Shawn McGrath, creator of PSN-exclusive tunnel shooter Dyad, exits his workplace – a house in the north side of Toronto – and lights up a cigarette. The rental home is lined with out-of-control weeds McGrath steps over to lean against his car, which sports novelty license plates with a leet variation of the word "hacker."
That was a high school decision, he admits.
Inside the house is a sanctuary for his art, a game McGrath has been working on for years. Dyad, which will be launched tomorrow, was the culmination of a dream McGrath once told himself was dead before reclaiming it with the help of friends; a group deeply rooted in the development of Toronto's burgeoning independent game scene.
But McGrath's obsession with game creation began many years before he, as a preteen, would program his first QBasic title. It was an obsession that began with Tetris.
"When I was in second grade, my mom bought me Tetris for my birthday and all my friends were over. I put Tetris in and I was playing it for about ten minutes and I immediately wanted all my friends to get the fuck out," McGrath told me, explaining where his desire to create something for himself came from.
"All I wanted to do was play Tetris. And that's all I did for a year ... play Tetris."
After pushing everything around him aside for this new infatuation, McGrath realized what he wanted to do with his future – make something of his own. "I was like, 'All right. I'm making video games. That's all I want to do. Fuck it. End of story.'" Seeing an interest the eleven-year-old McGrath had in programming, it was a teacher that helped the designer get his start with basic programming languages.
But high school didn't foster the same creativity as his early years, as only one other person McGrath knew had any interest in development: Everyday Shooter creator Jonathan Mak.
"We hated each other," McGrath said of Mak, who was also spending his time pushing toward a future in video games. "You're supposed to have a rivalry when you're fourteen. We weren't really friends. We knew each other. We talked sometimes, but we were total, bitter enemies."
"It was really childish and stupid," the Dyad creator admits.
High school was rough for McGrath. Poor grades and waning interest forced him to exit early and McGrath set aside his dream of making games for a living. "I thought you had to be in the industry to make games." McGrath gave up.
After years working for multiple companies, including a stint as a programmer at Microsoft, McGrath reconnected with Mak when he heard his former classmate was working on his own project: a multiplayer game dubbed Gate 88.
It was Mak, according to McGrath, that revealed how vast and accessible video game development was, presenting him with an undiscovered indie game scene. A pre-release version of the eventual multi-platform hit N – developed by Mak's university classmates Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns – along with the vast catalog of indie titles from Kenta Cho helped shape a new universe around the concept of game creation for McGrath.
McGrath gave up on giving up.
The competitive nature that led McGrath to once dislike Mak helped push him to create. "Being around everyone [in Toronto], Jon (Queasy, Sound Shapes), Raigan and Mare (MetaNet, N+), Nathan and those guys (Capy, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP), it always just made me think: 'Fuck, I have to do something, too.'"
Dyad's concept was born from examining a game McGrath didn't enjoy. At the time, McGrath had been playing Torus Trooper from indie developer Kenta Cho, which he says was the first game from Cho he "didn't really like."
"The people who like it really, really like it. The people who don't get it just hate it. I'm okay with that."- Shawn McGrath
"It was well designed and all the mechanics were good, but there was something really off about it. So, my goal was just to figure out what was off about it."
For "about a year," McGrath plugged away at an unnamed concept, adding and subtracting elements to see how the overall experience would be affected. For three years the original concept was built, destroyed, deformed, and reassembled into what would later transform itself into Dyad.
It was former archnemesis Jonathan Mak who helped connect McGrath with his would-be publisher. Already an established developer with Sony and secretly working on what would become Sound Shapes, Mak pointed Sony to McGrath's experiment-turned-experience.
Getting Sony's approval was painless, McGrath explains. He went into multiple meetings, hesitantly showed off what he was working on and everyone jumped on board. "I just showed it to Sony and I had some people who really liked it and helped me out ... for some reason. Because they're good people."
