It’s not often that I get to bond with the developer I’m interviewing over a spin in a JCB. A JCB 540 telehandler and an 110W ‘Hydradig’ wheeled excavator, to be precise. Both of which were tried out by myself and Andrew Santos, producer at Atomicom on JCB Pioneer: Mars, the new survival/strategy game set on Mars which is the first game to bear the JCB brand. As you can imagine, I was keen to ask about this since they’re not the first company you’d think of when considering videogames about survival on Mars.
Truth be told though, a headache combined with some particularly twisty roads had left me feeling more than a little queasy. During my chat with Andy I was continually eyeing the door and trying to work out how long I could hold out before I had to rush to the bathroom. Apologies for that, Andy! Read on to see if I made it through the entire interview.
Andy Santos: My name’s Andrew Santos and I’m head of design and production at Atomicom.
GameWatcher: So, how did JCB get involved with the game?
Andy Santos: Basically what happened was that somebody at Gamesco [the publisher] came up with this idea about diggers on Mars and while they were discussing it they were overheard by someone who knew someone at JCB. Through this chance occurrence they got in touch with JCB, who had the appetite to do something like this too and lent their support to it. Gamesco facilitated all the meetings between us. By the time I joined and Atomicom became the developer we were already having meetings about the JCB vehicles we’d have in the game! Which was exciting!
GameWatcher: That was really early in the game’s life then?
Andy Santos: Yeah, I mean I joined in pre-production when we’d only just put the team in place and JCB were there at day one. The game was only in pre-production for one month when I came in and shared my ideas for the game, and meet the industrial design team.
GameWatcher: Were they quite enthusiastic?
Andy Santos: Yes! I think there was this strange moment in development where the people in our office would design vehicles that looked like JCBs, and the JCB industrial design team would want to push the designs further. We were actually the ones thinking that JCBs in our game should look the way JCBs are in real life, but the people at JCB were actually pushing to make them look more futuristic, bigger wheels, more awesome and less realistic!
GameWatcher: I understand you have a scientist working with you on the game?
Andy Santos: That’s Dr Maggie Lieu. She works at the European Space Agency as a research fellow, at the moment. She adds a sense of authenticity to the science behind the game. We reached out to her during pre-production and she wanted to collaborate on the game. She was initially shortlisted for the one-way mission to Mars, so she has an interest in all things related to Mars!
We present our ideas to her and she would say if something was possible or not, or maybe go speak to her colleagues and research something and come back to us with the science. At that point we’d have to take the decision whether to implement something entirely realistically or take a bit of artistic license and exaggerate the concept. A lot of the concepts you see in the game, they really do exist, but a few of them have been exaggerated slightly!
GameWatcher: What sort of concepts? The weather?
Andy Santos: Yes exactly, the weather is quite interesting! Before working on this project I had no idea why Mars’ surface is red. It’s essentially rusted iron. So I thought about iron filings, and sparks, and static electricity created from metals moving against each other. The electrical dust devils were born from that GCSE-level physics! [we laugh]
I spoke to Maggie about these and she said that there have been static charges experienced by the Rovers on Mars, but they certainly don’t affect the vehicles the way ours do! Ours damage vehicles, but she told me a dust devil really passed over the Rover and actually improved its efficiency because it cleaned the Rover’s solar panels like a hoover! In our game though they’re something to be avoided.
GameWatcher: You’re entering Steam Early Access soon, how content complete will that version be?
Andy Santos: As a solo experience it will be fairly complete, although it will be missing a few things. The game was engineered to be a multiplayer experience and that will be missing, purely because it’s the act of finding other players on the interface that’s the most difficult to design. If you put too many options in you might never get a decent multiplayer game, likewise the way we managed it at the start, with a persistent online world, creates a massive cost.
Because we’re an independent developer with a small publisher we had to come up with a cost-effective solution, so we had to remove any MMO aspects for now. We’re now looking at more traditional multiplayer, like meeting up with your friends, although not in the same way it would work in an MMO. In a large persistent world there’s the potential we might never meet. We might still do that in the future, or release the tools for users to make that, but for now we want to concentrate on the solo experience.
GameWatcher: How big is the area available to players at the start?
Andy Santos: At the last calculation, it was around 144km2. It’s huge anyway, and not randomly generated. We’ve mixed actual Mars data in with design to hopefully get the best experience. There are certain things we wanted to do, like make certain resources harder to find so you’d have to overcome challenges and upgrade your character to get to them. There’s also a lot of Mars data we’ve put into the game verbatim, so maybe the community will figure out which parts were put in directly from the real Mars.
