The fellas from Totem Games agreed to answer some interview questions via e-mail about their naval combat series, Ironclads. They talk about developing Ironclads, researching historic naval information, piracy, DRM and DLC.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Ironclads.
My name is Maxim Ferapontov. My brother and I, Oleg, are behind Totem Games. Ironclads – this is our common work. I am responsible for the gameplay, and Oleg for all technical issues and programming. We both were responsible for the entire project and do different things. For example, I drawing interface. Oleg participated in the creation of the combat system. Everything in the game, except the ship 3D models and music made by ourselves.
Hello, my name is Oleg Ferapontov, I am a senior programmer of Ironclads.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Ironclads is our first experience. Until then we just played games, but never developed. First, we decided to make a computer game. We did not know what. The genre was chosen by process of elimination: the game was not to be too expensive, too complicated or too long to develop.
I’m interested in games as a developer while still in high school. In the beginning it was just a modification of the games. I dabbled in various occupations, but stopped on programming. When I got enough experience, I decided it was time to do something on my own. My brother has supported my idea. Then we have organized our team.
Where did the idea for Ironclads come from?
We decided to start a project that would be able to finish. Naval simulator went well under that requirement. It was necessary to choose an interesting period and theme. We believe that this happened.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Ironclads?
The main success is that we created a game that is interesting not only to us, but to a lot of others. Unfortunately we could not to realize all our ideas, but we hope to do this in the following games.
The main failure of the first game (Ironclads: American Civil War) was a turned based mode. The battles were very long and sometimes boring. This experience helped us. In the next games (Ironclads: High Seas and scenarios) battles take place in real-time with the ability to pause battles.
It was hard to learn how to develop the game, there were many moments when we did something wrong. For example debugging games in the final stage just as complicated as working out.
In its current form, how close is Ironclads to your initial vision?
As I mentioned above, the first game is very different from other games in the series. In our conditions it is difficult to make the game in general. So something changed in the course of developing dangerous. We fully comply with our original plan. While working on the game we’ve seen a lot of room for improvement, but did not change anything. In our situation, every reasonable improve next project on the basis of previous completed. If we did not follow the original plan, the development of the games would have continued to this day.
On the other hand the most important moments of gameplay, we thought and tested in advance. I remember when we were crawling on the floor on a large paper map, and played the naval battles to try our combat system.
Now we have many new ideas about how to improve gameplay of naval game. We will implement this vision in our next projects, which will continue a series of Ironclads.
We very much hope that our future games will enjoy a greater number of players.
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 Ironclads and if you faced a similar challenge.
At all stages of development, we have attracted volunteers for testing. They were people of different ages from different countries. Some of them are doing their job responsibly so that we have made the game can be played by anyone who is interested in this topic. In our game there are no difficulty levels. Instead, we have three levels of game dynamics. The dynamics of the biggest problem the battle between the ironclads, so we have accelerated some aspects of the battles on the arcade and normal settings.
We must admit that we blindly followed the experience of our colleagues. You will be hard to get a satisfactory outcome of the game, if you’re not familiar with the rules of naval warfare. But we created a game for those who are willing to learn these rules and apply them in practice.
Our games has a fairly simple controlling, you may think that it is a game “just for fun”, but it is not. We did a simulation of naval combat in a period of American Civil War. We just do not believe that the complex gameplay should have a difficult controlling.
In general I would say that in our game difficulty level is only one and no needed more.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Ironclads would run on the various PC system configurations?
Of course, we faced a challenge of run game on different configurations. This is a major problem on PC platform. I want to thank all our players who have helped us solve the problem running the game after release.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
It is difficult to convince family and friends, it is not just a hobby. In Russia not many people understand that computer games make a complex and demanding job. To be honest no one around could not believe that we can do something. Now disbelief gave way to amazement and even anger. Very rarely people earn money in this business that they like. We love our work. We love our customers. It’s great now, but even parents are always asking me – why I no longer work as a lawyer.
If you do not take into consideration long working hours and personal risk of the entrepreneur, the life of an independent developer has many positive sides. I get great pleasure from the work, not many people can boast that. I can not even call it work, I can call it art. Although I often have to deal with inventions.
How did you secure the maps, documents and other material to make sure you were accurately re-creating the battles seen in Ironclads?
historical monographs – for example:
The Old Steam Navy: The Ironclads, 1842-1885 by Donald L. Canney,
Buques de vapor de la Armada espanola: Del vapor de ruedas a la fragata acorazada, 1834-1885 (Spanish Edition) by Jose Lledo Clarabuig,
Birth of the Battleship: British Capital Ship Design 1870-1881 by John F. Beeler,
and more than 20 books in 5 languages, even get them out of Russia was a very big problem.
special literature – for example:
The War-Ships and Navies of the world, by chief-engineer J. W. King (published in 1881),
Calculated tables of ranges for navy and army guns with method of finding distance of an object at sea, by W.P. Buckner (published in 1865),
The Naval Annual, 1891, by lord T.A. Brassey (published in 1891).
These and other similar books in digital form are available online and is very good. I am very grateful to the people who carry even such special books in digital form.
