Eskil Steenberg is the one man force behind next month’s multiplayer adventure game Love. We’ve reported on the title before and you may have seen screenshots floating around, but it’s truly something that needs to be seen to be believed. It’s a procedurally generated world, which looks to me like a living, watercolor painting. Eskil not only programmed the entire game, he also built all the tools necessary to program and piece together the game. Truly a project made from scratch.
Players enter the world, where they join other players in settlements, which they can build on and expand, and defend from intruders. What looks like a simple surface level FPS turns into an experience with as much depth as you want to give it. The beta test opened up in January, but it will be shutting down on the 22nd, unless you have some game time left on your own account.
After a few emails back and forth, Eskil took some time out of his busy day to talk to me about his methods, his discipline, and his views on the way creativity should be. I didn’t cut much out of our talk so it’s a lengthy read, but well worth it if you have any interest in creative pursuits.
DIYgamer: Tell me a little bit about yourself, your background, and how you got to video games, basically.
Eskil Steenberg: Well it depends on how far back you go. I guess I’ve always been interested in, you know, I’ve been a creative person. And I always had a big interest in filmmaking. And that sort of led to animation, that led to computers, that led to computer graphics. From computer graphics I sort of became, I did computer graphics for a very long time. I used to be an artist basically. And then I got more and more technical and I’ve always been interested in technology. So I learned how to program and became a graphics programmer. I’ve done a bunch of things before this, I created Verse, which is the network protocol used for Love, and I developed a bunch of tools for 3D graphics, such as my modeling tool. So then I worked in research doing these kinds of things and we got a large grant that I was able to live off of that for a long time. And when that was ending I was figuring out what I wanted to do. I was actually considering not doing graphics or programming at all. And then I realized that I really loved programming and I wanted to do something really cool. And that’s kind of where this project Love came from. The idea of doing something from scratch and doing it my own way and here we are three years later.
DIY: So is this, considering the path you did take, your first game or had you done [games] of a smaller scale?
ES: No, not really. I did help out on some other games, but that was a long, long time ago and never as a programmer, always as a technical artist. This is really my first game. It’s kind of huge for being a first game, but I felt that I had enough experience to do all the things and really wanted to make the game I wanted to play. And that sort of led to the size.
DIY: Being that it is your first game, and the first thing that turned into this three year, and into the future, project, why this type of game? Why a project of this scope?
ES: I think there are many, many answers to that. I think that when you have an idea, a good idea, it’s not one idea it’s a lot of ideas. A good idea is a collection of ideas. So when all the good ideas work together, that’s when you should go do it. It had to do with the fact I had graphics tools that allowed me to make the graphics, I had the knowledge of how to make a graphics engine for the dynamic environments. I have the knowledge and background in network programming. So online seemed to be the right move. I’ve always been a cooperative player, I always liked cooperative games. That came from there. It’s really a collection of different ideas and thoughts on how to do things. It’s a first person shooter, but the style of first person shooter is much more Quake 1 than Call of Duty. So it’s sort of old school. I like that kind of game. And it’s all about getting everything where you want it. Most of the gameplay and things like that, the goal is not what you see in the rules, but what the rules conjure up. A good example of that is the fact the game doesn’t have any competition whatsoever. If one player finds a token, that token will be placed in the settlement and everyone in the settlement can use it. Instead of getting XP or something like that that builds up your own character. So players automatically knows that if he helps other people be better players, that’s going to help [them]. That means everyone is really helpful in game. And people sort of help out with new players and teach them how to do things. The atmosphere of the game becomes very different. If you look at the game and experience that, you might say, “I got lucky and nice people turned up to play the game.” But actually the game is designed to encourage that kind of behavior. It’s not super shocking, but people actually behave that way. So there was a lot of thought into what kind of rules and what kind of game do I want in order to get the player to behave in a certain way, and to do certain things, and be effective in a specific way. A lot of the rules have uses behind them. And that also makes it really tricky to develop the game. Because there are certain rules that I’ve set out that you can’t really break, because they would break things in how people play the game.
DIY: And to continue on that, with the beta being open for the past month and letting more people into the game, what’s been the most unexpected thing you’ve seen that maybe you hadn’t foreseen as far as what players are doing in the game?
