IGF Factor 2010: Star Guard

By Kieron Gillen on March 3rd, 2010 at 1:30 pm.

Minimalist, beautiful, vicious. We loved Star Guard when Alec first played it, and it remains lovable now. It’s picked up a nomination for Excellence in Design, and – of all the shortlisted game – is the standard bearer of arcade-brutality mixed with modern-accessibility. We sit down to talk with Loren Schmidt about all things Star Guard…

RPS: Firstly, a brief intro to those who may not know you. Who are you? What’s your background? Why get into games? Why get into indie games?

Loren Schmidt: My name is Loren Schmidt, and I developed the free title Star Guard.

I’ve known for ages that I want to make games for a living. I love well made games. Making games is very creatively satisfying to me. I also love how multidisciplinary it is.

I’m drawn to solo and small team projects for a number of reasons. I love it when a game is self-consistent- when all the pieces fit together well. When you have only a handful of people developing a game, everyone can be so tight knit that the different components mesh quite naturally. I also like the fact that when doing small team development, it’s quite possible to make a project purely because you believe in it, not because you think it will be marketable. If game is worth making, you should have the freedom to make it. I really love seeing people like Terry Cavanaugh make small games that try out interesting ideas- the way the games industry is right now, you really can’t do that as easily with a seventy person team.

That said, I do think that larger team sizes have strengths as well. It’s pretty incredible to have so much specialized talent available, and to be able to have such high quality standards. I see small and large team development as complementary.

RPS: And… the game. Tell us about it. What was its origins? What are you trying to do with it? What are you most pleased about it? What nags?

Loren Schmidt: Star Guard is a very simple action game. My intent is that it be very easy to learn to play, yet scale well with player skill. I want people to be able to die a fair amount and not be punished for it. That’s a fine way to play if you don’t particularly care about score, or are just learning the ropes. I don’t want the game to punish people for approaching it that way, but I want the game to offer optional challenges to those who want them.

One shortcoming of the game (or maybe the presentation of the game) is that it doesn’t provide enough incentive to play skillfully. I’d like it if once people scaled the learning curve, they immediately felt a desire to challenge themselves.

I’d encourage anyone who completed the game in normal mode to try speed runs or try playing with limited lives. It’s not for everyone, but some people really enjoy it. Normal mode is only half of the game.

RPS: What’s your feelings on the IGF this year. Pleased to be nominated? Have particular love, bemusement or hate for any of the other entries? Is there anything you think is missing?

Loren Schmidt: Honestly I’ve been pretty nervous about the nomination. I don’t really like being the center of attention, and competition isn’t really my thing. On the other hand I do find it validating, and I’m happy to have an opportunity to go to GDC and spend time with other developers.

RPS: How do you feel about the indie scene generally this year? People have been relatively downbeat about 2009, after 2008 being so obviously incendiary. What are the themes, in your eyes? What are people missing?

Loren Schmidt: I feel really good about where things are right now. I’m enjoying the projects I’m seeing people develop, and I love the sense of community. People are very supportive of one another and willing to share. If you’re interested in making games, now is a great time to learn.

I wouldn’t worry about comparing years. I don’t think games are coming out rapidly enough right now to make generalizations based on what’s completed in any given year. The sample size is too small.

RPS: And how does the future look for you? What are you working on now and the foreseeable future.

Loren Schmidt: I’m currently making a couple of new games: I’m finishing up a tiny Flash game called Tin Can Knight, and I’m developing an RPG called Tiny Crawl.

Tiny Crawl is pretty exciting for me. I’m taking the basic hooks of an RPG, but using a very simple set of mechanics. The goal is to make something that’s really streamlined and clean, where the depth comes out of interactions between the different elements rather than having a lot of different special case rules. For instance, Angband contains a huge number of special purpose items and spells, which are only useful in certain very specific situations. If you have a cursed ring on, cast ‘remove curse.’ If your strength has been reduced, use a ‘restore strength’ potion. That’s not necessarily bad- it does make Angband deeper. But it achieves that through brute force. I’m trying to avoid that.

I’m finding development pretty engaging from a design standpoint, and I’m also excited about doing the art for the game. Once the design has been finalized a bit, I can get started on that. I’m aiming for a feel something like weathered parchment or old paper. It’ll be fun to play with different ways of getting that feel- ink stains, burn marks, water damage… I’ll announce the game properly and post some media once it’s further along.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

You can download Star Guard or follow Loren’s work here.

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12 Comments »

  1. G says:

    They spelt it wrong.

