Conducted by Adam Ames
Elliot Gibbs from the New Zealand based CodeForce, developer for the 4X space strategy title, Distant Worlds, was able to take time out of his busy day to participate in this e-mail interview. You will get the story on how Distant Worlds was created, struggles the team faced, and various opinions on the PC gaming industry.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Distant Worlds.
My name is Elliot Gibbs, I’m the designer and developer of Distant Worlds.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Distant Worlds was CodeForce’s first title, started as an independent development effort a number of years ago. It began as a part-time endeavor, but ended up being full-time once we found our publisher, Matrix Games
Where did the idea for Distant Worlds come from?
I had the idea to make something like Distant Worlds for a long time. I grew up with Star Wars, and thus I’d always wanted a space strategy game that reflected that same epic feel. Something with lots of detail and depth, with a galaxy that you could get lost in, with tons of life and activity.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Distant Worlds?
Big complex games like Distant Worlds can quickly become hard for players to understand and to see what is going on. We had to combat this problem by adding completely new features to help the player.
We realized this when we first got some external feedback on the game. So we added the Galactopedia (in-game, context-sensitive help), an interactive advisor system that makes gameplay suggestions, and tutorials.
In its current form, how close is Distant Worlds to your initial vision?
Fairly close overall. The vision for Distant Worlds actually evolved a lot over time. My overarching goal was to simply have a big, deep, immersive galaxy with lots of activity that you could explore and participate in. So specific gameplay aspects that supported that goal have been added as we went along. The core empire-building aspects have always been there, but we added a lot of other new features over time.
Some 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 Distant Worlds and if you faced a similar challenge.
I think that is especially true in strategy games that are more complex by nature. I think the biggest thing is to expose as much information as possible to the player through the user interface, so that they can understand what is going on. This has been a big challenge for us, and something that we’ve played a bit of catch-up with.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Distant Worlds would run on the various PC system configurations?
We’ve tried to avoid any platform-specific technology to minimize this problem. I think that this has generally worked pretty well.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being a PC developer?
When you’re a small developer, you have to cover all the bases – not just development of the game. We’re greatly helped by our excellent publisher Matrix Games who can handle much of this for us. But finding time to do everything is the toughest problem – you need to delegate jobs to others wherever possible.
How did you create funding for the development of Distant Worlds and did you receive emotional support from your family and friends during this time?
This started off as a part-time project, so it was self-funded to begin with. We weren’t even sure whether it would end up as a commercial product, so we never sought funding.
Ongoing interest and support from family and friends was a big help – they’d often have good ideas for the game. Alternatively they’d tell you when you were going off on a wild tangent to nowhere with some fancy new feature
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Distant Worlds
During development we used some very basic in-house graphics for the game. But when we finally approached our eventual publisher, they put us in touch with an excellent artist, Jason Barish. Over a period of months we worked with Jason to develop a more unified look for the game and to plan out and make all of the graphics in the game. This was a quantum leap over the art that we had previously.
Please tell us why there is no demo for Distant Worlds
It’s very hard to make a demo that really conveys the depth of a game like Distant Worlds – crippling the demo necessarily takes away some important gameplay elements.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Distant Worlds from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
We listen carefully to what players say and try to respond to their requests. There’s a lot of feedback though, so we have to prioritize new features, and inevitably some items don’t get included.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Distant Worlds professionally?
They’ve often got a good feel for what players want to see, so we listen to all feedback – even reviewers
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 Distant Worlds?
Modders can make a huge contribution towards the longevity of a game. We’ve tried to make Distant Worlds mod-friendly from the outset, releasing our first modding guide before we released the game itself. Our next expansion pack “Distant Worlds – Legends” dramatically increases the moddability of the game. We’re hoping to get our updated modding guide for this out before release.
What advice would you give up-and-coming PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Work hard! No matter how good an idea you have, it will take lots of work to get it to market. Don’t try and do everything yourself – externally contracted artwork, music, etc can be a very good idea. Even buying royalty-free art and music off-the-shelf works just fine.
And get a publisher if at all possible. Leveraging a publishers expertise in marketing, distribution and support will leave you time to focus on making a great game. – End
We would like to thank Elliot and everyone at CodeForce for giving offering their thoughts and opinions. You can grab Distant Worlds via Matrix Games.
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