Earlier this week I took some time out of my merciless schedule of reblogging the trailers for the sequels to 2007 action games to have chat with Danish indies Zero Point. Game director Kim Haar Jørgensen told me about how Hired Guns, System Shock 2, and Deus Ex had all fed into the creation of their Unity-powered co-op sci-fi shooter, Interstellar Marines. You might have already encountered this “AAA Indie” project via Bullseye or Running Man, the browser-based mini-games that Zero Point have used to promote their title. The full game, however, is something much more formidable, as Jørgensen was to explain. It's quite project for just a handful of devs, so I was keen to find out how they were getting on.
RPS: Let's just start with some background: how many guys are you? How did you come to be working on Interstellar Marines?
Jørgensen: It started back in the day when myself and Nikolai, who is my good friend, sound guy, and musician (my background is the 3D graphics and animation), we sat down and played a game called Hired Guns by Psygnosis...
RPS: Haha, a Hired Guns reference. Great way to open an interview...
Jørgensen: It was on the Amiga back in 1993 or something, and it was split-screen co-op on a single screen with a drag-and-drop inventory, which was just really cool. Back then an idea was born, and we've been talking about this game ever since. A lot has happened in the meantime, of course, but right now we are four guys working on it, we were fluctuating a bit with the financial crisis, but we are now picking up the pace and getting more and more support. We are proud to say that our community counts to 90,000 people right now, so that's fantastic.
RPS: That is a number of people.
Jørgensen: We've sold nearly 2000 premium accounts, which is the thirty dollar premium pre-order deal, and we have sold 6000 of the support medals, which are around five dollars. These allow the community members to show that we've supported the game's development, which is a good thing.
RPS: What led you to source community support like that?
Jørgensen: It actually spawned as an idea back in 2009 when we went to visit our previous engine provider at GDC. We were unable to create an agreement that would allow us to show the work we had been doing on their engine, so we had to figure out what else to do. The publishers we were talking to at that time were consolidating and wanted to move to buy our IP for cheap. That would have meant we were left working on something that we don't control anymore, so we sat down and said “let's launch the community site, convince the world about our ideas for the game, and get the community to help us complete the game!” That's what we've been fighting to achieve ever since.
RPS: Let's talk about your overall vision for the game. We know it's a Unity-powered sci-fi shooter, but what else? What can we expect from it?
Jørgensen: I've played every first-person shooter out there and always looked for co-op. So co-op is an important part of Interstellar Marines, all the ideas we've had have been centred around the need for it to be co-op. Co-op is in many games now, but it is right at the centre of Interstellar Marines. The titles that inspired us over the years for the design of Interstellar Marines, well, obviously the arcade shooters for their linearity and their learning curve, games like Half-Life. But those games always miss something, and that's the depth provided by the tactical shooter. Those games, instead of having you unlock a knife, then a pistol, then a shotgun, and so on, let you choose. The tactical shooters gave us freedom of choice in how you wanted to approach a situation. So that is in Interstellar Marines. The third pillar, which is fairly important, is the role-playing aspect of the game. Early on Nikolai and I played System Shock 2 on co-op, and that is one of the best co-op games of all time. It's extremely satisfying to upgrade your characters in that. I went down one path with weapons, and Nikolai another, he could hack and I could modify our weapons, and that mix just gave us a tonne of ideas. That's back in '99! We also played Deus Ex and that, with System Shock 2, showed that inner goals, those goals about developing your character along certain lines, provide a lot of satisfaction for a player. So that is an important part of Interstellar Marines, also.
The three pillars of Interstellar Marines is: role-playing, tactical, and arcade heritage. That is the foundation for a game that we believe can change the way people change FPS games. System Shock 2 and Deus Ex were never huge blockbuster titles, although they inspired a lot of people, but it was never the equivalent of a Call Of Duty, or Medal Of Honor, and we're sad about that. We're trying to come up with a fresh approach with similar inspirations.
And just a last thing to say about our own motivations: we love science fiction and the Discovery channel and space news, and that has inspired us to create a world that centres around realistic and believable science fiction: living 150 years from now, how will that be? We don't want to create science fiction that is bloomy and laser shields and Star Wars, you know? We found a genre there that we love, and it has always been like that. We are keen to create a believable character underneath it all, too. The more you can believe in the character, the more you will be able to believe in the world that we throw you into.
RPS: So this is a co-op campaign?
