Developer Interview: Isotope SoftWorks' Coraline Annis

Isotope SoftWorks is a developer with a plan - a plan to bring independently developed first person shooting action to the Dreamcast. Isotope currently has two such titles in development - SLaVE and Hypertension: Harmony of Darkness. Both are FPSs, and both are coming soon via GOAT Store...but they really couldn't be further apart in terms of aesthetics and narrative. The Dreamcast Junkyard really wanted to know more about what makes Isotope tick, and so we got together with founder and lead programmer Coraline Annis to discuss the exciting projects currently under way and due for release in the near future.

DCJY: Hi Coraline, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Could you give a little bit of background to Isotope SoftWorks and TDG Mods? Who are you and how did you form as a developer?

Coraline Annis: My name is Coraline Annis (Corbin) and I’m the founder and lead programmer for Isotope SoftWorks. TDGMods stands for “The Doom Gods Mods” and was the name of my first independent mod team that formed Hypertension. The name change was done to move away from the “mod” and “Doom” mindset, and to differentiate that the current team working on Hypertension is completely different from the previous. The TDGMods monikor is only kept on to honor the previous developers throughout the lifetime of the game itself.

I was very small when I figured out I wanted to work on computer games. I got my start through a utility called DeHackED for DOOM, and BUILD for Duke Nukem 3D in my early years. It was awhile before I tried bigger things, but I got my start pretty much like everyone else in the 90’s industry. Determination led to the formation of TDGMods in high school, and many failed projects later, we are where we are today. Isotope SoftWorks is the ultimate culmination of all of our hard work to get where we are now, and believe me, it was very hard and complicated. None of this was started with a plan, we just kept rolling with it until we had enough to say “Hey, check us out!”
Hypertension features some impressive lighting effects
If you notice, historically, we have always presented our games with actual media, and not a bunch of concept art or babbling to a camera. In the end, I think that’s why people still believe in us, because we have never been big on ‘talk now, show concept art later’ - it’s always like, here’s in-engine material, suck on that! Haha!

And, despite my formal name being Corbin, I underwent a transition and now go by Coraline, but you’ll see my legal name accredited simply because it seems to confuse a lot of people or they don’t have the maturity to show respect towards me. I’ve never really addressed that part of myself publicly in detail, so there might be a time when I will, but for now it’s not important. I’m still the same person that’s worked on these things all these years anyway. Just prettier ;)
Isotope SoftWorks' new logo.

You are working on a couple of Dreamcast games – SLaVE and Hypertension. For readers who may not be familiar with these games, could you give us some details on each of them?

Sure, well for starters, they are both first-person shooters powered by our 3DGE Engine, a highly-modified and retooled 3D (GPL!) Doom Engine. While they both share the underlying technology, the two are almost completely different, and neither share much with the original DOOM, other than data formats.

Hypertension is a psychological-horror game that was started in 2008 and went through many revisions - initially, it was a revival of the classic computer game BLOOD, by Monolith, a straight FPS. We eventually moved completely away from that and now it’s totally original (hence the subtitle: Harmony of Darkness). In Hypertension: Harmony of Darkness, you play as a suicidal burnout named Feolina, who lives in this very dark and depressing world where she’s witnessed a lot of pain. Her lover, Haruka, decides to move her to a mountain town in hopes of treating her illness in a quiet environment, since she suffers from schizophrenia, blackouts, and depression. Over the course of the game, she finds out a terrible curse has been placed on this mountainside town that is linked with her own state of mind, and she must overcome the Nightmares that threatens her and the town’s own existence. I can’t give too much away, but it is a very dark game where puzzles and gunfire go hand-in-hand. It is very story-driven but it should hit home to those people who suffer from real illness such as depression, as that part of the game is very much based on my own battles with the dark side of life. Think a mix of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Half-Life, Quake, and the environments of Alan Wake.

SLaVE, in complete contrast, is a much brighter shooter that functions very much as a first-person arcade game. Jay Townsend has put a lot of effort into making the game extremely challenging and fast paced, hearkening back to the simple days while adding a bit of 3D flair to the mix. In that game, you play as a random piece of code that decides to fight back against its Master (thus, SLaVE). While it isn’t as story-focused as Hypertension, the gameplay more than makes up for it. Trust me, it’s a very fun, action-packed game. Like GOAT said, think Robotron 2084 meets DOOM. But better! And the graphics are simply pixel art at its low-res finest - since the game was shown off, we have implemented 60FPS interpolation, and it moves just like a classic arcade game now. You have to see it to believe it! Lots of fun to be had with that one.
SLaVE
Reading your development blog, Hypertension has had a very drawn out and difficult development. What made you continue with the project in the face of so much adversity?

