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Interview with Test3 Projects – developers of ‘Teleglitch’

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Comprised of brothers Johann and Mihkel Tael, as well as fellow developer Edvin Aedma, ‘Test3 Projects’ really managed to ruffle a few feathers late last year with the release of their first proper game – Teleglitch. Hailing from Estonia, a country hardly renowned for its game-making prowess, Test3 Projects’s first release has already seen the developer being hailed as an emerging PC indie darling. And with Teleglitch finally beginning to receive the recognition it deserves from the mainstream gaming press and online games community, I thought it would be an appropriate time to quiz the development team on what spurred them into making such a unique and visually distinct overhead rogue-like shooter, where its complex narrative tapestry and intricately woven futuristic premise, sets it distinctly apart from all other sci-fi games.

Can you please tell us a little bit about yourselves, and how your company – Test3 Projects – was formed?
Johann: Test3 projects was formed for tax reasons mostly, once we’d decided to sell Teleglitch, so it (the company) has had a relatively short history. The name for the company came from the name for the Teleglitch main executable – it was ‘test3.exe’ for the first two years.

Mihkel: Me and Johann started making games about 10 years ago when we were 11-12 years old. Johann does the programming and I’ve always been drawing and dealing with levels. We have worked together on countless ambitious game projects, but Teleglitch is the only one we have completed and released.

We originally planned for Teleglitch to be a small freeware game that we could share on (gaming) forums. But as we grew older and felt the need to start sustaining ourselves, we decided to start developing Teleglitch professionally. We founded our company Test3 Projects (as a result).

Edvin joined the team during a later part in the development of the game. We met at a party and found out that he was good at both English and writing stories, as well as marketing and various social stuff – things that Johann and I found too difficult – and we decided to invite him to join us.

Edvin: Before Teleglitch, I was teaching game design psychology in Estonia’s oldest university and running a small indie game company, and working in partnership with five separate teams on five different games. Mihkel and Johann’s game development skills complemented my own, and it felt natural and I instantly fit in. When Teleglitch was released during November 2012, it became the most well-reviewed and critically acclaimed Estonian game in history after about 2 or 3 months – with zero marketing budget.

What other games have you guys been involved with prior to Teleglitch, and which of these would you recommend to others?
Johann: As Test3 Projects, we haven’t been involved with anything else yet. But me and my brother have been experimenting with all kinds of stuff for maybe 8 years now. I can’t actually remember now as to whether anything interesting was actually completed…

Edvin: About 5 table-top games (where one featured dynamic alien ecosystems, and another one where the player could be a secret spy in a medieval royal court), and twice as many indie videogame projects – of which only a few have been completed and released however. With the help of its development team, I’ve also created a number of single player campaigns for a non-commercial online multiplayer turn-based medieval battle strategy game called Warnet.

I sometimes reminisce about an RPG-ish survival game project that I once worked on, where the player was a homeless human who was trying to survive in a city ruled by powerful elitist aliens, who treat humans as stray dogs. However, and as with most (inexperienced) indie developers, I’ve had to learn the value of having realistic goals and achieving them through numerous unreleased experiments.

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Why do you think Teleglitch has had such a protracted and long development cycle, to the extent that it took 3 years for you guys to make the game?
Johann: Mostly because we only worked on it full time for the last 6 months, as (amongst other things) I still had to finish high school. We also tried a lot of things that didn’t quite make it into the final game, and we changed the game’s direction on multiple occasions. For example, we managed to get a really awesome lighting system to work at one point, but we ended up scrapping it… We even had fully destructible terrain near the beginning of the game’s development.

Mihkel: We didn’t have a clear plan, or any set goals for when we first started Teleglitch. We didn’t have the skills or the experience in handling such a large project. We’ve spent a lot of time (since then) to learn, to experiment, and to redo stuff. I also had to support myself during the game’s development by working in a construction & renovation company (smiles).

Given the high number of game-breaking bugs that can arise from building fully functioning complex systems, what difficulties did you encounter in implementing “procedurally generated levels” where variables – such as enemies, environments and items – are all randomly generated?
Johann: We’ve never actually had any trouble with procedural generation. Our algorithm is constrained, so that every time there is the same amount of monsters and loot in any given level, but only their placement varies. This means that the only trouble that can arise for the player is through their own carelessness or incompetence – they might miss secret areas or loot containers etc, or they won’t run away from monsters fast enough. Sure, they might find the best weapon on a given level by being lucky and spawning next to it (so as to get a headstart). But the best weapon might also happen to be located in the farthest corner of a level, therefore putting the player at a disadvantage. For a skilled player however, and for one that plays carefully, there’s never an unwinnable level.

A number of gamers have commented on the game’s blocky and pixelly graphics as being unappealing, with the game’s minimalistic lo-fi aesthetics being a deterring factor in players wanting to play it. Why did you decide to make Teleglitch look the way it does, even though its retro art style presentation ends up alienating a large portion of potential players?
Johann: When we started working on Teleglitch, Mihkel was interested in how low a resolution he could actually draw the characters. If we had known however that we’d be working on this for a long time however, I believe we would have chosen a somewhat higher resolution. I still think the game looks great though…

Mihkel: I didn’t envision people to be against micro pixel art. We were probably thinking of everything else that’s important, and not enough about whether someone might not like the look of the game. We already had a number of unfinished game projects (with ambitious graphics) by that point, but we wanted Teleglitch to have many weapons, opponents, and levels. So we decided to sacrifice graphical resolution and fancy menus in favor of creating more content.

