Today we have another interview for you, with Bearded Giant Games who are currently making the extreme space shooter Space Mercs.
What is Space Mercs?
Space Mercs is an extreme arcade space combat game where the amount of projectiles and lasers on-screen is only toppled by the amount of stars in the universe! Will you be able to complete all the mercenary missions and become the best pilot in the Galaxy?
Let's see what they had to say…
GOL: First of all, can you introduce yourself?
I'm Zapa, the Bearded Giant with a gentle heart, a 28 year old game developer from eastern Europe who also happens to be a sugar daddy for two cats: RTFM (Arty Efem phonetically) and Wilson. When I'm not working on a game I spend most of my time tinkering with Arduino and Raspberry Pi powered electronics, dabble in 3D printing or, when in the mood to socialise, in a nice pub surrounded by Stroh shots, beers and other developers. Recently I started teaching Game Design courses at the, aptly named, Game Dev Academy in Bucharest.
GOL: How did you get started making games, before you were “living the dream” being an indie developer, did you work for others on games?
I've been designing games almost non-stop for 13 years now. In 2005 I saw a documentary about Krome Studios, on a VHS tape my father brought from one of his trips and something popped in my brain and I immediately knew that was what I wanted to do. At the end of 2005 I took a trip to Barcelona with the family and, in a mall, I found a piece of software called Dark Basic classic that was advertised to be used to develop games in. So I bought it and that kickstarted everything for me.
I was officially employed as a Game Designer in 2010 by Gameloft Bucharest and there hasn't been a month since when Game Development hasn't paid my rent in one way or another. In the past 9 years I think I developed more than 40 games, most of them being Game Jam games, with a handful of commercial releases sprinkled here and there. Big name titles that I worked on include the Dark Knight franchise, Frozen and N.O.V.A.
GOL: You started what you call is the “Linux First Initiative”, where all your future games will be designed, developed and tested on Linux as the main development platform. What made you decide to do this?
Around the time I started making games I also discovered Linux. A friend of mine gave me an "official, original, Ubuntu 6.04" cd that he got from Canonical, back when they were snail mailing CDs to people's houses. I was excited to finally have a "non-pirated Windows". I called all operating systems till then Windows, funny as that sounds. Ubuntu was so strange for me that it fascinated me from the start and since no one in my vicinity knew how to use it made me feel special. So I stuck with using Linux ever since. In 2011, the first time I dabbled with the independent side of game creation, I actually drafted a business plan towards setting up a business that develops games exclusively for Linux but sadly, it never came to fruition outside of a few checklists, one prototype and a cheesy video somewhere on the internet on a forgotten account. At the end of 2018 I decided to put the original plan to work and just do it.
The Linux First initiative was the title of my manifesto that outlined the reasons I wanted to make a business that focused on Linux primarily. A few of those reasons where related to the lack of software, and more specifically, games on the platform. But it also feed onto one of my regrets: The fact that I was born too late to catch the early computers and platforms of the 80's, where developers were writing games for the C64, ZX Spectrum, Windows - where a ton of different platforms existed and you were happy to represent your favourite one. I spent a huge chunk of my youth watching documentaries on early PC's and I really wish I could have been part of that era. So for me, targeting Linux first, is my way of chasing that dream.
On a more serious, business-focused, note - developing first on Linux comes with a bunch of benefits. First and foremost, porting hassles to other platforms (outside of consoles) are mostly nil. If the software you are using works on your favourite Linux distribution, it's going to work on Windows and Mac. This includes Middleware, Tools and Engines. So there's a huge benefit if you are looking for cross platform support from the get-go. Another advantage is that it limits your scope and possibilities, and this is good. Instead of spending a ton of time thinking "Should I use Unreal or Unity? DirectX or OpenGL? Photoshop, Paint.NET or Gimp? What if I do it like that or like this?". For me, thinking about what to use and what to do means I'm not actually doing something - just beating around the bush. And I love actually doing something and putting things into motion. So when I say my options are a bit limited, I mean it in a good way. Limits breed creativity.
