Denis Dyack‘s latest game is Deadhaus Sonata, where the player is an undead character fighting the living. And Dyack thinks that’s a good parallel for his own life in gaming.
His previous company, Silicon Knights, and its successor, Precursor Games, both went under after a series of setbacks in both game launches and crowdfunding efforts. He got into a lot of public spats, like a dispute with Epic Games over Unreal Engine rights. But Dyack is soldiering on with a new company, Apocalypse Studios in Niagara Falls, Canada, and a new free-to-play action role-playing multiplayer game.
“When I talk about the House of the Dead, I feel like I’m talking about myself,” Dyack said in an interview at last week’s DICE Summit in Las Vegas. “Silicon Knights is dead. It’s never coming back. With the launch of Apocalypse, I’ve gone through some things and can bring that experience to light in ways that I think are refreshing and new.”
Now he’s moving on. Dyack showed me an early demo of the game, where you play an undead character — think vampires, ghouls, revenants, and liches — and go to war against the living.
You’re an anti-hero with some frightening capabilities, like jumping high in the air and slicing anything that’s in your way as you come down. It has horror vibes that are similar to some of Dyack’s previous games, such as Blood Omen: Legacy of Cain, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, Too Human, and the ill-fated Shadow of the Eternals. Dyack has built a big backstory, and he says the multiplayer action will have a lot of narrative elements that go into the different stories of rival undead houses.
Dyack doesn’t expect to crowdfund Deadhaus Sonata and is talking with potential partners. They’re using Amazon’s Lumberyard game engine and Advanced Micro Devices technology. Dyack figures it will be a couple of years before this game is done.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Denis Dyack: What we’re doing might interest you from the perspective of—we’re doing some interesting things in the industry. I’m coming back from the dead. We’re using Amazon Lumberyard, and the way we’re using it speaks to a new type of gaming mentality for a new marketplace, which is yielding itself every day.
This is Deadhaus Sonata. It’s a game where you play the undead fighting the living. You play vampires, ghouls, revenants, liches. In this game, you’re an unstoppable force from Deadhaus. You’re playing the monsters fighting the human race. I’ll talk about games I’ve made in the past only because they’re going to echo where we’re going in the future.
I could spend a lot of time on this, but for now I’m going to focus on Legacy of Kain. I don’t know if we’ve ever talked about this before, but I’m a huge Marshall McLuhan fan. “The medium is the message.” When we were doing Legacy of Kain, we did a content-based game where you’re playing an anti-hero, a vampire, where the whole world wants to kill you. But when creating that game I studied the medium. The medium back in the day was, the PlayStation gave us the CD-ROM. We could have full voice acting. The traditional RPGs where you read the story in text on a TV monitor, I hated those. I said, “Let’s get professional voice actors.” We did this before Metal Gear Solid came out. We were one of the first groups to incorporate live actors to tell the story. That was studying the medium.
What we’re doing now, and where I think the story is interesting for you and for others out there, is we’re taking that same approach with Deadhaus Sonata, where we’re studying the medium and saying, “What can we do with this new medium?” It’s changed so much. With Legacy of Kain you’re in front of a console, alone on the TV screen, playing a single-player game. Now it’s all multiplayer. Everyone thinks storytelling is dead in multiplayer.
Deadhaus Sonata is multiplayer, but you can play alone if you want. The idea is, let’s take this medium and make it something special. That’s one of the reasons we’re so excited about Lumberyard. Lumberyard is incorporated with an AWS stack from the ground up. It’s all multiplayer. It scales. It’s incorporated into Twitch. People watching people play video games has become its own medium. More people watch people playing games than are actually playing. Imagine if you incorporate these types into your game. That’s where we’re going with Deadhaus Sonata. We want to flip it on its head. We think there’s a massive opportunity out there to start thinking in that direction.
We want to revolutionize the way people think and consume content. Imagine now, if we allowed players who are watching to participate in huge ways in the game, to change the content, to change the storytelling, to change what people get. Not just better power-ups and some of the hooks people have put in, but fully integrate that into the experience.
