Starpoint Gemini Interview

Danijel Mihokovic from LGM Games and Creative Director for the fantastic indie hit, Starpoint Gemini, was nice enough to agree to an e-mail interview for us.  You will get a detailed look at one of the best up-and-coming indie developers and what it took to create Starpoint Gemini.

Adam:

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Starpoint Gemini.

Danije:

Hello everyone. My name is Danijel Mihokovic. I was the lead scripter, level designer and one of the creative directors behind Starpoint Gemini, our debut title. It may look like too much for one person, but we’re a small indie team where responsibilities have to be distributed a bit differently from “the standard”.

Adam:

How did you get started in developing PC games?

Danije:

My own personal story starts in modding. A hobby of mine, that filled hours and hours of my free time. That eventually led to a more serious involvement and finally got me here, to working on own projects.
Adam:

Where did the idea for Starpoint Gemini come from?

Danijel:

The original idea was in our minds for a long while before we started working on the game. Several years I’d say. Gemini is actually just a portion of the entire setting and lore that’s devised and written down. We needed an enclosed, “detached” environment for this game, so we went with Gemini.

The old Starfleet Command series was among the greatest influences on gameplay mechanics, which I’m sure is apparent to all those who played those games. What we always loved in games, RPGs especially, was freedom and there was no way SPG could be without that.

There are a lot of great space sims out there, where you woosh around with small agile fighter crafts and blast away at hostiles, and there’s a nice amount of space RTSs, but if you’re like us and want to play as a solo captain commanding his very own personalized large ship… then you’ll have trouble finding an SP game. That’s what we had in mind when designing Starpoint Gemini.

Adam:

What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Starpoint Gemini?

Danijel:

The most important thing I learned from this experience is that good organization and communication in the team is more than half of the work. Without that, you could be in for a world of hurt. Any good game starts from a good game design document that the whole team has to keep in mind. That should never be underestimated.

Adam:

Where did you get the inspiration from for the story and art style of Starpoint Gemini?

Danijel:

Various influences, too numerous to mention, had a part in the creation of SPG. General knowledge, TV shows, movies, other games, books… Many many things.

Adam:

Some indie devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game.  Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Starpoint Gemini and if you faced a similar challenge.

Danijel:

Starpoint is one of those games that start off hard, but gets easier through playing. There’s naturally the skills you get in playing the very game, but as your character progresses and your ship is upgraded, you’re able to do some nifty things with your ship that can mean all the difference in an encounter. The fact it starts off hard, can put some gamers off. We realize that, but we still went for that approach. The great feats you can do later in the game and how you can “show everyone what it means to fight you” is a part of what we wanted to accomplish with Starpoint Gemini.

And yes, it is also true that to us, SPG is very easy, but we did our best to set the difficulty as close to our general idea as possible.

Adam:

Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Starpoint Gemini would run on the various PC system configurations?

Danijel:

There’s always more than enough to do in that respect, but thankfully, we have a good number of different PC configurations covered, and perhaps more importantly all the relevant operating systems that are now available. Our intention from the very beginning was to make the game accessible to more gamers, and not only to those featuring high-end computers and we tested with that in focus.

Adam:

How did you quality test Starpoint Gemini through the various development cycles?  Who was involved and how was the testing set up?

Danijel:

All QA testing up to initial release was handled internally by our QA team with the assistance from our outside members. Gradually, more testers were introduced as the project went into later stages of development.

In retrospect, I will admit, that despite all the QA team’s best efforts, there were bugs, even some that should have been spotted. This was and is a well-worth learning process that will surely benefit all our future projects. The amount of work and effort we made post release should show how committed we are to Starpoint.

Adam:

Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?

Danijel:

Organization and financing are equally problematic. Being an indie developer usually means you have to balance the two severely. If one fails, the other goes down with it in a flash. That is probably the most difficult thing. There’s so much you want to do when you’re creating a game, and you absolutely know it would fit in the game greatly, but at the end of the day, you realize there are boundaries and restrictions and that your hands are basically tied.

Adam:

Tell us about the process involved with making Starpoint Gemini available via digital distribution and retail outlets.

Danijel

It could seem straightforward: contact distributor or publisher, sign a deal, start selling. There’s a lot of work involved however. You need a good game, great promotional materials, a LOT of communication, a lot of time and effort. I can’t really go into detail since every distributor and every publisher is an individual story.

Adam:

How much pull do you have when setting sale and regular pricing through digital distribution and retail?

Danijel

That all depends on the specific agreement with each distributor and publisher. We have only the best to say about all our distributors, not to mention Iceberg Interactive as our publisher for the European market. They’ve been completely fair and forthcoming. In principle, pricing is set through agreement of both parties.