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One thing that really impressed me was the storyline for Teleglitch. What inspired the intricately woven sci-fi futuristic setting, and where did you get the idea for the game to incorporate (amongst other things) an evil military corporation (Militech), robots, clones, zombies, teleporters, and scientific engineering? Indeed, what was the impetus for having the game play out as a mystery, where this information is divulged piece-meal to you via personnel and terminal logs etc?
Edvin: The story is given to the player via small text fragments, mainly because of the short (reading) attention span a player has while in the middle of the adrenaline and anxiety filled experience that Teleglitch offers. The teleporters were already part of the game by the time I started working with the Tael brothers, and so we decided to make them an integral part of the story. And given that an isolated military research base is where testing on non-human combatants occurs and is commonplace, then encountering hungry and overly aggressive mutant-zombie-cyborgs in such a place is the most logical thing to think of where this sort of thing might occur.

I also feel that a lack of a socio-economic context exists for the application of future technology in most action-oriented sci-fi “art” – be it movies or games. So I decided to totally flesh out and explain the technology of “reactivating necrotic tissue for military purposes”, together with the economic and cultural impact which such a technology might have. For example, the military zombies are installed with drug-injecting brain chips in order to ensure that they don’t become aware of their “stressful surroundings” (like a military experiment, for example). The military zombies remain “detached of their surroundings and immersed in artificial bliss provided by the drug injectors”. I also sensed the game’s strong nostalgia inducing potential, which is why I wasn’t afraid to incorporate a “teleportation experiment gone wrong” style scenario. As one reviewer has already noted, “You bet your ass something goes wrong when you’re experimenting with teleportation!”, and I was extremely happy to see players and reviewers compare Teleglitch warm-heartedly to various old-school classics like Quake, Doom, and System Shock.

On a final note, I’ve really been missing serious, artful, dark sci-fi for years – the kind of stuff you might see in the ‘Alien 3′ movie, where the film takes place on a desolate, semi-abandoned prison colony planet. You know… real psychological depth, uncensored suffering, and uncensored unrestricted beauty. Stuff that makes us think about the suffering and social injustice in the real world and understand how good a life one probably is living.

Games like Demons Souls and Super Meat Boy are widely heralded as starting a renaissance in extremely hard games, where “fun” is often associated with soda-masochistic punishment. What prompted you to make Teleglitch follow in this trend, where gamers struggle to get past the first level, and where the game often feels as if it’s a survival horror title (via the scarcity of ammunition etc) for which the consequence of failure is perma-death?
Johann: Someone once showed me Spelunky when it came out, and I definitely wanted to do something that has a similar game-play cycle. Since I was already working on Teleglitch (it wasn’t called that at the time), I tried to add similar ideas to it.

Mihkel: We originally created Teleglitch by keeping our own game-playing skills in mind (which definitely improved as we were developing the title). We realized quite late in the development cycle that the game might be too difficult for most players, but we didn’t feel like sacrificing the game’s balance up to that point in order to make large changes. We were also afraid of losing motivation, so decided to carry on working on the game. However, we definitely did make the earlier levels easier after Edvin joined the team and requested that the game be made easier.

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What tips would you give to someone who is just starting out in games development?
Mihkel: If you are an artist, then you should definitely try to invest some time into learning programming. The main part of the creative freedom is often in the hands of the programmers and knowing the field helps you to better understand what is possible and what is not. It also helps if you are able to cooperate with programmers in an efficient manner.

Edvin: Start off by making and releasing a game in 1-3 weeks. Any game. Releasing a game is the best experience you can ever have, and it’s even better if you can commercialize it somehow. It teaches you invaluable things about the larger context around making games. Place the highest value on your cooperating partners, because they make everything possible. And finally, don’t waste your time doing the kind of work that you don’t really want to do.

Apparently, most of Estonia’s development community is centred around YoYo’s ‘GameMaker’ engine. For the development of Teleglitch, did you also use GameMaker at all, and if not, what development tools did you use and why?
Johann: I didn’t use GameMaker for Teleglitch. Teleglitch was written in C++ using some open source libraries: SDL for cross-platform windows and image loading, OpenGL for graphics, Ogg & Vorbis for compressed sound, Box2D for physics, OpenAL soft for sound and Lua for scripting.

Why hasn’t Estonia made greater strides in the European development scene, so as to go toe to toe with Russia or Ukraine, and why do you think Estonia isn’t as established as other Eastern-European development communities?
Johann: I think the main reason is that Russia has ~100x more people than Estonia, and Ukraine has ~40x more people than Estonia.

Do you have any plans for bringing the game over to Steam, and if so, when?
Edvin: We are working on it, and we’ll probably have something to announce in the near future.

Aside from porting the game to Linux and Mac, do you have any plans for porting Teleglitch across to other formats and operating systems (such as PSN/XBLA and Android/IOS)?
Johann: Currently, there’s none. I’ve never owned a console or a smartphone, so I don’t have much interest in porting Teleglitch to those platforms. I also feel that the game wouldn’t be as good when played with a gamepad.

What are your future plans as a developer and what else do you have in the pipeline?
Johann: The plan is to keep working on Teleglitch until I feel it’s good enough.

Edvin: We definitely want to keep expanding upon the Teleglitch universe. I’m also looking to release a separate cute game about old robots building a rocket out of scrap later this year.

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