Blockade Runner Interview

Conducted By Adam Ames

Aaron from ZanMgt, developers of the multiplayer FPS space adventure, Blockade Runner, took some time away from coding to participate in an e-mail interview with TPG.  You will read about the origins of Blockade Runner, the successes and failures in creating the game, and get their opinion on the world of PC gaming.

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

We’re a group of siblings ages fifteen to twenty five who grew up together building games; card games, board games, computer games, games on the playground, games with legos, games in the sandbox – anywhere rules could be added to make something more fun!

Our individual roles can fluctuate, with Zack, Nathan, and Gabriel handling the majority of the game code and Aaron, Micah and Terah directed towards the game’s art & sound.  We all have at least some experience in each others field, so anyone and everyone can end up working together to troubleshoot a problem.

How did you get started in developing PC games?

We always had a fascination for how games were built. We’d learn different languages and work with on-line teams (teasms on the internet) to build and mod games, with two products in particular standing out as major influences.  Starcraft’s campaign editor in 1998, and Mark Overmar’s Game Maker in 2000, both allowed us to make rapid prototypes and embrace the non-technical sides of game development, which ended up getting the whole family involved.

Where did the idea for Blockade Runner come from? You specifically mention Zach Barth (SpaceChem) and Markus Persson (Minecraft) as inspirations on your site. Tell us exactly how they helped in the creation of Blockade Runner.

Between large destructible environments and the potential to have a seemingly limitless number of in-world objects, Zach Barth’s Infiniminer back in 2008 just blew us away. Two major inspirations that came from Infiniminer was the concept of simulated liquids / gas within the voxel environment, and the realization that you could fuse destructible vehicular combat with a first person shooter — but instead could take place in spaaaaace! We were busy with other projects at the time, so whenever we had a free weekend we’d mod Infiniminer, adding new game mechanics and testing out algorithms for cellular automata, and put “Space Infiniminer” on the backburner.

Having followed Minecraft’s development since its beginning, we were immediately intrigued with how Notch was able to fund the in-development game without any capital investment or publisher support.  By the time Notch implemented a procedurally generated multiplayer world into Minecraft, and in combination with the prototypes and modding of Infiniminer we knew it was more than possible to build Blockade Runner.

What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Blockade Runner?

We’re very glad the community pushed us towards weapons as early as they did, as suddenly people we’d show the game to seemed to understand what the game could become after the weapons were implemented.

On the other hand there was our previous pricing model, which despite our best intentions ended up too convoluted and difficult to explain, finally having to be swapped out for something simpler to understand.

In its current form, how close is Blockade Runner to your initial vision?

Even though at the moment you can only really see the basic building portions of the game, our vision for the game entails everything from strategic space combat where every bulkhead makes a difference, to blasting your way through evil troops inside the bowels of an enemy cruiser, or just keeping your starship stitched together as you chart new routes towards solar systems — and of course, quests to run the imperial blockades.

Before we get even close to the overall vision however, there are five major game elements that we’ll need to have implemented: the “living starships” (conduits, oxygen, powerlines, etc), robust first person and vehicular shooter gameplay within and outside of the starships, a procedurally generated portion of space with quests and missions to perform, an extensive editor to make complex ships easier to create, and a basic form of our intended multiplayer.

Those five core mechanics will make up the initial “Blockade Runner” that’s taken out of Beta next winter, and we hope by then we’ll have enough support to continue to expand the game from there to reach our vision.

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 Blockade Runner and if you faced a similar challenge.

Trying to keep the game easy to play while in the early stages of the engine’s development has been a huge challenge, especially considering that a “feature” one release might be switched out for an improved version the next.

An example would be the 6-degrees of freedom (roll, pitch, and yaw) camera system; which in the hands of a newcomer is confusing and in some cases nauseating, meanwhile pros in the Blockade Runner community have no problem breezing in and out of starship — It’s a bit of a hit-and-miss.

The benefit to a public alpha however is that we can receive continual feedback as the game progresses to correcting areas that are obviously too complicated/convoluted before we get too deep into them.

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

XNA’s presented a bit of a challenge in terms of making sure everyone has the appropriate software installed, that’s for sure.  We recently added an installer to help facilitate the dependency distribution, but we’re now also considering OpenTK and SlimDX as alternative managed C rendering engines to XNA.

