Made In Australia: We Talk Dead Static Drive With Team Fanclub

Australia has some exciting games in the works – we’re lucky to have a plethora of indie talent here Down Under.

One of the most promising titles is Dead Static Drive, an isometric survival game with flavours of Lovecraftian horror and Grand Theft Auto added to the mix.

It’s being developed by Melbourne-based Team Fanclub, a dev team predominantly made up of Mike Blackney.

We sat down with Blackney to chronicle his game development journey (you can read that feature here), as well going in-depth about his debut game Dead Static Drive.

WellPlayed: In your own words, describe Dead Static Drive.

Mike Blackney: DSD is a game about driving and survival. It’s about facing something unknown and dangerous, and deciding how to respond to that danger.

WP: How did the idea for Dead Static Drive come about?

MB: The initial idea I had back in maybe 2004 when I was working at Futuretronics. I was playing around with Gameboy Advance and GBA SPs quite a bit because we were working on some accessories for them, and because of my background coding small games and loving emulators I was looking into making a homebrew GBA survival game. I spent a lot of time thinking of how you could have rich mechanics and rich interactions with the world with so few buttons.

I designed a horror survival game that played through series of setpiece levels, trying to survive a monster invasion by barricading in a building and keeping track of survivors. A lot of the game was deciding which parts of the building you’d barricade off, balancing supplies and space for survivors with the added difficulty of patrolling a larger perimeter.

I didn’t finish the game because at the end of that year I went back to Uni and my priorities changed, but that game was always percolating at the back of my head.  Fast forward 10 years and I was teaching C++ programming and wanted a project to work on as I learned the recently-released UE4. I basically took parts of my original idea but added vehicles to it, and from there the game morphed into what DSD is today.

WP: You’ve labelled the game ‘Grand Theft Cthulhu’, which is a very eclectic mix of thematical influences. Tell us about this nickname. Did you ever consider titling the game Grand Theft Cthulhu?

MB: Hah, no never! It’s an easy way to get people a little invested in hearing a real pitch for the game, but it’s definitely too pithy for the game’s title. I was looking for a way to describe the game to some students of mine who had seen it, and that’s just what I thought of on the spot. It really caught their attention and helped them quickly get it so it stuck.

Grand Theft Cthulhu

WP: How do Lovecraft’s themes fit into the world of Dead Static Drive? Is it more than just eldritch style monsters?

MB: It’s definitely more than that! I won’t go into too much detail and risk spoiling the experience of the game, but there are greater themes that are in line with not just Lovecraft but with those who’ve written works in the mythos in the past hundred years.

WP: How do you fight off preconceptions that this is just another Lovecraftian game?

MB: Well, it is, right? So I don’t think I really need to fight that – it’s another game with monsters and also another game with cars and another game with fighting. It has its own mix, for sure, but if somebody hears “Cthulhu” and their eyes roll then maybe this wasn’t ever going to be the game for them. I hope they don’t, but people make all sorts of rash judgments. Thankfully I haven’t seen people write it off like that so far – the response has been overwhelmingly positive about the gameplay and aesthetic, at least as far as the responses people have had openly with me.

WP: How long has the game been in development?

MB: FOREVER! If you want the date I started, it’s 2014, but keeping in mind that I was a lecturer at a tertiary college for a great deal of the development, and I had a daughter near the start of development, so I’ve had large blocks of time where I couldn’t actively work fulltime. Now, luckily, I work on the game full-time and have the finances and support to do that, as well as a small but incredible team backing me.

WP: The artwork is something that sets it apart from other games of this ilk. What inspired the game’s art direction?

MB: Thank you! The inspirations were initially low colour-count poster art and stylised, simple graphic art that I was seeing around a lot. Art with lots of flat colours that used lighting and simplified shapes to paint a picture. I loved the idea of making a sort of poster-art-meets-Akira-meets-Prince Of Persia style, so I just started rewriting shaders until I got a look that I was satisfied looked unique. There’s since been a lot of problem-solving to make sure the style worked, so part of the look now is born out of pragmatism: trying to make sure that the world reads well and the gameplay is always clear.

A unique and gorgeous art style

WP: Despite being Australian you chose to set the game in America? Why is this? Did you ever consider Australia as a location? I feel like outback or country Aus could’ve been just as apt.

MB: That’s quite a long story, actually, and I spoke about it last year at the Freeplay Parallels night during Melbourne Games Week. My dad and I used to love a lot of different things and have slightly different taste, but one place where our tastes crossed over heavily was in Americana and authors like Richard Brautigan and Jack Kerouac.

Richard Brautigan wrote two stories that were huge inspirations for DSD – one was Dreaming of Babylon, about a loser Private Investigator from San Francisco who finally gets a decent case to solve but first he just needs to get some bullets for his gun and to stop daydreaming of the fantasy life he makes up for himself where he’s a hero in Babylon.  I love it, it’s so strange and a parody of noir while also being a good example of noir. The other story was The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western. It’s a fun mix of Western and Lovecraftian themes and it has some wonderfully dry humour.