And then there's the users. Wake me up in the middle of the night and offer me 10,000$ to drop Linux for my next two, three projects and I'll instantly say no. My Linux giants are amazing on all aspects. More appreciative of my work, great technical knowledge (that sometimes converts to amazing qa) and almost always truthful. There's no beating around the bush with Linux people and I love this. To use a free-2-play (eww) term - Linux users are high quality users! I guess the reasons behind the Linux First Initiative make sense now right?
GOL: What’s it like to make a game mostly on Linux compared to other platforms?
I think I covered this in the previous answer, but I'll sum it up really simple: Developing mostly on Linux is Liberating. I know how far to stretch and what to use. It saves me time and gives me a ton of joy. There's a single other platform that gave me just as much enjoyment as Linux for development, and that's the Nintendo DS (on which you can install Linux on if you want). It allows me to focus on getting the job done and it also plays to my heart.
GOL: In your own opinion, what’s the best game engine to developer with on Linux and what’s the worst?
My answer is going to be limited by my experience with game engines. Most of my years making games I used to roll my own stuff or build my own engines on top of existing frameworks (like MOAI, Love2D, Irrlicht, SDL). In the recent years I switched towards using Unity, especially with the 2018 version so I'd say Unity is a top choice right now. Heard a ton of good things about Godot but I wasn't able to try it for too long. I have to pay rent and, at this point in time, my time budget for making a game is literary less than 3 months so I cannot afford to learn to use it until I get into a better financial situation. As for the worst well, I'd say Unreal at this point - main reason being the lack of streamlined usage. If I use a engine I want it to just work for my needs and Unreal requires jumping through a few hoops to get it to work properly, at least that's how it was at the end of 2017 when I tried it. Maybe things changed (and I hope they did) but for me it's not something I'd want to touch with a 10 foot pool. But, in the end, I guess the answer comes down to what ever you are comfortable with.
GOL: For others looking to make games on Linux or simply put their games on Linux, any advice? Anything that should be their priority to look out for?
Ogh boy, here we go. If you're using Unity do not buy into the "One-click export" advertising or at least, don't buy into it if your game is more complex than an Asteroids clone. If at any point you decide to use any middleware, systems and templates, or anything else that's literary not sounds, textures or 3D models form the asset store: BUILD FOR LINUX as soon as you have it integrated. Don't wait for 2 weeks before release, do it the first chance you get. Chances are, it's not going to build by default due to a myriad of reasons.
Test early, test often and you won't have to explain to the backers that funded your project why the advertised/promised Linux build won't come upon release (or ever in some cases).
Watch out for file naming and hard-coded paths - you have no idea how many times this came up from fellow developers asking me for help on Linux ports.
If you're using your own engine or software, the second you #include "Windows.h" you're shooting yourself in the foot. Make your life easier, use SDL, even if it's only for window creation.
Treat Linux users as first-class citizens, you're a business (or trying to be). If you publish for Linux you damn well better support it. You're not doing anyone a favour by having a Linux version just sitting there - it's a commitment.
It's okay if you officially support a single distribution. For a small indie, it might be hard to test across several different Linux distributions when you lack the manpower and hardware - just make sure to signal it: "The game was tested and is officially supported on x!". Ask for help from the community to see if your game runs on other distributions and if not, what can be done to get it to run. Offer refunds if it doesn't run.
GOL: Okay, let’s talk about your upcoming game Space Mercs, an “extreme arcade space combat game”, what inspired you to create it?
After the contract with my previous client ended, I was left with enough money to be able to spend 3 months developing a game. In my current situation my hardware is a little on the low-spec side and I cannot afford to purchase a gaming computer. So games like Everspace don't work on my machines. So I put two and two together (the need to make a game in a short amount of time AND the need to play a Space Combat Game) and Space Mercs was born.
