Interview: Paul Dean and Simon Roth on Maia.

You were one of the early, shock Kickstarter successes. How much pressure are you feeling from that?

Paul: Personally, it’s a feeling of considerable obligation. There’s always the awareness that people have already paid you, that they’ve invested up front, and now it’s your job to justify that financial faith they’ve put in you. And you’re reminded of that quite starkly whenever you meet someone who happens to mention they’re a backer. It reminds you that the money is very real, the people are very real and that you’re being counted on to do the project justice.

Simon: Prior to the alpha release, it was a source of intense anxiety for me. I had no idea what sort of reaction the game would get and had an awful lot of people waiting to download.

Once we started releasing alpha’s, the pressure has dropped off significantly. Having tried out builds and seen the prototype of my vision they seem really happy to sit back and allow me to engage my creativity. It’s fantastic to have that level of trust put in our vision.

Maia was pitched as Dungeon Keeper in Space. Has it changed through development?

Simon: The foundation of game has been set in stone in my head for quite a while and few of the core features have changed since the Kickstarter. Having to describe the game in detail over the course of the crowdfunding allowed me to clarify and lock down down my ideas.

A lot of the smaller components have been tweaked for usability reasons, and a lot of extra detail has been designed into the game’s simulations as I’ve iterated them and brought them to life. Due to this, things have been slower to develop than I’d of liked, but the end product is turning into something far more rounded and detailed than my initial plan had foreseen.

You’ve never hidden your contempt for some old-school game developers. What is it about the old AAA developers that riles you so?

Paul: I’m interested to see what Simon says here. Personally, one of my favourite things about indie development is how relatively transparent it is and how the usual membrane of PR is absent. People are able to be much more frank about what they think, about what their jobs involve, about how they’re doing. That benefits all of us, whether developers or journalists or audiences, because with transparency comes truth.

Simon: Hard to nail it down really. I guess at a fundamental level it’s their loss of imagination. Chasing after mythical mass audiences at the behest of publishers has really killed the wonder that brought a lot of people to this medium.

Stemming from this I am really frustrated at how they run their businesses and treat their staff. The concept of crunch flies in the face of a hundred years of research into workforce productivity, common sense, and frankly, quite a few laws.

Maia seems to have attracted a truly international audience (and it was certainly weird being asked, deep in rural Croatia, ‘do you know Simon Roth?’) What does that mean for development, as an indie? Are you trying to support other languages?

Simon: The wide audience is very cool. Having twelve thousand people testing and picking at the game is far less of a weight on development as I had expected and provides me with some serious QA grunt.

One of the interesting effects on development was receiving instant feedback from gamers who usually struggle to get their voices heard. I’ve had detailed advice and critique from colour blind users and even talked to a couple synaesthetics who reviewed the game on how it tasted!

Language support is something I am building in from the core so we can translate all the text quickly and easily. I’ve left the formats open, so anyone can do their own version of the game. This will let us crowd source the bulk of the work and then have it proof-read and cleaned up professionally. I can see some interesting challenges in moving some of our dryer British humour into other languages.

Paul: I know that Simon’s dropped in a character set to support Norwegian characters and we hope to include room for other language versions of all of the text I’m writing. I won’t be doing that myself, mind, but the simplicity of the game’s XML files means anyone could add a translation, probably for any language (with a Latin script) they wanted.

Paul, can you reveal anything about the story you’re working on? How are you differentiating it from the usual SF games tosh, which would be flattered to be called pulp fiction?

Paul: The basic framework of the story was already in Simon’s head before I joined. We’re keeping some of the details secret, but we’ve already revealed that the ultimate goal of Maia’s first colonists, those you’re controlling, is to build a space elevator. This towering structure sits on the equator, reaches up through the atmosphere into space and works far, far more efficiently for transporting materials to and from the surface than any number of space flights and landings. Really, the priority of Maia’s pioneers is nothing more glamorous than extraterrestrial infrastructure, paving the way for more and bigger projects. It’s just a job.

Hopefully, we’ll get a sense of this through the game’s writing, which I’m trying to make dry, droll and occasionally irreverent, a lot like many of us are when we find ourselves in day-to-day drudgery. This is a reality where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, where space travel is slow and boring, where corners get cut and where tired people are sometimes negligent. Also, the people sent to other planets are practical, they aren’t poets who have romantic notions about what they’re doing.

