Conducted By Adam Ames
John Saba, developer of the logic puzzler, Dinos in Space, talked to TPG about development, struggles of being indie, player feedback, the PC gaming industry, his take on the indie bundle craze and much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Dinos in Space.
Currently I just do game development part-time and Dinos in Space is the first game I’ve released. My studio is only me, so I did the design, programming, art and sound.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
In high school I played around with simple game making software like Klik & Play and made a few tiny “games” for friends. They were very goofy, really just jokes. After graduating from college with a liberal arts degree and not knowing what to do with myself, I decided to make a game as a way to learn how to program and get into professional software development.
Where did the idea for Dinos in Space come from?
I made a little tech demo that had dinos floating in space just to get familiar with the tools I was using. It was hilarious to watch them flying around so I thought it would be a good theme. The idea for the puzzle gameplay emerged as I spent more time playing around with the tech demo and seeing what I was capable of doing under the limitations of a one person studio.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Dinos in Space?
Listening to feedback really helps. Early on I was sort of stubborn about changing simple things people pointed that could be better like the control scheme. At the same time it was important for me to be confident in my direction for the game and just move on with development or I would never finish. Also, as a new developer I didn’t fully appreciate the saying that 90% of the development is the last 10%. Even for a game as small as this, most of the work was finishing and polishing the project. Factoring that time in and developing around those limitations is a lesson I’ll take into my next game.
In its current form, how close is Dinos in Space to your initial vision?
The final game was pretty far from my initial vision. At first I imagined a game somewhere between Lemmings and Mini-Golf where you had got a bunch of dinos from one point to another by bouncing them off things – more of a dexterity game than a puzzler. To be honest, a lot of my decisions were somewhat arbitrary and driven by working around my limitations as a beginner software developer.
For example, the basic arrow tile that bounces the dinos was just the easiest thing I could think of to implement early on in the process but it ended up becoming the main mechanic of the game. Making the dinos go in only 4 directions made that even easier to program. After messing around some more it became apparent that the game needed to have a grid so that placing tiles on the screen was easy and paths could be traced. I had seen games like Hive’s Pragmatica and Zach Barth’s engineering series, and realized that I had the framework for a similar puzzle game. So the game really evolved as it developed instead of coming from a clear vision… not the most efficient or timely method but it ended up working out.
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 Dinos in Space and if you faced a similar challenge.
It’s true! The first puzzles I designed were mostly too hard. That was the biggest complaint I got in the initial round of feedback. To help with this I got into a pattern of designing a few puzzles a day very quickly and trying to solve them a week later in every way possible. That was my attempt at “forgetting” my own puzzles. I don’t know if it worked very well, but it did give me a second chance to find new solutions and retouch the puzzle, usually by making it easier. Also I forced myself to make most of the puzzles on a small grid size which made for tighter and clearer design.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Dinos in Space would run on the various PC system configurations?
For Windows there wasn’t much trouble. I built the game in Python using the Pygame library and distribution was fairly straightforward though I admit going through some of the steps to convert the source into an executable felt a bit like magic. For Mac I had trouble getting the game to run on other machines and OS versions for a while. It still doesn’t work on earlier Mac OS versions. The biggest challenge was wading through poor documentation for some of the tools without a deep understanding of the systems as a new developer.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Dinos in Space.
The art changed a few times throughout development as I figured out what I was capable of producing. The retro style was really just what I was able to do and make look decent in a reasonable amount of time. The super simple menu is the also the result of not wanting the project to drag on while making it look consistent. Hopefully the cute baby dinos with tiny arms are charming regardless of their simplicity.
For the level design, I didn’t really learn to make good puzzles until the end of the development cycle. The method that worked best for me was sort of randomly throwing tiles on the map and then figuring out a solution from there… which turns out to be a lot like solving a finished puzzle! Also I tried to design a lot of the puzzles around a unique mechanic that would serve as the “epiphany” of the puzzle. For example, in one puzzle you must use the portals to leapfrog over themselves which is a specific mechanic that is not used previously in the game.