Part of it was my life - I was only 20 at the time, and it was synonymous with who I was as a person. The best moments of my life were when I was developing this game in the early years, despite all of the drama I got from a particular BLOOD community (a lot of it sexist because of my gender as well, which I was still trying to grapple with at the time). It was very emotional and indirectly contributed to an eventual fallout of the original team shortly before Atari got involved in the project. In 2011 I was the only remaining member of the team when I got the publishing deal from GOAT, and using those connections, rebuilt my team and we pressed on. I’ve just always had that drive to make this thing a reality - I was young, worked a part time job in fast food, didn’t really have anything to lose. It was easy to fight back and openly criticize other people and cause a ruckus because we were young and inexperienced. The real treat was to just take everything in stride and let people form their own opinions, which you get far more respect for anyway. Maturing into adulthood, I suppose the proper term would be!

I think for a lot of people it was inspiring because despite all of my real-life troubles, the game still pushed on, and you can tell! On my Youtube channel, there’s videos from the game in 2008, and each year you can see the absolute polish that was added by my extremely talented team at the time. I get messaged telling me that the old gameblog is an enormously interesting read (this was before Youtube and viral social media got super popular, mind you). My life situation is different, but my goals towards making an awesome game remain. If any of you want something cool to read, check out that blog. I would love to further explain myself in a personal way, but that’d just be boring for you guys :D

Do tell..

Truth be told, some of that too is that Hypertension’s development has been going on for so long...since 2008 (that’s 7 years), and there’s been more than a dozen times where I’ve wanted to throw in the towel or find someone to actively replace my position and remove myself to a non-active producer, but it never happened with this game. I’ve been through some deep shit with my developers over the years and they are like family, and as a family we push on.

Not that long ago, I was suffering from extreme depressed to the point of self-harm, et al...but I remind myself every day that I have a beautiful daughter who needs to be shown that any dream, big or small, can be achieved no matter how long it takes, because you are leaving a piece of your legacy to future generations. What kind of example do I set for her when she asks what my dream was later or if I was happy with my life, only to give her an embarrassing response like that (or, none at all)?

It’s not about the money or living “fat” or having nice cars as people often caricature independent game developers in the media; it’s about doing what I’ve always dreamed of doing, what I’ve worked so hard to do over these years, what I’ve sacrificed along with the entire team over more than half a decade...what I’ve sacrificed for my daughter and my relationship. I suppose my dream has forked from being a half-decent game developer in 2008 to wanting to be the best parent and human being I can be for Violet... but that also starts with me helping myself. I have to remember that I have support from the people that love me for who I am, and what I want to do, and most importantly, my daughter. When I get to a low point, which can happen frequently if you suffer from clinical depression (MDD) and/or ADHD (Adderall is my Queen), you guys are always on my mind and inspire me to push on until the end.

The rest of the team also has very similar experiences. But some of us have kids now, and we have to think of the bigger picture, even though a lot of it IS very stressful!
The Isotope SoftWorks family
It’s equally the fans who keep us grounded in reality, from not moving too far too fast, knowing that they can trust my team if we keep our mouths shut for up to 5 months at a time, who believe in our ability to entertain. This game has very much endured extreme hardship from previous and current developers as well, which I believe will resonate in the best way possible and make our game hit home. We are not YouTube personalities or game rock stars or even have anything resembling a budget (read: we don’t), we are all imperfect, down-to-earth people with a burning passion for game development. We’ve seen the dark sides of life - take a look at what it’s really like. ;)

I do wish I could reunite with the original Hypertension development team because those were great times, but regardless of what happens their legacy will remain in this game. There’s been a lot of people who have worked with me over the years and lent their particular hand in the game, and all of that will be seen, despite going through a few design changes.
The level of detail in the weapon models is stunning
Powerful and thought-provoking stuff. Thanks for sharing - we're sure there will be many people reading this who can relate. You have alluded to some past difficulties with Atari – could you elaborate on this?

