Conducted by Adam Ames

Kerbal Space Program Squad Interview

The gang is all here for this e-mail interview with the boys at Squad, developers of the new Windows PC gaming sensation, and soon to be released on OS X, Kerbal Space ProgramYou will get their take on the beginning of KSP, DRM, piracy, digital distribution, modding and much more.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Kerbal Space Program.

Felipe Falanghe:

I’m 26 years old, born in Brazil, and currently living in Mexico. I am the lead developer for the Kerbal Space Program, which is a game concept I’ve had with me for a long time now. I’m still a little dumbfounded by having been given the opportunity to put this pet project of mine into practice, and I’m really in a daze now, seeing the incredible reception the game has had.

Alejandro Mora:

I’m 22 years old, born and living in Mexico. I am the programmer of Kerbal Space Program game and also contributed with some ideas for its development. I’m a Computer Technologies Engineer and I love video game programming. I am really excited for the response that KSP have with players around the world, this is so great.

Jacobo Rosas:

I’m  29 years old, born in Mexico. I am the content designer for the Kerbal Space Program, I´m the newcomer in the team but I think this is an awesome project. Right now we have a lot of work to produce content for the game, but it’s so great to see the response from the people about it.

Ezequiel Ayarza, 35, Adrian Goya, 31

We are owners of Squad and the executive producers of KSP. Our role was to hold on, believe and support Felipe’s dream.

How did you get started in developing PC games?

Felipe:

It’s an interesting story (hopefully), when I was younger I had no plans at all on becoming a game designer. I was at that point in my life where you really don’t know what to choose for a career, and was pretty much aimless then. But I used to play games a lot, and started getting into making mods and addons for games. I’ve always been a huge fan of flight simulators, and I guess what really got me started was an aircraft addon I did with my brother for MS’s Flight Simulator, back in 2004. It was really well received by the FS community, and it inspired me to pursue this as a career. When we discovered a local college that did offer a major in Game Design, it was really a no-brainer.

Alejandro:

When I was deciding what to study for my career, I had in mind to be a doctor. I liked computers and technology since I was young and of course a little bit hard core gamer, but I didn’t really think about to be a computer engineer. Something happened on the road, that finally I took the decision to become an engineer, so I started to get knowledge of programming and all that kind of stuff. I have always been interested in movies and animation, specifically in their graphics and visual effects, so I decided to specialize in Visual Computing. I learned 3D tools and frameworks and of course video game engines that helped me develop my first game in school during a Video Game Development course.

Jacobo:

I  am 3D generalist and this is the first time I work for the video game industry, and I have to say this is a great experience so far.

Ezequiel and Adrián:

In Squad we encourage employees to present their own ideas for development so that the whole team chooses the more promising ones. This is how Kerbal came up. We put together the team to aid Felipe and we´ve been working with them for eight months now discussing the game.

Where did the idea for Kerbal Space Program come from?

Felipe:

KSP is a concept I’ve carried with me for a very long time. It started out as a reckless teenager game where my friends, brother and I would take firecrackers and rockets, and strap wings and other things to them. As it went on, we got a little more inventive, and began trying to make two-stage rockets. It wasn’t long before we started making little men out of tin foil, and duct taping them to those contraptions. Thus the Kerbals were born. In college, this idea quickly became something that could be a game, and over time it grew and matured into a more solid game concept. Of course, none of it would have been possible had Ezequiel Ayarza and Adrian Goya not believed in the concept. And there were a lot of good ideas from the other devs as well.

Alejandro:

The concept for the game became from Felipe’s mind. When I joined Squad, they showed me the project and Felpe told me all the great ideas he had for the game. I listened but carefully and gave him some suggestions and improvements that would make it better. It’s been great that all the team’s ideas are considered and discussed.

Jacobo:

The idea came from Felipe. The Kerbals are his creation, but Alex has helped generating great ideas too.

What are some of the current successes and failures you are learning from in developing Kerbal Space Program?

Felipe:

It’s been a learning experience from the start. This is our first real game project, and I’d be lying if I said I know exactly what I’m doing all the time. A lot of our progress comes from trial and error, and we frequently find ourselves going back to things we did to improve on them, or re-do them altogether. As far as failures go, I don’t think we’ve ever seen them as such. I think it’s a good thing the team and myself are always willing to go back to things we’re not happy with, throw them out the window, and start over again. Each time we end up with an improved piece of code or gameplay mechanic, and we learn a lot from doing it.

