Dene Carter on the struggle to make Incoboto

'I wanted to inspire people'

Dene Carter on the struggle to make Incoboto
| Incoboto

After more than a quarter of a century of pumping out hits like Fable, Dungeon Keeper, and Druid, you could forgive Dene Carter for having nothing left to prove.

But rather than wistfully reflect on past glories, the past two years have been spent crafting the Gold Award-winning Incoboto, one of the finest example of tablet gaming yet.

Described by Pocket Gamer as "a beautifully designed, relentlessly inventive space oddity with genuine heart," it is, according to Carter, "22 solid months of mechanic experimentation."

And it's an experiment that came off in spectacular, moving style - if not without some bumps in the road, as our in-depth chat with the game's sole creator reveals.

Pocket Gamer: What was the inspiration behind Incoboto?

Dene Carter: It's very wistful...I call it Project Suicide for a number of reasons, in that it was inspired by possibly one of the most depressing and wonderful pieces of animation I've seen in my life called Space Alone by Ilias Sounas.

At the same time, actually working on it by myself inspired very much the same feeling as I'm hoping the game inspires in other people, that is tragic, crashing depression, and a sense of desolation and loss.

There are too many happy games in my experience...

Too damned right. I listen to a huge amount of a band called Swans, and I think it kind of shows in this game, so, yes.

How has it done in the first week?

Really well, actually.

Are you responsible for the music, as well?

Everything! Too damned right, yeah. The game, honestly, is the side effect of my annoyance of working for a large company, really.

There's nothing wrong with large companies and big franchises - I think they're fantastic things, but if you're someone who comes from a background like me, i.e. back in the '80s and early '90s, you did everything.

I used to code, I used to do art, I'd do music, it was great.

incoboto-ipad-crop-1 It must have driven you slightly bonkers...

Absolutely. Completely bonkers. Because I would come home at the end of the week, and my wife would ask me, "so what did you do?", and I'd go, "Well, I told some guys to do this," you know, and I knuckled my way around the room pretending to be a Hob or a Balring or something. "But what did you do?" Yeeeeah....

Whereas now you've got something tangible to show for your efforts.

Absolutely. I've got a house full of synthesisers, and, you know, art stuff and whatever else, and it was just an opportunity to lob all of my experiences and everything into one massively self-indulgent ego fest, and kind of just kind of get something out there, because that's what this does.

I mean, this whole Apple thing is such a hugely empowering medium, and an empowering platform. If you can do something, you can just bloody do it. It's fantastic.

Just cut loose and do what the hell you like. It doesn't matter.

Nope, exactly, and the fact that it took 22 months and has a stupid name nobody can remember is another issue entirely.

But I didn't do Incoboto to make a commercial project. There were a bunch of things I wanted to do in terms of mood and tone, and making people feel a certain way when they were playing the game.

I mean, seriously, I make jokes about it being depressing, etc., but I wanted to inspire people to feel the same way I did when I saw Space Alone, a little animation that made the entirety of Lionhead react, 'Why does art have to be so sad?'... it brought a little tear to my eye.

And I thought, 'I've got to do that, I'm going to grab that feeling and make an entire game around that.' So that's kind of what it is, really.

incoboto-ipad-crop-2 Did it succeed in what you set out to do?

For me, yes. I'm really really pleased. I played it through, and it's one of the few games I've ever made where, when I've played it through, relatively recently afterwards, I still enjoyed it, and that's fantastic, really.

It's often quite a challenge not to be sick of the things you create in the end.

I know, absolutely [sighs]. Even though I wasn't actually making the graphics or art of Fable or anything like that, I really knew the world to such a ridiculous extent that all I could see were the tiny component parts that everything was made up of by the end of it.

As David Lynch said, don't concentrate on the hole, concentrate on the doughnut, which I think is a lovely, lovely phrase. You never even saw what the hole was, and nor did the audience. They don't know what was missed out.

