When A Hobby Becomes An Obsession: Void Destroyer Interview

Conducted By Adam Ames

Paul “Chaosavy” (pictured above with his wife) developer of the tactical space sim, Void Destroyer, took time out from coding to speak with TPG.  Paul goes into vast detail about his life as an indie developer, the successes and failures he has learned from, his thoughts on the PC gaming industry and much more.  Here is a sneak peek:

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

For me the toughest aspect is having the occasional thoughts and feelings that the project will be unsuccessful and/or that no one will like it or even find it in the first place; the thoughts to take the easy route out and to quit.  The positive aspect of these thoughts is that they connect me to other individuals past and present, the realization that to create something, usually, takes a lot of time and effort, these things cannot be avoided, even when creating a game, there is a lot of “actual damned work” work involved.

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

It is most accurate to say that I am the project and the project is me, it is both a hobby and an obsession.  Quite a lot of bug fixes have come to me while I’m washing dishes.  I remember sitting in an economics class and realizing that I can use it to tweak the in game economy. I started the project and it won’t be finished unless I do so, but it is important to note that I am far from having done everything myself, when you add in the teams from the rendering engine (Ogre 3D), the gui engine (CEGUI), the physics engine (Bullet) and other resources I’ve used in the project the programming team swells. The art is also something that I’m unable to create in quality that I envision; luckily there is a great artist on board as well.

How did you get started in developing PC games?

I wanted to brush up on programming in C++ in anticipation of a future college course so I thought that doing a game project would keep me motivated enough to stick with learning C++ after some past failed starts where the programming exercises in books became too boring.  So I started some experimentation with a rendering engine, I had no interest in coding how to draw triangles on the screen, instead wanted to get into the game logic.  I was also inspired by the indie game Mount and Blade, knowing that a small team made such a cool game boosted my already super human levels of optimism to new heights.   Ironically that college course turned out to be a Java course instead, about a year and a half later.

Where did the idea for Void Destroyer come from?

This is hard to pin point, but I think we should start with that I’ve always wanted to create a space sim.  Games like X-Wing/Tie Fighter and Wing Commander (among many others in this genre) have a special place in my heart.  Developing a space sim also seemed to be the right thing to do for a first time project, after all there was no terrain or animation involved, I drew the first models myself, they were a bunch of squares created via Blender (free 3D modeling software) that represented space ships.  As the project progresses I keep finding that space sims have their own challenges.  As to the actual game mechanics, I had a lot of rough ideas, no set design document, the project sort of grew organically and easily (in terms of ideas) because of the time I spent playing space sims and other games, there are a lot of ideas to draw upon.

What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Void Destroyer?

A project like this is full of moments of humility and mental self high fives.  From successes I learned the value of persistence, and love of development usually isn’t enough, the emotion needs to be stronger, more like obsession. From past successes I know that the only thing that is separating me from a finished game is time.  Successes are ever present, the first time I got the rendering engine running, the first time I displayed something on the screen, the first time that collision detection worked, to the AI finding a hostile target during a patrol around a station, destroying the target then going back to patrolling the area.  Failures are within those successes, a part of them. From failures I learned that I learn from failures.  Not seeing anything on the screen in those first steps with the rendering engine, the AI telling the ship to drift off into empty space after destroying its target instead of resuming the patrol. Failures are the prelude to successes.

In its current form, how close is Void Destroyer to your initial vision?

As far as the features, what I wanted out of a space sim, thus what game I would be making, always stayed very close: the ability to pilot any craft (with a wide variety of ship classes available), easily switch from ship to ship, the game not ending when a small fighter or even a large cruiser that the player is piloting is destroyed, a unique shield system (not just another health bar), a 3D map and the ability to command your forces using it, Newtonian physics that allow for dogfights, no set speed limit for ships, territorial conquest, a somewhat persistent game world, an upgradable command ship where the player’s in game avatar is located and lots of ships battling it out to create that epic feel.  Basically a merger of the space sim genre and real time strategy players can take direct control and battle it out ship to ship or issue orders, or both.

