Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Contested Space.
My name is Matthew Zvonimir Haralovich. My friends call me Zon. I’m the sole developer of Contested Space. I come from a web and mobile app development background. Bloomington Indiana is my home and I live here with my wife and two daughters.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I spent the later half of my childhood making maps and mods for the games I played. My favorites were Marathon and Myth. At one point I made a Myth mod with Lego characters and stop motion animation, but the hard drive it was on died and the project along with it. During college I made Starcraft and Warcraft III maps and started messing around with making games using Flash. However, I didn’t have the technical and artistic skills needed to get much done. Eventually I dropped out of college and got a job as a web application developer at a local start up. My early career as a professional was a dark age. I didn’t spend much time working on games, but I learned a lot about software engineering. After my first daughter was born I decided I needed to be a better role model, so I started experimenting with game development again.
Where did the idea for Contested Space come from?
Contested Space has a lot of influences. I try to capture the essential parts of games I love to play while addressing some of the problems they couldn’t solve.
I used to be a pirate in Eve Online. Pirates in Eve found way to earn money in the game without a grind. You could just log in, join a fleet, and roam around looking for people to ransom. Eve is great at creating these long term narratives, but it’s difficult to learn, and most of the time nothing really interesting happens. I wanted to create an online sandbox that was simpler to play and has a less risk averse atmosphere. Planetside 2 is great because it’s easy to play, you can just log in and join a battle, and everything has an immediate effect on the map. Planetside’s main drawback is that the game is split across separate servers and the three competing powers can never really win or lose.
Finally, I’m a fan of games like Minecraft, but have always been a little disappointed that there’s not much to do with your creations. I wanted a game where you could make something and use it in a theater with lots of other players.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Contested Space?
It took me a long time to get used to multiplayer game development in Unity. Unity is a great game engine, but their workflow for multiplayer games isn’t that great. Eventually I got my own workflow put together, but I had to learn a lot about Unity before I could program effectively. At first Contested Space wasn’t going to have player created content. I was trying to teach myself 3D modeling while learning Unity. It was too much. One day I decided to try to make a block based ship editor. I threw something together in around a week. The early version only used the mouse and keyboard shortcuts, but it was pretty good. Suddenly the game started having more character and everything started falling into place.
In its current form, how close is Contested Space to your initial vision?
Right now Contested Space is just a prototype. I wanted to prove to myself I could make this game. The ship designer is pretty close to complete. It mostly just needs better inline help and some polish. The basic combat system is place. Though it needs to be fleshed out with more weapons, abilities for the ships, and more diversity depending on the ship design. The game’s hosting infrastructure is pretty solid. Right now the game runs on a single server, but everything is designed to scale when more people start playing. That code will take some babysitting, but it’s fairly simple and easy to work on.
The main thing that needs attention is the meta game. By that I mean how players capture territory and how they are rewarded for their activities. That’s the main thing I’ll be working on after the Kickstarter. A big part of the Kickstarter is to find people to help test the game while I’m improving these features.
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 Contested Space and if you faced a similar challenge.
Contested Space will only have player vs player combat. So when we talk about difficulty we’re talking about how easy it is to learn and play the game. Many space combat games are too esoteric and unforgiving. I want Contested Space to be relatively easy to play. Combat is essentially based of off basic things like shooting, dodging, chasing, and hiding rather than using a complicated HUD. I also make an effort to ensure the player has good situational awareness without being bogged down by a 3D battlefield.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Contested Space would run on the various PC system configurations?
My oldest development machine is from 2008. It’s not a bad computer, but it has a hard time running all of my development tools at once. While the game looks simple the battleships and space stations actually have a lot of geometry. However, the game does pretty well on that computer when it’s running by itself. One of the advantages of starting out as an indie developer is that most of your hardware is outdated.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Contested Space.
The game’s art style is inspired by Homeworld, Legos, and even the block shapes everything is made out of. I experimented with textures after the early ship designer was complete, but decided I liked the solid colors instead. After I made that decision it was much easier to come up with ideas for particle effects and environmental scenery like planets and asteroids. I especially like the bubbly clouds that erupt from explosions.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
I would say money, but really it’s uncertainty. I know that given enough time I can make a great game, but I can’t accurately predict how long that will take. People say that entrepreneurs are risk takers. That’s true in practice, but entrepreneurs spend most of their time trying to reduce risk. Whenever you try to do something new uncertainty is your biggest obstacle.
