Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to this week’s Sunday Sidebar. Some of you will be grilling up a storm on this Memorial Day weekend, but of course the true faithful have been safely indoors, patiently refreshing VGW for their weekly dose of indie development exposé. In any case, sit back, relax and enjoy your Sunday with this week’s interviewee: James Green, director of Carbon Games. Like a number of his Megabooth cohorts, James is an industry veteran and even worked on Unreal Tournament many moons ago. The guy knows a thing or two about real-time strategy, and that’s a quality I respect in anyone.
Hey James! Who are Carbon Games?
Hey! We’re a group of old-school game developers who have worked for smaller developers, larger ones, and have now formed our own company. Since we’re small, we all have to be multi-talented, and technical. No-one is a designer, and everyone is a designer.
Why ‘Carbon Games’?
I’ve always liked game company names that are short, easy to spell, and a little abstract. I chose ‘Titan’ for the same reasons, and it obviously works well for companies like Valve, Blizzard, Bungie, Epic, etc. Sure, it gets hard to find a free domain or available name, but for some reason Carbon was not taken.
I like Carbon as a name because of its symbolism too. Everything alive is made with carbon, and it can form anything from the softest to the hardest things in nature. Our original company tagline was “We are Carbon. We make Games.”
How did you personally get into game design, and when?
To be honest, I don’t consider myself a designer in the classic sense. I’m a total hack really, in that I can identify things in games that I like, and I’m pretty good at mechanics and balance through trial and error, but that’s about it. Look at AirMech or Fat Princess, they really are just combinations of other games that I have loved over the years.
When I was young I loved to read pen and paper RPG books. I played a few, but I read many more than I played. I was fascinated with the rules and numbers behind it all, making characters and trying to exploit the systems. Crunching numbers and looking for flaws was great fun, and I guess I still do that today.
My favorite types of games are class-based team games. Long ago, I knew I would never be the best in FFA (free-for-all) shooter games, but throw in the tactical rock-paper-scissors element and finally I stood a chance. Team Fortress in all its versions has been a love of mine, and I’m sure you can see that in Fat Princess and now AirMech. Mix in some Herzog Zwei and you have the foundation which evolved into AirMech.
Your team are something of a splinter group, having previously worked on Titan’s Fat Princess for PlayStation Network. What inspired the departure from Titan for Carbon?
Titan was actually part of a larger company called Epic Games China. Making smaller games was not the focus of the studio, and Fat Princess was just a small side project while we were building big MMO games for the Chinese market.
When the core work was finished for the MMO games, those of us at Titan wanted to work on small games again, which didn’t fit with the company direction. So we decided to reform into a new studio with the blessing of Epic Games China. There are seven of us here at Carbon that were also at Titan, the entire core team that created Fat Princess.
We are passionate about creating smaller scope multiplayer games. Personally, I’ve wanted to make AirMech for more than 10 years, and just never had the chance. Forming Carbon Games was the perfect time to do it.
How was your time as part of the Indie Megabooth?
Great! Having support from the other studios and someone to guide us through the process saved us a huge amount of trouble and confusion. I think it’s wonderful to be involved with the group, and as time goes on I hope we can help the next wave of newcomers into the family. Having a unified group makes it so much easier to market ourselves. It works well for fans too because they actually are looking for the indie games in one place, instead of scattered to the corners of the convention.
Kelly Wallick [Indie Megabooth's PR contact who organized the developers] was super helpful in guiding everything along and providing all the information we needed. We met a few new devs, though we had a lot of contact with them beforehand. The show itself mainly focused on interacting with the fans and press, which was great because thanks to everyone helping organize the Megabooth we didn’t have any surprise issues to deal with.
What are the prime challenges you face due to being independent? What makes it worthwhile?
The biggest challenge for us or any independent developer is money, I think. It’s relatively easy to have an idea and the passion to execute on it, but you need time, and you need to be able to feed yourself. So that means you do need some amount of money, variable depending on how much your individual team members need to survive.
We were fortunate enough to have been working in the industry long enough that we were able to fund ourselves between putting in our own money and the core team taking no/low salaries for some time. That’s a risk of course, but the reward of having zero external investment and total control over our game and our future is worth it.
“Market research said no, robots weren’t cool, Transformers were out of style, and everyone had their own ideas about RTS on the console. Nobody wanted to take a chance on it.”
What led you to developing AirMech?
It was more than 20 years ago that I first discovered Herzog Zwei by complete accident. There was nothing left at the game rental shop, except for this strange-named game, and for whatever reason I decided to give it a shot.
