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Maia Maker On Molyneux, Marmite & Management Games

"The most accurate Marmite simulation ever seen"

Peter Molyneux's unnervingly vague but tear-jerking Project GODUS isn't the only god game revival on the crowd-funded block. British indie dev Simon Roth is in the last mile of seeking pledges for his sci-fi-themed, Dungeon Keeper and Dwarf Fortress-inspired, procedurally-generated management game Maia. Between its rather spangly proprietary engine and the fact that there's a whole lot of it being shown off already, I'm personally much more interested in this modernised, maximised rethink of the house that Bullfrog made than I am in the wild promises of Dungeon Keeper's oft-disproved original lead.

With £63,000 of the required £100,000 in the bag and just four days left on the Kick-clock, it's looking likely that Maia will go down to the wire. I chatted to the game's lead, Simon Roth (ex of Frontier and Mode 7) about whether he thinks he'll make it, the game's procedural cleverness, his 70s sci-fi inspirations, why god games declined and, opportunist that I am, what he makes of Molyneux's accidental rival project.

RPS: Obvious question, but why are you making a god game? Is it a deep, long-term personal interest?

God games have a really special place in my heart. It is the only genre which really goes out of its way to directly appeal to, and reward, the creativity of a player. So many games force a story on you, but only this genre gives you the proper tools to build your own story, something far more interesting to me. Plus I'm probably a bit of a megalomaniac, so there's that too.

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RPS: How much variety can we expect from the procedural world? Will it be like "oh it's that biome" or much more random?

Lots - I'm hoping to really push the exterior in terms of detail and quality. One of the key aspects to providing the variation the game demands is the detailed simulation. A small fluctuation in the initial set-up variables can massively change the balance of how the world develops over time. With every single creature and plant feeding back into the system some pretty unique ecosystems could potentially arise.

Below ground I'm hoping to add lots of detail, with lots of archaeology and exploration to carry out, for the players who want to take on the risk of drowning their colonies in lava.

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RPS: I'm seeing Silent Running in there, bless its psychotic hippy soul, but what other 70s sci-fi specifically influenced it? And what right do you have to be influenced by 70s sci-fi given you were some time off being even a foetus at that point?

Due to my parents' strange taste in furniture, interior design and consumer electronics, I got to live through the 70's all of my bloody childhood. If anything, I've earned this.

Alien is one of my main inspirations. Every detail is so perfectly crafted and deliberate that I've been watching it over and over, dissecting every shot.

There's something about the cinematography of the era which has been lost over the decades as action sequences, special effects shots and later computer visual effects came in. Every new layer took the director and cinematographers another step away from the eyepiece of the camera, and further away from their vision.

There is also a dangerous amount of Space 1999 influencing me too, such a strange and amazing show.

On the soundtrack front, we've been poring over some fantastic electronic music from around the era. John Carpenter's soundtracks, Vangelis, Eno... expect a lot of dark, ambient synths, with a modern twist.

RPS: Why do you think management/god games - or at least the more ambitious ones, not the routine Trailer Park Tycoon variety - went away?

I think to create a game this ambitious you need very tight creative control over every aspect of development. The small developers of the nineties died out, absorbed in EA, Eidos and Activision and the control was lost. As studios, publishers and budgets have gotten larger and larger, everyone's grip on a project becomes diluted and suddenly you have too many ideas going into the pot.

Indies have the creative control, but haven't necessarily had the means to produce projects like this recently. I think that with AAA quality engines now being accessible to everyone and the funding of Kickstarter popping up I think we will see a massive comeback.

RPS: Have you really never played Startopia?

Someone was so shocked that I hadn't that they ordered me a physical copy. It's sitting here on my desk waiting for me to finally get some time off after the Kickstarter.

One of the original Bullfrog/Muckyfoot team actually emailed last week to wish me good luck. I was absolutely beaming all day.

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RPS: Dwarf Fortress is something that keeps getting name-checked here - are you looking/expecting to have that sort of long-running, ever-changing project or is this more of a one-shot deal?

I really want the project to be ongoing. Firstly, I have so many ideas to flesh out the game and its world, but in the name of sanity removed them from the core design. I'd love to be able to expand upon things over time and have a more natural, creative approach to development once we've reached beta.

Secondly, I feel the more organic development process will let us improve on things that the community finds problematic. I'm not perfect and having the ability to take feedback into account will really help us add the final layer of polish on the game-play.

RPS: You asked for quite a lot of money on the Kickstarter. What was the thinking there, and how much do you stand by that decision?

I really want the game to stand up on its own, as a piece of art. To me this means that everything needs to be carefully crafted and considered, which will take a lot of work. It's something that I can't do alone. Having the funding means I can bring in people who share a common vision of the game, to help me deliver. For instance, I want the soundtrack to be fitting for a 70's science fiction epic. Composing it will take a lot of time and effort, but will transform the atmosphere and experience of the game.

The figure itself is a pretty tight estimate for the costs to deliver the core game with the team I've put together. It was a little over the 100k mark so I took it down to a nice round number. I probably should have made it just shy of the mark in retrospect. Potentially I could have started cutting features, but with the design feeling so complete at the moment, I think it would have risked neutering the project.

I didn't want to take less money than I would realistically need to deliver what I have promised. I was tempted to low-ball it and reduce the risk, and my blood pressure, but I felt that would be unfair to the backers. Honestly, I should have upped the hype factor of my pitch to match the ambitious target.

RPS: Did you expect to race to the prize, or were you conscious that the bloom might have somewhat come off Kickstarter's rose?

I was pretty realistic from the outset, this was never going to be a explosive viral project and I knew I'd have to really work for it. I'm still very optimistic about hitting the goal.

RPS: A while back I was interviewing Randy Pitchford, and quite by chance he started talking about how he'd designed the physics of the moon in Borderlands 2. That's the kind of feature that's important to the creator but the vast majority of players will simply never be aware of, and I suspect the same is true of most games. Got anything like that in Maia?

Oh, so many. I think the little details really matter, especially when I'm using the inflammatory term "Hard Science Fiction". The game's prototype started out with more of a bent on terraforming so I had a system simulating local and global warming based on atmosphere composition. I ended up just leaving all the code in there and tied it to the weather systems where it quietly gobbles up CPU cycles.

One of the more apparent things is the lava. I needed a pascal-second viscosity value for its fluid simulation, but after trying several values from geology sites over the course of an evening, I gave up. I finally had a eureka moment and found the exact qualities I wanted. The fluid in question; concentrated brewer's yeast. So Maia now has the most accurate Marmite simulation ever seen in a game.

RPS: What do you make of Project Godus? And do you see it as any kind of threat to Maia?

While he did pick a hell of a time to launch it, I'm actually pretty excited to see Peter coming back the genre.

I don't see it as a threat at all. If anything it will have a massively positive effect, introducing a new generation of players to god games. Which is just fine by me.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Maia has four days remaining to reach its £100,000 goal. (Americans can pay in dollars, fear not). If you want to know more about it, get thee here.

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