All Aspects: The Derek Smart AAW Interview

Orange is the best of all armour types.

You suspect 3000AD’s Derek Smart is the man the phrase “outspoken developer” was coined for. He’s… oh, you have an opinion, don’t you? Whether or not you’ve played – or could even name – one of his games, everyone’s got a take on Smart. He’s also a perennial PC gaming figure which we haven’t talked to yet. With All Aspect Warfare approaching release, we thought it time to change all that. Talk about where he’s coming from, going to and – whisper it – whether he was actually right all along. Along the way, we take in the death of Space Sims, Steam’s power being over-estimated, his take on the Space MMOs, some cheery demonization of EA and… well, whether he ever regrets comment threads.

Join us.

RPS: Okay, from the top: All Aspect Warfare. Could you explain its germination? How do you think it fits in with your other games? Is it fair to say the scope is more focused this time around? Or is the focus just different?

Derek Smart: Well, apparent by the time we released our last space combat game, Echo Squad SE, that the days of space sims – as a viable business – were pretty much over. The genre is as dead as a doornail; and anyone who says any different, has maybe one or two other day jobs, lives on Ramen noodles and their monthly bills amount to a monthly grocery trip.

Seeing that we very well couldn’t make the same kinds of money over the years on the genre – short of rolling out our MMO (which is still about eighteen months away) based on our existing properties – I decided to do a game in between. A sort of stepping stone if you will. Sure it could have been KnightBlade, the space game we were planning on doing for PC/XB360. But given that no publisher in their right minds is going to sign a space combat game – let alone a console one, I decided to play it safe and put that game on ice and start a new game from scratch. Plus I wanted a break to do something else for a change.

When you have a franchise property you’ve spent decades on (in my case, twenty plus years already), you don’t just abandon it and start from scratch. Most especially not when you have a large install base. So this game, though radically different (for one thing, it is not a space game), takes places within our pre-existing game world and mythos.

The focus is 100% on planet side aerial and infantry combat. The game was designed, developed and fine tuned specifically for that. Which is why the majority of our technologies were either written from scratch or heavily revised for this game. It has been a HUGE investment. We’ll see if it pays off or not.

RPS: Is the space-combat game actually dead then? What can resurrect it? I’m interested in how older genres have been unexpectedly rejuvenated – I mean, the Adventure game finding a new home as webgames and on the Wii of all places. See an opportunity anywhere, or is it just the MMO?

Derek Smart: Yeah, its dead, Jim.

Well, you just hit it right there on the head. While adventure, war games etc are no longer mainstream – as far as retail publishing goes – there is grassroots support for it by gamers and developers alike. The way I see it, a publisher won’t bother with a game that won’t sell five copies. However, a developer (or web publisher/developer) who knows that he only needs to sell two copies for his break even, can still survive by going the alternate publishing route. More often than not, they often end up making more money than if they went with a publisher. Why? Because if you sell direct, the money goes to you directly.

If you have a traditional publisher, you have to wait to get paid. If they actually do pay.

Nevertheless, nothing beats the sheer number, volume and face time than retail gives. But that brick and mortar model is on the way out. The publishers know it. The retailers know it. It is only a matter of time before retail becomes an afterthought. Much like mainstream PC gaming.

There are so many opportunities for online distribution these days, that there is no longer an excuse to not do it. The biggest decision you’re going to be faced with is who to go with and how many. On one hand, you can sell through a lot of portals and dilute your metrics or go through a single [popular] portal and cross your fingers. That’s like selling to Walmart and not bothering with the likes of Best Buy, Target etc. If that’s how you roll.

And believe it or not Steam -even with its “Valve games powered numbers” – is not the leading online digital distribution portal. IGN’s Direct2Drive still is. Primarily due to their very diversified game portfolio, non-preferential treatment, developer friendly rules, brain dead straightforward contract, friendly and responsive sales and develop personnel etc. Gamer’s Gate is the same way. Been working these two and several other smaller portals (e.g. Digital River, BMT Micro) for many years now and have no complaints or qualms.

All of a sudden, everyone wants to get on Steam. It is easy to scream up to the rafters about hozillion subscribers. It doesn’t mean squat if a good portion of those are only on Steam specifically for the exceedingly popular Valve games. And I know for a fact that I’m right. Otherwise, you’d have already seen product specific numbers (like you do with NPD and such) from Steam already to backup those claims. Sure you’d get a sales spike there every now and then. But so what? You’d get the same sales spike if you put the game on any of the other portal and offered the same price, period and conditions. Marketing is marketing, no matter how many gimmicks you wrap around it. Selling a gamer a game he already owns, is the ultimate gimmick. That’s like selling ice to Eskimos.