They don't know the fact that this piece of grass doesn't quite match with this fence post. They don't see that - they see the whole thing.

But this game, I dunno, I played it through joyfully on Saturday, and thought, 'Wow, this is the first time in a very long time I've done that.'

How do you make sure people actually buy the damned thing?

That's much more difficult.

So, first of all, I was actually quite gratified that Apple was quite receptive to it - really early on in development, actually. I just used the fact that I was blogging as I was going along, I was saying I have a certain level of aspiration for this, and I got nice mails from Apple saying, 'we might be quite interested in featuring this', so it's featured.

And so it should be.

It's a lovely thing, but at the same time you have no control over that. You have no insight into the black box that is Apple's decision-making process, and I lost out to Waking Mars [for Game of the Week], which is a fine, fine game. Gah.

I feel like they're similar games in terms of if you just describe them as a space exploration puzzle game. They just pipped me to the post, and I think that's because they're on larger platforms - iPhone as well as iPad, whereas [Incoboto] is iPad specific.

incoboto-ipad-crop-3 What made you concentrate specifically on iPad?

The fact that I wanted to make it feel big. I wanted to make you feel small, very vulnerable, and helpless in a very big, unfeeling, unfriendly, dead universe.

It originally started off as an iPhone game, and that was fine, but because some of the constructions are quite large, the only way to get around that is to zoom the camera out. And once you zoom the camera out a certain amount, manoeuvring a 2x2 pixel character on-screen [is a] bit of a challenge.

And not just that, also if you're trying to make everything kind of emotive, the reason that Helios is always where he is in relation to the character is because those are actually really good kind of divine proportions, and they sit nicely in the frame.

So when you're running to the left or right, you'll notice Helios sits in a certain space. If you measure those lines, it's about directly a third of the screen, if I haven't screwed up the maths.

Again, on the iPhone, if you start doing that you have to zoom things right out or make Helios strangely go far away and it was really unwieldy.

I thought, you know what, actually this is an iPad game because this is a big, far, wide cinematic experience, and the soundtrack kind of backs that up, as well.

Any plans for an iPhone port?

I might have a go at doing an iPhone version at some point, but if it doesn't work I'm not going to do it.

Technically I could do it, it's not an issue. I played Sword & Sworcery EP on the iPad and thoroughly enjoyed the experience - that actually gave me the bravery to do this in some respects. It was appreciated.

The amount of times I developed this and thought, you know what, is this enough? Do I need to add a gun? And I knew from the very first time that I didn't want to make a violent game, not because I have a particular problem with violence, but I just didn't want that to be the overarching emotion.

I didn't want it to be about you being powerful. I wanted it to be about you being helpless and lost, and Sword & Sworcery EP gave me the courage to go, you know what, pursue the vision.

If you do it with conviction, you end up with something that's much more meaningful, and I've had some of the loveliest emails I've ever received in my life based on people's experiences with the game, and that's been genuinely really, really touching.

This device allows you to have a very intimate relationship with your audience.

incoboto-ipad-crop-4 Is that why you went for iPad instead of PC?

Yes, there's obviously a very large indie scene on PC, but again, there's something nice about iPad. It feels like something you should play games on. You can carry it around, you can play it on the couch.

It's surprising how many purist hardcore gamers still seem unconvinced.

I wonder if it had a little joystick on it, and it had one stuck there permanently, whether they'd think, oh, it's obviously a very valid gaming platform now...

There's sometimes a traditionalist stance that they're somehow not 'proper' games.

It's stupid. Find me a mobile platform that has a screen as big as that. There isn't one.

What do you make of "the new iPad"?

I should never make a negative Apple comment, ever. I think that's a good way to make sure your games never turn up on the App Store, but, as a developer, and as someone whose first talents isn't necessarily the programming side of it - I did it, but it was bloody painful, I did my own physics for the game.

My coding is... okay, so when someone says we've done something that means you're going to have to alter your coding again, you kind of think, 'oh, god, no. More bugs. More bugs will be coming, that's not good.' So, yay, I look forward to playing other people's games.

