James and Alex from Boss Baddie had a few moments to spare with us and agreed to do an e-mail interview about their indie hit, Really Big Sky. They speak on many topics including DRM, piracy, life an indie dev and how Really Big Sky came to be.
1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Really Big Sky.
James: I’m James, I run the show more or less! I love long walks in the forest, the smell of rain on dry ground and Coke Cola (still waiting on sponsorship).
Alex: I’m Alex (also known as MrPineapple) I basically serve here as resident musician, tester, idea-disliker and general underling.
2. How did you get started in developing PC games?
James: I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t drawing out imaginary NES games or playing with AMOS and The Shoot Em Up Construction Kit on the Amiga. Everything just gradually progressed to Klik n Play, some dabbling with Visual Basic and Flash.
Alex: I ‘met’ james on a forum about 10 years ago, back when i used to make amateurish games of my own. We somehow ended up working together. Best decision ever, I just stick to what I’m good at. See, I was really just a musician with ideas above my station!
3. Where did the idea for Really Big Sky come from?
James: After Wake I was trying out various arcade game designs, I’d just found out how to make online scoreboards and really wanted to go to town with them on our next game. And I was always a fan of the shmup genre, I made a couple of (crappy) freeware ones years ago called Titan Exodus and Titan Omega which were inspired by the classics of my childhood.
4. What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Really Big Sky?
James: If you’re going to do something – put everything into it. No half measures. Big Sky was a half measure, Really Big Sky was like a pint of full fat milk.
Alex: Well i would like to hope that James has learnt not to employ the services of any other musicians besides me! Personally I didn’t learn anything.
5. In its current form, how close is Really Big Sky to your initial vision?
James: It’s miles from it! It’s silly how different the first idea was. “Let’s make a twin analogue shmup, but you also drill to get powerups, YEAH”. The whole game was based around that concept – you’re either shooting or drilling. No bosses, nothing. It was close to Geometry Wars originally but you really have to pull it out of the bag and stand on the shoulders of giants. What was a relaxing weekend project after a wedding (not mine!) turned into a 9 month long baby. Hmm!
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 Really Big Sky and if you faced a similar challenge.
James: I hoped to get around that by having scalable difficulty. Start easy, end impossible. But easy wasn’t as easy as it should be, and after all you can’t make a game too easy. So we balanced the hell out of it – quite literally. Version 2.03 on easy is a walk in the park. And hard is a walk in the park with people firing lasers at you.
Alex: This is where having 2 or more people involved helps a lot. What James finds a cakewalk in the park i might find absurdly difficult. And I tell him so!
7. Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Really Big Sky would run on the various PC system configurations?
James: The tech we’re using is quite dated and doesn’t support tech like Xbox controllers and shaders out of the box. There are various extensions and updates to get those in but we really had to optimise it and test on so many levels of systems. My dev machine at the time was a 2ghz iMac from 2006, I figured if that machine can run it then it’s fine. High graphics settings was just a theory until I got a new iMac.
8. Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
James: Getting your product out there and seen. You can create a game that is highly rated but unless you have a name for yourself or Notch on your side – you aint going nowheres.
Alex: paying the rent.
9. Tell us about your relationship with Gamers Gate and Impulse and how making Really Big Sky available via these digital distribution platforms came about.
James: Gamersgate are really ace for indies, Impulse will listen to you if you have a great product. Before these chaps we used to sell our games from our site and that’s just another level of maintenance to deal with. It’s much better to create something and have someone else sell it for you. Still waiting on Steam news.
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?
James: I’ve never liked to price games too high. After all they’re just disposable entertainment – I don’t play many games so I don’t like to spend a lot of money on them, and I figure that I can’t be the only one with that mindset.
11. How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?
James: It’s brilliant! We can work on the game and updates and not worry about the post-development phase. To the next game! I also suck at marketing and they don’t.
Alex: None of this would be possible without it!
12. Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Really Big Sky.
