Christopher Brendel

Unimatrix Productions

Posted by Philip Jong.
First posted on 03 June 2010. Last updated on 05 June 2010.
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Christopher Brendel
Christopher Brendel is an indie game designer and the founder of Unimatrix Productions.

For more information, visit Unimatrix Productions Online.

Christopher Brendel is a veteran indie game developer from Illinois, US. In 2000, he founded Unimatrix Productions, a company that began originally with the intent to create computer animated Flash movies. Since then, the company had evolved to become a full-fledged independent adventure game developer. The intrepid developer released its first commercial game, Lifestream, in 2004 and its second commercial game, Shady Brook, in 2005. Even with the early success, however, life as an indie developer has not been easy for Brendel, and the challenges of concurrently managing alone multiple complex projects had in turn led to a period of relative silence from the developer—at least, until now.

In March 2010, Brendel finally announced the completion of his latest game, The Filmmaker. The game is the largest project Brendel has undertaken to date. In the game, the player is tasked to explore an abandoned and haunted theater to uncover a secretive past that is tied to an enigmatic filmmaker named Claude Ferucil. The release even includes a lengthy companion guide, written by Brendel himself, on the "behind the scene" development of this project.

We are pleased to have an opportunity to interview Christopher Brendel about his company and his games. In the interview, Brendel speaks of the inspiration behind his games, the challenges of being an indie game developer, his opinion on the current state of the adventure genre, what gamers can expect from The Filmmaker, and what holds in the future for him and his company.

What inspired you to become a game developer? What were your favorite classic adventure games? Why?

I knew that I wanted to be a game developer when I was eight years old. I had been an avid fan of video games, most notably those on the Nintendo Entertainment System, but it was not until I tried my first computer adventure game that I was truly inspired. The game I played was Police Quest by Sierra On-Line. My experience with games up to that point had been restricted to action. Never before had I experienced a game that contained such a strong narrative. I was drawn into the game's world and became attached to its characters. The game felt like an interactive movie, in which I was the star. From the moment I first tried Police Quest, I knew that I wanted to make my own games.

Over the twenty-three years that I have been playing games, several adventures have stood out. I was a big fan of classic Sierra games such as the aforementioned Police Quest series and Quest for Glory series. I was enthralled by the Gabriel Knight games, and I always had a soft spot for FMV adventures such as Ripper and Black Dahlia. A few puzzle games stood out to me, as well, including The 7th Guest and Shivers. My all-time favorite game is an adventure/first-person shooter hybrid called Realms of the Haunting.

Lifestream was your first commercial game project. How long was the game in development? What lessons in commercial game development did you learn (for better or worse) from the making of this project?

Lifestream took approximately four months to make, although I had been plotting out its story off and on for a number of years. At the time in which I developed the game, I knew very little about commercial development. In fact, I had not even intended for Lifestream to be a commercial project until after releasing a demo to the public and seeing its enthusiastic response! If I had to choose one thing I learned during Lifestream's development, it was that making a commercial game is always a longer, more complex, more time-consuming process than one would expect when first beginning the project. Complications always arise, resulting in unexpected delays. Since completing Lifestream, I have, luckily, found ways to avoid a lot of these complications.

Shady Brook was released (in 2005) only a year after Lifestream was released (in 2004). How were you able to manage such a tight release schedule as an indie game developer?

Shady Brook took around six months to make, as opposed to Lifestream's four. Part of the reason I was able to release Shady Brook so quickly after Lifestream was that I actually began early development of Shady Brook prior to Lifestream's release. In addition, the core game mechanics of both games remained the same, eliminating the need for any additional programming.

Lifestream, Shady Brook, and The Filmmaker were all created using Adventure Maker. Why did you choose to use Adventure Maker? What other development toolkits, if any, had you experimented with but eventually abandoned? Why?

I am embarrassed to admit that I initially chose Adventure Maker for Lifestream because I didn't know how to program at the time. I knew some other independent developers who had successfully released commercial games using the engine, and so I relied upon them for guidance and assistance. With Shady Brook and The Filmmaker, I decided to stay with the engine since I already knew it inside and out. I do believe, however, that I am done using it for the time being. While it is a wonderful engine, it is too limited and restrictive for my future game concepts. In effect, I feel like I have outgrown it. I am now looking at a few different adventure game, including Wintermute. Also, another of my games, Stonewall Penitentiary, currently uses Conitec's 3D Game Studio and features real-time 3D graphics presented from a first-person perspective, similar to that of a first-person shooter. If it is successful, I plan on additional future games taking place in real-time 3D, as well.

To what extent do your games share a common literal theme (supernatural, mystery, or others)? How do you avoid stories (especially horror) in your games are too derivative for the genre?

It is my hope to ultimately release games based on a variety of topics and themes. So far, all of my games have admittedly shared elements of mystery and horror, but they are also different in a number of ways. Lifestream contained elements of science fiction, Shady Brook featured drama, and The Filmmaker can, at times, be quite humorous! I keep a list of all of my game concepts in a folder. My ideas span the full spectrum of genre, so I am both confident and hopeful that my works will never become too derivative.

