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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.

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