Kickstarting Innovation: The Biggest MN-Made Game Since Oregon Trail
Some video games are excavated. Others use fossils as their core appeal. In the case of Saurian, a dinosaur survival game from Duluth-based Urvogel Games, the latter is being developed.
Project lead Nick Turinetti is leading a 14-person team of programmers, digital artists and a dinosaur descendant (in this case, an emu) named Gerry. With nearly $200,000 financial backing, Saurian is poised to not only become one of the biggest Minnesota-made games since Oregon Trail, but also the most anatomically correct piece of dinosaur media ever created. (And yes, that accounts for the Jurassic Park movies). With Saurian’s Kickstarter campaign closing on Thursday, Turinetti talked to TCB about how the game came into being, its partnership with paleontologists, how he manages his worldwide team and why he believes Saurian embodies the future of video game development.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Your original goal was to raise $55,000 on Kickstarter. With three days left on your campaign, you’re nearing $200,000 and have amassed just about 5,500 backers. I’d love to hear your reaction to the funding support you’ve received.
I think for all of us this pretty much blew our minds. We hit our base funding goal in just about two days and we were expecting to spend most of the campaign trying to hit that first [$55,000] goal. It’s really humbling that there are so many people out there who see this idea and want to be a part of this and back it. One of the things they say about Kickstarter is the number of people who pledge is much smaller than the number of people who are truly interested, and that’s a really positive thing. There are so many people out there who are waiting to play it when it’s done.
What inspired you to make Saurian?
My “eureka” moment was when I was in college [at the University of Minnesota—Duluth]. I finally had gotten a decent computer that I could play a lot of games on. There are a bunch of games that influenced Saurian, but I think the greatest influence was a park builder called Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis. And that was basically all you had for dinosaur games for a while. A couple other games that were influential were Spore and Jaws Unleashed, which was basically an open world game where you play the shark from Jaws. And then the game that pushed me to make a game like Saurian was Red Dead Redemption because it had this huge open world with different regions and ecosystems. It opened my eyes to how immersive a game—especially one that was semi-historically accurate—could be.
Have you ever taken on a project like this? And how long has the idea of Saurian been around?
This is actually my first game development project. I didn’t go to school for game development. I think I describe myself on the Kickstarter page as just a guy with a dream. Once you start taking a project like this seriously, one of the first things you realize is ‘wow, I don’t know anything about modeling or programming or what it takes to make a game.’ So my first thought was I’ll have to find people who know how to make a game. I first solidified the idea of what I wanted Saurian to be about three-and-a-half years ago. Before that even, I bounced around different game projects that had to do with dinosaurs. One of them I wound up being a forum moderator on and it was through that experience that I met our 3D modeler, one of our research leads and a couple programmers. We eventually refined the idea amongst ourselves and set up threads or different posts on forums to attract attention. And the point when we connected with our animator Bryan was when I realized Saurian could happen because if we have models that look good both visually and movement-wise, that’s what you can use to attract programmers.
In what ways has building the most “scientifically accurate prehistoric experience” to date driven interest in your project?
Well, I absolutely know it has driven interest from people who have zero interest in gaming. I’ve had people tell me over and over again, ‘I haven’t backed a game on Kickstarter or paid attention to a video game in over a decade, but this caught my attention because of what you are doing with attention to detail and putting accuracy of the world and the animals first.’ Because of that we’ve had numerous, very fruitful connections with paleontologists who’ve come to us. They’ve told us the fusion of entertainment and science is the sort of thing science communication lacks and is generally in need of. There have been times where they’ve told us ‘you are asking questions on the cutting edge of scientific knowledge and I can’t give you a yes or no answer because one doesn’t exist, but I can give you the best estimate from leading scientists in the field right now.’
Do you hope Saurian gains traction in schools?
We never set out with the intention of making an educational game since so many of us have had the experience of playing educational games that aren’t that much fun. If it turns out to be educational for someone, it’ll be because people will have been curious about something in it and want to learn more. But we want the core experience in the game to be entertaining.
Let’s talk about Gerry, your dinosaur motion consultant. It’s kind of amazing that you have a resident emu to best replicate dinosaur animations.
