I’m constantly amazed by the quality work that comes out of tiny Indie Game studios and Open Form Games is no exception. Open Form Games is a 2 person team consisting of Stuart Templeton and Thomas Hurtt. They are one of the smallest game development studios I’ve interviewed so far yet they provided some amazingly detailed and insightful answers. I have a feeling that the care they took in answering the questions is pervasive in their lives because they are taking the same care to bring to life a really frigging cool indie game!
You may remember Open Form Games as the maker of Xamalga, and they are working on other games but we’re going to focus on Vegas Prime Retrograde for this interview.
If you’re an indie developer or game designer you’re going to want to read this whole interview. Thomas and Stuart have some really great advice, not just for indie devs, but, for life in general! They are also doing some really cool stuff with Vegas Prime Retrograde and Tales from Vegas Prime to build a community of story tellers that you should pay attention to!
So what is Vegas Prime Retrograde?
“In the future, humanity expands beyond its home planet, reaching deep into the stellar abyss. The lines between human and machine have blurred and Vegas Prime stands at the intersection, a utopian beacon of hope. Clara awakens from the cold of extended stasis into a disorienting world both familiar and foreign. Play the role of Clara as she struggles to recover a data burst from deep space, and as she battles friend and foe to uncover the secrets of this place called “Vegas Prime.”
Clara’s primary action is to hack various electronic devices that are made available to her. Sometimes she uses her deck to tunnel into devices to acquire bits of the data bundle, and sometimes she uses it to attack data uplinks used by corporate hackers.
Hackable targets can be almost any electronic device, ranging from parking meters to unsuspecting com-units to security cameras, and are scanned by her NAV unit or added as waypoints automatically.
While she is hacking devices, she is able to use whatever illicit software she has picked up to help her. These can range from new improved dictionary lists, DDOS software, viruses, or the rare Quantum Brute Force application. These can speed up her attacks, slow down the opponent, cause disconnects, or other effects.
Target systems incorporate the signatures of these tools quickly, so each tool is single use. USE THEM WISELY! “
Now let’s hear from Stuart and Thomas!
First off, thank you for reaching out to me! You tweeted to me @behindtheindies and said “We’d love to participate in The Great Indiedev Mindshare!” So first question… Is it OK if I use that? I love it and it describes what I’m trying to do perfectly!
I know that Open Form Games is working on several projects but I want to focus on Vegas Prime Retrograde for this interview. Where did the name come from?
STUART: When we named Vegas Prime Retrograde, we wanted to tap into the man-made grandeur of Las Vegas, the sparkly, and completely fabricated, diamond in the non-proverbial rough. Like it’s terrestrial counterpart, Vegas Prime stands as a mammoth of human invention, but has its issues. The “Prime” comes from the city platform designation — it’s the first and most central platform in a series of interconnected platforms. The notion of retrograde motion, in which celestial objects appear to be moving backwards but really aren’t, is a comment about the relationship our protagonist shares with the utopian society that she must try to re-integrate into. The name speaks to the themes we want to explore.
Vegas Prime looks like no other game I’ve seen. Is there a reason you chose the aesthetic you did?
STUART: Thanks! The aesthetic we decided to go with is meant to be an abstraction of the extreme PTSD that our protagonist struggles with. She sees the world stripped down and we wanted to have the artifacts of a high tech utopia pierce through, almost sharp and difficult to look at. We wanted a way to give that abstraction to the player, so we have a largely drab, black and white first person experience, populated with uncomfortably bright patches of neon. The narrative that drives our aesthetic is that her neural implant is damaged from stasis and is feeding her these visuals.
How long have you been working on this project?
STUART: We’ve been working on it for a few years, but we’ve only been able to put all of our effort toward it in the last year or so.
THOMAS: Vegas Prime Retrograde started as an idea that we would explore periodically. It really turned into a our area of focus when we figured out that we could tell a big part of the story through the aesthetic. Since then, we’ve put just about every spare moment into realizing that vision.
What would you say is the most interesting aspect of your game?
STUART: I think different types of gamers are going to find different aspects decidedly interesting. We definitely aim to have a game that lends itself to exploration. We want to have a very rewarding experience for players that appreciate the stories that exist off the beaten path, the ones that inform the larger world and not just the narrow central story.
THOMAS: We really try to have multiple interesting aspects in the game that tie all tie together in a coherent way. It seems like every person who has played it gets something different out of the experience, but I certainly like the main story, and all of the stories that can be discovered by just wandering around and exploring.
Open Form Games is a 2 person team. Do you ever bring in any outside help?