The game setting changed quite a bit from the initial vision.  The setting was to be a solar system, a central sun in the middle of the game map surrounded by planets, their moons, with other typical outer space features nearby (asteroids, nebulas etc).  The game world wouldn’t be zone based, but instead the entire solar system would be represented on the game map at the same time, so the sun and planets would be constant companions of the player.  It would be a space sim trading and combat game like the classic Privateer.  The trading sim aspect fell by the wayside when I decided that designing a complex system of base resources (eg: ore), intermediate items (eg: laser lens), and final items (eg: laser cannon) was not a good goal.  Other games (for example the X series) already do this quite well, so all I would end up with is a much poorer version of this, plus I decided that the economy aspect shouldn’t be so strong in the project focusing more on combat and tactics.  Instead I switched over to the more RTS like approach of only a few basic resources (energy, ore, food and crew) and bases generating these resources mostly automatically with the potential for mining asteroids so on later on.  This made it very natural for the player to be in charge (instead of a lowly privateer), to build stations and take over territory.

The game world also changed dramatically when I realized that my eye for scale just wouldn’t agree with the solar system based game world.  Either the planets had to be huge and the distances between them great (thus vast stretches of empty space which to me are unappealing) or the planets comically small, but the distances more to my liking. Instead I switched to an asteroid field with asteroid bases; scale was now much more to my liking, both more realistic and yet not empty. Because I had no plans for players landing on planets, the planets would just be these large fairly static objects, asteroids on the other hand provide some cool opportunities.

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 Void Destroyer and if you faced a similar challenge.

The nature of the project is that the game somewhat plays itself, resources are produced by your base(s), the ships under your command are mostly autonomous and react fairly well to enemies, after all these are crewed space ships or advanced drones.  The initial enemy attacks are fairly light giving the player some time to prepare.  So I’m hoping that the initial difficulty will be mostly confined to learning how to control the game, not an easy thing in space sims (compared to a fps where WASD and mouse look is the norm).  The other worry is that there is too much to do in the game because the game is a mix of space sim and RTS elements, essentially doubling the potential activities for the player, so the goal is for there to be a good amount of automation meanwhile giving the player the choice to micromanage.

The challenge here is that the game isn’t finished, so this is still something that needs to be addressed and studied.

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

Nothing major, the benefit of releasing prototype and alpha versions online as the project heads to the eventual full release is that I get heads up related to the installation and initial running of the project from people kind enough to download, play and let me know if there are problems, so far I’m able to nail down these issues, a great learning experience.

Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Void Destroyer.

Music and sound is still a big mystery, I have some vague ideas, but no ability to make them a reality, this aspect is put on hold till later.  Level design is somewhat self creating, luckily space sims don’t need to have much (if any) in terms of interior maps.  Outer space maps are an interesting challenge, there needs to be some emptiness, some feeling of distance, but the fun aspects of space come with what is within them, stations, asteroid bases, asteroids, unique phenomenon, gates, nebulas, etc. I didn’t want a heavily zone based map design; I want the player to see far off bases and stations and eventually conquer them. This along with the methods of travel between far off points is what drives the map design, in Void Destroyer the quick travel method is called the Gravity Drive (gdrive for short), it allows for rapid travel of ships between large objects (for example large asteroids) or special objects able to generate a proper gravity field. This allows for map design to create chokepoints and places of strategic value even in 3D space. If not using the gdrive ships can travel anywhere via their standard engines, though there is no speed limit, the ship can accelerate to travel rapidly given enough time, the same amount of time it then needed to slow down, making the gdrive the preferred way, but not the only way.

Because my strength is in programming game logic I mostly offer suggestions to the artist I was lucky to find, it is mostly his vision with some insights from me. The “Ozzie” artist saw potential in the game and we feed off of each other ideas in terms of game play and art.  I find that my ability to describe something in artistic terms is very difficult, so finding a great artist and then mostly letting go was crucial for me.

