April 2011 Indie Games Spotlight

By mancide, 7 years ago
Before we get to the interview, I want to re-cap what I said previously about Astroman.

Our last game this month comes as a suggestion from fellow newshound Matrarch, who suggested the game Astroman.

Explore vast alien landscapes! Zap all of the aliens! Hey, they were blocking your view.

RELEASE DATE: 12/23/2010
GENRE: Platformer

Offline players 1
Dolby Digital
External image

First off, I love the art-style in this game. I felt as if I was playing in a children's story book. I think that really brings a unique feel to what is essentially, a basic platforming game. While there are some space-shooter levels to add variety, the basic premise has you exploring alien worlds with your zapper to blast the different types of hostile aliens out of your path. The limited ammo of your zapper forces you to be a bit more cautious with your blasts, as you don't want to run out of juice in the middle of a swarm of hostile creatures. You can pick up this space-themed platformer for 240 MSP.

Astroman Developer Interview

Ok, lets start this off with the obvious, first tell us a little bit about your gaming history, and share your gamertag if you want. What did you contribute to Astroman?

M: I'm Michael Stearns, and I did the art, level design, and most of the concepts for setting and game ideas. I've been playing games since the mid-80s with the NES, but the games that really turned me from someone who plays games into a "gamer" were 16-bit titles like Sonic the Hedgehog and Gunstar Heroes. To be perfectly honest, my tastes haven't really changed much since then!

We have been working on games together for about 15 years now, but I have to admit we haven't finished very many of them!

D: I'm Daniel Roth, and I did all of the programming work for Astroman, as well as our in-house 2D engine and editor suite. My first exposure to gaming was way back in kindergarten, where I spent copious amounts of time engaged in "learning activities" on the school's Apple II computer. When my Dad brought home our first personal computer, an Atari ST, I was immediately overcome with a desire to start creating my own games. I taught myself the Atari's dialect of BASIC, and off I went.

While my gaming preferences have traditionally run in the direction of strategy and/or story driven games, I do have a soft spot for platformers, having played just about every side-scroller that Apogee and Epic Megagames published back in shareware's golden age. I also grew up playing the standard classic console games such as Super Mario Brothers, Sonic, Contra, etc. at my friends houses, though I never owned a gaming console myself.

What events or concepts helped shape the direction for Astroman? Any significant influences on it's art-style?

M: The initial idea for the game was basically "Metroid + Commander Keen." We didn't want to get too in depth with mazes and exploration, but we still wanted to incorporate those aspects, and make a game where it really felt like you were discovering things and covering ground. So we went with stand alone levels, like Keen, and an overhead map that would lead from one to another, to help give the player a sense of progress. When thinking of power ups and ways to link the levels, we hit on the idea that the map would actually be a whole series of planets, and you'd travel by space ship, and wouldn't it be cool if it actually played like you were controlling a space ship, rather than just moving a character around? The map hub is only a small portion of the game, but it makes a big contribution to the atmosphere. I hope that when players finish the first level and see it, even though it's still a simple 2D game, there's a certain "wow" quality to that moment. We designed it to match my drawings, but even I was astonished when I saw how well it turned out!

Another element that we really felt those games had, as kids, was that there were certain intimidating things about them, so I tried to make it a bit scary in places, and that's why it gets dark when you go underground. If you're careful and use the available light to guide you, you'll find you can definitely do it, but at first glance it's really intimidating. We may have overdone it.

As for the art, since we're both fans of retro games, I definitely tried to evoke that old-school feeling, even though the graphics are high resolution. Pixel art definitely has its appeal, there are now so many games running in low-res that you can play for free, we really thought it was important to distinguish ourselves from that. (Later on I got a lot of pixel-art urges out of my system when I made Tiny Barbarian). At the time, I was working in a toy store, and the style of some space-themed products we were carrying helped get me inspired. Some people have noticed that there is a certain kids' book feel to some of the art, so I'm glad that shows through in the finished product.

D: While I obviously can't speak for the art style, the original idea for a "spaceman-themed platformer" came from me, as I wanted to create a game in the spirit of the old Commander Keen series. However, I didn't have the time free to do both level design and all of the programming work, so I pretty much dumped all of the creative aspects off on Michael. Since Michael is much more of a console gamer than I am, Astroman began to take on more of a Metroidy feel, as I understand that he really loves that series. Thus, Astroman evolved into a much more challenging platformer than I had originally intended, not that that's a bad thing.

What was the most significant thing you (or your team) took away from the development process of Astroman?

M: We've been making games for a while, so we already knew this and recognizing it is what made Astroman work for us, but when you're making a game on your own and no one is getting paid until the game comes out, everyone on the team, even when it's only two people, has to "get" the project and be enthusiastic about it. We both come from rather different backgrounds, even as far as platformers are concerned, so from the very beginning we really focused on a sort of game that we both liked and could easily visualize what the end result would be like.