Pre-Harmony of Darkness, Hypertension went through many years of changes, and many people worked on the project. It was not well received by the flailing BLOOD community however, and we were harassed to the brink (a member in particular would send us death threats constantly, they weren’t messing around). However, it was popular with media outlets such as Game Informer and Diehard GameFAN. Though, that community simply could not handle the revived popularity of

BLOOD and contacted Atari in spite. In 2011, we were issued a cease-and-desist at the [very] same time our publisher GOAT picked up the rights to the game. Needless to say, we were in no position to get involved and we quietly shelved Hypertension. Talks broke down and we were ordered to surrender all of the original assets, save for the TRANSFUSION material which still fell under the GNU license (and the license to us, at the time TDGMODS, remained, hence another reason we are keeping that monikor for the current Hypertension). We sort of stayed quiet for a long time (it was embarrassing to say the least) and despite starting another project, people still asked for years to come about Hypertension. When GOAT approached us with the idea to revive it, we jumped at the chance, most of my initial team coming from the SCOURGE project (which was still years from completion as the engine was taking a long time to develop, also a full 3D environment). So now, the game is 100% original, but it still contains a lot of references to BLOOD and the old Hypertension project (being able to smoke, burning zombies, removable limbs, interactivity, etc). So, for the BLOOD fans, the combat system will still definitely resemble the parent game, but everything else is in its own world.

Wow - what happened when BLOOD was stripped from the formerly completed project?

Many of our important 3D assets/bulk at the time were licensed from a team/game called TRANSFUSION, who were working on an adaptation of BLOOD for the Quake Engine, and still remains under license by Atari through the GPL. Therefore, with their permission and blessing, adapted a decent part of the assets from both BLOOD and Transfusion into an original adventure that was meant to reboot and continue BLOOD. Eventually, Atari saw how successful the game was getting through Takedown requests - despite not being involved with the IP for many years. After many months of tension between them and up to/ending with GOAT Store’s involvement, actually forced us to temporarily cancel development, despite the game being 90% complete (if you look at trailers/gameplay around that year, up to the MGC 2014).

So, we got greenlit very late in 2013 to revive it and we’ve been hard at work to make it stand on its own legs, while still being a loose spiritual successor/reboot to BLOOD. At first, it was easy; we were just going to replace the assets and polish it off since the game was almost finished (and from the people who had/have it, extremely fun to play). As we got further into development, we realised it would take longer than a year for a lousy “asset replacement” that was becoming very boring very quickly...and we might as well make it completely original while using the existing game code to build from. So far, that has proven enormously more successful for us to undertake and develop as we’ve gotten the best compliments we’ve received since 2009. Ultimately, we made the right decision, but those aren’t always the easiest to make.
Frilly cuffs should feature in more FPSs
However, it meant redesigning the entire game, but as you can tell, the graphics engine has evolved as well as the assets, and our audio department is amazing (pieces of the soundtrack were released on SoundCloud, and our voice actors nail the characters they are portraying). One thing that has remained consistent throughout all of our projects is the quality of the sound (SLaVE being a prime example) so it’s definitely better using sounds that aren’t limited to 8hz Mono (from BLOOD), as well as graphics.

Blood’s graphics were designed for 128x128 tiles (and lower!) and as a result looked extremely low-res (though its art style made up for it). While our engine can handle unlimited texture size and resolution, we are restricting ourselves to 256x256/512x512 and, of course, the assets being in full 3D with unlimited animations. This automatically gives us much more realism and more efficient ways of telling a story, and creating scripted sequences with real time 3D, motion-captured characters. For NPC animations, we will be utilizing motion-capture through the Kinect->Windows converter, which will additionally give the environment and script the believability it needs to tell an efficient story to the player.

We are treating this as a high-budget game, and look forward to the many hours you all will spend on it - it’s truly fantastic! It’s definitely more than people give it credit for, but I suppose you will all have to wait and see!

We are certainly looking forward to it - even more so now! You have mentioned your 3DGE engine many times - care to talk about that?

Sure! Before asking for money to release actual gamecode as a KS-tier was a thing, we released our Dreamcast-port of 3DGE back in 2013! We actively maintain the port (hosted on Github) and also run a self-hosted Wiki for the engine. Due to this, we are seeing an increase in activity from both Dreamcast enthusiasts and classic DOOM modders alike.
Another demonstration of the engine's lighting effects
It’s very moving to be able to provide simple-to-use and heavily-documented tools/technology with no strings attached (well, the only stipulation to the GPL2 is that you release the sources), but it’s better that way. Not to mention, the extreme capabilities of my engine, from simple DOOM modding to a full blown 3D world with 3D models, dynamic lights, and robust scripting languages far removed from DOOM itself. Not to say other engines aren’t as capable because there is indeed impressive technology for the Dreamcast, but none beats a full 3D powerhouse like 3DGE where you can literally do only what your imagination limits you to do.

