[This is an odd one. This was the first of these I wrote for PCF, and is really a very different format – there's a large box-out where I go through Gollop's entire history of games, for example, which I've lost here. It's also a straight transcript and – spookily – written in a much more sober style. I've had a quick kick at it to get rid of some of the stiffness, but it does sit a little oddly with its usual tone...]
This isn't really a post-mortem. From a development side the single most noticeable feature of Laser Squad Nemesis is that it’s constantly being updated and its development cycle is, abstractly, endless. This means that rather than an examination of something in the past, we’re cutting apart something still living: vivisection rather than post-mortem.
LSN was was Codo Technologies first game, for themselves. The Gollop brothers’ previous studio, Mythos games, closed after the ambitious Dreamlands game was cancelled. Disheartened by how they were treated by major publishers, Laser Squad Nemesis was them stepping outside the mainstream system to forge a new path. But what to do?
Since the X-com intellectual property was owned by their publisher Microprose (which through a series of buy-outs ended up under Infogrames' auspices – leading to such entirely irrelevant games to the franchise as third-person action-shooter X-com: Enforcer. It's now with Take2, with Not-Irrational-Anymore rumoured to be working on it) they turned to an earlier property. The original Laser Squad laid much of the groundwork for the later X-com games and being set around a direct conflict between two forces in an enclosed arena made the perfect core for an play-by-E-mail game. Unusually, rather than a set price, the game is paid for by subscription after the initial period.
While released in a highly playable and polished form, the game has been expanded and improved since release with four separate playable races in the full game, varying from the technologically centred marines, to the battle-bot dependent Machina, to the multiplying xeno-beasts known as the Spawn and the newest race, the classic aliens of conspiracy fiction, the Grey. With a devoted community and an array of leagues, as well as a host of impressive review scores, Laser Squad Nemesis is proof that it’s possible to create something genuinely of worth outside of the standard publisher/developer relationship.
RPS: What was the original conception of LSN?
Julian Gollop, Managing Director of Codo: The original idea of LSN was to create a simple two player email game which we could produce quickly and distribute directly on the internet. The original inspiration was, of course, the original Laser Squad which we made in 1988. In those days the internet was not available to most people, but Laser Squad was a great two player tactical wargame. We thought it would be a great idea to update the game, but rather than simply copy Laser Squad we also wanted to create something new. We have made many tactical squad level games, all with slightly different systems, and LSN is an evolution of what we have been doing for many years. The system employed in LSN uses distinct turns, but the game runs in real time, so you get the fine control of turn-based games with the action feel of an RTS. We wanted LSN to be easy to play, but with enough depth to keep people playing for a long time, and I think we have achieved this.
RPS: What initial problems did you face when putting it together? How did you get around then?
Gollop: We had to learn linux and SQL to develop the server side of the system, but we manage quite rapid progress with this, thanks partly to the awesome power and simplicity of Python, the programming language we used to glue all the server elements together. The server had to receive emails from players, process the turns and send the results back, while maintaining lots of statistics on players and games. Perhaps the biggest problem was trying to get it all done within a short time, including all the artwork and animation. It took us about 9 months before we launched the beta testing, and that’s 9 months living on our savings without an income. So the financial pressure was great, but we just had to work hard.
RPS: LSN's constantly expanding and developing state is one of its most stand out features. However, has it caused any problems you'd warn people of if trying something similar themselves?
Gollop: The main problem it causes is a lot of work. But we have to keep our existing customers happy, which means adding new features, fixing bugs and dealing with technical problems. We also had to manage our online community, which has many vocal people make many suggestions about the current state of the game and its future direction. At the same time we still have to focus on finding new players. However, there are many benefits to creating a game like this. We get a lot of feedback from our players, which is generally very helpful. The players have also contributed a great deal to the game by running their own tournaments, helping new players, and creating maps using the built in map editor. I would actually recommend this approach to other independent developers – produce something as quick as you can, start selling it, and then improve on it with the help of your player community.
RPS: Looking back at LSN in its current state what are you pleased with? What aren't you as pleased with?
Gollop: I’m actually most pleased with our players. They have actually created a great community that adds value to the game and offers a lot of help and advice to new players. I have been least pleased with response of many big games publishers to our proposals to develop the game further with better development funding. Fortunately JustPlay have recently released the retail release of LSN, which has helped us reach a wider audience.
RPS: If you could change any previous decision, what would it be?
Gollop: If I could change any previous decision, it would probably be to have added a single player component to the game much earlier. This is mainly because many people who play computer games still prefer to play alone. However, we have now completed a single player version of the game which will be launched very soon.
RPS: What lessons are you taking forward from this project?
Gollop: There have been very many valuable lessons that we have learned. Perhaps the most important for us, and any other small independent developer, is that it is necessary to devote a lot a time to marketing and selling the game, and not just focus on the development side. The other important lesson is that our player community is just as much part of the success of the game as anything else, and they should not be taken for granted.