The boys from MinMax Games are hard at work supporting their breakthrough title, S.P.A.Z: Space Pirates and Zombies, but were able to break away to discuss SPAZ in an e-mail interview. You will get their take on what it takes to be an indie dev, thoughts on DRM and piracy as well as how MiniMax got started.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of SPAZ.
Andrew: I have known that I wanted to make video games since I was ten years old. Working toward that goal mostly involved spending way too much time in front of the computer playing whatever I could get my hands on, and some math. I have been making games professionally for over ten years now, and it is definitely the only thing that I ever want to do. Over the years, games have gotten more and more big budget but also more generic and it was getting very difficult to get that old feeling of wonder from when I was a kid. The new indie games revolution is a real godsend.
Richard and I are both designers at heart and share that role equally and discuss pretty much everything at a high level, but we have enough trust that once discussed, we know that whoever is implementing something will do a good job and we don’t micromanage each other. We worked together for almost 5 years before starting MinMax and we probably have wifi connections into each other’s brain by now. Outside the shared design responsibilities, my main role is coding and scripting.
Richard: I started my game development adventure by going to a video game design school for 2 years. After that I landed myself a job at a big studio where I stayed for nearly 5 years working on mega projects. After a while you want to work on something smaller that doesn’t require a dev team of over 100 people. After I left, Andrew and I got together and formed MinMax Games.
We are both involved in the overall game design and there is quite a bit of overlap there in terms of day-to-day work. Beyond common duties, I’m the art and sound guy for the game.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Andrew: I have always identified myself as a PC gamer, although recently the line between PC and console games is becoming blurred. I do believe that there is no substitute for a mouse and keyboard. In my professional career, all of my work has been on console titles that were sometimes ported to the PC as an afterthought. The console market seems bigger and there are no compatibility issues, so console development is a no-brainer for a lot of developers. When we started work on SPAZ, our main goal was to make a game that we never saw anymore and really missed. We bet that there were a lot of old school disenfranchised PC gamers like us out there and it seems that we were right.
Richard: SPAZ is my first PC exclusive game. I had previously worked on big budget console games for a large company. With envious eyes I’d been watching the growing indie community on the PC market and wanted to get involved. When we started MinMax Games there was no doubt we were going to attempt a PC indie game.
Where did the idea for SPAZ come from?
SPAZ is a combination of concepts from a variety of games that we both loved and are rarely made anymore. Star Control 2 has to be the core that everything was built off of. We could not understand how the top down space action adventure genre could just die off, so we had to change that.
Diablo is also huge inspiration and we definitely needed loot and RPG style level ups. Then we looked at Mechwarrior II. All that customization, weapon variety, simulated physics, big explosions. Finally, we looked at Master of Orion. We needed that sense of exploration and research.
Designing SPAZ was a huge iterative process where we ended us throwing out more ideas than we used, but in the end it all came together and although SPAZ will feel familiar to any old school gamer; it also has a personality of its own.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing SPAZ?
The whole project has been a testament to “can we really do this”? To that extent the project has been successful. We’re still working to recoup the development cost, but things are looking good for the future. We’re very proud of what we’ve done with SPAZ.
If there is anything to learn from this project it’s to give yourself more time for just about everything. We consistently underestimated how long it takes to do everything ourselves. There is just so much work to do. Our small 6 month project exploded into a 2 year investment. There was no way we could have done this in 6 months, so our time estimations were a colossal failure. We wouldn’t say we should have done things faster, but next time we’re going to estimate the 2 years it will take to make a project like this from scratch. The details just take so much time.
In its current form, how close is SPAZ to your initial vision?
When we started, we knew that we wanted to make a huge epic space game. We initially designed several alien races including a plant and crystal based race. We ended up focusing on humans and a weird hybrid human/crystal/plant race which became the zombies. The universe we envisioned on day one would be unrecognizable in SPAZ now.
After we got the game up and running, we found that things are not always as fun as they seemed on paper. The game became sort of like a 3rd team member, informing us of bad design choices. The game changed so many times over the course of development it is hard to keep track.
Early on we had a big free roaming version that involved you flying in a direction for several minutes to reach other areas (insanely boring). There was even an initial tutorial that involved you winning events in a space carnival. We had to cut so much stuff that it sometimes brings a tear to our eyes, but the game is stronger because of it.
