Justin Ross has been a game designer for a number of years; he started making short games during high school. More recently, though, he has been known for his work with Ethereal Entertainment on Faceless, an ambitious Half Life 2 mod about Slenderman. After numerous delays and other issues with that project, however, Justin has decided to change gears. His new free-to-play game, Alas Mortis, promises to be an interesting mix of PvP multiplayer and survival horror. Playing as one of many morally ambiguous characters, players will have to avoid, delay, and otherwise survive the player controlled flying monster, which is armed to the teeth with weapons and powers. Justin agreed to speak with me about this new project.
Jimmy Stephenson: First of all, thanks for agreeing to talk with me. I’ve looked into Alas Mortis, and I’m really interested in watching it develop. For any of our readers who might be unfamiliar with the project, could you give us a quick overview of your vision of the game?
Justin Ross: No problem, it’s a pleasure. Alas Mortis is kind of my re-imagining of “hide-and-seek”; trying to play off the excitement and thrill that would be present playing that on the schoolyard with all your friends. However, I wanted to make it a more terrifying and horrific experience. I want people to feel terrified, and hopeless while hiding from the monster.
JS: Its clear that you’re focusing on the multiplayer experience for this game. Are you aiming for a more segmented, match-based style seen in online shooters such as Team Fortress, or do you want to have a connected experience, like a story mode of some type?
JR: I’m leaning towards more of a Team Fortress approach. Two teams; one team will portray the nine citizens trying to survive against the demonoid creature hunting them down with a variety of weaponry, and abilities. The other team will be one player controlling the demon. There is a back-story to the game that explains why the demon is hunting down these people. Each of the humans have committed some atrocious act sometime their life and the demon is essentially hunting them down, reaping their souls, and sending them to Hell.
JS: On your site, you have some concept art of a man in a bunny suit. How terrible of a person could he be? What other ideas do you have for characters, and where are you drawing inspiration for them?
JR: The bunny guy, “Evan Roycz” is my favorite, and I’ve purposely wrote him to be the most twisted of all the human characters. I don’t wanna explain too much about him. He works as the Easter Bunny for the local shopping mall, and for children’s parties. He’s extremely psychotic, and just a riot.
Other character ideas are already down on paper and currently being planned on how they’ll look. There will be some variety in their appearances, but Evan (Rabbit Guy) will most likely be the most absurd. Evan is mainly inspiration taken from Robbie The Rabbit from the Silent Hill series.
JS: That sounds good to me. So you’ll have a team of nine people working together to save their own skins. How will they survive against the creature, if they don’t have any weapons? How in-depth of a hiding system will there be, or will players have to just run?
JR: I’m thinking of having players have the ability to pick up flares, which can be thrown and cover an area in light for short periods of time. In this light, the Demon would be slowed down and unable to use his abilities, but his weapons will still work. Again, that idea is what I have floating around in my head at the moment, and we’ll see what happens when the game is ready for testing.
JS: If the players can hide in closets and other things like that, how large are the maps going to be? If players can hide inside houses, how will the creature player know, and will it have to go in through the door, or be able to break through the environment?
JR: I’d like to make the maps a decent size, to hopefully make each time the players hop in something different. For example, the Farmland map will have a cornfield players can walk through (and hopefully get lost), a barn, and a farmhouse. At the moment, the Demon won’t know where the humans are at every moment but he’ll have an ability he can use for a short amount of time that reveals the closest player to him on the map for a few seconds. Sort of like “echolocation”, since he’s quite bat-like in appearance.
JS: About the demon’s powers, are you planing on having them all available from the get-go, or have players unlock them either between or during matches, like perks from Call of Duty?
JR: From the get go. The only thing that will be unlockable for the Demon will be new skins in the future. In this story, the Demon has been around since biblical times and has worn various outfits to suit the era he’s hunting people down in. So, the Demon will start off with his modern day outfit, which is the black wool-pea coat and torn up blue jeans.
JS: Does this mean that the demon player can infiltrate the rest of the group? On the same line, are you going to have all the players know who is playing the demon from the start, or will they be chosen at random when each match begins?
JR: Not infiltrate, per se, but there is a mode that I’d like to bring sometime to the game that deals with possession. I’d like it to be chosen at random. That way, at least everyone should get a chance to play the role of the demon; not just whoever selects to play as him first.
JS: I see. That’s actually something I wanted to touch on. The player who is the creature has access to a lot of different powers and weapons, so they have a very empowered experience. Do you think that the hiding players will be equally as engaged, and what type of experience do you want them to have?
