TPG gets a behind-the-scenes look at the fast-paced dog-fighting action game, SkyMercs.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of SkyMercs.
My name is Charlie. I’m from London, I’m currently studying Engineering, and for the last few months I’ve been working full time on the development of SkyMercs. I’m responsible for everything from the programming to the art to the sound to the marketing – It’s quite a challenge, but I’m making great progress.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I have been developing games for about 8 years. I started off using a cute little program called Gamemaker, and then moved on to “real” languages such as C# from then on. I’ve made many, many games over the course of time but the vast majority of which have been lost to the void. My favourite game series is X-Com, and the amount of attempts I’ve made of re-envisaging it probably makes up a lot of those games… In fact, have an un-named side project in the works based on X-Com, too, but from a side-view shooter perspective. There’s some gameplay videos of it on my youtube channel.
Recently Gamemaker has had a huge update to target professionals which piqued my interest, so I went back to check it out. The power you can get from it is just incredible, and the speed of development is incredibly rapid, so I set about developing a new game in it – SkyMercs.
Where did the idea for SkyMercs come from?
As an engineering student I’ve taken a particular interest in fluid dynamics/aerodynamics, and one day I fancied writing an aeroplane physics simulator. It was really complex, with a huge number of calculations going on, but it turned out to be great fun to mess about with. Very fun indeed.
So fun, in fact, I decided to add in an enemy plane you can fight. Then some islands. Then some nice graphics. At this point I sat down and realized I had a game in the making, and got to work planning it. Some of the really complex calculations had to be stripped down, so what’s left is a pseudo-physics simulator tweaked to feel great for the player.
It’s inspired by old games such as Wings of Fury, as well as slightly newer ones such as Crimson Skies (check it out, it’s great fun!). It’s got a futuristic 80’s sort of style, and I think the sound track is going to be very much influenced by Top Gun.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing SkyMercs?
The development process has been really smooth for me. The biggest hiccups have been due to me using the beta update channel for Gamemaker, which often ends up with more bugs than fixes, but I can just revert to a working version until a newer one is released. I foresee the multiplayer development not going as smoothly as I’d like, but that’s just the nature of writing netcode. I decided to set aside a few days to start programming it before I made any public promises about it – After some research and hard work, I’ve got it working really smoothly without too much de-sync, so I’m really happy with that.
As I mentioned before, the hardest part for me has been the marketing/website related stuff. Writing blog updates, replying to loads of email, taking videos of the gameplay, organizing it all, and things like that. I never realized quite how time consuming it’d be. Still, it’s a fantastic way to reach out to people who might be interested in SkyMercs, and it’s always really fantastic to hear what the community would like to see and any feedback they have. I do worry that the public perception of the game might not be as positive as it could be simply because my ability to show the game off is a bit lacking, but it’s a learning process and I have some exciting new things to show off soon.
In its current form, how close is SkyMercs to your initial vision?
SkyMercs is currently in alpha, so it has a way to go, but what I have so far is really fantastic. The last few days I’ve been working on the graphics – much improved lighting, normal mapping shaders, shadows, post-processing and so on. It’s coming along great.
The semi-serious nature of the game is really coming out through the character dialogue and the scenario missions, too. I’ve also been working on the (in)famous dinosaur scenario lately, which involves an evil dictator creating dinosaurs in a Jurassic park-esque fashion and waging war on rebel fighters with them. Completing it unlocks Rex, a playable T-Rex character. I have lots of other scenario ideas in mind, too, from Roswell-style alien attacks to fighting in a hurricane or over a volcano.
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 SkyMercs and if you faced a similar challenge.
Absolutely. In fact, originally, it was even too difficult for me. The most obvious way to program enemy AI was to have it always aim to follow the player – Which sounds great in principle, but turned out to be completely impossible to beat.
After some pondering I chose to use a finite state system for the AI which made it much more realistic (and also easier). The interesting thing about the AI is that it works just like the player – it’s like a layer on top of the physics system. Instead of directly moving the enemy, for example, it moves due to its physics but the AI has control of its turning and thrust, just like the player has.
To top it off, there’s three difficulty levels. They’re currently unoriginally named Hard, Medium and Easy. Changing them has some effect on weapon power, enemy turning speed and similar, but it mostly does one thing. Changes a variable aptly named “Idiocy” in the enemies, which controls how intelligent the decisions they make are, and how often they can make new decisions.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring SkyMercs would run on the various PC system configurations?
A bit so far, yes. The main sticking point for me is usually how to handle different screen sizes. In SkyMercs, I’ve opted for a simple yet solid system. In the menus, there is a lovely background which represents the missions you’re about to do (if it’s at sea, it’s at sea. If it’s night, it’s night). Etc). The actual menu then always floats in the middle of the screen. It looks nice on big monitors, but is also the right size to fit on the smallest resolution monitors nicely.