We are huge believers in iterative design. Getting away from waterfall development on a multi million dollar project is next to impossible with suits breathing down your neck, but when you are building a game on your own dime, you finally get to build it how you believe is right.
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 SPAZ and if you faced a similar challenge.
Ha ha, we are having that same issue. A lot of SPAZ is self paced, meaning you should flee and level up when you find something too difficult. Despite that, some gamer types don’t play this way, and they get a much harder experience than intended. We want these gamer types to enjoy the game too, so we will make some changes that let you play the game how you want. Adding difficulty options is high priority for our next beta patch. We’ll have the issue fixed before release.
The real problem with adjusting the difficulty is to make sure we don’t lose part of what we feel is the magic of SPAZ. Running into the occasional nasty roadblock is not a bad thing, and makes overcoming it all the sweeter. We do not want to inadvertently flatten the experience. Some of our best memories on SPAZ are overcoming particularly nasty warp gate defender rolls. We have both bashed our keyboards and danced around the room when that last ship that has destroyed fleet after fleet finally falls.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring SPAZ would run on the various PC system configurations?
We built the game on Torque 2D, which is a well established and stable engine to work from. We did push the engine quite hard and do some expensive things that tax the CPU quite a bit, so optimizations are something we are always working on.
Before we released the beta, we released a semi-public compatibility demo to about 400 users. Being a small indie developer, their way just no way to know if the game would work for people out of the box, and we couldn’t afford a launch catastrophe. That exposed a lot of issues where the game simply wouldn’t run on some specific configurations, which are all thankfully now fixed.
Thanks to the compatibility demo and the beta, the game is quite solid and we have fewer sleepless nights. We also relied on our fans’ ideas to help us improve the game, and they really came through for us.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Managing time has always been difficult. We were probably overly ambitious. SPAZ was only supposed to take six months, but it ended up taking two years. We loved SPAZ too much and we were not willing to compromise on so many things and the months dragged on.
We worked on the game full-time, which means we didn’t make a cent for two years. The money ran out after six months and then we needed to get creative, funding the project with home equity, and then the stakes became a lot higher.
Then we got into a real catch 22 because we spent so much time/money on the game that we had to make it better to ensure it did well, which made the game take longer, 20 goto 10.
We’ve both had to make some major life changes to survive long enough to finish SPAZ. The lack of security has been absolutely terrifying.
Tell us about your relationship with Impulse, Gamers Gate and Desura. How did making SPAZ available via these platforms come about?
We were initially distributed on Impulse, and they have been awesome to work with. GamersGate was originally going to come online at the same time as Impulse, but due to some contract difficulties with Impulse’s GOO DRM system as part of the Gamestop purchase we asked GamersGate if we could delay release on their platform and they kindly agreed. It was awesome of them really. If we had needed to delay further, we would have run out of money. When our first royalty check cleared last week we were pretty much broke.
Impulse took a great liking to us, and us to them. We actually remained their top seller for about six weeks and they had their website themed to SPAZ for about a month. It was amazing to see that reception after all of those uncertain days and nights. Our exposure on Impulse certainly lead to a lot of the previews that have begun to spring up.
Since then we have launched on GamersGate and Desura. Both sites have worked perfectly for us and our contacts have been great to work with. GamersGate and Desura representatives actually contacted us initially. We had meant to reach out to them, but they obviously keep a keen eye on the web and beat us to it. Reddit probably played a key component in them finding us.
Just today we signed a contract with Green Man Gaming and we expect our contracts to clear with Steam and Direct2Drive very soon. Nothing is official of course until we receive the final signed contract, but we are ecstatic none the less.
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?
Depending on the distributor, there has been some negotiation about price and royalties. Overall, we do have final say how much the game costs, but some distributors function differently and we have to approach each one in a unique way.
Finding our initial price point was a balance between being competitive with other indie games, and making enough money to survive. We spent a lot of time on SPAZ, and it takes over 20 hours per random playthrough. We think its well worth the $15 we are charging. Some people have even donated surprising sums of money insisting the game has a much higher value.
There is an expectation that indie games sell for between $10 and $20. Comparing SPAZ to a lot of the AAA titles we have worked on and played, there is probably at least as much game here, but it would be suicide to fight the current pricing trend for indie games. In the end, our goal with SPAZ is to make enough to pay for development expenses and have enough left over to develop another game, and for it not to be a rollercoaster of terror as we do so. Our goal at MinMax strangely enough is not to grow and instead to just work as a small team making 2D indie projects that we are passionate about.
