Edward Curtis-Sivess from Ysty Games provided TPG with some great insight on how his side-scrolling shooter Match 3 retro arcade title, In Space, was developed.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of In Space.
Hi, I’m Edward Curtis-Sivess, and I am the sole person at Ysty Games. I program everything, draw everything, market everything, and get significantly less sleep than I probably should.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I’ve been developing games for as long as I can remember, starting with Game Maker and then DarkBASIC as a kid. I would often make side-scrolling shooters (such as the no-doubt amazing RoboWasp, which I made when I was 10) and simple puzzle games. In my late teens I started playing around the idea of releasing games, and although I never released anything but screenshots, I have a lot of unfinished prototypes from around then (mostly built in Construct), such as a cyberpunk platformer where the goal of each level was to reach the super-spy lemon, and a moody game about walking through a cave with an omnipotent probably-evil narrator who was totally not just GladOS. Last year, I decided I should start making things I can actually put out, and In Space is the first product of that.
Where did the idea for In Space come from?
In Space came from attempting to reconcile early, pure, game design techniques with more modern approaches. Ridiculously enough, if I had to name one inspiration it would be Demons to Diamonds, which is a really bad old Atari 2600 game that is pretty much nothing like In Space, but the unabashedly contrived nature of its mechanics encouraged me to try and emulate that lost style of design in my next game.
I’d also say that as the project went on, it became my attempt to fix modern top-down/side-scrolling shooters. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with bullet hell, but I don’t enjoy that style of game because it requires so much focus on your avatar as opposed to your enemies. You spend the vast majority of your time in those games just staring at your player character, shooting pretty much indiscriminately hoping you’ll hit your enemies, because if you take your eye off of your player for a second you’re liable to get hit by one of the hundred thousand bullets currently on screen.
In most first and third person shooters, it’s the opposite. Sure, enemies are firing at you, but most of your attention is on aiming and shooting the enemy accurately, rather than running about firing randomly in their general direction. In Space tries to bring this style of play to the side-scrolling shooter. For one thing, enemies don’t shoot at you, you simply have to prevent them from reaching your barrier (which is the white line in front of your ship). You have a laser sight, which allows you to see where you’re aiming without looking at your ship (also, laser sights are awesome). Furthermore, it punishes you harshly for shooting indiscriminately (either missing enemies, or shooting enemies without consideration for chaining those of the same colour) by moving your barrier forward, giving you less room to maneuver.
As an aside, even though it’s officially called the barrier, I’ve always thought of it as the Tetris Line, because it brings the exponential failure you experience in Tetris (where you place one piece badly, giving you less room to move around in, leading you to make more mistakes, giving you even less room and so on until you lose the game) to In Space.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing In Space?
From a programming perspective, I learned about the importance of organising code. In Space grew from a simple prototype, so I never really thought out what should be where. If I were to look at a lot of the code now I doubt I’d be able to understand it, it’s such a mess. I also learned a lot about the gaming community, especially the surprisingly positive Greenlight community. I kind of rushed to put In Space up on Greenlight the day Valve launched it, and did a really bad job with the media and description I uploaded. It turns out if you’re not descriptive enough people tend to jump to some pretty wild, and generally inaccurate, conclusions.
My main success was just finishing the game. I wasn’t entirely convinced for a lot of the project that I’d ever be able to finish it (I don’t have a terribly good track record with seeing things through to the end), and actually being able to sit down and say “Right, that game’s done” was really satisfying.
In its current form, how close is In Space to your initial vision?
My vision of In Space changed a lot throughout development, becoming more and sometimes less ambitious based on what I’d learnt and my own evolving abilities. Certainly the core gameplay concept remained the same throughout development, and from that perspective In Space is exactly what my initial vision was, but in the end I ended up adding a lot of things – upgradable characters, alternate weapons, certain AI patterns, etc – that I never thought I would have been able to do when I first set out to make this game.
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 In Space and if you faced a similar challenge.
