Interview With Developer David Fazzio
Awoken by a soft whisper, your eyes focus in on the baby blue sky, evergreen trees, and shimmering towers in the distance. You are floating through the air, a stream of particles left behind like that of a candle blowing in the wind. You drift to the side to avoid crashing in the vegetation on the riverbank. Things are starting to move faster; you are no longer floating along but soaring with purpose. You whip in and out of trees, across the river, and over the exposed stone on the hill side before coming to a gentle stop at the base of a waterfall. No longer a stream of particles, your form has taken the shape of a wolf. Your details are softened by the white aura that engulfs your body. Exploring the countryside, you happen across what appears to be the remnants of life. As you follow the worn pathway forward, you start to make out something in the distance. It is a spirit, an echo of someone who once was, is, or will be, walking the path unaware of your observations. You eventually discover an artifact irradiating the same white luminous flux that flows around you. As you reach out to touch it, you begin to hear voices and experience visions of a loving family, engrossed in mystery, and overwhelmed with tragedy. This is the opening of The Companion.
We sat down with the creator behind The Companion, David Fazzio, to discuss his process and how he, as a solo indie developer, goes about his day-to-day routine. David is not a programmer, artist, or composer by trade. His day job has him working with databases 10 hours a day at the office despite these unusual times. After work, David heads home to spend time with his family. Once his triplets are in bed, he makes sure to dedicate the end of the night to his wife. Even later, once everyone is in bed, it is time for David to get to work on his game.
The Companion is not the first game David ever worked on. His game development journey began roughly 4 years ago. While he always had a love of playing games, such as EverQuest and other MMORPGs, at some point things changed. David decided he was tired of consuming the work of others. It was time to produce something of his own.
The only problem was that David’s experience with programming only went as far as using SQL query languages for work. So, he decided to change that. With the Unreal Engine being completely free to start using, David began working through as many of the tutorials available through Unreal’s learning and support site. Also, the Unreal Engine offered another amazing benefit, the ability to use blueprints to supplement his still growing programming skills. Blueprint is a visual scripting language for Unreal Engine that allows game developers to connect nodes and create logic without having to write code or know how to program in C++. After becoming comfortable with the engine, he set out to create his first game.
David, as great dreamers often start out, had a vision for this new game and, as most developers do, he planned to learn the skills to finish the game along the way.
After two years of development reality began to sink in. Struggles with the scope of the game and technical problems with multiplayer proved to be outside of his current skill set. While even the most technical of problems can be solved with enough time. David came to the tough decision that the features were too unrealistic for one person to support successfully. It was time to let go of the game.
Despite putting two years into the game, David does not view it as time lost. Through his successes and struggles, with this now incomplete game, he gained a better understanding of what he could do, and the time frame he could do it in.
One day, while browsing through Steam, David started to notice a style of game that he had not noticed before. Single player, story driven, “bite size” gaming experiences were in demand. In his eyes single player games were normally stories that involved developing an epic 50 – 60 hour adventure like that of The Witcher 3. With this new perspective, he realized that he could create a single player experience that spanned only a few hours.
With a new goal in mind, it was time to start again but this time he would do things differently. The first of these was forming a studio to work under. Creating Studio 46, an homage to his family, allowed David to work under the alias and lent the game’s development an air of legitimacy. This was no longer a personal project but something that would be released.
Next, was to set a schedule. This time it would not take 2 years to figure out that things were not going to work. Starting in August 2020 a release date of April 2021 was set.
David’s vision for The Companion is to be less of a game and more of an immersive experience. To this end, the first and most important aspect of the game was the story. David worked on the story whenever he had downtime, at night, on lunch, or while his children played. It did not matter if it was on his workstation or typing on his phone, he knew it had to be right. To David, the script became the game design document. Everything that followed was only built to serve the story.
His inspiration for the narrative comes from the feeling of gravitas conjured by classic adventure stories like Lord of the Rings. This is quite evident in the story’s opening moments, as the game hints at bigger and mysterious things to come while giving you morsels of dialogue and leaving you in the quiet moments to ponder what you have just heard.
When starting development, David knew he would need to work efficiently in order to meet his strict schedule. You would not be faulted for thinking that this would hold him back, but it in fact freed him up to focus on what was important. There was little time to spend grudgingly tweaking art assets or obsessing over whether or not to add new features. This time limit also pushed David to be more creative with his resources.
The approach David has taken towards the game art has allowed him to quickly create beautiful landscapes that appear spiritual without reinventing the wheel each time he needs a new asset. David knew he needed things like animals, trees, and rocks but modeling these things himself would take too much time to get them to the standard he required for his game. So, to solve this issue, he began looking for premade assets that would fit The Companion’s style. His game required a very specific look and feel, so even with premade models the art still required more work. David modified and created new materials to coax the models to fit his game. Despite taking these shortcuts, in order to meet his deadline, he could not spend too much time mulling over the art. At least not all at once.
Adopting an iterative approach has allowed him to go back and revisit pieces updating the artwork in stages to accommodate the feelings and emotions he is trying to elicit with the story. For example, the first passthrough may be to add art to build out the story and gameplay elements, the second adds more style to the level, and a third adds things that make the world feel fuller and more lived in.