How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?
Digital distribution has made indie development viable. Without it, we would both still be replaceable widgets X and Y on giant development teams. Neither of us has bought a hard copy game in ages. Buying games online seemed so strange a few years ago, but now it is completely natural. We love it.
The only downside of digital distribution for us is that there will probably never be a box with SPAZ on it that we can mount on a wall or see in a store. Explaining to friends and family that we build something that doesn’t physically exist is always a challenge. The first time you see your game on a shelf in the local electronics box store it is pretty special. Overhearing people talking about it is pretty cool too.
Royalties with physical distribution run around 30% whereas you get about 70% with digital distribution so there is also that.
Talk about creating the art style and level design for SPAZ.
Richard: Being one of the two people on the dev team, I had nearly free reign to make things look how I wanted. I knew right away I wanted a very abstract and colourful style to combat the gritty brown look we see all too often. Beyond having guide lines like “this ship has to do this” it was entirely up to imagination. As we slowly built up all the content, there was some rework of old assets to keep things consistent. There was quite a bit on the cutting room floor, but that’s part of the process.
As for the level design, a lot of it is generated procedurally, including some of the background elements like stars and planets. We use procedural systems all over the place to keep the variation high, and the workload down.
Andrew: When a new galaxy is generated in SPAZ, the computer rolls up its sleeves and gets building. A 200 star galaxy will average about 10 instances per system, so now we have about 2000 unique locations to build per game, too much to be done by hand. Each location selects elements like stars, planets, moons, space debris, road signs, asteroids, and nebulas and builds a unique and persistent locale. Then we begin distributing missions and warp gate defenders, linking star systems, placing star bases, and eventually we have a unique game for each player. All of this comes down to defining patterns for the CPU to work with and linking reasonable sets of art to use while building.
You released a PC demo for SPAZ in an age where demos are becoming scarce. What made you release a demo and was it difficult to develop one?
The demo has been great, and we estimate about a 40-50% conversion rate. We cannot recommend a demo highly enough for indie developers. If only we could get the demo into more people’s hands we would be all set. SPAZ has a silly name and we hear a lot about people passing it by thinking it is a casual game, or some quickie zombie cash in. One of our biggest marketing challenges right now is combating misconceptions about the game.
The demo is also great for the people who may be on the fence about buying SPAZ. We were confident our game was fun enough that people wouldn’t get their fill on the demo alone, despite having over an hour of content. After our compatibility demo release, we heard stories of people playing through a half-dozen times to get different missions and weapon drops. So far we find that most people don’t even finish the demo before purchasing the game.
Theoretically it also combats piracy a bit, as you can gauge if the product is worth your hard-earned money before you buy it. Any time we look into the piracy numbers on SPAZ it is just an exercise in depression though. Sometimes on a single site we will see more downloads then we have ever sold units. We thought that we ticked off all the check boxes. Small developer, fun game, demo, good price, activation only drm, but we were cracked about an hour after release. After two years of work, trying to make something special, it was heartbreaking.
How important is it to get instant feedback about SPAZ from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Feedback is very important to us. We check our social network sites and forums daily and have a huge amount of feedback to chew through. Being in beta, we rely on these people to tell us what is wrong, or broken. They have been our testing team. We couldn’t be happier with how active everyone has been in giving feedback. Without them, SPAZ wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is.
Every message on the forums gets read by at least one of us currently and all ideas and bugs are consolidated into a master list that we evaluate and prioritize. SPAZ takes so long to complete and there are so many weapon configs/play styles that there is just no way to tune it all ourselves. For example, we had no idea how absolutely devastating SRM launchers would become by the end of the game. We always considered them secondary weapons. They turned out to transform properly outfitted ships at the end of the game into engines of ultimate destruction.
The same thing happened with drones. We though they were cute sideline ships. Some people fell in love with them and now they are getting a huge facelift. Cloaking wasn’t good enough, fixed now, the list goes on and on.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review SPAZ professionally?
Huge Value. Despite being a niche appeal game, we do want to appeal to people who maybe don’t know they like 2D space games. We read every preview and review and try to improve on the things they didn’t enjoy as long as we can maintain the vision of the game. We even use translate functionality to read reviews in other languages, pretty much any comment we can get our eyes on gets read.
