Two Guys, One Space Pirate Game: An Interview with SPAZ Creators MinMax Games
Tandem bicycling, piggy back rides, three legged races, all activities best suited to the combined efforts of two individuals. You can add game development on an epic scope to that group of activities as MinMax Games, creators of the newly released Space Pirates and Zombies, shows that two dedicated Canadians can make a game that’s both fun and incredibly huge.
Being a fan of the game, I decided to track down the co-leaders of the indie studio, Andrew Hume and Richard Clifford, and dig deeper into what inspired them to jump headfirst into on such an undertaking, and yes, I do pester them about zombies.
Horrible Night (Ethan): First, why are Canadians so dang nice? I’ve yet to meet a Canadian that wasn’t likable. Are there mean Canadians and if so, where are they located? I’d like to avoid that area as my preconceived notions of your country coupled with my naivety may get me kidnapped or killed.
Both: We put something in the water ;) For the most part Vancouver is a really cool place to live. Like any big city, it does have some scum factor to it. Just don’t lift up any of the rocks and you’ll be fine.
HN: The impression I got after playing SPAZ was that MinMax games was a much larger studio, but upon researching I discovered there’s only two of you. What roles do each of you play in the development process and how does such a small team approach a game with the aspirations that SPAZ has? Do you plan on expanding in the future or is small scale more comfortable?
Andrew: The Scope of SPAZ also surprises us sometimes. There are so many systems that it can be a real challenge to stay on top of them all. I handle the coding and half of the design for SPAZ. Richard and I have a lot of trust in each other’s work ethic and we have similar, but non identical, design ideas so we need very little communication to move forward. There is just enough dissimilarity between our ideas that we get good discussions going to test the design by fire. The process is very agile. Decisions that would take weeks in a big studio take minutes here.
Richard: We had both worked at a large studio in the past for many years, so we had some experience with how much work goes into making a game (or so we thought). We both collaboratively design the game, but primarily I’m the artist and sound guy. When we started development we knew the only way we’d be able to finish this monster game was to make a lot of the game procedurally. We went to town with this! The galaxy, missions, even the background environments are randomized. This helped keep the workload down and the variety high. Moving toward the future, we do hope to keep things small. We enjoy working together and between the 2 of us, we can get just about everything done.
HN: It says on your website that between the two of you there’s almost 20 years of game development experience, so what kind of projects did you work on before and what prompted the eventual creation of MinMax?
Andrew: In the past I worked on Sega Soccer Slam, NHL2004, and Scarface as well as a few unreleased/cancelled projects. Having projects you love cancelled is just a terrible creative heartache, and MinMax was mainly formed to get away from that possibility, which always looms at AAA studios. Pouring everything into a product, simply to have it snatched away leaves scars.
Richard: I’ve worked at Radical Entertainment for nearly 5 years. During that time I worked on Scarface, Prototype, and a couple of cancelled projects. After getting a game cancelled following 2 years of development, it can kill the magic if your job. We both left to try and recapture the fun of making games. We just want to make cool games, making a living, and have fun doing it.
HN: You’re gamers in addition to game developers, so I’m curious what some of your favorite gaming experiences have been throughout your lives?
Andrew: By far my favorite game of all time has to be Deus Ex (from 2000.) That seemed to be the pinnacle year for gaming for me. I have played that game seven times now, and I don’t tend to replay titles. I just loved that there were so many ways to solve problems and make progress in the game. A lot of that bled into our thinking on SPAZ. It is all about giving the player tools and letting them decide how to use them. Another big favorite was Star Control 2. I had never played anything like it. I remember staying up thorough an entire day night cycle and not noticing it. I finished the game in one sitting. It was impossible for me to stop playing. Star Control 2 was also the seed we build SPAZ around for obvious reasons.
Richard: One goofy story I tend to tell again and again is of one of the many silly things I’ve done in GTA: San Andreason PC. I noticed that the tow trucks were fully functional, allowing you to hitchup other vehicles. I also noticed the additional weight of the hitched vehicle didn’t slow the truck down at all. I then proceeded to make a train of 8 tow trucks all hitched up together. 8 trucks were as many as I could connect before the game started randomly deleting the trucks to free up resources. I slowly and carefully drove my train to the airport (all while looking backwards so the vehicles don’t get culled out). Once I got to the airport I hammered on the gas and did an e-break slide. My truck train lashed out like a whip. The very last truck detached and was sent flying into orbit so fast the game crashed! I patted myself on the back for destroying the universe.
HN: There’s a lot for gamers to choose from in terms of consoles/PC but what do you think is the best system for play and why? (Between Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PC, etc)
Richard: I love my PC and the games you typically find on it. I do have consoles for the games that don’t get ported to PC, but if I could play them on my PC, I would. I have a USB controller, as well as being able to play my PC on my HDTV, so there isn’t much I can’t do with it. It really comes down to what you want to play. If you like platformers, shooters or sports, than a console is a better choice than having a PC. It really just comes down to the game you like to play.
Andrew: Ditto. I tend toward PC heavily, but I do sometimes like to relax on the couch and play a game too. Console games tend to be more social. Variety wise though, PC probably has consoles beat right now.
HN: Indie developers have been getting a ton of exposure as of late, and it seems like it’s easier than ever to get a game out there. Do you agree and if so why do you think this is? If not, what are some difficulties that we the public aren’t seeing?
