"Inspiration-wise, I would mention artists like Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman": Vladimir Bogdanic, Director of Under The Stairs Studio, makers of Eyes In The Dark
Eyes In The Dark is one of the newest roguelike indie games developed by Under The Stairs Studios that makes use of black and white aesthetics throughout. With complex and challenging gameplay, the new title has become a fan favorite in a very short time.
Under The Stairs Studios was formed in 2017, based in Zagreb, Croatia. Taking an imaginistic and hobbyist approach to their development style, the team managed to build a unique roguelike game.
Moreover, the studio, along with Gearbox Entertainment, reached thousands of players worldwide.
In a first-hand, face-to-face interview with Vladimir Bogdanic, Director of Under The Stair Studios, Amlan Roy of Sportskeeda Esports was able to learn more about them.
Vladimir Bogdanic shares thoughts on latest roguelike, Eyes In The Dark, and more
Q: I loved the idea of the game being set in the 1920s, so what made you set the game in that era? In short, what was the inspiration that kindled the journey to make the game?
Vladimir: It initially started with a fully mechanical perspective. We just had this idea of uncovering black rooms covered in darkness. But then, obviously, we had to look for a certain art direction, and it basically worked the best when it was black and white.
So, early on, we decided to stick to two colors and wanted to see what came out of that.
The first prototype didn’t really have a drawn art direction and looked more flat and basic. However, our game designer and artist came to assist us on where we should go with this.
Inspiration-wise, I would mention artists like Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman, who usually followed the 1920s vibes you were talking of.
We liked that time period because it was an excellent era for innovations, but it was still about keeping things old-school and steampunk. One of the things we wanted to do was not stick to one time period and add a family who had always been active and did weird crazy things.
So, if you wanted an item that worked like a jetpack, they might surely be the people who may own it.
Also, I’d say the game was much slower-paced and had a horror survival element. You couldn’t really reveal the darkness, and you would always use your flashlight to show what was in front of you.
This made it much more difficult, and we struck a realization. We decided to remove the darkness and keep everything visible. So we started to play with transparency and background, which made the game much more fun.
Q: Lighting is a huge deal when it comes to video games or even making films. However, with Eyes In The Dark, you all used light as a weapon slash tool to fight off dark critters. How did you all come up with that idea? Was Alan Wake an inspiration in any way?
Vladimir: Yes, absolutely; I enjoyed playing the game and liked how arcadey it felt within their mechanics. However, it all boiled down to childhood fantasy. If you’re a kid in a dark room with a flashlight, it would reveal everything around you.
A recent example would be my ten-month-old child, who discovered a button that would turn the light. So for him, it was a huge thing overall.
Initially, it was all about pointing the flashlight and revealing platforms, discovering switches, and so on. We started experimenting by introducing enemies, and what if there were multiple types of enemies so you could prioritize?
In that way, a vast combat system opened up to us, and we started doing crazy things.
We also wanted to give players different types of weapons, so that’s when we started to introduce projectiles and ammos. The reason why we added ammunition was because we didn’t want them to stand in a corner and keep on shooting.
Q: While developing the game, I’m pretty sure the art style was always challenging. So, how did the game look in its initial stage? Was it still set in the 1920s with black and white aesthetics, or was it different?
Vladimir: To be honest, the vision didn’t change that much, but it was all about ability and accessibility. Because we didn’t have strict rules for how many surfaces are white and how many are black, what percent of white and black is good on screen. That led to issues with gamers not getting to know which objects are interactable or not.
So started to contain this chaos by making important objects completely white and other non-important things black. We also played with the thickness of lines and transparency to improve the accessibility.
We introduced some grey colors for the background so players can see things more clearly.
As for things in general, like what type of objects we will use in the game, we started researching things from that time. That inspired and impacted the final title.
We also wanted to ensure every area is unique in terms of feelings. We even tried to make every zone have its own distinct feel, which is a bit difficult to achieve with black and white games.
We all even thought of how we would place objects in the game and place the camera. It sort of helped us even more during the development process. Even though the game was black and white, players could still navigate easily and worked on the animations.
Even a week before launch, we realized chests could be highlighted to let players know they could be opened.
Q: I did some digging before this interview, and I discovered that you’re very much into music and photography. I can assume you were very active regarding audio, as the experience was excellent. So, were there any challenges you all faced or an interesting event you would like to share while working on the audio?
