Simon Roth on Kickstarting Maia and why some studios have “killed the wonder” of making games

Originally published on Edge Online, September 16 2013.

A distant alien world. Tuesday. The subsurface colony has been expanding rapidly and needed more power. A large wind farm was built on the planet’s surface, which necessitated killing off much of the local vegetation. That, in turn, killed off the local herbivores, leaving the surface covered in hungry carnivores. Sadly, the colony’s limited defences were intended mainly as a deterrent so the starving alien predators eventually make their way past them and to the base proper. As we watch, they tear through the airlocks, the base depressurises and the unsuited colonists start asphyxiating in Maia’s hostile air. One after another, they slip into unconsciousness, just as the hungry aliens make their way in.

That’s the vision for Maia, indie developer’s Simon Roth’s emergent science fiction game. Pitched as Dwarf-Fortress-meets-Dungeon-Keeper-meets-Alpha-Centauri, the god game was intended to be his personal project – but getting £140,000 in Kickstarter funding meant that Roth has been able to polish his vision more than he ever expected. Though the money hasn’t been without stress. “Prior to the alpha release, it was a source of intense anxiety for me,” Roth explains. ”I had no idea what sort of reaction the game would get and had an awful lot of people waiting to download… 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.”

A lot of that is to do with the number and spread of the audience. Something about the game – the beautiful concept art or the pitch or Roth’s iconoclastic but grounded descriptions – won it a singularly large, committed and international audience. “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,” says Roth. “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.” On top of that, all the text created by Maia’s writer, Paul Dean, has been left as an open format, so that volunteers can localise the majority of the game before Roth’s professional editors clean it up.

That story is as hard science as they come, focussing on the building of a space elevator on the planet Tau Ceti E, AKA Maia, in 2113; the aim of this towering masterpiece of engineering is merely to transport goods more efficiently between the planet and space. “Really, the priority of Maia’s pioneers is nothing more glamorous than extraterrestrial infrastructure, paving the way for more and bigger projects,” says Dean. “It’s just a job. 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.” Dean’s aim is to keep the story away from high drama, deliberately underwriting it. “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 ethos extends both to the game’s minimalistic tutorial and the early availability of the game’s alphas. Maia’s alpha builds have been downloadable by backers at a point most traditional developers would balk at. The current build is without any sort of GUI, requires knowledge of console commands to do anything, and works on only a fraction of backer’s machines. “It’s a strange thing for me to see games grow like this,” says Dean. “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.”

That’s not all that traditional mass market game developers would shy from – but then Roth has always been critical of them, presumably from his time at NaturalMotion and Frontier Developments. “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.”

Roth himself has found no problems either working with an international part-time workforce or maintaining a gender balance in the team. “Certain triple-A developers claim that women are unrepresented in the 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 those away it’s far more even. I think larger studios are perhaps misreading their own PR and HR problems as a gender skills gap.”

Roth envisages the 1.0 release of the game to be finished in early 2014. Before that the team has to get the Steam candidate ready (the game was recently approved for Greenlight) and adding in that crucial alien food chain. “The game in my head in massive, yet the design is complete, and I am quick to stamp out feature creep. 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. Whether I will ever be happy enough with it to call it ‘done’ is an interesting question…” Given that he has a fistful of other projects he wants to do – “a technoir adventure game, a primordial life simulator, and a first person survival RPG set in the Maia time line”, an anthology of Maia-inspired short stories, a ‘70s synth soundtrack album – we doubt that he’ll ever be quite finished with Maia.

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