Conducted By Adam Ames
Jeff Landauer, developer of the MMO, Star Sonata 2, speaks to TPG about life as an indie developer, the success and failures in doing so and opinions on the PC gaming industry.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
If people want to make a living making games, they have to know how they are going to market and monetize games. You hear a lot about the successful indie games, but for each of those, I suspect there are hundreds or thousands of quality games that people make that don’t pay off. This is the main thing that I’ve learned. Making a good game is really only half of the job.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Star Sonata 2.
I’m a long time game developer and joined the original Star Sonata development team fairly early in 2004. I ended up buying the company from the other two guys that started Star Sonata and have been running it since then and directing the development of Star Sonata 2. I do some programming, but mostly these days other things like project management, marketing, game design, business stuff, and every little thing that needs to be done.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
My first commercial game job was working on Captain Quazar for the 3DO as a summer job. Best summer job ever!
Where did the idea for Star Sonata 2 come from?
The idea was basically that the people playing Star Sonata absolutely love it, but the retro look was a turn off to a lot of prospective new players. Star Sonata 2 mostly has the same back end as Star Sonata, but we were going for a much more polished look and a more sophisticated UI. We also added some new elements to the game to make it a bit more fun, like super items and a semi-3d playing field.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Star Sonata 2?
It was fairly challenging trying to run and update the existing Star Sonata game while developing Star Sonata 2 in parallel. For the first couple years, I had a series of contractors working on Star Sonata 2, but it was very difficult for me to stay on top of it because I was so focused on Star Sonata 1 things, so it was a sort of back burner project with very low priority. It really wasn’t until we refocused our core team onto Star Sonata 2 that we made the kind of progress on it that we needed in order to bring a major project like this to completion.
If I was doing it over again, I think that I would want to one person in charge of the existing game and one person in charge of the development of the new game instead of one person trying to do both. There was just not enough mental energy to give both projects what they needed.
In its current form, how close is Star Sonata 2 to your initial vision?
I would say that Star Sonata 2 far exceeds the initial vision of it. The main thing we wanted was 3d graphics, and we have that. But we also ended up doing a major UI revamp along the way and ended up adding graphical effects that really surpass what I had in mind. I think the game as a whole is really beautiful now, and I’m quite proud of it.
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 Sonata 2 and if you faced a similar challenge.
I think this is potentially an even bigger problem with Star Sonata than with other MMO’s. In Star Sonata, you have to fly around and aim at your target. You don’t just select something and hit a button to attack it. At the same time, you need to upgrade your ship and your skills like in any other MMO. So in essence, to play Star Sonata well, you have to be decent at both the action aspect and the RPG aspect.
We’ve iterated the starting area over and over, watching new players play it, and tend to make things easier every iteration. It’s a tough thing to balance, though, because you want to make it accessible to new players, but not make it too boring for people who pick up the concept quickly.
Were there any unique difficulties developing Star Sonata 2 to run on Mac or Linux?
We have people running it on both Mac and Linux, but they are not currently officially supported. There is one programmer working on a Mac port at the moment, but it’s still in development.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Star Sonata 2.
The controls in Star Sonata 2 are all in two dimensions. You can turn left and right, and thrust, like in Asteroids. You can fly up and over big planets and suns, but for the most part, ships are all along the ecliptic of a given solar system, and are thus lit primarily from the sun that will be to the side of them. Because of this, we wanted to make the ships look good when lit this way, and also didn’t really care what their undersides looked like.
The level design is largely inherited from Star Sonata 1, but with 3d objects instead of sprites. We tend to put several layers of big translucent clouds below the ecliptic to give a really nice feeling of depth and perspective. Because of the semi-3d aspect of Star Sonata 2 that didn’t exist in Star Sonata 1, we do plan on using the z dimension more in future expansions, but have only barely used it so far. There are a lot of interesting potential systems that could be set up that could be almost puzzle-like.
The music is all new and written by Sebastian Nebaeus. It’s sort of a laid back techno, and I think it works quite well.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
The toughest aspect by far has always been marketing. You can make the greatest game in the world, but that doesn’t magically bring thousands of players. Since I enjoy working on the game so much, I find myself doing that mostly rather than working on marketing, but it’s the marketing that brings in people.
How did you go about funding Star Sonata 2 and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
A friend and my family invested, and along with the income stream from Star Sonata 1, it was enough to sustain development of Star Sonata 2 through completion. We definitely did it on the cheap, though.
Are there plans in place to make Star Sonata 2 available on the various digital distribution platforms?
Yes. Since launch, we’ve been so busy with fixing new bugs that came to light and everything else, but I am working on this.
Star Sonata 2 will be free to play without level limit. There is a premium subscription for $9.95/mo that gives access to a premium area of the game as well as allowing players to build bases and colonies in a premium-only building area.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Star Sonata 2 from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
The player community is what makes the game. I feel like we are in constant dialog with the players on just about every issue imaginable.
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?
I’m not sure, honestly. I think it probably works well with small single-player games with fixed cost. I see free MMO’s with micropayments as fairly similar to “pay what you want”, and that’s probably the future. Everyone seems to be moving towards that kind of business model.
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 DRM is a lost cause. One reason I like being in the MMO business so much is that we don’t really have to worry about DRM. We give our client away for free, but since we control the server and the database, we don’t have to worry about piracy.
With SOPA and PIPA in the news, how do you feel about individuals posting gameplay videos of Star Sonata 2 outside of official sources?
I think it’s great. The more, the better. In general, the people who play Star Sonata love it.
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 Sonata 2?
We created the GUI in Star Sonata 2 to be as moddable as possible. The entire client-side data folder for SS2 is a tree with a default root and players can copy and modify any data file they want and drop it in and it will be automatically loaded in. Players can even zip up their modded files and upload them for other players to place in their data directory and the game will read in the zips automatically at load time.
I plan to add even more modding and design tools for players in the future. When you have a base of players who love your game, they are the greatest asset, and will use all the tools you give them. -End