Space Pirates and Zombies (aka, SPAZ) is the debut title from the two-man development team called MinMax Games. Placing players in charge of a fleet of Space Pirates, SPAZ places players in a procedurally generated galaxy where they’ll collect resources, build, customize, and upgrade new ships, and engage in a multitude of action-packed space battles with various objectives. And yes, there are zombies.
As relayed in my earlier hands-on impressions of the game, SPAZ’s blend of action-based combat, resource gathering, and ship customization delivers an experience that most games have shied away from in recent years. It shares common ground with classic space-based affairs like Star Control 2, Elite, and Privateer, but is fresh and accessible enough to appeal to gamers of all stripes, regardless of the level of personal nostalgia it invokes.
I reached out to MinMax’s two-man development powerhouse Andrew Hume and Richard Clifford to ask them some questions about a variety of topics, including the development and design of Space Pirates and Zombies, the formation of MinMax games, and the trials and tribulations associated with self-funding the development of such an ambitious project.
Indie Games Channel: How did MinMax Games get started?
Andrew Hume: After working together for five years on and off in the design department at Radical entertainment, we had gotten really used to working together, having shared an office for years. We were both technical designers, usually responsible for the metagame and nitty gritty pieces of the design.
The highpoint of our careers at Radical was our work on Scarface 2. We had designed its metagame from day one, and we were very proud of it. The project was developing smoothly, and the team was totally behind the concept and charging forward, but then one day out of the blue after 2 years of blood sweat and tears, the plug was pulled.
We never really recovered from that blow, and both of us had developed the idea in the backs or our minds to make a break for it, but we hung around hoping to recapture the magic on Scarface 2. Probably over beers one night, we confessed our ideas to each other, and strengthened by each other’s similar goals, we walked out the door.
Shortly after, MinMax was formed. We knew that we could work together, both wanted to make a similar debut game, and we both had enough savings put aside to make a 6 month project… Oh how wrong we were.
Indie Games Channel: Can you talk a bit about your experience in game development prior to forming the MinMax, including lessons you were able to take away from your time working for Radical Entertainment?
Andrew Hume: At Radical, we spent a lot of time developing procedural systems for the games we worked on. That was probably the most important development for us at Radical, since we got the time to put into practice some of our crazy ideas.
In the days of the Scarface 2 project, and I know I am pining, we really did get away with a lot of experimentation that you wouldn’t expect for an AAA company.
For MinMax, we took our procedural system theories to the next level and applied them everywhere. Anything that we could off load to the CPU, we did. There would be no way for us to make a game with the scale of SPAZ by hand.
The other lesson we learned at Radical, which is true of any non independent studio really, is that you are not the master of your own fate. No matter how hard you work or how good a project is, it can be axed out of no where. Artistically, and yes games are art, it is devastating. With an indie company, no one can stop you from making your game. You may not make a dime, but it will be finished and you can point to it and say “I built that.”
Indie Games Channel: What are the biggest advantages (and challenges) of being a small, independent developer? Can you highlight some key things that are significantly easier (or harder) to achieve, with a two-man team?
Andrew Hume: The major challenge is the lack of any security or safety net. Building SPAZ is a full time job, really more than a full time job, so doing it after hours was out of the question. This meant that there was no income. Having not deposited anything into the bank account for 22 months is quite scary. There was no guarantee that anyone besides us would even want to play a game like SPAZ anymore. We knew that we were dying to play it, but could we be the only ones?
The other issue is a safety net. In an AAA company, there are specialists wherever you shake a stick. Got a rendering issue, 20 steps that way, need some art, 20 steps the other. When there are just two people, the scope of each of our jobs increased dramatically. We could never be as proficient solving each little issue as a specialist would be, so there is a lot of muddling through and side stepping dangerous issues. We learned to build SPAZ the way the engine wanted us to, instead of fighting it. In the end, it was a good plan.
Now for the good stuff. Working on a small team means decision making is a breeze. Decisions that would have literally taken a week in a large company, took minutes. When we wanted to throw out our previous fleet system, we just talked a little and did it, no review from head office, no team meetings, no risk assessments. It was just done.
The next big positive is ownership. People naturally care more about something they have direct control over and are able to nurture. On a two man project, there is a whole hell of a lot of ownership of tasks. Art was Richard, Code was Andrew, and Design was based on collaboration at weekly meetings.
Finally, being a two man team, we were able to zero right in on the goal for this project. The more people on a team, the greater the misinterpretation of the design can become. It is like a game of telephone sometimes. Even with a design doc (which we never had) the reader can misinterpret it entirely based on pre convinced notions.
