The boys from Kot-in-Action Creative Artel were kind enough to take time out of their busy day to talk about thier smash indie hit, Steel Storm: Burning Retribution. You will get thier take on how Steel Storm: Burning Retribution came to be, DLC, DRM, piracy, life as an indie dev and much more.
1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Steel Storm.
My name is Alexander “motorsep” Zubov. I am the founder of Kot-in-Action Creative Artel, an independent game development company. I am the project lead and the art director for Steel Storm. Besides these roles I had to wear many hats, as most indies do, and I worked on all of the art assets, GUI, some sound effects, a few levels, missions, etc.
My educational background has nothing to do with art or game development. I got my Master of Science degree in engineering and never worked as an engineer. Instead, I became a self-taught graphic designer and I worked in that field for 5 years. I also worked as a teacher, 3D graphics and animation instructor, and a police officer. I applied myself in various fields, but game development is what I enjoy the most currently.
2. How did you get started in developing PC games?
I started, like many people of my generation, by modding Quake 1. Eventually I discovered the Darkplaces engine, which is based on the GPL version of the GLQuake 1 engine, but can match the visuals and performance of ID Tech 4+. The independent movement was on the rise when I realized I could make a living making games. I met our lead coder few month before Quake Expo 2008 and got him interested in helping me with my first project titled The Prophecy: Return of the Blademaster. Together we made a working prototype which still can be seen at the virtual Quake Expo 2008 booth at http://qexpo.tastyspleen.net/booth.php?id=121
3. Where did the idea for Steel Storm come from?
The Prophecy was supposed to be a grand project, with a lot of content. We didn’t have experience with making and shipping commercial titles back then and after we finished the game’s prototype it became clear that we would not be able to accomplish it. At that time the idea of making a top-down shooter did not seem to be as complicated as the idea of making The Prophecy. We discussed the concept and began working on the Steel Storm series.
4. What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Steel Storm?
We learned that we are very capable of making high quality commercial games that sell 🙂 We learned a lot of new skills, improved existing ones and established important business relationships. It’s hard to tell at the moment if we had any failures because the game hasn’t been out for too long. It’s been on the market for less than 2 months.
5. How close is Steel Storm in its current form to your initial vision for the game?
The game is more advanced and has more features than the initial idea.
6. 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 Steel Storm and if you faced a similar challenge.
We tried our best to put ourselves into the average gamer’s shoes. Initially we had no selection for difficulty level. After we implemented a new AI system, we had to implement difficulty levels. As far as I know, most people find the original difficulty too difficult 🙂
7. Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Steel Storm would run on the various PC system configurations?
Not really. From the beginning of the development cycle we aimed at low end PCs. Steel Storm runs on NetBooks with integrated Intel GPUs (when the game’s Settings are tuned down and NetBook mode is selected) and it looks almost identical to visuals in the game when it runs on, let’s say, the nVidia GeForce 8800 video card. It’s quite playable on low end PCs and netbooks.
8. Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Marketing is one of the toughest aspects of any indie venture. One can have an outstanding product, but when the market is saturated, it’s hard to stand out. There are some exceptions, but those are just that – exceptions. Also wearing many hats. It’s a business and regardless of why we get into indie game development (story telling, art, coding, etc.), there are many not-so-fun aspects that we need to handle. An indie game developer has to find the right balance between creative tasks, business tasks and community management.
9. Tell us about your relationship with Valve. How did making Steel Storm available via Steam come about? Also talk about how you created Steam Achievements.
However mystical it might sounds, the process is clear and simple. I e-mailed Valve, showed them the game. They liked it and that’s how we got on Steam. We don’t have Steamworks implemented in Steel Storm. The game engine we use is under the GPL and that prevents us from integrating Steamworks functionality into the game.
10. How much pull do you have when setting sale and regular pricing through digital distribution channels? Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
Initially we wanted to set a higher price, but as we saw major development houses dropping prices (because they can), we had no choice but reduce the price for our title.