Setting difficulty can be extremely difficult. I’ve had plenty of sleepless nights wondering if normal is too easy, or too hard (for the Greenlight demo I was so worried that people would scoff at the difficulty that I made it default to hard). I tried to set difficulty so that normal was quite below my skill level, while the highest difficulty (Bonkers) was above: never assume your audience is as inept as yourself. Even after hundreds (thousands?) of hours playing it, I rarely get beyond round 3 of Bonkers in any mode.
When you’re deep into development, you’re so utterly focused on production that its easy to lose sight of how the game appears or plays to people who haven’t spent every waking second of the last sixth months of their lives thinking about it. What I would try to do was, occasionally (two or three times over the entire production period), just take a weekend off. I’d be so buzzed that I usually wouldn’t stop programming for that period (I have plenty of water physics and level designer prototypes from those breaks), but when I got back to the game on Monday I’d have just a short period of readjustment where I could suddenly see much more clearly what was and wasn’t working, and how difficulty could be adjusted.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring In Space would run on the various PC system configurations?
The engine I used, LÖVE, is quite good about that stuff. Since the game is quite graphically simple, I didn’t have any trouble running it on any Windows or Mac configuration. Linux on the other hand was an entirely different beast. For one thing, because of some weirdness to do with floating point handlers in the Linux version of LÖVE, the game ran much slower. It still plays great on just about any reasonable machine, but the system requirements are noticeably higher on Linux compared to any other operating system.
Plus, actually packaging up the game in a reasonable form on Linux was nearly impossible. Creating a Windows .exe or Mac .app took almost no time, creating a .deb took longer, but creating a stand-alone executable that could run on Linux with its own packaged library files required endless back and forths with the very helpful (and patient) technical people at Desura, as well as learning BASH, which is a ridiculous language. My plan to simultaneously release the game on Linux along with every other platform delayed the games release by over a month.
The Linux version as it is now works perfectly on Ubuntu and its derivatives (such as Linux Mint), but even now I’m putting together a patch to make it work out-of-the-box on more distros (namely Arch Linux and Slackware). The craziest thing, though, is that the game was developed entirely on a Linux machine, and I’m still finding it difficult to support that community.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for In Space.
The art style evolved quite a lot from the beginning of development to what it became. It can be quite difficult for a lone or small developer to generate enough art to populate an entire game (which is why graphical styles mimicking simpler, older games are so common in the indie community). While I did end up with a retro aesthetic (unsurprising since the design is supposed to evoke the early age of gaming as well), I like to think I created something of a distinctive, cohesive look. I tried to go with the theme of Atari 2600 graphics as seen through a late-eighties arcade monitor.
Before settling with the retro style, I did try and do a super detailed tribal art style for the game. But it was just too busy a look and it didn’t really mesh with the throwback nature of the gameplay.
Level design in In Space is all procedurally generated. It doesn’t work for every game, but I think it benefits a game like In Space which focuses heavily on replayability. Plus, in some respects (but not others), it can lessen the workload on a developer because it allows you to generate scenarios, enemies and AI routines and then just semi-randomise them without necessarily having to carefully craft every aspect of every level.
While I trusted myself to do the art, I’m pretty terrible when it comes to music composition. I didn’t have any money to actually spend on this thing, but there are a few musicians who will let you use their music for free if you credit them. I spent ages looking for the right tone of music to go with the game, and in the end contacted the very talented Matthew le Blanc to ask him if I could use a bunch of his music in the game, which he kindly allowed me to do.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Marketing. People are much more willing to listen to you when you have a product to show, but getting your game in front of enough people – and getting those people to then buy it – is extraordinarily challenging if you don’t already have a fanbase.
How did you go about funding In Space and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
Because of it being just me doing pretty much everything myself, In Space took time rather than money (and as a university student I have rather more of the former than the latter). I certainly received a lot of emotional support from those around me, though.
