Solar 2 Interview

Jay Watts, creator of the great indie PC title Solar 2, offers detailed insights on DRM, DLC, indie development, the origins of Solar 2 and much more in this e-mail interview.

1.  Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Solar 2.

I’m an Australian based Indie Game Developer, recently finished Uni doing a Degree in Biotechnology and decided to take my game development hobby into the big leagues. My role on the development of Solar 2 was everything, it was made by a one-man team, me. The only exceptions being audio which I outsourced and the promotional image.

2.  How did you get started in developing PC games? 

I was first introduced into making games in a compulsory project thing in High School, I enjoyed it but I decided to go into science for future studies. It wasn’t until years later at University when I picked up Flash and started toying around with it and found it was really enjoyable. I kept at it as a hobby and found success, so after I finished Uni I decided to focus on it full-time to see where I could go, and Solar 2 is the result of that.

3.  Where did the idea for Solar 2 come from?

Back when I was making Flash stuff I made a really powerful Flash RTS engine, the problem was it was too massive of a project and I couldn’t make a complete game with it. I decided I needed a much smaller project, something I could do all on my own, so I played around with some graphics (my weakest aspect). I found I could draw a really nice planet very easily, so I decided to make a game around planets. I added stars, asteroids and physics and many months of design evolution from that basic starting point finally ended up with the simple, sandbox gameplay I have today!

4.  What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Solar 2?

I think it’s a bit early to tell what the success and failures are at this point! Overall it’s looking very successful, although the difficulty of the missions and the shallowness of the sandbox haven’t really worked.

5.  How close is Solar 2 to your initial vision?   

Very close. I would of liked more depth to the sandbox mode but every time I tried to add things I found there was some niggling issue I didn’t like about it. Eventually I just got stuck, so I figured I may as well just release it. Seeing heaps of user feedback has been really refreshing, so that’s given me a new vision to work for!

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 Solar 2 and if you faced a similar challenge.   

Oh absolutely. One of the most common complaints with Solar 2 has been the difficulty and how frustrating some of the missions are. Which is strange to me because I find the missions too easy! I fixed the more frustrating missions and I have plans to make the missions easier by unlocked some of the physics modifying options at the start. Sadly difficulty levels isn’t really an option due to how the game works, I can’t just change health or damage levels, it’s all one big giant sandbox game. Changing masses or damage affects everything else and screws with the balance, so I have to just work around it.

7.   Were there any issues you faced in ensuring Solar 2 would run on the various PC system configurations? 

I optimized the game quite well so it would run on even very weak systems. I also set up my menus and gameplay to scale up and down to any resolution or aspect ratio. So with these two factors sorted, getting it to work on any PC configuration has been reasonably simple.

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

I guess worrying about income. There is no set salaries or company assets to fall back on, if your games flop then you have no money! I’m just glad that Solar 2 has given me a lot of breathing room and should cover my expenses for a good amount of time.

9.  Tell us about your relationship with Valve.  How did making Solar 2 available via Steam come about?  Also talk about how you created Steam Achievements.

I simply sent Valve an email submission for Solar 2, with an early Alpha build and some stats for how well Solar 1 has done. I’m not sure what they liked, but they liked something and they approved right away! The game has had an achievement-like system in it since it started, in fact originally the game was going to only have achievements for completing certain goals in the sandbox and no structured missions at all! Eventually though I didn’t like that, especially since at least half of them were just grinding. I added missions, took out all the grinding achieves and replaced them with achievements for beating missions in a more difficult way.

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 for Solar 2?

Valve were happy with my price I said of $10, although I have heard of them changing the prices with other developers. I definitely looked at other titles and it seemed that $10 was the accepted price for an average Indie title on Steam, so that was what I based my price on.

11.  How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?

Honestly I don’t have much experience with digital distribution platforms, so I can’t really compare. Steam has a lot of nice features for developers and a very solid system for delivering and updating content, which I’ve enjoyed working with. It’s well matured with a lot of features for both developers and players.

