Sometimes you get complacent about how people arrive in the games business. It usually goes along the lines of “played games since kid, then really wanted to make one.” Once in a while you come across an amazing story that really highlights the different journeys that people are on and different reasons why this industry is so appealing. Gamma Minus is an independent video game company founded by Jeremiah Costello. Working remotely with a team from across the globe. They are currently working on a project called Cold Comfort, an asymmetrical competitive 5v5 PvP horror survival game that is set in the immediate aftermath of the zombie apocalypse. Set in a hostile game world where the players are required to make choices that have varied outcomes on the game environment. The main choice each player is required to make is to play either as an individual or play as a team to beat the game. There is also a greater story supplying the backdrop to the gameplay and that is described as being “a story involving a huge pharma corporation with a vision and all the things that can go wrong, because humanity is simply not ready for immortality.” We were fortunate enough to catch up with J.J. Costello shortly after Paris Games Week and fielded him some questions about the game and his studio.
PK: What was the lightbulb moment that sent you down the path of game development?
J. Costello: Wow, you really started this interview off with a doozie. Now, I could spin a yarn about how I played video games since I was a little kid, and always wanted to make games, yadda yadda yadda, but that would only partially be the truth, and there’s no reason to white wash things.
The truth is, up until 2015, although being an avid gamer, I had no aspiration whatsoever to actually make games. Now just to preface things a bit, I’m a voice actor by trade. I’ve been doing voice overs for 25 years, for commercials, computer-based training, video games, you name it.
Back then – I was livin’ large. I was at the top of my game- I had more work than I could handle- and life was good. My wife had just given birth to our second son, and we were about to buy a house, and I had taken a few months of parental leave to decompress and spend time with my family.
This idyllic reality however suddenly came crashing down one morning. My wife woke up and her throat was all swollen; and long story short, within a few hours we were at the hospital, and she was having a biopsy. She was diagnosed with Lymphoma, which was pretty advanced. It was a lot to take in all of the sudden.
It goes without saying, as of that moment, our lives made a drastic 180°. My first priority was to ensure that my wife was getting the medical care, as well as the emotional support that she needed, and that my kids were in a safe and caring environment. We ended up moving out to the middle of nowhere, to live with her parents – leaving behind our apartment and my recording studio.
Long story short- I prioritized the needs of my wife and my children, and my needs, goals and aspirations had to take the back burner. It’s hard though, being at the top of your game- getting not only paid to do something you’re really good at, but the constant positive affirmation that you are respected and sought after as an artist – and then losing it all.
At first, I was in shock, because of the whole ordeal, but eventually this turned into a bitterness and then outright anger. I felt guilty for even having these feelings, as the needs of my wife and children seems so much more important. I felt as if I was complaining about #FirstWorldProblems, whereas my wife was fighting for her life, and my children were suffering because they were under quarantine (to ensure that they didn’t catch a cold, and then give it to my wife, which could be fatal with an extremely weakened immune system).
I needed something to help me cope with the ordeal, and strangely enough, game development ended up being the catalyst for the preservation of my sanity. Having a two year old, a newborn and a sick wife is extremely time consuming and a full time job – so I quickly realized that I needed “my time” -which was late at night- and I started delving into creating the game design document for Cold Comfort, every night over the course of a year and a half, without fail.
By nature, I have an addictive personality, and I craved this alone time and pined for it, just the thought of it helped me get through the day. The simple knowledge that once everyone was cared for, and tucked away in bed, I would be able to dive deep into a completely different world, and momentarily forget my surroundings and my reality.
I initially tried to get this “hit” from playing games, but I realized that it was not engaging me fully, and my mind inevitably ended up wandering back to my reality, and of course- the whole point of a good video game is immersion- something that I was not fully able to grasp or enjoy by simply being a participant.
However, by actively engaging in the design, lore and mechanics (all in theory, mind you) I was able to achieve this complete immersion – a Zen state of sorts.
Honestly, it could have been any number of things that would have worked as well, it just happened to be that the beta for Rainbow Six Siege has just come out and I was like “How dope would it be if you added zombies into the mix- but not just any zombies, but super mutated ones?” I make no qualms about that being the initial impetus for the creation of Cold Comfort, although the idea has morphed considerably.[Sidebar: Thankfully J.J’s wife has recovered]
PK: You are in the process of developing Cold Comfort and I noticed that you have a very active discord channel – how big a role is the creation of the community and the ongoing building of the community play in?
J. Costello: That’s a very good question! We initially had focused on Facebook and Twitter, with the hope of creating traction and eventually a community that way, but as a scrappy young indie dev team, both of these mediums required a sizable budget for ads, which quite frankly was out of the question, as we were broke. One of our 3D artists suggested that we use Discord, and like many at the time, I was like “ANOTHER platform? Ugh.” But after I got over my initial dismissal, I became a Discord fanboy pretty much right away.
We actually started using it internally for development, as roughly half of our team is remote, so it was, and is a great communication platform. After we had enough material together, we created the community channel, and we were surprised that so many people joined, especially since we are pretty much posting and chatting about our development process, and hadn’t even shown gameplay footage.
The beauty with Discord is that the members want to be there, and you can’t buy likes or followers, which means that the engagement rate and quality of engagements are significantly higher than with other platforms.
We often do devstreams and post polls and in this way we are able to directly engage with our fans and get their immediate feedback- which is essential for the continual development of Cold Comfort.
PK: How long have you been working on Cold Comfort and when is the targeted release date?
