Michael Westgarth fires some questions at Jellyfish Games' Dave Williams – the mastermind behind the Astrobase Command project – to find out more
21 February 2014 | By Import
Remember the good old days when “the future”, as defined by sci-fi movies, meant shoving huge disks into massive computers with scanline laden, black & green, analogue monitors? Jellyfish Games sure do, and it's that very sense of “retro-futurism” that the Montreal based indie team are incorporating into their space station simulator Astrobase Command.
We fired some questions at Jellyfish Games' Dave Williams – the mastermind behind the Astrobase Command project – to find out more.
Strategy Informer: First off, why the name “Jellyfish Games”?
Dave Williams: So, I think when you've been in the industry past a certain point, you need to work for a different kind of studio. Because when you're in your 30s, you cant run the same hours you could when you were in your 20s. The game industry can be really brutal, and in my experience even places that say "we never crunch" end up crunching. There are times when you work 16 [hours] for weeks, and there are a lot of complex biz-dev reasons why this ends up being the case – it's not simply a matter of "studios are jerks."
So when we started Astrobase Command, we really wanted to form a company where we wanted work – which basically means, where 30 year olds could work and have a family at the same time as being a game dev.
In the animal kingdom, there is the concept of a siphonophora – which is an animal that is really a colony of individuals who work collectively. And we really want to be a collective company where people feel ownership over what they're doing, and are deeply invested in the project and the company. A jellyfish is not a true siphonophora, but it's less of a mouthfull.
Strategy Informer: Am I right in thinking that Jellyfish Games is comprised of yourself, Adam Blahuta, and William Dollar?
Dave Williams: Yeah we recently found a fantastic artist to work with – Daniel Dahl. And there is also "Max Shields" who was deeply involved in our community from the fan side of things, and we invited him into our Skype channel and now he's one of us.
Strategy Informer: What are your roles within that small team? Do you even have defined roles?
Dave Williams: Do we have defined roles? Not traditionally.
I think indie projects can only be successful if everyone is willing to work a bit out of their comfort zone. And while each of us have a speciality, and a focus, everyone also needs to just do what has to be done. Everyone on the team has a technical background, so that helps.
Strategy Informer: Do you all have a background in videogame creation?
Dave Williams: Oh yeah. I've been in the industry for I guess a decade now. Adam has been in awhile, and so has Dollar and Daniel. We all took different paths.
What's kind of tragic is that for the most part when you're in games, you're not making the kinds of games you would want to play – and this is normal. Game developers are hardcore gamers in the vast majority of cases (you need to be, to put up with the bad parts of the industry).
But most people don't have the luxury of picking the game they work on. That's studio leadership, directors, etc. – and in some cases if you're a contract shop or running with a license, nobody at the studio really gets to decide the game that's being made.
If you think about it, as a gamer, for every game you absolutely love there are dozens or hundreds of titles you think are terrible – and Metacritic even might agree. Somebody made those – and they were a gamer, and good at their job. It's actually really tragic when you think about it. I think there is a lot of wasted talent in the industry.
Strategy Informer: Is that why you're self-publishing your game? Why you've created your own studio – your own business?
Dave Williams: I think it's why the idea of creating a studio and self-publishing a game is appealing to a lot of developers. Most of the developers I've known have a fantasy of "one day starting their own studio..." for the reasons I've mentioned above. I'm just lucky enough to be able to have a go at it.
Strategy Informer: For Strategy Informer readers who aren't in the know – what is Astrobase Command and what can it offer gamers?
Dave Williams: I've always been a huge sci-fi nerd. I watched TNG [Star Trek: The Next Generation] religiously when it aired in the late 80s/early 80s. I've also been a life-long D&D [Dungeons & Dragons] player.
For me, what makes sci-fi interesting is how characters interact in a world with advanced or different technology. Because stories are fundamentally about characters, and how they face challenges that are presented by their world – and technology can be a great vehicle for that. So you can have situations and explore dilemmas that are only possible with sci-fi.
TNG is a great example of really interesting character-driven storylines that can only exist in the specific world of Star Trek.
What I've noticed is that sci-fi games tend to not be about characters but instead about "oh look at this cool model of a ship and pew pew lasers," which I want to say is the lazy way out because ships and pew pew is fun, but to me sci-fi is so much more than that – and we really wanted to make a game that captured what's unique about sci-fi, in the RPG sense.
And then on top of this, we wanted a game that was the player's story, and not our story. Like, decisions have to matter for characters to matter. This isn't a teleplay – it's a game.
So the player designs a race, builds a station, recruits crew of his [created] race to live and work on the station, sends his guys on missions, and tries not to get everyone killed.
