In November 2010, Phosphor Games was quietly shopping around a project called Awakened, a super-hero action title heavy on character customization and creative chaos. As part of its publisher pitch, Phosphor made a demo video for Awakened; it was rough and never meant for public consumption. It showed a city on the brink of man-made annihilation, tanks patrolling streets littered with blood, bodies and fire, and a cast of seemingly ordinary people with supernatural abilities: invisibility, force push, mind control, electric shock, on-demand armor, stealth, accuracy, a tornado.
"We didn't actually intend it to go out," Phosphor Games director Chip Sineni looks back on the day the video broke on YouTube. "We were kind of embarrassed because it was very rough and there was a lot of stuff that just wasn't ready to show to the public. We were really surprised by how many people were supportive of it."
The video, rough as Sineni thought it was, resonated with the gaming audience in a big way. Publishers loved it, too – just not enough to pick up the project. Awakened fell to the back of Phosphor's priorities and out of the gaming industry's eye as the company focused on developing smaller, lucrative games, such as Horn and Dark Meadow for iOS. However, in the few years since Awakened burst into public consciousness, video game funding has evolved, and Phosphor may not need publisher approval to get the game off the ground. All it needs now is something it believes it has already proven – community interest – and somewhere to channel that support.
Awakened has evolved along with the industry since the leak. In 2010, it was a console-bound retail game seeking backing from a major publisher. Today, Awakened is a PC-focused, next-gen game powered by Unreal Engine 4, and Phosphor is seeking $500,000 to complete its development. Sineni wants a dedicated team to develop Awakened, rather than the small one working on it, on and off, today.
"As an indie developer, we constantly have to find funding and revenue, so we'd often have a small staff on it and then we'd get a work-for-hire and take people off," Sineni says. "What we really want to do with the Kickstarter is finally allocate those resources to dedicate them onto the project. Instead of pulling people off, we can actually dedicate people to work on it and finish it."
Awakened still has about two years of development time ahead of it, since Phosphor is porting all of its tech to Unreal Engine 4, which it is currently helping Epic Games develop. If Awakened makes it to consoles, Phosphor wants to be sure it fits in with the next-gen, but PC gaming is the real focus. Awakened will feature heavy modding and customization opportunities, and Sineni says he wants the community to more than help fund the game. Phosphor's director wants the community to create some of its best features.
"We have an idea of the base we want to come out with, a very strong base of single-player campaign and all the customizing you can do, but features beyond that, we very much want the community to help drive," Sineni says. Awakened still contains aspects from the leaked video and will allow in-depth character customization with a range of super powers, including fire, electricity, teleporting, telekinesis, pushing, tornadoes, nova beams, gravity vortexes and invisibility – and those are just a few that Sineni pulls off the top of his head.
Everything else is in the players' hands. For example, Sineni can see people saying, "Hey, we love the competitive side of this, and we really want there to be amazing leaderboards and matchmaking so we can do that." And then Phosphor would implement exactly that. Or, another scenario Sineni predicts: "Co-op is the funnest thing. I can combine characters that have never existed in a game, like competing IPs, things that would just never be. Can you guys blow that out more?" Maybe people will want more accessible editing tools, or even say, "Hey, could you make a first-person mode? I'm not really into third-person games but I really love the idea of changing my abilities." Sineni anticipates all of it, and he looks forward to participating in a new age of community involvement.
Sineni sees Awakened following the path paved by Minecraft and Dota 2, launching as a live beta and evolving over time.
"That's the cool, new way you're going to see in more development," Sineni says. "The old way was you spend all this money and time on a mode that people may not even want. A lot of the last-gen games had to have a multiplayer mode, whether you played it or not. For developers, that was a significant amount of resources and a lot of people wouldn't even try it. That's kind of what we want to get away from. We can't spend a lot of our resources on something that somebody may or may not want. We'd rather focus our efforts on exactly what people are asking for."
"Instead of focusing on this big, gigantic thing and putting it in a box and hoping people like it, we want to come out sooner and let people really play with it and help drive where we should focus development."Chip Sineni, Phosphor Games
Not that Phosphor doesn't have an extremely clear idea of what Awakened is all about – its development began at Midway, where for three years the same developers worked on a project called Hero, which is now the basis of Awakened. Once Midway shuttered in 2009, Sineni and his team formed Phosphor with the direct purpose of reviving Hero, and they've been working on this project in some capacity ever since.
It's a tough sell. Phosphor took Awakened to every major publisher, and while people in the meetings loved it, a deal never materialized. It's difficult to pin down exactly what type of game Awakened is, or which genre it belongs to. The game's elements don't directly translate to simple genre labels like RPG, MMO, action or shooter; however, those genres are said to be represented. For publishers, an unexpected, new idea without a proven character or franchise just doesn't add up, Sineni says.
"On one end that's disappointing, but on the other end you kind of understand that," he says. "They have their budgets and they all have shareholders and that's kind of why they get into the rut of making sequels a lot, making more predictable games."
Kickstarter, on the other hand, is made to test out the appeal of different ideas. It's a new world for Phosphor and Awakened.
"Instead of focusing on this big, gigantic thing and putting it in a box and hoping people like it, we want to come out sooner and let people really play with it and help drive where we should focus development," Sineni says.