Conducted By Adam Ames
TPG had the privilege of speaking to the head of StarWraith 3D Games, Shawn Bower. He goes into great detail about his grand space-sim title, Evochron Mercenary. You will read his thoughts on the PC gaming industry, where is love of sci-fi came from, the personal struggles of juggling development with a full-time job and much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Evochron Mercenary.
I’m a long time space-sim fan and amateur astronomy enthusiast who enjoys most things space related. I’ve been developing PC games for about 25 years and decided over a decade ago to focus on larger projects as an indie developer. My role with the development of Evochron includes programmer, sound engineer, texture artist, 3D modeler, web developer, and most other things related to creating and supporting the game. In recent years, I’ve been able to hire out and license some media such as music, art/textures, and 3D model work.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I was a sci-fi fan as a kid and was fascinated at the prospect of traveling in space and confronting the dangers it could potentially involve as humanity might one day colonize and explore the solar system and beyond. Space combat was of particular interest to me, especially the technical challenges of flight and weapon systems. So that curiosity and interest combined with the opportunity to develop my ideas in an interactive way on a computer. I got started on a Tandy TRS-80 Model III writing small ASCII character based space games. My dad helped teach me the basics of programming and helped me solve problems I ran into early on.
Where did the idea for Evochron Mercenary come from?
After years of writing mostly space combat games, I eventually became interested in branching out into other concepts such as surviving alone in a vast network of colonized worlds, managing resources, designing ships for specific roles, and the freedom to make custom decisions based on conditions and opportunities rather than only being limited to story plot objectives or missions.
In 2004, I wrote a game called RiftSpace that was an initial effort to explore some of those ideas. It was still mostly combat focused, but did introduce the freedom to travel, choose objectives, and put together a team of configurable ships. From there, I wanted to advance the concept further and the original Evochron was launched in 2005. Since then, the series has been expanded with new titles and many updates. Mercenary adds a variety of new features and options, including new gameplay options and advancing the baseline technology level significantly for improved environment details and shader based effects/graphics.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Evochron Mercenary?
I’ve learned a lot about designing a game to meet both my design objectives and the interests of players. One significant success has been developing the process of carefully collecting, comparing, and prioritizing feedback from players to help guide the future development of the game. This process is used in the development of new features as well as changes to existing ones. Throughout the 7 year history of Evochron, it’s been an important part of the larger overall design process for the game and has helped make Evochron Mercenary what it is today. This process has also occasionally lead to some failures over the years.
For example, a few features were requested, planned, prototyped, and implemented only to find out later that there were some unforeseen gameplay complications or other negative results that required further development to change them or in a few cases, remove them entirely. So as part of the learning process for this approach to development, I’ve learned to better prioritize, scrutinize, and critically analyze requested features. This helps me reduce wasting time on features with little or no gameplay benefit, irrelevant design factors, and/or potential negative implications. And this way, I can focus on what will work better, expand the game with relevant design features, and streamline my time management for improved efficiency.
In its current form, how close is Evochron Mercenary to your initial vision?
In some ways, very close. In others, not so much. I’ve managed to implement a number of features that weren’t of particular interest to me, but were of high interest to many of the players. One of the benefits of working on a freeform game is the flexibility and diversity inherit in its design. I can incorporate a number of new options and features that build on the overall gameplay template to give players new things to do and get without requiring them, which might otherwise risk jeopardizing a story plotline and difficulty scale. The player is free to utilize certain new options, but they don’t have to and can usually continue to play the game in the ways they prefer.
Evochron Mercenary is getting ready to take another step closer to my vision for the game in the planned expansion with the introduction of terrain walkers that allow the player to get out of their ship and explore the surfaces of planets ‘on foot’. It won’t be a big part of the game as it will remain space-sim focused, but it’s a feature I’ve wanted to put into such a game of mine for a long time. Options and capabilities will initially be pretty limited with terrain walkers, but they will achieve the long-term goal I’ve had and are something I may work on to expand later.
That’s one of the cool things about being an indie developer, you can work on new stuff you want to for your game and pretty much the only reason terrain walkers are being added is because it’s something I’ve wanted to do. Most of the other new features and options being worked on are, at least in part, based on player requests and feedback combined with my design goals, but terrain walkers are one element where I’ve stepped in to do something just for me 🙂
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 Evochron Mercenary and if you faced a similar challenge.
I’ve tried to scale the fundamental difficulty levels in the game with a location-based structure. Since difficulty is by in large a subjective thing, I’ve tried to design Evochron with a pretty wide range of difficulty that the player can set for themselves by simply traveling to various locations in the game. They can start out in a system known as Sapphire where there aren’t any hostiles or challenges that push the difficulty level much farther than just learning how to complete basic objectives and control their ship. However, as those who know me can tell you, I tend to immensely enjoy difficulty in the games I play, I consider overcoming such challenges to be a much more rewarding experience. I prefer games that are complex and have high learning curves. The concept of controlling a complex machine with complex systems, such as a spacecraft, is very enticing to me and I enjoy being challenged to learn new things and master them to achieve success. I’m also a flight-sim gamer and appreciate it when a game treats me as a pilot who can adapt and learn complex procedures and systems, rather than just treating me like a camera operator.
