Thursday, September 28

Interview with Matt Hammill of Asteroid Base on Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime

Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime has an unusual name but, then again, it is a bit of an unusual game. I was asked by someone on one of my boards whether it was a shooter or how to classify it and that was a challenge. It can be a wild and crazy cooperative game where you and some number of your friends or family will need to work together to rescue bunnies and stay alive, but in single-player mode it can be a challenging game of strategy and coordination as you tackle one half of the ship’s needs directly and tell your AI pet where to go to help! In order to get some answers on the game and how it came to be I got some time with Asteroid Base’s co-founder, Matt Hammill, to discuss this very different and charming cooperative title with a long name.

We'll open with the standard: What is the condensed version of the description for Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime like you'd pitch to people who are walking by your booth at a show?

MH: It's a game about working together to pilot a big ridiculous spaceship through a galaxy of robots, supernovas, and space bunnies. It's like you're Han Solo and Luke Skywalker on those cool guns, shooting TIE Fighters together, while your friends are freaking out in the cockpit. And you're all wearing neon.

How did the concept for the game begin? Was it an idea that focused from the start on being a multiplayer experience or did you all have a great idea in general that then lent itself well to being done as multiplayer?

MH: The desire to make a co-op game came first -- we'd been playing some friends' co-op games at local game jams, and we wanted to make something like that too. At first we thought we'd only ever show it at a local event or two, so we wanted to make something that would be fun to stop by and play in that context.

What would you say is the contrast in how the game plays between having 4 players, 2 players, and playing solo with your AI pet as a helper?

MH: LOVERS was designed from the very beginning as a 1 and 2 player game and we added the 3-4 player mode as an update after our launch.

With 2 players, communication is easier, because there's just the two of you, but each player needs to take on multiple roles more often. You can't just be chilling out in the left turret for the whole level. It's neat to see what dynamics arise -- one time we saw a little kid playing with his dad, and the kid was totally the Picard in that relationship.

With 1 player, there's no risk of miscommunication, but all the multitasking needs to happen in your own head. You control not just your player character, but also give orders to your loyal space-dog (or cat, or pig, or raccoon) as well. Time slows down while you’re giving orders to your pet, so it becomes a more cerebral game -- but still stressful!

With 3 or 4 players, the main challenge is organizing everyone. If you see a missile heading towards your ship, there's a temptation to assume someone else can take care of it -- so you really need to figure out how to spread out the responsibilities while everyone's shouting on top of each other.

What games do you consider influences for Spacetime in terms of overall theme and style of gameplay? Any cooperative mutliplayer games that you drew inspirations from specifically?

MH: In terms of visual style, we were inspired by a lot of classic 2D games, especially old Nintendo titles -- those games have really great visual clarity, where even though you're in these strange worlds you can quickly learn what all the characters and enemies do. Their form follows their function. Because our game has an extra layer of complexity -- it's an environment inside another environment -- we wanted to at least try to keep things as visually clear as possible!

In terms of theme, the only other idea that was briefly in the running was doing the game as a top-down pirate ship... but we were all 80s kids, so I guess we just like sci-fi.

The local Toronto co-op games that inspired us in the first place were A Friendship in Four Colours, and Cephalopds Co-op Cottage Defense. But we also grew up playing local co-op games, and I've got a lot of fond memories playing Sonic 2 and Gunstar Heroes with my brother (and actually we totally stole Gunstar Heroes' powerup combo system)!

Over its lifetime it has obviously gotten numerous accolades from both the press and your peers, how gratifying is it when your work is shown that sort of appreciation?

MH: It always makes us really happy to hear that people are enjoying it. However, we really love it when people tell us specifically WHO they play the game with. Sometimes we get mail with from parents showing the drawings their children have made. Once I met a teenaged brother and sister at a show, they played through the game with their father. I don’t know what it is, but finding out that you’ve played some kind of role in people’s relationships, there’s something there.

Would you say that your success on the platforms it has been released on already has seemed to match its critical success?

