Monday, 30 August 2010

"Hydrophobia" Q&A

This week I had an email interview with Rob Hewson, Senior Creative Designer at Dark Energy Digital. If you're aware of Dark Energy, you'll know that they're working on the awesome looking "Hydrophobia". I had a few questions about this game, and after reading the answers, I really can't wait to play it.

Can you tell me about the plot and characters of the game?

Our remit for the game was to create a 'tangible future', something intricately connected to the contemporary world politically and scientifically. The UN is forecasting a global population of over 9 billion by 2050 and not enough resources to sustain it, and there are a number of natural consequences to that scenario. Firstly there's conflict over the most precious resource of all; water. Secondly a new ideological divide arises, as the existing Malthusian and Cornucopian movements become increasingly relevant. So that's the political backdrop to Hydrophobia.

As always, it's emerging technology that defines which ideology ultimately wins, so continuing our 'tangible future' remit we investigated the upcoming trends in science and technology. Nanotechnology is cited as the big revolution over the next few decades, and one of the anticipated application is water purification at the molecular level.

The Malthusians and Cornucopians fundamentally disagree about the nature of the population problem. The Malthusians argue that there are too many people and governments need to control or reduce population growth, but the Cornucopians believe the focus should be on developing the technology to increase resources and feed the population.

The Queen of the World is a giant city sized vessel where the wealthy elite live in exile from the problems of the outside world. It is a Cornucopian state essentially – self sufficient and independent from any traditional nations. The contempt of the outside world is counterbalanced by the existence of NanoCell; one of the Five Founding Fathers of the Queen of the World who is at the cutting edge of nanotechnology and is promising to deliver the water purification breakthrough the planet so desperately needs.

The game begins on the night of the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Queen of the World, when the whole world is anxiously anticipating a breakthrough announcement from NanoCell which will bring about a massive boost for the Cornucopian movement. At this moment, a group of radical Neo Malthusians rise and attack the great vessel. Kate Wilson, a humble systems engineer, is caught in the wrong place at the wrong time on the flooding lower decks and the player takes on the role of guiding her back to safety.

Why did you choose to have a female over the stereotypical male hero?

We wanted to get away from the gaming clich̩ of a 'beautiful but deadly' female lead and, more generally, the idea of having an action game protagonist who begins the game as a kick ass character. We took inspiration from characters like Ripley and John McClane, who redefined the heroes role in action movies at their time and taught us that the star could be flawed, reluctant, vulnerable even - but still have a strong presence. Kate's goal at the outset is simple; she wants to survive, she wants to escape, she doesn't even have a weapon at all in the opening sections. Kate will be forced to grow and evolve, learning that to survive, first she has to fight. The Malthusians have blocked all the escape routes except the ones which are important to their dark objectives Рso Kate is drawn into the politics and the wider battle as a matter of inevitability. Ultimately this is the genesis of a more nuanced heroine.

From what I've seen of the game, there are some aspects similar to Bioshock. The flawed utopia, the dark, aquatic setting. Can you tell me about the influences of the game?

Bioshock gets mentioned a lot, presumably because of the water element, but as you say it was more the atmosphere and the narrative elements that were an influence in that game. We also looked at Uncharted 2 in terms of action, Dead Space in terms of atmosphere, but at the end of the day Hydrophobia is utterly unique thanks to HydroEngine. It's a real physics simulation so it never repeats, you get a torrent of emergent gameplay – it's an entirely new element in gameplay terms and players are going to have huge amounts of fun experimenting with it.

How long have you been working on the game? More importantly, how long did it take to develop the HydroEngine?

On and off, it's been about 5 years. That's going from the original concept document right up to completion, developing InfiniteWorlds and HydroEngine from scratch and experimenting with a new kind of gameplay. That's also given us time to grow and evolve this really deep universe for the back story – there's a huge amount to dive into.

It is definitely groundbreaking technology, is there a chance that we could start to see it used by other devs?

We've been approached several times already, but we wanted to put Hydrophobia out first to show what HydroEngine can do. It's certainly a possibility in the future.

How will reactions to the game shape any future sequels or DLC?

Good question! So far reactions to the game have been really, really overwhelming which has been a real relief, because it's vindicated our belief in doing something original and bringing a compelling new experience to the player. We are always very open to the opinions and ideas of the players – they are who matter at the end of the day, so we'll always be influenced in the regard. It's really exciting now it's getting close to release that we'll finally have our baby in the hands of the players.

Was there ever a question of making a retail game instead of episodic XBLA games? If so, why did you opt for downloads?

Initially we set out to develop for retail, but we wanted to show that you can make a kick ass AAA action adventure with a small team and limited budget. That meant making the process of development much more efficient, so we developed InfiniteWorlds with features like Instant-Edit-Play and Multi User Editing. To do this our tech guys developed bespoke procedural technology and it worked; we were able to iterate much faster and cheaper – and it made experimenting with a new type of gameplay that much easier. It also had another side effect; the games filesize footprint was massively reduced and it occurred to us that we could deliver the game as a download title. Not only could we introduce the worlds first fluid dynamics engine and a whole new type of flow based gameplay, we could push back the boundaries of download gaming too. Microsoft were blown away with the technology and so we created this partnership to expand the spectrum of XBLA.

If the demand was high enough, do you ever see yourself making a retail game?

Never say never. We believe in digital distribution as the future of our industry, but ultimately if the demand is there, who knows.

Are there any multiplayer modes in the game? If not, were they ever considered?

Pretty much everything worth considering has been considered, but we decided to focus on a really solid single player experience.

What can we expect to see in future games of the series? Change of setting? Eventually a completely new narrative arc?

Hydrophobia is an epic new IP, and there's so much material to explore in that universe. We've conceptualized a lot of narrative arcs, characters and locations and you can expect to delve deeper and deeper into the world of Hydrophobia as the series evolves.

Any word on a release date yet?

I could tell you now and risk assassination, or I could force you to wait a couple more weeks and live a long, happy life ;)

So there you have it! Thanks to Rob Hewson for the awesome answers, and I don't think I'm only speaking for myself when I say that I can't wait for this game to release!


  1. Its nice to see another Female lead in a video game, unless your name is Lara Croft its pretty rare.

  2. Loved the interview and can't wait for the game. Twitter name is Davicams

  3. Previously I had not heard much about this game. Was anticipating it's release based on screenshots, but knew very little info. Good Q&A. I learned a lot more about the game. Can't wait.