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Drifter, buoyed by a Kickstarter, heads toward release later this year


I first saw Drifter, developer Colin Walsh's great space trading simulation, at last year's GDC. Back then, the game was a great idea, though Walsh's Celsius Game Studios had plenty of work to do. In the year in between, however, Walsh carried out a successful Kickstarter, picking up over $80,000 in support for the title. As a result, the game is not only coming out on iOS but also being released on PC and Mac, and Walsh has picked up composer Danny Baranowsky to do the music, as well as an artist to help him with the game's assets and UI.

I got to see the game again this week at GDC 2013, and Drifter looks terrific these days -- it's very clearly a love letter to the space trading genre (which includes games like Elite, Privateer, Freelancer, and EVE Online), an open world sandbox game on an epic scale. The universe the game creates (which is generated randomly every time you start a character) spans 10,000 light years, according to Walsh, and contains 20,000 star systems to travel through. You pilot your ship manually, and while the game as I saw it last year had a top-down view on a 2D field, the latest version has moved the camera to a behind the back view, which Walsh says really makes everything look that much bigger.

Some of the larger systems might take a full hour to fly all the way across, if you were to just hit the accelerator and go. But instead of merely flying across the universe, of course, you can jump from system to system, with a short cooldown period in between each jump. During this cooldown period, you might be attacked by pirates, so every system has its own safety rating. Alternately, you could do the pirating, attacking any ships you find at will and trying to steal their cargo.

Whether you come across goods by stealing them, by buying them, or even by mining them yourself (by blowing up various astroid fields you come across), the game also supports a complicated economy, where every system has its own price structure and goods for sale. And Walsh says that though it's not done yet, there will eventually be a crafting/synthesis system as well, where you can make more complicated tech out of other materials you find.

Finally, says Walsh, once the sandbox elements of the game are completed (and players can fly around the universe on their own, collecting goods and money as they'd like), he wants to try and put some story into the game, building up missions and quests to send people around the world. That's a large feature that may not make it into the game's first release, but Walsh isn't worried. Currently, the game is in beta for early Kickstarter backers, and then he's going to release it to other Kickstarter backers, before eventually showing it off to the public. And then Walsh says there's lots of room to grow -- he expects to support the game with new features and content after release, listening in close to what the community wants as the game is put together.

I asked Walsh if he'd always planned to run a Kickstarter, and he confirmed that yes, even though he'd done quite a bit of work on the game before the campaign, "I've been thinking about Kickstarter since I started." The Kickstarter money has definitely pushed the process along, however -- in addition to gaining an artist and the budget to support one, it's given Walsh a strong community of space trading fans very interested in the game's development.

The other Kickstarter backers should get their beta starting in April, and then Walsh is hoping for a May beta for the Mac and PC version. Soon after, sometime this summer, the iOS version should appear on the App Store, and after that, Walsh hopes to spread it to even more platforms, including possibly a Steam Greenlight release. There should be no substantial difference between the versions, though the PC version's graphics may be a little more high fidelity. But Walsh says he's working on a cloud save option, where players would be able to play on one platform, and then load that exact game somewhere else.

Drifter looks like a great game -- Walsh definitely knows his space trading genre, and this is an excellent example of why these games are so popular with the genre's fans. Walsh has plenty of work to do, and it'll be very exciting to see where the game goes as he moves further and further into development. But this is definitely an example of a Kickstarter campaign really paying off, and providing a game's creator not only with a larger budget to put into action, but a dedicated community to support his work.

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