From Russia With Love: Starfarer Interview

Conducted By Adam Ames

Alexander Mosolov head of Fractal Softworks talked to TPG about his space sim RPG, Starfarer.  In this e-mail interview, Alexander speaks about DRM, piracy, life as an indie developer and how Starfarer came to be.  Here is a sample:

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

For me, the line is crossed when blatant hooks for the DLC are built into the base game. That’s the same as an in-game advertisement – an immersion breaker, and generally in bad taste.  Other than that, I think it’s fine – why wouldn’t you give your players more of what they want?

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

I’m the lead developer/designer of Starfarer. I’m also the only person that’s technically a part of Fractal Softworks, but I’m very fortunate to be working with some very talented people, and Starfarer is far from being a one-man show.

How did you get started in developing PC games?

It’s just one of those things I always wanted to do. I grew up in Moscow, and computers weren’t widely available, but my mother worked as a programmer (which was a rather rare occupation in those days). Sometimes, she’d take me to work with her and I’d get play games for a couple of hours. The original “Warlords”, “King’s Bounty”, and a bunch of other, older ones before that, but my memory of those is a bit hazy – I was around 7 or 8 years old.

I do remember it being the most exciting thing in the world, then. Looking back at it, it was what you might call a “formative experience”. Now, I have a shot at doing this for a living – but it’s something I’ve wanted to do, and been doing as little side projects along the way, for most of my life.

Where did the idea for Starfarer come from?

It’s inspired by a lot of games I’ve played over the years – Star Control 1 & 2 (not 3, oh no, make the puppets stop!) , Master of Orion 2, Mech Warrior, and some other ones. I’m out to combine the aspects of a few genres a way that I personally find enjoyable – exploration, customization, and being able to impact the game world are high on the list.

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

It’s hard to pinpoint specific successes and failures in a game that’s incomplete, but there’s a decent example of both. A core part of the game involves the player commanding their fleet in battle, while directly controlling their flagship. Initially, I implemented the “commanding the fleet” aspect in a very RTS-like way. You’ve got to control a bunch of units, there’s already games that do that, so why reinvent the wheel?

Turns out that was a mistake. The RTS control model assumes perfectly obedient units and requires a lot of micro-management – both undesirable for Starfarer, since the player also has to focus on controlling their flagship directly, and only has time for giving a few orders.

It took about a month to come up with a different scheme – one based on setting objectives, not giving orders. It’s something unique to Starfarer – at least, I haven’t seen other games use a similar approach – and it really, really works. You can set a few objectives at the start of a battle and  concentrate on piloting, only tweaking things here and there. The ships under your command try to fulfill their objectives as best they can.

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

To the initial vision? Very close. To the initial design? Not so much. Thankfully, it was always about a feel we wanted to convey, and not any design specifics. I’m finding that no detailed design survives implementation and playtesting intact, so it seems best to keep long-range plans on a high level – and be ready to adapt to what elements in the design actually work well.

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 Starfarer and if you faced a similar challenge.

That’s a constant concern. I think the important thing is to make sure the player has some way to learn the game. The player getting killed over and over is fine – as long as they have some idea why. Hidden mechanics are what’s going to make a game frustrating and hard to pick up.

Starfarer is meant to be challenging – we just have to make sure it’s also fair. Getting player feedback along the way, especially from new players, is really important here.

Are you seeing any trouble developing Starfarer on the Mac and Linux platforms as opposed to Windows?

Not particularly. Given our choice of tech (Java + LWJGL), it generally just works. By far, most of the issues that come up are on Linux – due to the greater number of configurations – but the nice thing about Linux users is they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty and tweak some things.

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

Knowing that it’s up to you to succeed or fail. It’s both liberating and scary.

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

I’ve got a bit of money saved up, so I’m living off that and what comes in from the pre-orders. Everyone’s been very supportive, and I’m thankful for that – quitting my full-time job was not an easy decision, and I don’t know if I could have made it without my family’s moral support.

Are there plans to release a demo for Starfarer?

Very likely, yes. I’m considering making the missions available as a demo once the first campaign/sandbox elements are in. Which would be in the next version.

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

I touched on that earlier – it’s a big deal. We have our vision, but without feedback, it’s impossible to know if it comes across to real players. Being able to tweak things along the way to make sure it does is invaluable.

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

Well, that’s a minefield of a question!

In general, it’s important to take into account who the feedback is coming from. A new player? A veteran player? A veteran player whose personality you have a sense for? A reviewer? I can put myself in the shoes of the first two more easily, having been there myself for many games.

I’ve never been a game reviewer, though, Fortunately, the opinions of reviewers tend to be laid out in detail – so you get a feel for why they came to hold them, and get a sense of their personality. It’s just something you have to evaluate on a case by case basis, putting aside any ego or emotional investment – much like with all other feedback.

Of course, the opinions of reviewers hold sway with their audience. So, you just await their verdict with a bit more trepidation than you might otherwise have, and then try to look at it objectively.

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?

That model is still very young – it’s hard for me to say whether it’s a good idea for a new game to participate in one. How much does the audience of a bundle intersect with, say, Steam users? Is the exposure you get from it worth the potential lost sales from other sources? Clearly, it’s great for a game that’s on the tail end of its sales cycle. For a new game, I just don’t know – it could either make it wildly successful, or cripple it in the long run. I suspect the people running the bundles have a much better idea, since they have access to hard data.

Please talk about your pre-order campaign and why you chose this particular marketing strategy.  Also, touch on the $19.95 price point and if you did any research before settling on a price.

Starfarer is a long-term project, and it helps to have a way to make some money along the way. Getting player feedback at an early stage is critical, too – the longer you go without feedback, the bigger the risk you’re taking. Also, having the game be “out before it’s out” helps create some buzz about it along the way. Since there’s no marketing budget, and since there was no established fan base to start with, that’s very important.

The price point, $20,  just seemed about right. I haven’t done much research on it – it’s hard to get any kind of specific market data, anyway – but it’s in the ballpark of what’s acceptable for indie titles.

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

It doesn’t make sense to inconvenience your paying customers, and only your paying customers. It seems so obvious! Why give people incentive to get a pirated copy by making it better than the legit one?

I think the most DRM you can justify having is the bare minimum. If there’s zero barrier, I think many people just won’t bother to break out the credit card – not because they’re dishonest, but because it’s a bother.

How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Starfarer?

I love it! It’s flattering to see a video of the game pop up somewhere.

 

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 Starfarer?

That’s one of the things that makes PC games great. (The other thing is the controls! Keyboard + mouse >>> a gamepad, any day! /flamebait).

People have created so many great mods over the years. The original Team Fortress, Counter Strike. The PC modding scene offers creative, talented people an opportunity to make something, and the results can be amazing. Even if they’re not – even if a mod never sees the light of day – it’s still an opportunity for a person to express their creativity. I’m always happy when someone chooses Starfarer as a platform for that.

As a developer, I do what I can to make the game easy to mod. It takes longer to build things that way, and you have to draw the line somewhere – after all, we’re making a game, not an engine. But the extra effort is worth it – just looking at the mods out already, at this early stage, is enough to convince me of that.

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

Don’t? Seriously, I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that – I’m just trying to break into it myself. Refer to “liberating and scary” above. -End

We would like to thank Alexander for allowing us to get a glimpse into the mind of a great indie developer.  You can check out more on the official Starfarer site.

Follow Alexander on Twitter.

Follow TruePCGaming on Twitter.

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