James: I don’t have a consistent art style and really wanted to do something outside of pixel art for once. Early on I was visually inspired by crop circles and wanted to transfer that over, but you only really notice it on bosses and the fat enemy.
Alex: RIght so, the music. Something i know about at last. James originally used a track by someone else for the first Big Sky, and when we started work on Really Big Sky I came in to take up the slack, matching the tempo and feel of the other song and pretty much expanding on it. Not to mention bonus unlockable tracks. We Also added all that silly narration to just give it another level of audio intricacy.
13. You released a PC demo for Really Big Sky in an age where demos are becoming scare. What made you release a demo and was it difficult to develop one?
James: It was the first game we released a proper demo for just because there was so much content that it was easy to siphon off a section and call that a demo. Countdown Mode was perfect for demos – it’s faster paced than other modes and is limited to 2 minutes. It’s exactly the same in the full game with nothing removed… well the same as the original Really Big Sky before the content updates.
Alex: We have had the odd hater thinking we were being presumptuous by not giving people a chance to see what the game is all about before they pay their couple of quid.
14. How important is it to get instant feedback about Really Big Sky from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
James: It’s not without merit, but what’s really pushing us with ideas for updates are the analytics. We’re able to see where people fudge up and adjust accordingly. I mean it doesn’t tell you where the bugs are, but I guess that’s what the Facebook fan page is for.
Alex: As useful as my feedback i give at the beta stage probably is my suggestions can only be as useful as my limited knowledge of what the average player would want. Therefore message boards and social networking sites are good.
15. How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Really Big Sky professionally?
James: When it comes to updating our games we always look at what reviewers are saying, what the market is doing, what players are saying. But you have to know who to listen to.
Alex: See above answer!
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?
James: Even if they wanted our game we’re currently locked to PC-only since we currently make our games in Multimedia Fusion. I think they require Open Source titles, I dunno. We used to have a Pay What You Want pricing scheme but it’s just more maintenance for us. But hey we’re up for anything, especially charity work. Back in June we donated 100% of a weeks sales to the Japanese Red Cross. Since we’re just a tiny team in England it’s all we could do.
17. What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
James: DRM turns me away from games. I’ve never willingly bought a game with install limits, and I’ve probably missed out on a few great games because of it. What’s worse is DRM doesn’t even stop games from being pirated, it just harms regular customers.
Alex: Install limits are the devil’s winky!
18. How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
James: It’s overdone, or at least on consoles. It’s got to the point where I don’t buy games new and instead wait until “complete” editions. I’m a firm believer in buying a complete game, and if it’s not complete then at least bless us with free content updates until the game really is done. Really Big Sky isn’t done – we’ve got too many ideas and plans for it.
Alex: DLC is great if it’s free. Then it’s like a gift from the developers for loving their game so much. Adversely if it’s a game you haven’t, or don’t intent to play to death it can seem a daunting amount of content to get through. Still more stuff is better than less stuff i suppose.
19. Recently, there has been a lot of talk about modding of PC games and the relationship developers have with modders. How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Really Big Sky?
James: That’s something we would have had to put in at the start of the development process. Everything is internal and locked away. But would I love to see mods? Possibly! There are some mad creatives out there, but I’ve always thought that if you’ve got the obvious talent and skill to mod a game… why not make your own? And make a few pennies in the process?
20. What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
James: Personally I’ve always wanted to make what I want and disregard what the market wants. Really Big Sky was a compromise in that regard, and the results were pretty damn good so, find a happy place where you can build what you want and what others will like. Don’t be afraid of publishers too… there’s a lot of anti-publisher stuff in the Indie scene but they’re not all bad. So um, be creative and business minded. And fill sketchbooks. They’re only cheap and make for great mementos.
Alex: keep at it, don’t expect to become a billionaire out of it.
We would like to thank Alex and James once again for giving us a look into the life of PC inide development. You can pick up Really Big Sky from GamersGate and Impulse. You can also try the demo here.
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