The screen shots attached to this interview are a glimpse at the art style. Right now the game is an uneven blend of the four art styles (my own art, placeholders, previously contracted out art and how the game will actually look at release). The artist’s goal is to strike a balance between optimizations (for a large amount of objects on screen at the same time) and visual quality. The art style is somewhat like the art style of Borderlands, basically we are side stepping competing with funded and triple A studios, and are creating a more unique art style in the process while ensuring a long live via not striving for ultra realism. The screen shots show a mix of finished and unfinished models (for example: the asteroids are quick and dirty placeholders), some shaders are missing or incomplete, still a ways to go, but I hope give you the idea where we are headed.

How did you go about funding Void Destroyer and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?

The project is an after work endeavor and self funded.  I’ve never considered financial support from friends and family, I think that for a first project this would be too great a risk to put on someone else’s shoulders, thus I have to carry it alone.  As far as emotional support I seek that out fairly often, I show my off my progress to whoever visits the house, and send emails out between visits.  It is extremely important to find a few individuals that will love your project no matter what, and will praise it, it is also important to find a few individuals who will be brutally honest.  Family wise I don’t have any relatives that are gamers so discussing the project is me mostly boring them to death, luckily friends are a different story.

What plans do you have in terms of pricing Void Destroyer when the game becomes commercial?

Tough question, having only experience in this realm as a consumer I would probably rely on the guidance from distributors, if I’m lucky enough to get them.  If not then most likely the game will be priced at around $15, but again this is not set in any kind of stone.

Do you plan to make Void Destroyer available to distribution stores such as Desura or Indievania as a free product to gain more exposure?

Not currently, but that is an interesting idea that I will consider.  Currently the project is available free for download in its most current release worthy stage, so doing something similar in other spots would only increase the exposure.

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?  Tell us why released a demo for Void Destroyer and the difficulties in doing so.

My guess is that it all comes down to money, should money be spent on creating a demo? Or should it be spent on marketing the game? The big wigs at big budget studios run the numbers and apparently the numbers come out in favor of marketing.  I think we’ve all read about the crunch time issues in big budget game studios, maybe there is simply not enough time to do a demo? Maybe there isn’t as much confidence in the staying power of their games?

For someone like me, there is no money to begin with, the main resource I deal with is time, luckily releasing a demo will be a very easy thing in this project; all I have to do is create a cutoff point in the released version and voila, there’s a demo. I think that in terms of indie games, we aren’t competing so much for the dollar of the gamer, as we are competing for the time, trust and interest; still no one wants to throw money away, so a demo is only fitting.  The more downloads of the demo, the greater the chance of someone liking the game, and thus the greater the chance of someone telling their friend, thus the greater the chance of sparking that crucial thing: mass awareness.

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

It is critical, but also very hard to come by.  Positive feedback gives me a huge boost, actually someone just checking it out gives me a good boost.  Criticism so far has been very constructive and thought inspiring.  No feedback tends to leave me a bit blue.  There’s a lot of issues that come with this topic, I’ve released version of the project, at certain points they didn’t have a manual or any tutorials, thus almost no feedback, it is an incredibly wasted opportunity when someone downloads the game, tries it, and then I don’t know whether they liked it, didn’t like it, couldn’t figure it out, etc.  The fault of course is always on my shoulders, no feedback is a type of feedback.

How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Void Destroyer professionally?

This is going to be an interesting thing in the future of this project for me. I’ve read my share of game reviews through the years; often I find no issue with professional game reviewers so I look forward to reading criticism of Void Destroyer.

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?

Bundles have a lot of attention these days, my concern is that by the time I finish my project the indie gaming community will be sick of bundles or that there is such a glut of them that they become the norm thus defeating the appeal.

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

As a gamer my thoughts: the game industry tries to maximize their profits; the pirates try to minimize their costs.  It is an unavoidable battle between the two opposite sides with paying customers stuck in the middle getting shot up in the cross fire.  There is little likelihood to win against the pirates, and there is little likelihood that the gaming industry, as a whole, will back off on the intrusive DRM.

As an indie: the question is irrelevant, DRM is beyond my reach (in financial terms), plus it doesn’t work, either way for me it is a question that doesn’t need to be answered.  Basically I have to get used to the idea that piracy exists and I can’t do anything about it.  I also think that piracy may be helping indies in unexpected ways. More and more games are console ports, big budget studios reaction to piracy, less and less are made specifically for our platform, I hope fill that void.