MH: No complaints here :) We were nervous in the early weeks, because we had a slow launch, but over time it seems like the game has found its audience. On that note we're super excited to bring it to Switch, because this seems like the platform the game was meant for all along, even though it didn't exist when we started!

Toronto just seems to have a massive indie developer community. What would you say is in the water there that has made it such an epicenter for independent games?

MH: The people in the community here are amazing and incredibly helpful -- we never would have made it through the project if not for the help we received along the way.

There are also a lot of schools in Toronto -- game design, programming, animation -- and until Ubisoft showed up a little while back there were never any big studios to absorb everyone. So maybe that led people to form their own studios.

Also, the various government funding programs don't hurt either. :P

Your company bio information says that you originally got together at a game jam. Can you add any flavor to that basic story for how you got started and on the path to where you find yourselves now?

MH: We’ve been friends for well over a decade now, since high school and college. I come from an animation background, Adam was a particle physicist turned mobile developer, and Jamie was doing some illustration / web design stuff, but we all had an interest in games. Our first jam game together at TOJam 2011 was a silly 4-player ninja skydiving deathmatch game, and for our second jam at Toronto Global Game Jam 2012 we wanted to try something where players worked together instead of trying to kill each other.

At the end of that first jam we had a janky broken prototype in Game Maker (see below), but players at the jam still seemed to like it, so over time we kept working on it part-time, eventually switching to Unity, continually showing it at events, and eventually getting support from The Behemoth's Gold Egg Project, which led to us going full-time, which eventually led to release!

Having been on other platforms what would you say is something Nintendo is doing right with the Switch that you have been impressed by?

MH: As always they are willing to take risks and try new things in their hardware design. When we first watched the announcement presentation we kind of freaked out. The fact that they packaged the system with two controllers was HUGE. Not only do the detachable Joy-Cons make the Switch a perfect platform for LOVERS, but it’s just a really neat feature.

What are your hopes with getting into the still much more minimal Switch marketplace compared to the likes of Steam? Do you have concerns about the rate Nintendo is announcing new indie titles, that within the next year it will be comparably overrun by titles? What thoughts do you have about how the owners of these digital storefronts could  make more effective strides to keep indie games from being buried in the weekly churn, let alone struggling for attention 2 weeks or a month in?

MH: The increasing flood of games is just a side effect of game dev becoming increasingly accessible, and to argue against game dev being more accessible, or against walled gardens opening up, would just be self-serving. I mean, we are 100% beneficiaries of game dev becoming more accessible! There's no way we could have made LOVERS a decade ago.

The downside is good games getting lost in the flood, but my hope is that smarter storefronts will help overcome that. This is something that Steam is obviously really focused on, and I gotta say that whenever I'm on Steam, I almost always see something new that I'm curious about. I hope that approach keeps spreading among the other platforms.

There's no point in wishing the platforms acted like a charity to bring attention to your undiscovered game -- that almost never happens any more; that's the developer's job. But the other thing I have faith in is the passion of the community -- people still *like* finding neat new games and telling their friends about them, and people still *like* learning what new stuff is coming down the pipe. As long as that's true, there is hope!

What are your thoughts on how Humble Bundles may both help and hurt independent developers given their popularity overall?

MH: They're a fact of life in the market now. It's a good way to give a boost to your long tail sales, as long as you don't undercut your early window by bundling too early.

The monthly bundle thing, and that kind of Netflix model -- I'm waiting to see how that plays out. I've got this idea that people's game tastes are too eclectic and specific to be covered by a subscription... but maybe that's just me. :P Also, my own game-playing bottleneck these days is definitely time rather than money, so I don't mind shelling out for a specific game that piques my interest. But that's certainly not true for everybody. (I'm just old!)

In short, who knows? Things change. It will be interesting to watch it play out.

Are there any new titles you all have in the works that you have anything, even vague, to say about?

MH: Sorry, nothing to announce at this point!

I wanted to thank Matt for taking the time to answer my questions and Alex for coordinating this interview! Love in a Dangerous Spacetime will be flying into the eShop (and your heart) on October 3!