GameWatcher: What are the general goals for the player?
Andy Santos: It’s interesting, because with every game I’ve ever made I have to come home to my Mum and explain it to her. Sometimes she gets it, sometimes she doesn’t. She’s my benchmark. The game is basically about surviving this slightly exaggerated version of Mars. In ‘Extreme Survival’ mode you play the game as far as you possibly can get. We plan to have less extreme versions that are focused more on exploration, where if you die you can respawn. In ‘Extreme’ you won’t, it doesn’t matter how big a car you bought, it’s gone!
Surviving Mars is the main goal, but we see this as a call to the community to create other objectives. Rival settlers perhaps, something to steer the game in a different direction! We think the community will help decide some things within Early Access that will help channel our development.
GameWatcher: Like rival NPCs perhaps?
Andy Santos: Possibly! The one thing we acknowledge about the game right now is that we don’t have predators, unlike most other survival games. We want to make a game that’s co-operative first. NPCs will appear who will come and work on your base that you’ll have to look after first, but we’re not ruling out other NPCs that will want to disrupt your base!
GameWatcher: So friendly NPCs are there now then?
Andy Santos: They’re in a slightly hidden capacity right now! Ships will come down to your base, and if an area runs out of oxygen people will die. You can see where we’re heading right now with the game anyway.
GameWatcher: Can you manage those NPCs?
Andy Santos: It’s always been the case that your character is the one doing things, going outside, repairing everything, solving issues. It’s all down to you, just like in any city-building game like SimCity. In the future it will relatively easy for us to add people who you can control. It’s just a solo experience right now though, with you producing an economy, creating a resourceful base, and overcoming hazards.
GameWatcher: How long do you envision being in Early Access?
Andy Santos: A lot of games transition organically from Early Access through to release and that’s my hope for JCB Pioneer: Mars. Players getting the game now will have the best deal. We will not hold back features that have been done, as we complete them we’ll release them on to Steam straight away. That’s the best thing about the digital medium. You will see the game evolve substantially, and we’ll tell the community about any new features before we add them so they can tell us whether they like them or not. Early Access is a gate for us, where we can meet our consumer directly. We hope there’s an appetite there to discover Mars the way we envision it. Hopefully they’ll like what we’ve done so far!
GameWatcher: Will the game be just a one-off payment or will there be microtransactions?
Andy Santos: I believe it will be one-off, and reasonably priced! That’s up to Gamesco anyway. It’s my job to make the content feel like value for money, and I feel that’s the case. We have a lot of content to start with, there’s hours of content there, with a lot in the pipe. Some Early Access games don’t even start with savegames!
We want the people who pick the game up to feel like they’re with us on this Mars journey together, and they can come up with ideas alongside us. We have these two genres here of strategy and survival. Right now the bias is 50/50 between those, but if the community wants more features on one side we might end up concentrating on that more. Whatever happens they’ll get those updates for free.
This time last year we were considering making it free-to-play with a soft currency and a hard currency, but I’m pleased to say that’s not the case and we just have one currency now. Calling it JCB Credits makes sense from a design standpoint, as you’re doing work for Future JCB and they’re paying you in their own money! We’re balancing the currency at the moment, and we’re considering leaderboards too, where you’re ranked based on how rich your colony is.
GameWatcher: Does JCB actually make equipment for space exploration?
Andy Santos: Maybe they do, but if they do they’re not telling us about it! [we laugh] They do make military stuff though, so it wouldn’t surprise me! It’s the type of company that would probably do that, they’re very innovative.
GameWatcher: Very true. Now, I’m going to have to go to the bathroom I think…
Andy Santos: Oh dear!
GameWatcher: Thanks for talking with me though!
Andy Santos: My pleasure!
Thus ends my interview with producer Andy Santos on JCB Pioneer: Mars, an interview that began with handling heavy machinery and ended with my head down a toilet bowl. It’s certainly one of the more memorable interviews I’ve ever done, that’s for sure, although that’s also because Andy was so lovely to talk to and his game is looking genuinely interesting.
You can find my hands-on impressions for JCB Pioneer: Mars here, including my further escapades with powerful digging equipment, and I’m sure we’ll be doing a stream of the game once it becomes available on Steam Early Access. Thanks again to Andy for talking with me, and I apologise for looking so distracted during our chat. We both survived, and that’s the main thing.