How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Void Destroyer?

I’d feel ecstatic; I enjoy watching game videos on YouTube. In fact my plan is to support video creation through a camera only mode, modding abilities, and the battle editor (an in game way to create combat scenarios and maps) to support video creation.

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

The effect that DLCs had on me is that I now tend to wait longer to purchase games; I wait until the game of the year editions are out.  Otherwise I don’t tend to buy DLCs, the prices seem too high.

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 Void Destroyer?

The goal has always been that Void Destroyer support modding, already in game objects (ships, bullets, missiles, effects etc) are read into the game via xml files, so are objectives, maps and even tutorials.  Basically the goal is for the game data files to be open to modding.  Giving modders the ability to modify/add/remove in game objects, missions, and share them easily with other players.  Standard 3D model files can be exported into the game’s mesh format very easily, and the files for defining the textures of the models are fairly easy to do as well, modders can copy and paste existing material files to gain shader support to make their models look great.  The plan is also for a 3D ship editor (which exists in a basic state currently), where modders can add guns, engines, camera positions, set health and speed, right down to the explosion(s) – all of the parameters that make the ship unique. After the release I plan on adding features that while may not fit the game may be helpful to modders (depending on the demand), for example this project doesn’t contain omni directional shields that have a set health limit, but some modders may want this to create mods to fit other universes.

I myself greatly enjoy mods, and am often amazed at what modding communities accomplish, I tend to think that in skilled hands modding makes the game better from the original, it will be an interesting day when I come across a mod for Void Destroyer and potentially come to find that it is an improvement.

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

There has never been a better time to do this than now, and hopefully it will be even better in the future.  There are so many resources out there thanks to the internet (engines, code, tutorials, community help) that the only thing stopping you from getting there is time.  The key here is a sort of obsession with the project.  This means that you will have to do the bulk of the work, don’t expect someone else to do it for you and it will always take more time than you think.  Still the rewards are great even if the project never becomes a commercial success – creating taps into our incredible shared nature. You may want to quit at certain points, the best advice here I can give is to work on a project that is your dream; this will help with motivation, but don’t forget that you can scale down for now and be patient for the future.

A bit of final advice, I believe that indie games are headed towards more and more polish, the line between indie and big budget studios in terms of art and aesthetics will narrow, so I think it is best to plan with this thought in mind. – End

We would like to thank Paul for in awesome insight and wish him continued success.  You can download and play Void Destroyer for free from the official site.

2 thoughts on “When A Hobby Becomes An Obsession: Void Destroyer Interview

  1. Pingback: Happenings | Development Journal

  2. Speaking as the Void Destroyer Art Dept…

    I love space sims too (well Iwar2 at least), but the reason why I choose to develop indie games generally and Void Destroyer specifically is the level of innovation that guys like Paul can bring to the table, unfettered as they are by the stifling demands of a big business AAA production environment.

    Like Paul I have a day job unrelated to game design – but game graphics are my particular obsession. I cut my teeth on mods, so indie development is familiar territory. As a designer, it’s naturally much more gratifying to satisfy my own aesthetic rather than some franchise design document – but more important to me is the continuing need to actually enjoy playing the game!

    Even in its alpha state, I immediately saw the rich potential in Void Destroyer – it’s the space game I always wanted to play, indie or not. I’m confident that the game Paul envisages can be a commercial success but that is simply because it is a very good game idea that hasn’t really been done this well before, if at all. I’m also confident I will still be wanting to play the game well after its release. I wonder if the Guitar Heros guys can honestly say that…

    Small developers can take risks and experiment, break the old moulds and hopefully some new ground rather than just rehash the same tired old formula again and again. We don’t have to incorporate design decisions made by the accounts department. We can afford to appeal to a niche’ audience rather than some perceived common denominator. We can aspire to making a great game as the foremost consideration.

    That’s what we’re here for after all – money comes and goes while last weeks $multi-million AAA release gathers dust on the shelf – but a great game is a rare and precious thing.

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