4X Space Simulation Gem: Star Ruler Interview

Conducted By Adam Ames

TPG had the chance to chat with the the fine gents from Blind Mind Studios who talk about their space sim title, Star Ruler.  James and Andrew also speak on various topics in the PC gaming industry as well as life an independent game developer.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Star Ruler.

James: I joined up in Spring of 2009 and am mainly responsible for the sprites, quality assurance testing, GUI art, sound effects, some of the art and design direction, the marketing, the dialogue, and customer relations.
Andrew: I’m the lead designer and programmer, and I started the project roughly 4 years ago. I also manage the business and finances.

    How did you get started in developing PC games?

James:  I can trace my developer roots to ZZT, really.  I was really young at the time (8, I think) but trying to figure out what made the game fun and seeing if I could make something fun too was a passion of mine.  As I built levels and played games, messing with every level design software I could get my hands on, I started understanding more intuitively how levels were designed.  The first years were really shaky.  It wasn’t as easy as I thought to build a really fun and engaging map and I was never satisfied.  I kept pushing myself to be a better designer, to be more flexible and inter-disciplinary, and I never gave up.

Andrew: Back in middle school, I started teaching myself simple programming, mostly with javascript on web pages. I made a few simple games, and gradually moved on to more complex languages and systems. After entering college, I decided to start working on a ‘real’ game. I started learning C++, as well as general ways of designing and developing games. After making a number of small projects that never really got anywhere, but then…

   Where did the idea for Star Ruler come from?

Andrew: … I decided to remake one of my early javascript games, which I had called Star Ruler. Back then, it was a text-only, turn based game wherein the player controlled a single space station and proceeded to expand it over the course of the game, competing against a few simple AIs. From that point on, I came up with a lot of ideas to fit into a space game with a grand scale. It wasn’t until about 4 years later that I discovered my first 4X space game, Space Empires IV, that I realized that such a grand game was actually possible. It also showed me how well some of my own ideas would or wouldn’t work. Space Empires really guided the design quite dramatically in terms of pushing me more a more open-ended gameplay, and more modibility.

What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Star Ruler?

James: I think most of our failures came from inexperience, lack of funding, our willingness to fail, and a casual atmosphere of development but those also turned out to be a unique strength.  We’ve pulled 40+ hour weeks since the start for little to no pay and we weren’t ever burnt out, or frustrated, or paralyzed with indecision.  I think that’s our greatest success: not only pulling Star Ruler off despite only working online and having no real prior experience, but having fun while doing so, learning from our experience, and coming out stronger in the end.

Andrew: I think I really underestimated how difficult interfaces are to design well, and that’s hurt the game more than most of the other failings. Nearly all other problems come from our inexperience, as James said, and having to release early for lack of funding. As for successes, I think the sheer scale of the game, the ship designs, the customizability and the modibility are all great features that we managed to pull off despite our inexperience and lack of funding. Now that we have both, I personally can’t wait to see what sort of barriers we decide to break next.

In its current form, how close is Star Ruler to your initial vision for the game?

Andrew: It’s very close in a lot of ways. Some features, like diplomacy, really never got to where it needed to. Others that we wanted never even appeared, like espionage, or more interesting exploration. However, for the vast majority of the game, I believe we’ve hit our mark.

 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 Star Ruler and if you faced a similar challenge.

Andrew: There’s two different ‘difficulties’ in Star Ruler, the economic, and the military. Militarily, the game was far too easy on release, as the AIs simply couldn’t play the game well enough to keep up with a decent player. As the game changed and improved, the AIs continued to get worse as they weren’t properly updated to keep up with the changes. Once Lucas was able to release the updated AIs, that all changed, and they were too hard! I think we’ve finally gotten the AI’s difficulty ranges to a good enough level that most any player can find an appropriate challenge.

There’s also the economic difficulty, which has been a bit of a rollercoaster. Originally, maintaining the 3 key resources was too difficult – the economy would collapse in one resource and almost never recover. The secondary ‘mood’ resources were far too abundant, you could basically ignore them the whole game and have perfectly happy planets anywhere. Over time, we’ve tweaked and balanced the economy, and now it’s nowhere near as difficult to manage as before, but I still feel it’s lacking in appropriate challenge.

 Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Star Ruler would run on the various PC system configurations?

Andrew: In development we discovered issues with single-core machines locking up due to the multi-threading. After release, we’ve had a number of machines with mysterious issues that we’ve gradually solved or found workarounds for. There’s also the ever-present ATI Catalyst AI which just has no idea what our game is doing for some card and driver combinations.