This preference of mine is obviously reflected in the design of Evochron and its learning curve is generally considered pretty steep for new players. But its complexity and difficulty does, by many accounts, give the game more depth and a higher level of interaction to keep things interesting and challenging long-term. There’s more room to develop a broader skillset in the game and players can develop their own unique tactics based on their abilities and interests. The difficulty can be an obstacle to some new players, so over the years, I’ve had to scale back some things to reduce the initial difficulty level. I’ve also incorporated improved training to help guide new players, both in-game and with tutorial videos. I’m still working on this aspect of the game and new training sections are being developed for the planned upcoming expansion.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Evochron Mercenary would run on the various PC system configurations?
Yes, system memory has generally been the biggest obstacle I’ve had to contend with when developing the game to work on a wide range of system configurations. I’ve had to hold back in a number of design areas to ensure the game will run on a system with existing memory limitations and unfortunately, there are also other required compromises in some areas even on systems with a lot of installed memory. Targeting other aspects, such as GPU’s, CPU’s, hard drive space, etc, has been much easier to contend with and in terms of those other specifications, Evochron is very broadly compatible. But in terms of system RAM, Evochron has been a relatively memory hungry game and generally needs at least around 1 GB of free physical memory for its resource needs. If a system has its memory resources limited or blocked, the game won’t have the memory it needs to run and the player will generally need to free up more memory resources on their system and/or remove anything that is blocking it to allow the game to access what it needs.
When Evochron Mercenary first came out a few years ago, it was more of a limiting factor for its compatibility baseline. But these days, there are a number of newer games, many of which are major AAA titles, that require as much or more free physical memory than Evochron does and it’s become less of an issue as more gamers are using higher-spec systems and have become more familiar with getting high memory use games to work on those systems.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Evochron Mercenary.
The art style for the game goes back to my early days of programming and design. I like a complex, futuristic look to a user interface and have generally utilized a blue color scheme for the HUD and cockpit displays. I like ships that look sleek and futuristic with a noticeable military influence.
For environments, I prefer to design the setting of space with an interactive, detailed, and epic feel. I’ve been known to spend a lot of time fine tuning the appearance of background stars, nebulae, and individual terrain structures on planets to get the look I’m after. This includes testing at different resolutions, anti-aliasing settings, anisotropic filtering settings, and different brightness levels.
In the early days of Evochron, I created much of the music for the game myself. But I’ve recently worked with a professional musician who has helped take the game’s music to a new level. For both Mercenary and the planned expansion, his music is exclusively used in the game. His name is Rich Douglas and you can learn more about him and his music on his official site.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
By far, the toughest aspect for me is the workload. I’m fairly certain I have trimmed 10-15 years off my life from the stress of working on my projects over the years. The long hours, lack of sleep, and constant to-do lists have taken a toll. Now at 35+ with the effects of that toll becoming more apparent, I’m probably going to have to start reformulating that development procedure I referred to earlier 🙂
How did you go about funding Evochron Mercenary and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
For a long time, I worked in an unrelated full-time job to fund the games myself. In recent years, I’ve managed to earn enough to fund the projects directly from the revenue they generate. That is, one game can help fund its further development and the development of the next. Evochron Mercenary has largely been funded this way. In terms of family, I consider my dad helping me to learn programming when I was a kid to be one of the most important elements of support I received. Some family members have also been emotionally supportive. Financial support though has come from me working a job and game revenue to self-fund development.
Tell us about the process of submitting Evochron Mercenary to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
It generally starts with an initial submission and review process, then communicating to apply any needed changes/additions for integration and getting media ready for the target platform.
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?
Setting price has generally been an agreement process. I did research prices of similar games, but mostly based the price on some goals I had for the game and what I wanted to do with it in the future.
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 Evochron Mercenary and the difficulties in doing so.
That trend is probably a tough thing to provide an entirely complete answer for, but one primary reason comes to mind. Providing a free demo gives indies an edge in distribution that they might not otherwise have available to them. If gamers can get their hands on a free trial of a game, it’s much more likely that more people will check it out and that helps increase the chance more people will buy it. They don’t have the userbase of a big name studio ready to follow them to buy into their next title, so in one sense, they have to earn their reputation with customers without a past track record. They often must rely on word of mouth and the best way to achieve that is to make their game as accessible and available as possible. A free download puts up no entry barriers for trying their game and so it’s a great way to promote it and help build interest.
I released a demo for Evochron Mercenary for several main reasons. One, players can try it out to see if it offers the kind of gameplay and fun they will enjoy before buying the game. Two, it gives the player a chance to make sure the game works on their system. And three, it’s the way I like to evaluate games before I buy as well and so I want to offer the same option to my customers that I myself expect from other developers.
