Sometimes the tiniest nibble is enough for you to want the whole damn pie; “short but sweet” is how I chose to describe the demo of Kickstarter project Zed to Chuck Carter. Chuck is the founder and president of Eagre Games, the crew behind Zed, a first-person puzzle game where you sift through mystical dreamscapes, confronting such existential topics as “life and death” and “love and loss.”
Zed is a brainchild that has been gestating in Chuck’s imagination for a long freaking time. He explained to me that the story has been evolving and has “taken on a more personal nature” as he gets older and “[sees] friends going through some of the things that happen when we all get old.” Joshua Eckert, a designer who is also in charge of marketing at Eagre Games, adds that although over a dozen people contributed to the “major story beats,” “it’s one of two games [Chuck] wanted to make for decades.” In Zed, you roam the vistas as an “aging and dying Dreamer [leaving] behind a lasting legacy for his granddaughter”, and parts of the story are inspired by Chuck’s “sort of mentor in games,” who suffers from dementia.
As a game developer, Chuck is no amateur; more of a guru, actually. Among his impressive credentials is the fact that he was one of the designers behind 1993 puzzle game Myst—the bestselling PC game all throughout the 90s—but he hasn’t just been sitting around kicking rocks since then. Chuck’s full moniker, Charles Carter, has been plastered on the credits of products from industry titans Disney, Bethesda (where he worked as an external Art Director), and Vicarious Visions (where he worked on Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2). Outside of the gaming sphere, you’ll find his artwork in everything from a McGraw-Hill geology textbook (which he co-authored) to NASA pamphlets.
In 2014, Chuck split with Vicarious Visions and founded Eagre Games with the help of a few contacts in Cleveland, including producer, designer and writer Stephanie Frankiewicz. Several others jumped on board, including another contact of mine at Eagre Games, Joshua Eckert, who introduced himself to Chuck and “worked with the team to investigate opportunities in mobile gaming and PC gaming.”
When experienced and passionate minds collide, wild ideas abound, and that’s exactly what happened at Eagre Games. Chuck had a few game concepts in the mix, including Curio, which is described on Eagre Games’ website as a “venture into an alternate overgrown reality of sorts.” But in Chuck’s own words, Curio ended up being “too ambitious a project for our first game” and he decided to focus on Zed first, and he fully intends for Curio to be its sequel. Although Curio is already “far along the design stage,” Eagre Games was too small of a team to flesh out the game in full scale production, so Chuck and co. settled on Zed instead.
After settling on a reasonable goal of $48,000 USD and crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, Eagre Games had to come up with major selling points and carefully curated filler content in order to entice the public to help them fund Zed. Chuck hated shooting video of himself, although it looks like he came to terms with it, judging from the substantial amount of footage of him on the Kickstarter page. Joshua believed the hardest part was “probably describing the product. How do you describe ‘Inside’ without giving too much away? What about ‘Antichamber’?” If Eagre Games demonstrated a sense of fine restraint when it came to describing Zed, it most certainly did when it came to showing off Zed’s gameplay.
The art preview, which Chuck and another member of the team, Calvin Moisan, “worked hard on,” was intensely beautiful, albeit only twenty minutes long with not much in the way of brain-racking puzzles. It also came with nary a graphics setting, as Chuck wanted it to “run better on more or less average machines,” and it certainly looked as though it were optimized for those whose gaming rigs operated with less than stellar graphics cards. However, I don’t doubt that the game will feature a litany of video options come launch date so I can experience the true beauty of Unreal Engine 4 while maximizing the potential of my GTX 760. Nerding out aside, the demo resonated strongly with the community, and as Joshua told me, it “was a huge achievement, and fans seemed to appreciate that they could download and test drive this product before pledging.”
Stephanie seconded Joshua’s explanation of the team’s desire to reveal some sides of Zed and withhold others, adding that with the variety of talent and expertise onboard, “from marketing, PR, graphics, development, video, etc.… we were able to leverage everyone’s expertise to convey what ZED was about throughout every aspect of the campaign.” They wanted the campaign’s vibe to reflect the “tactile, yet otherworldly” realm of the Dreamer (Zed’s protagonist) and so the team “hid hints and Easter eggs in the words, images, and social posts,” with the text and graphics relaying aspects of the surreal theme while also getting across the right amount of content. Chuck’s gorgeous artwork also featured prominently in the Kickstarter page in the form of GIFs and stills.