  2. Wulf says:

    The thing I dug most about Star Guard was the atmosphere brought on by the storyline, a storyline which was just an odd line here and there, but it was so incredibly compelling, and I felt urged onward by it. Maybe I just like short, little tales, I really loved the minimalist dialogue in VVVVVV too, it leaves room for imagination, and even encourages it.

    I feel that how imaginative a player is will — in turn — define how much entertainment value they’ll get out of something like Star Guard. The plot, and the way it is presented though… both are certainly clever elements of what’s ultimately a fun little game. It’s really worth paying attention to those little lines of text if you play Star Guard, otherwise you’re really missing out. Maybe even missing out on the point of the game, not sure about that, but it seems that way.

    • HarbourMaster says:

      Hmm, I think that’s what appealed to my about Star Guard as well – there was this determined desperation running through the narrative. It reminded me of “All Of Our Friends Are Dead”, except with more hope.

    • Wulf says:

      Exactly. And more than that, it was wonderful in ways I find difficult to explain because of that, it certainly pushed buttons in my brain. “Gods damn, things are dismal here, but I can succeed, and I wish to save this culture of people who would all appear to be relying upon my success! I wonder if there’ll be a parade in my honour?” And it’s strange to be thinking things like that when playing a game.

      It was immersive, at that, I suppose. I just find it easy to believe in little videogame Universes and set aside my suspension of disbelief, and the more abstract things are, the more I get drawn into them. The more familiar they are, the more distant I tend to feel. I was pulled right into Star Guard, at first fighting for an unknown cause, then to save a culture of people I didn’t have a clue about, there were no excuses made about amnesia, the game simply expected me to fill in the blanks. Which I did, happily.

      I’m sure that everyone’s going to have their take on the story, the situation, the Wizard, everything, and that’s great, isn’t it? It really is.

      – Edited to write more. –

      And I’m going to go off on my own little tangent, here. Maybe what’s made this special is that it isn’t like a novel, where most details are covered, it’s more like a wizened old wanderer, in front of a fire, telling a tale to a group of children. The story of the one who saved their civilisation, and perhaps that’s why these minimalist approaches work.

      The storyteller in such a scenario leaves much to the imagination of children, for they are creative sorts. And I think that we’re seeing a sort of paradigm shift here, away from the movie-like plots, and realising that gamers have imagination too. We seek escapism, after all, and we don’t need every little detail. Sometimes it’s fun to have blanks, sometimes it’s fun to be teased with a lack of knowledge (like Valve loves to do).

      Just food for thought, anyway.

  3. Bennie says:

    Great game! But the final boss :(
    Got to the point when I just could not be bothered and called it quits.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Ditto. It really shouldn’t have reset the boss every time you died, because it make for an absolute brickwall difficulty spike in a game that otherwise let you grind an endless precession of conscripts into the waiting maw of the enemy forces.

      Which, IIRC, fit pretty well with the passive-aggresively-told plot.

  4. DMcCool says:

    I like the aesthetic, weirdly similar to my first game (also known as the worst game ever made in the history of mankind -like most people’s first I guess), only, y’know. With talent/actual control of the retro aesthetic.

  5. l1ddl3monkey says:

    Humanoid!

    Reminds me of Berzerk visually. Hardcore retro.

    So now I have that Stakker record in my head on infinite repeat (which for a record that sounded like it was an infinite repeat of a 16 bar loop anyway is not a good thing) and I’ll be seeing neon green figures all over the place…

  6. BooleanBob says:

    Man, I’m enthused by this guy! Star Guard was great, and now he comes up with some piercing insight (that ’08 v ’09 red herring has tickled me throughout these interviews, but he totally nailed it; the sample size is way too small) and some very inspiring words on making games. I might have to dust off my Klik’n'Play discs after reading this..

    • Sonicgoo says:

      @BooleanBob

      The fact that it’s repeated every time makes it seem worse. After all, if you repeat something often enough, people will think it’s true…

  7. Urthman says:

    I love Star Guard because the graphics remind me of an Odyssey2 game.

    There’s something that I find pure and beautiful about that aesthetic, compared with the busier NES-era graphics that a lot of retro games use. Almost as good as vector graphics. (Hmmm, I guess I might have to go play some Major Havoc before I get out Star Guard again…wait, I’m back, and Star Guard is a lot more fun.)

  8. l1ddl3monkey says:

    If this thread still lives can someone explain why one of the tags is Vacuum Flowers. Is it a Michael Swanick reference and if so what’s the context? Love that book but you never hear much about it these days.