Michael Maulbeck chats with TPG about his new voxel-styled first person shooter/rougelike hybrid title, Paranautical Activity. You will learn about how Quake and Doom ignited his development inspiration, lack of emotional support, thoughts on the industry as a whole and much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Paranautical Activity.
I do all of the programming and sound design, as well as almost all of the PR.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I taught myself programming ages ago, and always had an interest in game development. I could never find an artist who was serious about it, so I sort of just made games for fun. Maybe 1 or 2 little 2D games a year. They all had stolen art since I had no thoughts of ever actually releasing anything.
Eventually I started getting more serious about it, and after searching every game development forum I know of for an artist to work with, I realized I was getting nowhere fast. As a last ditch effort I put an ad on craigslist for a game artist, and Travis (who was a tattoo at the time) responded. In my desperation, I decided to give him a shot. Turns out he was even more serious about making this into a legitimate career than I was, and he lit a fire under my ass to really go out and make this thing work. Now here we are. Making it work.
Where did the idea for Paranautical Activity come from?
I’ve always loved proper shooters like Doom and Quake. I still play Doom to this day. I wanted to make a game that was sort of a throwback to the glory days of the FPS. At the same time I was also getting really into games like Binding of Isaac, so I thought it would be cool to turn an old school shooter into a rogue-like. The idea evolved from there.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Paranautical Activity?
The entire dev process has been shockingly successful, actually. Most if not all of it has gone off without a hitch. Every feature we’ve added has had a really positive impact on the game. I’m really shocked by this whole thing considering neither of us have any formal education, and both of us have pretty limited experience.
In its current form, how close is Paranautical Activity to your initial vision?
It’s hard to say. Whenever I’m thinking of an idea for a game, it always looks way different in my head than it does when it actually get’s made. Mostly because the process of turning 1 man’s idea into a tangible thing made by 2 individuals is not an exact science. Travis’ art is never what I expect, yet always fantastic, and the game sort of evolved organically. The initial vision is merely the seed that grows into the game usually.
If I had rigidly stuck to my initial vision, I think the game would be very different, and not nearly as good as it is.
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 Paranautical Activity and if you faced a similar challenge.
Paranautical Activity is a hard game. I am definitely better at it than most players, but I definitely don’t have any plans on making it easier. Right now I can beat the game pretty easily on almost every try. My goal is to make the game hard enough that even I have a low success rate while playing.
When it initially released, it was actually too easy in some respects. We had a weapon in the game that was so insanely overpowered, it made the game trivial. Other than that, though, I’m pretty happy with the level of challenge the game poses.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Paranautical Activity would run on the various PC system configurations?
When we neared the release of the initial beta, I took some steps to optimize the game to make sure it would run on as many configurations as possible. I also set up the menus and HUD so it automatically scales to any 16:9 resolution, removing a lot of potential work to support different resolution monitors. Unfortunately, I sort of assumed no one would run the game in 4:3, so we ran into a bit of trouble with some users who had parts of the HUD cut off.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Paranautical Activity.
I chose the voxel style because I really dig the look of games like Vox and Cube World, and the simple aesthetic would allow us to not spend months making assets for the game, and focus on making the best game we can.
The music came sort of as an accident. I was looking for something that fit the style of the game to play in the background of our first gameplay video, and found this bumpin electronic track. I then used similar songs for the next few videos, and eventually hired a great electronic musician to make the official soundtrack for the game.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Listening to everyone I know tell me I was going to fail. It get’s old quick when every day I have to listen to my loved ones tell me to “get a real job” and that there’s no way I’ll make a living doing what I’m dong. Nowadays they’re all eating their words.
How did you go about funding Paranautical Activity and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
We haven’t really “funded” Paranatuical Activity at all. We made it for $0, hoping and praying that we’d shake out a profit when all was said and done. And as you can guess based on my answer to the previous question, I didn’t receive jack sh*t in terms of emotional or financial support from friends and family. Travis seems to have really supportive loved ones though.