Reviews tend to be a lot more in-depth than most forum posts or emails that we get. When someone takes the time to really analyze what they liked and didn’t like it helps us a lot. Another major help are “lets players”. We are always scanning YouTube, looking for them. Hearing what someone is thinking as they are playing, while usually hilarious, is also great tuning fodder for us.
Review sites are our exposure to the world. Most also have comment sections underneath the articles and we read those too. The internet can be a cruel mistress though, with us usually taking negative criticism very much to heart, so be nice you anonymous bastards J
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?
Yes, that is something we’ve talked about a lot. Anything we can do to prolong the life of the game and get more people playing is a good thing for us. We hope that we can someday be a part of a bundle deal once SPAZ’s life cycle needs a bit of a boost.
Pay what you want pricing was a pretty ballsy move, but it seems to have paid off. If bundles were coming out monthly, the system would probably collapse and kind of crush the indie games market due to driving prices lower and lower, but as an occasional treat it gets a lot of publicity and is awesome.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Piracy is something we’re all going to have to live with unfortunately. No matter how many crafty coders you throw at the piracy problem, there are thousands more working to undo all that. DRM often punishes people for actually paying for the game, while the pirated version ends up being DRM free. This kind of makes the pirated version of the game the superior version.
We developed our own one time activation DRM, but we tried to keep its scope to an absolute minimum. You’ll type in your key once and that’s it forever unless you change computers. There has to be some minor level of protection to prevent ultimate casual sharing between friends, but beyond that DRM is pointless.
Consoles are by far the preferable development platform because of this, whereas the PC market is seen as dying. It seems that everyone these days has a computer, PC games are cheaper in general, and the games are more varied, but it is also damn hard to squeeze enough money to survive if it is so easy to simply download a cracked game instead of buying it. Eventually it will probably be just indies scratching out an existence and multiplayer games on the PC.
We know that for our next title we will have to somehow have some multiplayer or community components to the game to promote the game being purchased. It is really too bad in a lot of ways since all games shouldn’t “need” to be multiplayer to survive, but it seems the only viable option now. On the other hand, SPAZ is well suited to multiplayer, so the next iteration should have that anyhow J
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
DLC that is created before the game is launched is evil. DLC that is created after the game is launched but is relatively minor (I am looking at you horse armor) should be free as a courtesy to customers and to gain loyalty. DLC that is well designed and has had an honest effort put into it is awesome and prolongs the game’s life.
SPAZ will focus on old timey expansion pack style DLC, where you pay for an expanded campaign or get major game changing additions that took a decent amount of time and effort to implement. Anything that we add simply because we think it is cool one night after beer will be free.
Currently we are working on specialists, arenas, and bounty hunters all which could be DLC by today’s standards but all will be free and either be a part of our 1.0 release or come online shortly after.
What are some of the games or genres you like to play? Are you a fan of other indie developers?
Andrew: I like anything with a lot of atmosphere. Stalker, Fallout 3 and Oblivion are great for escapism. Deus Ex is probably my favourite game of all time, and with Skyrim and Deus Ex 3 coming online soon, I am a happy camper. The games that I really love are all oldies though. My top 7 are probably Deus Ex, Star Control 2, Fallout, XCom, and Master of Orion, Morrowind, and Mechwarrior II Mercenaries.
These days I definitely skew toward indie titles though. I played a lot of Rogue Survivor recently, Minecraft of course, Desktop Dungeons, Notrium, Stranded II, Terreria, and lots of Mount and Blade.
Richard: I’m a real sucker for building games like SimCity, Tropico, or Anno. I also like my RTS and hack’n slash RPG’s. As for indie games, I tend to play more indie titles these days than AAA games. Aquaria, Sanctum and Defense Grid are among some of my favourites.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
No matter how much time you think it will take, it WILL take 3 times longer. Try to manage your scope with this in mind. Get to the core gameplay as soon as possible. We found the game itself can take on a life of its own once you start getting it up and running. Sometimes things that sound awesome on paper are actually not all that fun, and that eats up time when you have to change things around a bit. Making a great game is an iterative process and there is no guarantee you’ll get it right on the first, second, or fifth attempt.
The most important piece of advice is build something that you love and want to play when it is done.
It was a pleasure working with MinMax Games. We would like to thank all who were involved in making this interview happen. After playing the demo, head over to Desura or Steam to purchase the full game.