Voxeliens Developer Interview

Conducted By Adam Ames

David Williams, spends some time with TPG talking about his indie title, Voxeliens.  You will read about his thoughts on the PC gaming industry, life as an indie developer and how Voxeliens started.

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

Marketing and promotion of the game take a lot of work, but it’s crucial if the game is to become any kind of success. We didn’t have any experience in this area so there’s been lot of learning involved. And even if you know what you’re doing it’s still a big time investment to keep in contact with you community, reply to emails, write press releases, etc.

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

Hi, I’m David Williams, and I’m the main developer of Voxeliens. I’ve done all of the programming and most of the art. I’m British but currently working full time in the Netherlands doing GPU programming. This means that development of the game is actually a part time endeavor done in the evenings and weekends.

My brother Matt forms the other half of the team and has been involved with the website, promotion and community management. He is also the driving force behind making sure the game will run on Linux. This is in parallel with studying for his PhD in the UK.

How did you get started in developing PC games?

I think my first exposure to game development would have been making levels for Duke Nukem 3D. I must have been about 14 when it came out and the developers were kind enough to include a bunch of tools for tinkering with the internals.  You could modify all the resources and build new levels from scratch.

But once I’d got the hang of this I wanted to go deeper. I understood the concept of an engine because other games were using the same one, but how did it actually work? How could it create the 3D images or control the enemies? I simply didn’t know, but it was enough to inspire me to take an evening programming course at a local college. And after that there was no turning back.

Where did the idea for Voxeliens come from?

For a number of years we’ve been working on a voxel game engine (i.e. everything is built from cubes) just because it was interesting.  We’ve always been giving it away for free and we have a nice community of people building projects on top it. But then Minecraft came along and the whole world went a little voxel-crazy. The indie scene has also exploded over the last few years so it seemed like we should be doing something with the technology we had developed.

There were a couple of distinguishing features of the engine which led to us reimagining Space Invaders. Firstly the graphical style was clearly ideal for making retro games in 3D. Secondly, we had this dynamic aspect to the engine which let us blast holes in the terrain by just removing some of the cubes. This matched well with Space Invaders where the player could see their shields being shot away a bit at a time, and could even shoot through them to get at their enemies.

Given the inspiration behind the game, what kinds of challenges were faced when converting the mechanics from 2D to 3D?

I think the toughest challenge has been determining the ‘game over’ condition. In Space Invaders you would lose when the invaders got down to the bottom of the screen, but this is not so easy when you have a complex 3D terrain. Should it be game over if they reach the top of a mountain? Probably not, because this can happen at the back of the playing area and so the player might not even know why they have lost. Besides, seeing the enemies get down to ground level is a lot more intimidating.

We could have them cut through the terrain somehow but this also seems strange. In the end we have just allowed them to crash into mountain tops and blast a big crater to let successive enemies through the gap. The player looses points when this happens though as they are supposed to be protecting their planet!

This was an enlightening experience actually, and I’ve gained a new level of respect for game designers. I always figured that programmers and artists had the difficult jobs but you can lose a lot of time if you don’t have someone with the ability to think through the game play and decide what makes sense.

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

It’s a little clichéd, but it’s a massive success just to have brought the game to completion. Many indie projects fizzle out halfway though development because the developers run out of time, motivation, or money. Once the game is mostly complete there is a lot of temptation to move onto the next thing, but instead you have to spend as much energy again on the business and marketing side.

On the other hand, one failure was our attempts at procedural content generation. The idea was that the levels could all be randomly generated, and so theoretically there could be an infinite number of levels. So we implemented the program logic for this and it did work, but the problem was that due to the random nature of the process some levels were much more interesting and/or playable than others.

It’s quite difficult to have the game automatically determine which levels are good. You need to make sure that there isn’t too much of the map which is inaccessible to the player, that there are interesting features such as overhangs and that you can choose a sensible start position. In the end we just generated about a hundred maps and picked out the nicest by eye. With the benefit of hindsight it would have been better to just make them manually.

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

I think it very much captures the spirit we were aiming for, both in terms of graphics and game play. However, we have had to reduce the scope a little in order to make sure we can finish. For example, we did have plans to insert a ‘boss fight’ after every few levels but this hasn’t made it through into the final game.

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 Voxeliens and if you faced a similar challenge.

We don’t have much insight here as we haven’t set up the difficulty levels yet. I think it will happen fairly soon and will be based on feedback from a short beta testing program to set up parameters such as the speed of the enemies and the rate of fire. Each level will naturally be more difficult than the last, but there will also be global difficulty settings so that all levels can be made perhaps 20% easier or harder. This also adds replay value because after you have beaten it once you can give it another go on a higher difficulty.

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

I think perception plays a big role here. Because the game has a retro style people will expect it to run happily on older hardware, and so we need to make sure that it does. Of course, this is also great for increasing your target audience.

But despite its simplistic appearance there are some challenges. Each game world is made up of roughly half a million cubes and even the latest graphics cards would choke on that.  So you need to be smart, by working out which cubes and surfaces you can really see. Games such as Minecraft are doing this already but it’s still a bigger challenge than most people realize.

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

The art style is crucial – it’s one of the things which really makes the game stand out. There’s such a huge difference between the computing power available when Space Invaders was released and what is available today, yet the game still clearly shows its inspiration while also making the most of modern systems for rendering and lighting.

One thing that has really worked in our favor is the ability to do most of our own artwork, thanks to the simple nature of the graphics. Having to contract it out to a third party would have added cost and management overhead to the project.