GOL: I'm a huge fan of space shooters from Freespace to Everspace. How will Space Mercs differ from other 3D space shooters? What makes it unique, why should people buy it?
If I had enough money, I would have aimed to make a game like my all time favourite series: The X-series, with X2: The Threat taking the proverbial cake. Sadly, I had to lower my scope and focus on a single thing that I wanted fleshed out and that's my skills as a pilot.
Space Mercs puts you in the cockpit of a fighting focused space craft and tells you just one thing: Bullets are bad so stay clear of them. By the way, there will be literary dozens of ships on screen that are going to shoot at you so you'll deal with hundreds of bullets at all times.
When I call it an extreme arcade 3D space combat game I mean it. The sheer amount of projectiles on screen is enough to earn the game a bullet-hell tag and now, with the new dog-fighting AI I came around to implementing, the extreme label earned it's reputation. So to keep things short and concise: Space Mercs is the child that came after one drunken orgy between Asteroids, Everspace, Elite Dangerous and the X-series.
GOL: If Space Mercs does well enough at release, will you be adding in additional levels and/or game features or is it mostly set in stone now?
For my last game I did quite a few rounds of updates - it was a linear first person dungeon crawler with hand crafted levels. A week in I added procedural dungeons. Two weeks in I introduced new NPC's and contents and I supported the game for a year after release, culminating with a anniversary update that introduced overhauled graphics and on-screen controls.
Space Mercs is far from being the space game I always dreamed off making so I do have plans to improve it. So far, the features are set in stone for release: 30 Missions and a post-game survival mode that lightly inspired by Everspace. If I hit my sales target, I'll be able to develop another game in a similar time span. If my sales exceed my target, Space Mercs will get a Sandbox mode bringing it much closer to the X2 game I so much love: Docking AT (not in) Space Stations, trading wares, purchasing ships and completing missions from a bulletin board.
Most of the features are already in the game (just this Monday I added the ability to pickup cargo from space) so most of the needed features are there. I lack the resources needed (3D Models) and time to polish everything up and make them usable AND fun. So if the game sells beyond my target hell yeah I'm going to invest in giving it an update with the features mentioned above. Until then, that's all I can do with my limited budget.
GOL: While developing Space Mercs, what has been the most hilarious bug you’ve encountered?
Never drink and drive, folks! Never! Today's WTF bug!
GOL: Space Mercs is going to be your second game on Steam after Ebony Spire: Heresy, what important lessons did you learn from shipping ES:H? How will you be handling Space Mercs differently?
I'm already handling Space Mercs differently and, hopefully, better. Ebony Spire had a one month development cycle from prototype to release and back then I had my expectations set to my 2012 experience with Steam: A ton of visibility and sales. I did not know about the tags, discoverability algorithms and pretty much went in blind and almost lost the house with it. Luckily, due to a series of lucky events, the game picked up traction and I managed to survive it although It did take me almost two years to release another game on Steam and recover.
There's a huge chance the same will happen with Space Mercs at launch, as this is the reality with Steam at this point. 3 months for development and marketing is not enough to do anything meaningful to be able to benefit from Steam's exposure algorithm however I'm using it as a learning mechanism for both me and other indies. The hurtful truth I learned from the Ebony Spire debacle is that reality is hard and it can cost you a lot so, even if I fail, I want to make sure other people learn from this. This is why I'm releasing weekly reports on my marketing efforts, their results and I'm publicly offering wishlist data and knowledge to other developers.
For people interested to do a Steam release, here's the situation: Steam is more akin to an advertising company than a store front when it comes to giving exposure to games. It's really business and profit focused. Let's say you have two companies, A and B, releasing a game on Steam. Both companies, initially, get the same amount of traffic from the store front - let's say 100 views. Company A sells 20 copies and company B only sells 8. On the next round of traffic, Steam is going to give 200 views to A and maybe 20-30 to B.
