Interview: Project Crynosaurs

It's been a while, fans of dinosaurs in games, most of it spent enjoying the wonderful weather getting through all those greyed out games on the left there. Today I've got something a bit different for you. I heard about Project Crynosaur a bold mission to bring dinosaurs (and other prehistoric creatures PLUS BONUS FLORA) into CryENGINE 3. Normally, I weigh up the pros, the cons and scientific blunders of dinosaur (etc.) based video games after they've been pressed, wrapped and launched into the world but the heroes at Project Crynosaur have taken some time out of the project to give us insight into the minds of legends who seek to put dinosaurs into video games. Here's what tech lead Jon, developer Erin, 3D artist Jake, game designer Nick and level lead/designer Tom, had to say about the game, currently in development.

1)First up and most importantly, what drove you to make a game around dinosaurs?

Nick: I’ve always been interested in dinosaurs. I think what makes me a bit different from other people who have developed dinosaur games is that my mental image of dinosaurs didn’t begin with or stop with Jurassic Park.  I grew up on the original The Land Before Time and PBS’ The Dinosaurs and have continued to learn everything I can about them since.  I think my catalyst for wanting to create a game around dinosaurs was actually Spore. I enjoyed the cellular and creature stage, but they could have been so much more, especially looking back on the 2005 demo. Who hasn’t had a dream of a game like Spore with a focus on dinosaurs? One of the other things that drives me to make this game is wanting to share with people just how cool REAL dinosaurs might have been. Virtually every other media is still referencing Jurassic Park when it comes to their interpretation of dinosaurs. I want gamers to play this game and gain a new perspective on these animals and have fun doing it.

Jon: Simply put, I've been disappointed with almost all the games which have featured dinosaurs over the last 10 years, not only from a fun factor perspective, but also in the way in which they’ve been portrayed. I think the world has waited long enough for a great dinosaur game.

2) Before we talk fauna, the team is committed to representing the correct flora in a great deal of detail. To my mind this is probably a first as most DiGs projects just populate their environs with generic scenery. Apart from pleasing pedants like me and palaeobotanist gamers is this accuracy important for the team?

Nick: Well we are a bunch of pedants (no palaeobotanists yet, but our researcher/level designer, Tom, comes close) so yeah, this part of game development is very important to us. You really can’t understand an animal without understanding its habitat. All of us on the development team have been watching dinosaur documentaries or creating dinosaur art for a long time, and as far as we can tell, almost no one captures the actual environment of the Hell Creek Formation, the world of Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops*. We know more about these two dinosaurs than almost any other, and yet most of the time they get slapped against a generic background.

Jake: Accuracy is very important to us as a team. And I personally hope that the screenshots and videos released lately have shown that. Too many projects have marketed themselves as accurate, but it's really ever only in the loosest sense of the word. I want to leave no stone un-turned, and no detail left unrepresented. This will hopefully be the most accurate recreation of a prehistoric environment ever made, in a way I personally believe is only possible in this medium.

3) Let's talk dinosaurs. Recent games have explored the weird and wonderful species rarely seen, will you be including some of the off the beaten track taxa or will it be more JP standard cast- pterosaur (flyer), Compsognathus (weenie) unspecified 'raptor' (standard grunt) and Tyrannosaurs rex ('boss')?

Nick: Our dinosaurs are dictated by our setting: The Hell Creek Formation around 66 million years ago. Hell Creek is home to some of the most famous dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus, Ankylosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus and Triceratops. We didn’t choose them because they are “stock”; we chose them because they actually lived together. Beyond the big names however, there are a lot of unusual and poorly understood animals that lived in the same time and place, and I think a lot of people will be pleasantly surprised at just how vibrant an ecosystem it was.

4) You've been meeting with biodynamic academics, how important will scientific accuracy of how your critters move be to the feel of the game? I assume you won't be having any Jurassic Park: Warpath dinosaur ninjitsu antics.

Nick: As previously stated, accuracy is important to every aspect. We try to consult with field experts at every available opportunity, and animation is no exception. Hopefully how our animals move, based on the input of people like John Hutchinson, may surprise some people. But no, you won’t see anything gravity or anatomy defying in our game.

5) Any other non-dinosaurian animals going to make it into the game?

Nick: One of the great things about the Hell Creek Formation is just how much of the entire ecosystem is preserved. Players can look forward to seeing all sorts of unusual and unique animals, and many of them WON’T be dinosaurs. We released the concept art of our Champsosaurus a while ago via our Facebook as the first example of such, there will be plenty more to come.

