Conducted By Adam Ames

StarDrive Zer0sum Games Interview

Coming to us by way of the beautiful Pacific Northwest is Daniel DiCicco head of Zer0sum Games and developer on the soon-to-be released 4x space sim, StarDrive.  Daniel talks about how StarDrive was originally conceived, his take on the PC gaming industry, his Kickstarter campaign and much more.  Here is a glimpse:

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

I don’t care about piracy.  If people pirate my game, I’ll be proud, because it shows me that people want and like my game.  Of course, I’d rather get paid for it, but I know that a pirate is going to pirate and that’s that.  I can’t stop them and I’m not going to try.  We’ll put a serial key on the software to make it harder, but I expect that will be cracked in short order.

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

I’m 29 years old and I live in Portland, Oregon. By day, I am a lawyer focusing on criminal defense and divorces.  By night, I am Zero Sum Games!

How did you get started in developing PC games?

I learned how to code in college and I’ve been gaming for as long as I could hold a game controller.  Game development has always been a dream but the truth is that it is a terribly difficult market to enter.  If I went the professional career route I would have started as a code-monkey in a huge firm working on someone else’s game, and that didn’t appeal to me.  So I didn’t chase that dream down because I didn’t think about just doing it myself.

Years later, I’m now a little more seasoned in the ways of the world and I have learned a lot about what hard work and perseverance can get you.  I can do this myself, and so I just started doing it.  And every day I wake up and work the day job and every night I come home and work the code.  My wife sacrifices a lot to let me do this, but she believes in the dream.  Hopefully I’ll be able to quit the day job in the near future to just focus full time on PC game development.

Where did the idea for StarDrive come from?

StarDrive came from my love of the old classics.  I love Masters of Orion 2 and I love Escape Velocity.  I wanted to fuse these two games into a shiny new one, and I think I’ve succeeded at that in StarDrive.

What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing StarDrive?

I’ve had great success in learning how to deal with contract artists.  I was lucky enough to strike gold on my first attempt at hiring a ship artist and he has just been incredible in helping me learn about the game development process from his side.  I’ve also learned, or at least reinforced my previous notions on the topic, that hard work has its rewards.  Let me tell you — there are a lot of distractions out there. It’s tough sometimes to just focus and code, especially when you’re coding up a button or a construction queue or something equally as unglamorous.  But when you put the work in and have a functional product for it, it feels great.

On the failures side, I have learned the hard way that it is very easy to waste significant time when you don’t properly plan your coding sessions.  Today my coding process is to fully plan the code, then go implement it.  I used to wing it a bit more, and while that has its charms and can produce some great results, I can spin my wheels doing that.  So I’ve learned to plan in more detail and that gets me higher quality code in a shorter amount of time.

In its current form, how close is StarDrive to your initial vision?

Code wise, we’re almost there.  The framework for everything is in place and I’m mostly populating content at this point.  I still need to round out diplomacy and do a lot of tuning on the AI, but again, the framework is all there.  Art-wise, we have a long way to go.  This is what Kickstarter is all about.  I think the Kickstarter campaign is going to be successful, and this means that I should have at least $7500 in my war chest to finish off the game’s art.  This means that I will have some beautiful alien races and they will have unique ships.

StarDrive Zer0sum Games Interview

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 StarDrive and if you faced a similar challenge.

I want StarDrive to be a real challenge for players of all levels, and I don’t want the AI to cheat to provide that challenge.  Easier difficulties will essentially just have less aggressive AI opponents, and less tricky AI opponents.  For instance, on an easier difficulty, an AI opponent might attack a single planet at a time.  On higher difficulties with trickier opponents, you can expect multi-system attacks, feint attacks, raids on your shipping, and other trickery.

But we’re not yet doing beta testing and a lot of the difficulty testing, tweaking, and tuning is going to be done there.

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

Definitely, and it’s an ongoing battle as I distribute alpha builds and see which systems run into problems.  I know that older video cards have problems displaying textures that aren’t sized to the power of 2, and I previously didn’t think about that until I tried StarDrive on my wife’s laptop and had it fail to run.  So it’s small things like this that have me pulling my hair out from time time!

Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for StarDrive.

Level design is easy: it’s all procedural!  The Multiplayer map will be hand crafted, but the Universes are all created according my universe creation algorithm on each new game.  The art style is majorly influenced by my favorite science fiction books and shows.  BSG, Star Wars, Star Trek — you’ll see ships that remind you of those in my game.