Tell us about the process of submitting Paranautical Activity to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
Most distributors have been really eager to work with us. We’re currently out on Desura, and we’re looking to drop on steam and GOG once we’re out of beta. The only problems we had was with greelight, Steam’s comically broken submission system for indie games. Fortunately we’ve signed with a publisher that has made greenlight a non-issue.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
I didn’t actually spend any time researching other similar titles. I’m pretty into indie games, so I knew what kinds of prices folks would be expecting for a game like this.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Paranautical Activity from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Getting feedback has been insanely helpful. We’ve gotten everything from a quick tweet, to YouTube videos, to email bug reports with a dozen images and several pages of text. Without all the awesome feedback we’ve been getting, we would not be able to fix nearly as many bugs, or balance the game nearly as well.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Paranautical Activity professionally?
Whenever we get a professional review, I always take it a bit more seriously than random user feedback. Due to the nature of it being, well, professional. I never really take it personally when someone, professional or not, rags on the game. But it’s always great to hear that someone enjoys it. A lot of professional reviewers are surprisingly bad at expressing their opinions. I sometimes have to read a review 3 or 4 times before I can figure out the root reason behind a compliment or complaint. Often reviewers will merely express the emotions they’re feeling “I’m bored”, “I’m frustrated”, “I’m having fun”, ect and they fail to properly express the reasoning behind it.
It makes it difficult for me as a developer to properly identify my game’s strengths, or work on my game’s weaknesses. It also makes reviews pretty uninformative for readers.
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 really feel like as indie developers, we’re pricing ourselves into a corner. Every year indie games get cheaper. We used to charge 30, then 20, 15, 10. Nowadays most indies are around five bucks. Pay what you want deals don’t help this issue. We’re training the public to place a very low value on indie games, and if we’re not careful we’re gonna end up like iOS, where everything is $0.99.
However, I definitely think that given the opportunity, I’d take part in a bundle/pay what you want deal. Call it hypocritical if you like, but it’s a great opportunity to get a lot of attention for the game. We’ve already been contacted by a few bundle and deal sites about working with them, come to think o fit.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Indie devs are doing it right. Let the thieves steal your game, and let the fans buy it. DRM is a waste of time and effort, and at the end of the day it’s more likely to hurt your bottom line than help it. There is very little hard data on the effectiveness of DRM. It’s ridiculous to waste time implementing it, risk pissing off potential customers, and risk harming the experience of paying customers. Just for the chance I might make a little extra money off my game.
AAAs are really playing with fire right now. With always on DRM becoming more popular, and other forms of DRM getting more and more intrusive. It’s pretty terrifying. People are complaining, but they’re still buying it. We have to vote with our wallets, not just scream and stamp our feet like children.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Paranautical Activity?
I love it! I’ve seen nearly every LP video that’s been made of PA, and I’m dreading the day that there’s just more content than I have time to watch. Green9090 is doing an awesome ongoing LP of the game, and several other youtubers are following the game and doing new videos every time we put out a patch.
There are no words to describe how awesome it is to see people playing the game, and hear the happiness in their voice as the run around blasting monsters.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
I don’t have any problem with DLC as a concept, I just feel it’s really poorly implemented most of the time. It always costs way too much for what you’re getting, and it’s usually not as good as the core game. I payed the same amount for the Dark Souls DLC as I did for the whole game, and not only was it a very small chunk of content, it was by far the worst part of the game.
Properly implemented, DLC can be awesome. Just Cause 2 has some really cool and cheap DLC that adds some awesome toys.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Paranautical Activity?
It’d be awesome if someone modded Paranautical Activity! I had a player tweet me the other day that they were trying to use Cheat Engine to hack the game. I think that’s really cool. I’m hoping to release the source code to the game. Maybe not right after release, but sometime in the future for sure. I’d love to see what people could do given access to the entire code base. Mods are an awesome way both to dip your toes in the waters of game development, as well as to bolster the community around a game and potentially improve the core game at the same time!
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Start small, and make games. Make lots of games. The only way to not suck at making games, is to make games. So go make games.
We would like to thank Michael for his participation and great answers. You can pick up Paranautical Activity via Desura.