Interstellar Marines: AAA Indie and the road ahead


After Wednesday's look at Interstellar Marines' gameplay and Thursday's ventures into science fiction inspiration territory, you probably have a pretty good idea of what this game is about. Yet you might also still have some questions like "Ok, when is the game coming out?" and "If they are Indie, how are they funding a bloody trilogy?"

Maybe you've have heard about Zero Point Software's iterative (step-wise) 'AAA Indie' approach to building their game, releasing preview games piecemeal in the run-up to their first full release of Interstellar Marines: First Contact. But this approach is not just a marketing trick; it's part of their community-involved design philosophy and business model.

Although it might be very obvious to some, design plays a large role in ZPS's AAA Indie approach. We previously talked about the influence games like System Shock 2 and Deus Ex (first-person shooters with role-playing game elements) have had on the design of Interstellar Marines.

Because the game not only focuses on tactical decisions based on how you built your marine, but also on tactical combat and realism in general, it can be easy to overlook the arcade feel of the shooting mechanics ZPS is striving to achieve.

Kim Haar Jørgensen admits that "the Call of Duty franchise has kind of aced that arcade shooting linear gameplay," and at the same time he doesn't want his indie studio's game to feel as slow as some of the early Ghost Recon games. He wants to evolve the genre -- no Medal of Honor or Homefront here. Of course, eliciting the right arcade feel for everyone, with only a tiny team at your disposal, can be difficult without good feedback from your players.

While talking about co-op in System Shock 2 and Borderlands with Kim, he shed some light on his vision for that arcade gameplay and how it fits into the design next to tactical gameplay and RPG elements. "I still feel [these games] still miss some of the third pillar we have. The arcade shooters have this approachable liberal gameplay that focuses on 'easy to learn, hard to master'; it has a steady learning curve for everybody. So I think it's only when you combine this [with RPG elements and tactical gameplay] at just the right flavor and ingredients, that you get something that works."

"We obviously really hope Interstellar Marines is that kind of game. Because System Shock was great, but it was really unapproachable. The same goes for Deus Ex, it's a  fantastic game but only once you passed the first level, the game actually began. It's once you got to the UNATCO HQ, and later to New York and Hong Kong , that the game actually became something that no-one had played before. But it was just so inapproachable. So it's a mix of these three ingredients [tactical, RPG and arcade] that we believe can make something revolutionary."

While the idea for the game and its universe spawned at the time of Hired Guns and Doom, it wasn't until after Deus Ex that Kim and his co-op buddy Nicolai Grønborg became serious about creating its dream game in late 2003.

Kim Haar Jørgensen's cousin Gert Haar-Jørgensen -- who happened to be a successful consultant in Denmark -- was charmed by Kim's idea and enthusiasm for his game, and was willing to fund the project as best he could. This enabled Kim and Nicolai to work on the game fulltime and really get things rolling. A year later, Zero Point Software was formed.

ZPS started working on a demo built with Unreal Engine 3 in 2007, at a time when that engine still had a pretty restrictive and expensive licensing model. Following GDC 2008, ZPS was in talks with a major publisher for half a year to develop Interstellar Marines alongside currently well-known franchises.

But in the end some frustrations and the realization that going down that path would mean losing control over their IP made the team rethink their options. Were they really willing to let go of creative control over their baby? How could they muster the funds to do it free from the shackles of a publisher?

To complicate things even further, the subprime mortgage crisis shook financial markets during that time, and investors were not exactly lining up to give money to some unknown developer. As the fallout from the financial crisis started to affect economies in Europe more and more in late 2008, the primary flow of investment also withered -- almost dooming the entire project.

Thankfully, part of the orignal team was able to return from the brink and eventually gathered a couple of small angel investors -- but don't think 'millions of dollars' here. Money is scarce, and development of the self-pronounced AAA title is costly.

Time progressed, and the Internet matured in many ways. One of the results of that maturation was the increasing viability of crowdsourced funding: getting the online community involved in your project and simultaneously funding development. Things like Kickstarter popped up, and ZPS turned to a crowdfunded system to realize its vision the Indie way. Finally in May 2009, the official website was launched.

