Tomislav Pongrac’s independent development story begins like many others. A developer looking for a creative outlet, to make games people will enjoy, influenced by art and entertainment, looking to keep the studio alive and bubbling with new projects, but realistic that it will never make anyone rich.
But I’ve never met other developers who are so obsessed with their creation that they use their own bodies – subject them to extreme physical and dietary pressures – in order to recreate something as unique as their own metabolism in the game. Pongrac starved himself, cataloged his stools, woke up at 3 a.m. to eat, forced himself to gain weight and sugar, and more – so he could capture all those physical changes in his game.
Before his survival game, Scum, was even a concept, Pongrac’s analytical research would have given an indication of the meta to come. About three years ago, when Croatian studio Gamepires was “depressed” after the release of its racing game Gas Guzzlers, Pongrac set out to research the top 10 games on Steam. Not with the intention of copying a hit, but seeing what, how and why they proved popular.
“I was trying to find a compromise between what my team is able to do with six people, the amount of quality we can bring, and the ways we can improve the genre,” he tells me during Reboot Develop. “We didn’t want to make a survival game back then, we just wanted to see what it would be able to do.”
“First I was starved for a day, then I went on a normal diet so as not to go too far. Then I took two days without food, then three days”
After presenting his findings on sandboxes and survival games to the team, Pongrac said they just looked at their feet, uninspired by his research. “That was the first and biggest challenge. You start doubting yourself and your colleagues,” he says.
It wasn’t just the growing interest in survival and sandbox games at the time that inspired Pongrac, but World of Tanks stats and his own fond memories of role-playing character creation. tabletop Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Cyberpunk 2020. This is what would ultimately differentiate Scum from other survival games; deepening the character, your physical abilities in the game, far beyond the basic strength, skill and intelligence stats.
“Our character creation system is basically a classic RPG system that has our unique general skill sets. [Tabletop RPGs] helped a lot in this character creation process. Now you have to understand that in Scum I incorporated different parts of my life.”
Pongrac has always been a physical person, practicing karate and other martial arts when he was younger, but switching to weights and cardio because he “got too old to beat”. This physical progression inspired an obsessive focus in Pongrac, to the point where metabolism – the conversion of food into energy and protein, and the excretion of waste – became a major interest. And that’s the real differentiator for Scum. It’s a game that tracks vitamins, calories, and digestion. You leave marks where you urinate or defecate, which can be used to find you. The scum counts how many teeth you have, which affects what you can eat.
All of this stems from his experiences.
“The best way to try things, especially if you’re working on a survival game, is to try to survive,” says Pongrac. “We need to have food and water and somewhere to dump. It’s essential for us. I decided to try a number of different tests on my own body.”
The first experiment involved depriving his own body of 600 fewer calories than he needed daily. For three months.
“I had read that people during World War II in a concentration camp were getting 800 to 1,200 calories a day, which is well below their daily needs,” he says. “I certainly didn’t want to eat only 800 calories. But what if I eat 600 calories less than I need? This experiment lasted three months during which I only did cardio – running and spinning. I noticed that the first thing that I lost muscle mass, then fat. After three months, I was so weak that I could not open a jar of pickles. It was enough.
Pongrac continued the experiments, almost all of which lasted between three and six months, during which he meticulously recorded his calorie intake and other statistics. His second experiment was to eat what he wanted, when he wanted, and his muscle mass returned after a month. “It’s amazing,” he said. “These things are normal for human beings. Your muscle has memory. Even if you lose it because muscle is easier to break down for energy than fat. And once I got back to my normal weight of 69kg, it stopped. It stopped no matter how much I ate or did, it stopped.”
The third experiment required eating between 8 and 10 meals a day, each 300 calories, like a normal weight training routine to improve muscle mass. “I reached almost 79 kg, which is the heaviest weight of my entire life. I have never felt better. I had to wake up at 3 am to eat a meal. It was tedious but it was reassuring to know that each plate had 300 calories I got to the point where I couldn’t put my clothes on anymore I got to the point where I either quit or change my whole guard- dress. I’m not a young guy. I’ll be 45 soon and my testosterone levels are lower than when I was younger, so it’s much harder to build muscle mass,” he says.
It’s during the third experiment that Pongrac’s research gets a little messy, and especially weird when he says this to me and looks me directly in the eye.
“I was going to drill a hole at least five times a day,” he says. “The best part, and why I felt so good, is that my body was functioning fantastically.”
“When you do a drain, you have to watch what comes out of your ass. If you don’t have to wipe your ass, you’re doing the good job. If you have to wipe your ass or it’s too hard, you “I’m doing something wrong. You have to balance things. During this period, I didn’t have to wipe my ass at all. That’s a huge amount of time and paper you save.”
“When you do a drain, you have to watch what comes out of your ass. If you don’t have to wipe your ass, you’re doing a good job. During this period, I didn’t have to wipe my ass ass That’s a huge amount of time and paper you save”
Depending on how you look at it, this is all either invaluable research or a tragic waste of time. All of this is optional in Scum. Pongrac goes to great lengths for an extra feature that you don’t really have to commit to in any way. It’s like writing a 100 hour RPG knowing that less than 10% of the players will see everything, only more grueling.
“It’s a huge thing that a lot of people don’t realize the game has, but it’s actually not that important,” he admits.
And yet, the obsession continued to the point where Pongrac starved himself, but thankfully not to such extreme lengths.
“The famine lasted three days,” he reveals. “First I was starved for a day, then I went on a normal diet so as not to go too far. Then I took two days without food, then three days.
“When you don’t eat for three days, you feel really good. My sense of smell has improved, but only for food. I work in a small office and if someone started eating, it was so annoying. I was trying to concentrate but I couldn’t. It’s like your body just wants that kind of food although you’re not hungry at all. The first day was terrible, but after that , I think I could last at least five days without needing to eat.”
Even when the physical exertion of these diets was too great, Pongrac turned a serious injury into an opportunity to continue the experiments.
“Unfortunately, during one of the exercises, I had a spinal injury and had to stop,” he says. “I was really depressed because I was really thorough with these experiments. I thought, what can I do now?
“So I tried something really dangerous. In one day, I went from a keto diet to very high carb. I kept doing it for months, which meant I had sugar, drank Coke, ate anything considered bad. You know what happened? I had diarrhea for three months straight. I had a rash on my skin, I I still have some on my face. It was the result of my gut flora and fauna being completely destroyed by the carbs. I’m still battling it. But I felt good from the sugar, every time I had sugar, I felt fantastic.”
All this is also in progress. While Scum is still in Early Access, Pongrac Body Experiments should continue. If you’re looking to find out what’s coming in a future game update, it will most likely have something to do with intermittent fasting and body fat below 10%, which is what Pongrac is currently focusing on.
“I want to see if these things work. How does this relate to the game?
“For us, there’s nothing better,” he says, “than when you get a random email from someone who is thrilled to play your game and not only enjoyed the game, but learned from it and got all those little details that we put inside, it’s the best feeling in the world. We’re really proud.
“Our characters are totally unique,” he adds. “We’ve created a game with characters that are completely unique. They may look the same because we can’t produce that many character faces, but inside their metabolism is completely unique and will change over time. That’s the whole point of what I did.”