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An interview with Simon Roth, the developer of space colony simulator 'Maia'

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I had the pleasure of talking to Simon Roth, a developer I've followed for quite some time now about his game 'Maia' [Official Site, itch.io, Steam], about Linux and other bits.

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Q: First of all, can you introduce yourself and your game to our readers?
I'm Simon Roth, an Indie game developer, artist and engine programmer. I've worked at Natural Motion, Frontier Developments, with Terry Cavanagh and Mode 7 Games. Now I am running my own setup, Machine Studios, and have been making Maia since the start of 2013.

Maia is a hard science fiction base builder set on a hostile and primordial alien world. You must guide a small group of colonists to help them survive and thrive while building a base and defending it from the unpredictable elements and local ecosystem. It has a dark British sense of humour and is sometimes a little bit unforgiving.

The core selling point of the game is its depth. Every system is simulated based on real science and to a degree of detail not seen in other games. The colonists have fully simulated metabolisms, down to the last drop of sweat; plants photosynthesize and grow based on the light energy hitting them; fire spreads to items when they reach the flash points of their materials. It presents a challenge to players which goes beyond the regular abstractions of video game design.

Q: What inspired you to create Maia?
The influences for Maia come from all over the place. I've read a lot of Golden Age and New Wave science fiction over my lifetime and wanted to produce something that engaged the emotions they invoke. There are some quite obvious inspirations from Clarke, Asimov, Dick, but also many, many more subtle thoughts brought in from Ballard, Le Guin, Herbert and Heinlein - not to mention a lot of Douglas Adams of course!

Of course science fiction films have also played their role in deeply influencing the design, visual aesthetic and sound work. Probably a few too many to name but Alien, The Thing, Stalker and Space 2001 have noticeably shaped my vision for the game. All our music was recorded from real synths onto tape to replicate the feel of the 70s and 80s.

Gerry Anderson also had a wide influence over the visual aspects of the game. Thunderbirds and Space 1999 were big parts of my childhood. I remember watching Space 1999 on the BBC and finding it utterly depressing and soul destroying. I came back to it after digging out the episodes on Youtube in 2010 and whilst it's no less bleak than I remember, it has a brilliant British charm and thoughtfulness about it.

From games, my inspiration has been deliberately limited. I've tried to avoid simulation games for a while to force myself to create novel solutions to design problems rather than producing carbon copies of existing mechanics. Even so, there are some quite obvious homages on show. I loved the PC management strategy sims and god games of the 1990s, especially Bullfrog's Dungeon Keeper and Theme Hospital. The games are striking in their creativity, humour and the risks taken in their design.

One of the big inspirations for the game has been Dwarf Fortress, which I first discovered in 2008 or so whilst working at Natural Motion. I found it entirely impenetrable, but was fascinated by what the game was attempting to do with it's systems. It led me to design a first person game based on cubic voxels where you could build, and then defend your base at night from unknown horrors. My colleagues at the time said that the idea was terrible and would never sell (thanks Tom!). Instead I focused on engine design, and that original concept slowly morphed in my head until it became Maia. Almost the entirety of the game's mechanics came to me at once in a single sleepless evening as it fell into place. The vision has matured a lot in that half decade, but is still fundamentally the same.

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Q: Maia has been in Early Access for some time now, what are your plans for the final release?
We’re aiming for a 1.0 release at the end of May. The meat of the game’s systems has been implemented. Nearly all the items and art assets are there. It’s now about sharpening up the user interface, engaging the player a bit better, adding depth and personality to the colonists and getting the campaign up and running.

I’ll be working on the game after 1.0, as I suspect there will be a lot of tuning needed as the audience for the game broadens and grows. There are also a lot of things that never made the cut on the final design due to budget constraints that I may consider for future patches and expansions.

Q: What are your plans for Maia post-release?
Firstly, I want more robots! In the Kickstarter we had a robot building interface as a stretch goal, and even though we did not hit it, I'd like to add in more variation. New uses for the utility bot in maintaining huge bases would likely be my first priority.

I'm also going to be working a lot with the modding community after release. Working to improve toolsets for them to add new content to the base experience.

Another goal was more planet types: Water, ice and desert. Effectively the other bodies in the Tau Ceti system and an offshoot of the main narrative. Those would be a significant amount of work however, completely throwing in new systems and game mechanics, so they might come as expandalones* with their own campaigns or even as semi-sequels.

*Editor Note: "expandalones" usually means standalone expansions.