We’re free to play. That’s obviously been so successful. The current thing that we’re seeing with the traditional triple-A market is people slowly trying to adopt the cloud model, which is what we talked about years and years ago. Clouds are the future. Free to play is the future. Games as a service is absolutely the future. There’s much more money to be made there, and you get happier consumers as well. They can pay when they want to, not when they have to.
Twitch integration is really important. Asymmetrical game design is also extremely important. We’re going to make sure every time you play a different class, it’s an entirely new experience, not just different moves and different powers. We want people to feel very differently.
GamesBeat: Could that be—you have 200 zombies chasing down one human, something like that?
Dyack: Definitely like that. Have you played a board game called Cthulhu Wars? It’s a very good asymmetrical game. When you play, say, the King in Yellow versus Nyarlathotep, which are different Old Ones in the Cthulhu universe, it plays like a different game. What we want to do–when you’re playing a vampire versus playing a revenant, it feels totally different.
The last think we’re doing is we want to really drive community-driven content. Not just on the Twitch level, but on the level where they can participate in the content itself, world-building in a way where they can truly contributed. We think that’s truly going to be the game-changer. These types of things are really well-suited to where we’re going. People ask why we’re using Lumberyard, and this is why. We love all this stuff. It’s modular. It has a great renderer. It allows us to do all of this things.
We’re a third-person RPG, but if you want to mix two games together, we’re Bloodborne meets Diablo. We’re a co-op dungeon crawler, PC and console. We can go to mobile too if we need to. Online all the time. Mid- to hardcore. Lumberyard engine. We’re using a trinary archetype system to build all of our classes, which is very different. We trademarked it for fun. Someone told us to last night.
Here’s an example of what I mean. We have physical, magical, and essence, which is essentially artifacts. You’ll be playing revenants, wraiths, vampires, liches, banshees, ghouls, wights. All of them will play extremely differently and do different things. As an example, the vampire has blood magic. You’ll suck blood from people and use your blood to cast spells. The Legacy of Kain community is really resonating with this. It’s been 20 years since they had a Legacy of Kain game, and a lot of people have said, “Hey, this looks a lot like Kain.” We had one of the old hardcore fans that have been following Kain for 20 years do an interview with us on our YouTube channel. It’s been fun.
Lots of itemization, hundreds and thousands of weapons and armor pieces and that stuff. We’ve been thinking about this a long time, and not because of all the shit that hit the fan recently. This is something we truly believe in. Monetization cannot be pay to win. You can’t use money to give players an advantage. You have to focus on ethical things. No loot boxes. Things that essentially make people look better, but when it comes down to the play style—we’ll eventually introduce PvP, but money will give you no advantage whatsoever. It’s all skill-based. That’s super-important.
GamesBeat: Like the Warframe model.
Dyack: Yeah, Warframe, Path of Exile. They do it well. There are very few that do it well. But this is only the beginning. We have many “hauses” that are coming. We’re starting with Deadhaus, but eventually there will be Dreamhaus, Gigahaus, Divinehaus, Haus of the High Angels, Haus Legion. We have 10 years of content we’re prepared to roll out on a regular basis. It’s all about the service model, all about making people feel like they’re getting something. Getting that community in the actual development is the product is a key factor, feeling like they’re part of something.
GamesBeat: Can you talk more about being “back from the dead,” that whole tough experience you had?
Dyack: I’ve had some pretty huge successes and some pretty traumatic failures. I think this game, in many senses, represents that. When I talk about the House of the Dead, I feel like talking about myself. Silicon Knights is dead. It’s never coming back. With the launch of Apocalypse, I’ve gone through some things and can bring that experience to light in ways that I think are refreshing and new. I want to use that experience to create something pretty awesome.
I don’t know, quite frankly, if I could have done this with Silicon Knights. With Silicon Knights we were built into the model of the old triple-A, make a game for millions of dollars over four or five years, drop it, and then get another one. With Deadhaus Sonata we’re looking at a 10-year rollout cycle where we’re believing in the community, getting it out there for people to pay as they want, but thinking the monetization is there. If they like it they’ll support it. That’s the future. I don’t think I could have done that with Silicon Knights.
