Conducted By Adam Ames
CCO of Escape Hatch Entertainment, Garry M. Gaber, talks to TPG about the successful Kickstarter campaign for their upcoming space combat game, Starlight Inception. You will also read how Garry’s love for sci-fi shaped the idea for Starlight Inception, his take on DRM and piracy, beginnings at LucasArts, advice to other start-ups and much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Starlight Inception.
I’m the president and chief creative officer of Escape Hatch Entertainment, a small development studio in Austin, Texas. I’m also the project leader and art director of Starlight Inception, a game we’re developing that takes place 100 years from tomorrow, and we describe as the “rebellious stepchild of Wing Commander and X-wing vs TIE, with a fresh take on the classic space sim genre”.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
After graduating from New York University, I worked for several years in the engineering field, dreaming about finding a job in the game or special effects industry. I would work these ten hours days then come home and work on demo reels until the early hours of the morning, then start over the next day. After a year of this, my demo reel was noticed by LucasArts Entertainment, and they flew me out for an interview. Within a couple more days, they made me an offer. I worked for five years as an artist and lead artist, then was given the chance to design and project lead games of my own.
Where did the idea for Starlight Inception come from?
I’ve always been a great fan of any movie with space as a milieu or a spaceship in it, starting with Star Trek and continuing from there. I’ve also played many of the flight and space based simulations and shooters over the past forty years, again starting with the old green screen Star Trek game on the minis of the early 1970s. The first time I played Wing Commander and X-wing, I was blown away by this kind of game, and I’ve always dreamed of building one of my own. After leaving LucasArts and starting Escape Hatch, we did a lot of learning games, which were huge challenges, both in terms of budget and design. They were hugely rewarding to do, but there was always this other game that I wanted to make.
Are there plans to release on Linux or Mac?
We are currently discussing the feasibility of this option with a well-known Mac/Linux packager. More news will be coming in the next few months…
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Starlight Inception.
We want the game to feel very realistic and immersive – that is the central design imperative that flows to other concerns. The art style has to feel like you’re looking at something that might exist in 100 years and that doesn’t look alien enough from our present day fighters and naval ships to make you wonder how we got there. The level design has to be clear and tied in well to the story, while still encouraging exploration and world-building. And the music needs to grab hold and make you feel like you’re the hero in the middle of a space epic.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
It would have to be the fact that there is no publisher to fall back on for additional funds, and for other in house services that bring value to a game (i.e. marketing, community management, built in brand players, etc.).
Tell us about your overall experience with using Kickstarter and how you came up with the perks in order to balance cost with giving potential backers a reason to support development.
I knew nothing about Kickstarter until a few months ago. But I worked perhaps twenty cubicles from Tim Schaefer while I was at LucasArts, and when I heard about what DoubleFine had accomplished, I was completely awestruck. I saw right away that this was a new model for not only funding, but also for building community and awareness of independent projects that didn’t include the familiar pitch process for publishers. In addition, there was the added component that you were speaking directly to fans of the genre (and hopefully eventually fans of the game). This was too compelling to pass up. But there is a great fear that I had with Kickstarter: what if the idea wasn’t relevant? What if no backers came? I’m sure that goes through everyone’s mind, but you just never know what the public is going to do. At once nerve-wracking and fantastically exciting at the same time.
As far as finding a balance, that was a spreadsheet exercise – and there was lots of back and forth in the process. I got a lot of opinions from others before eventually deciding on the final pledge amounts. And then there was a lot of changes made mid-campaign – eventually I needed another spreadsheet just to reconcile the different tiers and pledge amounts – it got very confusing by the end of the campaign.
Are you planning to make Starlight Inception on the various digital distribution platforms?
Yes, we will make it available on Steam (pending approval) and Playstation Network for Vita. We may also release on other digital platforms if things work out that way.
Where are you at in terms of launch price?
We’re thinking pretty close to $15 for the digital download, whether it be Steam (pending approval), Playstation Vita or DRM-free PC.
Are there plans to release a demo at or near launch?
Yes. We certainly hope that will be possible. We will also have a Beta version that just Kickstarter backers and people who pre-purchase the game on the Escape Hatch Entertainment website can participate in.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Starlight Inception from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Being a small developer, this helps a lot. Instant feedback isn’t as important as feedback in general. The trick is separating the nuggets from the noise.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Starlight Inception professionally?
A lot. I place a lot of importance in general on other people’s opinions, professional or not. If you aren’t in tune with your audience, how can you make a game that thrills them?
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’d have to look at the cost versus return – I know that the “Humble Bundle” for instance has done very little to lower the piracy rate, though I really respect what the developers are trying to do. I know few people who have a problem paying between $10 – $15 for a downloadable game, if it gives great value. I’d hate to think even games priced that low are pirated, but I know it happens frequently.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
I think if piracy wasn’t so out of control, then intrusive DRM wouldn’t be so prevalent – I find both repugnant. People think that developers are rich and so stealing from them hurts no one, but speaking as a developer this isn’t true – by stealing software instead of paying a fair price for it, those pirates make future games by the same developer less likely. And if there is enough piracy, the pirates make intrusive DRM a better possibility. On the other hand, I hate intrusive DRM – there is nothing worse than legitimately purchasing a Blu-Ray movie and having to sit through seemingly endless FBI and Interpol warnings.
How would you feel about individuals posting gameplay videos of Starlight Inception?
I would be honored if people were into the game enough to post gameplay videos about it.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
DLC can be used to extend the life of a game, but it can also be kind of crass, especially in the case of launch DLC. The very process of holding back content to gain a few extra bucks per copy at launch isn’t what we’re choosing to do – we do however support adding value and longevity to the game through additional missions, levels and ships, if they truly do add depth.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Starlight Inception?
From a developer’s standpoint, I see the modding community as a boon for games – giving life beyond the initial product’s normal life cycle. There are still people playing and enjoying Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds today. We are actively working to make this game “mod-friendly” on the PC, but a lot of that will depend on our engine.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Work hard to delineate yourself, your work, and your game. Work as hard as you can to make a great product that stands on its own. Never rest on your concept – always be looking for ways to improve it through feedback, analysis and iteration. Never be satisfied with what you’ve got, even when it goes gold – you can always improve the experience.
We would like to thank Garry and everyone at Escape Hatch Entertainment and wish them continued success. You can read more on Starlight Inception on their now-funded Kickstarter page and make a pre-purchase on the official site.