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Deliver Us Mars is a giant leap for indie game studio KeokeN Interactive

Top image by Nakshatra Soni for Wireframe Magazine

Dutch indie game studio KeokeN Interactive has never been shy of dreaming big. Founding brothers Deetman (Paul and Koen) once boldly claimed -before they even had released their first game- that their ambition is to one day rival Guerrilla Games. Their latest game Deliver Us Mars has brought them a step closer to that goal. 

“We’ve gone to extreme lengths to make sure Deliver Us Mars would outclass its original in every way”, says Koen Deetman, co-owner of the studio and acting as Game Director on the new game. The budget of course raised with the ability to do performance capture, but definitely not to the standard we see in traditional large scale games. Let’s say we’ve made this game for a lot less than the ‘unforeseen budget’ from a AAA game, very competitive and disruptive. Our core-team moderately increased to around 20-25 people, and peaked at 40-45 during production. The whole project took us a relatively short period of 2,5 years.” 

Performance capture

This was the first time the team was doing performance capture, where you simultaneously record voice, face and body data. So they had to quickly learn the necessary skills and simultaneously work fast and efficiently to fit the timeline and budget. “We quickly realized how deeply complex issues would become in our production phase”, says Deetman. “We crafted a pipeline that was so tight that we could very efficiently order certain parts of our required data while still pushing for these high quality results.”

The game was made on Unreal Engine 4.

Working with professional actors really helped to get good results quickly. Deetman:  “I remember being on set and seeing some scenes being so emotionally loaded that I worriedly asked the actors afterwards if they were ok? Their response was priceless. They just said: ‘Oh yes I am fine. Just have to catch my breath’. I later realized that this is exactly the reason we hired all these experienced actors. It’s to get these convincing results into your narrative.”

Martian nights

For a narrative driven game like Deliver Us Mars everything starts with the story. Right from the very beginning the team had a clear vision on what they wanted to tell and what the goals and structures were. They introduced flashbacks to enable more ways to visualize a back story. “We’ve also tried to have a more colorful contrast throughout the game”, Deetman says. “Everyone knows about the red surface of Mars but not many people know the Martian nights are very blue. Plus, Mars has an atmosphere so we could finally bring in more moving dynamics such as storms and winds, to get more life into it.”

Ellise Chappell plays protagonist Kathy Johanson.

“Another notable improvement was that we stepped away from ‘one-off’ puzzles and crafted an intricate system that gradually grows in difficulty. It gave us so much more control over our puzzles and how they are implemented into the environment.”

Mesmerizing results

The Deliver Us-series paints a bleak picture of the future of our planet. According to Deetman it’s definitely a subject he wants to share with the players, but he’s careful to not shove it down their throats. “We won’t claim the truth, but present a plausible outcome that could happen if we keep treating our planet the way we do”, he says. “It’s usually mistaken that it’s bad for the planet, but the planet is comfortable in many states. We make the place uninhabitable for our human species and life as we know it in general. In the game it’s not so much on the nose but part of the backstory.”

“Not many people know of the existence of dry ice on the polar caps of Mars.”

Deliver Us Mars is a good looking game. Something the team has worked hard to achieve. “Sharp and realistic graphics have always been at the forefront of our studio ethos. As a small developer you can get to mesmerizing results nowadays with the help of Unreal Engine 4. And we are lucky with a publisher that enables us to raise the bar even more. For example, our lead actress Ellise Chappell, who plays protagonist Kathy Johanson, was fully scanned from top to bottom. We’ve been able to almost picture perfect her likeness onto the character rig. You’ll get scary good results.”

Simultaneous shipping

Looking back at the development of Deliver Us Mars, Deetman can’t help but to feel pride. “I think the most difficult part was to make sure we’ve amped up this sequel in every way, while also preparing the game for simultaneous shipping on five platforms”, he says. “We now have a full understanding of what to expect when taking on huge responsibilities like this. We’ve learned a ton on almost all aspects to mature the studio towards a more stable and manageable future, while keeping the work life balance in check for everyone. I can’t wait to show the way forward for KeokeN Interactive, because I can tell you, its extremely exciting and we’re nowhere near finished with our ambitions.”

Eric Bartelson
Eric Bartelson
Editor-in-Chief of PreMortem.Games. Veteran game journalist for over 20 years. Started out in 1999 for game magazines (yes the ones made of paper) such as PC Zone Benelux, PlayNation and GameQuest, before co-founding Dutch industry paper Control Magazine.

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