Where I am now compared to when we last talked, over 10 years ago, I’m a very different person. If you want to know anything about the games that I’ve created, whether it’s Blood Omen or Eternal Darkness or Too Human, there’s always a part of me in there. A large part of Deadhaus is the story of the House of the Dead. What’s their story? From that perspective, I feel it resonates with me personally.
GamesBeat: Was there no question that it was going to be in this kind of horror genre?
Dyack: It wasn’t really like that at all. I wrote the story–my mother broke her hip, actually. We were really worried about her. While she was in the hospital, I was babysitting her cat, and I wrote the story and sent it to Warren. It was just how I felt. Warren really liked it. You haven’t seen any of the content, but there’s a very rich story, and we’re going to hold to that. It’s equivalent to a lot of the games I’ve done before, except we’ll roll this out through multiplayer.
I’ve always been a huge believer in content and storytelling. The best content and storytelling comes from your soul, comes from who you are. I think that resonates in Deadhaus Sonata.
GamesBeat: I remember a lot about—you got into a lot of arguments with fans. Now everyone has to embrace their fans, but some of them are still argumentative. Are you ready to dive back in?
Dyack: Oh, I’m definitely ready to dive back in. It’s not true that—I argued with some fans. When we were working on Eternal Darkness I was really huge in the IGN community. As a matter of fact I remember talking to Nintendo. They said, “Be careful what you post, because it’s affecting our stock.” But the problem with message boards is understanding the medium. A lot of people think that the medium — this is all going back to McLuhan again – that technology allows us to communicate more. Which is not actually true. It allows us to communicate in more ways. But what it also does is reduce the bandwidth of communication.
When we talk in person, you see my expression. You can hear my tone of voice, if I’m excited or depressed or whatever it’s going to be. You can’t see that in text. You see all capitals and you think I’m yelling, when I might have hit caps lock by mistake. This reduced bandwidth creates massive miscommunication, which creates these arguments. In many ways—I would always go forward and say, “This is what I believe.” There would be massive amounts of engagement on the positive and negative scale.
With some of the hardcore forums, I did get into it. Do I intend to do that again? I don’t know. I guess I intend to do it in different ways. But I’ve never stopped reaching out to different forums and communities. We’ll always correct misinformation. So I guess I’m going to dive back in. It’s been a while. I haven’t been around in six or eight years. This is the first time I’ve been at this conference. One guy came up and said, “My God, I haven’t seen you since 2008.” It’s been a while.
GamesBeat: It must feel good to be in a creative mode.
Dyack: It’s the only place I ever want to be. Warren is doing the business side. He’s representing us on biz dev. I get to be all creative. I’m super excited. We have a new studio. We started it last year. We’ve been around a year now and we’re growing steady. Ten employees in the studio in Niagara Falls, Canada, and other people working remote. We have a community manager in Seattle. It’s about 15-16 people all in all. Several Ph.Ds and academics from different universities are on the team. It’s because we’re doing some very aggressive things in the online space. There’s going to be a lot of research. Postdocs are joining on board.
GamesBeat: Did you have to raise money?
Dyack: Yep. We have some investment, and I’m also funding it right now. We’re growing rapidly. We’re talking to potential partners now.
GamesBeat: Are you going to try crowdfunding?
Dyack: I don’t think so. We’re toying with the idea, but–we certainly might try to go it all alone. The publishing route, the traditional route that Silicon Knights used to do, we’re talking to people to see if there’s alignment there. There’s also more on the investment side. We can always look for another round of investment. The other option is to just go on our own and launch a store. There are possibilities across the board. Those are the tacks we’re taking. We’ll see how it goes.
This is the first time we’ve ever shown gameplay. This is early. What you see here, it’s running in the Lumberyard engine. There are no pre-baked textures, so it’s not optimized, but what you see here is completely procedurally generated.
