Summary: Zero Point Software, an independent developer located in Denmark, is spearheading what they call the "AAA Indie" movement with their trilogy of sci-fi shooter games, Interstellar Marines. Planned features include a high level of realism and immersion, persistent character progression, a compelling, believable storyline, and non-linear gameplay with a focus on cooperative action throughout. As technically impressive as it is ambitious, IM actually runs on the Unity engine, which can be loaded from within your web browser! In today's exclusive feature, game director Kim Haar-Jørgensen and producer Kenneth Ellegaard Anderson answer questions about the game, their development philosophy, and what they have in store for their fans in the near future. Read on!
Early last month, we showed you this trailer depicting one of the most ambitious indie game projects ever, Interstellar Marines. Danish developers Zero Point Software planned IM as a trilogy of sci-fi first-person shooters featuring a realistic near-future storyline, role-playing elements, non-linear and open-ended environments, and an emphasis on cooperative gameplay. They describe it as a “AAA Indie” game, meaning it will have big-time production values without the studio having to sell out to a major publisher and possibly compromise their vision. To accomplish this, ZPS has adopted an open-door development policy with their community and are accepting pre-orders, as well as donations, to help fund their work. They’ve even begun offering shares of stock in their private financial holdings company to those that wish to seriously invest in the venture.
Since the launch of the Interstellar Marines website in May of 2009, three playable segments of the game (what ZPS refers to as “slices”) have been released, allowing those that “enlist” as a member to try out an early preview of what the game will look and play like:
Before you run off and play those, though, why not stick around and read more about Interstellar Marines and its extra-ordinary development process from two of the guys that have been living it for the better part of the last decade? You’ll also see answers to questions that some of our very own FS forum members submitted. Enjoy!
FiringSquad: First off, could you introduce yourself to our readers and tell them a little bit about Zero Point Software? How many people do you have on staff?
Kim: I’m Kim Haar-Jørgensen, Game Director and co-founder of Zero Point Software. The other founders are Nicolai Grønborg (CEO/Composer), and my cousin Gert Haar-Jørgensen, who is our primary investor. We are currently four developers: Mikael ‘heks’ Garde Nielsen (Lead Programmer), Kenneth Ellegaard Andersen (Producer/PR/Lead Sound Designer) Nicolai and myself. Bullseye was made with a team of 8 developers in 3 months, and Running Man was made by 9 developers in 5 months.
FS: What kind of background does the team have in terms of development experience? Done anything before we might have heard of?
Kenneth: The level and game designer on Bullseye is a former IO Interactive employee and has been part of the team behind Hitman, Freedom Fighters and Kane & Lynch. So he might be the closest thing we have to a “gaming celebrity.” The rest of the team have several years of experience in the gaming industry as well as related industries such as architecture, film and commercials, music, etc. Besides Interstellar Marines and the IOI titles, our recent team’s track record includes Escape from Paradise City (PC), The Land Before Time: Into the Mysterious Beyond (GBA), Babar to the Rescue (GBA), and Gangland (PC), as well as a handful of commercial web games and other titles which are either not published yet or were canceled during production.
FS: A recent press release stated that the idea for this game first came about in 1993. What took so long for it to start coming to fruition?
Kim: That’s right, the initial idea for Interstellar Marines was spawned back in 1993 when Nicolai and I played a game called Hired Guns from DMA Design/Psygnosis, which was an exciting click-to-move, split-screen, sci-fi, co-op FPS on the Amiga 500. The idea and concept grew from there and slowly evolved as we played more and more FPS in co-op. The most significant inspiration for Interstellar Marines came as we entered the new millennium and played a game called System Shock 2 from Irrational Games, which gave us one of the best co-op game experiences of our lives and ultimately inspired us to introduce role-playing mechanics into our FPS formula.
Back in 2001, I wrote the first draft for both the design document and the manuscript and we had an opportunity to get the project off the ground in late 2003 when my cousin Gert came on-board; Nicolai and I were able to quit our day-jobs thanks to his investment in the project. The first few years were spent working out the details regarding the concept, design document, and manuscript, but we also spent time writing uninspiring business plans used for securing additional funds.
The last five years have been one long, continuous roller coaster ride with lots of excitement and emotional ups and downs. In 2006 we were 4 guys creating and releasing a small cinematic trailer trying to sell our vision of the game to everybody. From early 2007 to late 2008 we grew to 20 developers, all working hard to create the first playable demo for potential publishers, which were unfortunately only interested in “all or nothing” deals. In early 2009 we were ready to release a cool multiplayer game on an engine we could not afford, but we were facing bankruptcy after being hit by the full force of the financial crisis… We never gave up, and have been focusing all of our energy on establishing a community website as well as presenting the world with a few playable previews on the Unity engine. Not your typical development story I guess, and we still got a long way to go, but our situation at the moment feels stable and we’re enjoying every minute of this wonderful journey.
FS: You seem to be very proud of the fact that you’re making this game completely independently. Do you really think this “AAA Indie” movement of yours will catch on?