The point is that even if you didn’t want to setup your own storefront, if you have a finished product – specifically a game – you can get it online rather quickly and start selling through the developer friendly portals without having to go through the same bullshit you normally would if were going with a traditional publisher. Plus, you’ll get paid – and on time. All done automatically.

Seriously, you can get a game on a good portal in under a week. Tops. In fact, the biggest delay is probably in getting the DRM scheme that they use, sorted out because the contracts themselves are just fill in the blanks simple.

There are also other upcoming ones which target a specific demographic. e.g. GoG. I mean, was that a brilliant idea or what? Its like retro bargain bin hunting. Hopefully they can get a lot more classics on there. But my guess is that the biggest hassle they’re faced with is tracking down the developers/publishers, finding out who actually owns the rights to properties etc. GameTap went through the same thing. It ain’t easy.

In many of my legacy interviews, I said – quite clearly – that MMO games and digital distribution, were the wave of the future. Those interviews are still up on my website to this day. And guess what? That’s exactly where we are today and specifically for PC games which will never be able to make their way to retail shelves.

So the way I see it, space games may be on the out, but they can be revitalized in the online distribution space. If the game is good and there are gamers out there who would rather buy than pirate (bastards) it, you can probably made a decent return on investment. But given the thinned out popularity of the genre, I wouldn’t quit my day job to develop and sell a space sim. Especially one that didn’t already have an incubated fan base. Seriously.

Just look around and see how many mainstream space combat developer from the old days are still in business today. I’m sure that if you approached Larry Holland [Totally Games, of X-Wing series fame – Ed] today about doing a space game, he’d probably (depending on the size of his bank account at the time) just laugh and saunter off in mild amusement. The same thing could be said for Egosoft. I’m sure they’re hurting – but my guess is you won’t see another X3 game for a long time because there is a point (the point I reached with the last niche space game) where you have to say enough is enough to derivative works.

There is a good reason why, for example, David Braben has been threatening to unleash Elite IV since Nixon was president and why you still haven’t seen it – and probably never will. At least not until you grow Grey hairs in places you didn’t realize could actually sprout hairs.

RPS: Your games have been… okay, let’s go with “divisive”. If you go with something as simple as a metacritic score, they’re always mixed. Yet despite that, you’re a perennial PC-developer who seems to have found an audience who appreciates your vision. Would you think this fair? If so, how does AAW fit here – both in terms of reaching new players and the pleasing old ones?

Derek Smart: Divisive huh? Well, that’s new. Usually I get sentiments ranging from mediocre to challenging…and all the way to the crap end of that particularly ecclectic opinions spectrum reserved by gamers solely for the purpose of expressing repressed emotions. You know, the kind that controlled substances, therapy or resolved Mommy issues don’t quite fix.

Seriously though, I love what I do. For me, being a sci-fi geek who grew up on all things sci-fi, getting into space games was a no-brainer. Sure I could have picked another genre (e.g. RTS) and still gone the sci-fi route, but even as a kid, I had always been fascinated by space and all its mysteries and such.

Playing games like Elite, Star Flight, Echelon etc just sold me right there and then. Once I decided to go out and make my own game instead of just sitting around playing someone else’s, I realized that life as I once knew it, was, well, over. I always felt that I could take the genre further.

My previous games – as you well know – are designed and developed for a specific group of people. I didn’t – and still don’t – care about the people outside that classification. My games, you either like them or you don’t. There is no in between, no fuzzy logic and certainly no repressed emotions. You can’t win over everybody and trying to do that is just a lesson in futility. So, I’ve always targeted like minded folks. And once that segment grew large enough to sustain my company, I decided to just keep doing it. Twenty years and thirteen (and at least two more to come) games later.

For this game, the goal is the same. While we’re not targeting the space combat fan base, I’m sure that those guys play other games too. So this is a chance to see how well (or bad) we do outside of our (space combat) comfort zone. As I’ve been telling the publishers we’ve been speaking to, if you want a cookie cutter fps game, this ain’t it. Which is why we have been providing them with the game’s docs first and foremost. Those who like what they read enough to play the game, go on to request an eval. So far, we’ve had some good responses and feedback. So I think we’re on the right track.

Apart from the fact that this is a “Thinking man’s fps”, a lot of the technologies were designed with various genres and gamers in mind. For e.g. the aerial combat aspect features proper cockpit and camera views, awesome flight dynamics and avionics. And oh yeah, a proper camera – not that rubbish those other guys are currently pushing and frustrating gamers all over. So an aerial combat flight jock is going to feel right at home, even if the only time he ever steps foot on solid ground – or fire a weapon – is when he’s searching for a fighter to jack. You start off in the ground, in fps mode. None of that “start and end in the air” crap.

