Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Interview: The Saurian Development Team

A year ago, frustrated by the truth that the dinosaur experience I want will probably never be a goal of filmmakers, I wrote The Chase, a necessary bit of spleen-venting in the wake of Talking With Dinosaurs 3D. If you've followed my writing on Jurassic Park and other big dinosaur projects in the pop culture over the years, you'll admittedly see a bumpy ride. I've been variously resigned to the status quo, cautiously optimistic about rumored projects, and utterly deflated by studio mismanagement of promising projects (what did David Krentz do in a past life, anyway?). What was the experience I wanted from these big dinosaur projects? Let's let slightly-younger me tell you. Take it away, knucklehead:
What I want is an immersive, I-just-time-travelled-to-the-Mesozoic feel, with a great score and as little anthropomorphism as possible. There's no way that film gets made anytime soon.

There's hope, though. Who knows what will be possible as the technology gets cheaper and dinosaur fanatics get more motivated to make something on their own? Or perhaps expecting a feature film is the wrong way to look at it. Maybe the dream of an immersive exploration of prehistory is better left to game designers, like the folks behind Saurian.

The Hell Creek ecosystem, as seen in Saurian.

Currently in development, Saurian is a survival-based game seeking to recreate the Hell Creek ecosystem of the end-Cretaceous. It's clearly a labor of love, and as news and in-progress work has been shared, I've been getting more excited. With the release of their first gameplay trailer, I thought it was a great time to interview the team about the project.

At IndieDB you write that your goal is to create "the most captivating dinosaur experience ever developed for commercial gaming, giving the player the first true chance to live like a dinosaur." What games, films, or other pieces of art or entertainment are inspirations in this quest?

Nick Turinetti, Project Lead: We’re obviously huge dinosaur fans to be making a game like this, so between all of us we’ve probably gotten our hands on every game that’s featured dinosaurs in one way or another over the past 15 years. Having said that, in our collective opinion most of them were not terribly impressive. Two games that have directly featured dinosaurs that have had real influence on Saurian would be “Big Al Game” from BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs website (sadly no longer available) and Be the Dinosaur which was actually developed as part of a museum exhibit of the same name. Other non-dinosaur video games that have been especially influential are Far Cry 3 and 4, Red Dead Redemption, Skyrim and Dark Souls. As far as films go, we’re all fans of the original Jurassic Park. We never go a day without quoting it half a dozen times at each other. Phil Tippett’s short film Prehistoric Beast is still probably the best dinosaur film ever made, and its mood and tension are something we aspire to. Peter Jackson’s King Kong and James Cameron’s Avatar with their expansive world building have also been major sources of inspiration.

Thescelosaurus, showing off its quilly finery (top) and seeking refuge (bottom).

Are there specific pieces of paleoart that have served as inspirations for the vision of Saurian?

Tom Parker, Environment and Level Design: All of our artists are inspired beyond anything else by the collective works of Doug Henderson. If we could achieve a visual style with Saurian that resembled a Henderson painting in motion then we would consider our job well done. His Leptoceratops piece in particular captures a sense of environmental scale that we adore. His animals look like they are a part of the environment and not separate from it, which is something we want to capture. Our other key influence would be the so-called “All Yesterdays” movement, particularly the titular book and the palaeoart of Matt Martyniuk. We take on this philosophy of experimenting with interesting visual design without ever contradicting the fossil evidence. Matt Wedel of SV-POW! once said “If you go bold, you won’t be right; whatever you dream up is not going to the same as whatever outlandish structure the animal actually had. On the other hand, if you don’t go bold, you’ll still be wrong, and now you’ll be boring, too”, and this has also played a role in our creature design. I don’t know if this counts as inspiration, but we are extremely grateful for the skeletal reconstructions of Scott Hartman which allow us to get our animals as accurately proportioned as possible. Other influential palaeoartists include classics like Charles R. Knight, Zdenek Burian and James Gurney. Like Henderson, these artists are all masters of incorporating the animals into their environments.

Henderson and Tippett are certainly perfect inspirations. Prehistoric Beast really hasn’t been equalled. In every frame you can feel the love of Tippett’s team. In what ways do you hope to evoke its mood and tension?

Nick: It might sound silly but I find Prehistoric Beast legitimately chilling, and a lot of that has to do with the way Tippett portrayed the tyrannosaur; a sly, cunning predator who skulks in the shadows despite being the size of a bus, making even a peaceful meadow a dangerous place to be alone. That’s the sort of mood and tension we’d want to evoke in Saurian, both for someone playing as a predator like Tyrannosaurus or as its potential prey. Even in the game’s current (very early) state, I think we’ve started to capture it. Being chased by a T. rex is scary, but watching it move through a forest clearing and knowing it’s looking for you is scarier. Being alone in the same meadow and not being able to see it or know where it might be automatically puts a player on edge as well. I never want a player to feel completely “safe” when playing Saurian, there should always be something out there to keep you on your toes.

