The Brookhaven Experiment was, in the VR world, a smash hit.
People were talking about it, videos of the game were gathering millions of hits and fans of the demo were eagerly waiting for the full release.
And then the creators of the game did something unexpected: They walked away. This is what happens when a toothache meets an open bar, and how two men are trying to get lightning to strike twice.
We've told the story of Brookhaven, but the game became a viral hit since we last wrote about its unveiling. It opened doors for the two developers, Steve Bowler and Jeremy Chapman, behind the game, They found themselves at the Valve booth during the Game Developers Conference.
"Valve took notice of it, they invited us to be at their booth at GDC, they put us in their device pre-order page, they had an image of Brookhaven in it," developer Steve Bowler told Polygon.
That level of interest in success from a demo they cranked out in a few weeks working together was a bit intoxicating.
Valve's Chet Faliszek, who often seems to be face of Valve at virtual reality events, was at the party, and both Bowler and Chapman had to work up the guts to say hello and pick his brain about their game.
"The conversation with Chet is what really sparked it for us ... Jeremy said what's wrong with Brookhaven, what would you fix about it?" Bowler said.
Chet said that many developers were given pages of notes on how to improve their games, according to Bowler. "He just stared both of us in the face and said you guys didn't get any notes," Bowler said. "We were floored."
We reached out to Faliszek for comment, but our e-mails weren't returned.
The only thing more intoxicating than praise from a personal hero? Booze.
"I was probably in the peak pain of a tooth infection that needed a root canal, so I was drinking the pain away," Bowler said, amazed he could remember any details from the party. But the event, combined with the praise from Faliszek and maybe helped along by the booze, convinced the two men to leave and do their own thing.
But in doing so they had to leave Brookhaven behind. Phosphor owned the IP.
"It hurt," Chapman told Polygon. "It was real tough. It wasn't my first choice of game, I had no idea that was going to become what it became. I had an attachment to it in that it was the first cool thing I had ever made that people latched onto. It was hard."
He searched for words for a moment and sighed. "I'm going to warn you, this is the first time I've done a verbal interview on anything," he said.
Leaving Brookhaven behind was a tough decision, especially with interest in the game so high, but they had another idea: They wanted to take you to Jurassic Park.
I heard it from my left: The distinctive three note honk of a Velociraptor. That meant she was coming for me.
I had just about enough time to crouch and swing my Uzi around and empty the clip into the dinosaur's face. I kept the left hand with my handgun and laser sight locked onto the raptor just in case he didn't drop after the Uzi barrage.
The first Raptor fell, but he had two friends. I dropped the Uzi instead of reloading, moved the handgun to my right hand for better aim and squeezed off a few shots, aiming for their heads. They also fell.
Then the Procompsognathus ate me, but I still felt like a badass. This is the HTC Vive game Island 359, the first game from Cloud Gate Studio, the company founded by Bowler and Chapman. Or at least it's a very early proof of concept.
"You find yourself as a mercenary for hire, being hired to go investigate this island that multiple private military contractors couldn't contain, the government couldn't contain, and nobody knows why this island has this infestation on it," Bowler explained. "So you land and everything goes south. And you realize the island is overrun by dinosaurs. It's a survive, kill or kill be type of mission to get to the center of truth on the island."
There will be a survival mode that will let you shoot dinosaurs for 15 minutes or so within a jungle area while also upgrading your gear and leveling up your stats to try to stay alive as long as possible. You'll also be able to move around and hide from your prey while the dinosaurs hunt you. The story mode will dig into how these dinosaurs got here, complete with a more traditional narrative, broken into chapters.
Every moment of the demo I played, from the helicopter ride in to becoming what amounts to a more effective Muldoon, brings to mind a certain film.
"I don't want to say Jurassic Park too much, but it really is the main inspiration," Chapman said. "We keep saying 90s action movies. But that's where virtually everyone has their basis of dinosaur knowledge."
Which makes the game much more complex than The Brookhaven Experiment, where the player stood in one place and the monsters walked towards you. In Island 359 you can hold the touch pad and look for glowing columns that tell you where you can warp, allowing you to explore the island.
You can also walk around your play area to explore each spot, picking up weapons or upgrades or hiding behind things like crates or crashed cars that allow you to escape the dinosaur's sight. The animals don't just see you and run towards you, they hunt.
"The expectations are higher with dinosaurs than they are for zombies or creatures like that," Chapman explained. "Jurassic Park kind of set up the standard for dinosaur behavior tropes. You can't have them just lurch towards you and attack. Pop culture knows them as smart beings with behavior dynamics."
That's what he's doing right now, in fact.
"That's why I'm spending the most time on raptors. They're the most complex in terms of AI." The raptors travel in groups, they'll talk to each other and attack you from different angles. The rest of the pack will pounce if one of them is hurt or distressed. Once raptors are solid they'll work on the Compys, and then the T-rex.
"Even the T-rex has a bunch of trope-y things, like the vision-based movement and things of that nature," Chapman said. "It's one of those things I really want to play on, because that's what people will expect."
The demo I played was impressive, but it was clearly early. They hope to have a fuller version of the game ready for early access this summer, and will then decide how far they want to take it. If the fans don't respond, it could stay a smaller game. If it's a hit, they have plenty of ways to expand the island, dinosaurs and weapons.
The team is still just two people, and they're buying most of the models in the game from outside sources.
"What we can't buy and use from asset stores, sound libraries, character model libraries and gun libraries and all that stuff, what we can't buy we try to modify from what we do have," Bowler said. "From the two of us it doesn't make any sense to start making things from scratch. It's all about how we're combining these things for you in a unique way rather than the artistry and craft of each individual element."
This is more efficient in some ways, but it also introduces challenges into development.
"You're not the art director, you can't tell these people who are selling their assets for $5 to make something the way you want it to be made and fit your particular vision," Chapman said. "There's still a large amount of editing going on to make things work, and to adjust textures and things like that to fit the style we want."
The dinosaurs, for example, are a combination of purchased assets and work from the two men. Some of the dinosaurs are heavily modified from the models they bought. They're creating the T-Rex from scratch. But this method of creating the game allows them to spend more time on doing what they enjoy.
"Content takes so incredibly long to make anything," Chapman continued. "Steve and I can design out new systems and things like that in a couple of hours. We'd be like hey, now you can fly this plane! That took an afternoon! But model a plane? That's going to take three weeks. I'd rather just buy that stuff."
A version you can buy is coming in a few months; the demo I played is much more of a proof of concept, complete with some random bugs. You can't fire both Uzis at once when you're dual-wielding, for example, and during one session I played for around 20 minutes without seeing, or hearing, a single dinosaur.
I told Bowler about this problem, and he said that the dinosaurs were likely spawning ... and then wandering off away from me and deeper into the jungle instead of attacking. In essence, the dinosaurs were being too much like dinosaurs.
The two men are working long hours to fix these issues, and to deliver a game that takes some inspiration from The Brookhaven Experiment and expands on it. The movement system, with its warping, was inspired by Budget Cuts, but they're still trying to deliver the best gun experience in VR. Even at the early stages of development I had a blast shooting the Allosaurs in the face, complete with nightmarish strobe effect as the flash from my gun lit up the faces of the dinosaurs.
This is why the two men left what seemed like a sure thing: To work on something bigger. Something that will hopefully be better. "We really wanted to do it on our own dime, on our own time, controlling our destiny," Bowler explained. "We had an opportunity, all the cards lined up and we were able to pull the trigger on it."