As to the infantry combat aspect, it is all skills and experience based. If you don’t have the skills or the experience points to fly a fighter, you’re never – ever – going to be able to get in one. This leaves flying to jocks and the rest of the heavy lifting to the infantry guys. And even they need experience points to drive most of the vehicles in the game or man the numerous ground surface to air missile and gun units. When I designed this, I didn’t want any of the rubbish you see on other game servers where it is a free-for-all and with mostly griefers.

Oh, and – btw, IMO – Metacritic scores are the greatest injustice to the creative minds that actually work (yeah, some of us actually do that) to bring fun (and a balanced level of frustration) to gamers. Apart from the fact that it doesn’t contain “scores” from all print and on-line media reviews, its just plain wrong to use that as a yardstick for measuring excellence or failure when in fact the data sampling is hardly indicative of a true weight/ratio analysis based on the written word. But that’s a whole other interview.

RPS: Following on from the last question… do you think that makes you ahead of the curve? As in, realising you don’t need everyone to love you. There seems to be more and more people who work in PC gaming who seem to realise that actually servicing a niche of people who care about a certain approach and then making a game with a suitable budget is something that’s sustainable and worth doing – especially when you’re one of those people who want the game you’re making. You’ve been doing that for years.

Derek Smart: Well, it is only now when most of them either find themselves on the receiving end of redundancy or losing money hand over fist, that this common sense notion hits them. A lot of companies and small devs have been doing that for years. Most – if not all, like us, are still in business. Mostly it is greed and bad planning that gets some of these companies into trouble. Why spend $250K making a game and sell it to 100K people who actually want it, when you can blow $10m on a wildcard while trying to get 500K people to buy it? The mainstream economics of game development today makes absolutely no sense to me. It all boils down to bloat and mismanagement.

Plus I blame EA.

They started this bullshit about how games worth having or which are to be considered high end, would and should cost North of $30m because of the “next gen consoles”. It was retarded bullshit then. It is retarded bullshit now. And their shareholders are wondering where their money went right about now. Look no further than the likes of Eidos, Atari and every single one of them who bet big – and lost. Meanwhile, guys like us, Stardock and everyone in between and around, are still around making our low budget games for a group of people who actually enjoy them.

When I did my first game, the fact that I didn’t go straight out of business and back into the realms of obscurity is because a group of people saw what it was I was trying to do. So, they stuck around. Funny that. But since 1996 when I released my first game, the game that started it all has had no less than eleven iterations, derivatives, sequels and the like. Why? Because those small group of people keep buying the games. Some new ones come on board along the way and some get to stick around, while some get to move on. The economics is simple, if someone isn’t buying a game, why spend time, effort and money making it. So even with all the crap you see some gamers writing about games – they probably never even played – and which they claim suck, you have to wonder which planet they hail from.

The same thing here with All Aspect Warfare. Take our small budget (though this game has a higher budget than our previous games) and build a smallish game for a specific group of people.

I always joke with Sergio (one of my fellow developers) that if someone were ever (foolish enough) to give us $30m to make a game, that I was going to buy an island, disappear and leave him $2m to make the same game. :)

RPS: As everybody knows, co-op’s been one of the bigger trends of the last few years – I’m interested in how you’ve approached the issue and what the key of it for AAW is. Purely going on my own recollections, while my really early co-op memories were arcades, in terms of the late 90s/early00s, what little co-op there was seemed really quite hardcore. Like – say – Flashpoint, which is very much that realistic thinking man shooter’s sort of thing. While it lead to agreeable chaos, it was more grounded than the mental chaos which most co-op games lean towards now. What sort of pacing does AAW’s Co-op have?

Derek Smart: Well, in our game co-op is basically a multiplayer mode in which the four team members in the story mode campaign are replaced by human players.

The pacing is no different than if you were playing the scenario alongside the three NPC team members. The only difference is that you would expect your human team mates to actually make intelligent decisions and work together to achieve the objectives. But my guess is none of that (intelligent decision) is going to happen. But since voice chat will be available, you’ll be able to scream out obscenities on the fly and have them mean something.

The largest obstacle to co-op in games is the handling of NPC characters. Primarily who to attack, when and how. For us, an NPC targets list is prioritized. So its not like they’re going to attack player A who is 100m away, while ignoring player B who is standing right next to them.