The sounds in the game were made with the program BFXR and were just fun to do. There wasn’t much method to that, just tweaking a bunch of sliders until something sounded right.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
For me it was maintaining good relationships with people I care about. Between working full-time during the day on an unrelated job to pay the bills and developing the game in my free time, I started to feel like a bad friend when I constantly had to say I’m staying in to work instead of going out for a beer or whatever else. I imagine they’re similar struggles that anybody working on a project of passion has.
How did you go about funding Dinos in Space and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
As I did everything myself and used mostly open source software, the only real cost of development was time. Emotional support was very important and I’m lucky to have a supportive partner, family and friends. It was also crucial that I get involved in my local development community. Being able to talk and get feedback from like-minded people is really encouraging and gives you a good sense of perspective.
Tell us about the process of submitting Dinos in Space to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
Currently I’ve only tried to sell the game through my website and Indievania, so there was no resistance. I know that if I wanted to release on a platform like Steam, the game would simply need to look better and have better promotional materials. Still, releasing a game commercially means it needs to have a certain level of polish and functionality so just getting to that point was a big challenge for me.
How much pull do you have when setting sale and regular pricing through digital distribution channels? Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
So far I have complete control over the price. I did research similar titles which helped me decide on the low launch price.
For the most part, big budget studios no longer release PC demos while almost every indie developer does. Why do you think this trend is occurring? Tell us why released a demo for Dinos in Space and the difficulties in doing so.
Hmm… perhaps everyone knows what game to expect from a lot of big budget studios so they don’t release demos? I’m not really sure. For me a demo is essential because no one’s ever heard me or my game so they need to play it to see if they like it. Releasing the demo was trivial as I just changed a few lines of code and re-packaged it.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Dinos in Space from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
That’s an interesting question. I got great feedback from forums like TIGSource but when I look back I realize I got pretty much the same feedback from friends and from doing further testing myself. Still, feedback from complete strangers is great because there is usually no bias. Also, it’s exciting to reach out to people you don’t know. For some of the technical problems I had, other forums were helpful mostly to get people to test things to see if they work. Even so, it was surprisingly hard to get anyone to pay attention… but I’m leaning that you just can’t expect a lot of attention when you are first starting out, or really ever for that matter unless your game really stands out or people know who you are from other projects.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Dinos in Space professionally?
I haven’t gotten a lot of reviews at this point so it’s hard to say, but I think it’s always good to hear a professional review and learn how to improve your craft from that perspective. My game is targeted for casual (yet clever J) puzzle fans so if the reviewer plays a lot of those games I would take his or her advice more seriously. At the same time I’m all for game developers taking risks and baffling or infuriating reviewers with unique and bizarre creations – and in that case who really cares what anyone else thinks – so it just depends on what your trying to do.
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?
For the most part I think it’s great as it gives developers more exposure and gets people supporting them who wouldn’t otherwise. Of course the “race for the bottom” pricing trend that everyone talks about is a little concerning because people expect to pay less and less, but it’s hard to compete when there are so many games out there. It will be interesting to see where things go from here.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Like most small developers, I don’t think obnoxious DRM and anti-piracy measures are very effective. Plus they usually just annoy fans.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Dinos in Space?
I think it’s great, the more the better. My game is tiny and virtually unknown so it can only help!
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
I think it’s perfectly fine as long as the developers are forthcoming about what you get for the initial price and as long as the goods being sold are quality items – not ways to trick people into spending money. For example, a mobile version of Dinos in Space (which is in the works) that has downloadable puzzles, say 30 puzzles-in-a-pack for a dollar, seems like a reasonable and respectful way to sell the game. It’s very similar to having a free demo and the full game to purchase.
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 if mods were created for Dinos in Space?
I think modding is great as it extends the life of current games and gives new developers a chance to break into development. Also it provides a quicker way to make games from preexisting engines which is good. Dinos in Space has a puzzle editor, so I’m hoping to get a community involved in creating new puzzles to extend the life of the game (and so I can play some puzzles I didn’t make J).
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Set bite-sized goals, get involved with any community you can and just start making your game! You’ll learn faster from your mistakes then by planning your game for ages. -End
We would like to thank John for taking time to offer his great insights into indie development and the PC gaming industry. You can check out Dinos in Space on the official site or Indievania.