I’ve heard of people claiming that since it’s based on id Tech 1 that we had our work cut out for us as far as custom technology goes...but if they really saw just how much work has gone into the game engine they would quickly see that it’s not a simple “Doom-based” engine; in fact, compatibility with DOOM is average at best, since it was designed for game designers and not vanilla/BOOM-compatible projects.

And as you can see, the engine has evolved quite a bit since 2008 (really since 1997, since it is the only direct descendant of DOSDoom, the very first Doom source port), but we’ve added things like bump-mapping, directional shadows, DOOM 3 model support, interpolation...the list goes on. It’s not easy, believe us, and that’s why we are proud to call 3DGE our own.

It’s similar to Call of Duty (et al) using the Quake 3 engine (or Half-Life/Source using a hybrid Quake engine); even though they are advanced and developed enough to call their own, they still share lineage with Quake technology.
Character designs are varied
We're big fans of the genre here at the 'Yard. The story-driven FPS is a genre that was criminally neglected on the Dreamcast. A question we always have to ask – why did you specifically choose to put these titles out on the Dreamcast?

There is an extreme lack of first-person shooters on the console nowadays, and the ones that were on there were superb (even Gearbox’s Half-Life port). I’ve always been attracted to the platform so it was really only natural. I’ve been working with the Dreamcast for a long time and partnered with various high-profile developers in the community

Isotope SoftWorks seems to have a variety of talent, ranging from independent teams like Reticon (who were working on the now-shelved TAHI) and Ubisoft. How has their experience helped you guys?

It’s definitely awesome. I’ve always been friends with Reticon (as they are only a mere 20 miles away from our own location) and one member in particular, Andrew Cardon, had experience working on Dreamcast games.

TAHI: The Arocean War was to be a bombastic full-3D RPG, but was quietly shelved and the team laid off after years of hard work. Andrew and myself were already good friends, so naturally he seemed like a perfect fit for the team. It is indeed sad what happened to TAHI, but we can never say never - it might make a comeback someday (come on Frank, join us and together we can finish the game)! For now, Andrew is a happy designer working on Harmony of Darkness - a true badass.

The Ubisoft guy came to us while in the middle of SCOURGE’s development and offered a lot of what we didn’t have at the time - actual industry experience. It was with his help that we formed a very professional attitude towards our fans and other developers alike. He wrote some killer material for SCOURGE and some of it got translated to Harmony of Darkness, though he’s since gone on hiatus.
TAHI looked promising...but was quietly cancelled.
And of course, we have guys like the massively talented Connor Linning, who developed Overlooker for PC (check it out, it’s an awesome old-school horror RPG) and Jeff Lawhead (who’s handling soundtrack and story) and the experience overall is amazing.

We have a few veterans from SCOURGE’s development team. Jason Johnson, the lead artist, is amazing and extremely talented, he can animate anything! You might have seen him presenting the 2011 version of the game at the MGC 2014. Sean “Flea” Lett has stuck with us since the very beginning of our gaming careers and takes care of levels and models as well.

Then we have Lachlan Cassidy - he’s as eccentric as he is talented: he’s picked up a large part of the programming and 3D modeling/animation duties, and his expertise is having a huge influence on the current state of the game.  Other level designers include Elric Sullivan and Ty Breaker, who really do the game justice and make the environments come to life. There’s also Josh Pearson and Alex Nessemman, who themselves are champions of the community working with our technology, so I can’t ask for a more dedicated team of people. I love them all.

Would you pick up TAHI if Reticon ever decided to partner with you guys to finish it up?
~Dr. Evil ominous smile~

Haha! We understand. TAHI: The Arocean War is a project we have covered here in the past, and it did look truly fantastic. It's good to hear that there's a tiny glimmer of hope that it may one day be resurrected. Are there any other games coming soon for the Dreamcast that you have been keeping an eye on?

We don’t concern ourselves much with the rest of the community, since we are in such a drive to get our own games finished and completed and the support of our own community alive.

AMEBA seems like an interesting concept simply because I grew up as a PC gamer and those type of adventure/point-and-click games were very popular in the early 90’s, so naturally it is appealing to me. Before I finished this interview, I was going to comment on the lack of in-game media from that game, but now that I’ve seen it, it looks totally badass!
A very old, early version of Hypertension
Reading your development blog, there is mention of a 32X port of Hypertension – is that still a possibility?

