Indie developers are the starving artists of the video-game world, often brilliant and innovative, but also misunderstood, underfunded and more prone to writing free-form poetry on their LiveJournals. We believe they deserve a wider audience with the Joystiq Indie Pitch: This week, English developer Chris Harris talks about the good ol' days of being indie and the continued success of Gratuitous Space Battles.
Gratuitous Space Battles is a strategy/management game that plays in an unusual way. It's a "hands-off" battle simulator for giant space fleets, which puts the player in position of the designer of individual ships and entire fleets, and in control of the orders those ships will use during battle, but the actual battles themselves are out of your hands. You can watch your fleet fight, but cannot change anything mid-battle (although we have recently added direct control as an option).
The game is all about ship and fleet design, rather than arcade action, and plays more like a puzzle game or tower defense game than a conventional RTS.
Do you see yourself as part of a larger indie movement?
Kind of, although I am not a typical part of it. The indie scene seems to be younger, cooler and much more American than me. I find it weird that indie games are suddenly hip and cool, and acceptable to buy, and make millions of dollars, because this is a very recent thing, and there is no guarantee it will last.
When I started making indie games, there was no Steam, relatively few online stores and the majority of people were still buying CD-ROMs and downloading from sites like download.com. The scene has changed dramatically since then and I'm always slightly wary of the fact that it could change again. Some indie games now make tens of millions of dollars and that is definitely going to change things in the long term. How, I don't know. You've been supporting Gratuitous Space Battles since 2009. How long of a life span do you think the game will have?
I think it will continue to sell and to be played at least throughout 2013, which should hopefully take me up to when I can start thinking about a proper sequel. I learned a huge amount working on GSB and on Gratuitous Tank Battles, which was the last game I released, and that means there is a bunch of stuff I know now that I can implement in a proper sequel. Eventually you can't patch a game any more, because you really need to tear it apart and do some major re-engineering, and I plan to start doing that around Christmas, maybe.
Have you been able to make ends meet for yourself and your game development with sales of Gratuitous Space Battles?
Oh, definitely. It has sold vastly more than I expected, which is why I've been happy to justify taking the time to do all the post-release support. I did 62 patches post-release for the game and seven expansion packs, with the outcasts being the last one. I can only do that because the game has continued to be popular and continued to sell.
What inspired you to make Gratuitous Space Battles?
I was frustrated by my experiences of playing big RTS battles where I controlled a ton of units but in practice, once battle was joined, it was just chaos and I felt like it was an arcade rather than a strategy experience. I was also reading a lot of military history about various conflicts and realized that in many cases, the admiral or general has very little control over how things play out once battle is joined. I thought it would be good to make a game where that lack of control was actually embraced as a core element of the design, rather than something to avoid.
In terms of the setting, I have always loved the battles in Star Wars and Star Trek, and I don't think there are enough space strategy games that focus on big explode-y fleet battles in the way I like, so it was an obvious choice for a setting.
I thought it would be good to make a game where that lack of control was actually embraced as a core element of the design, rather than something to avoid.
What's the coolest aspect of Gratuitous Space Battles?
You can design your ships, deploy the fleet and give them orders, and then when the battle ends against the AI, you can post that fleet deployment online as a "challenge" so that other players can download it and fight against it. This has proven extremely popular, with hundreds of thousands of challenges uploaded, and people holding informal tournaments against each other. There is also an expansion pack that wraps the game in a conventional 4X style conquer-the-galaxy turn-based game, which uses other players' fleets as the AI to fight against you.
Will Gratuitous Space Battles ever have a live multiplayer mode? Is that something players want?
I'm sure players want it, but I can't see it ever happening. The big fleets can be really big, and there are huge problems with coordinating the complexity of battles that size across multiplayer if you want to have orders issued mid-battle. Multiplayer code is a real headache to write, even for small games, and I suspect it would be massively hard for GSB.
I tried it and didn't enjoy it. I found that the pace of development in big studios is horribly slow and very frustrating because you are only doing a small portion of the game and have relatively little design input. I was always employed as a coder, but see myself as a designer and coder, so that was frustrating. Also I'm pretty opinionated and don't get along too well in a traditional corporate office environment.
Sell Gratuitous Space Battles in one sentence:
Design and build your own mighty space fleets, give them their combat orders and then pit them against human-designed or AI fleets in gratuitously colorful space warfare.
I'm currently working on Democracy 3, which is a sequel to my political strategy game. It still sells well many years after release and is badly in need of an update and a redesign to bring it into the modern age, and it's something I've been wanting to get around to for a long time. That's been in development for a little while now, and should be released sometime in 2013.
I'm also publishing a life-sim game called RedShirt, developed by another indie developer. After that, I currently plan on a full-fledged sequel to GSB, which should be really good, but I don't want to make any promises about features until I actually start work on the game for real.
Gratuitous Space Battles is available on Steam for PC and Mac for $15. This game pretty much represents the definition of "oldie but a goodie."
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