After a “few months” of long, drawn-out discussions on how the 30 day Kickstarter was to play out, nothing could have prepared the team for the barrage of adrenaline (and/or coffee) fueled grinding that is any successful crowdfunding campaign. For Chuck, that entailed “non-stop interviews, tweets, doing art for updates, Facebook updates, radio interviews,” and even a “small event in Portland.” He also didn’t shy away from calling in “any and all favors” in order to find “the right groups of people to get their attention.” The Mafia? I kid, I kid.
Stephanie described running the actual campaign as “having a command center of 23 different browser windows with 7+ tabs each open concurrently and pinging with notifications to a strange and unknown eurobeat track.” Oh, and with the “feeling of a remotely-coordinated live Broadway production game.” Social and Kickstarter updates were a must and an always, and it was “creatively and strategically stimulating” to have to shift strategies from time to time to appeal to all of Zed’s potential backers. Although Joshua told me there were a “few stretches where we wondered if we’d make it,” he echoes the sentiments of the others when he adds that $48K was a “perfect” funding goal, and that “everything went well” and they “did a lot of things right.”
Now that the Kickstarter is over, the tension of the campaign has wound-down and the ecstasy of funding Zed has finally kicked back a notch or two, the team has a chance to cool their heels before the real work begins. Stephanie adds that “Not having to log into 3 twitter/social accounts, carry out battle plans, or check KS on a phone/computer every 30 seconds will take some getting used to.” Withdrawal from the constant Kickstarter chatter, community updates, and the humming and buzzing of cellphones has left her in a “surreal-yet-manic” state. She notes that “silence will be strange,” as the team hunkers down and dives headfirst into full time production, back to doing what they do best.
As with many indie game studios, Zed takes on a very personal nature to many of the developers at Eagre Games. Aside from finally being able to tell a story that he’s been itching to tell for years on end, Chuck wants Zed to lay the foundation for Eagre Games as a profit-making business. If the game’s release results in success, he hopes to be able to bring “tech jobs to this part of Maine,” which in turn will allow the team to “tell even better stories and give people even more amazing experiences.” Josh seconds that, adding that “Zed will give Eagre Games a following” and help them “build a game company”, which is first on his list of priorities. He has big plans in mind for Eagre Games, not least of all a vision where the indie studio is one that other studios “look to for inspiration, or when describing their vision.” Chuck, who has “played a lead role in more games than almost any other indie developer,” will spearhead a project that will rock the indie world with the establishment of an innovative, “new style of gameplay.”
As for the game itself, Josh describes it as “mature and contemplative,” likening it to a “Philip Roth novel.” Zed is rife with broad subjects such as “death and legacy,” – themes that, Josh notes, are handled much more “elegantly” in indie games as opposed to AAA games—and as such, it’ll be a “great fit for Steam’s indie community.” For Stephanie, Zed is a big throwback, “nostalgia of the highest order,” in her own words. What it won’t be is a violent game, forgoing swords and bullets for “puzzles to solve” and ideas to ponder, with all “the pauses [making] the journey worthwhile.”
She adds that some of the vistas will “take your breath away” and you may feel the urge to just “sit and observe,” perhaps while contemplating some of the overarching themes of the game, such as “living with no regrets” and “getting to know yourself.” You’ll play in the mind of someone who sometimes “knows they are forgetting things”, much like some of Stephanie’s own “elderly family members who create things to pass along without knowing (or remembering) who they were for.” It’s “beautiful, but tough,” she says, and “accepting that one day I could forget the things I hold dear makes me treasure ‘now’.”
For Chuck and the rest of Eagre Games, the journey is far from over, but the $57K they’ve managed to raise for Zed through sheer hard work, raw talent and a broad streak of good fortune is “validation,” Chuck tells me. “We are on the right track and have something we feel is special.”