Because we're all technology guys, we're spending so much energy on procedural generated stories. These aren't scripted modules. We're working on an AI storyteller that makes the things that happen to you not random, not scripted, but based on your decisions and actions
One of the things that's a challenge for us honestly is describing the game, because we're doing things that are so new with procedural story in an RPG – specifically because as gamers it totally pushes our "omg this is so awesome" buttons.
And there's a reason that the video games that get made tend to be of the "X meets Y with a dash of Z" variety, because that's easy for people to conceptualize. But we're really going out there.
Strategy Informer: How important are individual crew members in Astrobase Command, and what does the game do to make them important?
Dave Williams: People are your most important resource. This is an RPG. We feel that means characters need to be more than a list of abilities. Characters can't just be a mannequin to hang gear on.
The game makes them important because you need them to keep your station running. And their own AI makes decisions based on the personality traits they acquire through the game – there is a sim-like quality there. In a sense, the point of the game is to treat characters as actual people.
Strategy Informer: Do individual crew members act autonomously? How much control do players have on the actions of crew members?
Dave Williams: They'll act autonomously if you leave them alone. If you take Crewman Jones and assign him to monitor Reactor 34, he'll happily go about his day without your input. If it catches on fire, he'll use his AI to decide how to go about solving that problem (until you intervene).
As the player, it's your base. But the crew are legitimate people. You issue them orders (so in combat this might be "attack this fortified position", out of combat it might be "rescue the guys in the damaged module", and they use their AI to execute those orders – which they should.
If a module is on fire, and you tell them to do something in that module, they're not going to run blindly through the flames and die. They might decide to pull a suit out of a locker, or they might decide to extinguish the fire by hand, or they might decide to vent the oxygen in the module. The decision they end up making is influenced by their personality traits.
But a crewman with a "no fear of death" personality trait might just run into the flames and try to do the order before he runs out of health (and there is permadeath). And its up to the player to surround himself and promote units that have personalities which suit his play style.
Strategy Informer: And what if Crewman Jones turns out to be a bad seed – can you blow him out of the airlock?
Dave Williams: You can fire people from your station, just as you recruit them. Blowing out an airlock is pretty dramatic, but sure.
Strategy Informer: How can players deal with unhelpful crew members?
Dave Williams: I think this isn't binary. It's about putting people where they are most useful.
So my favourite character in TNG (and he later made an appearance on VOY [Star Trek: Voyager]) was Lt Barclay.
He suffered from transporter psychosis. He was arrogant, narcissist, and completely anti-social. They called him "Lt Broccoli" behind his back. I also think he had a holodeck addiction at one point. But he was also brilliant.
But there were a few episodes where he saved the day, not in spite of his flaws, but because of them. Because nobody believed him, but he was so arrogant and convinced he was right he just went ahead and solved the problem of the episode.
So it's not about getting rid of people, and you don't always have that luxury – sometimes, your best doctor is simply a jerk – it's about being aware of people's personalities when you interact with them in the game.
I think most of the interesting characters in my favourite sci-fi shows had some sort of severe, almost crippling flaw. And the best episodes were when they used it to their advantage
Strategy Informer: Can you hire cats? I suppose players can create a race of cat-people, is that right?
Dave Williams: Yeah you can make a race of cat-people, or of anything-people. Maybe not [in the] initial early access release – that will be up to art bandwidth. We were also planning a pet system. Data had a cat, after all. And Archer had a dog.
We really want players to be able to make the ideal sci-fi universe that's living in their head, and looking at elements of our favourite IPs is a part of that – and you see a lot of animals in sci-fi.
Strategy Informer: That dolphin from SeaQuest comes to mind.
Dave Williams: And tribbles.
I mean, these are story opportunities. And we want enough of them to make the AI Storyteller surprising and fresh. Just the concept of having a "pet" on your station is a great opportunity.
Strategy Informer: Does gameplay occur within a single Astrobase space station?
Dave Williams: Yeah for the most part. It's the focus. It's your base. You'll run missions on planets, in space, and even visit other bases. But as a survival game, survival means keeping your base running. Since that's where your people live.
Strategy Informer: So how do you decide which planets to probe and which space craft to interact with?
Dave Williams: Well, you have sensors that give you information based on the skill and abilities of the crew assigned there. But where to go is up to the player, based on what he thinks he needs for continued survival. And we wanted to balance the game such that there's no real optimal path. There are just choices. So you can have a small science station, or a sprawling military complex, or be a mining guild. Whatever. We're not putting players in a box.
So planets are what they are, have the features they have. Maybe it's something to mine, maybe it's artefacts, maybe it's food, maybe it's a pre-warp civilization. Only the player puts relative value on what is found. This comes back to procedural generation
Strategy Informer: So, there's no real "end game" per se, but can players lose?