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

James:  The money and the stress.  Not having enough capital to hire competent artists or developers really hurts everything:  Your profit; your marketing materials; your game itself.  You’re stretched over a lot of areas when you work on a game with just two people.  That creates a lot of stress.  Add to that this game’s failure could sink your whole studio and you’ve got a lot of pressure too.  Finding out how to overcome those, I think, are the key challenges to being a successful indie developer.

 Tell us about your relationship with Valve.  How did making Star Ruler available via Steam come about?

Andrew: At first, we were turned down by Steam for being similar to other products, though we never did find out what products they were referring to. We didn’t get a second chance, and mostly gave up on Steam. However, Something Awful and Facepunch, two forums where we had a fairly big following before and around release, knew about our issues with Steam, and had a bit of an email campaign toward Valve. Apparently they paid attention to those emails, and we ultimately got a request from Steam to put the game on their service, which we gladly accepted. Sometimes it’s hard to contact particular individuals, which can be frustrating, but our regular contact is great, and we don’t have any serious complaints about working with them.

  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?

Andrew: I don’t know how much I can really talk about that, but the game is being sold at the price we wanted. We did plenty of research, discussed the price a great deal internally, and had a poll on our forums for a while to decide the best price point. $25 seemed like the best middle ground between ‘cheap price’ and ‘cheap game.’

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

James:  It’s a big relief for independent developers.  Without a digital platform to sell products on, I’m not sure how most studios would survive without heavy loans, mortgages, and ten years’ worth of savings being put on the line.  It does have its problems and quandaries but I think it’s heading in the right direction for now with Steam and GamersGate and so on.  I’m more apprehensive at the potential future of streamed games (OnLive, etc.) as I don’t think that serves the customer better even though it solves the problem of “installation delay”.  Even then, SSDs also help significantly lessen that problem and are a future I’d prefer over stream-only media.

Andrew: It’s great: The approachability for developers, the low cost of distribution, the ability to rapidly update. Virtually everything about it is a boon to PC gaming. The main issue I have is with DRM, and while we will never put DRM on a game of ours, the distributors all have some form of DRM on the download itself.

The space sim as genre seems to have been neglected by developers over the last decade.  Why do you think that is and what led you to believe Star Ruler would sell?

James:  Personally, I don’t think interest in a genre itself truly ‘declines’; I think a person’s spare time to play games, the quality of games being released in that genre, and what’s necessary to play those games play much larger roles.  In that same respect, I don’t think space sim games have ever ‘declined’; I think the FPS and console markets boomed.  I think the real reason why we’re not seeing them is because publishers are too scared to invest and newer, smaller, developers don’t really know how to make the games succeed and publishers don’t know how to market them.

I think the same problem exists for the 4X market but I don’t collate those problems with market interest.  I think the market for space sims is as hungry (if not hungrier) than the market for 4X games.  It’s likely to be a smaller ‘splash’ market now because fewer people are paying attention (as they’ve “given up the ghost” so to speak) but I think if you can capture those people’s attention, you’ll find hundreds of thousands of gamers who were just waiting for a good game to come along to purchase.

The one area in which 4X and Space Sim diverge in this particular area, I think, is in controls.  Most gamers today won’t have a Saitek X52 Pro or a Cyborg 3D collecting dust in the closet; they’ll have a keyboard and mouse and possiblya gamepad.  So that’s the kind of controller your game needs to be slick with but having an option for those hard-core jockeys will just make your sales stronger in that group because they’ll know you care.  Freelancer recognized that issue and so did X3:Terran Conflict; their sales were stronger and their customers happier for it.

    You released a PC demo for Star Ruler in an age where demos are becoming scare.  What made you release a demo and was it difficult to develop one?

James: Because customers want them.  For people who are on the fence, who weren’t quite convinced by the screenshots and trailers, a demo is a means for them to confirm their suspicions.  We want our customers to be informed about what they’re buying, to really play it and make the decision to buy it. I think the more confident a customer is in whether they’ll have fun with a game the less they worry about buying it, especially if it’s for a reasonable price.  The demo was a bit of a headache to keep updated, but developing it wasn’t too difficult to manage.

Andrew: I can’t even fathom not releasing a demo if it’s at all possible. Due to our need to release before we were ready, we weren’t able to spare the time to develop a demo immediately after release, but it was a high priority for us once the major issues were out of the way. As most studios don’t have to deal with that sort of rush, I’m disappointed that demos aren’t far more common.

    How important is it to get instant feedback about Star Ruler from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?