Well, Gerry is Bryan’s emu, and Bryan is our 3D animator from Idaho. There are many aspects of dinosaur anatomy that you can’t look at another animal to get an idea of, for instance, how their joints function or their intended character movements. Gerry has also provided feathers to make textures for models in the game, like on the Tyrannosaurus rex. He’s also a very curious animal and keeps an eye on anything Bryan is doing. So Gerry’s curiosity is also something we’ve taken into account with the dinosaur's AI [artificial intelligence].
Your team is spread across four continents. How do you keep the project cohesively moving along?
It’s a lot of juggling to match time zones, to be sure. There’ve been three tools that have been exceedingly helpful and without them would have made this project impossible. Skype was our main form of communication for a period of time. We’ve now started using Discord, which is originally set up as a platform for people who wanted to voice chat and text chat while playing games together. I don’t think it’s intended for project coordination, but it is extremely helpful. And we also have a professional Dropbox account. That was how we exchanged things like information, screenshots, artwork and for a time we used it to house the entire project. We’ve since set up separate servers for the actual project files, but we still use Dropbox for the information exchange.
How often are your team members in communication?
Those of us who have time have some form of project communication open all day. I have Discord on my laptop at work and desktop at home, so I’m keeping tabs on it and monitoring where progress has been made throughout the day. Even though we’re spread across continents, we are in pretty rapid communication with one another. And I think there are definitely times where we could have made faster progress if we were in a centralized location, but I think it speaks to modern game development and how cloud development is the future. Not to say physical offices are a thing of the past, it’s just that we’ve pretty rapidly acquired the tools to do this without a centralized location. That doesn’t necessarily mean your productivity is the same, but I think you can get something comparable if you have people dedicated to a project and willing to act professionally and work on it.
Will you be adding new members to your team post-Kickstarter?
I think that’s one of the things that is going to get hashed out as soon as we know how much money we will be getting from Kickstarter. We’re looking at six months until we push out our early access version of the game, and there are a ton of things that need to be done. For most of this game’s development, it has been a volunteer effort. We’ve provided our own funds to continue working. So from the perspective of the person in charge of this, you really have to have a full level of commitment. It has to be a passion project. Saurian has gotten so far with so little in terms of resources.
How much experience does your team have with virtual reality? Looking at your stretch goals, that benchmark is about to be hit.
We actually are pretty well positioned right now. A few of our team members have VR equipment already. So people have asked us why VR because the market is small right now. Even though VR development is tricky, it’s far more accessible than trying to get a game onto consoles [like the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One]. Console development is surprisingly resource intensive. One of our newer team members has worked at numerous game studios and per his experience, he says you’ll need to budget about $100,000 between licensing, development kits and the actual act of moving the entire game over to a new platform. Whereas VR at this stage, you can buy a VR development kit for pennies on that. Individuals might try Saurian because of the current lack of gaming options with VR, but more to the point, its much easier for institutions to own VR devices. One of the things we are looking at is the chance Children’s Museums or a Natural History Museum in town may have five Oculus Rifts to play Saurian as part of its dinosaur exhibit.
For a developer to find success on Kickstarter, there has to be some sort of headway on the game’s development. How much time, money and energy was put into the front end of Saurian before it went public?
I struggle to think about how many man-hours it took to get it to the point where we were ready to show the game off, let alone getting it Kickstarter ready. I think the biggest thing that has been a driving factor is the previous dinosaur-related games on Kickstarter have had a checkered history. The best example I can think of is The Stomping Land. It was an effort by a person with previous experience within the games industry. He asked for $20,000 to make a game where you were a tribal human living on an island populated by dinosaurs. He wound up making $114,000 on Kickstarter and eventually got to the point where it had an initial alpha release, and suddenly this guy just dropped off the face of the earth. And as a result, projects like Saurian instantly have this stigma where people ask us to tell them why we aren’t like The Stomping Land. Our upfront goal was to convince this niche audience with a bad taste in their mouth that we were different, which we’ve done by showing in-game action and gameplay.
What is the distribution plan for Saurian post-Kickstarter?
At this point, [the video game marketplace] Steam is absolutely our most viable avenue. My impression is the bulk of our pledges will be fulfilled through Steam download codes. There’s absolutely no reason why we would not pursue a console release. It’s just a matter of having the funds and connections to be able to do so. But first off we’ll have to be very successful through PC, Mac and Linux before we pursue consoles. At the end of the day, yes this is a passion project, but we all have to eat.