As cost and freedom became a problem on the engine front, the studio opted for a cheaper solution by switching to Unity in August 2009 . The tech for that engine was still very young at the time, but the gamble worked out in the end as Unity has since evolved into one of the fastest growing, and scalable, engines out there.

When Notch started selling Minecraft alpha with only Paypal as a means to pay, and succeeded beyond anyone's expectations, it made ZPS realize that their AAA Indie approach had a good chance of working out. As Kim puts it: "If you have a good game, people will buy it. [Notch] showed us that and that's our inspiration."

ZPS's model of community-funded production is a bold and risky one, but it conveys an 'all-in' mentality that has struck a chord with many fans of the project. AAA Indie involves two strategies that are intertwined with both the design and the production of the game.

First of all, the community can choose if they want to fund the project by buying badges and support medals. A Frontline badge ($25) is basically a pre-order for the first Interstellar Marines title at a reduced price. Similarly, a Spearhead badge ($39) is a pre-order for the full trilogy. If people don't want to spend that amount of cash for either option, they can buy separate Support Medals ($5) which can be traded in for a Spearhead badge if you have enough of them. These badges and medals also affect the medal avatar next to your name to indicate your investment, if you care about that.

Frontliners and Spearheads also get access to the 'Briefing Room', where you can find HD versions of videos in multiple formats, HD wallpapers, a few internal development videos from way back, and access to alpha and beta stages of the preview games. Kim admits that it's hard to juggle the act of giving these highly vocal and active fans some exclusive content as a 'thank you' without excluding the wider community. And from the looks of it, the community seems to be fine with this system right now.

The second strategy is to raise awareness by releasing bits and pieces of the design and the technology behind Interstellar Marines through polished, free-to-play preview games that can be played in your browser thanks to Unity. After launching the official site in May 2009, ZPS released "The Vault" in October 2009 -- a 3D environment that shows some of the game's models and creatures. Yes, that shark creature is in there.

Shortly after The Vault went live, Bullseye was released as a beta in December 2009. As a game set in a shooting gallery, ZPS was able to test their weapon handling and shooting mechanics, while providing players with a hands-on experience. Because ZPS actively invites the community to participate in the game's production, anyone could tell them that the weapons were cool, or that they sucked -- and you still can.

Of course, standing still and shooting at cardboard objects is not the same as playing an FPS. Hence, in July 2010, Running Man was released: a testing ground where you fight bots in the most literal sense. Like Bullseye, Running Man allowed ZPS to showcase their technology and gameplay while enabling the community to provide feedback on what they liked and didn't like. Think of it as prototyping a game in public through bite-size chunks.

To date, Running Man is probably the best way to get a feel for what Interstellar Marines will one day play like, and there are still three more preview games yet to be released that will showcase other aspects of the game that haven't been seen or tested.

The first of these will be Deadlock, a player versus player multiplayer game with multiple modes. It's still a few months away from release, but it is also a bit different and more ambitious than the previous installments.

Deadlock will give Spearheads and Frontliners access to an alpha browser build through a process ZPS calls 'Open Door Development.' This means that people can provide feedback from the very start, and the game will change and evolve as fast as updates can be pushed through. Once it's 'ready,' it will become accessible to all.

At the moment, ZPS is also working on the browser-based 'ultra-thin client' architecture for Deadlock, which will allow you to invite friends to a game of Deadlock by merely sending them a link. Kim explains: "All you need is a plug-in. We want to make it super accessible; you don't even have to register to join. We want to make it as easy for people to join a game as sending a funny Youtube video." Here's an idea: put those shark things in Deadlock and invite people to shoot mutant shark creatures. Money in the bank!

Actually, there are plans to monetize Deadlock in a way. "At a later stage, you'll have stats and such if you register. And ultimately, once you're past the demo areas, you can purchase small upgrades. It won't be like micro-transactions, but it's one way of saying: 'You played the demo and you want to play against 4 or 8 other people and unlock more maps?' You can pay, say, $10 in Deadlock [for that]. But then that money also gets subtracted from [the cost of a Spearhead or Frontline badge]."