I’m not trying to break any major boundaries here art wise.  What I want is a smart, fun game that looks great and lets you live out your space empire fantasy.  You want a Klingon Bird of Prey?  Well, you won’t get exactly that but you’ll get something close enough, you know?

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

Getting noticed!  There is so much noise out there, so many games, that it’s hard to stand out from the crowd.  You can’t sell games if no one knows about you, and so this is the hardest part for me.  It’s folks like you that help us get noticed, so thanks!

How did you go about funding StarDrive and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?   Also, please talk about your decision to use Kickstarter and how you came up with your incentive perks.

My wife is my biggest supporter emotionally.  This is hard work with no guaranteed reward at all.  She encourages me and keeps me grounded and I can’t thank her enough for that support.  Financially, I’ve been funding the game out of my own pocket.  We pay our bills and then I save money for StarDrive art!

I decided to use Kickstarter to raise funds because I am at the point where I am ready to show the world what I am doing, and because I think people really want to see this game get made.  It’s very validating to know that people are ready to pre-order and support StarDrive development.  The money that I hope to raise there will fully bring this game to life.  It’s an awesome website and I’m grateful for all the support thus far.  The incentives that I chose allowed people to do anything from pre-order all the way through contributing to the actual design.  I tried to model my incentives off of other successful Kickstarter projects and I think it has been successful to date.

StarDrive Zer0sum Games Interview

It seems indie developers are looking to capitalize on the space sim genre while AAA studios have mostly ignored it.  Did you have any reservations about creating StarDrive?

I had no reservations about creating StarDrive.  This is the game I want to see and I know others want to see it too.  If AAAs are going to ignore it, then that’s all the better for me.  I want to play this game, and I know others do too.  So there’s a market out there, even if it is too small for the AAAs to care about.

Will there be a demo for StarDrive at or near launch?

Definitely.

What are your plans for implementing the multiplayer component for StarDrive?   

StarDrive will ship with an arena mode where you can do some basic MOBA-style deathmatches with the goal of destroying the enemy’s base.  This is a lot simpler than doing the whole campaign mode, but the campaign mode will be released shortly thereafter.  Also, the MOBA mode will be supported extensively.  I’d really like to see a community grow out of it.

On your Kickstarter page, you mention the ability to select different races and customize options.  Can you go into more detail about this process and what we will be available at launch? 

If you have ever played Masters of Orion 2, you will immediately recognize this gameplay option.  You first pick your race’s portrait and ship style.  Then you have a set number of points and a number of positive or negative attributes you can choose.  There is a wide variety of skills improve research, industry, combat, and other skills (or to make them worse).  Then there are unique historical traits that can affect you.  Perhaps you have a strong military tradition, or your race is very religious.  Perhaps your race is a pre-warp race, and the only reason you are in space is because you found an alien ship crashed in your arctic ice.  I personally like that trait a lot.  You start with a high-powered alien ship but no other technologies, putting you at an early disadvantage.  That said, your ship is bad-ass.  So there are a lot of options to make your game play experience unique.

How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?

I would love to be involved in these bundles but I’m not sure if my title fits the mold.  In truth, I would very much like to be published and take a more traditional approach to getting my games out there.  I have no problem at all with the Indie bundles although I have seen some people grumbling about it.  I think it is a great idea and a great way to distribute your game.

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

I don’t care about piracy.  If people pirate my game, I’ll be proud, because it shows me that people want and like my game.  Of course, I’d rather get paid for it, but I know that a pirate is going to pirate and that’s that.  I can’t stop them and I’m not going to try.  We’ll put a serial key on the software to make it harder, but I expect that will be cracked in short order.

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

I personally prefer a more full-bodied expansion to “DLC”.  A lot of the DLC I’m seeing is just new content rather than new features, and I think that is the chief difference.   If a developer is asking someone for another $10, I want to get value, and to me this is new gameplay.  So long as I’m getting value, or providing it as a developer, DLC is just fine.  But for StarDrive, you’ll see more traditional “expansions” which add new features as well as content.

Will you allow mods to be created by the StarDrive community?

Definitely, and I will actively support this.  StarDrive’s data is mostly saved in XML files which are tweakable by people who know nothing about code.  If a modder needs more support than that, then I am happy to provide internal code changes to do what they want to do.

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

Just do it. Good ideas are cheap, but hard work is worth money.  In the end, that’s all it is.  If you work hard and have high standards for yourself, then you’re going to make it. -End

We would like to thank Daniel for taking time out of his busy day to interview with us.  You can check out the official StarDrive site.  You can also help out the development of StarDrive by contributing to his Kickstarter project.

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