J. Costello: As previously mentioned, I spent quite a lot of time banging out the GDD- and for the initial 18 months, I was working on it on my own. Only once I was-half way confident that the GDD was solid, did I start to reach out to other developers.
Back in the day, we had no money, so all team members agreed to deferred payment, which essentially means that they log their hours, and if and when the game is released, they will be paid for those hours logged from sales profits. It’s a huge risk of course, but honestly, no one goes into game development because they want to be rich, they get into it because they are passionate about it.
Everything changed considerably at the beginning of 2019, when we were awarded some regional funding for the creation of our prototype. Up until then, as a deferred payment project, progress was stunted, for obvious reasons. Team members only worked on Cold Comfort in their spare time, and milestones weren’t that static, and there was no pressure. Once we received the funding our productivity skyrocketed and we were able to bang out the prototype within 7 months; just in time for Gamescom.
Now that the prototype is done, we are in talks with a number of investors and publishers, and hopefully will solidify a deal soon. Once the deal is in place, we’re looking at a 27 month dev cycle…give or take.
PK: Are you looking to release this game directly or is having a publisher the preference?
J. Costello: This is all dependent upon our eventual partners (investors and or publisher). We are completely open to a number of possibilities. The good thing is that we don’t have to decide that now, as the previously mentioned dev cycle is 27 months- and who knows what the game distribution and platform ecosystem will be like by the time we release.
There definitely seems to be quite a number of options on the table for us presently and getting backed by an investor is enticing to say the least but having the support and experience of a veteran publisher would definitely help us out in the long run.
PK: Can you speak a little in respect to the GDD and gameplay mechanics. Is everything been mapped out and settled prior to the game build commencing or is the process more organic?
J. Costello: Our GDD is something that I’m very proud of. Due to the fact that I started working on it with no pressure whatsoever, and actually with no real intention of ever creating a game, I was able to work on it at my own pace. Taking the time to mull over new game mechanics, follow through with the potential dependencies, and in fact – more often than not – kill it before it became integrated. We all know the stories of developers going down a patch for 6 months – or sometimes even longer – and then having to pull the breaks, can what they’ve done and start from scratch again. Now I’m not saying that won’t happen throughout the further development of Cold Comfort, but the chances of that happening are significantly decreased.
In terms of breadth and scope, I’m not gonna say that I’ve expounded upon every aspect of the game completely and fully, but a large chunk of them. Cold Comfort is a complicated game by design, and there are a lot of moving parts that have long reaching causal effects on a plethora of other mechanics. This aspect was actually the catalyst for transferring the original GDD to an internal wiki. Having everything hyperlinked together makes the development process exponentially easier, without having to scroll through a 200 page GDD back and forth, simply to understand the correlations.
PK: Does the storyline develop over the course of the development cycle? How important is the story to the overall game experience?
J. Costello: Cold Comfort is first and foremost a visceral multiplayer FPS. Is there a story? For sure! Our goal is it to create a game that has a deep lore, riveting characters and a dramatic story – which, if you’d like to, you can completely ignore.
Let’s face it – the majority of players that play FPS games aren’t playing the game because of the story. They’re playing due to their competitive nature, which we are certainly attempting to cater towards. However the real challenge is creating a story with depth that you can choose to dive into, if you’d like, but won’t necessarily have any disadvantages, other than the fact that they aren’t “in the know”.
The extra layer of depth shouldn’t be forced down anyone’s throat, that’s why we are working on the companion radio play and graphic novel. These supplemental media forms will give players some of the additional depth that they crave.
PK: Can you give us some insight into the audio design process and how big of a role does audio design play in contributing to the overall user engagement?
J. Costello: The previously mentioned companion audio play is a great example of the steps we are going to emphasise the audio in the Cold Comfort universe. Funnily enough, both myself and my business partner, Friedrich, have audio backgrounds. We founded two game localization studios, and have been involved in the audio localization of probably over 300 games.
PK: So, we have talked about three aspects of the game now, mechanics, story and audio design – Which parts are the most important to highlight in a vertical slice when trying to communicate the USP of a game like Cold Comfort
J. Costello: Hands down, I’ll have to say mechanics – plain and simple. As a multiplayer game the story and audio simply come in second place. If it doesn’t feel right, if it isn’t balanced, having a great story, or an amazing score isn’t going to be the saving grace.
PK: I ask everyone this: How do you browse games on Steam – how do you select a game to play on the weekends?
J. Costello: Another tough question! Honestly, for the last year or so, I haven’t actually been playing that much. Only once we wrapped up our prototype was I even in a position to consider playing something else. Truth be told however steam is no longer my go-to platform. I recently purchased Red Dead Redemption 2, and I’ll be honest, I’m a huge Epic/Unreal fanboy, so I opted to purchase it from the Epic store. Little did I know that I would STILL have to have the new Rockstar Launcher installed regardless. I thought I was super smart, and I would simply be avoiding having to install another platform..
Another game that I have on my radar atm is GTFO- because from what I’ve seen so far it looks amazing.
My choice of games however is strongly influenced by my inquisitive mind and wanting to research how other games have constructed their game loops and monetization features, and how that relates to the further development of Cold Comfort.
PK: What’s the next 12 months look like for GammaMinus?
J. Costello: I’m going to go out on a limb here, and assume that we can finalize funding within the next 6 months. It’s not going to be easy, but we’ll manage somehow. Once that happens, it’ll be all hands on deck, and we’re going to have to completely restructure a lot of things and get the ball rolling and get the production in full-swing. Exciting times!
Gamma Minus can be found at www.gammaminus.com/