ES: I don’t really know. I think things have gone pretty much as expected, there have been a few exploits, but no really terrible ones. I think the thing that sort of makes me happy, is seeing things such as the website loveinvers.es, and the creativity of these sites, getting your own fan site is an experience that is pretty goddamn amazing. Those are things that really amazed me the most, the community [outside] rather than what they’ve done in the game. When you work on a game this long and you’ve thought about it as much as I have, it’s hard to surprise you when you’ve thought of everything so many times and considered of a lot of things. Sometimes I’m surprised the other way around, when people haven’t figured out how to do things yet. But I’m also blaming that on poor help system.
DIY: I know in game, once you have settlements you’ve created a pretty robust system to almost personalize it, with the creation/destruction of the world tool. What’s been the most interesting thing you’ve seen people do that so far?
ES: Just how well built a lot of things are. How thought out and organized they are. The game doesn’t have very much in terms of forced utopia. It doesn’t force you to do anything. You can build any way you want, it’s very loose and open. People think that would lead to chaos. But the cities I’ve seen, many have been really well maintained and thought out and people have drawn maps about how to design certain things. That’s really cool in my opinion.
DIY: You mentioned earlier, before getting this far, film was one of your influences. It always impressed me each time you play the cinematic quality of the title popping up once you’re a little while in game. What along those lines, and you can carry it over into games as well, what would you say your biggest inspirations are to kind of bring this all together, and as an artist and storyteller?
ES: That’s a hard question. I don’t think I am very inspired in that way. You know, I look at what other people do and think that’s cool. But I very rarely sort of take what someone else does and say, “I’m going to that too.” I know that the idea of what you do isn’t really important, but what is important is how you do it. And then when you start thinking of how things are done, you get pretty far away from other people. My rule is that it’s fine to steal, you can steal as much as you want from anybody; the thing that is not fine is to steal and then don’t do anything with what you’ve stolen. For instance you can see the art design of the game. I’ve been inspired by a lot of graphic designers like Craig Mullins, Syd Mead, Ralph McQuarrie and people like that. When you start out, you think of that like “Oh, I want to do that thing.” But then once you start programming and start doing things, you start thinking, “hey, if I do this?” Or, “that looks really cool.” And you sort of end up somewhere different. You aim for looking like someone else, but if you work on it enough you’ll realize that once you’re done, you have your own style. And people who see the final product, might not be able to understand that it has been inspired by whatever it’s been inspired by. A lot of the architecture in my point of view is really kind of art-deco-ish, but I’ve never heard anybody comment on that or agree with that. But it doesn’t matter, because I think it looks good and if it doesn’t look art deco, [that's] because that means I took something that existed and created my own thing. It’s no longer owned by someone else. So that’s really how I think about it in terms of creativity.
DIY: In your opinion, in the industry as a whole, do you think there’s a similar viewpoint, or do you think there’s a lot of copying and recycling?
ES: I think there’s a lack of exploration. On the other hand, in some ways you could say there isn’t enough creativity, there isn’t enough exploration. It’s really tricky, because I think if you take a game like Portal, which is a really innovative and different game. It’s innovative in the way that it’s different from all the other games, but you can’t really see every other game have a portal gun. It’s kind of a one off thing. It’s not going to change the face of gaming because now every game is going to have a portal gun. It’s such a specific thing. A lot of independent games are very much like that. They have a really cool idea that kind of takes over the entire experience and is kind of the main attraction, if you will. And I often think you don’t have to go that far. I think you can create sort of a normal-ish game but just recreate how it’s done. You mentioned the cinematic quality of the title coming up, and that to me is a very typical example of where I want things to go. If you take just a run-of-the-mill game, like say Uncharted. Uncharted is a game that is extremely staged. Everything is prerecorded, there is a single path you follow, everything has been scripted, there are voice actors, all that stuff is extremely pre-made. As a player you aren’t free to do whatever you want. My goal is to say what if you make an experience that is exactly like that, same quality, same kind of storytelling, but it was completely dynamic. So every time you played it it would go completely different. It would go in different directions. And then the game would have to create its own story as you’re playing to follow your wins, rather than have this little staged pre-made world. The title screen is an example of that. The title screen of Love can’t come up at a scripted point, because there [are] no scripted points. You can do whatever you want. So what I do instead, is detect a sunrise or sunset. You get this beautiful image and then when you see that, the game says, “oh, this is a good time for the credits.” Trying to make the game follow you rather than you follow the game. That combination is really lacking. Figuring out how to do things very differently to get to a similar result from mainstream games. So that’s one thing.
