Meet the 16-year-old developer taking gaming by storm
While I was at EGX Rezzed a few weeks ago, I saw some amazing indie titles, but few stood out to me more than Negative Atmosphere.
The lead developer on the game, and CEO of the studio, Calvin Parsons, described it as a sci-fi third-person horror game in the spirit of Dead Space, mixed with Alien Isolation, and loads of other horror games, like Resident Evil. He wasn’t wrong. Dead Space is a big part of Negative Atmosphere’s DNA, from the space horror aesthetic, to an over-the-shoulder point of view and a minimalistic HUD that projects out of the main characters back.
It was a very impressive demo. Even in the bustling “Unreal Showcase” room at EGX, the game managed to immerse me into its terrifying spaceship. Pools of blood and still-twitching corpses litter the floor, fire bursts through pipes as your spacesuit adorned character walks down a tight metal corridor towards a lone limb on the floor. Under the dismembered arm, is your first weapon.
You walk further and suddenly sirens begin to blare, the spaceship enters lockdown. Doors begin to shut, a voiceover urging extreme caution plays. As you run to an exit, a door stutters open, and out pops your first sighting of the enemy. A humanoid, sprinting towards you, grunting eerie speech-like words as it goes. After downing the creature, green lights usher you towards the next area as bright orange warning lights shine frenetically. As you travel, a roar comes from behind you, suddenly a swathe of monsters descend upon you.
Of course, I am basically as good as an esports star and defeated them all. I ran towards another door. Again, it opens, but this time a me-killing robot pops out. “I’ve been expecting you” it triumphantly says as it stamps on my face.
You can watch the version of the game I played here.
The demo was short at only 5 minutes long, but I was entirely convinced of the concept and so wanted to talk to the people who had worked on it. I took off my headset and looked around. A couple of guys were already chatting to some fellow players, but alone stood a man in a leather jacket. Thinking that he was just another player, I thought I’d talk to him while I waited. He was sucking on a long gummy sweet at the time.
“Hey, how did you like it?”
Then the penny dropped. This guy worked on the game! Frankly, I was a fool and underestimated him entirely. “Pah, he’s far too young to be working on a horror game” my 21 year old self incorrectly assumed.
When we talked further, not only was it unveiled that he was 16, but he was the lead developer on the game, and CEO of the studio. His name is Calvin Parsons.
I was so impressed with the game, I sat him down for an interview.
In the busy “Unreal Room”, he was confident and comfortable, despite being in a room alongside some more veteran developers. Calvin was speaking to everyone that was interested, and surrounded by who I learned was his father and fellow members of the development team. Calvin gave a brief synopsis of what it is he does on the project. “It started out as a solo project, so I’ve done bits all the way around, but before we branched out, I did a bit of the 3D modelling, most of the programming, the texture art and the level design.”
We went back to the beginning of his life, and started talking about what his first game experience was. “My Dad’s a massive gamer,” he says, “he’d just sit me down in front of the TV while he played everything. My first time actually playing a game was probably when I was like 5, with a DS. I’ve always loved games. I’ve always had a passion for this sort of stuff, every time I started playing anything, I was always like “how does this work?” “Can I make this?””.
It’s clear that Calvin relishes in using other games as inspiration, “[For Negative Atmosphere] We’ve taken bits from other games that wouldn’t be in horror, like our hacking system is similar to Fallout. We’re trying to use elements that work together to really provide a sense of psychological horror and stress. You feel scared of that situation and you’ve got to fumble around with your tools to get out.”
Even for someone so young, Negative Atmosphere wasn’t his first whirl at game design. “I’ve had a lot of projects before, I did a tank simulator, an Elite Dangerous style space game, but I’ve never had anyone to work on it with, so I lose interest and move on. Mostly to learn a new skill, but now, I’ve formed a whole team around me and it’s turned into something more.”
Negative Atmosphere is currently being funded on Patreon, which is currently earning a tidy £1500 a month, as well as Calvin’s own self-generated funding. Later this year, after they’ve released a public demo, he plans to launch a Kickstarter. He says the plan is to then go full-time on the game to release the full 7 hour story in 2020. He says that all this planning is down to Discord, he jokes that without it there would be no chance of the project being organised.
At 16, Calvin is still attending secondary school, albeit in his final year. “Yeah I still go,” he slightly frowns. “I’m in Year 11 and will be sitting my GCSE’s later this year” but despite the intense workload, school is still going fine, “I’ve never really struggled,” he chuckles. Sarcastically he says, “Normally I cry when I’m at school because I want to be working on the game.”
“I’m up late because a lot of the team is in America and so you have to work around them. But it’s worth it.” Poetically, he proudly looks around the room, which is one of the largest spaces of the convention. He points to his games’ sign, “I only paid for one computer, but Unreal upgraded me, and gave me 4!”
His team, he says, are mostly made up of volunteers who will be paid on a revenue-share basis after the Kickstarter has ended. Calvin continues, “Everyone’s so passionate about the game, they’re not doing it for the money. They’re doing it because that’s what they like doing. It takes longer, but it’s done with so much passion that it comes out at a higher quality.” He tells a story of one of his team, who just appeared on their game’s Discord channel one day, who just made decided to make a new volumetric fog system. He says that’s how his team grew to 20 people, he just networked on reddit and people came to him.
Finally, I asked him whether he thinks his young age affects his approach to game development. “To be honest, no. It affects how people approach me, you get people that are like ‘Oh my god, you’re 16’ but it doesn’t affect me. It’s what you bring to the team, not how old you are, or what you look like, or where you’re from.” And if that isn’t some motivational, sage-like advice, then I don’t know what is.