Have you ever imagined what being a dinosaur would feel like? Forgive the silly question. Who hasn’t? Whether you’ve tried to get into the mindset of a terrifying Tyrannosaurus or peaceful Parasaurolophus, part of the fun of dinosaurs is acting the dramas the real animals must have played out so many millions of years ago. And that’s why I’m especially excited about Saurian – a game that wants to give players the ability to be dinosaurs.
Saurian isn’t out yet, but the in-game footage they’ve released so far is amazing. Their dinosaurs are not monsters. The dinosaurs are meant to look and act like the real animals. Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and the other creatures in the game are rendered in loving detail, right down to their feathers and bristles. Have a look:
Beautiful, isn’t it? I had to find out more, so I sent a few questions to Nick Turinetti – Saurian‘s project lead – and the team behind the game.
Brian: There have been lots of games starring dinosaurs over the years. What will make Saurian different?
Saurian: The number one thing that sets Saurian apart from dinosaur games is that we don’t attempt to mould dinosaurs to fit a premise. We’ve created the entire game around what science can tell us about them and their world, and where science hasn’t yet been able to provide a solid answer we’ve used what is available to craft something that is interesting and exciting while still being plausible. We’ve encountered a lot of commentary from people who don’t believe that a game that’s grounded first and foremost in science could be at all amusing, but from our end it’s been pretty easy to create a game that’s fun to play just by staying up to date with current research. Dinosaurs are so incredibly diverse, and we’ve learned so much about them in the past decade that remains generally unknown to the general public that much of what we’re doing with gameplay will probably be new to many people.
Brian: Where did the idea to create Saurian come from?
Saurian: Saurian actually had its genesis on the forums of another video game. Several members of the current dev team were somewhat active over there trying to convince their development team to look at improving their dinosaurs appearance to match some of the new data that has been discovered since the debut of Jurassic Park. It quickly became apparent that 1) they were uninterested in our advice, and 2) we had a lot of cool ideas that really didn’t fit within the game’s rather rigid team deathmatch structure. So we essentially decided to make our own game (no blackjack or hookers yet) that not only took into account the latest information about dinosaurs, but also combined elements of open world survival in a dynamic, simulated ecosystem that would challenge the player as much if not more than competing against other players.
Brian: What sorts of prehistoric creatures will players be able to be? Can they run around as a Thescelosaurus as well as Tyrannosaurus?
Saurian: Right now we can confirm that both Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops will be playable in the commercial release of Saurian, but they won’t be the only playable creatures. We evaluate each potentially playable species and are selecting those that offer the most variety in gameplay, not only in comparison to the other playable species but also across different growth stages. We’re also looking beyond dinosaurs for potential playable species, but as we’re still very early in development, everything remains subject to change.
Brian: What is the gameplay going to be like? I imagine that, for example, a Tyrannosaurus player would want to think carefully about whether to attack a Triceratops rather than eating everything in sight.
Saurian: That’s exactly the sort of decision making we want to challenge players with. Something that rarely if ever is well conveyed in any sort of media is just how difficult and dangerous it is to be a predator; you can’t run around roaring at the top of your lungs trying to attack everything in sight, and anyone expecting to be able to do so in Saurian isn’t going to survive very long. You will need to pick and choose your fights carefully, avoiding potential competitors and predators while also trying to keep yourself healthy. We’re doing some really cool things with AI that will ensure that the other animals are as adaptive and responsive to your behaviour as possible. All of this gameplay is happening in an environment dominated by frequent natural disasters that will turn gameplay on its head.
Brian: What kind of research did you do to get the dinosaurs – and their environment – just right? Are there any characters or places in the game that are based off specific fossils or localities?
Saurian: We have literally sunk hundreds of hours into researching Saurian, largely because we insist on everything in the game being based on peer-reviewed science whenever possible. This means reading scientific papers, and for anyone who’s unfamiliar with the process, it takes a long time, not only to read the papers themselves, but to then translate what you’re reading into “how is this useful to Saurian’s development?”. Between everyone on the team we would estimate Saurian draws on close to 100 different published sources for our dinosaurs and their environment, and the number continues to grow. We’ve also had the extreme good fortune of being able to communicate directly with publishing paleontologists, including Denver Fowler, John Hutchinson, Gregory Wilson and Matt Wedel, and their input has been invaluable. Reconstructing what sort of ecosystem existed in the Hell Creek Formation 66 million years ago has probably been the biggest challenge we’ve faced thus far, simply because none of us were very knowledgeable about botany, let alone paleobotany. As far as being based off specific fossils or locations, our Triceratops is modelled directly after MORT (Museum Of the Rockies Triceratops “e”) and our Tyrannosaurus is based on “Sue”. We try to use the fossils directly whenever possible; we’ve actually reconstructed the leaves of several plants in the game directly from fossils.
— Saurian (@SaurianGame) November 29, 2014
Brian: Much has been said about how difficult it is to give computer-generated dinosaurs feathers. Yet Saurian has unabashedly feathery and bristly dinosaurs. Was it a challenge to make these dinosaurs fluffy?
Saurian: From a technical standpoint, yes its always a challenge to create complex fibres like fluff or feathers. Though some advancements in rendering have made this easier, for low poly game models finding a good approach for any kind of fluff can be daunting. It takes a lot of fine tuning to find the look you are going for. For the record, the feathers seen in the pre alpha trailer are still not where we want them to be, we believe we can find better results.
Brian: As you’ve developed the game, has there been anything that you’ve changed because of a new dinosaur discovery?
Saurian: We’ve been fortunate enough to have access to the latest in dinosaur discoveries or have had discoveries happen before we started major work on certain animals. Anzu and Acheroraptor are both great examples in that we can actually call animals by a recognizable name instead of “the Triebold caenagnathid” or “the Hell Creek dromaeosaur.” We’ve taken into account (as best we can) things that have been hinted at but not yet published, Triceratops’ skin probably being the most visible example of that currently. We still live in fear of every new paper published on Hell Creek’s flora because we’ve put so much work into the plants we have (we’ve had to completely redo them several times in fact!). Having said that, if tomorrow a paper was published that showed something we’ve done so far is inaccurate, we’d go back and change whatever was out of date to fit new data.
Brian: I know games take a long time to develop. Is there a timeframe for when players might expect to get their claws on Saurian?
Saurian: If we have one fault as a dev team it’s our perfectionism, we always want to show off what we’re working on in the most exciting or complete way possible, and that’s probably been a little hard for our fans and followers because it means we’ve had significant gaps in our updates. Having finally released a gameplay video, we’re ready to open up some of our development benchmarks and announce that Saurian is aiming for a Kickstarter campaign and a small playable tech demo early in 2015. It’ll be a small taste of what players can expect the final game to be. Beyond that, Saurian’s release date will largely depend on how well we do on our Kickstarter.