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

Trying to handle things like technical support, public relations, or marketing daily can be difficult when every member of the team could be spending that same time working on the game instead. It’s still a blast to be doing what we’re doing though, so we work our way through it. *grins*

How did you create funding for the development of Blockade Runner and did you receive emotional support from your family and friends during this time?

We’re funding Blockade Runner’s development out of our own pockets at the moment, but as we’ve increased sales we’re able to ease back on the outside income and allow the game to pay for its own development.

As for friends and family, everyone’s been very supportive even if they don’t always understand what it is exactly that we’re doing or what we’re headed towards. They’re always excited to see our progress as we go though!

How did you arrive at the pricing structure and pre-purchase perks for Blockade Runner?

We really like the “early adopters pay less!” pricing model that’s becoming fairly common for indies -it was obviously very successful for Notch with Minecraft, and we felt it was the best model for this particular kind of indie game. We’re also providing a “Lite Version” for users who’d like to try the game without paying, which simply has certain features disabled, so early adopters also get some shiny’s that others don’t get to play with.

The voting privileges are a perk we want to work towards, as we were very inspired by Nicholas Piegdon’s implementation on the website for his amazing Piano game “Synthesia”.  It’s really a fun and simple way to get users involved, and provides valuable feedback for “what’s important” for us.

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

The game’s still in early development, so there’s not really an alternative to this method at the moment.  All the same, in this modern day and age digital distribution simplifies the development process tremendously, where a simple upload is all that’s necessary to deliver the product.

Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Blockade Runner.

We aim to keep the game’s art and music style fun, and constantly look towards that “not-too-serious” tone you’d see from a Valve / Pixar / Blizzard product.  The game’s got a lot of serious elements to it, I mean, every part of the ship has a mass that’ll affect the way the ship flies, pretty serious, huh?  It’s rather tricky to keep the game from looking too moody or too cartoony, but we continue to try our best to get it somewhere in-between.

The music we’d especially like to have an 80’s/90’s videogame feel to it, where it’s not just an ambiance, but am integral part of the game.

Walk us through the process of developing the multiplayer component for Blockade Runner.

Multiplayer is still in the planning stages, but we’re very excited about where it’s headed.  A lot of the process at this point is taking our current engine and starting to look at how it’ll make the transition to multiplayer.

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

User feedback has been most helpful as a way for staying on the right path while we develop a rather massive game. It is very important to us that we stay connected to the community, and we try to keep at least one member of ZanMgt in Blockade Runner’s IRC channel.

How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Blockade Runner professionally?

We’ve noticed that most professional reviewers generally try to help games that they feel could be good during their previews, and so we’ve learned to naturally respect what they have to say.

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?

We’re very glad they’ve been continued after the first experimental tests, and would love to see other combinations of the games in the future.  We do feel that Blockade Runner is a little too early in development at the moment, but we may be interested in doing something like this in the future.

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

We’ve heard the defenses for both sides, but ultimately feel DRM (to the degree some companies are taking it) is not the solution to piracy.

Bill S.978 was introduced to the Untied 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 individuals outside of posting videos of Blockade Runner?

We try to watch every video that pops up for Blockade Runner, and are thrilled to watch others play the game for the first time. Whether the video’s good or bad, we have no problem with people putting up videos as long as ZanMgt is credited for making Blockade Runner.

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

We don’t mind paying a little extra for the developers to extend the game, as long as it’s not a matter of holding back content that was already done.

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 Blockade Runner?

We learned a lot from modding games, especially how well they work for experimentation with new ideas.  The game’s original developers had to constantly weigh what some crazy idea might do to the game, whereas when you’re modding you don’t necessarily care and can uncover some gameplay gems that may have gone unnoticed.

It’ll be exciting for us to see what others come up as we open more of Blockade Runner up for modding!

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

We’re still up-and-coming ourselves, but some good advice would be to hang on to your vision, and be persistent while listening carefully for what your audience wants. -End

We would like to thank all the gents from ZanMgt for the detailed answers and wish them continued success.  You can check out Blockade Runner on the official site. 

Follow ZanMgt on Twitter.

Follow TruePCGaming on Twitter.

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