How did you go about funding Contested Space and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
Most of Contested Space was paid for by my contract work as a web and mobile application developer. I would spend 20 hours a week working for money and the rest of my time working on the game. Combined with maternity leave this basically means my family has been living off of half of my normal income for two years. We’re accustomed to living modestly, but my wife is starting to get her own business ideas and I’m trying to move out of the way so she can try them.
Now that the prototype is finished. I’m trying to raise enough money to launch the first complete version of the game on Kickstarter. The campaign has raised over 20% of its funding goal in the first day. It still needs a lot more support, but I’m cautiously optimistic. Bloomington Indiana isn’t a huge town for video games. There are actually a lot more board game players and developers here in the midwest. However, everyone in my circle of family and friends has been very supportive of this project. Bloomington has a community of small businesses and tech companies that really empathize with what I’m trying to do.
Tell us about the process of submitting Contested Space to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
Contested Space has been submitted to Steam Greenlight. It’s still too early to see how people respond, but the page has been getting a fair amount of traffic.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
I’ve played both subscription and free to play games online. Both payment models influence the designs of these games. Subscription games are more likely to put you into a grind, and free to play games are more likely withhold things so you’re tempted to make a microtransaction. I’m trying to monetize Contested Space purely off of the community instead of gameplay with diminishing returns. I want players to subscribe because they want to contribute to the universe, and because they want be there as the game’s story emerges, not because they are trapped advancing their character.
Can you tell us why you chose to release a demo for Contested Space?
Contested Space is highly dependant on players, so I want people involved with the project as soon as possible. There are certain things I won’t be able to deliver without playtesting.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Contested Space from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Everything a software designer does in any field is just a hunch. You’ve got to take your work into wild and see if it really solves the problem you were going after. It doesn’t really matter where feedback comes from, but you must confirm that your work is valid. Otherwise you won’t be able to build on what you’ve learned and try something really crazy.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Contested Space professionally?
Game journalists and/or bloggers are unique. They love games and know a ton about them, but often can’t make games themselves. They connect developers and players in more ways than just their publications, because they see things differently and are a sort of neutral party. While I have to do a ton of copy writing to promote Contested Space, I won’t be one who communicates the game with the most elegance.
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’m a fan of pay what you want campaigns, but their execution is important. When done right they are about building good will, but when done poorly they are just a veiled race to the bottom. It’s definitely something I’d consider carefully.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Online games like Contested Space are naturally resistant to piracy, because much of the game’s value is on servers out of the reach of pirates. Online games sort of have the opposite problem where black market economies appear hocking in game items. Ideally I’d like Contested Space to be it’s own self contained economy, but if people started trading items for real money, I might consider opening a currency exchange to chase away the black market dealers.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos and receiving monetization of Contested Space?
People on YouTube and on Twitch are redefining how we discover and play games. They are welcome to make videos of my game even if they receive revenue from doing so. To me there’s no difference between written and video coverage of my game. Both mediums should be treated equally.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
DLC isn’t a good match for Contested Space. I want players to be on equal footing creatively. Imagine Minecraft if people had to buy new blocks. That wouldn’t be much fun. I really want to avoid any monetization system past the game’s subscription. People should be able to play without worrying about having to spend more money.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Contested Space?
Online games rarely support modding. I can’t make any promises, but I really want to add ways for the players to program how their societies function in Contested Space. The game will launch with very basic social and economic functionality, but I’d like to give players a large degree of control over their organizations and how they do business in the next expansion to the game. Rather than designing how everything works myself I’d rather make a set of tools for players to use. That’s the philosophy of Contested Space in general.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
I’m still trying to break into the business, so I can’t say how to make it completely. I can only advise people on how to get where I am right now. The first of all you have to be willing live like a poor college student pretty much indefinitely. Second, you have to work on finding the best tools, allies, and skills possible. You’ll have to learn how to do a little of everything even if you have partners to help you. Finally, you need to make games as often as possible. Success depends on preparation and luck. You need to constantly improve while taking risks and looking for opportunity. That’s more or the less the advice everyone gives and I’ve found it’s true.