Renewed interest in NASA following Curiosity's successful trip to Mars couldn’t have been better timed for Sean Edwards, director of development at Shovsoft. Having worked for major Australian studios such as Pandemic Studios, Krome Studios, Electronic Arts, Ratbag Games, and KMM, his first independent game, Lunar Flight, is a more technical take on the classic arcade game Lunar Landing.
Recently announced is the next update for the game, one that features a Mars Map, with new music, effects, and physics to accurately represent the Mars atmosphere.
Sean Edwards spoke with Gameplanet on the game development process, and the promotional opportunities that have arisen since the Curiosity landed on Mars.
Gameplanet: Where did you come up with the idea for Lunar Flight?
Sean Edwards: Lunar Flight started out as an evening playing around with physics in Unity. I had never used it before and was looking for something to focus my creative energy on. I had just been made redundant at Krome Studios and had quite a bit of time on my hands.
Once I got started it began to snowball. Soon I found myself highly motivated and having more fun than I had in many years as a developer. After a days intense work I had produced this little prototype.
I spent most of 2011 working on it part time while working a day job, this was a very exhausting period. I also have a wife and two young kids, I was effectively working two jobs and living on about four to five hours sleep every night.
In December 2011, I finished my contract with Qinetiq, a serious games developer, and decided to focus on getting Lunar Flight shipped. It’s been almost two years now since I started, but I reckon actual development time could have been done in six to nine months.
Gameplanet: Having worked for AAA studios in the past, how did you find the transition to independent development?
Edwards: I never set out to become and indie developer, although the thought had crossed my mind as all the studios started to collapse around me. As I spent more and more time improving the prototype it reached a point where I felt I had something really solid that could be made into a complete game.
Becoming a true independent developer has been a liberating, rewarding, and scary experience. I had to learn a lot of new things quickly but I feel like it has been a life changing outcome.
Being a solo effort I have to wear many hats: game designer, level designer, programmer, environment artist, sound director, sound programmer, physics programmer, UI programmer, web developer, PR, business development, and so on. Pretty much everything and anything that you need to do to make a game.
The real challenges I face are staying motivated, trying to be organised, and making concrete plans. Lunar Flight has shown me that it is possible to do it if you really want it, and are prepared to put in the effort required. I would like to increase the size of my team but the finances are not there to support it yet so I contract bits and pieces.
Gameplanet: Lunar Flight is available on Steam, Desura, and Gamers Gate. What has been your experience with each of the three platforms?
Edwards: I really like Desura, and its network of websites. They are doing great work for indies, but sales on there have not been great. Gamers Gate has been pretty much flat-lined.
Steam, as you would imagine, is the only place that has generated serious revenue, and without it Lunar Flight's development would have surely ended by now. I used some of the funds from the game's sales to purchase an iMac, and we’ll be releasing Lunar Flight onto the Mac Appstore very soon.
Gameplanet: Have you considered working on a mobile version of Lunar Flight?
Edwards: I have been asked this question a lot since I use Unity. I was even approached by a publisher who was interested in doing an iPad version, but the deal involved them having intellectual property rights.
I definitely think you could make a game like Lunar Flight work on a tablet device, but porting the existing game would be a large undertaking such that it would be better to create a Lunar Lander-type game targeted for the platform's strengths. I don’t have the resources at this stage to pursue something like that but I am definitely interested in mobile development in the future.
Gameplanet: How did you go about self-publishing and generating media interest in the game?
Edwards: Lots of emails to websites, and frequenting lots of forums. Being an indie involves lots of PR work that never seems to end.
Getting through Valve's submission process was a huge win, it took two months to get an answer. I know most writers don’t like being given an angle, but I did always refer to Lunar Flight as a modern take on Lunar Lander whenever emailing gaming websites.
Kotaku and The Escapist both ran articles using that angle, and the game got its first big exposure. A few months later Rock Paper Shotgun ran a very favorable article and this also boosted the game's profile. Giant Bomb did a Flight Club special where they played Lunar Flight... really badly, but the audience seemed to really appreciate the game.
Since then though it has been very hard to get any response from gaming sites. We’re hoping the Mars content update will catch the eye of a few more.
Gameplanet: Has the sales of the game reached your expectations? Do you consider the game a success?
Edwards: Sales did not reach my initial expectations, I had estimated it would probably do at least double the sales it has done so far. At approximately 27,000 units since February, the majority of those sales were at heavily discounted prices during Steam sales.
I regularly receive fan emails, and read forum posts from gamers who were surprised they had never heard of the game before and were equally surprised at the games production quality.
