There’s a chance, as you read this, that there’s a game developer sitting by a lake in a forest, making an Unreal Engine 5 game out of the back of a trailer and using the AI to design the monsters. There’s a lot to unpack there, but it’s also worth mentioning that the developer in question is an 18-year-old veteran who cut his teeth on games like Metroid Prime, before spending most of his career at Bethesda working on Fallout, Skyrim and Starfield. the game itself, Invisible axisis certainly cool – an open-world hunting game where you hunt down mythical entities – but it’s the production method that interests me the most: a game made on the road, with creatures conjured from the ethereal brains of art AI, and sculpted in a VR headset near a campfire.
Development of method games
The developer in question is Nate Purkeypile, a former Bethesda lighting designer who recently went solo. “I wanted to do something I wanted to do, instead of something someone else wanted to do,” he explains, adding, “I felt the tools were advanced enough that I could do a lot more than I could have done before, so it seems like a really good time.” Sure, developers go solo all the time making games, but Nate takes his project on the road. “It’s like developing a method game,” he jokes, “making a forest hunting game in the forest.”
“The real seed if you dig for a long time,” Nate continues, “is that I grew up in the woods thinking about monsters. Inevitably when I play hunting games I love the mechanics but my mind always jump to love, ‘what if there were monsters?’” This is a reasonable question you can ask at almost any activity. In terms of the monster hunting game, it’s because Nate “really liked the tactile feel of paying attention to the wind and following the tracks; the really deep approach to the simulator.”
This led to a game about someone who has traveled through the world where monsters come from, who must hunt and survive long enough to figure out what’s going on and how to get back. “Are you trying to find out what happened here?” Where do these monsters come from? Nate explains. And, since this is a game about tracking and chasing things, you’ll develop a set of sense-based powers to help you along. Things like the ability to detect smells as particles in the air or see traces on the ground – abilities you gain from creatures you eliminate.
Then there are the arrows you can unlock and craft, which allow you to do things like slow down time in an area or change the direction of the wind. There’s an interaction here that gives these tools different uses depending on how you approach a problem. A wind arrow can be used to redirect the wind and mask your scent for example, or you can combine it with a fire arrow to send flames towards an enemy.
Make a game about hunting monsters in a forest… in a forest, is possible thanks to the caravan that he takes to the countryside as soon as he feels creative. “I think it helps put me in the right frame of mind; what it’s like to be in nature is where my imagination goes when I walk through the forest. Thinking about monsters, how the game would work and you’re watching real tunes. It’s nice to be out there and think about it. It certainly seems almost idyllic compared to the usual image of late-night office crunch: “sometimes it will be a weekend, but sometimes it will be longer [trips] like a week or two. I’ll just work when the kids are sleeping or other people are busy hanging out by the fire. I went all over the map just sitting in front of the fire with the laptop.”
Setting up the studio on free roam might sound neat, but it’s not the most unusual step. Nate uses an art AI called Mid Road shape his monsters. It is a program similar to Slab of which you may have heard of an unofficial spin-off, Dall-E Mini, now called Crayoncreating modern classics such as ‘Bo Burnan in Fallout‘ and ‘Siren Head on America’s Got Talent‘. While this has produced some fun plasticine creations, the more advanced versions can conjure up much more professional horrors. Things like that :
“I kept an eye on this AI stuff for a while, but it wasn’t great for a long time,” says Nate. “Even a few years ago you had these weird fractal dogs from Google that are pretty interesting. [but] no use “. But then came MidJourney and Dall-E: “it was a huge step forward and in about 30 minutes I had immediately burned through all my startup credits and subscribed right away.”
As for how Nate persuades the code monsters, it’s an iterative process. “I usually start with something general like ‘deer monster in a forest’, but then I start adding different terms to see what it feels like ‘in a misty forest at night’, or ‘in the style of HR Gieger’, ‘like an oil painting’, [etc]. You can add more vague terms, even genders. It also shows you four variants, and then you can ask it to continue digging on one of those variants and create four more that are somewhat similar, or scale the one you like. So you can just go through that network of possibilities.”
This method certainly creates some interesting creatures. Things that capture the essence of a monster, while feeling…wrong. “I feel like it’s just going to help me push my monster designs a little more polished and weirder,” says Nate. “I feel like if I had done it without [AI], maybe that would just be what people have done before. I want to do a lot of creatures and I want to make them good but I also need to find a pipeline that works for me to do it quickly.”
There’s one last trick in Nate’s mobile game studio and that’s 3D VR sculpting on a Quest headset. “It lets you experiment easily because you can just push and pull stuff, quickly try something and be like, ‘oh no, that sucks’ and that’s okay. It’s super easy to do in VR – it’s like whittling wood.” Even with a VR headset, Nate’s setup can still be ultra-portable: “I just use the Quest wirelessly connected to the laptop. [It] everything fits in a backpack and you can do it anywhere you can fit.”
Axis Unseen currently has a release date of “when the axis aligns”, which I’ll take as “when it’s ready”. Until then, if you want to learn more about the kind of game AI makes in a forest, you can sign up for updates at the official website or take a look at Steam.