This being the indie games business in 2012, we’re of course talking about a Kickstarter project. Roth, an experienced programmer who once worked at David Braben’s Frontier Developments, is now in the process of funding his own game, a sci-fi colony-management simulation inspired by the classic Bullfrog titles of the nineties.
“Maia has been a solid concept in my head since summer 2011, but its roots go all the way back to 2008,” he says. “Its first line of code was written in February of this year and it has grown in fits and spurts ever since then”.
It is 2113 and the human race is reaching to colonise other planets. One target is Maia, an inhospitable lump of rock in the Tau Ceti system, bombarded by radiation and orbited by a colossal field of space debris. But it’s close, and it can contain life, so you’re heading out there to start a new civilisation.
Due out on PC and Mac next summer, Maia is thrillingly recognisable management fare. You’ll need to keep colonists happy by retaining their food and light levels, while fighting back the planet’s vegetation and adding new features to your underground base. Roth cites Dungeon Keeper, specifically, as a major influence.
“One of the great things about god games, especially from the likes of Bullfrog, is that they were years ahead of their time,” he says. “I replayed Dungeon Keeper recently and it felt surprisingly modern. Where I am pushing forward is finding new ways of displaying information to the player. A lot of management games quickly become spreadsheets. To me, that’s completely unnecessary. With my custom rendering engine I’m hoping to impart the majority of the data visually. An angry colonist can stomp his feet, an underpowered lamp will brown-out and flicker or a damaged computer will belch acrid smoke. There’s no need to intimidate the player with statistics and maths”.
It’s an ambitious project; the screenshots and trailer show a detailed, atmospheric landscape and intricate game systems. Impressively, Roth was working on every aspect of the game alone until a month ago. “I’ve now faced up to the reality of modern games development,” he says. “I built a small loose team who I could farm out the labour intensive work to and who could help me expand and develop my ideas. It was initially quite hard to let go of the reigns on what is a very personal project, but eventually everyone fell into sync and I now feel quite comfortable with them taking the game in new directions”.
Having worked on Frontier’s Kinectimals and Outsider projects (I ask Roth what happened to the latter: “I don’t think I can talk about that without being crushed by lawyers! What I do know is the game was looking excellent”), he has also helped out Terry Cavanagh with his cult puzzler, VVVVVVV. “Terry is a genius and working with him was a real eye opener,” he says. “He is incredibly perceptive and in tune with his games. I once added a four millisecond delay to VVVVVV’s controls, he picked up on it immediately. That eye for detail takes what are great games and elevates them to classics. One of the most important things I learnt, perhaps the hard way, is that creativity is not a 9-5 thing and there is no shame in doing your best work at 4am on a Sunday morning”.
So back to Kickstarter. 12 days left, and 50 grand to raise. How does he feel about it all now. “Kickstarter was the natural choice for me,” says Roth. “I’ve always felt it is essential for small studios to engage with their communities and involving them in the funding lets them truly invest in the success of the game. Despite hitting a bit of a slow patch, I’m quite confident that we’ll hit it. I’m not a big name like some of the other developers that make their targets over night, but I know people are really excited for the project and with a bit of hard work I can get Maia funded”.
And Roth has confidence too in the god game genre, that nineties relic that has been picked up, toyed with and mostly fumbled over the last decade. For Roth perhaps there are parallels in the gameplay to his own approach to the game development process, his inability to let go of the project; the god game is maybe the closest most players get to creating games, to the lure of creative control. “Perhaps I’m a megalomaniac,” says Roth. “But the ability to build your own world and create a unique story within it is one of the most amazing things you can do in a game”.
Maia: the key influences
Seventies sci-fi movies
“2001 and Alien are two very direct inspirations, with their exquisite set design, creative lighting and painstaking cinematography. The often overlooked Silent Running is also in there too, it might be a bit awkward, but has a certain personal charm that a lot of science fiction lacks.”
Arthur C. Clarke
“He has had a pretty profound influence. His approach to science fiction is compelling and his stories completely draw you in. They are also scarily prophetic, I was recently re-reading The Fountains of Paradise and was struck by a paragraph where he predicted the strange feeling of receiving an automated birthday message over the internet from a friend who hasn’t contacted you in years.
Philip K. Dick
“Although rarely considered ‘hard science fiction’ his work has had a big influence on the game too. With the sanity of your colonists being an important game-play mechanic, Dick’s way of twisting reality and expectations has provided an interesting mould for how that could work. Not to mention, his dark humour has been key in helping us set the tone of the writing.”
Visit the Maia Kickstarter page for more information