Conducted By Adam Ames
TPG was given the opportunity to interview Dave Toulouse, creator of the indie MMO space sim, Star Corsairs. You will read about how Dave developed Star Corsairs, his take on the PC gaming industries and the financial struggles he overcame in creating an MMO.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Star Corsairs.
My name is Dave Toulouse, I’m 32 years old and I live in Quebec, Canada. Star Corsairs is a one-man project so I assume all roles related to the development of this MMO.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
It started as a hobby in 2005. My professional background is web development so I decided to use this to create a simple turn-based browser game named Ereptoria. Back then I really had no ambition related to game development. It was just a way to waste some time.
In 2007 it became a bit more serious. Like many people “I had an idea for an MMO”… A year later I was releasing this MMO named Golemizer which is still online today. I was coding at night and on weekends while still having my day job as a web developer. It was some crazy time in which I had little sleep but I was determined to get to the release of this project. I had no idea how to create an MMO so I had to learn a lot and improvised when required. Golemizer is a sandbox MMO with quests created by players, housing and dungeons built by players so it was quite some challenge.
This summer the economy knocked on the door and I lost my job. I decided to use all this free time I had to start working on my next project, Star Corsairs.
Where did the idea for Star Corsairs come from?
I’ve always been a sci-fi fan and just like the freedom a sandbox MMO offers you. I’ve always been amazed by what players in Golemizer were creating so I just couldn’t resist the temptation to repeat the experience.
EVE Online was a big inspiration of course. The only problem I had with EVE Online is that it was just too much for me. It always felt like a huge investment of time that was draining all the fun out of it. Of course I knew that I would never be able to create a game like EVE Online as a one-man team but I thought I could give a shot at trying to create the kind of open sci-fi game I would enjoy myself.
Obviously I’m alone so I’m taking baby steps here to add all the features I want Star Corsairs to have but I’m quite happy with how much I’ve been able to achieve in a few months. I’m of course still working on Star Corsairs (and hope that I will for many years!) and just to name one of the new feature I’m just about to add alliance space station that players will be able to deploy anywhere in the galaxy.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Star Corsairs?
For my first MMO Golemizer I created the whole server-side for it and it was a nightmare. I was in way over my head and while it was a great learning experience I knew I would never try to repeat the experience. So for Star Corsairs I went with SmartFoxServer and it was the best choice I could make. It just works. No nightmare, no headaches! I saved many months of coding that way and I’m sure that I could never have achieved anything better on my own.
As for failures well creating a real-time multiplayer action game is not quite simple when you lack the background and knowledge to do so. I did end up making it but it was the most difficult part of the project. I couldn’t just turn my head to ask a coworker about the solution as I was on my own so I had to learn everything myself. Once players can play the game it better works nicely otherwise you won’t get a second shot at it.
In its current form, how close is Star Corsairs to your initial vision?
It’s nowhere near my initial vision but it is well on its way. What I mean here is that I am the only developer on this project and making it exactly like my initial vision right from the start would simply be impossible unless I would spend another year or two on it. Unfortunately as an independent developer I can’t rely on anyone else to pay the bills while I work on this project.
So what I did is to prioritize what was required to make sure that Star Corsairs would be a complete and enjoyable game on release day even if it’s still far from my initial vision. I’m making sure that I’m building on a solid base as I know that I will keep on adding new features. It meant that I had to leave out some exciting stuff for now but that exciting stuff is now on its way. The nice thing is that players are now part of my team in a way. Just like I did with Golemizer players’ input plays an important role in the direction Star Corsairs will take. With no players there’s no MMO so obviously I need to make sure that the upcoming updates are interesting to them.
Basically I’m doing what every MMO developers are doing. I don’t know of a single MMO that stopped development past release day.
Some 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 Corsairs and if you faced a similar challenge.
What happened with Golemizer is that it took just a few weeks (if not days!) for players to know the game better than me. So for Star Corsairs I made sure that while testing I had a very hard time myself. I spend so much time working on games vs. playing them that I know players will be way better than me. In fact as I’m writing this a player is just about to reach the maximum level (40) just 4 days after release.