The idea is that it won’t be high drama and it will also be somewhat underwritten. Too many games have too much story. They’re too concerned with writing lots of plot and then serving up lots of plot and then pointing at that plot to make sure you’ve seen it. We should be showing rather than telling. That goes for directing players, too. Simon very much likes the idea that we don’t have a patronising tutorial where we tell players they have to feed and hydrate colonists, just that we have the simplest, most succinct reminder of how long a person survives without food, without water or without oxygen. Who honestly needs a game to say “Don’t forget that people need food?”

How many people are working on the project? Where are they distributed?

Simon: The team is fluid and can be five people one day and twelve the next, depending on what our current focus is. I’m keen not to enter people into exclusive and controlling contracts, allowing people can work on their own projects or even for other companies. It keeps everyone on their toes creatively and stops me having to worry about things becoming stale or stagnant – like a lot of full-time AAA work can become.

Geographically, we are mostly in the UK, but the Team is multinational. Interestingly, we also have a solid gender balance in the team, something that I eagerly point out to certain AAA developers who claim that women are unrepresented in industry. From my standpoint I haven’t seen much a differentiation between numbers of quality male and female candidates ( There are more unskilled male applications, but when you whittle them down it’s far more even). I think larger studios are perhaps misreading their own PR and HR problems as a gender skills gap.

You’ve made very early alphas of your game available to backers. Do you think this ‘endless beta’ model is the best way for developers to go?

Simon: I think for some games, especially ambitious indie projects, it will become the de-facto method of development. Obviously your design and processes need to gel with it, but the benefits are huge. In my case, without it Maia, in its current form, just couldn’t happen.

Paul: Sometimes. It’s a strange thing for me to see games grow like this, but once you have a core that people can play with, you can keep building around that to add new elements. The big question is how soon you release that core. Too early, and you give people too little to play around with.

Naturally, this doesn’t work for every sort of game. It’s ideal for games that are different every time you play. It worked for the first incarnation of the roguelike platformer Spelunky, or for Minecraft, but it’d hardly suit a point and click adventure or a plot-driven RPG. Something linear like that doesn’t invite replaying with new elements added in.

Spaniels? Chickens?

Simon: With the game drawing inspirations from Dungeon Keeper I wanted to have a few direct references. Chickens were the natural choice, as they could fulfil the role of livestock in the early game. They have an AI that acts purely on base impulses, without any forethought or risk assessment, which leads to some amusing emergent behaviours and will hopefully provide an interesting contrast to the more complex higher-order intelligences of the other lifeforms.

Adding the pets of our Kickstarter backers to the game has been really fun, and allowed us to focus on them as solid characters in the game-world. Cats and dogs have had a symbiotic relationship with humans since the dawn of mankind in the palaeolithic and will likely continue to evolve along side us well into our futures. Having them fulfil rolls in future space colonies is pretty much inevitable.

It’s also important to note that more dogs have been into space than British people!

Paul: There are cats, too. In bee costumes. Admit it, it’s what you’d send to another planet.

When do you envisage the project being done?

Simon: The 1.0 release is sitting in early 2014. I’m not entirely sure when we will be able to nail that down, however we have some key milestones coming up this year, such as the Steam release and the addition of the alien food chain. The game in my head in massive, yet the design is complete, and I am quick to stamp out feature creep. Whether I will ever be happy enough with it to call it “done” is an interesting question…

Not to mention, I’d love to pick up the final stretch goal from the Kickstarter and produce different planet types as free expansions next year.

And, then, what next?

Simon: I have a lot of embryonic games in my head, on paper and even a few prototypes kicking about my hardisks. Firstly there’s a technoir adventure game I’ve been wanting to make for a while, a primordial life simulator, and a first person survival RPG set in the Maia time line.

Any merchandise? T-shirts, thumbdrives, board games…?

Simon: At some point I may put some together (beyond the posters, wristbands, and other stuff produced for the Kickstarter). Currently it’s too much of a distraction, doing physical manufacturing in an ethical manner really eats up time and money.

A board game would be fantastic, mind you. I’m sure Paul could flex his muscles on that one. I’ve also been thinking about getting some Maia mission branded survival tools; dehydrated foods, flint-steel fire starters and even military dog tags.

Once the game is demanding less of my time, I’d like to put together an anthology of short science fiction stories from different writers, exploring aspects the world we are creating. The game has sparked the imagination of a lot of excellent writers and I’d love to see their take on it.