The other thing is that it’s really easy to be critical of other people’s work. It doesn’t really help you to do that. If you don’t like something, do something better yourself. Instead of complaining about it, do something about it. Try to create something better and try new stuff out. It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and be critical of how other people do things. Having said that, last year when I was at GDC, there was a substantial gap between what I’m doing and what other people are doing. When I go to a lot of talks and listen to how other people go about making games. They have very little semblance to how I work. And that doesn’t mean I’m right and they’re wrong. I don’t think that my way is the right way, but it would be nice if there were more people going their own way, and not so many people going the same way, in terms of production and approach to making games.
DIY: Having seen the lineup of speakers, do you expect a similar experience this year, or are you hoping to see some new ideas as far as what people are doing and innovating and going about their work?
ES: There are always good things to pick out. You can always find interesting stuff. What scares me is not so much the lack of interesting talks or the lack of interesting people. The things that scare me are more like sitting in a round table and have people say things like, “well everyone’s gotta do graphics this way.” “Unless you do this type of business model, you’re not going to be competetive.” Those kind of statements scare me. It makes the possilbe world of games smaller. They sort of shut out ways of doing things. Time to close the patent office. There are no more good ideas. Because this is the accepted way of doing things. That’s the kind of statement I hear all day long that really kind of scares me. But there’s always good stuff as well, that’s why it’s worth going every year.
DIY: Now as far as the game being about a month in beta, when do you have in mind for a release date?
ES: It’s already announced, the 25th of March.
DIY: Ah! What are you looking at as far as the subscription structure?
ES: It’s going to be almost the same, [but it's going to be] a bit pricier because I need to sustain myself. So far I’ve been using the money to pay for hardware. Basically you get 30 days and you can play as much as you want during those 30 days. If somebody puts you as a reference, you get another 5 days. And you also get a friend account, where you can play with a friend, and the friend can play for free as long as you’re online. So it’s pretty much the same as it is right now. One of the things I really wanted to test more than anything else in the beta and the alpha before it, is the payment system and the way that works. Because obviously if that fails, people are going to be mighty pissed and that’s kind of exciting.
DIY: As far as this being a subscription game, and you being the only guy behind it, how do you feel about the upkeep into the future? Do you feel you’re going to continue at the same rate of work, having to just make sure everything is up and running? Or do you foresee being able to move on to [something else] to any extent, or have you even thought that far?
ES: Yeah, I think that right now my plan is to keep working on it and right now I’m putting down what the right additions are going to be that are going to happen in the weeks and months after release. Right now I don’t want to add anything, because I’m making sure that everything works. Because on release day there are going to be a lot of new players and you don’t want to introduce something the day before that creates a lot of havoc and makes things unstable. So things are pretty boring right now, but on release day I will start working on some cool new features. The goal has always been to do more things. If I get enough players, I’ll be able to hire some help. And that will accelerate the development of the game, and hopefully it will mean I’ll be able to get money into the system to be able to do other projects on the side and slowly start growing.
DIY: You may have just touched on it with the idea of hiring more people, but have you considered the possibility of it becoming almost an unexpected success? And more players coming in than you can handle at first?
ES: You know, I have no idea. I’m prepared for most things I’d say. I’d have to get an enormous amount of players before I get in trouble with server hardware. Right now I only have half-capacity of the servers I can set up hardware-wise, and I can get even more servers really quickly. I’d have to be overly optimistic to see that as a problem. And I’m not very optimistic actually, I tend to be a pessimist because it’s better to plan for the worst than plan for the best. I have no idea, frankly, what kind of uptake this game will get once it’s released. Since the beta and the alpha have been out for a couple months now and people have been able to get into the game before, I don’t really know if all the people who wanted to get into the game have already tried it, or if people don’t want to get into the beta and want to wait for the game to be completed. We’ll just have to see.
DIY: And as far as working on this for three years, what’s been the single toughest thing to execute and bring this altogether?
ES: Wow, there are so many different things. I’d say the character system has been really annoying. I’ve done that a couple of times and am still not completely happy with it. So much of this project has really been a research project. Exploring things. Some of the things, like the system that generates the world, have been rewritten a couple of times. But I’ve had a lot of fun doing it, so I don’t see it as a failure in any way. The screenshot feature I think I’ve rewritten six or seven times now. And that is not fun. That’s been a hurdle. That’s a teeny tiny piece of code, but it’s been rewritten a bunch of times. It kind of depends. Some things I’ve been working a lot harder on, but I see as fun so they don’t, I don’t mind them. Other things that are less fun, can be really annoying even though they haven’t taken up that much time. The things that I find fun are not usually the things that other people think are fun. For instance, I love doing graphics and graphics programming, so that’s probably my favorite part. I like interaction. The things I don’t like as much are networking, because it’s a huge hassle to debug because you don’t know what the hell is going on. Other things like interaction, in terms of gameplay and rules and the thing that is actually the game. How things work in mechanics. That’s actually not very fun to implement. Even though that’s kind of the game. It’s ups and downs. I’ve had this rule, to try to innovate everywhere. Keep it fresh and keep it fun. Have the ability to constantly come up with new ideas instead of just doing things the usual way. That would just bore me to death.