Q: Could you tell us about some funny bugs you've encountered while developing Maia? What's the best one so far?
Well, I wouldn't know where to start! As you know, our patch notes are a bleak window into deep eldritch insanity. With so many intricate systems interacting things often become quite... emergent.

There was the issue with colonists becoming so productive over time that they would sweat themselves drenched and fall into hypothermia as their bodies failed to thermoregulate fast enough... We had chickens breeding so fast that they would move from room to room like a plague, breathing all the air, extinguishing all life... The now infamous one, where chickens seeking a nice warm place to roost would march head long into fire and lava, self immolating themselves in a glorious mass suicide.

Currently I am coding love and relationships into the game, and am having to deal with some colonists who are getting a bit polyamorous with the non-sentient furniture items. I am yet to decide as to whether this is a bug.

Q: When Valve announced their changes to the Steam review system, to stop redeemed keys from affecting the overall review score, how did it affect you and Maia?
It caused a big drop in our review score. With the regular updates and massive bug fixing patches I was looking forward to getting Maia up to a 60% review rating by the end of 2016. Suddenly this change came from nowhere and we dropped to the low 40’s. Whilst it was demoralising, it also really killed the income of the game. A lower score hits perceptions pretty hard, so a game with a mixed review score sells a lot worse, so it becomes harder to sell any more to get new reviews.

People buying direct or supporting a game via crowdfunding are more likely to have a better idea of what a game is and therefore not disappoint themselves with an impulse sale buy. They are also on average the people who play the game at length in detail and post detailed reviews. It’s a shame to see those opinions sidelined.

Hopefully none of this will matter when the final release comes out. I do worry about it kneecapping sales on launch. I guess we will see!

Q: How difficult has it been to support Linux with your game, compared with Mac and Windows?
The core of development for Linux has been pretty painless. The game uses SDL2, which massively reduces the complications of building the game for the platform. I use Code::Blocks as my main development environment, but it’s very clunky and I tend to drift back to Windows for extended coding sessions. I’d love to see a more robust IDE matching the power of Visual Studio hit Linux.

There have been some issues, specifically around certain drivers, issues with Mesa and Intel hardware. I’m hoping all of those are behind us and will remain so. Unlike a lot of other communities, Linux users are quite aware of a lot of the issues with their platform and will usually be OK to wait for an update to fix their issues.

This is opposed to OSX where the updates break things horribly. The support for the OpenGL standard in their drivers has been lacklustre for years and it's only getting worse. They now want developers to move to their proprietary API Metal, but I'm jaded enough not to fall for that. And don't even get me started on having to shell out £3000 for a mid spec dev machine.

Q: How have sales of your game been on Linux overall?
On Steam, Linux sales currently make up between 3-4% of our sales on average. Although I don’t track detailed stats on our site, traffic of people downloading DRM free versions from the site from Linux PCs can be as high as 15%.

I'd say between them we are approaching ten thousand Linux users.

Q: What would you say to other developers considering crowdfunding and early access with their games?
I would say crowd funding is a great idea, as long as you have a solid idea and a decent grasp of the marketing involved. You need to have been talking about and promoting your project (and yourself as a developer) for many months before even considering putting a Kickstarter page together.

As for early access, I have mixed feelings. I would certainly recommend making an alpha available on your site or through a smaller site like itch.io. Steam Early Access however is I feel a trap. It’s a massive drain on resources and the support load will drag out your development for years longer than you were expecting. I’ve seen this myself, but also with massively well-funded projects.

If you run your own alpha you will limit the stream of feedback and new users, allowing you to hone the game and straighten out bugs without a thousand emails from people on less-than-minimum-spec machines complaining about the framerate.

I think it’s important for Indies to consider alpha releases, as the huge amount of hardware variation, OS quirks and even user ability is not even something a large dedicated QA testing studio can expose you to.

Q: What are your honest thoughts on Valve's SteamOS/Steam Machines?
Well, mild disappointment on a number of fronts. Firstly, I think that the hardware offerings on launch were a bit dismal. Either grossly overpriced or poorly designed and put together. I missed the Steam dev day where everyone got a Gigabyte one for free, and asked around for one to try out: Nobody I knew could lend me one as they had already broken in some way or straight up died.

That said, with some time the offerings did get better, but it's now irrelevant. Valve has a new fascination with virtual reality, and has made no effort to push it on their own OS platform. They should be working with a Steam Machine manufacturer to offer a complete off-the-shelf plug and play VR set up.

