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Joystiq interviews Fate by Numbers director Paul van der Meer

Justin McElroy

If you're the sort that hungers for the golden age of the adventure game, you may find what you're looking for in Fate by Numbers, a free, episodic FMV adventure that had its first episode released recently. The futuristic noir is not just unique because of its genre but also for the way it came to fruition, the end result of a graduate school project. We asked director Paul van der Meer to tell us a bit more about how he and his team created their game for just a hair over $2,000.

First off, maybe you can tell us a bit about the inception of the game, how did this all get started?

The game was made by four students. Rudi Nagelhout (programming), Roy Heijdra (video composite), Winne Willems (producing) and me (game design). We started thinking about the game in our third year of our study, called Communication and Multimedia Design (Breda, the Netherlands). It's a creative study that combines technology with art and creativity.

We knew we had to make a personal project at the end of it. But we thought we could make something bigger when we combined our forces. We couldn't do a film, since it wasn't a film school. But we're also gamers and we love games like Gabriel Knight, Monkey Island, Broken Sword and Blade Runner. We also liked FMV adventures and wondered if we could do something similar.

Can you tell us a bit about how the game was put together? How did you go about shooting the game?

The first thing we did was spend a semester trying to make a demo to see how it would all look and what technological hurdles we had to overcome. Thanks to one of our teachers we could spend a week with a professional actor recording more than a hundred shots for this. This proved to be essential, because this way we saw how much time we needed for a shot, how to prepare for this, how much light we needed, how our green screen reacted and how our own engine worked. And also the importance of having enough food on the set. We had to learn this ourselves, because this was our first show.

After finishing the demo we went on internships, since the semester was over. In the evening hours I wrote the script for the game. Winne started contacting actors and Rudi started re-writing the code. Luckily after a couple of months we got our studio space from a teacher who decided to help us out. We built our own 'green screen studio' in an empty wing of the school. It used to be a chapel, but for a month it was our own studio.

Now we could start filming. We had made lists of all the shots we had to shoot and had rough 3D versions of the game locations. We didn't have a video mixer, so we had to judge by eye if the real camera matched the 3D camera. Sometimes this was spot on, sometimes the actors walked straight through 3D walls.

In the end it all sort of worked out. I was amazed to see the kind of quality we could get with a standard consumer HD-camera and pieces of green cloth we bought at the market. A big part of our lighting consisted of
construction site lamps.

What was the inspiration for placing noir in a futuristic setting?

I like putting things together that don't necessarily belong together. It just makes both things more interesting. Since we liked film noir and science fiction it was a perfect time to try to mesh them. But there are also a lot more
ordinary reasons for choosing sci-fi noir. Reason one was that noir uses a lot of shadows and this meant that the 3D didn't have to be very detailed. Which was a blessing for our 3D team (me). Also, when you model the future you have a lot of freedom. When you make a contemporary existing location, you better get it just right or people will notice.

Also the original movies were in black and white, this gave us the chance to have the game stand out between all the other colour games. And at the same time we saved a lot of time, because we didn't have to adjust the color on set, or in post to match the 3d. Finally we chose for noir because they sometimes use a voice-over and this is standard in adventure games, so we felt that this was a nice match.

When we showed the demo to people they said "Aha, Sin City." When we showed it at school, people said: "Kinda like Blade Runner." And now it's released other people say "Tex Murphy-style." They're probably all right to a certain extent.

When did this episode go up? When do you plan on the next one being released?

This episode was uploaded on the 30th of July. We worked for over half a year to get episode 1 in the shape we wanted. But we did this without a big budget or salary. Even the actors and our musician didn't get paid and did everything for free. We paid for their travelling expenses, bought the wardrobe and some of the hardware. We set up this project as a graduation project within school, because that's what it was. In the end we would release it online for free and hopefully people would enjoy it.

At the moment there are no plans to release episode 2. Because we can't afford to spend another more than a half year working on it nonstop. We've got our bills and we need jobs and money. Basically this episode could
be made because it was a school project, that window of opportunity has gone.

I wrote the game in episode-format because hopefully publishers would see it and be interested in either a remake, a follow up or something in a similar vein. But also because we could never make a game with a playing time of more than 4 hours, without seriously cutting back on the visuals. I think episodic gaming
is a very interesting trend. I don't know how financially successful Sam and Max is at the moment, but I really hope this is a way of delivering a game series without the risk of having to invest everything in one title all at once.

Will the game continue to be free to download?

We promised to make no money out of this game, since this was a school project. A lot of magazines have included it with their cover DVD and we agreed on one condition: That the DVD was not sold separately. This episode should be free. If a publisher picks it up new games may get a price tag. Maybe we can find out some way to offer it for free, I don't know. I'm no financial expert. For this game, we just wanted as many people as possible to enjoy the game.

The first episode of Fate by Numbers is still available for download right here.

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