A screenshot from a recent build of horror game The Forest.
With the wealth of new games appearing on online storefront Steam every day, having a new game noticed is a big hurdle for small game developers.
But as animator Michael Mellor – originally from the Victorian regional town of Bendigo – and the team at Vancouver-based Endnight Games recently found out, sometimes a great concept, a skilful team and hard work is all it takes.
Their horror game The Forest was recently made available on Steam Early Access, meaning gamers can pay for and play it while it's still a work in progress. It began climbing the best-seller list almost immediately. It was number one about eight minutes after it was uploaded, Mellor estimates, ''although I'm willing to concede I may have been dreaming''.
Michael Mellor with his partner In-Ah, who he met while working in London.
''We knew we had quite a bit of interest in the game from the trailers already released, but no way did we expect it to be this popular straight out of the gate. After it went live I opened up Steam just to see if we'd moved from the 'coming soon' list into 'new releases' and there was The Forest sitting at the top of the best-sellers. I thought it must have been a glitch.''
It was no glitch or dream. The game went on to stay at the top of the charts, above giants in the category like DayZ, Rust, and Kerbal Space Program, for well over a week. Almost a month after its release, The Forest still sits at number four.
For the team, the game's early success was validation of more than a year of full-time development. For Mellor in particular, it validated his decision to leave a career in visual effects to pursue his life-long passion for video games.
After cutting his teeth in Bendigo making his own characters and animations for PC shooter Quake 2 and working briefly at Melbourne game studio Tantalus, Mellor landed a job at Sydney animation studio Animal Logic, where he had the opportunity to work on effects for films including 300 and House of Flying Daggers.
Five years later he moved to London to take a job at Framestore, producers of the award-winning visual effects for Gravity.
An escape from the city bustle and a move to Vancouver then followed. There Mellor met up with friend and former Animal Logic colleague Ben Falcone, who invited him to join Endnight (co-founded by Falcone and fellow visual effects artist Anna Terekhova) and work on The Forest.
''At first I said no,'' Mellor says. ''it just seemed too risky. But then I slapped myself and thought, when am I ever going to get the chance again to work with a good friend on an awesome-looking project with complete creative freedom?"
The fact that almost everybody working on The Forest has a history in visual effects shows in the game's look, and has almost certainly played a role in its early popularity. By day, the forest that players inhabit, freely explore, build shelter and find food in shines with a peaceful vitality, while at night the lighting and other effects make the crazed cannibals threatening the player's life that much more terrifying.
''We really try to leverage [our visual effects background] as much as possible during development,'' Mellor said.
''We're also all perfectionists, and this is a labour of love for everyone involved, so I think that tends to drive us to push things and each other as far as we can in terms of visuals and game design.''
In a write-up at Eurogamer, Jeffrey Matulef likens The Forest to the promise of desperate exploration made by games like BioShock, but without the ''heavy-handed exposition''.
''Endnight has a clear, distinct vision for this project – one that it's so convicted of that two-thirds of its team left their cushy jobs in the film industry to pursue,'' Matulef wrote.
The team recently uploaded their first major update since release, notably adding sharks, rafts, the ability to kill birds with fire and fixes for a variety of glitches, which has been well received.
''I was happy we managed to include the tape recorder that plays random '80s synth 'push it to the limit' music,'' Mellor says. ''At the moment you can use it to regain stamina while chopping down trees, but there are plans to expand its functionality in future updates.''
Rest is next on Endnight's agenda.
''The team is taking staggered breaks at the moment,'' Mellor says. ''I'm on a short holiday while Ben and Anna work towards the next update. Then when I get back they'll take some time off. Other than that we're just continuing development and looking to expand the team a bit as we head towards the final version of the game.''