No big deal really. I always wanted co-op for this game. Playing L4D just solidified my suspicions as to what it is we needed to aim for in doing it the no-frills but correct way.

RPS: Could you talk more about the experience system and multiplayer? I presume that your skills will be linked in a central server if you’re trying to make characters develop classes which they can’t easily grief. Or am I just making nonsense up out of my head again?

Derek Smart: Well as we (gamers that is) all know, Games For Windows Live is severely lacking. Since we just decided to do our own thing.

And doing our own thing means that we get to control the fate of our game, our servers, our player base, our patching etc. Our IP. Our worlds. Our rules. Nobody gets to hold us to ever shifting standards. Standards which tend to be relaxed for some (publishers) while steadfastly enforced for others. To this end, we just built ours from the ground up and tied it directly into the game. The way we did it is simple. You can play the multiplayer game using the game’s built-in server browser where you can host and/or join a game. There is no stats saving. So when you quit the server, it is all gone.

If you wanted to play on (ranked) stats saving servers, you have to use our external GameLobby app seen here. Doing so requires you to create a unique UserID (aka GamerTag) which is then stored on our servers. For your stats to be updated and tracked on the server, you have to always join a server this way. You can then look at your real-time stats and compare against others on our leaderboards over here. During multiplayer (there is no stats saving/tracking in single player), your kills, rank, Experience Points etc are tracked and updated in real-time, all the time. Since XP is tied directly into the game (e.g. you need a certain amount of XP in single and multiplayer to use certain vehicles, do certain things etc), the higher your XP, the more things you can do in the game. So there will be this on-going quest to get your XP very high.

Due to the game’s design and mechanics, you can also use XP for doing various things. e.g wantonly killing other friendly players, dying (yeah, each time you die, you lose XP when you re-spawn), failing objectives etc. So in one week, you could be at a high rank and XP, then the next – bad – week, your stats have tanked. And all of a sudden, some n00b has more XP and ranking than you do. If a player ends up griefing other players, we just ban their UserID, their IP address etc. They then will never be able to create another one, let alone join any server that is reporting to our master servers. They can still of course join a non-ranked server and play as normal and without a UserID. But even so, they can still be banned from there because all servers report to our master server – and that’s where the ban occurs.

You know me; I have zero tolerance for anti-social misfits – so I’m going to do everything in my power to keep them away from my game and off my servers.

We went all out on the multiplayer aspect of the game – to the extent of radical revisions to the multiplayer engine (e.g now it is a pure client-server architecture) – because we know that the popularity of multiplayer fps games lies in the multiplayer component and community. So, unlike our previous games where multiplayer was just another feature, this time around we focused on it as much as we would on any other feature or technology in the game.

For example, even the GameLobby has a bunch of unique features including friends list, invites, private messaging and such. As well as the ability to chat with a friend who is currently either in the lobby or on a game server, and vice versa. So if you want to locate your friend on a server, just login to the GameLobby and their UserID will tell you what server they’re playing on. Then you can send them a message directly from the lobby. e.g. while you are waiting to join a full server, you two can chat directly with each other via private messaging. Your friend never has to leave the game. We are considering extending this to sending Twitter chats, IM etc – directly from the lobby or the game. Sure, there are other third party (e.g. XFire) tools that have similar functionality, but we wanted built-in support without having to resort to yet another external app for the same functionality.

RPS: While I suspect it’s too early to talk about what you’ve planned with your MMO, what do you think of the current Space MMOs? What would you do differently?

Derek Smart: Well SWG [Star Wars Galaxies – Ed] is, well, uhm – (with no offense to the developers) – rubbish? And my guess is that the only reason it is still going is because that demographic – rabid or not – won’t touch Eve with the longest barge pole. Just wait until STO [Star Trek Online – Ed] launches and watch what happens.

And I don’t have any confidence whatsoever that Star Trek Online will be anything but. However, I am going to reserve final judgment on that until it is actually out and the gamers have spoken. From what I’ve seen, heard and can tell, they’re going with the tried – and failing – Status Quo. Its like these guys doing MMO games are stuck in a time machine. Yet, those who aren’t making it, just don’t get the message that the Status Quo doesn’t work for everyone. It is all about risk taking. Look at Eve! That, to me is the greatest risk ever undertaken by a developer. See where they are today.

Don’t like Eve. Never did. Only because it is not my kind of game. I love the genre, but there is a limit to how much love I can dole out when my idea of “fun” is being tested.