Dave Williams: Yeah it's a survival game. I suppose "end game" is when you're pretty comfortable you've hit a situation where you will survive for the foreseeable future, because you're in a groove. Like you've built enough infrastructure. But then it's up to the AI Storyteller to keep it fresh, throw you a curve ball based on things that you've done.
Like, if you are super successful and resource rich this can draw the attention of NPC races, for good or bad. Not because there's a specific trigger, but because the NPC races have their own AI and agenda.
Strategy Informer: How useful has the feedback from supporters been?
Dave Williams: Oh incredibly useful! It's really helped us refine the game, by letting us know what resonates – seeing what people get excited about.
Strategy Informer:Astrobase Command got the green light on Steam after only two months. What was your experience of the Steam Greenlight process?
Dave Williams: It was a great experience, but keep in mind, we beat all the internal metrics they give. So I might be saying something else if we didn't succeed there.
I felt it was very good at giving us exposure. On Kickstarter, you are responsible for bringing your own traffic. On Steam, every project is given the same shot because Steam is the go-to platform for most people, so there are millions of users in the system.
I think in most cases, the amount of people on Steam voting on projects probably outweighs what a project can bring in. And then because of how voting works, the system will capture players who come to vote on a specific project and encourage them to vote on related projects.
But yeah, we are super excited to be greenlit. It's kind of a light at the end of the tunnel.
Strategy Informer: Will Astrobase Command be exclusive to Steam?
Dave Williams: Well, Steam is certainly our top priority. I pretty much only buy games on steam, so I'm a huge fan of the platform. I wouldn't say we're exclusive, but to get on any platform you need to think there will be a reward that outweighs the work to get on it. Like we might do Desura, a direct download from our website, etc. Depends on where our customers want to get our game from, really.
Strategy Informer: Same goes for Windows, Mac and Linux support? Users will have options that fit their needs?
Dave Williams: Yeah, we're using Unity, so we'll support Windows/Mac/Linux – tablet possibly after that, but there are some very specific constraints and we won't know how much work that will be for us until we get closer to release.
Strategy Informer: And once Astrobase Command is out the door, do you plan to continue to support it via content updates?
Dave Williams: Yeah. I'm a gamer, so I'm not going to do anything that would annoy me. Which means no asinine business model. But I think "out the door" won't mean anything in a few years, because with digital distribution there is no door. The concept of "release" is starting to be meaningless too.
Basically, we'll do early access and then be regularly adding to the game until we feel like calling it release, and then we'll add regularly to the game with free updates.
But that cut-off point is kind of arbitrary. I've seen early access games more polished than released games. And obviously, there are early access games which are waaaaay less polished.
Strategy Informer: So can you give us some dates for our diaries – When will the Astrobase Command release via Steam Early Access or otherwise?
Dave Williams: We're aiming to do Early Access in early summer-ish. We know what our early access game loop looks like – the set of features we say are needed to be in – and right now we're just executing towards that.
And then once it's on steam, calling it "release" is kind of an arbitrary thing. There are some people who don't buy early access games, but we'll work on it and take feedback from players until we think it's ready to flip that flag.
Strategy Informer: Where can readers find more information about Astrobase Command and Jellyfish Games?
Dave Williams: AstrobaseCommand.com and on Facebook, Twitter, etc...
I'm actually kinda interested to see what's next after social media, since I think we're watching the death of social media.
Strategy Informer: How so?
Dave Williams: The noise-to-signal ratio is getting too high, as it becomes increasingly commercialized.
It's no longer about "oh let me look at these pictures my sister posted from her vacation in Belize," and then sharing that amongst a circle of friends out a couple of degrees. Instead it's about how many followers you have, what your "reach" is, how many shares or likes you get – so it's turned into advertisement and self promotions. Taco Bell has a twitter account and makes humorous tweets.
So it's not about connecting to people anymore, it's basically a 24/7 commercial – social media is big business.
There was a movement in the early 00s about the "wisdom of crowds" and that's when "crowdsourcing" became a thing. But I think crowds are less wise than thought.
Just my opinion.
But, anecdotally speaking, I've noticed everything from yelp to Metacritic becoming less useful over time. And I think that's due to commercialization
Strategy Informer: I suppose they're all bubbles. And all bubbles burst eventually.
Dave Williams: Yeah, I hope the next thing will involve getting off the computer. I'm looking to you, Apple! Like give me a device where I can go to a national park and go hiking, and see all the other hikers in the area are having a fish fry and go join them.
I don't care that my toilet paper has a twitter feed.
Strategy Informer: I never even thought to check if I can follow my favourite brand of toilet paper on Twitter...
Many thanks to Dave for taking the time to talk with us. Astrobase Command is still in development, but potential players can keep up to date via the game's official website and its Steam Greenlight page.