Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Q&A with GSB's Cliff Harris

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Cliff Harris, the creator of Gratuitous Space Battles.  If you are not familiar with the game, be sure to check out the video preview.  GSB is all about designing your fleet, giving them orders and then watching the carnage that unfolds. Thanks Cliff!

Werit:  Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your new game?

I'm cliff harris, most people call me cliffski. I used to be a programmer working at Lionhead, and I left there to set up my own little one-man games company. I've been doing that for quite a few years, doing games like Kudos and Democracy, but my latest game is a space strategy game called 'Gratuitous Space Battles'. It's a new take on the whole war-game genre, because it's all about planning and strategy, rather than fast reflexes and direct control of your forces.

Werit:  With GSB, you are going about the release a bit differently by allowing pre-orders into the beta. I like the idea, as I bought it. What led you to go about it this way?

I think my games get better as I continue to work on them, so the initial 'release' is never as good as the 14th or 15th patch. People always find bugs, or suggest cool improvements, and you end up with a better game that is more focused on what gamers want. I thought I might as well build that post-release improvement process right into the development of the game this time. I was also impressed with how games like Dwarf Fortress and Mount & Blade have this ongoing dialog with their players, I thought that would always lead to better games.

Werit:  How is it working out so far?

Very well. there are a bunch of people playing the beta, and I've had a huge chunk of really helpful feedback and some excellent ideas. The game is already miles better in every way than when I first opened up the beta, and the trickle of pre-order cash means I'm less panicked about wanting to rush the game finished, which is good news.

Werit:  GSB has a rather unique form of multiplayer. You've mentioned before that it is similar to PBeM's which, by the way, I used to be obsessed with.  How does it work and what has been the feedback so far?

Players can fight against AI fleets, and to do this they must design ships and arrange them into formations with orders for battle. The amount of data involved there is actually fairly small in hard-drive terms, so its easy for me to have a system where you can just upload the whole thing to my server. Because both sides in a battle are equal, that means that the players fleets can serve as the enemy fleets for each other. People have really loved this, because if they are really good at the game, they might be able to beat all the AI fleets, but they have a tough time beating everyone else who is playing. Some incredibly crafty and clever strategies and fleets have emerged during the beta, which is great to see.

Werit:  I've read that GSB is mod-able by the players.  How much of the game can be altered?  Is it just ship models?

Almost anything. People have added new weapons, new ship components and hulls, and backdrops and pretty much everything. of course, that won't work if you try to send your modded fleet as a challenge to someone else, but it's great fun. people are already converting the game to look and play how they want.

Werit: What's the largest battle you have had going in game?

I think the chaos nebula battle is the largest one. I have done some tests with thousands of ships on each side, and it worked ok on my PC, but the game is designed to run on older PC's too, so I didn't include anything really over the top. When you see a battle with 200 ships on each side, with lasers and debris and escape pods and missiles... it's already amazingly complex and gratuitous and full of explosions. beyond that it can get a little bit silly :D

Werit: Any chance you will wrap a 4x game around it someday?

Possibly. Who knows? I did a very complex government simulation game for years (Democracy 2) so I'm clearly quite into doing turn based strategy stuff. I can see how it could make a really good meta game.

Werit: As GSB is technically in beta (but very playable) it is constantly evolving.  What can we expect to see in the near future?

It really depends on player feedback. There has been a lot of balancing, and a lot of good ideas. I'm experimenting with a few minor UI improvements right now. I'll also be taking a look at improving the challenge system, for seeing how your challenges do, and I'd like to get some more ship components in there too, especially for frigates and fighters.

Werit: You've developed a number of games.  Is there anything you're especially proud of when it comes to GSB?

I like the look of it a lot. For ages I did turn-based stats-heavy strategy games, and people just assumed I was rubbish at graphics, so this is my long-winded way of saying that I can do graphics programming too :D

Werit:  Anything else you would like to tell the readers about GSB?

Buy it. It's awesome! and my cats need feeding.