DIY: For you, what constitutes success for you on this project?
ES: I think there are many levels of success. One level is being able to afford living off of it. Another success would be getting enough players to hire the help needed to make multiple SKUs, a Mac version and a Linux version. That’s kind of dear to my heart. I think that in the same way if I wouldn’t get a single user, or if I get very few users on release, I still think this project’s been a success. First of all things are a success because you did it. You achieved something. That’s important to me more than I won an award or people like me or any of that. It’s more important that I actually did it. That’s kind of one thing that makes it successful. The other thing is that it’s successful right now just because we’re talking. I’ve gotten so much press and so much interest and so many people know who I am and contact me. And just the opportunities that I’ve gotten in the past year, two years, have been amazing just because I’ve done this game. That alone has made it worth it for sure. Today I can probably get a job anywhere I want; I don’t’ want a job right now I want to do this, but I could. That’s a nice feeling. I really think it is already a success.
DIY: What do you want players to take away from the experience?
ES: I don’t really know to be frank. I think people should make their own stories. That’s always been my goal. It’s not about me telling them something. The game should be interactive. Interaction means you do things and there is cause and effect to what you do. Not cramming the story down your throat and telling you this is the story. If I wanted to do that, and I kind of want to do that, then I would make a movie or write a book or something like that which is about telling you something. I don’t think there’s really a message that way. I kind of want to expand the kind of things that can happen in a game, and the way that a game can operate. So that’s hopefully something I have to contribute for the players, but it’s really about what they want to do and they think is fun. I don’t know if that’s a good answer, but it’s kind of the answer I have. I think the best thing anybody has ever said about the game, some user who said it’s less realistic, but more real. That is a really good way of describing the game.
DIY: To learn a little bit more about you as a person, what’s your life like outside of programming, outside of Love.
ES: I don’t really have one. I work pretty much from morning to night, seven days a week. I’m a pretty hard worker. The last three years I haven’t really done anything. The best thing is when I get to travel. I get to go to GDC and things like that. It’s really cool, because you sit in your apartment and nobody knows who you are. Then you go to a sort of wonderland where everyone on the street corner knows who you are and what you’ve done. And you’re invited to all the parties and you’re popular. Then you go home. It’s weird. It’s really weird.
When I do my talks. I have all these tools I show, and applications. Sometimes I can imagine myself being like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates who get to go to cool conferences and show amazing stuff. The big difference is that when they go home, they have thousands of people making those things so they can go show them; I have to show them myself. It means a lot of work. That really consumes a lot of my time. It’s not all good. My hope is to work together with other people and do cool stuff with other people and get more resources and things like that. I think effort is important, I think trying is important. We put far to much emphasis on success and far too little on creation. A lot of people say, “I love games, I want to make games.” To me that is backwards. If you’re going to make games, you don’t have to like games, you have to love making games. And that’s very different from playing games. If you love playing games, you should play games. It’s a different thing. I find myself playing less and less games. When they show me a game like Mass Effect 2 which they say is around 30 hours, I just think of all the things I could do with 30 hours of programming. It doesn’t mean that Mass Effect 2 is bad, it just means I got a lot of stuff I could do with 30 hours. I tend not to be interested in that. Playing games isn’t really my hobby. It’s something I do every once in a while. That kind of time is a little too much for me. Prioritizing what you want to do and actually doing something and being creative is a lot more fun than anything you can do, in my opinion. That’s kind of what I want to do.
It doesn’t really matter what you do, it doesn’t really matter if your’e successful at it, it matters that you try. And if you fail, you never really fail. If you fail you learn something so you’ll be better the next time. And that’s actually success as well. I think that having a bunch of failed projects behind you doesn’t make you a failure, it means you know a lot of things. And usually you learn more things from failures than success stories. Things are worth pursuing. That’s what I want to do. I don’t think it matters what you do, as long as you try to do something and be creative and invent stuff and have a lot of fun.
