This week we took some time to talk to Lee Hickey, Malcolm Reed, and Mike Faraday from independent British RTS developers Game Faction. They have made a rather excellent real-time strategy, called Project Aftermath. The most recent demo, 1.13 – which you should obviously take the time to play – is here (230mb). Beyond the jump I quiz them on independence, real-time strategies, and other surprisingly relevant topics. (Demo also here.)
RPS: Can you tell us a little about how the team formed, who you are, and what you hope to achieve? Any particular design philosophy?
Lee: Games Faction was formed about three years ago by myself and Malcolm. We were working together at a now defunct development studio and had both had enough of working on ‘other people’s games’ and really felt like it was time to try setting up on our own, especially as digital distribution was becoming more viable. So, that’s precisely what we did; we saved up a bit of money, quit our jobs and set up our respective spare-bedrooms as offices. Malcolm knew Mike through a friend and when he discovered that we wanted to build an RTS game ‘but different’ he was very keen to get involved. My main role is programming but obviously being such a small company, we each have to wear a variety of hats. If there is one overriding thing we were trying to achieve with Project Aftermath, it is to show that you don’t need hundreds of people and millions of pounds to build a decent game.
Mal: As Lee explained we wanted to go it alone. We had to consider what was important to us as a company; to remain independent, retaining financial and creative control. For us that’s really important, so we can make the games we believe in.
Mike: My approach through the whole design process was to make the game as accessible as possible, without losing any of the flexibility of other RTS games. To that end, we did a lot of iterations of the UI and control system, working out which features were most important to us as we played and making those easier to access in the middle of a battle. I’m very pleased that we’ve ended up with a game that you can easily control with just a mouse if you want to. That way the keyboard shortcuts we have are a bonus, rather than a neccessity you have to learn before you can start playing.
RPS: Why real time strategy? How did the game idea come into being?
Mal: We’re all fans of the genre and had ideas about what we could do with it, so choosing to do an RTS was easy. We then looked back at a lot of earlier games; Cannon Fodder, Syndicate Wars, UFO series, Myth, Ground Control and so on. After a lot of brainstorming we decided we wanted to make an RTS game that was more immediate and concentrated on combat. We had a pretty solid design but we allowed it to grow organically as the game developed, which added to the dev time but we have a better game for it.
Mike: We decided to dispense with the base-building that provides traditional RTSs with most of their strategy and replace it with two other elements that keep the action fast-paced while still providing plenty of scope for tactical play. Firstly we gave the player full control on how to set up their squad for the mission ahead and secondly each unit can switch between two weapons while on the battlefield, to counter the varying types of enemy they encounter. In the last update we added even more choice with the option of Tactical Deployments – units like gun turrets and weapon drops that the player can call on during a mission.
Lee: We felt that there hadn’t been much new tried in the RTS genre for quite some time so we were really adamant about not making a ‘me too’ type of game; we definitely wanted to do something different.
RPS: Tell us a little bit more about Project Aftermath – what was the most difficult part of the process of making it? What elements of it do you think are most interesting?
Mike: From a design point of view, I think the answer to both questions is the same: the GOOP system. You’re allocated GOOP points at the start of every mission, which you spend to add men to your squad, outfit them with weapons and armour etc. Any unspent points are carried into the mission as the start of your score, then you gain more GOOP by killing enemies and completing objectives. So there’s a trade off between spending all your GOOP to make a rock hard team, or under-equipping and starting the mission with a points bonus, which could result in a higher final score and a better medal. Getting the balance right between the costs of equipping your squad and the rewards from each mission took a lot of playtesting, but it was absolutely worth it as it’s one of our most unique features.
Lee: We decided that we wanted to build our own technology from scratch so that obviously took quite a bit of time. It wasn’t particularly difficult though as it is something I’ve done several times before. Technically, the hardest bit was getting the squads to behave the way we wanted. I think the current squad AI is about the fifth iteration. The hardest bit of the project as a whole, for me at least, was the balancing. The game has so many variables, so many interdependent system and formulae that we did end up spending a long time getting it all smoothed out.
Mal: Lee mentioned earlier that we’ve all had to wear many hats creating Projecting Aftermath. For me I’ve had to take on many roles I’d normally pass on to a member of a larger team. Those new roles are the most challenging but are also the most rewarding. For me it was the level design and working with Lee to create the game logic and AI controls in our editor.
RPS: How easy has it been to be an independent team? Is there enough information and support out there for a team of your size? How difficult was it to get on Steam, Impulse, and so on?
Lee: We’ve completely self-funded our development so the only real difficulty has been a financial one. Keeping up the mortgage payments, paying bills, renting office-space and buying equipment has been quite a juggling act with no income at all for the best part of three years. Everything else has been pretty straight-forward though. In fact, I’d say being independent has made many things much easier than they otherwise would be. As we’re the only stake-holders, we can make decisions quickly and change direction entirely if we choose. Keeping the studio small and agile.definitely has its benefits. Getting on Steam was pretty easy as they contacted us when we were selected for the PAX10 and then Impulse followed shortly after. They have both been a pleasure to work with. We’ve also recently got the game on Direct2Drive and GamersGate.
Mal: We’ve found there is great camaraderie amongst independent developers. We’ve made some new friends in the PAX 10 who we can share experiences and knowledge with. For Indies the advice from others in a similar position is invaluable, especially when it comes to getting your product to market. We’ve certainly learned a great deal over the past few years.
Mike: Apart from the lack of cash to keep us going, as Lee says, making the game has really been the ‘easy’ part. The hardest thing has been letting people know about the game in the first place. We’ve been really pleased by the reviews we’ve had, and the reception from the general public who’ve played the demo and bought the game, but we do seem to have hit the same issue that Introversion had, that a lot of big sites and magazines don’t place a high priority on reviewing Indie games, which limits the spread of the audience we can reach. We don’t have the money to launch a major advertising campaign, so we’re very much reliant on enthusiastic sites like RPS to help us spread the word that Indie developers really do have something important to contribute to the PC games market.
RPS: Any plans for the future? What are you looking forward to in 2009?
Mal: We have a number of possible projects in mind but first off we are doing a Macintosh conversion of Project Aftermath. As well as reaching a new market it will help shape our technology towards a multi-platform environment. After that we may start the Multi-player version of PA or perhaps do a shorter project first. The multi-player version will be a big undertaking and want to do it right.
Mike: Yeah, even though the whole game was designed so that all the systems would work well in a multiplayer environment, it’s still going to be a big job to get it right and we certainly wouldn’t want to rush it. I’d definitely like to do a shorter project first. At certain points during the making of Aftermath, when we were getting overwhelmed by the increasing list of tasks we still had to do, we’d often say three words that I think apply here: “puzzle game next”!
Lee: As Malcolm said, first up is a Mac conversion of Project Aftermath. I’m quite looking forward to that. Because we chose to build our own technology though, it does mean I have to write a large portion of the engine again but I like that kind of thing.
RPS: Thanks guys!
You can buy Project Aftermath directly from Games Faction.