Kenneth: To a certain extent it has already caught on in other forms or using other terms for it. We clearly see a tendency [in the industry] towards independent developers making games on larger budgets and with bigger scopes; Natural Selection 2, Overgrowth, and Heroes & Generals are all made by independent studios using some kind of open-door development and pre-order strategy. And if you look at two of the best and most-praised games of 2010 -- Limbo and Minecraft -- you can see that quality games really sell. Neither of them had multi-billion-dollar marketing budgets, they are just great games!
FS: Speaking of Minecraft, there’s a reference to that in the new trailer. How have Notch and his success influenced you guys?
Kenneth: First of all, it’s really motivating to see that a great game can sell just because it’s a great game and even before it is finished! With Bullseye and Running Man, we waited to make them available to our community until they were in late alpha/early beta because we were concerned about whether or not the community would be able to see past all the things not working properly or features not yet being implemented. But for future releases we’ll put them out there as soon as we have anything new, even if it’s only a new audio ambience soundtrack for a level, just like Minecraft and other open-door development titles. If Notch has the guts to do it, so do we!
FS: So have you made the choice to rely solely on pre-purchases and donations from the community or are you seeking financing from outside sources as well?
Kenneth: In a perfect world we would love to make a game entirely funded by the community. Unfortunately this is not a perfect world, so besides our current sources, we’re always looking for new investors.
FS: How much money have you spent making the game so far, and how much more do you think you’ll need?
Kim: At this point in time, an estimated $4.5 million has been invested into developing the publisher demos, Unity previews, franchise, and community website so far. And in regard to future development of Interstellar Marines, we’ll keep re-investing all support [donations] and pre-purchases right back into the game.
FS: Would you accept an offer from a big publishing company to provide funding or distribution?
Kim: As long as we wouldn’t have to give up on our community or our intellectual property rights and we could remain in creative control, we would welcome a publisher. It’s not a matter of who we are being funded by, it’s a matter of not allowing anyone to get in the way of the dialogue between us developers and our customers, the gamers who support, buy, and play our games.
FS: What are your thoughts on DRM? Will you use any for Interstellar Marines?
Kenneth: To be honest, we haven’t decided yet. As of now, our games are only available through a browser on our website, and you can only play them if you are logged in. So far this approach hasn’t raised any issues regarding DRM, but if we put our games on other portals and distribution channels, or on consoles, we will have to look further into this. It might be that we won’t have any choice and have to use a certain type of DRM requested or applied by the distributor. Besides, there are many types of DRM; you could even consider our request that you need to log in with a personal profile to play to be DRM. But as I said, we haven’t decided yet.
FS: What made you decide to use the Unity engine? How is it working out for what you’ve envisioned doing in IM?
Kenneth: We started out working on a publisher demo using the Unreal Engine and actually got very far with that development. We also got in touch with some of the major publishers and started the long and winding road toward a “green-lighting” of Interstellar Marines, which would mean full funding from a publisher of the first title in the trilogy. But for various reasons we didn’t get a contract with a publisher at that time, so we decided to continue independently instead of pursuing publishers.
In May of 2009, we wanted to launch the community website with a multiplayer beta using the Unreal Engine, but due to Epic’s licensing structure at the time, the only way for us to go public with any game content was to pay the full license, which we couldn’t afford. This was before the UDK package and Epic’s new licensing structure, so we didn’t have any other option than to find a new engine. Our former Lead Programmer had some experience with the Unity engine, so we tried it out. It was only a matter of hours before we had our first scene up and running, and we haven’t looked back since.
Unity is really great for rapid prototyping, but it’s also capable of scaling toward a full-featured AAA title such as Interstellar Marines. Now with the launch of Unity 3, the engine is up there with the best and most expensive engines, with more and more cool features being added all the time. So with PS3, 360, Wii, browser, iOS, Android, PC and Mac support, as well as deferred rendering, Beast light mapping, PhysX, Umbra occlusion culling, and the FMOD audio engine, the future is very promising for us and all other Unity developers. We made a small Christmas release for our community using Unity 3.1 (The Vault, Bullseye and Running Man were all made in Unity 2.6), and that test run really put a big smile on our lips.
FS: Do you have any plans to support mod creation for the game?
Kenneth: We don’t have any specific plans right now. Maybe later; our community has shown an enormous interest in modding, so we definitely won’t rule anything out. We haven’t cracked the nut technically yet, and we’ve also prioritized making the games first before opening it up for modding. If we went the other way around we might have difficult time finishing the games or maybe have fewer features in the games. We always look at all our options and try to determine which feature gives us the most bang for the buck.
FS: Will the full game be playable in a browser like the slices are?
Kenneth: As one of the possible distribution platforms probably, yes. We have just recently become a Sony-approved developer and are looking at the possibilities of taking Bullseye or Running Man and porting them for the PS3. It’s just one of the options we have at the moment, and we still haven’t decided whether we will go for it or not.
FS: There seems to be a focus on realism and immersion with IM. What are some things you’re doing to make the player feel like they’re really in the game, more so than any other shooter?