6) Will the dinosaur AI include interactions with each other? Will it be possible to perch in a tree and just watch how the ecosystem interacts?

Jon: Yes, AI to AI interaction is a very important aspect to the game and we recognize that it’s also going to be a major development challenge for us. Getting autonomous characters of potentially different shapes and sizes to interact in a dynamic world is no easy task but we’re going to do our best to make it happen.

7) Even more most importantly, feathers or no feathers?

Nick: Our goal with creature design was to have the most accurate and unique look for each of the animals we develop as possible. So in a nutshell, yes, there will be feathers, where it is appropriate.

Jake: It is important to understand that this is no longer a creative decision for many a groups of dinosaur, they had them and this is indisputable. If we want to portray said animals in our game then they must have them too.

8) Next up, if you can say, what's the premise lost island? time travel? zombie space dinosaurs? 

Tom: As we conduct this interview, this question is definitely subject to change, but I can promise you that it will not be “zombie space dinosaurs” or the extremely cliché “lost island”. The ideas we’ve currently been throwing around most closely resemble a mixture of the “It’s all about the timing” and “time travel/bending” examples from your article.

Jake: We certainly have our ideas, but story isn't very central to this game. We are still very busy setting up the groundwork for the ecosystem and the animals inside it. It will be a while before you start seeing any story details emerge, if we even have a story. I think pure survival in itself creates more dynamic and interesting storylines than any scripted narrative.

9) The game didn't hit it's kickstarter target. Firstly, what's wrong with people and secondly how hard is it for the team to work on a project of passion because real life has a habit of getting in the way of volunteer effort?

Jon: The kickstarter was done far too early in development. Although it was a failure, we learned a great deal from the experience and also met some like minded individuals because of it. Since then, the team has completely transformed and the pieces are really starting to come together. When you are running a volunteer game development effort like this one, it’s definitely a balancing act and can be hard at times. However, everyone on the team is very passionate about this project, more so than any project I’ve been a part of before. I think that says a lot about the game and also the people involved.

10) There haven't been that many great dinosaur themed FPS, how limiting is the genre in getting the most out of them?

Jake: I think the core problem behind a lot of these games is that dinosaurs are not central to them. Jurassic: The Hunted for example could have been about anything and the game would be no different. The survival mode it offered was very similar to many a hoard mode you see in games that feature zombies or aliens. But the thing is, we don't want our dinosaurs to be interchangeable with zombies or aliens, or mutants or whatever else. We want them to offer an experience that only dinosaurs can offer.

Nick: I was marginally involved with the development and testing of Primal Carnage, and while I think that game has come together nicely, playing as a dinosaur pitted against humans in a deathmatch setting doesn’t really convey that feeling everybody wants of being a dinosaur. And I think that’s the biggest thing I want people who play this game to feel; you are a dinosaur, not just a class with a sweet gimmick racing around to rack up as many points/kills/whatever as possible in a timed game.

11) You'll be able to play as the dinosaurs in this game. Did you ever think about excluding the option of playing humans completely?

Jake: We have definitely considered excluding it. There is a question as to how much human game play can add that we haven't seen before. But there are many people who want to experience this world as a human, so we are going to explore the option for sure.

Erin: The thing with human gameplay is that it can be easily related to because we are human and we easily put ourselves into the shoes of a character that is also portrayed as a human. A player won’t relate to a dinosaur in the same way as a human, and vice versa. These factors are neither negative nor positive, but it does directly affect how a player will feel playing a game depending on what their avatar is in addition to variable gameplay elements. It is definitely important that we take this aesthetic into consideration.

Jon: There are a lot of people, myself included, who want to dive into a prehistoric world as a human and not solely as a dinosaur. There are a variety of reasons for this but the point is, human gameplay could be a very fun, exciting  experience if done right and not at least considering it,  I feel would be a mistake.

12) The team seem to be a passionate bunch of gamers as well as developers, do you have any other dinosaur games as spiritual touchstones to inspire you whilst working on this?

Nick: We look at all kinds of other games for inspiration, because ultimately no matter how gorgeous or accurate it winds up, this game needs to be fun for people to play. That’s our number one goal. One of games that really inspired us in development though was actually developed for a museum exhibit: Be The Dinosaur. Other games that have been influential in our development process include Minecraft, DayZ, Far Cry 3, Spore, Trespasser, Jaws: Unleashed, Skyrim, and even some classics like JPOG and Savage Quest. 

Thanks to the Crynosaurs team for taking the time to speak to me. You can follow the development of the game, including regular asset updates and tech demos over at the Project Crynosaurs website.

* Mega kudos to the team for italicising genus and species names in their reply.


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