Interview: Cliffski Talks Gratuitous Space Battles

By Jim Rossignol on August 31st, 2009 at 3:49 pm.


Earlier today we talked to Positech’s Cliff “Cliffski” Harris about his new game, Gratuitous Space Battles. There was also some discussion of a Saddam Hussein sim, the pitfalls of outsourced indie art, and the problems of small-playerbase multiplayer.

RPS: Hello there.

Cliffski: Ahoy!

RPS: Shall we talk Gratuitous Space Battles?

Cliffski: I think we should

RPS: Right, tell me a little bit of what to expect – I’ve not seen anything beyond the videos.

Cliffski: It’s a bit of a hybrid game, it’s part ship design, part pre-battle planning, and part interactive cut-scene space battle viewer thing. Basically its like a big space battle simulator where you can go back to the start of the battle and re-jig things and try to correct for why your fleet got destroyed. In gameplay terms, its a sort of tower-defence game, but with moving spaceships you designed.

RPS: Interesting. And it seems to fit with what’s going on at the moment – there’s a lot of tower defence variant ideas turning up now, and strategy variants generally. Did you find yourself inspired by anything like that in particular?

Cliffski: Well to be honest, the game (as usual) was inspired by anything *but* games. Originally the game was a ‘virtual Saddam Hussein’ simulation, believe it or not. I got carried away doing the code for the map. And then I was reading this awesome book about D-day, and how it is suspected that the allies won because Eisenhower made all these awesome plans, and then just let the guys in the field wing it on the day, whereas Hitler micro-managed and delayed the response. And I thought “that would be a good game”. Imagining the Allied generals biting their fingernails watching it all go pear shaped… I look on it as a real strategy game, not a tactics game.

RPS: Saddam Hussein sim, like a dictator sim? The opposite of Democracy. eh?

Cliffski: Yes, it was like the opposite of my ‘Democracy’ game. You were Saddam, and you had to crush dissent, balanced against angering your foreign oil export partners. I’ll still make it at some point. Being an evil dictator is just a finely balanced sim game.

RPS: I designed a dictator pen and paper RPG when I was a kid, based on old military hardware annuals and maps of the world. I forced my mate Tim to play it, but he preferred D&D. Definitely some mileage in that idea, however.

Cliffski: It’s amazing nobody has done it, or done justice to it.

RPS: So how does GSB play out then? I assume there’s some larger campaign?

Cliffski: You assume wrong. That’s in some ways, the whole point. Take a game like Galciv II or Sins of a Solar Wossname… they take AGES before you build up enough resources and enough ships and money to actually have a big space battle. GSB is like spacebattle porn, without all the foreplay of empire-building. Although it would work well if it had a traditional 4x built around it.

RPS: So you get to build what – individual ships, fleets? And let them duke it out?

Cliffski: Yup, there is a ship builder, all the ships are modular, and the game is basically a series of battles against AI fleets, where you place formations of ships, give them basic orders etc. You can also challenge other players online, in a sort of asynchronous PBEM style.

RPS: Ooh, excellent, I used to love those.

Cliffski: Well I think its the indie holy grail. No indies do anything multiplayer because lets face it, we sell a handful of copies so nobody is online. Asynch PBEM solves that entirely.

RPS: Did you realise that was how it was going to work early on?

Cliffski: No not at all. The design morphed as I went along. I’m sure it will morph more during beta too.

RPS: Is that generally how you work, allowing it to grow organically?

Cliffski: Oh absolutely. No game I’ve ever made has stuck even vaguely to it’s design, although Democracy was closer than most. The first version of Kudos was set in Slough, and was meant to be about psychology and fighting off insanity and depression.

RPS: There need to be more urban insanity games, it’s not well explored in game design. GSB seems pretty heavy on the art assets compared to your other games, was that a big issue?

Cliffski: It was in terms of cost, because I use a proper artist for stuff like that. Although I end up tweaking and fiddling and adding lots of stuff myself. It all takes ages.

RPS: How do you go about finding an artist for such a specific task?