After working on a two man team, it would be really hard to go back to a large one. We really hope that SPAZ is successful so we don’t have to.
Indie Games Channel: For the uninitiated, what is Space Pirates and Zombies all about, and what type of experience does it deliver?
Andrew Hume: SPAZ is a look back toward what we consider the golden age of gaming where games like Star Control, Mechwarrior, and XCom ruled, but with a modern twist.
We tried to produce a melding of things that we loved from the titles of the past in such a way that it provides a new experience. We decided to go with as top down space shooter, heavily influenced by Star Control, but then merged in ideas from Mechwarrior, adding a strong ship design and physics simulation component.
But now that we had ship design components, we needed to look to how we unlocked those components. Here we have a melding of Diablo’s RPG skill tree, and XCom’s multi tiered research system.
Finally, we needed to create a universe to play in. The only real option there would be to look at Freelancer and Homeworld. We needed to celebrate exploration, and also make those exploration destinations stunning.
So taken as a whole, Space Pirates and Zombies is a top down space action RPG. You command a pirate fleet of ships, exploring/exploiting the galaxy, taking on missions, or wreaking havoc as you see fit. You can pilot any ship in your fleet; collect 70 components to customize them, research technology, and even get in way over your head fighting a zombie menace.
Indie Games Channel: How long has SPAZ been in development, and how has the project been funded?
Andrew Hume: We have been in development for 22 months now, and may hit the 2 year mark before final. SPAZ was originally scheduled to take 6 months, but that was a fantasy. We’ve paid for the initial development out of pocket, but as development has progressed, we have seen greater and greater potential and began funding with home equity, which sounds really scary as we read this.
It’s been a rough road not making any income for almost 2 years, and we’ve both had to make life changes to make it work. On a positive note, taxes were easy this year.
Indie Games Channel: How did the idea to make Space Pirates and Zombies come about, and what inspired the concept? Was including the undead always part of the plan?
Andrew Hume: At first we just called SPAZ “space game.” We knew out of the gate that we wanted to make an epic 2d space game in the same camp as old school games like Star Control 2. We sat down and came up with a huge design with many races. Several months later, we were still working hard on just the human race, and some cuts had to be made. We saw a lot of potential with the zombified ship aspect, so we kept that, and reworked the fiction to focus on it. Zombies were more of a convenient name than an initial goal. Borg would have been closer to the mark, but that was taken.
We found that it was a bit difficult to create an array of weaponry that was entirely organic, so we started to experiment with other mechanics. First came the egg laying and that seemed really cool for a while. Then there were the critters that could get inside your ship, but it still felt a bit flat. At one point we both threw up our hands and just bit the bullet. We made zombified versions of every human ship in the game, and went with a fully realized zombie feature. Now we are very happy with the result. The zombies have developed their own ecosystem in game before our eyes.
Indie Games Channel: SPAZ combines several key pillars of gameplay — action, exploration, strategy, and RPG. Can you describe how you approached developing these systems, and what things inspired their creation?
Andrew Hume: As described above, we felt that some of the flavors from classic PC titles are lacking in their modern counterparts. So we decided to grab our favorites, and then we tried to connect them in a logical way.
The core of our action component is the physics. Remembering how the fighters used to battle in Babylon 5, using their thrusters to drift and gain position was probably the root of our combat system. We wanted to make sure that the combat was easy to learn, but extremely deep. SPAZ can be played effectively with just the Space Bar, W key and left and right mouse buttons, but if you delve deeper, you can become a real ace.
We both come from an open world game development background, and love them in our spare time. Our experience with procedural systems was also a natural fit for open world systems creation. A major goal was to provide tangible rewards for the exploration, and that is where the 70 components came in. They provide a lot of extra combat options but also give a huge motivation for exploration, tying the systems together.
Our levelup system is heavily influenced by Diablo. There are far more points required to fully level up your technology than you would ever achieve in a game, so you need to “Build” your tech tree to your specifications, just like building the perfect Barbarian in Diablo.
Strategy takes several forms in SPAZ. An important concept in all things for us is to allow the player to be “Good at” what they are doing. So any decision that is made can be made more or less optimally, but all decisions will provide progress. Deciding to save up and specialize in a technology is a good decision, deciding not to waste REZ attacking a station that you could more easily take out in a few levels is a good decision, allowing an escorted ship to perish to get a required blueprint, while evil, is also a good decision. We try to reward the player thinking in all aspects of SPAZ.
Indie Games Channel: Can you tell us how SPAZ’s excellent action-based combat system came about?