Jørgensen: Yes. You should think of it as a linear story, where you go from your basic training through to a secret division which protects mankind in the reaches of space. It is not a tactical game where you choose a level and then go, you will be experiencing a story with up to three of your friends in co-op.
RPS: And what about the PvP aspect?
Jørgensen: Right now we are focused on developing Deadlock, which is technology that you will see in the full game. I think we showed some of that in the recent video. We are trying to create a platform that can spread virally among the community. Both Bullseye and Running Man [Zero Point's previous playable offerings] didn't really do that, and we need a foundation where we establish the basis for multiplayer and then – with the help of the community – begin throwing in features to sustain the game. That is important, but of course our main focus will always been the main fully featured co-op game for the franchise.
RPS: Why are you using Unity?
Jørgensen: Well in the beginning we were forced into to it! We couldn't put up the huge amount of money that it would have taken to share the content from our original engine. Eight months later they created a more liberal engine solution, but at that time there was pay up or don't use the tech. We were facing bankruptcy, we had a small amount of money to create the community site. So there was this smaller engine developer here in Denmark so we talked to them, and they told us about their intentions for multi-platform support, the deferred renderer, and other things, and so we said “fantastic”. We haven't regretted it.
RPS: The embedded Unity players seem like an effective marketing tool, but has that been well received?
Jørgensen: Yes, it has. We have two things here. It shows that the final game can work in the browser. People can't imagine a game like Halo or FEAR being served in a browser, so here we have a way to dispel that misconception. At the other end of the spectrum we have people who just think it is cool stuff, because it's the coolest thing they have seen in a browser game. We are confirming and showing how the game will work. You can play it in a browser! But you can just as easily download and play it on Steam. Really, how people access the game isn't what is interesting. What is interesting is having as many players as possible, and this allows us to do that.
RPS: What sort of stage is the project at now? What's the next thing we will see from you?
Jørgensen: Right now we have various options we are looking at. The recent video has changed things a little. Let me put it like this: since we launched the website it has been hard to get the understanding for the game that we need. Internally we like “ok, maybe crowd-funding doesn't work”, then Minecraft came out and it showed that a good game can sell itself. It showed that even the simplest communication helps. One guy, saying: “You can only pay one price, only by Paypal, here's how much I sell.” And if the game is good it can work.
So we came out of a hole there to think that maybe it really is possible, and perhaps we are just communicating wrong. So we created the video which came out about a month ago, and the understanding and support we got from that has been exceptional. So now it's about sustaining that. The next part of this is Deadlock, but it is a slow process, because there are only four of us. There is a programmer, there is myself, a graphical artist and a bit of a web guy, then we have a sound guy who has taken on a lot of PR responsibility... Deadlock is being established, but slowly. We are trying to spread our games onto other platforms, such as Kongregate. Another option could be to create a Move game for the Playstation Network using Bullseye. So there are lots of paths to more players. Our objective though, really, is to keep communication flowing and get more about our game out there into the world.
RPS: So, speaking of communication, what's the main message you'd like to get out to RPS readers reading this interview?
Jørgensen: Obviously trust is something we have to earn, but if we show and argue our vision, and enough people want to support that and pre-purchase that, then anything is possible: it is possible create an immersive sci-fi role-playing shooter. Allowing people to play the game while we are developing is possible. Listening to feedback and improving the game based on that feedback is possible. If people trust us, anything is possible. It's just between us and them. We, who make the game, and the people who buy the game. It takes time to show that we will stick by every promise we make, so we just intend to work at it. I am happy to be able to acknowledge that this approach has worked for us pretty good lately!
RPS: How do you feel about independent development generally? You are aiming quite high for a team so small, does anyone else inspire you?
Jørgensen: Absolutely, Minecraft is a huge inspiration, because Notch the guys show what is possible. Unknown Worlds, the Natural Selection guys, are also a huge inspiration. I guess partly because their first game was a mod and based on a larger existing technology, they have a huge fanbase, and better success than us! But it's much the same story for them, and we have huge respect for them and Wolfire Games too for taking something complex and trying to make it as an indie studio. We are all trying to convince gamers that this is the game for them.
RPS: So what's next from you guys?
Jørgensen: Well, the first alpha for Deadlock is still a few months away, but that will be important. It will enable us to invite people in to this instant-access, ultra-thin client. It'll be just as easy as linking a YouTube video to a friend. Instant action in your browser is our next milestone in terms of production. Hopefully you will also hear that our investors have put up enough money to expand the team and ramp up production on the game!
RPS: Thanks for your time.