James: It was important to us to build a community for Star Ruler and to listen to our customers, but we didn’t want to invade the more ‘personal’ spaces like Twitter and Facebook.  So we produced an in-game IRC, we gave an online message board for the game on our website, established a ModDB and indieDB profile and go out and interact with communities of gamers outside our own — something I don’t see often from most developers.

Andrew: Being able to see what the community thinks, ask them questions, and interact with them directly is immensely important. That community is what drives your studio in the long run.

How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Star Ruler professionally?

James:  If the reviewer put their due diligence in we treat their review as representative of the views of part of our customer base.  Additionally, those reviewers are going to be who customers are going to be looking at for whether they’re going to buy the game or not.  So a great deal of value as long as they’ve done their homework and have actual critique to bring.misunderstanding they had about the game.

   How do you feel about the various indie bundles and other promotions along with the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology?   Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?

James: I think they’re a very entertaining and interesting development of this digital distribution ‘era’ both as a developer and a customer.  We’d enjoy contributing to such a project but the HIB has requirements that Star Ruler would unfortunately be unable to meet at this time.

Andrew: I think “Pay What You Want” can work, but there’s a serious concern that you already have to be popular for it to be a practical option. I’d love to be part of the Bundle if we met the requirements, but I don’t think we would go that route on our own.

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

James: On piracy itself:  I don’t think there’s really anything we can do about it or should do about it as it’s an issue of law and copyright — we make games.  I’d much rather leave the pursuit of criminals to the justice system than don a black mask, some tights, and go on a vigilante justice spree — potentially destroying innocent lives in the process.  We find that DRM at best adds no value to a game, is circumvented easily, costs money and time to implement that could be spent on making a better game, and cuts off the customer’s nose to spite a pirate’s face.  In other words we find it unethical as a business to pursue as it at best does nothing and at worst actively harms our customer relationship.

Andrew: I always have the impression that studies into this – not ones done by the RIAA, mind you – show that the biggest pirates are also the biggest entertainment spenders. For those people who can’t afford entertainment, I don’t think stopping them from pirating is really going to help anything, and it really costs basically nothing to the creator in most cases. I do have a problem with pirates asking for support on our forums, as that does take our time away from helping actual customers, or improving our game. Considering how small of a ‘problem’ I consider piracy to be, DRM is almost entirely negative, and I oppose it almost entirely, and will never have it on a game I develop.

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

James: There’s certainly a market for downloadable content, and a consumer appetite no matter how begrudging on average, but I think we can and shoulddo better than our current implementation.  I think DLC can really add new life to a game if done properly much like Expansion Packs of ‘Ye Olde 1990-era games’.  Most DLC I see is far from even approaching that, which I think is a real shame for everyone involved.

Andrew: DLC as a concept is great. In practice, it strikes me as often overpriced, or containing far too little stuff of actual value. I think all I have to say is: Horse Armor.

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

James: I obsessively check Dwarf Fortress’ dev log every evening for updates but I’ve got quite a few indie titles in my collection: Minecraft, Mount&Blade, Cortex Command, Penumbra, Pathologic, etc.  At this point the indie games in my collection are beginning to outnumber the ‘industry’ collection, which I find interesting.  Are my tastes changing or is the games industry changing?  I play mainly offline singleplayer games (what is starting to be a lost art it seems) with nearly all the genres: Dwarf Fortress, FreeSpace II, Diablo II, DMC4, and so on.  When I do play online, I mainly play co-op or in support roles.

Andrew: I play most anything, besides sports and racing games. I’m a big fan on Unknown Worlds; I think I was probably the first person to buy their Sudoku game to help out their development. Unfortunately, I’ve had a few too many games queued up to play, and not enough time to play them all, so I haven’t had many recent games or studios to talk about.

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

James: Go big with that first game if you can afford to, and make it the game you’ve always wanted to make.  It’s better to go out with a satisfying bang than a pleading whimper and you’ll feel better about it.

Andrew: Get a group of people that work well together and all have a passion for what they’re doing, and go big. – End

We would like to extend our thanks to James and Andrew for offering those detailed and informative answers.  You can pick up Star Ruler online using Desura and Steam.  You can also order a boxed retail copy via Iceberg Interactive.

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3 thoughts on “4X Space Simulation Gem: Star Ruler Interview

  1. I am a fan of 4x space games ever since the first Master of Orion, I think I played them all…or at least all that were relevant in that period.

    This one is a true gem. Although some features are still missing, it has a massive potential to become one of the legends of this genre and if the patches keep making it better and better I hope in 10 years I’ll still play it, as I still play MoO2 sometimes.

    My hat is off to both you.

  2. Pingback: IndieGames.com - The Weblog Indie Game Links: Salvaging the Situation

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