I’m also working with Nick, our composer, to release an album of the game’s 70’s inspired synth-heavy soundtrack. We’ve had a lot of interest from composers in doing a compilation of music inspired by the game for B-side for it.

What sort of situations will players end up in the game? Can you walk me through an example scenario?

Simon: The game, due to its various interconnected simulations will yield all sorts of unforeseeable scenarios for the player to deal with. Here’s one based off our food-chain simulation:

A player focussing on rapid expansion of their base has large power needs and decides to build a large wind farm on the surface of the world. To do so she defoliates an area and sets up heavy defenses. Clearing a large area of grass and plant life unbalances the food chain, killing off the native herbivores through starvation and the odd 7.62mm round to the head.

This causes the larger carnivores, usually reliant on the herbivores to plug the new gap in their diet with the player’s colonists. Through trial and error, they eventually learn their way around the players turret systems and start intruding into the colony looking for tasty morsels.

The creatures tear through the airlock seals, rapidly depressurising the hastily designed base, the lights drop, alarms sound and the colonists start to asphyxiate. By the time the creatures find the colonists, the poor souls have slipped into unconsciousness and in their helplessness, are eaten alive.

Paul: Maia is being colonised partly because it’s similar enough to earth that colonists can make use of its natural resources to complement what they’ve arrived with, since there’s only so much you can cart twelve light years. Mining and excavation will provide many of the same metals and materials you’d find in the earth’s crust, while it’s also possible to use solar stills, wind turbines and solar panels to gather energy or clean water. We have a very humid hydroponics bay where vegetables can be grown and regrown but, who knows, maybe some of Maia’s own life might be edible? Eating cats surely has to be a last, resort, right?

That said, the surface of the planet is largely inhospitable. Everything’s happening underground because that’s out of the wind, solar flares and meteorite impacts.

Interview: Patrick Smith – Vectorpark

I haven’t seen a game from you since 2011. My entire family (from 2-60) love your games. We all ask: when are you making a new one?

(That’s a pretty good age range!) I’m hard at work, as we speak, on an interactive Alphabet. With any luck, I’ll be finished early-to-mid next year.

Is there anything that would encourage you to focus on games more?

The encouragement of a decent income, from whatever you do, is hard to overrate. But mostly, I’m just encouraged if I have a good idea, or a bad idea that I’m excited about.

You make objects that feel more like toy boxes than games, but still have the sense of achievement and progress that games have. Why?

Toy-like, because I’m partial to pointless, playful, and hopefully-beautiful trifles. Game-like, because a game provides a structure — a backbone — and gives the user a means of navigating through the experience. I think of puzzles as kinda like speed-bumps, designed to slow you down and make you participate with the environment.

But of course, not everything needs to be a game. Sometimes I’ll have the germ of something, that I know I like, but I don’t really know what it IS yet. So I have to step back and let it breathe a bit. It’s a mysterious process. I have things I started years ago that I still haven’t figured out what to do with.

How did you start on this?

I think it’s just my own personal inclination. I’m not terribly interested in puzzles per se, but I enjoy the way a system can evoke a sense of a larger reality. As a user, being invited to interact with that reality can be, in some cases, a fairly magical experience.

Vector Park is just you, isn’t it?

Yes.

Apart from games, what are you working on now?

I took some breaks this year to work on some installation projects: one is a set of animated wallpapers for a restaurant in Brooklyn (Dassara), and the other is a collaboration with the illustrator Malika Favre — an interactive projection for a hotel in Amsterdam.

What’s a day in your life like?

Coding, doodling, staring at the ceiling. Occasional naps.

You’re obviously still enjoying games, as your twitter feed shows. What’s caught your eye over the last year?

If I make a list, I’ll leave something out and feel terrible later. How about instead, what am I looking forward to? Off the top of my head: Gorogoa, Kachina, Hohokum. (Maybe I just like weird names?)

How was working on the IT Crowd material?

Fascinating, but difficult. I love the show; it’s hilarious. So it’s pretty much the coolest freelance job I could ask for. It was something of a challenge to satisfy both myself and Graham, the show’s creator, but he’s a brilliant guy, and the end result was better for it.

Did that get you any more attention?

Certainly, and that’s a nice bonus, but it didn’t change anything for me fundamentally. I took it on because it was a fun, paying gig.