Andrew Hume: It took absolutely forever for us to get all the combat systems implemented. We started out with a couple ships blasting each other with simple cannons, beams, and missiles. After that point, we just started adding things that we had seen in the past. We both watch a lot of Star Trek and Babylon 5, so if we saw something in those shows that we didn’t have, we tried to somehow put it in.
We always knew that SPAZ needed to be an action centric space game. Even though there was a lot of strategy and important decisions being made while the game was paused, we had to really let the player use what they were designing and building. If you built an awesome design, you needed to be able pilot it and feel the power first hand.
Indie Games Channel: Each new game of SPAZ starts with a procedurally-generated galaxy. The decision to do this certainly gives the game a lot of replay value. Was this always the plan? Did it prove difficult to balance from a gameplay standpoint?
Andrew Hume: The galaxy wasn’t always procedural. That decision came when we realized how much time was being eaten up by creating galaxy variation by hand. A few times, we’d change something under the hood and we’d have to rebuild everything over again. We used procedural systems like this quite a bit elsewhere, and applying a procedural approach to the galaxy creation became a logical step.
It takes a lot of work to set up a procedural system up in the first place, but once it is in place, the system can expand along side the project, without us having to do tonnes of work maintaining it.
Balancing a procedural feature is always hard, and being in beta, we’re still working on that. The nature of SPAZ being open world means that it is semi self balancing though. Players need only take on challenges that they feel equipped to overcome.
Indie Games Channel: Despite being piloted by humans (mostly), the spaceships, themselves — from tiny starfighters to gigantic battleships — are really the main characters of SPAZ. Each looks and handles distinctly, which effectively gives them their own personalities. Can you talk about how you approached spaceship design, both visually and from a gameplay standpoint?
Richard Clifford: Early on in the project we were so hyped up I just started pumping out ships off the top of my head. I started by throwing a few shapes together to establish a silhouette and then drew over top of that. I tried to not conform to a particular Sci Fi look, and did what I felt looked cool at the time (another benefit of a 2 man team). I didn’t have much in the way of professional artistic training, so a lot of them looked bad at first.
With practice, the ships started to look better and better. Before long, we had a good library of ships, with all kinds of different hard point layouts. We would fiddle and tweak the hard-point layouts as the game needed, and I’d go back and rework the art to match. We did this kind of back and forth iteration all the way up to the end.
Gameplay wise, the most important thing was that a ship fulfilled a role. There is no variety for variety’s sake in SPAZ. So each ship needed to excel at some different combat feature, within its size class. Each time we found that a role was not being properly serviced, a new ship was born.
Indie Games Channel: SPAZ is a surprisingly deep game that includes a lot of customization options, without being intimidatingly complex. How did you find such a good balance between empowering players with meaningful choices without overwhelming them?
Andrew Hume: We started with overwhelming at first. Once we got the majority of the systems in place, we thought they were perfect, but then we focus tested them on family members. The confused look on their faces was kind of a bad moment for us. We had gone too far. We sat down and made a plan to rework most of the GUI features, and more than once. That set us back many months. It came down to focusing on what a particular feature was trying to do, and getting to the point across as efficiently as possible, with as little on screen as possible. We believe we were able to get it all in there finally, without sacrificing the gameplay.
Indie Games Channel: Zombies!?!?! They’re not just a gimmick, but actually add another significant layer to strategy and combat in SPAZ’s late-game. How are the zombies a game-changer, and what are they all about?
Andrew Hume: The zombie faction was intended to be one of many, but as we made a few reductions, they were the only non-human faction that survived. That kind of put them in the spot light. As we worked on them, and they got a bit cooler, we decided to focus the story on them.
Just like a good zombie movie, the infection starts off subtle and almost innocent, but it will get to you in the end. We tried to replicate this feeling in the form of zombie ships. We took a lot of inspiration from real life. The idea for the little critters was inspired by how some spiders reproduce and have their offspring crawling all over them. We incorporate all this together into a functional eco system where the ships can infect you, as well as reproduce themselves to some degree.
In the end Zombies provide us with a facility to change up all aspects of the game that you think you have mastered up until you meet them. This is your mission, this is your mission on zombies! You have an awesome ship that is devastating the AI, well now the zombies infected it and are attacking YOU with it. They are simply our favorite mechanic. The entire structure of a mission can change by simply dropping a couple zombie eggs into a level.
There is also a game-changing surprise late game that we won’t spoil for anyone.