Dyad's foundation is built upon funding provided by the Ontario Media Development Corporation, which offers grants for those looking to "produce film, television, music, books, magazines and interactive digital media." According to the OMDC website, its annual grants help generate "300,000 jobs and $12.2 billion" in revenue for the province every year.
"That was really helpful because I was able to hire a programmer for a year and actually pay myself a salary," McGrath explains. Dyad's experience is also aided by the music of independent artist David Kanaga.
Other creative outlets helped push McGrath to continue his path into design, including the Toronto Game Jam festival. In 2008, McGrath's T.O. Jam entry, A Game About Bouncing, took top prize.
"Let me try to guess what it's about," I say, when he mentions his previous creation. "It's about bouncing," McGrath tells me. "Well, I was way off," I reply.
A Game About Bouncing is the Dyad developer's next release, McGrath reveals. "I'm not programming it, I hired a guy," he adds. McGrath fumbles with a computer in the corner of his work space and loads a current build of the PS3 title. Like its original PC release – which you can play for free – it's striking. The game's concept is centered on 'what if you were the pinball in a machine.'
"I'm completely focused on Dyad," he explains, unable (or unwilling) to share release specifics on his next project; however, he notes it will launch on the PlayStation 3 "pretty soon."
Dyad's design has shifted dramatically from its early days of experimentation to its upcoming debut. Superficially the game is essentially the same, a colorful tunnel racing experience; however, major core concepts have been altered.
"All there was, was this tube with a line in it. If you were on the line you'd move faster. If you went off of the line you went slower." McGrath soon realized that Dyad shared a major similarity to racing games like Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo, which are built on the fundamental concept of finding and riding optimal lines.
"Then they convolute controls with ... 'Let's add friction. Let's add inertia. Let's make it so you accelerate slowly and decelerate slowly.' All they do is take this really basic idea of riding on a line and make it difficult.
"So, I said 'Fuck it.' I don't find that difficulty all that interesting. 'Let's just put the line in and see what happens.' As soon as you put the line in and use it you see that as you go faster, it becomes immediately more difficult to stay on the line because it's changing so fast."
The original goal for players in Dyad was to go as fast as possible, with speed acting as its only on-the-fly difficulty setting. Soon enemies were added, which meant weapons had to be included. These additions changed difficulty. McGrath didn't want the inclusion of new elements to change Dyad's overall pace, however, so things were designed to chain together to ensure a continuous momentum.
Stronger concepts were kept and ideas that didn't seem to mesh were scrapped. Better ideas took over in most cases, but McGrath also admits that how people have played the game at events have also informed some updates. Dyad's first public showing was during the launch party for the final book in Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series. Things did not go well.
"No one could play it. It was just an unplayable mess," McGrath remembers. "It was way simpler than it is now, but no one could play it." The problems were the simplest details that unintentionally confused players as they were traveling through Dyad's gameplay mosaic. One issue McGrath remembers specifically was the use of the word "Combo."
"It was confusing because it used the word 'combo' rather than the word 'pair.'" Changing it helped guide players to pairing colored chains throughout the world instead of trying to hit every object they encounter. Another issue was the coloring of the words where players were under the impression that the word 'pair' listed as two different tones had a different meaning, which led them to stop going for chains.
The changes seemed tiny and inconsequential to the designer, but were needed to better explain the world to those who hadn't spent every day of the last three-plus years travelling through the tunnels of Dyad. To make sure it made sense for all players, McGrath showed the game at any event he was able to visit for the last two years.
"Little things like that were the final touches to make a really confusing game to a really simple and easy to play game." Basic gameplay design, however, has not been altered based on feedback. Dyad is the game McGrath wants it to be.
Recent event reaction to Dyad has been "usually universally positive," McGrath tells me; however, mainstream appeal isn't the designer's goal.
"The people who like it really, really like it. The people who don't get it just hate it. I'm okay with that."
"I don't care if people like it," he says. "I know that's an odd thing to say, but I don't give a shit." Dyad is the game that Shawn McGrath wanted and needed to make for himself. It's just a happy accident that other people have developed an interest.