I must be careful though as 1 player reaching the maximum level in 4 days doesn’t mean the game is too easy as there are plenty of players that are far away from level 40. The good thing though is that levels are just a tiny part of Star Corsairs. It still doesn’t mean this player is the best or that he has the best spaceship. Skills only improve some stats related to piloting but don’t make a pilot by themselves.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Star Corsairs would run on the various PC system configurations?
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Star Corsairs.
Since all the art is done by me I had to deal with the skills I had. What I did is to avoid anything that would try to look too photorealistic. I went with a cartoony feel simply because that was the only way I was able to create something pleasing that would all fit together. Even the explosions have this cartoony feel which really gives Star Corsairs a unique look. All the sounds and music were bought from various websites.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Marketing. Getting the word out about your game. And as a MMO dev I even encountered some difficulties with media dedicated to indie games. For example I recently tried to get Star Corsairs on an indie portal but the website couldn’t handle games that are browser-based. It could have been an amazing opportunity for Star Corsairs but I must now forget about it. Another website is clearly letting devs know that they don’t review MMOs. It doesn’t mean that it would make a huge difference but it sure doesn’t help.
Once players know about your game then they are free to say if they like it or not but getting there is not as easy as it sounds and most indies have to deal with this issue.
How did you create funding for the development of Star Corsairs and did you receive emotional support from your family and friends during this time?
The initial development was all funded from my pocket. When the game was finally ready for an early release I launched a crowd funding campaign to help to pay for software and server licenses. For $5 or more people could name a star in the game which would be visible to all players. To this day I have been able to secure $600 this way which has been very helpful.
When it comes to emotional support my wife had an incredible contribution there. Ever since I decided to become serious about game development she has always supported me and I could not thank her enough for that. Brian ‘Psychochild’ Greenwas also of great support. He taught me a lot about how to manage MMOs and how to set up a viable business model. For 4 years now he’s always been there when I had questions, doubts or just needed to vent a bit. Indie devs are often lonely so having a fellow developer there to help you out is always a great thing.
Please talk about your decision to create an MMO and the challenges both logistical and financial you face when supporting Star Corsairs.
Creating an MMO as an indie and a one-man team is really not the kind of idea that seems to be a good one for most people. For me it’s just a matter of doing what I enjoy to do. Maybe one day I’ll have an idea for a single-player game but at the moment I just enjoy creating MMOs.
The first issue you have to face when creating an MMO is that you have a lot of ideas. You can ask any MMO players what they would like to see in their “perfect MMO” and they will bring you a ton of features. Well that’s no different for a developer. So the first thing you need to do is to admit that you are alone and that you won’t be able to create everything at first. This requires discipline as it’s easy to push back release for another month to have the time to add “just one more feature”. But with too many features you’ll just end up with more bugs once players get to play your MMO.
As for financial challenges I spent the last 4 months of development without any income since I lost my job this summer due to a lack of work. All I had were my savings so it means that you cut everything you can live without just to make it through. It was however my choice as creating an MMO requires a lot of time and I knew that if I was to find myself another day job that I wouldn’t be able to release Star Corsairs until maybe a year or more. So I had to be careful on what I would spend money for Star Corsairs. The expenses were the server and some sounds I bought from various websites. Everything else was created by me since I just couldn’t afford to hire an artist or a writer for example.
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?
I have complete control over pricing which is one of the benefits when you are indie. I based my pricing on another indie MMO named Dead Frontier which is a huge inspiration for me. I even interviewed its creator on my blog here.
For the most part, big budget studios no longer release PC demos while almost every indie developer does. Why do you think this trend is occurring?
Big budget studios don’t need to release demos because everyone is talking about their game anyway. They don’t have to rely on demos to make sales. Indies though don’t receive the same coverage so offering demos is a way to convince people they should buy their games. If you can’t read any review of a game then at the very least you’ll want to try a demo.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Star Corsairs from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
It’s my bread and butter. You do need to be careful though. For example just because some players might complain that the game is too easy (or too difficult) it doesn’t mean that it applies to everyone else. You have to back everything with metrics you are gathering.