You remember that, do you? Have you seen the video of that running on hardware? Unfortunately however, we have no current plans to port it over to that console, since Hypertension’s focus from the reboot was to get all of the assets developed first with the Dreamcast’s hardware in mind. We joke that we still want to do a sprite-based version more akin to DOOM specifically for the console (Hypertension 32X) that’s closer to what I had in mind all those years ago, but who would play it? There was once a legitimate secret Nintendo DS version in development (but we lost those screenshots and code, but it ran on actual hardware), and talks were underway with another team to port the game onto the Atari Jaguar based on the 32X version, but the programmers didn’t want to share their (GPL!) Doom code so that fell through rather quickly. Just having the source code is useless without knowing the way the system ticks - I do not.

Speaking of other systems, Hypertension and SLaVE get the distinctions of being entirely Dreamcast exclusive. We are tinkering with porting them to the PC and Android platforms; while it would be easy to do, we want to give the Dreamcast community something that they can truly call their own. We love you, ya crazy loyal Sega fans!

Ah! A Jaguar port would have been amazing. In light of Hucast/Orion's recent Jaguar ports to the Dreamcast and Duranik's move from Jaguar to Dreamcast with Sturmwind, it would have been cool to see software go back the other way. Where you a Dreamcast fan back when the console was contemporary?

Still own my original Dreamcast though it’s looking a little worse for wear these days (three others are used as development machines) with most of my original launch games! Never got a new console again until the Nintendo 3DS (and the 360 followed soon after). I’ve always been mostly PC-centric, and the Dreamcast was the closest thing to a real PC that you could program for.

Do you have any favourite Dreamcast games?

Shenmue is one of my all-time favorite games, followed by Quake 3/UT/SoF (despite me originally owning them on PC first). I was also a fan of House of the Dead 2. The fact that you could play Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament back then with PC players was a very big deal (I’m looking at you, Sony/Microsoft), and instantly gained my devotion to the system forever.
Once Hypertension is released, do you have any plans to continue developing for the Dreamcast? What does the future hold for Isotope?

Well, there are plans to continue SCOURGE’s development and release it for Dreamcast as well since that technology is far more advanced than 3DGE (and a year’s worth of solid work was put into it before we cancelled it for Hypertension’s reboot), and both games share an interconnected plot, but we will cross that bridge when we get there. It all really depends on if SLaVE or Hypertension are successful enough to continue making games...if they bomb, we are naturally done for.

Isotope SoftWorks itself will always be committed to supporting our 3DGE technology, with lots of cool and interesting games/mods coming out all the time, so that will definitely continue well after these games have left their mark.

That's truly brilliant to hear. One last thing though - is there any chance you know the identity of The Barber?

*Silence*

Dammit! The search STILL goes on. Coraline, thank you very much for taking the time to answer our questions in such meticulous detail.
Yet another sensational interview here at the 'Yard from one of the most interesting and exciting indie devs on the Dreamcast. There really is a wealth of talent currently working on new software for our beloved undead system, and Isotope is in the premier league with both SLaVE and Hypertension due to hit our GD drives in the imminent future. Be sure to check the TDG Mods development blog here, and also the forums here, where you can find out even more about SLaVE and Hypertension. Finally, be sure to check out GOAT Store for pre-order info in the near future and the Isotope Facebook page here.

Previous Developer Interviews:
René Hellwig of Hucast Games
Carlos Oliveros of Retro Sumus
Falco Girgis of Elysian Shadows Team

7 comments:

Mr. Peter Stevens said...

That was a great interview. Looking forward to seeing more of your work!

Corbin said...

Thank you! And thanks to Tom and DCJunkyard for letting us speak about Hypertension's legal affairs for the first time! Good to get that monkey off of our backs.

Anthony817 said...

Very glad to read such a great detailed interview. Glad you all are getting this game finished and seeing it through to the end old friend!

Simon Early said...

Great interview!

Simon Early said...

Great interview!

Simon Early said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Florian Wallin said...

Quote: "I’ve always been attracted to the platform so it was really only natural. I’ve been working with the Dreamcast for a long time and partnered with various high-profile developers in the community"

Thats the spirit ! Looking forward to see Hypertension in action , and before that Slave. (Slave already preordered , and Hyper will be when you guys let me)

About Tahi , taking that up and finish it off would also be a blast. I hope that your games will sell well and that you continue supporting the lovely Dreamcast.

Cheers
Florian from the land of vikings (Sweden ;D)