GamesBeat: Is this better for some things as opposed to Unity or Unreal?
Dyack: All the stuff I talked about, it’s built from the ground up to support it. Amazon owns Twitch. We’ve got really good exposure into Amazon’s full stack of cloud technologies and scaling technologies. All the games like Fortnite and Apex Legends, they all use Amazon servers, regardless of the engine. It just happens that Amazon is tied into that even more.
This is the vampire. Taking blood–as a vampire you can suck in blood. It gives you life and it weakens them. I’ll show you the axes. These are my personal fave. This is switching weapons. With the axes you can do all kinds of fun spells. This is all procedurally generated, so every time I don’t know what it’s going to look like. I don’t know where enemies are. The idea is, imagine creating an environment that anyone can contribute to, that’s procedurally generated in the right way, that people can use to create great levels.
This is the revenant. He’s built on hate. The more he kills, the more angry he gets. But he also has a lot of fun moves. This is all action-RPG. Imagine you have skills, thousands of weapons. Six people can play at the same time. This is the thing we’re going to build. It’s going to be a while until it’s out, but we do think people are going to like what they see. Once we optimize this and get going–this is not running on a very fast machine. We rented this machine out for $500. It’s a 1080i, not a very fast card.
GamesBeat: How do you set up things like missions when it’s all procedural?
Dyack: Imagine that people participating can also change the parameters. We want people to have as much fun watching as they do in actually playing.
GamesBeat: How far along would you say you are?
Dyack: Very early. Super pre-production. We haven’t shown any of this to the public, and we’re probably not going to show it for a while yet. The company has been around only a year. That means starting from employee one. What you see here is a few months worth of development. The storyline has always been worked on, but these take time. There’s a fleshed-out story and we know where we want to go with it, but it will take time to get in all the details. We have some fun things planned for the future.
GamesBeat: How do you get over the fact that people don’t usually play the bad guy? This is something different for people.
Dyack: It was the same with Legacy of Kain, really. I’m a big fan of perspective. Who, out there, thinks they’re a bad person? Very few people think they’re a bad person. What would it be like to play from the perspective of something that you would think is innately evil, and what would it be like seeing it through their eyes? Those perspectives are unique.
When we created Kain, we felt that it offered something different. Back then, a lot of people were looking for games like Zelda. When we created Legacy of Kain we wanted to create a dark Zelda. In a sense, here you have a lot of fantasy titles, and you’re fighting demons and the undead. We’re looking at it from the perspective of, what would it be like to play that side? If you were undead, what would your motivations be? If you’re a ghoul and you have to eat human flesh, what would that mean? What would your rationale for survival be?
I’m a big fan of anthropology. What would it be, when you look at survival of the species, what would that be for you? What would that perspective mean? I think that’s unique. I don’t think a lot of people do that. People should do it more. I can only tell you that I make things I like to play. That’s why we’re doing it. I think it’s very interesting.
It’s one of the golden rules, right? In entertainment, you can never guarantee that you’re going to please everyone. If you make something you like yourself, you’re guaranteed to please at least one person.
GamesBeat: Can you talk more about your thinking around McLuhan?
Dyack: Like I say, the medium is the message. With Legacy of Kain, I was taking the same spiritual approach. Legacy of Kain, I looked at the medium and said, “What does this offer?” It’s a game console with a huge amount of storage. We can use voice instead of text. Now, if you study the medium, the medium is so different. It’s all multiplayer-based. Twitch is one of the biggest things going on in video games right now. More people will watch a League of Legends tournament than the Super Bowl.
That’s an extremely different medium than the traditional console days. That’s changing the landscape for video games whether people acknowledge it or not. Some of the problems you see with monetization models — gamers getting upset, publishers not doing as well as they want, these free-to-play games springing up and doing gangbusters — are all toward this trend of a new medium. Like it or not, it’s this huge gravity well pulling us there.
GamesBeat: Does free-to-play make development easier? You can get a viable product out and see what the audience wants.