Tell us about the process of submitting In Space to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
So far, I’ve only released In Space on Desura. Getting the game on there was a really easy, streamlined process. The only frustrating parts of it where due to a the previously mentioned technical difficulties that prevented it being released on Linux for a little while, but the Desura people were not only really patient, but also extremely helpful and provided a lot of good information that in the end made the Linux version totally work.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
I didn’t really do any formal research, but I’ve bought enough indie games in my life that I think I have a pretty good sense of what’s too expensive or not. Five bucks just felt right, in the end. I dislike it when games are too expensive.
Can you tell us why you chose to release a demo for In Space?
Videos and screenshots can only go so far to letting you know if you’d like a game. The only way to know for sure is to play it, and without a demo you’re pretty much just encouraging piracy from people who don’t want to gamble their precious wages on something they’ve never played.
How important is it to get instant feedback about In Space from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Very important. The feedback I’ve got through Greenlight, especially, helped me figure out the best way to pitch my game, and ended up with me completely changing the in-game manual to better explain how the systems work.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review In Space professionally?
I place a lot of credence on game journalists. They do a difficult, often under appreciated job and generally have very informed criticisms of your game.
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?
Pay what you want is a truly fascinating aspect of modern indie distribution. I have purchased every Humble Bundle, and a good chunk of the various sales duplicating that model, such as Indie Royale. It turns out that most people generally do want to give a reasonable price to people when they acquire their creations, which I find very refreshing.
I would absolutely be interested in taking part in such as project.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
As Cory Doctorow says, computers are never going to become less good at copying things. DRM causes more trouble for paying customers than it does for pirates, and I don’t think DRM will ever be able to keep pace in this nonsensical arms race with the pirates’ ability to share. Always-online DRM such as that made infamous by Ubisoft and Blizzard is even worse.
To combat piracy companies should focus on providing better, not worse, service to the consumer. I don’t pirate because I like having my games on Steam, Desura and GOG, I like the ease of installation and updating, I like being able to trust a service to provide me with the correct, virus-free version of what I asked for, I like having persistent achievements, nerdy extras and user-friendly mod support. These services provide a better experience to me than piracy ever could, and that’s the direction the industry needs to be going in as a whole, not DRM. Making games a bit cheaper, especially in the global south, couldn’t hurt as well.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of In Space?
Posting videos is great, I’m all for it!
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
There are far more positives to DLC than negatives, in my opinion. To me one of the biggest problems with mainstream game companies is employee retention, and the fact that it is standard practice at many firms to lay off large swaths of their staff after a product has shipped is, frankly, disgusting. While the long-term solution to this may be unionisation, DLC in theory can (and in some cases has already seemed to) prevent this expendable culture by allowing a team to roll over to DLC production as soon as a game has gone gold. Rather than having your staff be idle, or laid off, DLC provides a strong economic case for keeping a production team together even in the gaps between major projects. Having said that, Horse Armour is still stupid.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for In Space?
The modding community is one I’ve always appreciated from afar. It’s an extremely valuable part of PC gaming, and even if I’ve never really taken part in the creation of mods I’ve certainly used them. It’s a real shame that when big budget games come to PC most generally don’t have any support for mods.
Because of the way In Space was created, it’d be pretty difficult to create mods for it (although I’m more than happy for people to try). I’ve already built in proper mod support for my next major (unannounced) project, though, so hopefully people will be able to do good things with that.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Make games. If you can’t program, use a tool like GameMaker, Construct 2 or GameSalad. If you can’t draw, use stick figures. If you can’t compose, use Creative Commons or copyleft licensed music. Even if you never release your first few games, the creative satisfaction from making them after years of thinking up game ideas and not being able to do anything with them is extraordinary, and you can only get better the more you do it. Eventually you’ll make something you want other people to see, and then you can start getting your name out there. Also, watch Extra Credits, it’s got a lot of good insight in to game design.
We would like to thank Edward for his insightful answers. You can pick up In Space via Desura.