Cliffski: I spent ages trying to find the right guy, got a lot of quotes from different people, ended up going with someone who was pretty expensive, based upon how detailed his work was. Most 3D artists are used to doing low poly stuff, and I use pre-rendered sprites so they can go ballistic with the poly count. I did experiment with off-the-shelf models, but they were shit.

RPS: But is there like an secret indie dev talent market for this stuff? Or do you have to track down specific artists?

Cliffski: Well indies really do talk to each other regarding recommendations. Finding someone who is good is easier than finding someone who is good and also reliable. Artists that work for indies are often very unreliable. I ended up getting my nebula artist by trawling Google for images and finding some guy on a forum working on a freeware version of Masters Of Orion.

RPS: So how has the experience of this ranked against the development of your other games – harder/easier/more or less fun?

Cliffski: Much, much, much, harder, because the code is awesomely sprawling, and I’m doing it all. Much much much more fun, because I get to play with exploding spaceships all day. I’m sure for some people, some days I have the best job in the world. I literally sit there and design huge laser cannons for space cruisers. What could be more fun? I can also go see the Star Trek movie on expenses, legitimately.

RPS: So what’s next in the process, you’re talking about a beta? What flavour of beta is it?

Cliffski: This is meant to be relatively low key. I need to get people playing the game, because its a game where everyone has ideas on what direction it should go in, and I’m all ears. It might be in beta while, the same way Mount & Blade and Dwarf Fortress worked.

RPS: Will everyone be able to get at the beta, or just pre-orderers?

Cliffski: Right now its pre-orderers. I’m not a big fan of open betas. I joined the Pirates Of The Burning Sea one, and I quit after a day, without leaving any feedback. I think if its a pre-order beta, you get more of a dedicated playerbase who will help improve the game through suggestion.

RPS: Yes, that’s probably true.

You can pre-order Gratuitous Space Battles here. And we’ll be investigating it more thoroughly later this week.

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95 Comments »

  1. ShiroGamer says:

    good read

  2. Mad Doc MacRae says:

    I wish the pre-order model worked a little more like M&B and didn’t start at $20. I’d probably pull the trigger at $10, but I’ve made several unsatisfying impulse buys (not through impulse tho) lately and I’m feeling gun shy.

    Still very excited for this.

    And for SimHussein.

  3. Joe says:

    We haven’t had a decent PBEM game since Laser Squad Nemesis. Ace. I have a strange feeling that this could be a serious indie sleeper hit – as long as the game balance is right. I keenly await.

  4. Xercies says:

    If theres no overarching campaign then i don’t think I’ll get this one…

  5. rocketman71 says:

    Looks nice.

    When are we getting Gratuitously Aggresive Comments?

  6. Mark says:

    It’s out now! Get it, get it, get it!

  7. Beastman says:

    I’m not a big fan of open betas. I joined the Pirates Of The Burning Sea one, and I quit after a day, without leaving any feedback. I think if its a pre-order beta, you get more of a dedicated playerbase who will help improve the game through suggestion.

    On one hand I understand that logic, but on the other by having a completely open beta you would still get the feedback from the dedicated playerbase, as well as feedback from players who may be slightly less dedicated (or don’t have a free $20 laying around) but who are otherwise still interested.

    Not to mention open betas can attract attention from people who may otherwise be uninterested. If you had enjoyed Pirates of the Burning Sea, for example, you likely would have stuck around through the beta, and perhaps even purchased it afterward. You evidently didn’t, but overall no harm was done to the company by giving you a key to try it out.

  8. cyrenic says:

    PBEM multiplayer? That could be interesting.

  9. bansama says:

    I wish the pre-order model worked a little more like M&B and didn’t start at $20. I’d probably pull the trigger at $10, but I’ve made several unsatisfying impulse buys (not through impulse tho) lately and I’m feeling gun shy.

    Pretty much my thoughts too. I’d certainly be tempted to pick it up in a beta state at half the current price, but $20 for a currently unfinished game which may change between now and its release to something that is not what I intended to purchase, is too much of a deterrent to want to buy it now.

    I’ll wait ’till after it’s released and then decide whether I want to purchase it at that asking price or not based on the final product. Sorry, Cliffski. It’s nothing personal, I just don’t want to potentially wind up wasting money.