Triceratops takes the stage.

Why was Hell Creek chosen as the setting? Were other localities considered?

Tom: Hell Creek has always been the plan. There are a few reasons as to why it is the best choice for this kind of project. Firstly it offers a quality combination animals such as Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, Pachycephalosaurus and Ankylosaurus that are extremely popular and instantly recognisable to the general public along with other more unique fauna that offer an interesting variety. Secondly, the formation is one of the absolute most studied and published-on in the world in terms of flora and palaeoenvironment. This is important to us as it makes our job of restoring the environment much easier and less ambiguous than other, less well-documented ages.

Nick: Another benefit is that the Hell Creek Formation records a comparatively short period of time compared to many other formations, so we can be reasonably confident that all of the animals found there did in fact form one community.

You recently brought RJ Palmer on board. How did you come to recruit him, and what has he brought to the process, besides the obvious role of creature design?

RJ Palmer, Concept Artist: I found these guys from some tumblr post that was going around. I showed them my dinosaur drawings and shoved my way onto the team. I like to think I bring an outside perspective to the group as I joined later in development and can look at things with the eye of an artist and not a scientist. I bring some connections to the party such as helping with expanding our audience.

Nick: RJ’s fresh perspective has helped push us outside of our comfort zone when it comes to creature design, and we’ve definitely improved because of it. He’s also been really good at asking the tough questions in our design process, making sure we’ve fully explored all options.

RJ Palmer's Quetzalcoatlus design, here nomming on a champsosaur.

I'm assuming that the score used in the pre-alpha gameplay trailer is not final. What do you foresee concerning the sound design? What are the challenges of bringing the environment to life through sound?

Dillon Gotham, Sound Designer: For what the future entails, many important animals (both in public conscience and in ecological importance) to be voiced are small, which present their own challenges compared to large animals, and while animals tend to be silent on the hunt, when fighting conspecifics they are not. Simple, repetitive attack sounds will not do. As for the general challenges of Saurian’s sound design, currently none of the team is reliably able to record audio in the field; it is primarily audio libraries that are available for me to work with. But that does not mean the world of Saurian and its inhabitants have to sound like it. Saurian must sound unique and charismatic, yet also as naturalistic as it looks. For animals, this means mixing and masking their individual elements to become its own character. Because the stars of the game are archosaurs, in the process of creating sound effects for Saurian I add modern archosaurs to the mix and emphasize them whenever reasonable, but there are limits; as an example, passerine birds evolved after the K/Pg mass extinction; they are almost entirely off limits as they more often than not live up to the name of “songbird.” This also means I also need to ensure there’s no songbirds in background sounds!

I've been pondering the failures and clumsy handling of dinosaur media recently - for example, the addition of voices to WWD3D and the meddling that compromised Dinosaur Revolution. It seems that the revolutionary role Jurassic Park played in dinosaur pop culture has many of us hungry for that next big moment, and all of these fumbles are more dispiriting for it. I personally think that it is going to come from gaming (Saurian is certainly the most promising project I’ve seen). Do you think there is hope for traditional storytelling media such as film and animation to tell a dinosaur story that captures popular imagination and makes dinosaur enthusiasts happy?

Bryan Phillips, Animator: When I set about animating one of Saurian’s animals, I tend to stay away from established media such as Jurassic Park and Walking With Dinosaurs, oddly enough shows like Big Cat Diary play a much larger role in creating the character of the animals in Saurian. We’re also probably the only game developer out there to have our own Emu and he plays a large role in the animation behind our bipeds. I do believe there is hope for new works, the trick is staying grounded in the fact that these aren’t monsters, they were living, breathing animals who in practice were likely no different than animals living today.

Tom: A big thing for us from the outset has been that we were not interested in creating a game where extinct animals are nothing more than glorified canon fodder. They are essentially treated in video games in the same manner as zombies and aliens. We feel strongly that this should not be the case. Dinosaurs are in our opinion some of the most interesting animals to have ever walked the planet and deserve to shine on their own merits.

Nick: I think there is still hope that film and animation could tell a dinosaur story that appeals to the general public, the problem is that Jurassic Park and its framework loom so large in popular culture that people have a hard time thinking outside the park (terrible pun, I know). So many films and games just vomit out cheap Jurassic Park knock offs that people have come to expect that as “normal”. My suspicion is that it will take a generation to really work JP out of the public conscious now that Jurassic World is a thing, and that’s a bit disappointing because there are so many other good stories out there that don’t have Jurassic Park’s baggage. I would love to see Raptor Red or Cretaceous Dawn turned into a visual experience.

An Ankylosaurus meetup (top); Saurian Animator Bryan Phillips with Gerry, the trusty model (bottom).