The difficulties really are minimal. For me, there was some minor work involved in establishing the limitations for the demo and there are additional expenses involved for direct delivery, but it’s worth it to help make the evaluation options available to players.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Evochron Mercenary from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
To me, feedback in general is very important. My forum is one of the primary resources I use for analyzing player interests, requests, and feedback. I/we often run polls on the site to gauge player interest in features and changes being considered and the discussions/votes there can directly determine the outcome of future development. My e-mail inbox is another. As a whole, I generally put more importance on and pay more attention to well thought out, relevant feedback verses short instant subjective commentary.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Evochron Mercenary professionally?
In terms of opinions, I generally rate them pretty much as I would any other source – it varies depending on the experience, thoroughness, and interest of the reviewer. Most professional journalist reviews are great. They spend the time to learn the game and can handle a complex title like Evochron. Only a few seem to have been rushed and/or based on inaccurate criteria. One recent example that comes to mind involved a reviewer who sold off a critical component of their ship (evident by the screenshots in the review), then made a bunch of subjective ‘opinion’ statements that demonstrated a lack of validity due to that action. Also evident in the screenshots was the fact they never left the starting system of the game, yet they presented themselves as somehow experienced enough with the game to be making the comments and statements they did. Players with no more than an hour or so of experience with the game could spot what this ‘professional’ reviewer had done.
But most of the major reviews of the game have been done informatively, professionally, and fairly. Whether the reviewer/journalist liked the game or not, they’ve at least generally provided the reader with useful information about features and options, subjective pros/cons with qualified reasons, and tips on playing. So it’s more of a case-by-case issue rather than something I could apply a blanket value level to all of the opinions as a whole.
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?
In my opinion, such a mechanism that helps developers make their games available and more widely known while also providing gamers with what they want is a positive direction. If the right arrangement came along, I’d probably be happy to be a part of it.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
It’s tough to make a statement on how the industry is dealing with it as a whole since there are so many different approaches and methods being used. Personally, I prefer to see less restrictive methods. For example, the idea of limiting the total number of installations of software you buy is absurd to me. If I want to install, uninstall, and reinstall a game I paid for 50 times in a day on my system, I should be allowed to do so. So things like that which get in the way of my access to the product I pay for are too much of a compromise for me and I’d rather just have a simple key system for downloadable games and at most, a one time online activation check when I install a game. Digital services like Steam are also proving to be an acceptable alternative for many gamers.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Evochron Mercenary?
For showing off their gameplay skills, tactics, and tips as well as sharing their mods, it’s fantastic. I enjoy watching videos players make showing what they’ve learned in the game (there are some fantastic tips and tactics videos available) and the latest design ideas they’ve come up with for custom HUD, cockpit, ship, and environment modifications.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
DLC mostly falls into two categories for me. I’m personally not a big fan of frequent multi-stage paid DLC (and the more stages there are, the worse it is to me) that is required for continued gameplay functionality or access. I understand the reasoning behind it and how it can help expand the lifetime of a game while offering new content for gamers. But when I buy a game, I generally prefer to get everything it has to offer with one price and I’m willing to pay more for it. If the DLC comes with a forced obsolescence requirement where some gameplay functionality is reduced or left out without it (ie game ending or multiplayer compatibility), that’s too much of a compromise to me. But free DLC or less frequent low-cost DLC with added content is fine by me.
Otherwise, I generally prefer games to be sold complete and updated later on, at least for a while, with free upgrades for fixes and new features. Then maybe offer an expansion or two later on spanning a few years perhaps, but not a series of rapid-fire DLC packs designed to fill in and/or retain functions of the game in its original form. It’s not a deal breaker for me as a gamer, especially if it’s a game I really like, but simply a preference I have.
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 Evochron Mercenary?
I’m a fan of modding and think it’s one of the best ways to expand the capabilities and long-term enjoyment of a game. The mods the Evochron community have come up with are fantastic. One in particular stood out to me as such an excellent fit for the game’s intended design approach, that I recruited the author to help design the next official cockpit for the game.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Be ready for a tough road, be prepared for changes and the expenses involved. Design your game from the ground up to be easy to change and adapt to player/tester feedback during the development process. Set realistic goals and do what it takes to meet them. Analyze your market carefully, get involved in communities of gamers who would be your target audience, adapt your game’s design to accommodate the priorities and expectations of those gamers. Budget for your initial expenses carefully and where applicable, including development costs, any content outsourcing, software licensing, web development, living expenses, then double it.
It’s taken me well over ten years to get where I am now with much of it requiring me working an unrelated full-time job and taking things slowly with careful time management and buying what I could afford at a rate needed to stay within my budget. Success is possible, but accept the reality that most fail and the rest typically break even or simply get enough to fund their next project. Careful planning and research can improve your chances for success and not doing so is probably one of the more common mistakes made by ambitious indie developers. -End
Follow Shawn on Twitter.