Recently, I was very fortunate to get the chance to talk with David Board, Interactive Designer of Stage 2 Studios. The studio have recently released Lifeless Planet; an atmospheric third-person experience which casts you in the role of an astronaut, searching for signs of life on a distant planet.
On top of discussing the Xbox One release of Lifeless Planet, we also touched on the significance of Kickstarter and how significant the role of independent developers are in today’s industry:
Hayden Waugh: Where did the idea for Lifeless Planet start? Did you use any other games/films for inspiration?
David Board: It actually just started with the astronaut character that I had designed for another use. But then I discovered [the game engine] Unity and realized it would make for an interesting experience to explore a distant planet. I realized I needed a back story, so started thinking about what would be the most surprising thing to find on another planet. It hit me that travelling across the galaxy to an exoplanet and then finding evidence of human habitation would be more interesting than finding bug-eyed aliens.
The story was definitely influenced by old-school science fiction TV shows and films like The Twilight Zone. I also drew inspiration from adventure games I played in the 90s like Lucas Arts The Dig and games like Myst and Riven.
HW: How difficult was it to get Lifeless Planet off the ground and noticed on Kickstarter during its funding campaign?
DB: Well, I came in very early on Kickstarter. I spent a ton of time investigating what other projects had done. But back then it was easier to get noticed because Kickstarter was such a new thing.
I got front page coverage on pcgamer.com, Rock, Paper, Shotgun and a dozen other sites. When we finished Lifeless Planet, with just $17,000, it was one of the top 20 most-funded games on Kickstarter! I was glad to be early on something for once!
HW: How did you feel after your final Kickstarter stretch goal had been reached?
DB: I didn’t have specific stretch goals, but we did do 200% of our base goal. My first thought was: “Yes! We’re funded!”, then my next thought was: “Crap! I have to make this game!”. I realized people were really counting on me, hundreds of them, and it was a little scary, honestly. In the end, the Kickstarter crowd was a huge support in more ways than just funding. It was very rewarding.
HW: What alterations did you make between the game’s PC and Xbox One releases?
DB: The biggest change is the updated terrain graphics. We totally reworked the normal maps throughout, which adds lots of depth and detail to the rocks and other surfaces. I also commissioned composer Rich Douglass to score several new original music tracks in this version. Also, we finally included additional voice acting segments and new text logs to collect.
HW: The planet itself is barren and organisms struggle to survive. With enemies small in number, how important was the soundtrack to Lifeless Planet?
DB: It wasn’t only a huge part of setting the stage but also creating the sense of isolation and mystery. It’s a beautiful and haunting soundtrack, in my opinion and one of the first things people notice [in games]. Rich’s score fits the game perfectly.
HW: With limited funding, were there ideas Stage 2 Studios had that didn’t make it into the final game? What were they?
DB: There were some ideas that didn’t make it in, but a few additional ones I didn’t originally plan on. The robot arm was one I added later when I realized the puzzles were a bit flat and needed something extra.
In terms of things that didn’t make it, I think they were mostly for the better. I thought about combat features but, in the end, I left them out and I feel really good about that choice. I also originally wanted to include a few more puzzles or more complicated puzzles, but I’m not sure that would’ve been for the best.
One thing I really strived for was to keep the puzzles on the lighter side so people would be encouraged to finish. The game is about story first and in the final version the puzzles are there mostly to flesh out the sense of immersion and story.
HW: Lifeless Planet is an independent game, with a solid plot. Do you think some AAA counterparts tend to focus more on graphics and sound effects than story?
DB: Absolutely! I won’t name names, but I was recently playing a huge AAA title and noticed all the time that the game shows cutscenes where the player and NPC walk up, over and around objects. I realized they’re just showing off.
Trust me, the animations and the environments look great, but it really took away from the story for me. And since I wasn’t in control, I’m just watching all these boring movies of people walking. I think it’s really important not to steal control from the player unless you have something extremely interesting to show them.
The upside of all this is there is lots of room to innovate in games and indies are doing that. I feel like the game industry has been repeating itself for a very long time and I think indies are breaking the mould in some very interesting ways.
HW: Thanks to these crowd-funding organisations, we’ve seen gamers put a lot of interest and positive feedback into indie games. What do indie titles deliver that AAA games don’t?
DB: I don’t want to bash AAA games too much. I love Halo and I’ve played my fair share of other AAA titles. I get that big developers need to make a game that will be played by a large range of gamers. But that’s also a crutch. Indies have the freedom to make a game that maybe only a smaller portion of gamers will like. But that subset of gamers has been crying out for that unique type of experience that AAA publishers can’t afford to invest in. So it’s a win-win in my opinion. I don’t think AAA will go away, nor should it.
But now is a great time to be a gamer and to be an indie developer.
HW: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Good luck with the game.
Lifeless Planet is available now for PC and Xbox One.