When did you begin development of The Filmmaker? With who, if anyone, did you collaborate in the game's development?

I began working on The Filmmaker in January of 2009. The game is my own; I did not collaborate with another development team.

What is the premise of the story in The Filmmaker? What is the inspiration for the story?

In The Filmmaker, players are invited to the grand re-opening of the Carson Stiles Gateway Theater, where they will be attending the premier of a new movie, titled "Primal AtmosFear". When they arrive at the theater, however, they find it to be closed, with no sign of life inside. Once they find a way in, players will experience a ghostly encounter that will drive them to discover the secrets that closed the theater in the first place. Through the course of the game, players will learn about an enigmatic and eccentric filmmaker named Claude Ferucil and have the opportunity to transport themselves into several movies, which become explorable environments!

I came up with the concept of The Filmmaker when I was twelve. At the time, I had titled the game "Prism"...though to this day I have no clue why! It was then that I came up with the concept of going into movies, and the rest of the game's plot evolved from that aspect of the story. My goal in designing The Filmmaker was to pay tribute to classic puzzle-based adventures like The 7th Guest and Myst, which are not seen often in today's market.

What kinds of puzzles are in The Filmmaker? Approximately how many hours of play will the game offer?

The Filmmaker contains nearly every type of puzzle one could imagine. With over thirty-five unique puzzles in all, I am sure you can imagine the possibilities! Because so much of the game is puzzle-based, it is hard to give an accurate estimate of play time, as it is largely dependent upon the puzzle-solving abilities of each individual player. If I had to venture a guess, based on feedback from my beta testers, I would estimate twenty to thirty hours of play time. Once players know the solutions to the puzzles, play time will, of course, be significantly shorter.

What inspired you to create a companion guide for each of your games?

I am going to let you in on a little secret: I am not a big fan of puzzles. I play adventure games for their stories, and so, if a puzzle takes me longer than five or ten minutes to complete, I typically look up the solution. Often, I find that online walkthroughs lack the detail needed to adequately explain how to solve many of these puzzles, as they often lack illustrations, and so I wanted to make a companion guide for gamers like me that want to experience the game's story without getting stuck at any particular place in the game.

How must adventure games evolve to survive as a distinct genre? To what extent will the indie scene become the dominant facade for the adventure game genre in the near future?

It is my opinion that adventure games must adapt to some of the concepts of other genres if developers wish to penetrate the mainstream market to a larger degree than current adventures manage. My upcoming game, Stonewall Penitentiary, exemplifies this. Instead of sticking to a traditional adventure game interface, Stonewall Penitentiary is presented in the first person. Players navigate through the game using controls similar to those of a first-person shooter. This method of control provides players with a great deal more freedom than traditional adventure game interfaces. It also has the potential to attract non-adventure gamers to the genre, which will increase both popularity and sales. I believe that indies will (and must) take the lead in this transition. It has been my experience, especially over the last few years, that the adventure genre's strongest titles have come from indies. While large companies seem content with the status quo, independent developers continue to create unique, exciting games. They are the future of the adventure game industry.

During the development of The Filmmaker, you have also announced the development of a number of other game projects (Stonewall Penitentiary and others), some of which have since been put on hold. What is the current status of these projects?

After the release of Shady Brook, I announced two games: Awaken and The Alpha Report. Awaken was renamed Stonewall Penitentiary, and I decided to delay production on The Alpha Report until I had the means to undertake a project as complex as I intended it to be. Stonewall Penitentiary was in active development for a number of years, but I reached a point in which I had to decide between completing a sub-par game or shelving the project until I could complete it in a form of which I would be proud. I strongly believe that I made the right decision by putting the game on hold. While it may be some time before people see the finished product, I want to assure everyone that it will be worth the wait. The game will, in some form, be released, as will The Alpha Report. I simply want to wait until I have the resources to make these quality games, as opposed to inadequate, buggy titles designed only to make a quick buck. It is my hope that the majority of adventure gamers will agree with my decision.

What sound advice can you offer to a gamer who wants to make a living as an independent game developer? What is your own motivation to continue on as an indie game developer?

My advice to prospective independent developers is simple: follow your dream, but with realistic expectations. It is simply not possible for a single person to compete with a multi-million dollar company. New developers should plan their titles around this fact, turning a potential setback into an advantage, keeping their games on a smaller scale so as not to over-exert themselves and set their games up for failure. With that in mind, making games is a lot of fun, and, despite the many hardships that come with the territory, there is nothing that I would rather do. I highly recommend that anyone who is interested in making games give it a try!

The thing that motivates me to continue making games is my desire to tell stories. I am a big fan of all forms of fiction, from television to movies to novels. Games are special to me and stand out from other media because of their interactivity. In a game, you aren't just observing its story, you are directing it and affecting its outcome. As such, games – especially adventures – feel more personal to me than other forms of fiction. My purpose in writing is to reach out to the emotions of my audience, and so games hold a special appeal for me. Since I have always been interested in writing, my focus in game design has been and always will be the telling of the tale.

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