David Doane, Project Manager on the humorous retro point-and-click adventure, Astroloco: Worst Contact, speaks to TPG about the many areas of PC gaming development.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Astroloco: Worst Contact.
I’m David Doane, the director of the company and primarily the project manager. I contacted all of the storefronts the game is being sold on, have handled maybe 80% of the PR and organized all the voice acting and music for Astroloco.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
We started developing PC games in university, where the team first met. When we decided to start a company we chose to make PC games because it was the type of gaming we’re most familiar with.
Where did the idea for Astroloco: Worst Contact come from?
The idea started, based on an old kids game, as “Crossbows & Catapults in space” which then became “Trains in space”, which spawned the idea for an action game, before we settled on the idea of a point-and-click. At one point the trains even had faces, like a deranged, violent version of Thomas the Tank Engine. Confused? It’s ok, even we’re not sure how we got from point A to point B.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Astroloco: Worst Contact?
I’d say our biggest success is that we’ve finished a complete commercial game of this size at all. We had never made a game with this much content before, and it’s gratifying to know we can. We also managed to do it on a shoestring budget (although we had to pay for the shoestring, which accounted for most of our budget). This made things difficult, but we may not have been successful at all otherwise and it means all of our sales go directly to our profits! Now we can become the evil, money-grabbing developers we always wanted to be.
Our biggest failure is probably that we underestimated the amount of work to be done. The idea seemed simple enough in the beginning but as we started working we just needed more and more pieces here and there to make the game really come to life. As a result, we didn’t quite finish it in our original timeframe, but I don’t think there was any other way we could have made the game we wanted.
In its current form, how close is Astroloco: Worst Contact to your initial vision?
Pretty darn close. Only one change really comes to mind; the CEO, Mr. Burrows was originally planned as a playable character. He didn’t have a lot to do, though, so rather than adding more story just to include him, we took him out as a playable character entirely. We would’ve liked to expand upon Act 3 to make the ending even better, but time restraints prevented us from being able to do that.
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 Astroloco: Worst Contact and if you faced a similar challenge.
We did some play testing in an effort to avoid problems likes this, but found ourselves faced with a slightly different problem; it seems to be a little too easy for point-and-click game fans, but a little too hard for some other gamers. Point-and-click fans find that having no inventory system to go through makes solving puzzles much faster, because you don’t have the need to brute-force puzzles by testing five different items on every clickable thing in the room. On the other hand, non-point-and-click fans seemed to get lost because there weren’t enough hints guiding them through the game. The team agreed we didn’t want to add a full hint system, because it would take all of the remaining challenge out of the game, but that we’d leave the inventory the way it is so things didn’t get any more complicated.
As far as individual puzzles go, we tried to avoid the ‘what the hell was the designer thinking?!’ style that everybody seems to hate. I mean, yes, there are some really odd item combinations in the game, but nothing that isn’t clearly explained or otherwise telegraphed to the player. Sure, you might have to use a cardboard box on a steam pipe to redirect a nearby moon, but you’ll know why. Probably.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Astroloco: Worst Contact would run on the various PC system configurations?
On the whole, Adventure Game Studio took care of things for us. The only problem we couldn’t solve is the screen resolution. AGS is a pretty archaic engine by todays standards (although the community is making some real strides in a better direction), and sometimes it just doesn’t play nicely with modern graphics hardware. The game would run correctly on development PCs every time, but then I’ve had to go into the configuration files and change settings just so I could play on my person computer. There’s really nothing that can be done about that, short of swapping out the engine for a newer, but potentially unstable, community build. That’s why they invented readme files to go with games, though.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Astroloco: Worst Contact.
The art style is a continuation of subAtomic’s style (and Plan M, although that was created after we started Astroloco). The animations and characters were made purposefully simple so that they would not be time-consuming to produce, and they really stand out from the higher-res background art. That deliberate combination of clashing art styles really helps to give the game a unique feel. Sort of like a ‘signature style’.
The room design came fairly easily out of the story we wrote at the beginning, and puzzles emerged as we imagined problems that the characters would have to solve and situations we thought it would be entertaining to put them in. When you’re designing a puzzle for an adventure game, it’s important not to have the puzzle worked out before you have a place to put it; that just means you end up with a game full of puzzles that don’t really make any narrative sense. What we did, for the most part, was to write the story from start to finish, and then go through it again saying “okay, so the player needs to do this. What stops them?”
Music was one the most complicated bits as we outsourced it all. A freelancer we met on reddit took on about half of the music, while two students from our university split the other half between them. We asked for something that had natural, organic instrumentation, while remembering that technology is a big part of the Astroloco world. Like the graphical style, it’s a sort of deliberate dissonance that draws attention to itself. It was a difficult balance to strike, as we didn’t want anything to sound too artificial, or like it was generated by an algorithm. We told them all, “when in doubt, refer to the Space Quest soundtrack,” and that seemed to work. We had a bit of trouble when one the musicians had to leave near the end of production because of other commitments, but the remaining two musicians, to their credit, managed to pick up the slack and finish everything off. Brad ‘Brad Sucks’ Turcotte even threw in a piece for us at the last minute!
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
As I said, we didn’t have a budget at all, so no-one was getting paid to work on the game. That meant we all had to balance development with part-time or full-time work. That made planning things too far in advance very difficult, as we didn’t know who would be at their other job.
Also, being one of the only indie developers in the area doing what we’re doing was difficult. Cheltenham (where most of the team lives) is not exactly a thriving hub of game development activity, so we didn’t have that supportive live community that you get in places like Cambridge or London.