This allows him to move on quickly and in broad strokes add to the overall game. Iteration is the key to his efficiency with the game world. There is not a lot of wasted time building up one asset or set piece in the game to only decide that it needs to be moved or revised later and having to throw away hours of work. One example of this is the ominous towers in the background of the opening level. David designed the towers from scratch but did not waste a lot of time making them highly detailed. He intended them to not be accessible in the game and to stay a distant object. Now, he is pondering allowing the player to get closer to one. Because he did not waste a lot of time creating them in the first place, he has the flexibility to choose whether or not to add this experience to the game without wasting resources if he decides to leave them as they are.
As you progress through The Companion you will come across cutscenes that unravel the mysteries surrounding the game. These visions, as they are called in the game, feature the main cast in the form of spirits or particles. They are aesthetically pleasing and fit perfectly in the game world but, as David revealed, their form serves another purpose.
Perfecting animations for 3D models takes a lot of time. Especially, when the story driven elements require animating several characters interacting with each other hundreds of times over the course of the game. The spectral form the characters share, naturally allows for quicker animations and higher quality production value. There is no need to spend time animating a character’s hands loading wood into a wagon if the details of the hands are not visible.
These aethereal forms also have the added benefit of putting the character’s appearance and mannerisms into the player’s imagination. Here the player can forge their own vision of how the character looks, making each player’s experience personal and more endearing.
Also, as time goes on, the graphical elements of any game will start to look dated. Even games from 2 years ago have lost their luster compared to the latest triple A release. By abstracting some of the artwork David has essentially prolonged the life of the game’s aesthetics.
Continuing with the story first approach, David has designed the gameplay to almost disappear into the background while traveling through the game world. The UI is at a bare minimum but still maintains a functional and sophisticated look. He has also incorporated the ability to remove the UI elements altogether so that players can take screenshots and become fully absorbed in the atmosphere.
David knew he wanted to have voice actors deliver the dialog to the players, but like so many solo developers, he did not know how to locate talent, nor did he have the production budget to pay large sums to actors.
These constraints initially led him to look on Fiverr for voice actors. The original idea was to test out voice talent to see if anyone could live up to or get close to the performance David had envisioned. Also, using Fiverr let him test how his writing would feel when spoken within the game and allow him to continue along with writing the rest of the script. The caveat being that he would have to pay up front, about $20 per person, to hear his lines spoken. Quickly realizing this was not financially practical for a talent search, David began looking for other methods.
His search led him to Voices.com, which allowed him to post a job detailing his requirements for the cast. The site required a higher minimum fee for their actors work but now actors could audition for the role before they were hired, overall saving time and money. Through this process he was able to locate three of the four voices required for his characters. For the fourth, he had landed on the right voice from one of his first Fiverr actors.
When David set out to create the music for the game, he originally expected to source tracks from marketplaces like Pond5 or Musicbed. That was until he started posting The Companion’s progress on his social media channels. He began getting a flood of requests from composers and artists wanting to work on the game’s soundtrack. Initial offers were met with trepidation about keeping the game’s development within his budget, but he began receiving offers to provide samples at no cost. Never the one to turn away someone without listening to what they have to say, David did just that.
Eventually, he was sent a set of songs that changed his mind. Hew Wagner’s music perfectly captured the spirit of adventure and wonder that David had envisioned for his game. The only issue was that his budget was still the same and there was no room for additional expenses. But the music was too perfect of a fit and he knew it was what he needed to pull off the story he wanted to tell. Ever the pragmatist, David and Hew were able to work out a revenue share agreement and the need for a soundtrack was solved.
Listening to The Companion’s development journey so far, a recurring element appears. David’s willingness to listen to others without being dismissive has led to a lot of early wins. From the voice actors that still solicit work in his game, to the composers that wanted to convince him that they were the right sound for his game, David never turns away from the opportunity to hear someone out. He would not want to miss an opportunity to improve his game or potentially find talent for future projects.
As a solo game developer, David has gone through times where he would rather be playing games, going to bed early, or just not working on his game due to being frustrated with a particular task. His advice to others for not getting burnt out is to shift priorities and constantly be working on some aspect of the game. There are so many pieces to a game and there is always something else to work on.
Also, he adds that to be successful you have to fail or be willing to fail and know when to walk away. If something is not working in the game, for example a mechanic does not feel right or the game as a whole is not going anywhere then let it go. Do not fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy and as many have said before, learn to fail fast.
When asked about his expectations after the game’s release, David’s response is just as grounded and reasonable as his development process. He says his expectations are tempered but his hope is that the game is successful enough on Steam that he can pursue a console release. As for future content, he says as long as the story and experience are received well, he would love to expand the game world with additional stories.
The Companion is a cinematic gaming experience. From the opening moments you are whisked into the game world, enveloped in rich atmospheric sounds and sights. You play as a Spirit Animal, on a quest determined by fate, where visions of a past, present, and future, guide you. Collect Essence to gain and use new abilities that aid in finding Artifacts that build your connection to the corporeal world.
This is a single player narrative, a story of mystery, intrigue, and adventure. Journey across seven majestic landscapes and witness the emotional story of a family as they tackle the challenges ahead of them. One step at a time, together.
The Companion is set to release April 2021. David invites you to come experience his game, to swim in the waterfalls, dash through the forests, or spend time taking screenshots of the magnificent landscapes. Look for the Demo during the February Steam Game Festival.
Keep up with the game’s progress on Twitter @AtStudio46