experience:
0.001% of people toss you a few bucks for your trouble
4% of people thank you for the ice cream
95% of people take the ice cream without a word
0.999% of people take the ice cream, drop it on the ground, blame you, then spray-paint “kiddie fiddler” on the side of your van.
I deal with the negative (non-constructive) posts by simply deleting them without responding. It’s the only sensible thing to do. As the venerable George Carlin once said “Never argue with an idiot. They will only bring you down to their level and beat you with experience.”
Did you get outside help from other mod authors for ‘The Forgotten City’?
Nope. It was a solo project.
So you create every aspect of the mod yourself, you must have had to learn an awful lot of new skills. Where did you find was the best place to get help or look for answers to questions that arose?
Yes, I had to teach myself how to design levels, write scripts, re-texture models, troubleshoot, create NPCs and assign behaviour, write non-linear dialogue, cast and direct voice actors, master audio, and record and edit trailers, among other things. When I started, I had none of those skills, and just resolved to pick them up along the way. I got stuck plenty of times, and sometimes googling my question led me to a helpful forum, but mostly I just had to work it out for myself through trial and error and countless hours of determined troubleshooting.
Are there any mod authors to whom you look up to and respect?
I found the work of Someguy2000, particularly New Vegas Bounties for Fallout: New Vegas, to be very inspiring. It was a revelation to me that mods could be on par with an original game.
If you could give any advice to aspiring mod authors what would it be?
The best thing about modding is that you’re able to take creative risks that commercial game developers simply cannot. Make whatever you want - not what you think a mass audience will like. I took an action RPG about killing dragons and zombies and modded it into a thoughtful murder mystery with virtually no combat. In other words, I made the game I wanted to play, and it turns out a lot of people wanted to play that too.
Thank you very much for talking to me today, we wish you all the best in your future endeavours.