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Interview: Cliffski Talks Gratuitous Space Battles

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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Jim Rossignol

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