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Predestination: An Indie Game Interview
With Indie Games becoming more and more prominent and with Xbox and PlayStation voicing their support for indie developers in the next console generation, we sat down with Brendan Drain and Christina Lauro from Northern Irish team Brain and Nerd to talk about the development of Predestination, their upcoming 4X strategy game. We get their opinions on indie development, government support and how to start making your own game.
Brendan, I understand you developed the initial engine for the game, right?
Brendan: Yes, Predestination started life as a collection of graphics technologies I developed during university and after graduation. The planet tech was based on work I did for my Masters thesis on terrain rendering, and the backgrounds were based on work in procedural generation. I spent a few years developing them and tying them together into a sci-fi game engine, and then used it as the base for Predestination!
So would you say that the core of the game is exploration and expansion, with conflict being less important? Many 4X Games (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) reward aggressive players. How does Predestination play if you don’t want to be a warmonger?
Brendan: It’s very important for us that every aspect of the game should be fleshed out. The team have all grown up with classic 4X games like Master of Orion II and the Civilization series, and we’ve seen a lot of recent 4X games focus too much on only one or two areas, so that’s something we’d like to avoid. Exploration and expansion will be important aspects of the game, but so will war, spying and diplomacy.
The goal for Predestination is to make it so that the player can’t ignore one facet of gameplay entirely, so if you completely ignore military power then you’ll become a juicy target for attack. Players who aren’t so interested in war will be able to keep enemies at bay through diplomacy, keep track of enemy fleets with spies, or research primarily defensive technologies, but everyone will need some form of military.
That’s certainly reassuring. As someone that’s played a lot of strategy games, many of them suffer in the late game as they become monotonous, often with the winner being apparent long before the game actually ends. With such an emphasis on resource management and exploration, what have you done to make sure Predestination stays entertaining as the game goes on?
Brendan: Yeah, I find that most 4X games tend to snowball and there’s a long cleanup phase where you know you’ve won but just have to go through the motions of conquering the galaxy. We have a few plans to keep that in check, such as random events that can happen to races who get too far ahead or behind the others.
Regarding resource management and exploration, I think the big problem most 4X games face is that the micromanagement load becomes overwhelming in the late game stages. Micromanaging a planet is fun whent here’s one or two of them, but when you’ve conquered half the galaxy it can quickly spiral out of control. Most games have solved this by simplifying the colonisation and exploration mechanics, or by putting an AI in control of colony decisions, but neither is really ideal.
We think we’ve cracked the micromanagement problem with Predestination’s colony blueprint system. It lets you save a colony’s building layout and other important stats like tax rates etc, and then re-use the same design on another world. Once your blueprint is designed, you can set a new colony to use it and it’ll automatically start building an identical setup.
The blueprints are also adaptive, so if you make a change to the blueprint then it’ll be automatically propagated throughout your empire to all colonies using the blueprint. For example, if you research a new factory that has to go on all of your production colonies, now you can just edit the blueprint once and potentially hundreds of colonies could be updated. This means you retain full control of the decision-making process, but all the repetitive work is taken out of it.
That’s the kind of mechanic that encourages new players to learn but rewards players who already know what they are doing. During design, how much attention did you pay to catering towards skill levels? Was the “Easy to learn, hard to master” idea a goal during the games’ inception?
Christina: We really wanted the game to appeal to every sort of gamer, regardless of the level of micromanagement or immersion they desire. We’ll have some basic blueprints pre-generated to help new players who don’t wish to delve too deep, but we will leave the top-end scope of that system — and most of the game’s micromanagement — open for the more hardcore player. You can design your own colonies, ships, trade routes and scouting beacons to make a more efficient empire, but we have built automation systems into the game to allow the new player to focus on learning.
Even our user interface has quite a different direction than most 4X games. I designed the UI to be user-friendly and as far away as possible from glorified spreadsheets as was possible. Having said that, I didn’t “dumb down” the game mechanics to shoe-horn them in to an intuitive UI: I just refocused on what statistics and mechanics were useful to the player and placed the emphasis on easily finding that information. I don’t think you should need a manual in order to navigate a new game, but I don’t think the playability should take a hit to make it intuitive either.
On a larger scale Christina, how did you find marketing the game as head of PR? With the number of indie projects growing every day, what did you do to get the word about Predestination out to the people?
Christina: Marketing a game is always a challenge, since we’re a very small part of a heavily saturated industry. Open source platforms, free-to-use engines and crowdfunding have all really contributed to the rise of the indie, which creates a lot of media noise out there!