Alejandro:

Since the beginning, we try to improve and learn from what we do. As every project, not only a video game, there are failures that we have to take advantage of and turn into successes. While developing Kerbal Space Program, I think we really focus in the well-done development of the game and to make releases that players like. Of course we had some troubles in the process, but the idea is to never let the game down.

In its current form, how close is Kerbal Space Program to your initial vision? 

Felipe:

I’m very happy about this. KSP is turning out to be really close to what I had envisioned for it. Of course, that means we had a bit of feature creep as we went along, and the current game is much more ambitious than the original project. The game is still very far from being complete, though, so most of the vision is still only a plan for future releases. But I’m very happy with how it’s shaping up.

Alejandro:

I think it’s pretty much better than the first vision. It changed its scope while we were developing and coding the game. Now, KSP is still far from the end version, but we are working hard to make it more entertaining by keeping the original focus and essence.

Kerbal Space Program Squad Interview

Some indie 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 Kerbal Space Program and if you faced a similar challenge. 

Felipe:

This really is an issue for us. As we build and test the game, we become really proficient at it, and it’s hard to find a good balance from our perspective. This applies not only to difficulty levels but to the experience as a whole. I call it ‘Developer’s Syndrome’. You’re sitting so close to it, you really can’t tell how others will perceive it as they see it for the first time. You have to believe in your initial instinct until the game is ready enough to be shown to others.

Alejandro:

Yes, I think that happened to us. That’s why we released it in an alpha-state so soon. As we continue to develop the game, we noticed that all the mechanics were too easy. We really needed other people to test the game and to give us feedback of how we were going with it. That was a great decision and helped us a lot.

Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Kerbal Space Program would run on the various PC system configurations?

Felipe:

I think we were very happy in choosing our game engine, since it allows for great modularity and creates a very platform-safe environment to work in. The biggest challenge is making sure the game will be able to run on lower-end and middle-range configurations, so we try to always keep an eye out for something that might make the game run slower. That is easier said than done, however, and there is still a great deal of optimization that needs to be done before the game can run smoothly enough for us to be able to lower the system requirements.

Alejandro:

At school I learned to use the engine we are using right now. I brought the idea to use it when I joined the project because it’s very easy to use and has no problems with PC configurations. The only thing we have to care of is that all the mechanics don’t make the computer slower, or don’t overload the video card, etc. We work hard to avoid that kind of problems, but it’s easy to do it in our engine.

Are there any plans to release Kerbal Space Program on Mac or Linux?

Yes, our engine makes it really easy to release a Mac version, and that is in the works right now. Linux I’m afraid is not natively supported, but the game has been reported to run well using emulators, albeit with some small glitches. We plan on addressing those glitches to allow Linux users to get the most out of the game, even though a native version is unlikely at this point.

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 mods created for Kerbal Space Program?

Felipe:

I think taking the time to create a modding interface for KSP was the best decision we could have possibly made. The community is really dedicated, and they’ve created some awesome addons already. Modding for me is a must-have in any game. It draws in a greater interest from the players, who realize they can be more than just end-users of a finished product. They can take active part in improving and adding to the game, and they become really attached to it. Creating addons is a really fulfilling experience, and it can even inspire people to pursue it as a career. I know that’s how I got started.

Alejandro:

I have to admit that at first, I disagreed with that feature. But now I see how wrong I was. Allowing players to make their own creations and to add them into the game, was a good decision. I’m very impressed of the contributions all the players have made. It’s interesting to look at their mods and how dedicated they are in their creations.

Kerbal Space Program Squad Interview

Please talk about the decision to release Kerbal Space Program in the beginning stages for free and add costs to future releases.

Being an independent developer means we don’t have the resources to fund a two-year project from start to finish, so the idea of releasing the game before it is finished was a very interesting one. It’s been proven to work on other occasions, and it gives developers the unique opportunity to listen to what the community has to say, and tailor the game so it becomes what players expect it to be. Also, the community becomes really attached to the project, and they’ve been immensely helpful to us, by giving their feedback and suggestions, and we were able to make important design decisions that we were very uncertain about based on that feedback. Also, the terrific response we’ve had helped us to keep believing in our project.

