Available : Now
Starscape © Moonpod
Interviewed by Andreas Misund Berntsen

Hi, please introduce yourself and your company to our readers.

Moonpod is an independent game development company created by three game industry veterans. We have just finished and released our first game Starscape. The company founders are:

Mark Featherstone: game programmer
Darren Griffiths: engine programmer
Nick Tipping: artist

For those who don’t know Starscape, could you fill them in on what it is, its story etc?

Starscape is a space action/adventure game with a few rpg(ish) elements thrown in for good measure. The background is that you are a member of the Aegis crew, a science research space station built to test theories of faster-than-light travel. Due to the inherent danger of the prototype FTL engine the station has to travel out into deep space before testing it. The dimension drive manipulates space-time using black hole theories and when activated is detected by beings trapped in another dimension. These aliens interfere with the experiment and the Aegis is pulled through into the “grid dimension”.

During the process most of the crew try to abandon ship and are also pulled through and flung to all corners of grid space. The aliens are lying in wait for the Aegis and immediately attack, parts of the station are stripped including the irreplaceable drive prototype, and the station is then abandoned. The command staff still hiding aboard the Aegis make repairs and manage to find one of the escape craft and a single pilot, the player takes the role of that pilot.

Your job is to refit the station for war, find the missing crew and hunt down your alien attackers to recover the missing dimension drive. Along the way you encounter friendly aliens, uncover the story of the grid dimension, it’s nastier inhabitants and even bump into some rather strange worm-like life forms that live in the grid.

How did the idea behind Starscape come about? What games, movies, or literature inspired you?

We were all a bit “damaged” from working in the mainstream games industry; it can make you a bit cynical about games after a few years. We wanted to cut our ties and start again, go right back to our roots, start really simple, just make things fun and see what happens. We wanted to take a simple familiar game mechanic, something people would definitely “get” instantly, but then build on that foundation with all the complimentary features that go to make a great game. This is how the process kind-of went:

  • Theme - Sci-fi

    No particular reason for this theme other than we are all sci-fi fans.
  • Basic mechanic – asteroids

    Needed to be familiar enough so people immediately understood at a low level what was going on. There is enough to think about in the game, the basic mechanic must be obvious and compelling.
  • Back story – Lost in space, Babylon 5, Voyager

    It was important to get this in early as it fleshes out the characters and gives meaning to the game, it helps define early on what you are doing and why. It also helps direct the look and feel of the game and gives it direction. We wanted something where it wasn’t always clear who the good guys were, something where the enemy had a reason for their evil ways, where the crew themselves were sometimes in conflict.
  • Open structure – don’t force people down one route.

    There is nothing wrong with linear games when done for a specific reason i.e. to create a specific fixed experience, but we love games that let the player decide the pace and give him the freedom to explore.
  • Visuals – it has to be beautiful

    Regardless of what people say games are a visual medium and they just have to look good, no two ways about it.
  • Game play – it has to absorb the player

    Got to have lots of action, as Neo would say “guns, lots of guns”, shooting can get old though unless you add depth with more long-term features. We added fairly straightforward elements like resource gathering, exploration, reward driven in game tasks, customisation and upgrading.
  • Sound – the music has to be fast and the explosions loud

    We used quality speed techno tracks, as a result we couldn’t have as many as we would have liked, but quality is better than quantity.

All three of you guys have certainly been around for some time in the game development industry, so going from large-scale projects to something considerably smaller must be an odd experience. How did the project management differ compared to a more “full-scale” game?

It was very similar, just in micro, we still had monthly milestones, milestone review, documented schedules and detailed design documents. Having three people instead of 20 meant communication was a lot easier, meetings went faster and everyone was a lot more productive. As a team grows it is a fact that productivity falls, sad but true, people lose site of objectives, more meetings are needed to keep everyone on track, quality can slip as people have different objectives, upper management types become involved, etc.

What went right during the development, what could’ve been done differently, and what lessons were learned?

We reduced our aim to something we could realistically achieve, this is one of the biggest mistakes developers can make. It’s easy to design games, just gaze out of your window and think of all the great games you’ve ever played and start writing down all the little things you enjoyed. In the end you will undoubtedly have a recipe for the best game ever, problem is you will never realise it (unless you are Square, Valve or id).

A real design looks at the people on the team, realises what they do well and the time they have and then creates something whole (holistic design?), that pushes the staff to the limit but no further. This is the first time I’ve worked on a game where the final product actually looks like the game described in the initial design.

One thing that would have helped would have been to involve the Internet community in testing at an earlier stage as well as hiring more dedicated internal testers earlier. We over-ran our schedule by a few weeks due to late feedback from testers. It is unavoidable that developers get too close to their games, it is essential to get neutral feedback from real people as soon as is practical. You must also never underestimate the variety of hardware that can go into PC’s, we ended up having to buy in lots of weird and wonderful equipment (video cards and input devices) at the end of the project and had to do an early patch for compatibility.

So far, are you happy with how Starscape has been received?

We receive a lot of very positive feedback on our forum daily and it’s very gratifying, we put heart and soul into Starscape and it’s good to see people enjoying it. One of the big problems for us is that it is very frustrating just bringing the game to people’s attention. There aren’t many websites out there that will talk to independent developers, especially when they haven’t made the next 3D third person large breasted action game. Luckily gamershell isn’t so blinkered!

Did anything particularly funny happen during the development?

When we first started we were working out of a converted back room at Darren’s house, it didn’t take long before we were working long hours seven days a week. An unforeseen side effect was Darren ended up never leaving the house for days at a time. One day we came in and he didn’t seem to know what day it was and had locked us out. We had to smash a window eventually and found Darren hiding behind the settee brandishing his ornamental samurai sword. It took a few hours to “talk him down” and we had to spend the day in the park “getting back to nature”.

If you did have the resources and manpower of a large-scale game, what changes would you make to the game?

Multiplayer was rejected early so we could focus on core game play, which was the right decision at the time. With more people we would have added an online element to the game, it is something a lot of fans ask for and would be a great feature. More staff would also have allowed for more variety in enemy units and scripted in game tasks.

I would assume you guys have already begun working on a new game. Could you give us some tidbits of info? Is a sequel a possibility?

Our next game will be based on a strategy battle game idea we have wanted to try for a long time (another idea that wouldn’t have been possible in the mainstream industry), this one will shift the focus right over into multi-player too, and we thought it would be fun to set it in the Starscape universe. We certainly haven’t ruled out the possibility of a sequel to Starscape in the future though, our initial design even planned for one that went far beyond the original, so it may be something we come back to.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Independent developers help take gaming in new directions, perhaps games you wouldn’t see today from the mainstream, but might tomorrow. Most independents are small and use free demos to sell themselves, life is hard for an indie, demos are free so show your support and give it a try. You can get it direct from gamershell (click here). You never know, you just might like it.