But the one thing to remember is that without active players there’s no MMO. So you need to make sure that your action will please the majority of players otherwise they will leave and then new players will only find an empty world which is not quite appealing.
There’s a “report a bug” button easily accessible in the game which has been very helpful so far. It offers an easy way to players to provide feedback without having to bother with forums or anything else.
I also recently created a new section in the forums where I ask for feedback about upcoming features to player. It doesn’t mean that they make the final decision but it means that at least they get to share their opinion BEFORE rather than after a new feature is added. I still remain in charge of everything but receiving feedback from players is very important.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Star Corsairs professionally?
A lot. Not in the sense that they completely guide my decisions but the worst thing than a bad review is no review at all. If they actually take the time to review the game it means they cared enough to spend some time playing it and that’s what I’m looking for. Of course I enjoy more a good review than a bad one but so far I’d say that I was way more often ignored than I received bad reviews.
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
Tough call here. If indie becomes a synonym for $1 games then I think we’re losing credibility but the “Pay what you want” scheme is also a way to respond to things like $2-$5 sales on Steam for example. Like I said marketing for indies is not easy so that’s a way to make people aware that you actually exists. I did discovered new games and new developers that way so it does works I guess.
On the other hand though Star Corsairs is already free to play and I don’t receive nearly as much coverage as downloadable games that run such promotion from time to time. When it comes to MMO the rules change a bit. You are not compared to other indie games but to other MMOs. Since a lot of MMOs from big budget studios are already F2P then I don’t gain much visibility from it.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
I think they are just wasting time. I surely don’t approve of piracy but if you try too hard you get to a point where you even get on the nerves of honest paying players. The solution? Well make paying for games even easier than pirating them or just go online. Why would I waste time on some website trying to avoid hackers and viruses just to download some songs when I can just go to iTunes, click a button and listen to my song some seconds later…
As for getting online maybe we’re not quite there yet for all games but making it easy to buy games online is a start. Services like OnLive are also an interesting way to just remove piracy from the equation.
So basically I think that trying to fight piracy don’t get you anywhere. You just have to find new ways to bring your games to players that by their nature remove any possibility of piracy.
Bill S.978 was introduced to the United States Senate earlier this year which could make it illegal to post unauthorized copyrighted content on YouTube and other video sharing sites. How do you feel about users posting videos of Star Corsairs?
As an indie I sure hope they post a lot of Star Corsairs videos. I’d probably have a problem if someone else was trying to release a game using Star Corsairs assets but other than that I sure hope people will post about Star Corsairs as much as possible.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
Some people feel cheated about the DLC but the truth is that you can’t really know if you are being cheated or not. Would the content of the DLC be part of the main game if DLCs didn’t exist? Maybe the devs wouldn’t have bothered to create this content and would have released the same game anyway.
For me it’s simple. Did I enjoy the first release of the game? If yes than I’ll happily pay for DLCs if I can afford them. If not then why bother? I’m sure they keep track of the number of units they sold of the initial game and compare this number to the number of DLC units sold. If they notice nobody buy DLCs then they will stop offering them. If developers try to use DLCs as some tricks by releasing incomplete games then people will just stop buying these games. Sure some people will always complain no matter what but you can’t please everyone anyway.
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 Star Corsairs?
Modding keeps a game alive way beyond its initial life expectancy so if you can make sure your game can be modded then it’s for the best I think. I don’t think mods will ever be created for Star Corsairs as the whole game is played online but if such thing was to happen I’d be honored.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Do what you enjoy to do, keep your expectations realistic and don’t give after the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th times trying and so on. Make sure you are surrounded by people who support you as when it doesn’t quite go the way you want you will need them.
Becoming an indie game developer is as simple as finishing your first game so go do that now! Stop starting new projects and finish one. So many people have ideas but so few are actually doing anything to make those ideas become reality.
Always keep in mind that the first thing that will come at you once you release a game is critics. It’s part of the job. Learn to live with it. It will feel unfair but that’s what happens when you actually do stuff. Others get to look at it and everyone has an opinion. -End
We would like to thank Dave for offering his detailed thoughts on how a one-man show was able to develop and release an in-depth MMO.
Follow Dave on Twitter.
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