...just not having to deal with your own!

I enjoy work. I really enjoy work sometimes, but once you've finished something, it's so nice to go [breathes sigh of relief], I'm done, I can relax now. And so it just means I'm going to have to do more work to make sure it actually lives up to the new platform.

incoboto-ipad-cropped-6 Good timing in a way, but also the worst possible timing?

Yes... why couldn't it be next week? That would have been better!

Do you think Peter Molyneux got a little envious about the creativity of being independent and wanted to do this kind of thing?

Obviously there is a link that his leaving comes so soon after I released this game. I think there might be a link [smirks].

It's quite possible. I don't know what he's doing, actually. I'm sure he'll have tremendous fun doing it. My guess is he probably left for the same reasons as I did. It's nice sometimes to get back to your grass roots.

Especially when, like yourself, you already know what it's like on the other side of the fence.

Absolutely. But at the same time look at what's happening to the industry as a whole at the moment - it's fragmenting and fracturing, and the money isn't necessarily where people think it was five years ago, or, hell, three years ago.

Massive seismic shifts and changes in attitudes, but it's fantastic. We have new audiences out there, people who have been trained to play games by playing Facebook games and wherever else, and - in my imagination, anyway - they're kind of going, 'well, what's next? I like this. This is nice. I wish there was something a bit better.'


Was the funding for Incoboto a challenge?

Not at all. I'm very blessed to have a wife who has a very well-paid job and infinite patience. She works for a very large management consultancy firm and understands that my happiness is probably more important than the fact that we might not be able to eat one week, which is nice. No, she was fantastic.

I actually deleted the game from my project files about two thirds of the way through. I completely lost faith that it had any merit in it.

My physics had another bug in it. I'm rubbish. It's just not gelling. It's not really coming together, I'm not sure the atmosphere is pervasive enough, it's not depressing enough, dammit. I'm just barking up the wrong tree. I'm just going to write a shoot-'em-up for myself.

My wife said, "let me play it", and she got me to take it out of the trash, and then I made a build for her and let her play it for about half an hour, and she said, "It's really good - you just need to finish it." My wife is very, very harsh, and it was exactly what I needed, and I sat down, through gritted teeth, did the level design.

Again, it's all very well sketching something out on paper and giving it to some amazingly talented guy and go, 'There you go, make that. It's fantastic!' And then it comes back and it's always ten times better than the thing you wrote on the piece of paper. 'Yeah, that's exactly what I meant! Well done. Good team effort!'

It's a different thing to sit there and go, right, well, I've got the music playing, I've got a glass of wine, and the candles are out, I've made a lovely working environment, you know what, I just won't engage with the making of a level. Oh god, this is terrible.

Procrastination at work...

Oh, dear lord. It was terrible. There were weeks where I sat there doing nothing. It was horrible.

It got to the point in the last week where I thought I'd used every single mechanic I possibly could, and all of the implications of every single thing in the entire game, and thought, that's it.

I'm going to have to cut a few levels here, and at the very, very last moment I just thought, hmm, I haven't abused that as much as I could, that can be abused another way, and managed to put it together as a cohesive whole. But, yes, good lord, it was one of the hardest experiences I've had in a very, very long career.

Were there times you ever thought of calling in help?

Yes and no. There were plenty of times where I felt like that, but at the same time, when you're setting out to do something yourself and the whole thing is trying to prove to yourself, there's pride involved.

Ok, so my brother is incredibly talented, but at no point did I kind of go, 'can I just hand you the physics? Just sort it out.' I couldn't do it.

I've got brilliant artist friends - who will be new colleagues, actually, in the new venture, and at no point did I say, 'Can you just finish the art for this? Can you just change the proportions for this because it's not working.'

No, bloody do it yourself. You've made a rod for your own back, now bloody well finish it.

Incoboto is available now on iPad for £2.99. Read our review.