Q: For other developers looking to put out Linux versions of their games, do you have any wise words?
I would say that they must engage with the Linux community early as it's hard to gauge people's needs on the platform from conventional wisdom. Having a decent base of testers who can take the load off will really help in the long run when dealing with thousands of users with eclectic customised distributions.


Maia is available right now in Early Access, you can grab it in these places: Official Site, itch.io, Steam

I would like to thank Simon for not only taking time out of his day to speak to me, but to give such detailed interesting answers is always great! Pretty hilarious to read about the problems with Chickens.

It's also really great to hear that Linux has done so well for Simon, in comparison to others I've spoken to in the past.
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Comments
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MayeulC 1 February 2017 at 3:21 pm UTC
Yeah, chickens seems to be a pretty major problem in a number of videogames

I've had this one on my wishlist since forever, but I am not sure if I have enough time to play it . Thanks for the interview, though, it's great, and will definitely move this title up a bit in my wishlist!
ajgp 1 February 2017 at 3:28 pm UTC
Sounds interesting; I have seen t crop up on my feed a few times but never got roun to giving it a good look at. However from the above and a quick lookup on it it does sound like its my sort of game. Will have to pick it up on release.
NovenTheHero 1 February 2017 at 4:46 pm UTC
I always have issues with Maia. I install it and load it up, and it looks all jacked up and grainy. Maybe I will fire up OBS and record it to see if it is something I am doing or just .... alpha.
Kohrias 1 February 2017 at 6:07 pm UTC
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Thanks for the great interview, Liam and Simon Roth. The game looks really great. I am reluctant to buy early access titles but I'll keep a close eye on it.

In terms of IDE: I guess you have tried Eclipse. Would be interesting to know why you decided against it.
Shmerl 1 February 2017 at 6:18 pm UTC
QuoteThis is opposed to OSX where the updates break things horribly. The support for the OpenGL standard in their drivers has been lacklustre for years and it's only getting worse. They now want developers to move to their proprietary API Metal, but I'm jaded enough not to fall for that. And don't even get me started on having to shell out £3000 for a mid spec dev machine.

This is golden. A good answer to those who weirdly claim, how lock-in is good for developers. You'd be surprised - I saw such folks, who claim at the same time to be in the gaming industry. Not sure what they are smoking.
Shmerl 1 February 2017 at 6:22 pm UTC
Not personally a big fan of IDEs, but there are a few good ones. KDevelop for instance. Atom is also a decent editor.
Kohrias 1 February 2017 at 6:25 pm UTC
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@Shmerl: what kind of setup are you using for programming instead of an IDE? Is it based on a text editor like vim/emacs?
Shmerl 1 February 2017 at 6:31 pm UTC
I'm using neovim: https://neovim.io

Primarily because it supports true color themes in the terminal. So you can use something like this: https://github.com/whatyouhide/vim-gotham

I'm not really a huge fan of constant modal switching in vim, but I'm used to it.


Last edited by Shmerl at 1 February 2017 at 6:35 pm UTC
Creak 1 February 2017 at 6:54 pm UTC
Thanks for this interview, it's really cool and maybe it will encourage my friends to port their game to Linux a bit sooner

About the IDEs, I really like Vim and I did try to use it as my main editor/IDE, and it took me some time to realize that Vim is not, and will never be, an IDE. It's an extremely powerful text editor, but you shouldn't try to make it more than that. To anyone saying the contrary or saying that Vim is just enough for coding, I invite them to use Visual Studio + Visual Assist. The most important missing feature in Vim is the refactoring capacity: finding all the reference to a variable/member/method/function and rename them in a click. This is really a deal breaker compared to vim+terminal+gdb.

And then there's the debugging part. gdb is plainly useless to me. I need a visual debugger. When debugging a several million lines project, remembering all the symbols is simply impossible.

To me, the best of both worlds are IDE with vim emulation for text edition. CLion is the only IDE I discovered recently that did things better than VS. Since I like GNOME, I'm also following GNOME Builder which seems very interesting.
Phitherek_ 1 February 2017 at 6:57 pm UTC
QuoteI’d love to see a more robust IDE matching the power of Visual Studio hit Linux.

I'd suggest looking into JetBrains IDEs. I use IntelliJ IDEA on the daily basis on Linux and it's great. As I suppose the dev's programming language is C++, I would suggest CLion.
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