My strategy was to focus on honest interactions with our fans and backers, both during and after our Kickstarter campaign. Every single backer received a personal message of thanks, and we responded to absolutely every comment personally. We have a small but very dedicated fan base, and that dedication can move mountains when it is gained by personal interactions and good old-fashioned hard work.
Likewise, we worked on building relationships with niche media sites before we had our project on Kickstarter, since most sites are swamped with “here is our Kickstarter, please talk about it” messages that add very little to a gaming website. The support of larger news sites like Space Sector, Rock Paper Shotgun, and Blue’s News really helped us out during our campaign, as did more niche websites that specifically dealt with indie titles. I followed up on every message personally, and never used press release templates or anything that was not individually tailored to the site in question.
Lastly, we were sure to have a strong local support by attending local gaming events and speaking with locals with an interest in games development. We allowed Q-Con (Ireland’s largest gaming convention) attendees to sign up for a newsletter and beta access, which gave us a list of already interested people to draw upon from day one of our marketing push.
Speaking of local support, how has the Irish government been in terms of supporting your endeavour? Game development in Ireland is still in its infancy, and you’re the first successfully funded Irish game on Kickstarter, is that right?
Brendan: Side-note: Tina is co-director of Brain and Nerd and also the Project Manager on Predestination
Christina: Trying to secure local funding has been a real rollercoaster ride for us. As you point out, games development really is an underdeveloped industry here, so it’s quite difficult to prove the viability of your product in grant applications since the reader is more than likely not as familiar with the digital games market as the average gamer would be.
We applied for a Proof of Concept grant before our Kickstarter campaign without success. We quickly learned that government support could not be gained without showing how well our game could do and proving our ability to deliver, which is why we decided to secure crowdfunding first.
With our Kickstarter success, we were in a much better position to apply for government support, since we’d already proven that we really had something that was a viable product. We were successful in securing a £10,000 Creative Industries Innovation Fund grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to work on a 3D ship designer for Predestination, which we’ll finish shortly after the game’s release.
Do you intend to sell the designer separately from the game, or patch it in?
Christina: It’ll be patched in to the game as a free update: it’s something that was a stretch goal in our Kickstarter campaign that we really wanted to reach but didn’t, so we’re just delighted to now have the budget to get it out there!
About your Kickstarter, did you anticipate almost doubling your initial goal?
Brendan: I had done months of research on successful and unsuccessful Kickstarters before we put Predestination up, and I was fairly confident that we’d hit 100% half way through the campaign. That turned out to be exactly what happened, but it was still a shock to get double what we initially asked for in the final days of the campaign!
The support for Predestination from the gaming community really blew us away!
So you were able to identify stuff that helped a Kickstarter succeed? What kind of things did you find were key?
Brendan: Probably the biggest factor initially was having as big a day-one media push as possible, as that helps new projects get into Kickstarter’s Most Popular lists and gets the project more exposure. Researching previous projects also helped us design appealing reward tiers, which helped a lot.
The biggest keys to our success didn’t become apparent until the campaign was live, however. We learned that most people weren’t making it all the way through our long project video, and had to condense it considerably. We learned that people want to see gameplay and the game’s key features to be right at the start of the project video, and had to adjust some of our reward tiers on the fly due to low uptake.
Success on Kickstarter’s not an exact science, but we published our experiences and results in a wrap-up blog post ( http://predestinationgame.com/2013/01/06/kickstarter-success-wrap-up-post-with-stats-and-graphs/ ), which should hopefully help other project creators researching Kickstarter.
Well I think that’s more than enough for me to edit into a post. Any words from either of you for aspiring game developers?
Christina: Do your research, stay committed and really give yourself a chance to shine! It’s a tough industry, so you might take some knocks along the way, but don’t let minor failures dishearten you and stop you from securing the success you deserve.
If you’re not naturally chatty, find someone who is and get their help to engage as many people as you can. It’s amazing how many backers increased their pledges considerably because of how engaged they felt.
Brendan: The best piece of advice I have ever recieved was when someone told me to start keeping a development blog. After every development session, just write down a short summary of what you’ve done and what the next step is. If you have to drop the project for a few months for any reason, this makes it a lot easier to pick it back up! I don’t think I’d have gotten to the point I’m at without following that advice.
If I were to give one piece of my own advice to aspiring game developers, it would be to always try to stay motivated and keep working on the types of games you’d love to play. There will be people who will tell you to give up, that you can’t make it in this industry, or that a lone developer starting out on his own can’t make a game. They’re wrong.
Thanks so much for your time, Denis!
Christina: Yeah, indeedy! Thanks so much, dude!