Critical Mass Interview With James Barrie

James Barrie, from Manic Game Studios responsible for the indie smash hit, Critical Mass, was nice enough to accept an invitation for an e-mail interview.  You will learn where Critical Mass came from, life as an indie dev and his thoughts on DRM, DLC, piracy and more.

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

My name is James and I am one half of the team that worked on Critical Mass. My main focus was on Game Design, Art and Music. However, I did previously work as a programmer so I spent a lot of time debugging and designing the various systems in the game alongside Matthew the lead programmer.

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

It was a side project for a long time. We were both working full time when we started and after that we decided to set up our own company doing web development contracts. During that time we had started learning C++ and OpenGL and creating little mini games and prototypes to see what was possible. It was really just a natural progression from there that lead to us making Critical Mass.

3.  Where did the idea for Critical Mass come from?

We had come up with several ideas for a game that used blocks as it’s primary mechanic. We wanted to make something that was achievable so we decided to keep things as simple as possible. We had decided to develop one of the ideas further until we hit a wall about 2 months into the development of the game which lead to us abandoning the project.

It left both of us in a depressed state because we had spent a lot of time on something that just wasn’t going to work. It was at that point that we came up with the idea for the Mass and the rotation in 3D space mechanic. We prototyped it and gave it to a few people to try and they loved it.

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

We learned that as long as you learn from your mistakes and correct them, you haven’t failed. We make mistakes constantly but that is the process of development. You try something if it doesn’t work you try something else until you get it right. The key to the success of any project is persistence.

5.  In its current form, how close is Critical Mass to your initial vision?

It’s hard to answer that question because we didn’t start from a position of knowing exactly what it was that we wanted to make. The process occurred much more organically with us trying new things every day and seeing what worked and what didn’t. It was more a process of elimination than anything else.

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 Critical Mass and if you faced a similar challenge.

During development I would say that the majority of our time was spent on things like game balance and level progression etc. It was a real challenge because you have no idea how one person is going to play your game versus another. We had about 20-30 people test the game during the development cycle and we found very quickly that the game was way too hard for most people. By the time of release we had reduced the difficulty curve 6 times in response to tester feedback. We recently lowered it again about a week after the games release and this time we had some real numbers to work with, so now we think we’ve got it about right for the majority of our player base.

7.   Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Critical Mass would run on the various PC system configurations?

Yes, it is very difficult to determine what kind of system can run your game. We had a huge amount of problems on ATI cards due to their poor support of OpenGL in the past. We use streaming textures in the game to avoid loading screens and we had to write two versions of this system because of a bug in the ATI drivers that meant we had to transfer each texture in one hit rather than across multiple frames.

We are continuing to try to lower the barrier to entry for people with older machines. Currently we are working to allow for support of OpenGL 1.4, where as right now we only support 2.1 or higher. A lot of laptops are stuck at 1.4 and we would like to be able to support those devices.

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

I would say the two hardest things about being an indie developer are the lack of money and the constant uncertainty regarding whether your game is going to be successful. During the development of the game I was living on 100 dollars a week from money I had saved in my previous job as well as support from family and friends. It’s was an incredibly straining lifestyle and coupled with the long hours it was very hard at times.

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

We submitted our game for review once we had come out of the beta. At first steam rejected us because of a bug that prevented most of them from even testing the game. However, after submitting a new build with some additional features we were accepted for distribution.

By the time it came to integrating into the Steamworks API, we had already created our own achievements system for Critical Mass, so it was a pretty simple and straight forward process by that point.

In regards to our relationship with Valve, I’m not sure we really have one. Steam is a business like any other, they distribute our game for a share of the profits. That’s about as deep as it goes if I’m honest.

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?

On our own site we can set whatever price we like and hold a sale when we think it is appropriate. When it comes to Steam and Impulse we don’t have as much of a say as we might like. We are allowed to set the initial sale price but we are not allowed to initiate our own sales on those platforms. Also depending on the country, Steam and Impulse may charge tax on game sales. This is something we do not have to do on our own site.

In regards to whether the launch price was right for the market and this type of game It is difficult to say and it’s something we will be keeping a close eye on in the coming months.

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

I think it’s incredibly important for indie developers and without it I don’t think you would see the indie success stories we see today. I also think it’s the way forward for all games and that it is a great way to combat piracy as I believe that one of the main reasons people steal games is because until recently it has been more convenient to do so.

12.  Were there any plans to take Critical Mass to retail stores?

No, there is no incentive for us to go to retail. It would cost too much money for us to do it ourselves and so the only other option would be to secure a traditional publishing deal which comes with it’s own drawbacks including a very low revenue share. We are very much in favour of digital distribution and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

13.  Can you please talk about the reasons you did not release a PC demo for Critical Mass?

The main reason we didn’t release a demo initially was because we simply didn’t have the time to make something that we were happy with. It’s hard to give people the experience we want them to have in short amount of time a demo provides. It’s something we still are not entirely happy with, but as of right now the demo has been sent off to steam and should be available in a few days.

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

I don’t want to say it’s not important because it is. We really appreciate the feedback we have received so far and we have already implemented some changes to the game based on that feedback. Having said that there are some things you can’t rely on user feedback for, one of them being difficulty.

We had a few complaints after the release of the game regarding the difficulty and while it did receive some fine tuning, the majority of our player base were having no problems at all. It’s this kind of thing you need to be very careful about because often times the community paints a very different picture to that of the data.

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

We have had a lot of great reviews since the game was launched and I can’t say I’m not happy about it. I can say that as a game developer it is easy to invest too much in what reviewers have to say. In reality they don’t have as much impact on a games success as you might think.

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 am not entirely sure where I stand on the “Pay What You Want Pricing” model. I have seen it be both a huge success and a huge failure. We would be very interested in trying it out, the humble indie bundle was a huge success and we would love to have the opportunity to be involved with something like that.

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

It’s not a cut and dry issue as far as I’m concerned. Some companies get it right and some don’t in the case of Ubisoft. What I do think is that people shouldn’t pirate games. I don’t think that it should be acceptable just because it is easy or because it doesn’t “feel” like stealing. However, I do not believe that the solution to the problem is to enforce intrusive DRM on the paying customer.

I think the best way to solve the problem is to provide the customer with a better experience than the pirate. I also feel that there are more reasons for why people pirate software than just the obvious one of “I don’t have to pay”. Until people start addressing those issues I think that it will continue to be a problem going forward.

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

I don’t like DLC unless it was content created after the game was released as a way to improve or extend the life of a game. I am not a fan of the current trend where a developer will sell you a shiny new hat that was clearly developed prior to the games release for the sole purpose of generating income. It’s a disturbing trend and I hope gamers vote with their wallets on this issue.

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

I love indie games, I love all games for that matter. I try to play everything I can get my hands on for both enjoyment and to improve my understanding of game design. At the moment I’m playing a lot of strategy games such as Starcraft 2 and Frozen Synapse. I have also just picked up the 14 day trail for EVE Online and I’m enjoying that immensely.

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

My advice is be prepared for everything to go horribly wrong before it goes right. Put as much focus on the business side of things as you do the game development and make sure you enjoy what you are doing. It is a tough industry and the only thing that will get you though the challenges ahead is that passion for making games.

We would like to thank James for his in-depth answers and insight into what it takes to become a successful indie PC developer.  You can pick up Critical Mass the official site, on Steam and Impulse.

Interview conducted by Adam Ames.

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