How has the online community contributed to the process of Saurian? When I think of when I was a kid, I would have been blown away to have the access I do now to dinosaur experts and paleontologists.

Nick: I think its safe to say Saurian would still be a pipe-dream were it not for the incredible access to information and experts the internet provides. We’ve had the good fortune of having a small support network of university students with access to most major scientific publications, but we’re huge supporters of Open Access. We’ve also had the ability to ask questions directly of paleo workers as well, including Denver Fowler, Matt Wedel, Gregory Wilson and John Hutchinson, all of whom have been extremely helpful with their critique and input. Beyond access to information, Saurian’s development team would still be a bunch of really talented people all still wishing they could find other people interested in making a game were it not for the online communities we’re all part of. Except Bryan. He’d be doing it all by himself regardless.

Many thanks to the whole team for taking the time to answer my questions. I'll definitely be watching their progress eagerly. Be sure to follow Saurian's evolution at IndieDB, Facebook, and Twitter. Also check out their recent interview with Brian Switek at Dinologue. All images in this post kindly provided by the Saurian team and posted with permission.


  1. I wish this team luck. Their hearts are in the right place. Still, I'm a little cynical at this point because we've seen many developers promise great dinosaur games and either not put out a finished product or put out games that didn't live up to what was promised. I'm old enough to remember the debacle that was Jurassic Park: Trespasser -- in fact, I was in line opening day to buy a copy. It was a huge disappointment, to say the least. Part of the problem was the technology didn't exist at the time to create a huge 3D world with a reasonably realistic ecosystem. Ironically, that technology exists now -- check out the Far Cry games -- but big game studios are not interested in dinosaurs, for whatever reason. That leaves us with small developers whose ambitions often outpace their skills and resources. Don't get me wrong: I hope Saurian is a great game and it makes a lot of money for its developers. But I wonder what kind of dinosaur game we would get if a larger studio threw some real money into one.

    On second thought, Trespasser was that game.

  2. Has the Saurian team stuck a fake tail on their emu yet to see what happens?

  3. Best of luck you guys a realistic perspective is what we need. In addition if archeroraptor is semi arboreal I will explode with delight.

    1. No evidence to suggest that so probablly not going to be added

  4. Let me put this in a compliment sandwich: it will probably be better than anything we have currently (but the bar is not high). A criticism, but maybe premature, the vegetation looks very park-like and vibrant green - almost like a planted landscape. One of the things that works so well in Hernderson's work - a stated influence - is that he shows vegetation in all manner of decay and rebirth. Fallen logs, dead, dried fronds, vines and moss creeping everywhere. Based on what I have seen in these screengrabs the vegetation landscape could use some more variety and decay. And hopefully there are not too many isolated "celibate" cycads. Cycads are clump/grove forming and even many celebrated contemporary paleoartists get this wrong. But to complete the compliment sandwich I think the Thescelsaurus? I guess - it looks pretty cool but I would have made it a little fatter and tapir like.

  5. This game has promise,but I like it so far...

  6. They claim accuracy but these guys wouldnt know it if hit them in the head... theres no such thing as most accurate in paleontology theres accurate or not.. and right now i hope there are other games out there that arent trying to force feed you their opinion and call it Most accurate.. this claim destroys their credibility .. more and more misconception no wonder the public knows nothing about real dinosaurs i am a scientists and no responsible scientist would make these boastful claims...i am offended this needs to come to light,,, these guys are not accurate with the claims they make. go study what real accuracy in paleo art is.

    1. Oh aren't you just adorable. This is goal post shifting by people who value art more then science. You love to hide in the shadows of ambiguity. Credible scientists are ones who follow the data, that's what the people behind Saurian are doing and that is why they are touted by, praised by and even consulted by actual paleontologists. Who the hell are you? Your grammar seems to indicate you aren't very well educated, I doubt very much you are any real scientist. Go study paleontology then you can come back to paleo art.

    2. you are partly right,saurian is not 100% accurate, nor is any paleoproject out there,saurian team grabs the newest and most accurate info they can find,plus this article is old anyways,check out rr_raptor65's twitch to see how they are doing now

    3. you are partly right,saurian is not 100% accurate, nor is any paleoproject out there,saurian team grabs the newest and most accurate info they can find,plus this article is old anyways,check out rr_raptor65's twitch to see how they are doing now

    4. This is partially true, the game has many unrealistic, hypothetical elements that are not widely accepted. Not necessarily unrealistic but they should probably go with what most paleontologists believe to be true based on current evidence

  7. I am hoping that we could play as a flying dinosaur, my reason is that I would love to test out their grace, diving down and quickly pulling up, dodging vines and branches on the hunt for something to scavenge, I like how things have come about for the game and am new to learning a bout it, VERY exciting stuff, keep up the amazing work people :)


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