DIY: I’ve read a lot of your blog throughout this game, and a lot of it can come across as critical or harsh of the people who want the easy way out when making games. I think you make a good point for artists and the creative process.
ES: That’s like saying I want to make a game but I want it to be easy. That’s like saying I want to make a game, but I don’t really want to make a game. I want to be a football star but I don’t want to have to kick that damn football. To me that’s not what a football star is. A football star is somebody who’s on the field. That’s the backwardness of the world. Everybody wants to be a fashion designer, but nobody wants to learn how to sew. They look at a guy and say, “oh he’s got a big brand he’s got money and all those things, a fashion designer, I want that.” Well, that designer probably worked his ass off and has worked for a long time to learn how to do these things and actually enjoys it. If you don’t enjoy it, you’re not going to be any good at it. So you got to find something you enjoy doing, and doing it whether you get praise for it or not. That doesn’t matter. Also I think that if you’re looking to get hired, who would you hire: the guy that said I did all the easy stuff, or the guy that did all the hard stuff? You’d hire the guy that did the hard stuff. You want somebody who challenges themselves. And that’s what I think is lacking for a lot of people who are trying to do things. They don’t want to do things, they want to have done things, and those two are very, very different.
DIY: I’ve seen a similar thing in the film industry, where people say I like movies, I want to make movies. But they don’t realize what it takes to actually get it done, how hard it is.
ES: Hard is an interesting word. Because it’s hard if you don’t like it, but it’s not hard if you like it. If you think it’s challenging and fun, well it’s like all these gamers who want hard games. They want it because that makes them fun, and because it’s a challenge. That’s kind of how life is. If you want to make a movie. It’s not going to be easy, but that’s the thing that makes it fun too. I think it’s kind of misdirected to talk about how hard something is.
DIY: Is there anything else you want to add?
ES: The beta is going to close down soon. Players who are in the beta, are going to be able to play the game until release. But really I just hope that people want to try the game and people want to stick with the game. Because it’s not the kind of game you can just jump in for five minutes and get the hang of, you need to play for a while. But it’s rewarding, I hope.
DIY: That’s definitely true, I was one of the people who wandered forever before finding anything.
ES: That’s one of the things I’ve worked the most on, with the biggest changes going from alpha to beta. The things that help you find other players. Now you sort of automatically get thrown into a settlement if there is one. If you get a token you can create a settlement if there isn’t one. There are a lot of things like that that help. I hope that people who played the game early on will come back and try it again and notice those differences. They are small differences, but they make a big difference in the way you enter the game and make it more fluid in the way you participate in the game.
DIY: To touch back on something you mentioned earlier, you said that you were surprised people hadn’t found certain things in the game. Do you feel there’s a lot that hasn’t been touched by the community?
ES: I think there are some things I’m surprised people don’t do. The radio system has some really neat uses that people don’t use right now. People don’t use them in the interesting ways you can use them. But I think that people are really good at finding things out. But there’s always the question of what people pick up on and what people don’t pick up on. And what kind of things they gravitate towards and the kind of things they ignore. But it’s also really good, because it helps me understand what they’re interested in. And helps me make things more or less useful for the players.
(I mentioned to him that I had his GDC chat on my calendar, but it might be over my head as I’m not a programmer.)
ES: It’s actually not a programming talk. It’s a production talk. Someday I’ll do a programming talk, but usually I keep it so everyone can understand it. The interesting stuff is actually not too technical. It’s like if you have a photographer or musician who’s a beginner. All they talk about is their camera and their guitar. And they want a better camera and a better guitar. Which one to buy, how much they cost. If you talk to a legend in the field, they talk about emotions and about composition and things like that. Because they can use any guitar or any camera, it doesn’t matter, because what they make with the equipment matters more. That’s kind of where I feel that I am in programming. It doesn’t matter what language you’re using or technology you’re using; what are your basic philosophies once you start doing things. That’s the interesting part rather than the technology, that’s more commonplace. The philosophy, the way of thinking, that’s what makes you a great programmer. A typical example is, “what language do you use?” I use C because it’s the simplest language there is. Really low level, really good control. But it doesn’t do anything for you, you have to do everything yourself. And people say, “this language will solve all your problems.” But I don’t want it to solve my problems, I want to solve it myself. That’s my interest in it, rather than taking some kind of shortcut.
I will be speaking further with Eskil as GDC approaches. Love is set for release on March 25th with the current price point of 10 Euros per month, as recently stated on his website.