Since we knew from the start that the game would be released as open-alpha, we decided to wait for the community’s opinions before we decided where we (and they) wanted to take the game. For instance, since the game is about space flight and spacecraft engineering, we were very concerned about the game turning out to be too complex, and have too steep a learning curve as a consequence, or too watered down, and leave players expecting more from it. After releasing the game, it all became a lot clearer, since players were able to tell us how they felt about it.

How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?

Felipe:

I think for indie developers, digital distribution is what makes it all possible. It would be unfeasible for us to distribute the game as hard copies, since the costs would be enormous. Because of this, it allows games to be developed by very small teams on very tight budgets, since you don’t have to deal with those costs and, consequently, the initial investment is a lot smaller.

Alejandro:

It is a good way to distribute a game. Apart from not handle high costs of physical distribution, the game unveils faster around the world.

Please talk about developing the art style for Kerbal Space Program.

Felipe:

The art style for KSP was a big decision, since it had to reflect the overall atmosphere we had planned for the game. The idea was to create a light-hearted experience, with a bit of a space-geek undertone to it. We wanted something that could look welcoming and warm, but at the same time be grounded on realism. The characters themselves I think are a good example of this. They’re bulging-eyed, big-headed green aliens, but they wear custom-tailored ACES suits from NASA’s Shuttle Program.

Jacobo:

I follow Felipe’s ideas because he has the whole concept of the game, but Alex and I added some extra ideas that sometimes work and others did not. At the end it’s important to make that things looks like in the real world they could work. That makes the game more interesting.  It’s a challenge for the gamers.

Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?

Felipe:

I think the toughest aspect has got to be the risk involved in such an undertaking. Especially if this is a first project, you really feel the pressure. This is the first game project Squad is doing. The company started out as an interactive marketing company, that had an in-house development team (I am part of that team), and we’ve developed software for all sorts of applications, some of which were almost video games. The company now has plans to get away from marketing, so they were incredibly enthusiastic about the idea of developing real games, but there’s always that element of risk, especially when the project is something so, er, different as KSP is. But we didn’t want to do yet another first-person shooter or another colored-block puzzle. We wanted to do something new, and of course with that comes the gamble of going into unknown territory.

I can’t count how many sleepless nights I’ve had thinking myself insane for going through with this project, not knowing how it would be received. As an indie developer you feel the project simply cannot fail. It becomes a lot more than just a job, it becomes part of who you are, and the thought of failure becomes a real nightmare.

Alejandro:

Well, I think is more about how the game will be received. When you have an idea of a game, it’s cool to put it on paper, talk about it and just imagine how it would be. But it’s all different when you start to create that idea and you plan to give it to an audience. The pressure is on you… you want to know how the players will take it, how the industry will talk about it, etc.

Kerbal Space Program Squad Interview

How important is it to get instant feedback about Kerbal Space Program from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?

Felipe:

Their feedback is our greatest asset I think. We value the community’s opinions more than we value our own, since they’re the ones we’re making the game for. So hearing what they have to say is of paramount importance to us. In the end, they’re the ones that decide how the game will turn out to be. We may have a vision for the finished game, but it all comes down to how they will receive it, and we’re always willing to change our way of thinking if they don’t agree.

Alejandro:

It’s very important! As I stated before, their feedback let us know how good or bad we were going on the game. Also, feedback helps us to improve it and to know what the players want for the game. The community is growing very fast and also their opinions and comments. It’s really great to read what they have to say about KSP.

How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Kerbal Space Program professionally?

Felipe:

Those reviews are very important to us, since they have the power to affect how their public will form it’s own opinions about the game. But I place even more value in what the players themselves have to say.

Alejandro:

I think reviews are very important because they let the game be known in other public, not only video game industry. Of course, I agreed that players thoughts are more valuable.

How do you feel about projects like the Humble Indie Bundle and “Pay What You Want Pricing”?  Would you be open to participating in a similar promotion in the future?