What has been your favorite response about the game since its release?

M: I'd have to go with the generally positive critical response. Some reviewers and players have really championed the game and held it up as an example of how there really are some quality experiences on XBLIG.

D: I'm very happy with most of the reviews that have been written about Astroman, and the positive feedback that we've received from other developers has been very encouraging.

If you could go back and do one thing different, what would that be?

M: We would really like to know how our sales would have been affected by only charging $1 for the game. Honestly, I don't see much difference between $1 and $3, but even when a game's content is leaps and bounds beyond the scope of what most $1 games offer, it's still very hard to convince this market to pay more than that. We also could have put a sexy girl on the cover.

D: As Michael mentioned, we're still not sure if Astroman would have sold many more copies if we had priced it at $1 instead of $3, but the dynamics of the XBLIG marketplace do seem to suggest that we may have made a mistake pricing it as high as we did, exceptional quality of the game non withstanding. It appears that success in XBLIG has more to do with gimmickry and price than it does with polish & quality, as most consumers are simply looking for that next "cheap thrill". This is not to say that Astroman has done poorly, because it hasn't, but I believe that the effort/reward ratio would have been a lot better if we had treated XBLIG more like a mobile-app marketplace, churning out a new game every month.

What do you all feel about the current state of the Indie Games program since the recent dashboard changes?

M: I don't think the new changes are really effecting things too much one way or the other, at least since they got us back out of the "Specialty Shops" category! But the problem is that it was never really that good in the first place. There are, and have been, some serious bugs in the background of the Indie marketplace that will cause new games to stop appearing on the "New Games" list, which means that some unlucky developers don't get featured on it (or have reduced exposure on it), while others end up on it for longer than they should. That also highlights the problem that being on the New Games list is about all the exposure most Indie games get on the service. Once a game is off the new release list, or fails to catch on another "top" list, the only way to find a game is to browse for it, and on those menus, all a user has to go on is the game's title, so it's very hard to stand out there, and it's not interesting to browse, either. Amazon.com shows you pictures of everything while you browse, and they use their sales data to generate lists of titles that are likely to appeal to you if you've bought a particular game. There are plenty of ways Microsoft could optimize the shop to increase sales, and that goes for all sectors, not just Indie.

There also used to be a list of IGN's own "top picks," which would be a great place for outstanding titles to be featured, but that's gone, and in actuality it was almost never updated, so it isn't really a big loss, but it is a wasted opportunity.

One very good thing is that those lists have been extended to 50 (instead of 30) in the current Dashboard, and Indie games were even included in a recent promotion for Racing games on the dashboard--I'd definitely like to see more of that.

D: On one hand, you really can't complain too much about the Indie Games program, as it is a totally unique opportunity for indie developers within the gaming console world. On the other hand, I do believe that it has the potential to achieve far greater success, if only Microsoft would become more involved in the process. As Michael has mentioned, the marketplace presents itself like something that would have been state-of the art back in say, 1996. You get a few pre-determined lists of games, and that's it. All of the "web 2.0" stuff that's made major e-commerce websites so much more personalized and useful is flat-out MIA on the Xbox 360, even for the "big brother" of Indie Games, the Live Arcade. One can't help but wonder how much money Microsoft has missed out on because they've been treating their digital marketplace more like a "top 10" list and less like a storefront.

Do you all feel, as most frequently comes up on TrueAchievements, that Indie Games would benefit from a small amount of Gamerscore?

M: It certainly wouldn't hurt! Many indie games do offer their own Achievement equivalents, but those don't contribute to GamerScore.

D: It would probably help, but I honestly can't blame Microsoft for not allowing indie games full access to the Xbox Live services. The process for getting an indie game onto the marketplace is currently 100% community driven, so Microsoft has no system in place to prevent the massive abuse that would surely follow.

If you care to share, what has been the most unique reaction to the game since it's release? Either positive or negative.

M: There was one guy who was so taken with the look and sound of the game (the soundtrack is available for free at the composer's website) that he started promoting the game on multiple blogs without even having played it. As the artist, that really means something to me!

Do you have any future plans for more Indie Games?

M: Absolutely! We've started and scrapped at least three games since Astroman, we're always working on something!
Written by mancide
When not enjoying video games, our fearless newshound enjoys an nice pint of fermented barley and hops in a variety of styles. India Pale Ales, Stouts, Porters, Witbiers, Saisons, Gose, Lambics, Barleywine, you name it. If it has water, malted barley, hops and yeast in it, I'll consume it. I also enjoy all things technological, Doctor Who, wrasslin, traveling, and spending time with my family.