My dad died of cancer back in 2009. So when I was making this game and making a car game, I chose that area that meant a lot to me. I think if someone was going to make a Dead Static Drive set in Australia, they’d probably be able to do it really well – but that’d have to be made by someone else I think, someone motivated to make that kind of game.

WP: Is there a story to Dead Static Drive or is that second fiddle to the gameplay? Are the characters voiced?

The characters aren’t yet voiced and I’m planning only to have them semi-voiced, both because of the budget of getting VO actors and also the inflexibility of having to lock off the game’s story so early to VO it.

There’s definitely a story, but the game has a branching story so it won’t play the same each time – it’s designed systemically and reacts to your actions in the game.

WP: What themes are you exploring throughout the game?

I’m not too ready to talk explicitly about them yet, sorry!

WP: I listened to an interview a while back where you mentioned that Dead Rising is a big inspiration for the game. What other games have sprinkled their influence on the game?

Ha! Yeah, Dead Rising 2, specifically – I loved it and played a whole lot of it. I know there are lots of games that have influenced me, but it’s not always in the way that you might expect. Metal Gear Solid 2 has been an influence in that it’s a playground that opens up as you play and that gives you a lot of tools and gives you problems to solve and just says “go nuts, do whatever, just so long as you stay alive and achieve the current objective”. MGS also has a lot of smaller details that you won’t necessarily notice on first glance, and I love that.

WP: Can you explain the core gameplay loop? From what I can tell you’re road trippin’ around the Land of the Free which is on the precipice of an apocalypse scavenging items while fighting cosmic monsters. What do you actually do in Dead Static Drive?

MB: The core of the game is investigation, collaboration, and survival. At the start of the game you’re driving and surviving: enter a town, look for somewhere to sleep and refuel, look for some food or useful survival items. Monsters and scavengers make the environment hostile and you’ll want to fortify yourself if you plan to safely scavenge or sleep. If you can’t find a safe building that’s already got reinforced windows and heavy doors then you can make a flimsy building safer by reinforcing the doors and windows.  If a town doesn’t have power, you can look for a generator to get some power running for the building you want to enter. If you meet people, you can trade with them or recruit them to your team so you’ve got backup. Some people you meet may make it easier to survive so long as you work together. Later in the game, survival elements aren’t the core, they’re the friction that makes it hard to search for answers and makes it hard to collaborate as supplies run low and the world becomes more hostile.

This one is for you dad

WP: So once the 30-day mark hits and the game restarts how different can a second playthrough be?

MB: Subsequent playthroughs are quite different because you have a more full perspective on how the game will play and what you should be focusing on doing early in the game. The world is rich with stories that start playing out on day one, so you can decide to focus on completing specific storylines or to learn more about what happens early in the game – and you can choose specific places you want to visit early on with the knowledge that you acquired on previous playthroughs. Because the storylines branch, there’s scope for loads of variation each play through.

WP: Can you craft or upgrade items along the way?

MB: I’m not quite ready to talk about item upgrades within the game (pickups etc.) but: You can build and fortify, and use items in interesting ways that interact with each other. I don’t want to get too specific just yet because it’s still got lots of scope for change.

WP: What’s been the hardest mechanic or system to get right?

MB: Definitely the driving – making the vehicles feel good and feel right – the weight, the steering, the handling and physics. Because there are a number of vehicles of grossly different characteristics (i.e. little Corolla coupes and big dog-nosed school buses) it’s going to probably be a refinement that continues until the game comes out.

WP: You’ve shown Dead Static Drive at PAX Aus the past three years, what sort of feedback have you received and how has it shaped the game’s development?

MB: Lots of support and strong feedback – I think it’s been majorly worthwhile to show so regularly because each year people have been more and more positive. There’s been feedback on the UI, the inventory, the driving, the art style, lots of bug reports and lots of desired features.

WP: The game started out as a solo project. What made you bring in additional support?

MB: I’d love to keep working solo, but because it’s quite a big game and it’s been getting such a great response online, I wanted to make sure that it gets polished well to release as strong as possible! I also feel like enough of the game is there now that collaborating isn’t going to take it away from my initial vision, which I was really precious about for a long time: wanting to make sure that I was making the game that I wanted to make, after spending years working on other people’s games and not being able to exercise enough creative control.

WP: So far the game has been announced for PC. It’s been mentioned you’re looking at bringing it to consoles – is there a specific platform in mind?

MB: Yes, the game will be an Xbox One exclusive as well as on PC!

WP: Can we expect to play the game before the curtains close in 2019?

MB: I don’t have any information on release dates just yet, sorry.

WP: Thank you so much for your time. We can’t wait to get our hands on the full game.

MB: I can’t wait, too!

Co-Founder & Managing Editor of WellPlayed. Sometimes a musician, lover of bad video games and living proof that Australians drink Foster's. Coach of Supercoach powerhouse the BarnesStreet Bois. Carlton, Burnley FC & SJ Sharks fan Get around him on Twitter @xackclaret