So the better you sell in the beginning to more eyeballs Steam will throw at you. My efforts with Space Mercs marketing revolve around getting enough sales in the beginning for Steam to give it some exposure and it all comes down to wishlists. The amazing indie extraordinaire Jake Birkett released a post some time ago with some conversion formulas (crowdsourced from other indie releases) and I'm using them front and center for my marketing plan. In short, it seems, that after one week the ratio between the number of wishlists you have on launch day and the copies you sell on week 1 is 2:1. So for 1000 launch wishlists you can, on average, expect about 500 sales. So I'm trying my best
to reach the 1000 wishlist threshold for Space Mercs and, luckily enough, I'm 60% of the way there with a month to go. Now, with the conversion rate staying the same (0.5 or 50%) with a 1000 wishlist I can afford, in theory, another 3 more months to do one more project. If it's lower I'll have to postpone my next game and get a job - with the opportunity to try again later. And this knowledge alone came from the need to understand why Ebony Spire failed in the beginning. And now you guys can learn from it :D!
You can view my public wishlist data here.
GOL: Are you cooking up any plans for more games once Space Mercs leaves the nest?
I already have two games planned after Space Mercs, although only in concept based on the results. Like I previously said, if Space Mercs fails hard - I go back to designing ewwwy free2play games for clients and coming up with scummy tactics to "convert players into payers".
Space Mercs buys me another 3 months of development time and I'll work on a first person space station crawler that focuses on building your own pirate station. You'll have to board and pillage space ships, planet cities and other stations for crew, gear and materials in order to build your own.
Space Mercs exceeds my expectations and I'll be off updating it with the remaining content on my feature list before I move on to design a new RPG I have planned for a few years now. It all comes down to how many months of development I can afford to do, as it affects my scope.
GOL: What are your thoughts on the Epic Games Store and Exclusives?
I have three perspectives here. From a business stand point, I agree with Tim Sweeney that there's no other way for them to take down Steam from their position. No amount of features, good will, community support can compete with a huge huge library of games in a gamer's account. Business wise, what they are doing makes sense and they can afford to do it.
As a gamer I'm okay with exclusives, especially with growing up on Linux and being used to not having access to the games I want. Kinda got used to it. However, the stunt Epic Games are pulling right now hurts us as Linux users. The shop itself does not target Linux, nor does it allow game binaries to be distributed with the game for Linux and when they go around purchasing studios and exclusivity I can't help but feel that all the progress we made towards Linux as a gaming platform is going straight to /dev/null. Take Rocket League for instance, if they remove it from Steam as a purchase options, yeah, it will still be in my library. However, once Epic starts rolling out their own multiplayer services or matchmaking services a high profile game like Rocket League will be the best choice to use it. Now, as a business, there's no way in hell they'll support competing platform features while also developing and expanding their own. At some point, the Steam version WILL lose parity with the Epic Store version and that's the time we can kiss it goodbye.
As a game developer I don't like the Epic Store and Epic. Right now their own interest comes first, and that's bringing more gamers to the platform and catering to them. Once enough games are in there, the 12% cut will fly out the window. Their way of handling sales pretty much sealed the deal for me in not wanting to be on the Epic Store. As an indie, it's already hard when you want to price your game above 6-7$ and most gamers always wait to purchase it on sale and in a bundle. When Epic comes around and offers a price drop from the very first week and your 10$ game can be purchased for 3$ that's it, you're done with the game. The perceived value become so low almost no one will buy it at full price, and that's the reason why many developers pulled their games from the last sale.
From a business perspective I understand what they are doing. However they have their own interest at heart and not the game developers or even the consumers. They are akin to the business devs in the free2play market or, better said, the bullies in your school yard with lots of money. It's their way or the highway and they own the highway and have enough money in order to keep you away from alternate roads.
I would like to thank Zapa from Bearded Giant Games for having a chat with me. If you're interested, you can wishlist/follow their upcoming game Space Mercs on Steam and it's due to release on July 31st.