We used drawings, maps and other materials from the archives of the United States, Russia, France, Denmark and Germany. I understand that contain archives of expensive, even more pleased that the National Archives of France and Denmark have provided the materials of interest to us very quickly and completely free.
consultations with specialists:
I talked with people on the historical and naval forums and found the contacts with authors of books. I even managed to help a wonderful author William Worner in search of material for his new books. In testing our games involved a professor of history from University of Hawaii at Hilo. I was even surprised at how easy it is to communicate with such people. We were assisted by military experts in naval artillery and naval architecture. We can say that it was an alliance of people dedicated navy and history. If you can not do something yourself, find someone who will be interesting to do it for you.
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?
We sell the game on multiple digital distribution portals. On average we get 50% of sales. In some places we have complete control over the price and we ourselves can add new games to market. In some places (like Steam) all the conditions dictated by the publisher. We do not at once choose the best price for Ironclads. Initially, the price was too high. Then too low. We must find a balance between price and sales.
How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?
Digital distribution is the only opportunity to offer our game a large audience. This keeps the creative independence and the opportunity to experiment with the gameplay. In addition the developer and publisher are not at risk. If the game is successful, then everyone is happy. And if the game was bad, then the developer has another chance. Without digital distribution, many of our customers would not be able to know about our game. Disc publishers can not take risks with innovative games.
When we planned the first game, we wanted to use only digital distribution. We are now talking with you only by the growth of digital commerce. The fact that our game is published on the disks is pleasant surprise.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Ironclads.
Historical game should look like this to help the player to feel the spirit of time. Each element of the interface should be simple to understand. I am opposed to unnecessary complexity in the marine simulator. You can not force the player to read the old boring book to understand the meaning of naval tactics and the control of the ship.
We had no problems with level design. We used historical maps to create a landscape. Harbour is modeled on the old black-and-white photos. We did not need to invent anything or to change. Our objective was to restore the historical reality. Ship models were created according to archival drawings and photos. In general, an 3d artist did a great job and became an expert in the history of shipbuilding and naval architecture. I should add that when we started we could not distinguish between a cruiser and the gunboat, and now we can tell a lot of ships on a piece of photography.
You released a PC demo for Ironclads in an age where demos are becoming scare. What made you release a demo and was it difficult to develop one?
We released a demo to attract the attention of potential testers. The demo was a test of the technical side of our work. We were able to fix some serious bugs. In addition, we wanted to give the opportunity to take the decision to purchase based on impressions from the gameplay, but no screenshots or videos. I do not want to sell as much as possible. I want to sell to those who would be interested in playing our games.
There is no problem for the developer to create a demo version of the game. There is a problem that you can get a bad reputation if the demo version has been downloaded by not the target audience. But the beginner there is little choice.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Ironclads from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
It is very important. We try to analyze all the views of our games. We discuss important and useful points. Sometimes I enter into a dialogue on the forums, but sometimes useful just to read and remember.
We constantly monitor public opinion on the game. We collect data on positive and negative moments of the game. Very often, players can tell such gameplay elements that make a major change in plans for future projects.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Ironclads professionally?
A professional can spend more time analyzing your work, see some important stuff. The main difference between a professional review of the views of ordinary consumers that a professional can explain why he liked something, and something needs to be altered or removed.
Professional will always say how it really is, without prejudice. It is very important.
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?
It would be interesting to try, but we have no such technical possibilities. Our game is for a different audience. Maybe it’s a good idea and should think about it.
When you have nothing to lose you can do what you want. Most of the games from Humble Indie Bundle successfully sold before they been released in this assembly. For a normal game is important to plan price for had the resources to produce the next game.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
DRM does not protect against pirates. So to do something different. This is a very complex issue of confrontation interests of developers, providers and users. Need to create an environment in which piracy is not economically viable. Everything else is useless.
If it were possible to penalize a person who illegally playing in your game, DRM would not be required. Internet is still quite difficult to control, everyone has to take care of their rights. Intrusive DRM is the most workable method.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
People buy the downloadable content. So it works. The more interesting downloadable content, the more chances to sell it. This is not a matter of ideology or attitude. If you like – you’re buying. If you do not like it – do not buy it. Nobody forces.
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 mods created for Ironclads?
We are starting with modding (Civilization 3 and Neverwinter Nights). This is a good way to understand how it works. This makes it possible to assess their own strength and learn how to plan work at all levels. Modding makes it possible to verify some idea of gameplay.
User-friendly editor is difficult and expensive. I hope that in the following of our projects, we can give the player the ability to modify the gameplay and add something new.
I am very good attitude to the modification of games. I myself have done this in my youth. But now for the Ironclads we can not provide an adequate level of modification kit. We ourselves were not easy to work with our creation in some places.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Think carefully about everything before. Be prepared to learn a lot and make mistakes. Look for like-minded people. Do not be afraid of difficulties. I wish you good luck.
It is very difficult to create a game, but even harder to sell it. Before you make a game, think who your audience is and how you will carry the game to these people. – End
We would like to thank Maxim and Oleg for answering these questions and giving us a taste of what it is like to develop such a great and detailed PC gaming series. You can pick up Ironclads via Steam.
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