12.  Were there any plans to take Solar 2 to retail stores?

Certainly not! As a little indie trying to sell my game through retail would be virtually impossible, both for the logistics and for making a game good enough to really profit from retail store purchases. The truth is that I can only exist as an indie game developer is due to digital distribution platforms, otherwise the barrier for entry is far too high.

13.  You released a PC demo for Solar 2 in an age where demos are becoming scarce.  What made you release a demo and was it difficult to develop one?

Solar 2 is a very unusual game and the gameplay doesn’t come across very well in the images and videos. I needed to give people a taste of what the game was about so they could tell if they liked it or not, so the obvious solution was a demo! I always like demos and I find it disappointing when there isn’t one, I intend to put a demo in every game I make. With no levels, Solar 2 was a little tricky to decide what to do with the demo. I wanted people to have unlimited play in the sandbox though, and to counter that I removed all access to the missions. In hindsight it might of been nice to add a few missions just for a taste of what they are like, but the demo seems to have done really well so not really anything to worry about.

14.  How important is it to get instant feedback about Solar 2 from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?

Very important! I listen to feedback very closely and respond to all feedback I see, as you can easily tell if you head over to the Solar 2 Steam forums. I don’t plan to change the entire game just because some people don’t like it, but there’s always bumps that can be ironed out and made smoother. The game has only been out for a week but I’ve already released several patches adding or changing content based on the suggestions of users, and I think the game is much better for it.

15.  How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Solar 2 professionally?

I’m not really bothered about the credentials of the person doing review, I’m more interested in the feedback they present and how well they justify it. A well justified amateur review can be very helpful! I’ll happily accept criticism if there is a good reason for it, and usually the professional reviewers are very thorough and well balanced, so by thinking about it like that then yes, I do value the professional reviews.

16.  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?

I think it’s a great idea. I’ve heard from people who didn’t feel the $10 price for Solar 2 was justified, and other people who said they would of gladly paid more for it! So “Pay what you want” can help to balance that out and ultimately leave the player more satisfied with the money they have spent. I would be interested in a future humble indie bundle, although I’ll need to port the game over the Linux and Mac first, and that’ll be interesting!

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 intrusive DRM works at all. It just annoys the players, and no DRM is 100% perfect so exploits will be found and it’s pointless. There is an easy way to fix it, you have to have the players invest time in data or information that can only be stored in places you (the developer) can control. An example is leveling up a character in an MMORPG, if the player wants to play they need to pay money for an account to access the servers where the character is stored. They can’t pirate the game because the developers ultimately control the servers and the data, so without access to this stuff there is no game. I’d like to see more developers doing things like this (positive features) rather than DRM (negatively locking things).

18.  How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?

DLC can be a great thing in the hand of a good developer. I thoroughly enjoyed the Dragon Age: Origins DLCs, adding much more content and levels for me to keep exploring and playing with my character. The problem is when developers use DLC as a way to charge extra money for things that should of been in the core game anyway! As a general rule I think new game mechanics and modifications that change things should just be free and new levels and campaigns that add new things can be paid for. Releasing new free content is always nice though, and should boost user sentiment and ultimately sales anyway.

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

I’m not a huge gamer, I spend far more time developing than actually playing. Games I’ve enjoyed recently include: Left4Dead 2, Portal 2, Halo series, Peggle, Sins of a Solar Empire and Machinarium. I’m a fan of Edmund McMillens work, thatgamecompany and Tom Fulp and the Behemoth.

20.  What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?

Play to your strengths. Don’t try and work on something you don’t like or you aren’t good at, you won’t keep working at it to practice and increase your skills. Not good at graphics? Constrain your game design so it doesn’t use much art. Can’t do music? Find someone who can. This is what I did with Solar 2, I have a lot of weaknesses as a game developer but I made sure that the design of Solar 2 wouldn’t use things I wasn’t any good at.

We would like to thank Jay for allowing us a peek into the development of Solar 2.  You can grab the demo from Steam here.

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