Eve – the quintessential spreadsheet in space – is popular (the stagnant subscriber base is testament to the space sim’s thinned popularity) because those guys decided what they wanted to do, did it – and stuck with it. So when the gamers jumped on board, CCP didn’t turn around and renege on what they started out with because some publisher said so. They bet that there were enough gamers out there who – spreadsheet or not – wanted that specific kind of game. And those who were first exposed to it, obviously liked it enough to stick around. CCP saw that – and thus far hasn’t done a single thing to rock the boat. So that’s how you do it. That’s the way we did it. And it has worked out pretty well so far.

If CCP had a publisher looking over their shoulder and had released Eve as the usual run-of-the-mill space combat shooter, mind blowing graphics or not, they’d be out of business by now – or at least struggling. Guaranteed.

For us, the long term goal is to get KnightBlade – our next (single player only) space combat game based on the AAW engines – out in early 2010. Then hunker down and release the Beta of our final (yes, it will in fact be our last game) space/planetary game, Galactic Command Online later that year and do a final roll out in 2011.

Since GCO uses all our established technologies, we’re just going to keep our space combat pedigree alive by going the MMO model. We don’t need gazillions of dollars to do it either. Plus, we’ve already got decades of experience in that game space – so no learning curve there for us. Plus we have the (proven) space and planetary technologies.

We have a much larger – and popular – install base than most space combat games, so I am confident that the subscribers will be sufficient for us to keep it going indefinitely. Instead of killing ourselves with a new game, sequel or derivative works every eighteen months or so, we’re just going to use that effort to provide free content to our paying subscribers year on year. Hell, we may even release the darn thing on an FTP (Free To Play) model supported by in-game ads and micro-transactions. Though we’re talking to several partners about it. I just haven’t made any final decisions yet.

In fact, doing KnightBlade is just another stepping stone and we’re doing it simply because I always wanted to do a space combat game that takes place in first person perspective inside a carrier and in a free-form universe. It is the one feature that we couldn’t do in previous games for various reasons – all related to horsepower and technologies. It is one thing to have a carrier hurtling through space at FTL speeds and clearly another to have a player running around inside said carrier in first person mode, talking to and interacting with his crew, doing combat with intruders etc – while the outside space and planetary worlds continues to go on.

And the reason that it is single player only is again due to technologies. I don’t want to spent two years doing it and dealing with the problems of multiplayer in such a game, when I can spend nine months doing a more tightly focused single player game. Especially since the price, viability or attraction won’t change whether or not it has a multiplayer component.

RPS: Why games? What was the moment where you realised that – fuck yeah! – games are amazing. And when did that germinate in a desire to make the bally things?

Derek Smart: Never in my wildest dreams. I love games. I have a library that would make Lincoln’s library proud – and that’s just the ones I have space in that room for. The decision to make games came from a part-time hobby back when I first started learning how to program in C. Once I got ahold of Lee Adams’ books, it was all over. In fact, I blame him 100% for how I ended up here. Anyone who had any of his books back in the day, knows exactly what I’m talking about. Sure he wasn’t exactly a good writer let alone a top notch programmer (at least not by today’s standards), but his books were enough to get you started and headfirst into the abyss. The fact that he wrote about four books on creating a flight sim – complete with source code, was the high point of my life back then.

Man, as I think about those (I owned ALL of them) books, I remember sitting there and manually typing in every frigging line of code and trying to get it to compile. Kids today have it easy. But I digress.

Honestly, any chance to show a cockpit screen when you're looking at your legs, I'm going to grab it

RPS: Do you ever regret your approach to comments threads, even momentarily? You’ve said before that you enjoy it a bit too much, which is why you do it… but there’s no way back. Even if you changed your tactics online, you’ve got so much history that it’d take another decade for it to sink in.

Derek Smart: The only regret I have is that I used to take it all so seriously. Once I realized that I could just as well play their own game, beating them at it while employing shock and awe tactics was just the end game. But I think I’ve mellowed out a bit. Must be old age because it certainly has nothing to do with common sense.

I am who I am. What I’m not is someone who some faceless fool out on a weekend pass is going to put under siege just because they think they can. They can pull that crap with other developers, like – oh I dunno – Denis Dyack mabye, but not me. First and foremost, I’m a gamer. So someone wants to wind me up, they’d better be ready to play.

When Jesus H. Christ said to turn the other cheek, he said nothing about a baseball bat.

As a wise man once said: “Game developers are just human beings who happen to make games for a living. If you want to hold us up to higher standards of conduct, then go ahead …but don’t be surprised if we don’t uphold them.” . Oh right, that was Warren Marshall over at Epic Games from back in the day when we used to hang out over on Planetcrap. Those were the days.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

For more on All Aspect Warfare, you can go to the website. It’s due second Quarter of 2009.

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