JR: I hope they do. That’s the main thing I’m worried about. The demon is a threat, and I don’t want them just to hide the entire time since he will be quite the threat. I want the players to be terrified, and worried constantly that the demon could be anywhere and ready to dispatch them one by one. As I mentioned before, they’re not entirely vulnerable, as they can use flares to weaken the demon and slow him down for a few moments so they can escape to a new area of the level. I constantly imagine the humans walking together in a group, and the demon does a stealth kill from the ceiling, the fellow humans turn around to see their comrade missing. For me, that would be horrifying knowing that you’re slowly being picked off one by one.
Of course, I have some plans for future modes, so there will be different experiences if people want to try out new things.
JS: I understand. Between Alas Mortis and your previous work on Faceless, it seems that you’re approaching horror games in a very different direction from the most recent, big name franchises. What draws you to the genre, and what are your thoughts on the state of horror in games?
JR: I’m drawn to the genre because I love getting scared to simply put it. I love the adrenaline rush you get while playing horror titles like Penumbra, Amnesia, and Outlast; and this is something I want to replicate for others. I want to make something that truly scares someone and makes them scared of playing the game with the lights off. I love that sense of fear, and want to cause people to be scared, to play with the lights on, to have nightmares. That’s just my goal.
As for the state of horror games, I have to say it really is in the hand of the indie developers right now. AAA-horror has gotten incredibly stale, and well they’re just not scary anymore (Resident Evil 6, Dead Space 3). I still got scared playing Dead Space 3, but I didn’t feel as much horror as I did in the previous titles, which was a huge letdown. Horror is in it’s prime right now with the indie devs, and I think it can go only go up from here. For example, we had Outlast just release not too long ago and it has really turned the genre on it’s head, and that game is pretty terrifying and also very well written. Plus, Frictional Games teased their new horror-game SOMA, which looks heavenly and terrifying all at the same time. I can’t wait.
However, I’m putting my faith in AAA horror again for The Evil Within. That game looks super promising.
JS: You were involved with the development of Faceless for a long time. What have you taken away from that experience, and how will it affect your approach to Alas Mortis?
JR: How to handle things better. People will always criticize you, and try putting you down. Gotta keep on trucking, and hold your head high.
For Alas Mortis I’ve decided that revealing everything about the game in one go isn’t exactly the best approach, and to give people some goodies every once and a while, so when they play the game for the first time they can discover things on their own. Keep them anticipated, and there’s some things about Alas Mortis I won’t be revealing until the game is out and playable. I want people to be surprised.
JS: Fair enough. What prompted you to take the free-to-play model? Also, many indie games have been turning to crowdfunding sites in order to raise money for development costs. Have you considered trying anything similar?
JR: Considering I haven’t exactly released anything game-wise before, I decided something free-to-play would be the best bet. That way, people can download it, check it out for themselves, and not having to worry about putting money down and not enjoying the finished product. I’d be considering releasing skin packs or something for the human players, as all content for the game will be included for free in the updates (maps, patches, new content, etc).
At this point in time no. The interest for Alas Mortis isn’t that high, and I just wanna try doing something for fun and out of my own pocket, if need be. People who are helping me with the game are doing it in their free-time and as a hobby, much like myself. I feel like I need to prove myself first, before I end up asking for money.
JS: How large of a team do you have working on Alas Mortis? Also, you mention in the game’s page that you’re experimenting with the Unreal Engine for the first time. How is that going so far, and how does it compare to the Source engine?
JR: Not many people at this point in time. We’re currently sitting at about 4. I’m actually really enjoying Unreal so far, much more than Source. I’m finding Unreal a little more difficult from a level design standpoint, but for programming wise I’m finding it much easier to grasp, and understand. I’d go back to Source someday in the future, as I really love that engine, but for now Unreal is working perfectly.
JS: What type of advice would you have for anyone out there who might be interested in making their own games?
JR: Just do it. Read up about it, and just go for it. I started out making maps, and mods for WarCraft III and it eventually spawned into making fully fledged games. Of course, you’ll find people who will criticize, and put you down, but just keep on trucking and who knows, maybe you’ll make the next Minecraft.
JS: Now, I know that Alas Mortis is still in very early development, but do you have any dates or milestones that you’re aiming for?
JR: Not right now, but I’d really like to get the game on Steam Early Access someday. I’ll release it when I’m comfortable with what’s been made. I really like the early-access approach. I can get peoples opinions early on in development and form the future of the game around their thoughts, suggestions and opinions.
JS: Alright, well I wish you luck, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing how the game progresses. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.
JR: Hey, no problem. The pleasure is all mine. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!
If you would like to stay up to date on Alas Mortis, you can check out the games’ webpage here. Also, if you have any ideas for other indie developers we should speak with, please let us know in the comments below.