After a decent amount of confusion, I saw what the magic of this game was. This predated all real-time strategy (RTS) games, remember. I loved the build-order-deploy concept. I would play many RTS games on the PC after that, but my first experience with the genre was Herzog Zwei.
Fast forward to Xbox Live, and I see companies trying to make RTS games for the console, clumsily forcing a controller to emulate the mouse/keyboard controls of PC RTS games. In my mind it’s as clear as day: this problem has already been solved more than a decade prior, and eventually someone will make something in the spirit of Herzog Zwei, put it on Xbox Live, and all will be right in the world.
Only, that day never came. New console waves arrived, now Xbox 360 and PS3, just begging to have an RTS that plays well with a gamepad on XBLA or PSN. Before Fat Princess, I pitched the idea to a bunch of publishers but nobody ‘got it’. Market research said no, robots weren’t cool,Transformers were out of style, and everyone had their own ideas about RTS on the console. Nobody wanted to take a chance on it.
But I could not stop thinking about it. I’d wanted to make the game for so long, it just kept rolling around in my head for years. When it came time to start something new, I was adamant—we were going to make this game, and it would be called AirMech. I am willing to bet the future of the whole company that this is a great game idea and that it is what gamers want. No ‘market research’ is needed to tell me as a gamer than an Action-RTS game with giant transforming robots is awesome.
In the end, I’m making AirMech for myself, because I’ve wanted to play it for so long and no-one else was making it. If others like it too, that’s great. It makes me really happy to see people having fun.
AirMech is fast-paced, to say the least. Do you find that people have much trouble picking it up?
Getting into AirMech can be a bit tricky depending on your gaming background and also what you are expecting. If you think it’s just a subtle twist on a DotA-style game, then it’s going to be a bit of a shock at first. Coming from the action side of gaming, players are fine with the speed but not used to having RTS elements involved. There’s no game quite like it out there right now, and that does create a bit of a barrier to entry. I honestly think it plays as well or better with the gamepad as with the mouse/keyboard, and it feels extremely natural with the gamepad.
It’s a learning curve. Look at shooter games, for example. Once you master one set of moving/shooting mechanics, you can jump into just about any shooter out there and feel at home. Because we’re exploring new territory (well, new to most gamers, it’s a shame that more people don’t know the classics) it’s unavoidable to need a period of adjustment. We have a pretty rudimentary tutorial in the game right now, but we plan to replace it pretty soon. It’s just balancing priorities of adding new features, fixing priority bugs, and polish.
Since we are in Alpha right now, and free-to-play, anyone can grab the game and try it out. I’d feel worse about the new user experience and training if we were at the release stage or we were demanding money, but as it is we are just being open and collecting feedback to make that new user experience better for the future release milestones.
“There will not be a sequel to AirMech—it’s just not how we see the future of the game. It will be one game that we support for as long as there is player interest.”
The game is only just moving into Beta. What are your long-term goals for it?
My ultimate goal is to grow AirMech into a hardcore game that follows in the footsteps of F2P pioneers like Riot Games’ League of Legends. I think they showed that you can do F2P while respecting your players, and have success. I don’t see us directly competing with the DotA-class games, because we are different in a lot of ways, but there’s definitely some overlap in gamer interest.
Compared to the DotA-class games, we have a lot more freedom in our map design because of the whole ‘fly around’ and ‘pickup and drop’ core mechanics of the game. The game also naturally works with a Survival or Tower Defense style gameplay, which is really popular with a lot of the more casual players. We also have Time Trial Challenges, and almost 100 Quests—we keep adding things according to player interest as long as it fits with the core of the game.
We will also be adding more social features to the game, such as guild/clan support, ranked play and tournaments, possibly even a territory control-based meta-game. Things like this will be added as we get bigger. More success for AirMech means more money gets invested back into the game. There will not be a sequel to AirMech—it’s just not how we see the future of the game. It will be one game that we support for as long as there is player interest, which I hope will be a long long time.
What is your prized geek possession? Is there anything you’re still holding onto from way back when?
Sadly, no. I moved to China about 10 years ago to work for Ubisoft and through moving all my things around I lost a bunch of boxes of old toys and personal things. From my first sketchbooks to a physical replica of the Unreal Tournament trophy (the whole dev team got them) I lost almost everything. Saddens me to think of it, and I guess I’ve kind of lost the spirit of collecting things as a result of that.
That’s a real shame…
Yeah, it is. Memories are just as real though. I still remember faking sick so I could stay home from school to play Herzog Zwei, and the first time I played Metroid, or Total Annihilation, and ‘Team Fortress’ … Good times.
Thanks for your time, James!
AirMech is available to play right now on PC/Mac/Linux using the Chrome browser.