Dyack: It’s different. We talked about going onto the forums. Back when I was working on Eternal Darkness and I was on the IGN forums, I was trying to interact with the audience to see what they wanted. With these kinds of games, you can launch early and get feedback right away, and then continue to iterate on that.
That’s a million times better than working on a game for three to four years, dropping it, doing a couple of patches, maybe some DLC, and then doing another one. That model is inherently difficult for getting community feedback. You look at these models, there’s nothing better. Getting that participation not only helps you bond with your community, which is critical for success, but it allows the community to participate in ways that have never been available before. That’s what this new medium gives you.
GamesBeat: If you were to go full indie, not using a publisher and going direct to the stores, do you see that as more viable now?
Dyack: It’s an option. It’s going to depend on what the best thing is for the game. Time is going to tell. Back in the Silicon Knights days, I would say you’re way better off going with a publisher. Now, with the way the industry’s changed, the marketing and distribution channels have basically fallen away. I know there’s still some places in Europe where you need to sell boxes and get physical merchandise out. But in most places now you’re pretty good if you go pure digital. That means it’s just about what’s the best for the game.
A lot of video game publishers have a huge knowledge of marketing and their player base. They have a lot they can contribute. In some sense a partnership might make sense. But is it better to get venture, or is it better to finance it yourself? Those possibilities are real. If you look at Warframe, as an example — Digital Extremes is just a few hours away from us — they self-funded for a while before they were bought out. Or you look at Path of Exile, which was five guys who had never done a game before, or at least that’s what I understand. They went out and did an awesome Diablo-like game. I still play it all the time.
The field is open. All the possibilities are there. Choosing a direction is going to depend on the parties involved. You never know. It’s hard for me to say right now which direction we’re going, but I can say we’re looking at everything.
GamesBeat: It seems like you can get a lot done with a team that’s relatively small.
Dyack: We’re starting small. We’re going to get bigger. We’re likely to be 100 people by next year. However, it’s all going to depend on scaling appropriately for where we’re going. We’ll want to get early alpha or pre-alphas out as soon as we can to start working with the community. We want the feedback.
What you’re seeing here, we want people to play it. Do you like this? Do you not like this? There’s a lot more to go. This is super early. But we want to see what the procedural generation will yield, what people like about it, what we should change. What do you like about this class archetype? Do you like the way the revenant plays? What do you think about the vampire? As we release more classes, that kind of feedback with the audience–it’s irreplaceable.
If you look at a game like League of Legends, it’s based on community-developed archetypes from DOTA. DOTA was completely made from the ground up by the community. Now we have League of Legends, this huge monster game, a really good game. That type of game wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago.
GamesBeat: You mentioned Bloodborne. How unforgiving is Deadhaus Sonata?
Dyack: There are different modes for that kind of stuff. Most games like this, in the action-RPG genre, will have a hardcore mode. If you die once, that’s it. Your character then goes to the non-hardcore mode. Or it can be super hardcore, where you die and it gets deleted. But we’ll have different variants and levels. We want a mid- to hardcore grouping for our audience. We’re going to make it forgiving if you want it to be. If you want it completely unforgiving, we can do that too.
GamesBeat: Are you working with a lot of the same people you’ve worked with before?
Dyack: It’s almost a new team from the ground up. There are some people that I ping now and again, some old Silicon Knights friends and colleagues that we pull in from time to time. But it’s essentially a brand new team. We’re in a different location, but we still love the Niagara region and the ice wine. We’re an hour south of Toronto.
GamesBeat: I don’t hear as many folks touting story ahead of other features these days. You don’t see a lot of that in things like battle royale.
Dyack: We think the battle royale market is well-served right now. [laughs] We’re not interested in that market whatsoever. We think it’s time for a gothic, dark fantasy, our Lovecraftian tale. We’re doing it in a different way. In many ways it’s going back to my roots, but in other ways we’re taking on things we learned in Eternal Darkness and Too Human. We’re putting them all together and looking at the medium. This is what we’re spinning. Hopefully gamers will like what they see.