Maryland-based Nate Purkeypile is a 17 year Bethesda veteran with broad game development experience across the Fallout series, Skyrim and Starfield. Founder of Just Purkey games he’s currently working his first independent game The Axis Unseen; a heavy metal horror hunting title set in a nightmarish, folklore infused world trapped outside of time. Nate has kindly answered a few questions over email about the initial ideas and inspirations behind Axis, what lessons he carried over from his previous work at Bethesda and how he teamed up with Clifford Meyer to create a killer dynamic soundtrack to hunt and be hunted to.
Q1. What were the initial ideas and inspirations around The Axis Unseen and how did it come to be?
Nate: When I first went independent, I took some time off and brainstormed various game ideas. At first the idea was to make a series of prototypes to see which one I liked the most. Talking with my wife about it, it was pretty clear that I actually just really liked the idea of a horror hunting game more than any of the other ideas. So I just went with that idea from the start. 🙂
Q2. The Axis Unseen is built in Unreal Engine 5, what particular challenges did working with that engine pose and how did you overcome them?
Nate: Actually UE5 has been a huge time saver if anything. The way open worlds are setup in UE5 seems a lot easier than previous versions of Unreal. Also, it’s sort of counter-intuitive, but the fact that you can import models that are millions of polys (which is equal to the whole scene budget on previous games) just straight into the engine is a huge time saver. I’ve stylized the game a bit and use a lot of flatter colors instead of noisy textures. So I can just paint some simple colors onto my models and directly import the high poly models into the engine. I don’t have to make low poly versions, unwrap UVs to do textures or anything. It’s just the model. As is. It’s pretty wild to me still that it even works. It really is a massive leap forward.
Q3. One of the most prominent advancements in UE5 is the lighting which, judging by The Axis Unseen’s trailer, you’re exploiting to pretty jaw-dropping effect. How does UE5 compare to working with older tools like the Creation Engine and what has it enabled you to do that you couldn’t do before?
Nate: It’s closest to the way lighting worked on 76, where it can update the bounced light dynamically. The big difference is that there is no baking of any kind. Any change I do to the scene in UE5 just works right away with bounced light. It’s another massive step forward. Those baking steps can take forever. The first ones for 76 were literally two months to finish one bake, that ended up getting cut down to a weekend, but even then, that was running with this massive distributed network of computers to share the load. That’s not really an option as an indie. So having dynamic bounced lighting just work is great! So basically, the thing it allows is for someone at the indie scale to actually do dynamic bounced lighting. 🙂
Q4. The Axis Unseen is your first solo title but far from your first game – what lessons carried over to Axis’ development from your work on Skyrim, the Fallout series and Starfield?
Nate: I think one of the things I had to get really good at building Skyrim/Fallout/Starfield was building a ton of content really fast. Even though those games are all big, especially back in the Skyrim/Fallout days, the team was not that big. For instance, the team on Fallout 3 was ~65 people and Skyrim was ~110. So I got really good at figuring out the best and most efficient way to build open worlds. Like on Fallout 3/4 and Skyrim, I did almost all the lighting. Normally that’s something that is handled by an entire team of people and I did that as just part of my job. So I think that will all be really useful for building out my own open world. Especially when I leverage additional tools like Houdini to aid in the initial guided procedural generation of the world.
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Q5. The Art style you’ve gone for is very distinctive – mixing together primitive environments, monsters from folklore with some heavy metal horror. Were there any artists, pieces of visual art or stories from folklore that you drew from specifically while creating it?
Nate: One of my favorite artists is Zdzisław Beksiński, so that is one of the big influences. I like the sense of mystery and otherworldly nature of his stuff. Also his bold use of color. I have no intention of making a super dark and monochromatic horror game. I think you can go big and bold and have a more surreal feel to things. Horror can mean so many different things and even though I will have some “dark and scary places”, I want to go far beyond that into something weirder.
Q6. In terms of size, what’s the scope for The Axis Unseen’s open world?
Nate: It’s hard for me to say at this point since I have just done my initial prototype level/vertical slice, which is more of a visual target. I’m aiming for something pretty large though. Unreal’s math breaks down past 10kmx10km, so, not bigger than that? 🙂 As close as I can get to that? I want to have a lot of space to really track creatures and navigate naturally using landmarks.
Q7. What sort of things can players look forward to experiencing in The Axis Unseen that sets it apart from other games?
Nate: All of the UI and gameplay elements are in the world. So you don’t follow glowing markers or have “vision modes” that show you where things are. Instead I’ve stylized the game so you can see the tracks and there are powers that show you how old tracks are by changing tattoos on your hand. Even things like checking your ammo, that’s not a HUD element, you pull out your quiver and you look. It’s the same with leveling up, that is done at altars that exist within the world.
Q8. Soundtrack wise, how did you and Clifford Meyer meet and come to work together?
Nate: When starting the game I was thinking a lot about the music and what I wanted it to sound like, and ISIS (the band) was always one of my favorites. So on a whim, I found their Bandcamp page and asked if they license music. They do (and I am licensing some), but then Clifford also said he was a fan of Skyrim and asked if I was looking for a composer. So we got to chatting and he knocked it out of the park. One of the first sample songs he sent was so on the mark it ended up being the song for the initial trailer even. So now there is over 90 minutes of custom music from Clifford! He was great to work with.
Q9. To go a little deeper on the soundtrack side, on Axis’ Steam page it also describes the soundtrack as being ‘dynamic’ – what does that mean in practice when you’re listening to it while playing the game?
Nate: It means that the music will change depending on where you are in the game and what is happening. So each region has its own set of music and there are also different music states for exploration, tension and combat. There’s also some one offs like when you find a new piece of equipment or a power.
Q10. What have you enjoyed about working on a self-published game without the support of a publisher and, conversely, what challenges have you had to overcome?
Nate: There’s a lot less meetings or expectations. It’s all on me. At the same time, that’s the challenge to overcome, it’s a lot of work to do handling development and marketing and everything else. 🙂
Q11. Is there any information you can share about what the roadmap to launch is looking like for you at the moment?
Nate: Not just yet. I’m still pretty far off from my “planned launch” but I also keep beating my estimates on everything. So it could be totally wrong and earlier than that. Or I could run into some unforeseen roadblocks that then push it back and then it’s wrong. So instead of disappointing people, I’d rather wait until it is more of a sure thing about what the actual date is.
The Axis Unseen is available to wishlist on Steam now.