Vladimir: The audio took an extended time to get to the stage I was happy and satisfied with. With my history in the music industry and working with record labels and producers, I had a broad pool of artists I could contact and work with. So, I vouched for a close friend who was into psychedelic trance music.
The first tracks we made were more horror vibes, and some were slow and atmospheric. The music also had lots of reverbs and echoes to make the tracks more ethereal. However, it didn’t fit it as the base game was more flat then.
Later, we decided to remove all the reverbs and effects to add some chiptunes so that it felt more arcadey. It was then that everything clicked together and felt more complete, even with the game’s combat. Then we slowly worked on the audio and gradually reached where we are right now.
Due to so many changes, we had twenty to thirty tracks, which we might use in later games. But, yes. I guess the audio took many more iterations than it should have.
Q: At this very instance, Eyes In The Dark is available on the PC platform. However, do you guys have plans to extend its availability across platforms?
Vladimir: Sadly, I cannot answer this question right now. It is kind of down to the publisher, so it isn’t in our hands. Obviously, we are a small team and would love to be available on as many platforms as possible. But, we can’t say when exactly this will happen.
Q: Let’s deviate from the current game topic. Mr. Bogdanic, can you give us an insight into how Under The Stairs came into existence?
Vladimir: I would almost say it was an accident, but I kind of think otherwise, too. I have been working in web development for a long time and have been running a company for like ten years. So, that used to be my daily driver for my income, and a couple of years later, it kind of became boring to me. Every project started to become stale as no creativity was involved, so I felt like doing something different.
It just so happens that at that moment, across the street from where I live, a game design school had opened. I didn’t know anything about it, but I have played many video games and grew up with them.
So I took a short course on basic game designing and programming course. Once I finished the course, there was a game jam where the theme was “AND.”
So basically, we ended up building a game with contrast like two different colors. That’s when a prototype of the game came out. Again, we weren’t hoping for something great to come out, but we got a game award there, which gave us a huge confidence boost.
It took a couple of years to reach the next level, that’s when a bunch of people left, and I ended up paying from my pocket.
It wasn’t until 2016 that we had a better playable demo on which we worked. We were just a couple of people working for free twice a week.
We ended up with a prototype that was interesting enough to attract some investors. So that’s when everything started to ramp up and reached a point where we could work on this full time.
It took a lot of trial and effort, as we didn’t have many investment opportunities in Croatia. Also, we didn’t have any industry knowledge, like how a pitch deck looks, what publishers want to see, or how you raise investment.
I did know about running a business because I ran a web development company and talked to clients and stuff. However, it took us a while to figure things out ourselves.
After our initial funding to sustain ourselves and the project taking off, we started sending our games to publishers and finally struck a deal with Gearbox.
It took a long time due to lack of experience, but at the same time, we made many good decisions to keep us going.
As for our team composition, we all come from very different backgrounds. In Croatia, we do have game development teams, there are a lot of studios, but it’s not that big. So, some of us had this as our first job, but a lot of us come from different backgrounds.
As we talked about my music experience, our game designer used to be an architect, and some programmers worked in web development. You know, we have five people who are specialists in one thing but have lots of experience in other things.
So I feel like we are a weird bunch of people coming together from peculiar backgrounds.
Q: Like every other studio out in the world, I guess you also have some future plans. Where do you see Under The Stairs in the next five years?
Vladimir: Well, first off, the game only came out two weeks ago, so we depend on how it performs these next couple of months. For the near future, we will be currently focusing on bug fixes and other immediate things.
For the long term, we have already started working on our next project, about which I cannot reveal many details. Unlike Eyes In The Dark, we will shift our genre slightly, but again, I can’t say which genre exactly.
We want to keep making games and working to make innovative stuff that pushes each genre forward. Whether on the artistic side or mechanically, we want to keep making breakthroughs.
Q. While Indie programs like ID@Xbox and PlayStation Indies exist, what are your thoughts on these?
Vladimir: Overall, I think it is very beneficial as it boils down to which platform you feel the game will fit in general. It is good whether or not you have a deal with publishers for a specific platform if you are showcased or not.
For our studio, specifically, it was a massive boost for our project since we could apply to these programs. However, there are some barriers as you have to sit with them to talk about stuff and get access to their SDKs (Studio Development Kits).
So yes, it had been positively impactful for all of us.
Q. Is there anything you would like to say to our readers?
Vladimir: I guess the only thing I’d like to say to the readers would be to go play the game if you haven’t already. Tell us about your experience and feedback so we can improve in the future. Basically, what is the thing you liked the most about it?