11. How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?
It certainly helps indies to get their games to market. I like digital distribution. No need to go to a store or wait for shipping. You can buy a game, download it in an hour or so, and play. I don’t think indie game developers would be where they are now if we didn’t have digital distribution.
12. Were there any plans to take Steel Storm to retail stores?
Not currently, no.
13. You released a PC demo for Steel Storm in an age where demos are becoming scare. What made you release a demo and was it difficult to develop one?
We never released a demo of the game. It’s a common misconception I keep on reading about. We released the first episode of the series, Steel Storm: Episode 1, for free. A shareware version if you will. A poorly made demo can certainly hurt the game. However, I always liked playing demos. I think having a demo or a shareware version is almost a necessary part of the game development process.
14. How important is it to get instant feedback about Steel Storm from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
It is an important factor. There were few things we didn’t have in the game prior to it’s release and those were small things that the game needed. The community helped us to see that and we implemented the features that made the game more accessible to the players.
15. How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Steel Storm professionally?
It depends. Some of the reviewers are not into this genre, so every word they put on the screen or page is negative. Some reviewers don’t understand the concept and don’t bother to ask us. There were a few good reviews where the reviewer actually took an extra mile and investigated the game deeply. He played it beyond Episode 1 and saw the improvement we’ve made for Episode 2. In short, I value the media and the reviewers who do their job. If I would be in charge of a media outlet, I would never assign a hardcore FPS gamer to review a Facebook game, and vice-versa.
16. Tell us how Steel Storm became part of the BuyGamesNotSocks 5 for 5 Bundle? Would you be interested in participating in something like this again?
The Lunar Workshop guys contacted us and offered participation in the bundle. For the most part it’s that simple 🙂 Either someone sees a developer’s game and contacts the developer or vice-versa. Sure, we are open for quality bundles. If someone wants to put up a bundle and has a fair offer for us, please let us know 🙂
17. What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
I don’t think DRM is helping at all. Combating poverty and poor economic conditions, and setting appropriate prices in certain countries will help in reducing piracy. DRM just gets people angry. I believe pirates will pirate a game, even if it costs $1. It’s just their mentality. A person with good moral values will not pirate a game he/she can pay for without hurting their own budget. A person with good moral values still may pirate an expensive game, however, when the game’s price drops they will buy it. That is my opinion on the subject 🙂
18. How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
There are games that are suited well for DLC and there are games that are not. I think a mission pack or an add-on is a good example of a fair DLC that works for pretty much every game. Generally speaking if a game has a huge fan base, DLC works well as a business model. Otherwise it does not work.
19. What are some of the games or genres you like to play? Are you a fan of other indie developers?
I am a fan of some indie developers, especially that some of the biggest names in the industry are either indies or remained indies until recently. As far as game genres, I am a big fan of the FPS genre and I rarely play games from other genres. The games that inspire me are the Doom series, Quake 1, Heretic series, Hexen series, Ecstatica series, WarCraft series (except WoW), Diablo series, Outcast, Prey, and many other older games that I forgot the titles of, but still retain vivid images of in my head. The newer games I played and enjoyed are Crysis and Crysis Warhead. The demo of StarCraft 2 impressed me, so I am looking forward to getting that title.
Single player is what I enjoy the most. I played LAN battles when I has in college, but I just don’t enjoy playing online.
20. What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
It’s hard work. Be ready for it. Work smart, learn new skills, work on the games you will truly enjoy working on. Yes, we have to take current trends into consideration, but we are here because we want to work on what we like, not on what trends tell us to work on. Otherwise we could have gotten a job somewhere else, work up to 80 hrs per week, quietly hate our job and hope that one day, we will become indies to do it all over again. Right? Wrong 🙂 If you like story telling and you like single player games, do that despite that big companies switch to free2play model and microtransactions.
We would like to thank Alex and the rest of the crew for giving us a great interview with deatiled information. You can pick up Episode 1 for free here.