In game, I simply have the player able to see further the bigger the monitor is. This means there’s no ugly scaling, and all is well. Some people might argue that it can lead to unfair advantages for people with big screens, but clever view movement and a minimap help to avoid that being an issue.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for SkyMercs.
The art style is a simple but charming pixel art style, with some fancy shaders and effects (which are yet to be shown in public, but will be soon!). I’m not aiming for photo-realism or any fancy art style, just simple yet nice looking graphics.
The sound design is fun, yet not as complete as the rest of the game. All the sounds are 3D, meaning headphones are a great experience. Sounds can show movement, too, which means the Doppler effect is present – much like you’ll hear when an ambulance whizzes past.
The music is probably going to be inspired by Top Gun, as well as some chiptunes and other styles. I’m still not entirely sure if I’ll be making it myself or hiring someone to do that, but I want to make sure it fits perfectly and really compliments the game.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
I’m finding marketing to the biggest challenge so far, as it’s not something I’ve had to do before. Mostly because I’m finding it a lot more time consuming than I imagined it would be, and I’m always itching to get back to developing rather than making videos and fixing the website! I’m also working on a very tight budget, which isn’t great. Unfortunately I’m having to pick up a little bit of other work soon so I can keep developing AND paying the rent, which isn’t great as I’d love to keep developing SkyMercs all day everyday as I have been for a few months.
How did you go about funding SkyMercs and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
The funding so far has all been out of my own pocket. I started a Kickstarter campaign, but I’ve soon learnt it was probably a bit per-emptive and it hasn’t gone well so far – It probably won’t reach its goal. That doesn’t mean the game is going to die, though! It’s just a minor setback.
I’ve received a lot of support from my girlfriend, she keeps me going and helps me test it out all of the time. I’m amazed she hasn’t gotten bored of me talking about it for hours, yet.
Tell us about the process of submitting SkyMercs to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
So far, I have only submitted SkyMercs to Steam Greenlight. It wasn’t really an enjoyable experience. It’s hard to format the post to make it easy to read and aesthetic, the screenshots are all lumped together with the videos. However despite this a lot of the fans have been very helpful to me and I’d really like to thank them.
If Greenlight was formatted a bit more like Kickstarter, it’d be a lot easier to use and make it a better service.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
To an extent. I barely play an AAA games anymore, choosing instead to play indie titles, so I’m fairly well versed with the pricings. I haven’t got a concrete figure for SkyMercs yet, but it’ll be on the medium to low end of the normal indie games pricings.
Will there be a demo for SkyMercs?
There isn’t a public demo available just yet, but there will be at some point in the next few months. I’m currently deciding on how to play out the next few months to give the best experience for the fans as well as make my work as efficient as possible. I’m considering a pre-order system that allows you access to earlier builds, similar to how Project Zomboid approached it. That’ll allow me to develop faster as well as letting people play it.
How important is it to get instant feedback about SkyMercs from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Incredibly important. SkyMercs is my vision, but there is a huge number of people out there who are interested in it and have their own views on what will make it a fantastic experience for them. Hopefully I’ll be able to take every single persons’ views into consideration and meet their expectations.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review SkyMercs professionally?
Professional reviews are great to see how well received your game is compared to other similar titles out there, but the feedback and suggestions given are no more important in my mind than any other persons. That’s not to say they’re not important, though, every idea is – It’s just that no person’s idea is more important than another.
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?
Absolutely. I think it’s a fantastic idea, and I’m really keen to get my game out there to people who will enjoy it. If someone can’t afford it I don’t want them to be excluded from it.
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 DRM is a joke, and it shouldn’t be used beyond some very non-intrusive methods (but preferably none!). SkyMercs won’t have any DRM, unless it ends up on Steam. I see Steam as more of a useful service than DRM, though, so hopefully everyone agrees with me on that.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of SkyMercs?
I’d encourage it! It’d be great to see people are enjoying it and to see how their play styles differ from my own.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
Worthwhile DLC which adds great content to expand and already great game is good. Day 1 DLC is bad. SkyMercs will not have DLC.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for SkyMercs?
Modding is very important and adds lots of new dimensions to a game. One of my favourite game series (excluding X-Com) is the Half-life series, and the mods are probably why. There’s not currently any mod tools for SkyMercs, but I have considered it and it’s certainly something I’ll look into once it’s more complete.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
To be honest, the question describes me well! Does anyone have any advice for me?
But seriously, the main thing I’ve learnt so far is that the online side of the game is quite time consuming, so be prepared to spend longer on it than you expect. It’s also important in order to show off your game to others the way you see it yourself. – End
We would like to thank Charlie for his detailed answers and wish him the best of luck in the future. You can learn more about SkyMercs by visiting their Steam Greenlight page.