Indie Games Channel: Obviously, game design is an iterative process. Can you tell us about the initial vision of SPAZ and how closely it reflects the beta version of the game that’s currently available? Anything you guys wanted to include that didn’t make the final cut (for whatever reason)?
Andrew Hume: For a long time we focused on making a fully featured space combat system with all the doodads you’d expect to see. We had a lot of crazy ideas, but sometimes it just doesn’t play out the way it sounds on paper.
By the time we were 6 months in, the game had taken on a life of its own. It was kind of like having a 3rd team member. The game can be a bit of a jerk at times, but it’s always right. We did our best to roll with the punches and make changes on the fly for the sake of the gameplay.
In the end, SPAZ is very different than what we had expected. It is beyond what we thought we would be capable of doing. We probably had written 4 different stories, redone each GUI screen at least 3 times, and dropped a plant and crystal alien race (thankfully before we crated much of the content). We even tossed an entire intro flow that had you trekking around a space carnival.
Indie Games Channel: SPAZ is already a ton of fun, addictive, and very playable, even in its current beta state. That said, do you have a projected timeline for a code-complete release? Any chance of it coming to other distribution platforms aside from Impulse?
Andrew Hume: Why thank you.
SPAZ will most likely be final within 6-8 weeks. That will be the point where we are happy with the tuning and optimizations, but it is just a label for us. We plan to continue to add features to SPAZ as patches. We love working on this game, and as long as we can make a living doing it, there is no reason to stop adding content.
We will likely be sold on all the major digital distributors. Not all of the contracts have seen signed yet, but the outlook is very good, and you should be able to eventually find SPAZ everywhere.
Indie Games Channel: Marketing and raising awareness can be particularly tricky when you don’t have a giant publisher doing all the legwork for you. How have you approached getting the word out about Space Pirates and Zombies, and is there any advice you’d give to others trying to bring their indie game to market?
Andrew Hume: This has been a huge challenge. We have tried to be creative with our marketing and we have had a lot of good luck. TotalBiscuit’s PR main man contacted us a few months back to do a ‘WTF is…?’ video series about SPAZ. That was huge for us. Instantly over 100,000 people knew we existed. As time progressed, TotalBiscuit offered to be our narrator, and we fell all over ourselves to accept, as you can imagine. We couldn’t be happier with how this worked out, and it has been our major foot in the door anywhere we have tried to get coverage.
Beyond that, Reddit has been a decent place to get the word out. One of our posts in the past got the attention of Notch (Minecraft,) and he tweeted about us. Boom, our website hits jumped to 12,000 that day. We still have not seen a day like that since.
It can be a challenge to balance marketing work, with work on patches, with maintaining a forum presence and listening to the ideas from the fans now, but we are managing. There really are not enough hours in the day anymore. That being said, we are starting to gain some momentum, as evidenced by this interview (thanks again) and we would not change that for the world.
The best advice I have is don’t expect people to know about your game just because it is a good game. You need to put it in front of as many people as possible yourself and you need to keep doing it.
Indie Games Channel: Is there any particular advice you’d offer to other independent developers, based on your experience developing SPAZ? Lessons learned?
Andrew Hume: Try to get to the core of what is fun about your game ASAP so that you can prove it’s actually fun. It shouldn’t take too long before you realize that you have something cool on your hands. Most importantly, no matter what it is that you are doing, it’ll take 3x longer than you think. Creating the core gameplay isn’t what eats up the time, it’s the tiny details that you don’t see coming. Make sure you allocate yourself enough time and money to see your project through to completion, and then adjust your scope accordingly.
Indie Games Channel: What does the future look like for MinMax Games?
Andrew Hume: We are going to do everything we can to support SPAZ right now. That includes patches, free content packs, and possibly expansions in the future. Beyond that, we’d like to work on another game which may or may not be a sequel. Only time will tell.
We think that we have a good chance of surviving long enough to make a second title with the interest the online distributors and the public have shown. We really want to thank the fans for making this dream a reality. We will do everything we can to listen to you and make SPAZ the best game that it can be.
Indie Games Channel: Thanks very much for your time!
The Space Pirates and Zombies beta is currently available on Impulse for $14.99. Don’t let the “beta” moniker dissuade you though. SPAZ is already very polished and fun, and MinMax will continue to improve the game with additional features in the upcoming months. If you’re still on the fence, be sure to check out my hands-on preview here on Indie Games Channel. The final version of Space Pirates and Zombies will retail for $19.99.
Also, be sure to keep an eye on Indie Games Channel’s sister-site, Shacknews, tomorrow. We’ll be giving away fifteen codes for the SPAZ beta.
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