Fighting the AAA Culture of Game Development

Industry is a Labour of Love for Indie Developer Dave Williams

Astrobase Command is a sandbox role-playing game in development by local indie company, Jellyfish Games. Photo Jellyfish Games
Astrobase Command is a sandbox role-playing game in development by local indie company, Jellyfish Games. Photo Jellyfish Games

Montreal is known for its video game industry. Some of the world’s largest studio names have made their home in our backyard, but it’s not all EA Sports games and Arkham Origins.

Concordia’s own Technoculture, Arts and Games researches and creates games, partnered with Critical Hit and ties to the Mont Royal Games Society and working under the Hexagram umbrella.

Unlike AAA studios, the indie game scene is as grassroots as you can get.

Enter Dave Williams, one of the developers of Astrobase Command; a hopeful indie game with galactic sized aspirations.

Williams is the product of the industry’s fickle temperaments. In August 2012, Norwegian developer Funcom Games was forced to lay off more than half of its Montreal staff, displacing close to a hundred people in an already over-saturated job market.

Williams, a then producer for Anarchy Online and former lead designer for The Secret World and Age of Conan, was one of those displaced. Unlike his colleagues, however, it was voluntary.

“I was in charge of AO and it was my mission to save that contract. And I felt that it was my job as producer to fight for your team.

So I cut myself and my salary. Drop my position, keep these key people, and they’ll save the game. I did what was best for that project.”

It was after Funcom that he, with the help of co-developer Adam Blahuta, decided to go indie, founding their company Jellyfish.

“I felt like, in my personal life after Funcom, it was a now or never moment. When you work for a place you can’t show up, start working, and then bail. Whenever you work somewhere it’s a two to three year commitment. I felt that I could go commit myself to a large commitment or I could try something new.”

Instead of following the lead of his colleagues, hunting for the next big commitment, Williams decided to do something new. He had been kicking around the idea for Astrobase Command since 2009, but when he saw sci-fi was making a comeback he moved the project forward.

Astrobase Command is a sandbox role-playing game, currently awaiting the green light from Steam and backing through popular funding site Kickstarter.

Inspired by ‘70s sci-fi, the game takes place on a space station, ambitiously combining elements of artificial-intelligence-driven story-lines, customization, base-building and the sandbox RPG element of free-form control.

The game seeks to create an immersive player experience, described as a combination of LEGO and Star Trek.

There isn’t a sense of right or wrong, instead the game asks players to complete intrinsic goals.

The basic being to survive; to work together, to make connections, to develop relationships, in order to keep the space station in one piece.

Players are given control of the station, in the sense that they have modules which can be pieced together, influenced by materials and the characters that construct them.

Embracing the purest sense of the sandbox map, there are no limitations to the size of your station, allowing players the room to experiment. It also promises race creation and AI-influenced plot.

“It’s a metaphor for life. It’s really about people and the psychology of people living on a space station. It’s my own personal belief that sci-fi is about the characters. Technology is a backdrop.” – Dave Williams, indie game developer.

“When you watch your favourite sci-fi like Star Trek, or Firefly, or Babylon 5, what’s really interesting are the people. The lasers are cool but the characters really make it worthwhile,” he continued.

As for the Montreal gaming scene, it’s been a good match for Astrobase Command’s development.

“There’s all these resources for game development. It’s really great for a careerist game developer, regardless of whether you’re indie, it’s a great place to be.”

However, Williams admits that the games industry, indie or otherwise, is far from perfect.

Long hours, unpaid overtime, layoffs, over-saturation of jobs and issues of sexism as illustrated by the November 2012’s “#1ReasonWhy” Twitter movement are some of the issues people who work on the inside must deal with.

“It’s abysmal, it’s terrible, and it’s exploitative. It should almost be illegal and I think it is but people don’t speak of it. It is very well documented; from unpaid overtime, to lower salaries, to requiring people to come in at the last minute,” he said.

“What’s really asinine is that the problems are caused by the executive level, but it’s the people doing the work who pay the price. And if the game fails it’s those people who get laid off not the executive layer.”

Williams hopes the future of gaming can help streamline management, so developers are left to do their work without reams of middlemen.

“I hope the indie scene will be filled with really talented people applying their passion and creativity to something gamers want to play. Game [developers] make games they don’t want to play. That’s food for thought.”

Finally, for the aspiring developer, he recommends to simply make games. Montreal is a great scene to start out in.

“The best experience for learning how games are made is trying to make a game. Every stupid little problem you hit someone has to deal with. Do game jams. Make games with strangers—not with classmates—but with people you just met and you’re trying to do this thing, and all of the problems you inevitably have and pull something together at the last minute, that’s how it works.”

Learn more about Astrobase Command on its kickstarter page.