How did you go about funding Astroloco: Worst Contact and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
Truth be told, we were/are broke. We came fresh out of university, and didn’t have established day jobs to support ourselves. Our part-time jobs supported us as far as food and housing, but it didn’t leave us with any money to invest in the game, so we could not pay our freelancers. Thankfully, we found people willing to do the work for free, but it did mean we sometimes got relegated to the backburner. It’s understandable, and we certainly weren’t being ungrateful, but it was still frustrating. It required a lot of patience from the team. Thankfully our families, friends and university were very supportive, with advice and suggestions which helped us to make it through.
Tell us about the process of submitting Astroloco: Worst Contact to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
Submitting the game was a mixed bag. We emailed a lot of distribution platforms that we just never heard back from. However, those that did respond were very easy to work with. Once the agreements were signed it was very straight-forward; making any graphics they needed for their storefront, sending in our choice of screenshots, description and trailers, and then finally giving them the finished game. They’ve all been easy to contact, and answered every question we’ve had in full.
We were only turned down by one major storefront, who didn’t feel Astroloco was the type of game they wanted to sell on their site. They gave us fair and honest feedback and told us they would still like to see our next game whenever it’s ready. No hard feelings there. Greenlight is a bit more difficult, as it’s more of a popularity contest than anything else. We’ve got a fair few votes on there, but it remains to be seen if Astroloco will ever see the light of day on Steam.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
We did, and many of the point-and-click games out there are much longer than Astroloco and have far more expensive-looking graphics, which is why they cost two or three times as much. We wanted to keep the price down which is why we stuck with our own graphical style and didn’t make the game too long.
Can you tell us why you chose to release a demo for Astroloco: Worst Contact?
The style only really comes to together once you’re actually playing; it’s just not the same when you’re watching a trailer. If we wanted players to give the style a chance, we felt it was only fair that players can try it without making a financial commitment. This also feeds into a more general stance we take that all games really should have demos. You can watch a trailer for a movie and be convinced because the movie and trailer are both a passive experience. With a game, you only really know what you’re getting once you can play some of it. A trailer is never really enough. Only a playable demo can really give someone a genuine taste of a game.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Astroloco: Worst Contact from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Pretty damn important. While we are not going to change Astroloco now that’s been released, we want as much feedback as possible. It gives us a chance to interact with our players, build a community and clarify things that people may misunderstand about us. We also want to know where we fell flat, and where we succeeded, for next time around. All of it will help us to become better developers who give people the games they want to play.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Astroloco: Worst Contact professionally?
A fairly large amount, definitely. Reviews are a massive help to us, because they can reach far more people we can. So far all of the reviews have been great; all very fair and honest. Of course, we have had negatives pointed out about the game, but it’s nothing that we don’t agree with. All of that advice will be taken onboard going forward.
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 think it’s great, and we’d love to get involved in one. Something that gives me faith in humanity is knowing that indie gamers will pay a fair price for a game they like, given the choice. That’s more then you could say about most industries. I also love that indie developers willingly bundle their games together to benefit each other, rather than seeing everyone as competition. Can you imagine an EA/Activision/Ubisoft bundle? It just wouldn’t happen. The fact that a sizeable proportion of the revenue from a bundle usually goes to a charity is even better.
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 that, broadly, DRM systems and piracy-prevention strategies are a waste of time. People will hack your games and pirate them, whether you try to stop them or not. If you start adding extra systems, you only end up pissing off the genuine customers. There was a time when this sort of viewpoint was highly controversial, but I think it’s pretty mainstream these days, outside of the AAA space.
I understand wanting to protect your game and wanting to make money from what you produce. We need money for food, clothes, and roofs over our heads! Whether you’re a solo developer or a company with employees to pay, you have to see some profits if you want to go on making more games. But, again, I firmly believe that fans of indie games will pay for a game they enjoy if they can buy it at a fair price. A lot of people pirate a game just to try it out before buying it, which feeds back to why you need demos.
Anyone who deliberately pirates a game probably had no intention of ever buying it at all, so it’s not a case of losing sales there. The best examples have been where indies have reached out to the pirates and said “hey, I hope you enjoy the game and consider paying for it if you do, because we worked really hard on it.” People respond to people.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Astroloco: Worst Contact?
I hope they make them funny… but honestly we don’t mind. People make videos of everything nowadays. It just comes with the territory when you do something digital. Our trailer got reposted about four times with the first week we put it up, twice by Spanish websites for some reason. If you’ve got a good idea for a video to do with Astroloco we might even offer to help you with it.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
I don’t think you should ever have to pay extra to win a game you’ve already paid for. If you want to buy a silly hat for your character, be my guest; or perhaps a new character or level. DLC should always be optional add-ons to the game that players choose to purchase, and are not forced to.
It’s a shame that we don’t really see the sort of free addons that we had in the past on PC, like the enormous map packs released periodically for Unreal Tournament, but the funding for that extra work has to come from somewhere. Games like Halo have shown that developers can charge a fair amount of money for a map pack and players will happily pay for it, so I don’t think we’ll ever go back to just giving them away for free.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Astroloco: Worst Contact?
Creating free mods for games is great. It adds more variety and creativity to everything we do, and a lot of really great games have come about because of this. If Valve weren’t so open to the modding community, we wouldn’t have Counter-Strike. If, however, you create a mod to sell it, especially if it’s using any borrowed assets, I would say you should have to pay the original developer. Fair is fair.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Just finish a game! I’m serious. I know we’ve only completed one commercial game, so we don’t have much ‘real experience’, but throughout the process we all felt the temptation to keep adding more, even after we’d added a lot already. If you just get one game done, from start to finish, you’ll learn a huge amount about games, the industry, your team and life. It will change your whole perspective. And Ludum Dare competitions and other game jams are excellent practice, and they teach you how to think on your feet. The ‘One Game a Month’ event going on this year has also been great so far.