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

As mentioned earlier, the other developer (Matt) is actually my brother. While I’ve been developing he has been doing some work on the website and community management. This is fantastic as it frees me up to work on the game, and so in this sense family support has been invaluable.

As for funding, well I don’t think indie development needs to cost much except time (although that in itself is worth money). We both have a full time job which means we can pay the bills work on the project as long as we like. We’ve also taken advantage of open source software and this brings development costs down a lot.

Tell us about the process of submitting Voxeliens to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.

We haven’t yet done much in this regard. The plan has always been to sell it though our website first because it simply seemed like the easiest and most flexible solution and was not dependent on third party support. Then once that distribution channel was set up we’d also start hitting the distribution services.

That said, we were very flattered to have one of the major distributors recently contact us directly to express an interest in selling our game. Needless to say this would take some work off of us, as well as giving us a much larger audience. So we’re very interested in that but we’ll have to see how it works out.

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?

We haven’t yet talked about pricing with the distributors, but leaving that aside we also need to choose a price to sell the game on our own website. It will be fairly cheap because it’s not a big game, and also because we are keen to push our name as far as we can. For us, a large part of this endeavor is about establishing an identity in the marketplace and determining whether full time indie development would be a viable possibility.

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 you released a demo for Voxeliens and the difficulties in doing so.

Game publishers spent a huge amount of money on marketing and I think they want to tightly control the public perception of the product. Screenshots and even videos can be carefully selected to hide problems with a game. I’m not saying this is bad (after all they need to stay competitive and promotional material is usually from an unfinished game anyway), but it’s very hard to have this level of control with a demo. If there are problems, the demo will show them.

From our point of view, we actually don’t want people to buy the game if they won’t like it or can’t play it. We don’t have a marketing budget to spend on generating a positive image for the game or company, so we need to allow it to arise naturally. This means we want to sell our game to people who are going to enjoy it and then recommend it to their friends.

The hard part of creating the demo is deciding how much to actually include. Our game is not big, and the demo has to be significantly smaller in order for there to be a real benefit to buying the full game. But at the same time it needs to let people see what the game is about.

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

I’d say that we are finding these tools more useful for promoting the game rather than getting feedback. As a real communication medium you have the problem that there are just too many channels to monitor effectively. Pushing information out into a variety of destinations is quite easy but pulling it back is harder work.

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

Reviewing a game takes some skill because it involves deciding what people other than yourself will think of the game. For any game there will be some people who hate it and some people who love it. If you look at the user scores on metacritic they will generally cover the whole 0-10 range and are therefore not that useful without some kind of statistical reasoning. Reviewer scores, on the other hand, tend to be more carefully thought out.

But sometimes you just have to take a chance on a game, because it is a matter of personal preference and there may be something about it which appeals to you in particular. I tried this with Duke Nukem Forever – all the reviews were saying it was a disappointment but I brought it anyway because of the nostalgia factor. Though in that case the reviews were right!

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?

Yep, we’d jump on board if we had this opportunity. We’ve got to try everything and if it doesn’t work out then it’s just a lesson learned for the future. I don’t know what the money is like once the running costs are subtracted and the profits are split between the participants, but regardless of that we’d be thrilled to get the publicity which comes from inclusion in such a bundle.

Some developers have tried doing ‘pay what you want’ independently of these bundles but I don’t think these have worked out as well. You need the publicity boost of a bundle to counter the fact that each copy is selling for a very small amount.

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

As a gamer I don’t like DRM at all. I’ve been living off a mobile broadband connection for the last six months and have a very limited download quota. Steam at least provides an offline mode, which is great because I can’t afford the updates which would occur otherwise. I don’t own anything which requires an always on connection but if I did I would have to crack it just to play a game I already own!

There won’t be any DRM in Voxeliens. It’s not clear that it would bring any benefits in terms of number of sales, but more importantly I don’t want to spend time implementing it. I’d rather spend the time coding cool game or engine features as that’s why I got into game development.

How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Voxeliens?

Well we hereby authorize people to do it, so now you have it in writing 😉 But seriously, I can see why Hollywood and the producers of TV shows would be concerned, because for them a video is their actual product. But for indie games developers that is not the case – any video is just a form of advertising and we need to encourage that as much as we can. For large studios there can be a problem with leaked content but again this isn’t such an issue for indie teams.

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

In principle it’s great because it gives people more of what they want. We’ve always had this in the form of sequels but now technology makes it practical to deliver it in much smaller pieces. The point that it becomes controversial is when it is available immediately after release (it should probably have been included with the game) or when it is exclusive to a particular retailer. Then people start to feel they are being taken advantage of.

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 Voxeliens?

We’ve taken a different angle here in that the game isn’t modable but the underlying engine is already available as open source. People can already take that and start building games with it. It’s aimed at programmers though as you do need some good C++ and graphics knowledge to use it effectively.

Despite the lack of explicit modding options, people could still make changes if they wanted to get their hands dirty and work out what was going on internally. I don’t think we have any objection to people tinkering around like this.

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

Make the game you want to make, and have fun doing it. That’s why you’re indie after all. There will be tough times and moments of doubt, and the only way to overcome this is if you enjoy the process as well as the end result. And this way you will be having a lot of fun because it will take longer than you think! -End

We would like to thank David for his detailed and informative answers.  You can check up on Voxeliens by visiting the official site.  Voxeliens is due for release sometime in Q1.

Follow Voxeliens on Twitter.

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2 thoughts on “Voxeliens Developer Interview

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