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The Joystiq Indie Pitch: Zigfrak


Indie developers are the starving artists of the video-game world, often brilliant and innovative, but also misunderstood, underfunded and more prone to writing free-form poetry on their LiveJournals. We at Joystiq believe no one deserves to starve, and many indie developers are entitled to a fridge full of tasty, fulfilling media coverage, right here. This week, Alex Ayars discusses (a few of) the potential downsides of an alien invasion with his space-based RPG, Zigfrak.

What's your game called and what's it about?

Zigfrak is a game of deep-space conflict and discovery. Players begin in the midst of a human civil war, complicated by the invasion of technologically superior aliens.

Is the Zigfrak story inspired by any real-life events? How pivotal is the story to the gameplay?

The underlying story draws inspiration from historical and modern day events. Ronald Reagan gave an address to the UN in the '80s, at one point positing that the conflicts between human nations might dissolve if we were to be confronted by a truly alien threat. A big angle of Zigfrak's story is that his statement probably wasn't true -- that humans would continue on with their petty squabbles, even when faced with annihilation by a superior alien adversary.

The backstory is also inspired by the American Revolution and the contemporary debate surrounding the security theater. I try to present this nonpolitically, leaving the door open for players to interpret events however they are most comfortable with.

Zigfrak's story helps to prop things up, but is auxiliary to the many approaches one might take when playing. Each hub of content is a platform for telling a self-contained and lighthearted short story, with the player taking on a pivotal role.

What inspired you to make Zigfrak?

Inspiration came from the strengths and shortcomings of a number of other games. I saw an opportunity to bring a variety of mechanics together and make them play nicely, in ways that possibly haven't been done before.

The art in Zigfrak is beautiful. Who is responsible for the game's visual direction, and then for creating it?

I created the stellar environments through a process of trial and error, using noise generation tools, freely available textures, and some amount of manual tweaking.

Space is largely a dark and boring place, and I wanted to err on the side of making things more visually interesting than that, so Zigfrak's version of the universe is a landscape of fantasy. I wanted to create vistas that evoke a feeling of expansiveness, without being too empty.

The ship and station models were licensed from a third party, and some players may recognize them from other indie titles. I'd like to replace them with original assets eventually, but the environments have taken artistic priority so far.

What's the coolest aspect of Zigfrak?

Zigfrak gives the player a great deal of freedom. Missions form the backbone of the game, but not the totality of it. One might roam the galaxy in search of a good dogfight, or may focus on other aspects such as exploration, gathering and crafting, or accumulating wealth and items.

Despite the grave subject matter, Zigfrak maintains a sense of humor. Players may find themselves trapped in the noisy digestive system of a wormhole-dwelling entity, or tasked with forcibly relieving alien-worshipping cultists of their tainted soft drinks.

A development goal has always been to avoid grindiness. The mantra "If it feels grindy, then it's too grindy," is a major consideration when getting a feel for the balance of new content.

Anything you'd do differently?

Too much focus in early development was spent on appearance. Alpha-stage software should really look as such, to avoid leading users into thinking they are seeing a finished product.

Also, I believe early versions were presented too soon, and in a dangerously uncontrolled manner. During the development of an RPG, missions (quests) and other game mechanics tend to see a rapid rate of evolution. Once a tester has gone through an early iteration of the game, asking them to revisit the same content later can be a tall order -- even if the content was much improved since their previous playthrough. If something was unfinished or lackluster the first time around, it may discourage early adopters from giving it another go.

The game owes much to these brave trailblazers, but it may have been wiser to limit early testing to a more tightly controlled group. It requires a great deal of patience to participate in the testing of an RPG. One must be really dedicated to seeing the development process through, and willing to play through content that may have already been seen in an earlier state.

Why develop independently, rather than work for an established company?

Zigfrak started off as a weekend hobby project, and remained that way for several years. It was only recently that I shifted to full-time development. By that point, many of the underlying systems were already implemented.

The drive to independently develop this game stems from a desire to maintain creative control, and a strong belief in the long-term viability of the project. Established companies are rarely willing to take risks on unproven titles. Working for a larger studio would mean spending my time and energy realizing someone else's ideas, which isn't always necessarily bad, but it wouldn't be doing what I really want.

Do you see yourself as part of a larger indie movement?

I believe anybody going out on their own these days is part of a renaissance in game development -- knowingly or not.

Once upon a time, one or two people with an idea could assemble an amazing game. Gradually, the bar for entry was raised, locking out independent developers from this process. Because of modern tools and new distribution methods, small teams again have the means of turning their ideas into something real and valuable. Now is an amazing time to be an indie developer!

Sell Zigfrak in one sentence fragment:

Exploding loot piñatas, in space!

What's next?

As the game nears completion, more time will be spent on trying to promote it. Multiplayer support is what I would like to add most of all, pending the sustainability of Zigfrak in its single-player incarnation.

Zigfrak beta builds for PC and Mac are available now. The game will be released in early 2012 -- you know, before the world ends, but not before we have the chance to destroy each other all on our own, regardless of any alien invasions.

If you'd like to have your own shot at converting our readers into fans, email jess [at] joystiq [dawt] com, subject line "The Joystiq Indie Pitch." Still haven't had enough? Check out the Pitch archives.

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