Kim: Immersion is an extremely important aspect of what we’re trying to achieve with Interstellar Marines because, in the end, our ultimate goal is to trick the brains of people into believing that they really are the character they play in our games. We’re very focused on this ambitious goal which is why our FPS “camera” is transported by a first person body and why we’re going the extra mile to simulate that your character is wearing a helmet with the HUD ultimately being projected by laser onto the inside of the visor glass, etc.
FS: What differences are there between single-player and co-op modes? Do AI teammates fill in the squad when you play offline or will you have to go it alone?
Kim: Interstellar Marines will feature traditional lone wolf single-player as well as what we call single-player co-op, which is basically you assisted by up to three very autonomous bots as in SWAT 4 or Left 4 Dead. Besides the single-player modes we have the traditional multiplayer co-op, which is you and up to four of your friends either locally or online. No matter how you choose to play we provide the same out-of-this-world storyline. Now it’s just up to you and your friends to build the strongest team possible based on your selection of weapons, skills, and tactics.
Regarding single-player co-op, we've internally agreed that we'll only release this option if we're able to properly nail the autonomous team-mate AI. A lot of games have tried that and more or less failed, with a few exceptions like Alyx from Half-Life 2. If we make it available you can expect your AI team-mates to follow extremely context-sensitive commands and we'll make sure that they'll always try to match your tactics and play style. SWAT 4 and Rainbow Six: Vegas kind of made this work, with the AI "listening" to your playing style "output" and trying to match or follow it as closely as possible.
FS: You’ve outlined some RPG-like features such as persistent character development and non-linear gameplay. Can you elaborate on those and any other RPG elements that you will be incorporating?
Kenneth: Each week, we have three community initiatives on our website: Question of the Week (Monday) where we ask our community about stuff, Ask the Developer (Wednesday) where our community asks us a question, and Picture of the Week (Friday) where we give our community a new picture, which can be concept art, work-in-progress screenshots or similar. A couple of weeks ago we were asked this exact question and Kim gave a quite thorough answer, which you can read in full on our forums.
[Here’s an excerpt:]
FS: In terms of storyline, we’re seeing buzzwords like original, unpredictable, breathtaking, heart-pounding, captivating, and epic, but all we really know is that it’s set in the future and has to do with contact between humans and an alien species. Can you share any more details with us about that?
Kim: It’s easy to throw around buzzwords, sorry, but like I’ve said in another interview, I’ve yet to see anyone sell their great storyline inside an interview, so I’m not even going to try! All I can say is that everything becomes cliché if implemented wrong. I mean, on paper Alien and Jaws sound like proper B-movies, but they were both made with the right vision and dedication which made them so much more than could ever be described on paper. We believe it’s all in the implementation and execution. what is said and not said, what is shown and not shown, and a whole lot more!
FS: What’s the deal with the land sharks? How do they fit in with the overall theme of “realistic science fiction” and why are the space marines fighting them?
Kim: The Interstellar Treaty Organization (a future NATO) are secretly researching and developing viral and biological experiments for planetary warfare, with one project focused on creating genetically-engineered creatures from selected top predators of Earth! What could go possibly go wrong? You’ll just have to wait and see.
FS: The next playable segment of the game is a multiplayer mode called Deadlock. Do you have any information on what that will be like or when it’s coming out?
Kenneth: Story-wise, it’s actually part of the Interstellar Marines training program lead by General Sebastian Travis. Bullseye and Running Man were steps one and two, whereas Deadlock takes it to man vs. man combat. We intend to release it to our community in a very early alpha version, and in dialogue with our community improve it and deliver more and more features over time. Basically when we have the roughest playable version ready we want our Spearheads and Frontliners (community members who have pre-ordered the game) to be able to play it and give us feedback. At some point, when the game is ready for it, we plan to invite the rest of the world in and let them play it as well. We haven’t settled for the exact details of the public launch yet. The most important thing for us right now is to raise enough funding to go into production of Deadlock, so unfortunately we cannot give an exact date of when it will be released. It all depends on funding.
FS: Any hints as to what the other slices might be?
Kenneth: Well Bullseye, Running Man and Deadlock are all part of the overall “Prologue” storyline, which tells of the creation of the Interstellar Marines military program under the Interplanetary Treaty Organization, or ITO. We could probably imagine making something after that which focuses a bit more on the narrative aspects of Interstellar Marines, maybe combined with co-op, but let’s start with Deadlock and see where it takes us!
FS: Do you have an estimated release window for the first full Interstellar Marines game?
Kenneth: I assume that you mean the first title in the trilogy, and to that I can only say, when it’s ready! We need quite a substantial amount of funding to begin full-scale production of the Trilogy. But with that being said, all progress we make in terms of development of code, art, audio or similar game assets counts towards the production of the trilogy. And until our first title hits the digital shelves, we promise to do our best to make it an enjoyable journey!
FS: Finally, is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?
Kenneth: Join us at www.interstellarmarines.com to be a part of the best gaming community in this solar system!
FS: Thanks so much for your time.
Kenneth: You’re welcome, and thanks to you and the FiringSquad forum members for some great questions!
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