Felipe:

I think the Humble Indie Bundle and other similar initiatives are great for making indie games available to a wider audience. They can reach farther than we could on our own, and I think everyone benefits from that. Personally I would be very happy if KSP were included as one of the titles.

Alejandro:

Their initiative is good enough. I think that their strategy creating a package of indie games and selling it at what players want to pay is very efficient. Also they donate to charity, I think that’s the key of everything.

What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?

Felipe:

My opinion is that DRM is an illusion. You can’t beat piracy more than you can beat an earthquake. And in the end, all DRM does is make your paying customers resent you. I often compare it with running a store, and doing cavity searches on your customers while the thieves are coming in through the back door. I think piracy is probably unavoidable, and I feel the gaming industry is taking a wrong path in trying to beat it down with ever more aggressive methods, which are bound to fail anyway. I don’t see pirates as people who would have bought the game if they had no other way of getting it, so it’s not as if they were lost potential sales. And it’s always possible that a few players will choose to buy the game after having played a pirated version as some kind of ‘extended demo’. DRM for me is a waste of time and effort.

Alejandro:

Piracy is impossible to eradicate. No matter how much you try to avoid it, it will always happen. It is sometimes a good source to get the game known. Of course nobody wants their product to be “stolen” and sold without their consent, but it’s not possible to avoid it. So, I think DRM is useless.

Ezequiel and Adrian

We prefer to concentrate efforts on making the game a good one, rather than worrying and wasting resources in something that can´t be avoided. We believe that if you offer a good product at an accessible price for everyone, most people will buy it. We never considered DRM at any moment, we think that would be like cheating people.

How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?

Felipe:

I think DLC’s are good, if they’re not abused. I think they’re a valid means of adding extra content to a game, as long as the game in it’s ‘vanilla’ state isn’t butchered for the sake of releasing DLC’s later on. If done right, players will happily appreciate the new content it offers. If done wrong or too much, players will feel as if they’re being milked, and will resent the developer for it. I think it’s all a matter of controlling those greedy urges. ;)

Alejandro:

DLC is good, when you know how to use it. If your game can add levels, stages or items that make it more cool, it’s fine. But sometimes it’s annoying. I prefer to play a complete game, than try to download new content that maybe would not add something more entertaining or challenging to the game.

What are some of the games or genres you like to play?  Are you a fan of other indie developers?

Felipe:

Most of all I’m a flight sim nut. I remember playing MS’s flight simulator version 4.0 when I was 5 years old, on my dad’s 286 black-and-white computer. This passion for everything flight-related never left me, and now it’s taken off to new heights, and expanded to space flight as well. I also love games that feel more like toys than games. I don’t like it when games end. My favorites were games like SimCity, which have no clear goal and let the player be creative. There are a couple of Indie games I’ve played and was awed by them. Indie games are so creative. My favorite I think has to be World of Goo, which is a marvelous game through and through. Minecraft is another huge timesink of mine. I’m a big fan of Notch, Minecraft’s creator, Kyle Gabler (World of Goo) and Jonathan Blow (Braid).

Alejandro:

I like all genres, but I must say I love horror survival games. I am a very huge fan of Silent Hill series and I like to play them at night, with all lights off and a high volume. Yes, I like dark and deep mood while playing that kind of games. I think all indie developers are excellent and their work and contribution to the indie game industry gives us the opportunity to continue developing games that people will like.

What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?

Felipe:

Wow, I don’t consider myself as more than an up-and-coming dev myself :) But if I had one piece of advice to give, it would be: “Go with that insane idea of yours”. Pretty much all developers have their pet ideas, and I think many of those get suppressed and replaced by the ‘safer’ options. The gaming industry was born out of crazy ideas, and I think it’s sad that that innovation is being replaced by more and more variations of the ‘tried-and-true’ concepts. The Indies will yet prove a point to the mainstream industry I think.

Alejandro:

All ideas are great, no matter how insane they look. If you have any ideas, write them down and never let it go. Who knows, maybe it will become the greatest video game of all time.

Jacobo:

I realized that be part of a good work team will help to reach your goals.

Thanks goes out to all of the guys and girls at Squad for responding with such detailed and thought provoking answers.  You can pick up Kerbal Space Program for free on the official site.

-Conducted by Adam Ames

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