Adam:

How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as opposed to retail?

Danijel:

Each has its benefits and risks. Digital distribution is a great way for small new teams to step into the light. Starpoint, our debut title first appeared on GamersGate. It would be very hard to imagine everything else that followed if it weren’t for that. Digital distribution is definitely the future for standard versions, but I think retail will remain in the future for the more exclusive boxed versions, collectors editions if you will. That said, at the moment retail is still high on the food chain and I don’t expect to see it vanish that soon.


Adam:

How did you come up with the $29.99 USD price point for the inital release of Starpoint Gemini?  

Danijel:

A number of factors were included from our personal value of it and competition prices to discussions with our distribution partners. A fair amount of consideration went into the initial price point and I believe it is a fair price for SPG.


Adam:

You released a PC demo for Starpoint Gemini in an age where demos are becoming scarce.  What made you release a demo and was it difficult to develop one?

Danijel:

The main problem with the demo was its size. SPG is an open game, a freeroam game. Things are crosslinked throughout the game; models, textures, scripts, audio… everything. Cutting down on size and at the same time retaining the feel of the game, as well as testing to see if everything works as it should, was to say the least an effort. I wouldn’t want readers to think I’m whining over it. I think the demo was long overdue, but we just couldn’t release it sooner.

Demos are important. It helps gamers see what kind of a game you have made. Watching through purely business eyes, a potential customer can become your real customer. We really want people to have a go at SPG without the need to buy it. We’d like for gamers to see if they like it, to see if they find that “something” they search for in games, that “something” that makes them want to play it. Those who do, be my guest; go ahead and buy it… We won’t mind… promise :).

Adam:

15.  How do you use online forums, message boards and other social networking sites to get feedback for Starpoint Gemini?

Danijel:

The community at SpaceSimCentral is an amazing forum. It is our unofficial-official forum where people can talk about all sorts of space-sim games, not just SPG, but they’ve been kind enough to give us a home there and we appreciate it possibly even more than they know. Their help has been crucial. The initial problems on release day, back in December 2010, couldn’t have been resolved without their help, at least not as fast. They’ve also been thoroughly posting bug reports and enhancement suggestions all this time which is of amazing importance and value to us as a small team. Truly an amazing community.

Adam:

How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Starpoint Gemini professionally?

Danijel:

Every review is important to us, whether it is done professionally or not, or to say it better: as a job or a hobby. Perhaps more importance is placed on professional reviews since those are usually read by more people and tend to hold greater interest. But again, every review, every opinion, if articulated and explained, is important. Even if it is negative. We always welcome both constructive criticism and a nice pat on the back. So far, we can’t complain. Lowest rating is 70 and highest an amazing 94%. For a first game, I’d say we have a lot to be proud of. J

Adam:

How do you feel about the Humble Indie Bundle and “Pay What You Want Pricing”?  Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?

Danijel:

Those are two very interesting concepts and we’d definitely be interested in considering it at the very least. Definitely a novel way of doing things.

Adam:

What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?

Danijel:

Lately it seems to me it has become a game of its own. First the publisher or developer says “We’ve just created a 1 million dollar un-hackable protection system. There’s nothing you can do. Ha-ha!” and then some hacker groups take that as a challenge and break it in a week. Then on the next title, they go at it again and on and on in circles. Piracy and increasingly intrusive DRM are two sides of the same coin. One warrants the other. Until one side gives in, I don’t think there can be a proper solution. Bottom line is piracy is theft, but so is overpricing, I believe.

We’ve had problems with DRM on initial release so we decided to remove protection to let gamers play and enjoy SPG. In our minds, the alternative: forcing players to wait for a new version was unacceptable. We didn’t have the necessary time to figure out the details. That would go at gamers’ expense.

As a personal note, even if I had a million dollars, I surely wouldn’t spend it on copy protection. I’d rather make a better game with that money.

Adam:

What are some of the games or genres you like to play?  Are you a fan of other indie developers?

Danijel:

I’m a fan of RPGs first and foremost. RPGs of any kind in any form: first person, isometric, over the shoulder, turn-based, real-time… anything. If it has a good story, if the skill system offers enough variety and freedom, I’m sold. My own personal favorite games of all times would be games from the Looking Glass guys: System Shock, Thief and Deus Ex. Neither was visually over-the-top stunning on their releases, but featured amazing immersion and “feeling”.

Adam:

What advice would you give others who are looking to make a career out of PC game development?

Danijel:

A very simple advice. Something that works in almost all other aspects of life: persistence. If you really want it, don’t ever give up and you’ll get there.

We would like to thank Danijel once again for taking the time to anwser the interview questions in a fine and detailed manner.  You can pick up Starpoint Gemini or try the demo on the official site.

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