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The Joystiq Indie Pitch: Orbitron: Revolution


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, Matthew Leigh of Canada's Firebase Industries details the details behind Orbitron: Revolution, a gorgeous space shmup for XBLIG and PC.

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

Orbitron: Revolution. Originally it was called Orbital, but looking online it seemed as though 10 other games were called that. Orbitron was settled on because it sounded like something you would find in a smoky 1980s arcade. Then two days before the Dream Build Play 2011 competition we thought we would add a second title and for about three minutes it was going to be called Orbitron: Combat Revolved.

The game has the player in the role of a defense fighter, fending off an invasion of angry robots who are bent on destroying the Orbitron Power Station. Guardian Mode is really the core of the game and is a bit of a action/shmup/tower-defense mashup. You have to stop evil laser-drilling robots from attacking and destroying the four sector ports located around the ring. When three of the four ports are destroyed the ring explodes!

Orbitron: Revolution was a semi-finalist in the Dream Build Play 2011 competition -- how encouraging was that for Firebase Industries?

The first trailer we did as a requirement to get into Dream Build Play 2011 really exploded on Youtube. We got 25,000 views or something in only a couple days which is rare for an XBLIG title. So after that we were feeling pretty good about that game and where it could go. Getting the semi-finalist spot was fantastic as well and I hope it helped get the awareness of the game up!

You guys used to work for major gaming companies -- what has been the most apparent difference in running an indie studio, compared to operations at a mainstream one?

Speed of creation is probably the biggest difference. With Orbitron: Revolution I drew the silhouettes of the enemy designs and wrote up their behaviors over a couple of days. I was modelling and texturing them in about a day apiece. Anywhere else, each enemy would go into a design meeting to get discussed to death. Then the chosen ones would move to a concept artist who would spend a few days illustrating and painting images of them. From there it would go to the art department for the modelling and texturing, and finally into the hands of the gameplay programmer for implementation.

You can cut out so much of production process when you work indie. You don't have to spend a lot of time convincing people why your idea is good or why your visual design is the best choice. It is all from the gut. You make some mistakes but you don't go into a huge production process churn like many big games do. If you are slowing things down as an indie you are the only person to blame.

What I do miss about being part of a larger company is the marketing and advertising departments they have. Usually you finish a game and then the ad guys go to work and you rarely think about it. For me, making a game is easier than trying to sell one.

How's the indie scene faring in Canada recently?

It seems like every second XBLIG developer is from Canada. The scene feels vibrant.

We have a huge talent base in the country due to bigger companies like EA, Ubisoft, Microsoft and Activision having studios here. People who have gone through a few games at the bigger guys like to branch out into their own thing and use the knowledge and experience they gained for their own projects. In Vancouver there are a couple dozen or so indie game companies or groups and it seems like every second XBLIG developer is from Canada. The scene feels vibrant. I'm hoping it continues to grow so we can get and play more great games.

What inspired you to make Orbitron: Revolution?

I started wanting to make a really small, entertaining game back in 2009 when I started seeing Arkedo doing their Xbox Live Indie Game series. That they were able to take a small idea and execute on it in a little over a month was a huge deal to me as I was used to working on big, two- to three-year-long projects.

A lot of the game design came from necessity. When I started planning what the game was going to become I only wanted to create elements I knew I could pull off myself. My strength is in futuristic environment and vehicle design. Space is a great setting because all you really need is a star-filled skybox and a nice looking model within it to sell the illusion of the environment. You don't have to create terrain, trees, bushes, villages and furry forest creatures to flesh out the world.

Shoot-'em-ups have always been really close to my heart. There is so much visual design that goes into making one of those games, from the player's ship to the enemies, bosses and the substantial background work. I don't think the genre gets enough credit for all the artwork that goes into one, let alone the game design that has to figure out bullet patterns, spacing, enemy flight choreography, etc. They are really difficult games to get right depending on the type of shmup you are trying to make.

What's the coolest aspect of Orbitron?

The Orbitron Ring resonates with me the most. It really solved the problem of having to build a background or stage for that action that could be both passive and active depending on the game mode. It allowed the player to move continuously in either direction, erasing the need for multiple levels that otherwise only serve as window dressing.

The ring also comes across as a character unto itself the way it is used in the front-end UI, probably just as much as the ships and enemies do. I admire game design that is really miminal with the actual content, but leverages the content they do have to serve dozens of hours of gameplay.

Anything you'd do differently?

In terms of game design, not really. I think there are things in the "Relaunched" update we just released that should have been the initial experience people got to see. In terms of release plan, we probably should have released the game as quick as we could after it was entered into Dream Build Play. That or waited until January or February 2012 to release it on Xbox Live Indie Games. In the future, anything we do that has bigger scale will end up on a digital download service with a bigger audience.

Since launch, Orbitron has been featured on the Xbox dash and is now on PC -- how has that affected sales and reception?

Microsoft showcasing us on the US dashboard was incredibly suprising. Being in Canada, we never saw the change here and instead got the heads up via other developers on Twitter. The impact to our sales and trials was immediate. It completely re-energized the game and gave it a whole lot more visibility to Xbox users.

The timing was pretty much perfect too as we had just released the PC version a few days before and we were at our Xbox developer three-month price-change window. So we could combo the press, dash and price all at once. We are really thankful they chose us and we hope they continue to help other great games on the service get recognition.

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

For me personally it is so I can make what I want, how I want. However, I asked at a variety of companies that I've worked at over the years to be sequestered for a couple months with a programmer and tools to build something, anything, that can be turned into an original IP that the company would actually own. I'd usually get the "it isn't in our business plan to make smaller games" excuse, or some other description. After doing this game at Firebase I actually wish I could have done it within a larger organization to elevate the status of the game and maybe even motivate others, and improve the production process.

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

Not really, but I think the indie scene is only going to expand as long as there are great games and success stories from the ones who do choose to go at it without the safety net. The great thing about there being a big indie scene is that there is a real sense of community and open communication between developers.

Sell Orbitron: Revolution in one sentence:

Best-looking Xbox Live Indie Game out there.

What's next?

Well, if Carbon Games didn't reveal Air Mech at PAX the day after I finished designing all of the bases and units for our own version it probably would have been that. Thankfully we were nowhere near as far into the game as they were, otherwise I'm not sure what we would have done. I really like what Carbon is doing with the concept and the game seems to be really coming together for them. Right now we have a good eight game ideas but are actively looking at developing two of them. Making that choice to push headlong into development is always a scary experience. You can think of a million reasons not to do something but you are better off just grabbing an idea and running with it to the end.

Orbitron: Revolution is available now on XBLIG for 80 MS Points, and through GamersGate for $5.

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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