  10. Tam-Lin says:

    I just bought it. Even if it sucks, which I doubt, I’m supporting an indie developer who is doing all the things people ask for: lower prices, no DRM, etc. We should want people like that to survive.

  11. TotalBiscuit says:

    $20 is hardly something to tip-toe around. That’s 13 quid, pocket-change, less than half the price of a full retail release with the added warm-and-fuzzy feeling of supporting an Indie developer with 100% of that cash, quite literally, paying their wages.

    That said, you are paying for a beta, a real beta, warts and all. It’s nice to be an active part of the development process and show one’s support, particularly when Cliffski’s other titles are good, (though niche).

  12. The Innocent says:

    I’ve been looking for more PBEM games, since so many of my friends are busy enough that our free time doesn’t overlap that often, so a pre-order is something I’ll definitely consider. Right now me and my friends mostly play Dominions 3: The Awakening by email, and that’s amazing fun. If anyone is looking for a good PBEM game, I’d recommend giving the demo a try.

  13. Frankie The Patrician[PF] says:

    2TotalBiscuit:
    you richy rich! Ergh…anyway, I know what you mean but I’m more fond of supporting Dave Gilbert of The Shivah/Blackwell fame than Cliffski, sorry man :) But I DID buy Kudos over Impulse and now I have an accomplished, materialistic Chef with 61 500 quids over at Le Manor Formidable in a gay relationship with W. Charton (didn’t see that coming, haha) with a 800 quids car I can’t use, because I haven’t finished my driving school yet (oops). Splendid!

  14. jalf says:

    @TotalBiscuit: Ah, I love being told what I should think of the price of a product. ;)
    Perhaps, if you’re going to dictate what is and what isn’t a fair price, you’d like to also buy the game for me? ;)

    $20 is most definitely something to tip-toe around if, for example:
    - You’re broke already, or
    - You’ve already spent too much money on games this week/month.

    Which isn’t to say that the price is (or isn’t) “unfair”. Just that if it’s more than some are willing to pay, then it is more than they’re willing to pay, regardless of whether or not it is pocket-change for you

  15. dadioflex says:

    “I just bought it. Even if it sucks, which I doubt, I’m supporting an indie developer who is doing all the things people ask for: lower prices, no DRM, etc. We should want people like that to survive.”

    Even if it sucks? Why?

    Tower Defence with spaceships is an intriguing way to describe it, and has me more interested than I was. The ship designer is going to be of limited interest if you’re just slotting pre-made components into pre-rendered sprites. Will there be the ability to use custom-designed ship sets? I think you all know where I’m going with this…

  16. Mad Doc MacRae says:

    TotalBiscuit – I don’t mind being part of the creative process and dealing with warts and stuff. I don’t even mind paying money before getting something. But M&B gave me a product right away and started at $10. Why not start lower to reward your early adopters and also give yourself a little more room to ratchet it up later?

    (And I’m in college so the difference between 10 and 20 is appreciable).

  17. TotalBiscuit says:

    @jalf £13 should be pocket change to anyone who spends any degree of time leaving comments on websites about a luxury hobby. If you’re broke, gaming probably isn’t something you should even be considering.

    Sorry, but I get riled whenever I see people spending their time bitching about games which are far below the average price, reinforcing the idea that PC gamers are skinflints, prone to piracy and whining, their own worst enemy.

  18. bansama says:

    £13 should be pocket change to anyone who spends any degree of time leaving comments on websites about a luxury hobby. If you’re broke, gaming probably isn’t something you should even be considering.

    Perhaps you should try raising a family, paying your children’s medical fees, schooling fees, food, for the roof over their head and so forth, before you start judging people. Gaming is no more a “luxury” hobby than anything else is these days and people can spend as much or as little on any hobby they like. That does not make them “skinflints”.

    More to that, perhaps you need to stop judging based on price alone. There could be any number of reasons why forking out $20 for a “beta” of a game in the hopes that the final product will be worth it, is undesirable to potential purchases. Not just their net worth.