Both: Yes and No. Thanks to all the digital distribution, it’s actually possible to fund your own game development and see it get to market. Now that this is a viable way to make money, a lot more people are doing it and it’s becoming far more competitive. We’re seeing a huge influx of indie games and AAA studios trying to tap into that market. It’s almost to the point where we need indie for the indie scene. For us, the most difficult thing has been getting noticed. When you start with absolutely nothing, it’s quite an up hill climb to get to market and be profitable.
HN: What’s your opinion on the state of AAA games as of late? Do you think there are any examples of publishers hurting the gaming industry? Would you ever want to be apart of a large developer/publisher?
Both: That is a tough question to answer. Big studios obviously provide a service that people want. Most folks love the big budget games and they want to play them to death (sequels forever). Today’s trend tends to squeeze out a lot of good old games, in favor of ones that are more mass appeal. It saddens us to think we’ve seen the last good SimCity game probably forever. It’s so much more profitable to make more Sims content. We don’t really blame the industry for changing this way. This is business and as old school gamers; we’re a minority now. As long as we can make a living working at MinMax, we don’t foresee us returning to the mega corps. There seems to be a market for what we’ve made, and we want to keep providing for that market, despite being somewhat niche. It feels great to work on something you love and want to play, and then to provide it to others like you who are equally starved.
HN: Space Pirates AND Zombies?! That’s pretty intense. Were those your first choices or was there a possibility we could have been playing Cosmic Burglars and Werewolves (by the way, if this becomes the sequel, you owe me a million dollars)?
Both: From day one we knew we wanted to make an epic 2D space shooter. We had a bit of swollen ambition back then, intending to include several alien races. As we worked on the game and came to our senses, we tightened up the design and cut stuff we felt wouldn’t add value to the game. The zombies were not the first alien race we had designed, but they were the only ones that survived. We decided to focus on them, and even put them right in the title.
HN: SPAZ as a whole is a unique game, but there are a few familiar concepts throughout. What are some games/movies/books that you feel influenced the creation of SPAZ?
Both: Game wise, we definitely take inspiration from Star Control 2, MOO2, Mechwarrior, Diablo, and countless others. Film wise we have to tip our hats to FireFly, StarTrek, and Babylon 5. If we saw some crazy weapon in one of these shows, we did our best to include it in some way.
HN: Zombies are all over the place as of late. Are you fans of the shambling undead or did you just want to fit in with the cool kids on the game development playground?
Both: When we started making SPAZ, zombies were not really the focus of the game. As we rolled around ideas of races and factions, zombies were the only ones that stuck around. We are confident that simplified space ships are somewhat unique, but in all honestly, having “zombie” in the title has made some people think we’re reaching for a cash grab. It wasn’t intention to jump on the bandwagon. During our development period the amount of zombie games that have come out is just mind-blowing.
HN: If possible, would you have any aspirations to venture into space and if so, should we be worried about the potential of intergalactic swashbuckling on your part?
Andrew: I would only really be interested in going into space if it was more like Babylon 5 or Star Trek style. Something civilized and drinking tea with aliens is a dream for me. On the other hand, strapping myself to a rocket, not so much. So Sci-Fi space = cool, real space = scary, and probably fairly boring for the most part. I do sometimes look up at the sky wishing a non-hostile mothership or something would appear. Until then, more SPAZ
Richard: Incoming tears! I’d love to go to space, but being 6.5 feet tall, it’s not possible. I guess I’ll have to live vicariously through video games.
HN: Do you feel like today’s astronaut is equipped to handle an intergalactic zombie infestation?
Both: They sure are now. We have created a seamless, perfectly realistic simulation of such an event. It is completely failsafe. If this method doesn’t work for you, and your world is infested with zombies, I personally guarantee a full refund.
HN: You stated that there wasn’t room for multiplayer in SPAZ and that is why you didn’t include it. Do you think multiplayer is overused in other games or was its exclusion just a result of limitations?
Both: It was a scope related issue. Being just 2 guys that need to eat and pay the bills, we couldn’t spend the extra year (or more) it would take to really deliver on a compelling multiplayer experience. SPAZ 2 will definitely have multiplayer. The whole game will be built around it. Shoe horning multiplayer into a game for a back of the box feature never works, but if it is the core of a game, then there can be magic.
HN: What can we expect from SPAZ in the future? Are you using a distribution model similar to that of Minecraft/Terrraria or will updates be released as paid for expansions/DLC?
Both: For now we’re going to focus on making free content (ships, missions, components, etc). We do plan to add some paid DLC, but we have not yet decided on what that will include.
HN: Do you have plans for other titles/genres in the future or will you be supporting SPAZ for quite some time?
Both: We’re going to be working on SPAZ for a long time to come. We have lots of stuff we’d like to add to make the game better. We do intend to make a sequel at some point, but that is quite away off and will take another 2 years to develop.
HN: Any closing thoughts/shout out/ drunken ramblings?
Both: Polaroid rat lid asteroid purple monkey dishwater eggplant … where is my DRINK! Seriously though, we’d like to shoot a special thanks to all our fans that supported us through beta. Without you folks SPAZ would not be what it is today. Thank you very much for the interview. Hope to hear from you and our readers on our forums.
Polite, driven and aiding the world in training for potentially dangerous space themed scenarios. Thank god for Canada.