Though your games are much admired, you seem to be on the edge of the games scene – this is the first time that Edge has written about you since Acrobots. Why is that?

Well, I can’t read the mind of the Edge’s editors, but I think it’s probably just because my stuff is on a slightly unusual wavelength, and not everyone is going to dig that. And that’s okay! Expecting everyone, or even most people, to love what you do is pretty unrealistic. If a thousand people in the world are receptive to my work, that still seems like quite a lot.

Does that give you a different perspective on games?

Probably! But from my point of view, I’m basically doing the same thing I was doing since before Windosill, before Feed the Head, back when I wasn’t even really aware of an indie game scene. So, it’s kinda like living in the wilderness for years, and one day discovering an entire town has sprung up nearby. It’s great to have some neighbors, maybe you even make some friends, but at the end of the day you’re still growing your own food.

(Not that I have any idea how to grow food.)

Interview: Massimo Guarini on Murasaki Baby

“I have personally nothing against 40 years old guys being chronically stuck in their teenage mind-set, however I am really annoyed by the stagnancy of an entertainment medium that cannot be anymore appealing to people who now have different interests. I am not saying we should quit zombie games or Lord of the Rings altogether, I am just saying we should have other valid options too.” Massimo Guarani, Ovosonico.

I’m going to be putting up a bunch of this year’s developer interviews this week. This one is an interview with Massimo Guarani of Ovosonico, I converted into an article for edge-online.com. It’s about the disturbing Vita game, Murasaki Baby.

I’m a sucker for a good story – what’s the tale in Murasaki Baby? And the tale behind it?
The tale in Murasaki Baby is as simple as the premise of a little baby lost in a surreal and grotesque universe, and desperately searching for her mommy. I like to tell stories through gameplay, images and direct emotions, not necessarily through words.

That is why you really have to play the game to live the experience and naturally unfold the story and its meaning. Murasaki Baby has been designed around the concept of silent storytelling. The player himself will be able to fill the gaps and understand who, what and why without having to resort to a scripted, spoon-fed cut-scenes, dialogues or texts. In fact, the game doesn’t even feature a single text character and has no user interface at all. For me the key to success has always been to keep the systems simple and to rely on players’ imagination. And imagination is what makes us human.

Modelling a child in a game is tough – especially given the violence associated with most modern games. Is it possible to avoid violence in a game intended for popular, rather than critical, consumption or is it just too strong an emotive tool?
This is like asking if it’s possible to avoid love stories in movies. Yes, it’s possible indeed, although love stories undoubtedly sell. The problem is, while in movies we have all sort of genres and subjects being touched and dealt with in different ways for different audiences, games are still pretty much conceived and enjoyed within a very narrow set of options.

It reminds me very much of Hollywood in the fifties. I think we are now starting that slow process of legitimisation of video games, where independent creators are playing a key role in dealing with different subjects and trying different art styles and vocabularies. It just takes time, but I am sure we will get there eventually. After all history repeats: just think about what Spielberg/Lucas did in the seventies turning down the majors and going “independent”.

Your art style is impressive in the way that it looks not just hand-drawn, but also hand-animated. How did you pull it off?
Animations are the most powerful tool we have to define Baby’s personality. A great amount of time and effort was spent in trying to get the style right, and eventually we came up with the conclusion that we needed to deliver quick, responsive, snappy animations in order to bring Baby to life.

This approach is naturally inspired by the style and dynamics of Japanese animation, and in particular we carefully observed and studied the character of Mei in Miyazaki’s “My Neighbour Totoro”. Mei is still probably the greatest example of hand-drawn animation of a child in the history of animation.

Why the Japanese-esque name?
The word “Murasaki” in Japanese means “purple”. You could translate the game title into “The Purple Girl”. I just wanted to communicate this simple notion in a form that just sounded beautiful and unique. I reckon that, having lived in Japan for a long time, it might just sound natural for me to mix Japanese and English words, however I purposely chose to keep the word “Purple” in Japanese because it just sounds great and weird at the same time.

How do you layer complexity into the game, whilst increasing the difficulty fairly?
Complexity is achieved through the evolving relationship between the player and the Baby within the game universe. Baby’s character and initiative changes over the course of the journey depending on how the player interacts with her and what kind of situations she will be facing. While puzzle elements will also become more challenging and organically complex, I think the emotional bond and emotional response of both Baby and the player is what will eventually define complexity.