    I’ll happily fork out $50 for a final product that I know I will enjoy, but that in no ways mean I am prepared to pay half of that (or slightly less) for an unfinished product (whether released or not); been there. Done that. Got burned. Not again.

    You need to stop looking at everything with the same narrow minded view.

  19. Joe says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subjective_theory_of_value

    Do I take it that the beta is playable right right now? Sounds like a good enough deal to me. (To me!)

  20. Kieron Gillen says:

    (In passing, in a state the obvious way, think-about-the-economics-way: Mount & Blade’s team are based in Turkey)

    KG

  21. TotalBiscuit says:

    @bansama – “Perhaps you should try raising a family, paying your children’s medical fees, schooling fees, food, for the roof over their head and so forth, before you start judging people.” – Maybe you should stop assuming that I don’t before judging me. Rather hypocritical of you hmm?

  22. bansama says:

    Maybe you should stop assuming that I don’t before judging me. Rather hypocritical of you hmm?

    Don’t like a taste of your own medicine, hmm? Or in other words, if you don’t want to be judged, don’t judge others.

  23. Nimic says:

    I remember an old-ish game (I just had the “demo”), where you had a top down view of a space battle, and you controlled one or several (can’t quite remember) ships. The graphics were very simple. It was sort of turn-based, in that you decided what to do, shoot here, fly there, etc, and then it acted that out (so you could end up shooting at nothing or alternatively shooting at that stupid enemy who decided to fly into your shots).

    I can’t remember the name, so even though I’ve been desperately searching for it on the web I haven’t found it yet.. and I doubt I will.

    Sort of off topic, but this got me thinking of that. Off topic aside, it looks interesting, but there might be price issues. I’ll consider it. I would like some sort of campaign or just a relatively simple game that was built around this, though.

  24. TotalBiscuit says:

    @bansama that’s a nice way of dodging your hypocrisy and blatant lack of facts at hand.

    Fact – Games are a luxury. Can’t afford games comfortably within your budget? Then try spending it on something more responsible until your income does allow for such things. But please, spare me the bitching and whining about a cheap indie-developed game. Save your ire for something that’s actually over-priced, ie. Modern Warfare 2.

  25. Vinraith says:

    Ordered. I have no idea when I’ll actually have time to play it, but I’m happy to support an indie developer working on something this promising. All the more so when I’ve really enjoyed several of his other games (most of which I got on dirt-cheap sale).

  26. Kieron Gillen says:

    Calm, gentlemen. Gratuitous Space Battles, yes. Gratuitous digs at one another, no.

    KG

  27. Snuffles says:

    I’m annoyed by their lazy approach to multiplayer. Otherwise I’m pretty happy with what I see.

    -Snuffles

  28. Nimic says:

    That said… some of those “action done” sounds were quite annoying. The clicking sound is fine, but that sort of bleep every time you changed something on a ship could get tedious.

  29. Vinraith says:

    “Lazy approach to MP?”

    I think it’s rather brilliant, actually. It’s a hands-off game in the combat phase anyway, why require players to both be present at the same time? Honestly, while I still care far more about SP than I do MP, this is that rare MP mode I might actually play because it doesn’t involve time commitments and schedule coordination.

  30. cliffski says:

    “The clicking sound is fine, but that sort of bleep every time you changed something on a ship could get tedious.”

    You can change UI sound volumes separately from the battle sound volumes under options. I find it hard to find any UI sounds that aren’t annoying too :D

  31. Nimic says:

    I said I was going to consider the price, but I’m a weak person, and a sucker for (gratuitous) space battles to boot, so I just bought it (well, pre-ordered, but paid for).

    How long will it take before I can download and start playing the beta?

  32. Vinraith says:

    @Nimic

    Err, open your email. You can already download and play it.

  33. Nimic says:

    Sratch that, I just got the mail. That didn’t take long at all. Decent speed on the download as well (~360kb/s), so all is well.

  34. Lintman says:

    I was a little disappointed that there’s no campaign at all. I wasn’t expecting GalCiv II or SoaSE, but some larger context like in, say, Defense Grd: The Awakening would be nice.

    Has anyone here played Wierd Worlds: Return to Infinite Space? Some of the shots of the ship designer reminded me of that game.

