Antichamber: How a game of impossible spaces came together

Image
In 2009, Alexander Bruce took a week off from his university studies in Australia to fly to Tokyo and present his Unreal Tournament 3 mod, Hazard: The Journey of Life, at Tokyo Game Show's experimental games summit, Sense of Wonder Night. It was his first official recognition as a developer and Hazard was still a hobby project, something Bruce had worked on in his spare time over the previous six months, based off prototypes he'd messed around with since 2006.

In the years following Sense of Wonder Night 2009, Bruce's updated, full-game version of Hazard – now called Antichamber – won more than 20 honors, including the award for Technical Excellence at the Independent Games Festival 2012. More notable, however, was that Antichamber launched on Steam yesterday, January 31, 2013, and quickly claimed the No. 1 spot across the entire service.

"Pretty much everything I've ever made somehow found its way into the final version of Antichamber," Bruce told me.

If you thought "everything" sounded like an insane, illogical amount of content to throw into one game, you'd be right. Luckily for Bruce, Antichamber's main goal was to blow your mind, break boundaries and push the limits of puzzle gaming. With a premise like that and poppy visuals to match, Antichamber drummed up a substantial amount of pre-launch publicity over the years; for an experimental indie game, this situation should have been ideal – but it came with a downside.

"Having people tell you, for several years, that you were taking too long and that you should have got it out the door sooner. That you could have made some money off it already and could be working on your next game, and that everything was diminishing returns," Bruce said, describing the most obnoxious aspect of a multi-year, pre-launch spotlight. "The reason this stuff was always so frustrating is that it's impossible to put a timeline on something as experimental as Antichamber was. It was either done right and people couldn't pin down why it worked, or it wasn't right and unraveled very quickly."


To find this balance of mysterious rightness that was crucial to Antichamber's success, Bruce focused on getting the game into as many people's hands – and minds – as possible. He took Antichamber to numerous gaming conventions, starting with the first playable showcase at the 2010 IndieCade booth at E3. There, he watched people step up to Antichamber, play for a few minutes and then walk away, most frustrated that they didn't understand the game. Bruce also saw a handful of players who got it right away, and they became immediate, strong advocates for Antichamber. To resolve the disparities between these two camps, Bruce brought the game to shows again and again, streamlining its design based directly on player reaction.

"Slowly but surely, as I continued working on the game, more and more people jumped on board and started getting excited about it, which helped me continue pushing the bar higher," Bruce said. "When the game was nominated in IGF 2011, some people were starting to sit at the booth for between 40 and 90 minutes without realizing how long they had been there, and as I got to later and later shows I had to start kicking people off after 15 minutes because I kept drawing crowds, and those that were given builds were happy to run through to completion in 5 to 10 hours."

Antichamber A clear story of a puzzling game's rise to indie fame
Even before Bruce discovered the sweet spot in Antichamber's development, by February 2010 the important players were already on board: Epic Games and Valve. Antichamber was a grand prize winner in the Make Something Unreal competition and Epic threw the game over to Valve for an eventual Steam launch. As Antichamber's development picked up speed and awards, Bruce kept consistent contact with Valve to ensure it was still good to go on Steam.

"That was one of the reasons that I was never that concerned about feeling like I had to release the game as soon as possible," Bruce said. "I felt like I had this secure deal with Steam on the backburner, and that it would go up there when it was ready."

Antichamber is the kind of game where until you sit down and play it yourself and have a chance to really understand what makes it work, it's very difficult to know what the Hell it is or why anyone cares.- Alexander Bruce, Antichamber

Bruce garnered a Steam deal before Valve's crowd-sourced indie distribution platform, Greenlight, was even a blip on the community's radar. Without that initial contact, Antichamber's existence on Steam wouldn't have been assured, let alone its title as Steam's top-selling game just hours after launch.

"I actually think Steam Greenlight would have worked against Antichamber," Bruce said. "Although I amassed quite a number of awards and a fair amount of positive preview coverage, that was all from people who had had a chance to play the game for themselves, as judges or at conferences. Antichamber is the kind of game where until you sit down and play it yourself and have a chance to really understand what makes it work, it's very difficult to know what the Hell it is or why anyone cares. That kind of game doesn't work for a community voting system, unless it has already been released elsewhere or has a demo. If I didn't already have a deal with Steam, I definitely would have had to launch elsewhere first, as I don't think a demo is suitable for Antichamber either."

Antichamber made it to Steam without a group vote or a hitch, and now Bruce said he was focused entirely on its launch. He planned to distribute patches and updates as needed, fixing small issues that players ran into. Prior to PAX Prime 2012, he cut out sections of the game that would have pushed development back and said he'd like to see those aspects added back to Antichamber someday.

"Whether or not any of that actually happens, though, really depends on how well the game goes," Bruce said.

Antichamber A clear story of a puzzling game's rise to indie fame
While Bruce wasn't actively planning his future as a developer only a day after Antichamber's launch, he had a few ideas for where he'd like to end up, eventually. Maybe.

"I don't think I would want to jump immediately back into another independent game straight away, as creating Antichamber took a hell of a lot out of me," Bruce said. "I always felt like I didn't know enough about what I was doing and was floundering around as I found my way. I've no doubt it's wishful thinking, but I think it would be pretty cool to try and apply at Valve. I want to surround myself with people who are way smarter than me so that I can have some great mentors again."

Considering Valve's reputation as a maddening, psychological tormentor with a penchant for puzzle games, Bruce would fit in just fine.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.