This tells me there are a lot more potential sales yet to be made. My current strategy is to keep supporting it, and as the community grows and the sales increase this is helping to spread awareness.
In terms of whether it is a success or not, I would have to say yes. I had originally only hoped that it might pay off my car loan but it has done that and some. It currently makes enough for me to not have to worry about finding a job for now, so I have achieved the self-employed status that many indies hope for.
Gameplanet: Who do you think is your target audience for Lunar Flight? Do you think it’s better to market to a wider demographic, or target a more niche user?
Edwards: I do think indie developers should go for the low-hanging fruit, so to speak, and do things that the publishers will not. Finding a loyal and fanatical niche can grow into something much larger.
I never really gave much consideration to a specific audience. I was making a game for myself first and foremost, and if other people liked it then that would be great.
I wanted the game to be accessible, but clearly it has a steep learning curve. It is easy to pick up once you know the controls, but it takes practice to master. The game's difficulty is part of its core selling points. Mastering the physics is the game, adding flight aids and other assists would remove the game's core gameplay pillar.
The type of person who I think enjoys Lunar Flight the most is the kind that that likes to fly things, and those that have an appreciation for, and fascination with space exploration. I like to think of Lunar Flight as a semi-simulation with arcade elements. I think it appeals to older gamers who have an appreciation for games that expect something from them.
Gameplanet: You recently announced a Mars update to the game; can you give us more details?
Edwards: The Mars update features a new Mars surface map with accurate gravity and atmospheric physics. The new map brings 16 new Survey Locations, 10 new Lost Cargo locations, 12 new Time Trial routes with Leaderboards and several new Achievements. The physics changes create a necessary need to upgrade the lunar module to be able to sustain the higher power and fuel consumption requirements.
It also features dynamic dust storms that create cross wind drifts adding yet another condition to test the pilots' skills.
Jason Poots was also commissioned again to write an all new custom ambient music track. I’m really pleased with the look and feel of the map and can’t wait to get it out to everyone on the 26th August!
Gameplanet: Was this update a direct response to the NASA Curiosity mission?
Edwards: It certainly was inspired by it. I knew about Curiosity two months before the landing, after NASA first released the seven minutes of terror video, but it wasn’t until after the successful landing that I had seriously considered making a Mars content update.
I thought about how it could be done and came up with a list of features that made compelling reasons to do it. Suffice to say, I am really pleased with the results. I think it is one of the best looking representations of Mars ever created in a video game.
Gameplanet: Have you had any contact with individuals or companies that work in the space exploration field?
Edwards: I have had several players contact me and mention that they are from aerospace industries, but not someone directly connected to NASA. I don’t even think they know Lunar Flight exists.
I have thought about approaching them and may still look at this at some point. My fear is that they may not be that interested due to the fact that Lunar Flight is a fictional representation.
Most NASA educational games are based on the real facts even if Moonbase Alpha is all about AEIOU - am I right?
Gameplanet: Having worked for such a variety of Australian developers over the years, what are your thoughts on the local industry? How much has it changed, and do you think for the better?
Edwards: The Australian industry is completely different now. I do not believe we’ll ever see AAA console development happening here again. As technology advances, so does the cost to make high-end videogames.
Much of the industry around the world has consolidated into mega studios that have soaked up the very best talent and put aspiring kids through hell, and destroyed their dreams.
The cool thing, though, is that there are many new opportunities for small teams to make their mark across a variety of new and exciting platforms, and I think the PC is primed to make a big comeback.
Gameplanet: Do you have any advice for other independent game developers?
Edwards: Don’t take on something that is beyond your ability to execute on: crawl, walk, run!
Have fun, get excited about what you are doing, you make games because you love games, love your game.
Satisfy yourself first, then ask for criticism, if you aren’t satisfied, its probably not good enough.
Build a community, be actively involved with them.
It’s OK to imitate just try to innovate.
Sleep is for the weak.
Gameplanet: Do you have any current development plans for the next title to be released by Shovsoft?
Edwards: At this stage the plan is to continue to support Lunar Flight and enhance the games scope even more.
Following on from the Mars content update we are going to be turning our attention to bringing new gameplay systems to the game. This includes using guided explosives to crack open mineral deposits for resource gathering and multiplayer.
There may be even more moons and planets added as downloadable content as this has become an often-requested feature. Further down the line we are considering ramping up to a larger team to try and crowdfund a future title with greater scope.
While Lunar Flight is largely created by myself, when I say "we" I am referring to Jason Poots and Matt Carr who are contributors to the game and they are awesome!