Was the game conceived with the Vita in mind? Do you see it working on other platforms? Will people’s screens get very worn out in just one spot? 😉
I never conceive games with a specific platform in mind. Actually, when I explore new ideas and possibilities, I don’t want to be constrained to any specific technology. I am all about the content first, and then once I am really convinced about an idea, choosing the right platform for it becomes a natural consequence.

As a concept, Murasaki Baby was simply destined to be a PS Vita exclusive. The organic use of the front and back touch, of the gyroscope and even of the analogue sticks, made it the perfect game for a console that pretty much needed something fresh, new and unique. After all I strongly believe that technology is a tool we must use to express ourselves, and not the starting point and/or the final goal. PS Vita was simply the best tool we had in our hands to make Murasaki Baby come to life.

The only other pure escort games I can think of is ICO. Where else did you draw inspiration from?
I normally draw inspiration from my everyday life. I am a very contemplative person and I like to observe things and people. One day I was traveling on a train and I saw this little girl holding a balloon in her hand. Her mother was holding her other hand. The image was just incredibly beautiful, and I immediately translated this emotion into a very high level game system where you would hold the hand of a child through a touchscreen. For me, inspiration comes from raw emotion and their personal interpretation. I normally don’t look at other games to find inspiration, as I know I would end up repeating the same things someone else did.

Another huge source of inspiration for me is music. Music is pure emotion and can trigger in me very clear visions. I could never come up with a new concept without having clear in my mind its soundtrack style. Most often than not, and that’s the case even with Murasaki Baby, music is what helps me visualising the game universe in my mind.

Where did your studio name, Ovosonico, come from?
As a name, Ovosonico comes from a nightmare I had some time ago, where I found myself in front of a giant white egg screaming loud with the voice of a Theremin. I woke up in sweat, but I thought that image was really cool. As a studio, Ovosonico comes from our fierce desire to say something new and personal, as opposed to the mainstream industry’s tendency to flatten everything to the lowest common denominator.

Where are you based?
Our studio is located in a eighteenth-century villa situated by the shores of lake Varese, in Northern Italy, about fifty kilometres north of Milan.

In one article you said that you don’t want to be like David Cage – but in another that you would like to see people understand what he’s talking about rather than just abuse him – what do you mean by that? What is it that’s interesting that he’s saying?
I have much respect for David, and I do share his opinions regarding the expansion of our medium. We had the chance to have a chat at Gamescom and, regardless of whether or not someone liked Heavy Rain’s approach to gameplay, I really support his efforts and vision because I’ve felt it really comes from genuine motivation. This is also my very personal mindset, and that’s why I don’t want to be considered as his disciple, but rather as another guy who shares the same motivation.

You’ve also stated that you want developers to move out of their teenage stage, their circle of games, and to break up the private club. Do you feel the industry is totally closed-minded? What is it about this stagnancy of creators and creations that annoys you?
The industry has been indeed incredibly closed-minded until this new “golden age” where we’re seeing mainstream AAA creators going indie and dealing with innovative content and new subjects. I believe this should not come as a surprise. After all, until now our industry was mainly a teenage-male driven business, talking and catering to teenage-males technology nerds whose culture started with Star Wars and ended with Lords of the Rings. I’ve been one of those too, so I know what I am talking about. Thing is, we normally grow up, get older and more mature, and as such, our tastes and necessities change. I have personally nothing against 40 years old guys being chronically stuck in their teenage mind-set, however I am really annoyed by the stagnancy of an entertainment medium that cannot be anymore appealing to people who now have different interests. I am not saying we should quit zombie games or Lord of the Rings altogether, I am just saying we should have other valid options too.

Movies can do that, why can’t I have different games dealing with different subjects? This should be an interesting challenge, not an heresy, especially considering how powerful can be our medium. I am breaking up the private club here, but I do understand this is the very first time we’re witnessing a generational change not just in the audience, but within the games industry itself. This is the first time in the history of video games that we have 50 years old creators and 45 years old players sharing the same entertainment space with a new generation of 20 years old players.

Do you think it’s brave to predict the future of this rapidly-changing industry?
There’s nothing brave in predicting the future. We should just work hard and follow our ideals and dreams. That’s how you build the future. And that’s a lot braver and riskier than just predicting it.