So whatever you spend on anything they'll come up with before Interstellar Marines comes out, will go towards the final price you will pay. It's an investment in the production of the game while it's underway, and you get some more game to play with while you wait. Kim stresses: "It's not about milking people, but about getting them earning up premium privileges while they wait."

Like with Bullseye and Running Man, the technology that goes into Deadlock -- and the changes that can be made while it's being prototyped live and publicly -- will make its way into the full game's cooperative mode. In the meantime, the community can decide how much they like competitive multiplayer and shape its future.

Community feedback will show if it would rather keep that aspect of multiplayer separately contained in Deadlock, and what kinds of modes and maps they want. Regardless of how all of that turns out, the main focus of the trilogy will still be a singleplayer and co-op story-driven game.

Following Deadlock, there will at some point be a tentatively named 'Prologue' preview game featuring story-driven four-player co-op. This one will set up events leading up to First Contact, the first game. As Lead Sound Designer and PR guy Kenneth Ellegaard Anderson explains: "Think Dead Rising 2: Case Zero in terms of size and scope."

All of the preview games are portray the player participating in training scenarios for prospective Interstellar Marines. A still unknown preview game will fit in there as well. Bullseye tests people's aptitude at shooting in general. Running Man sees them being secretly trained as a first line of defense against potential hostile sentient species. And Deadlock is where they are pitted in man to man combat to filter out the weak from the potential Marines. They are teaching our children to kill! In space! But no one can hear you scream there, so whatever.

The preview games allow ZPS to show off parts of their game, involve the community, prototype their technology and design, and potentially raise more funding for their project while they do it. But what about the future? ZPS has recently become a certified PlayStation 3 developer, which allows them to directly release content on PSN without having to involve a separate publisher.

There's a possibility of a Move-enabled version of Bullseye for PSN, and a chance of more upcoming small releases on a variety of digital distribution services on consoles and computers. But like Prologue, that is all still for some time in the future. Right now, it's all about creating Deadlock for the PC and Mac.

They still plan to release Interstellar Marines on whatever platforms the community want, though. Unity should allow painless porting to any platform or console, notwithstanding some restrictions of memory and compression and the like. Because all of the playable content so far has been in-browser only, I asked Kim Haar Jørgensen what we should expect from the final product.

"For us it's a matter of serving entertainment as easy as possible. So it might be playable in browser if you're willing to load it. It might be like a Steam game where you download it first. For us it doesn't matter, we'll make sure that it will be available in the format that people think is the easiest."

In the end, Zero Point Software comes across as a highly motivated indie studio with a fixed vision for the future and its technological foundation, and a very open community-oriented approach to its iterative development structure. It's been a long, hard, and bumpy ride, but since launching their official site, over 96,000 members have registered -- of which more than 2,000 are Spearheads -- and over 8,000 Support Medals have been purchased.

There is still some risk involved with the AAA Indie approach. The preview games are meant to generate awareness and create more funding, but at the same time they cost money to develop. There is an ever-present danger that a preview game may end up costing more than it generates in new revenue to fund further development; even though these games also help create the required technology and gives insight into players' demands.

Still, it's hard to not give the team credit for having the balls to push ever onwards, and trying to do the best they can to realize their dream. So when is the Interstellar Marines trilogy coming out? That will really depend on how well ZPS and its community is able to grow awareness, how monetization will go over with the community when it comes to Deadlock, and on the future iterations of the preview games -- whatever platform they will end up on.

The story of Zero Point Software and its core team is an ongoing one, and who knows when they will finally conclude the Interstellar Marines trilogy. But with funding slowly but steadily increasing, allowing the team to iterate faster and faster, it could just end up being the story of 'the little indie that could.'

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Maurice Tan
Maurice Tan   gamer profile

or on the banner above! Hai! You may know me as Professor Pew in older times. If you see a cblog here from beyond September 2010 or something: that's from the cblogging days and not anything ed... more + disclosures



Filed under... #Destructoid Originals #First-person shooter #Role-Playing Games #Top Stories #video



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