November 8, 2011 1:00 PM | John Polson
IGF 2012 entry Alone in Dreams (once called "Alone") by Frederico Machuca and Alec Holowka has generated interest for its playful graphics, ambitious mixing of genres and for the developer's desire to use it as an example to teach Unity.
Interested in learning Unity myself, I spoke with Holowka about his project and his pedagogical plans. Holowka hopes to finish Alone in Dreams in 6-10 months. He's not sure exactly where they'll be releasing it, but it will run on PC and Mac.
He feels that Unity is the best tool so far for the job and for getting into game development. "It's really easy to jump in and start making little physics simulations and really basic behaviors."
He says that some basic programming knowledge is needed, but many professionals such as artists can collaborate with programmers easily with Unity. "Since any script in Unity is automatically accessible as a GUI panel, it makes it really easy for artists to immediately tweak stuff that a programmer has set up."
Unity also has the Asset Store, which he likens to being able to "throw money at problems instead of actually figuring out how to solve them for yourself. So for instance, you could buy a script developed by someone else and manipulate it with really simple GUI controls." For the sake of learning, he'd rather see people writing their own work, but says it depends on the project and where time can be allocated.
But to clarify the point from earlier, the game itself doesn't teach people Unity.
"The game is a basis for a series of tutorials, which means that we'll be writing tutorials around the game. i.e. How did we make a specific gameplay mechanic work? How did we get these visual effects? What were the design decisions we went through?" Some of the tutorials may be based directly on things in Alone in Dreams; others will use content from the game in different ways.
"Alone is tutorial friendly," he says, "because the basics of the gameplay are pretty simple code-wise. It makes use of a lot of different animated 3D assets, an inventory system - which are things I get a lot of questions about. It also covers a lot of different types of gameplay, so it's a good opportunity to talk about how to do a lot of different things."
After people watch the above tutorial, Holowka hopes they will ask how certain things work, so future videos can be tailored to their interests.
Holowka also hopes people of all ages engage with Alone in Dreams itself. "I personally find Myst-style adventure games a little too static for my taste, so we're merging in a lot of different types of gameplay." This is evident in the different gameplay elements shown in the tutorial.
For instance, the ball does some interesting things throughout the game, such as how it is thrown from a first-person perspective and how it bounces around the bedroom. Holowka also points out that "you can see the child motoring around on a giant toy boat. This is one example of a different way of moving that is not based on paths, yet still is really easy to control and also gives you access to the throwing mechanic."
The gameplay inspiration comes from thinking of his games in terms of worlds, not genres. "What is the world about? What kind of stuff would you want to do if you could actually run around inside this world?"
Holowka and Machuca's top priority is to make an engaging, immersive game, with the educating of how to make the game secondary. "Because the game merges so many different types of gameplay, [Alone is] a great vehicle for talking about how all these different mechanics can be achieved in Unity."
Alone in Dreams' former title, simply Alone, hinted at the game being a vehicle to deliver a deeper, personal meaning, as Holowka confirms. "It ties into being an independent game developer, in that you do feel alone. Coding a lengthy indie project is going to make you feel pretty lonely, for example. It also speaks to how creative people often have a vision that isn't shared by many other people. This can lead to feeling isolated."
He continues, "I also think the title is counterpoint to the idea of people working together to help each other out, which is something that we're hoping to do with the tutorials. I like warm/cold contrasts, so maybe this is just another example of that... [something] you'll want to play by yourself in a dark room, and the tutorials will be something you'll want to talk about and pick apart in the light."