  35. Tim James says:

    Loved the conversational interview tone. RPS sounded like they just woke up from a killer night at the bars. “So, what is this game I’m asking you about?”

    Cliffski since it is asynchronous PBEM, you should add some gratuitously annoying ponzi scheme to it like the

  36. Vinraith says:

    @cliffski

    I agree with some others that it would be nice to see a larger context for these battles, but I think perhaps the best way to do that would be to create a strategic context. Create a strategic layer, some kind of basic galaxy map or something, and have each of the battles have significance in that larger context. It doesn’t need to be anything as involved as a 4X game, it’d just be nice for the battles themselves to have some larger consequence. Take a note from, say, Close Combat back in the day. Losing shouldn’t mean reloading the game, it should represent a setback in that particular theatre.

    It’s just a thought, but I do so love a small-scale strategy game with larger scale strategic consequences and context.

  37. suibhne says:

    How is it, beta monkeys? Do tell. I’m in the mood for a tower defense fix, and this might be close enough.

  38. suibhne says:

    And re. the TD comparison – if it really works a bit like a TD game, then it doesn’t really need a larger context. A storyline might be nice, like Defense Grid handles so well, but there doesn’t need to be another layer of gameplay if the fundamental mechanics are sound.

  39. Vinraith says:

    I wasn’t suggesting it was “needed,” just that if the game were to be in a long beta and eventually developed into something larger that’s the direction I’d like to see it go. Storylines are fairly useless in games like this, IMO. Strategy games in general are pretty lousy story telling devices (and yes, I can already hear the bottles hurtling towards my head, but it’s still true IMO). Would Defense Grid be any less fun if it didn’t have that tacked-on story line? I certainly don’t think it has any impact on my enjoyment of the game. I hate to see resources that could be put towards interesting gameplay mechanics wasted on attempts to tell a story with a game-type that doesn’t really naturally do so.

  40. Vinraith says:

    Or to put that another way, strategic context and consequences create their own story far more naturally and effectively than any tacked-on voice overs and cinematics ever could. Plus, it’s actually YOUR story that way, instead of someone else’s.

  41. JonFitt says:

    PBEM could be a winner on RPS.
    Is the file you email essentially a battle plan which anyone with the game can open and test their own battle plan against? The reason I’m asking is: if one were to post a plan/file on the RPS forum, could everyone have a go at beating it, or just the intended recipient?

  42. Vinraith says:

    @JonFitt

    Have a look at this:

    http://positech.co.uk/cliffsblog/?p=306

  43. JonFitt says:

    @Vinraith You could always just imagine some scenario around your Gratuitous Space Battles. GSB Role Play. Or perhaps something like the Sims 3 homeless diaries.

  44. Vinraith says:

    @JonFitt

    Indeed. It was just a thought for a direction, I’m perfectly happy with the basic game at this price. :)

  45. cliffski says:

    My original plan was for each battle to be fought over something incredibly trivial, like a parking ticket. I enjoyed the battles fought by the dwellers in Iain Banks ‘Algebraist’, where they fought huge space wars over who gets to fly a red pennant from their ship when they go racing :D

  46. JonFitt says:

    @Vinraith Sounds like there might be the possibility to pass around an offline challenge.

  47. Gap Gen says:

    I think it’s fair to say “I won’t buy this if it’s over £x.” Prices are all about what someone is willing to pay – that’s why you get £5 jeans and £500 jeans, for example, which translates to things like Special Editions in games. The developer has to guess which price will maximise their earnings and hopefully turn a profit.

  48. Vinraith says:

    @cliffski

    That’s brilliant, actually, and certainly fits with the title. I suppose what I’m saying is that if the battles are over, say, who gets a parking space, I think it’d be neat to be able to see/fight over the entire lot a space at a time. :) Maybe at that point it’s no longer gratuitous, though. Hmm.

  49. Vinraith says:

    @JonFitt

    That’s certainly what I got out of it. This kind of no-commitment MP really has a lot of appeal, to me.

  50. Torgen says:

    Cliffski and Mr. Park should collaborate (or rip each other off!) :D