STUART: We are a 2 person team, like you say. It’s Stuart Templeton (that’s me!) and Thomas Hurtt. We share responsibility for the development, art, and less exciting business stuff, but a game like Vegas Prime Retrograde is an immense undertaking. We occasionally contract out work for 2d and 3d artists to build out some of the artwork we need, but just can’t do ourselves. We try to push those opportunities to our community when we can. Our community is pretty great, and we get the opportunity to work with some pretty amazing artists as a result.
Was there a specific game you played when younger that made you say “Wow! That’s what I want to do”?
STUART: So many! Like most, we both grew up playing games and find inspiration in all manner of stuff. We’re constantly playing games and saying, “Oh man! I’d love to be on this design team!” But, I think that first eureka moment for me was probably from older games like Starflight and Snatcher. Starflight had an unusual depth to it, with a slow-burn story that snuck in some cool twists. You put these little floppies in your computer and you’re jumping through wormholes in an open universe exploring 800 planets, all off a simple 6mb install. Eat your heart out, Mass Effect! Snatcher was all of the things I liked from sci-fi pop-culture mashed into one wonderful mess, with the added benefit of being able to make dialog decisions. It was huge for me. I noticed it getting more attention lately which is wonderful — Hideo Kojima is a prolific creator in the gaming space.
THOMAS: Yes, there are so many! There were many great games that inspired me, but I think two that really made an impact are Hugo’s House of Horrors Shareware, and the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game. The former being the first adventure game that really sucked me in, and the latter being the first multiplayer game that I could play simultaneously with a group of friends. For the longest time, the idea of building a game seemed really daunting. It wasn’t until I really learned about how software development and how digital art was created that I really felt like it was something I could pull off.
Did you go to school for what you’re doing and/or how did you learn to do what you do?
STUART: Formally speaking, our education is in computer science, art, and history. That didn’t actually teach us how to make, design, or market video games, though. That education came from working in the industry and then breaking out on our own for more creative freedom. A lot of trial and error.
Has there been a time you wanted to give up developing games, and if so why?
STUART: Giving up has never been much of an option, but we definitely feel the weight of the challenge sometimes. There are definitely aspects to being in the game industry that can be discouraging, especially as indies and underdogs. But us indies are a scrappy bunch. We just sometimes have to remember that.
THOMAS: I’ve never wanted to give up developing games. Life has certainly thrown a lot of obstacles in the way, but I always seem to get back on the horse and keep moving forward.
What has been the biggest challenge in developing the game so far?
STUART: The biggest challenge in developing Vegas Prime Retrograde so far has been the scale and scope of the game. In addition to developing the inner workings, we’re also on the hook for this huge, vibrant, high tech city. We want a game that rewards exploration, so that’s kind of a huge and evolving piece of effort.
THOMAS: I’ll also reiterate reigning in scope. It takes a long time to make a great game as a tiny team, and the industry moves very quickly. We have to constantly weigh getting things done with creating an experience that is incredibly rewarding for the player. There’s no magic formula to this, and we constantly need to work to understand our audience, the technologies that we use, and the experience that we are trying to create.
There’s a unique aspect of your game called “Tales from Vegas Prime” that is a community story building effort to help build the lore of the world you’ve created. I have a few questions about that:
1. Can you tell us more about “Tales from Vegas Prime”?
STUART: I’d love to!
The Tales from Vegas Prime project is a large scale community storytelling effort to build the lore of daily life on Vegas Prime. We bring together the many talented writers, editors, and aficionados in our community to weave the largest, most ambitious collaborative story we can, in a way that hasn’t been done before.
Each vignette is written by members of our game community, adding to the depth, lore and character of Vegas Prime Retrograde. The tales tackle topics ranging from complex ideas about identity to simple ideas that simply expose what life is like on Prime.
Before this kind of larger idea, you’d have community content, but it would always be sequestered in a separate area, and it wouldn’t have much impact on the world it takes place in. We want to change that way of doing things, and open our game world to something larger. The people who write these vignettes aren’t just writing “community add-on content,” they’re writing canon. They’re legit and they’re vetted by us.
2. Why did you decide to take this approach?
STUART: Kind of by accident, actually. We thought it would be fun to ask our community if they had any small stories they wanted to tell in our game world in exchange for names in credits and copies of the game for friends and stuff like that. We expected maybe 1 or 2 responses, but we ended up with more like 20 people, some of them with 3 or 4 stories each. We realized we had stumbled on something interesting and built the Tales from Vegas Prime and the “Vignette Writer’s Crew” on our discord server. We meet regularly to talk shop, answer questions about the game world, and just kind of help each other flesh out ideas.
3. Do you have any protocols you follow to determine how much each vignette is incorporated into the world?
STUART: It’s a fairly new idea, to be honest, so we’re still figuring out what works. Generally speaking, we make sure that contributors know that we might change their vignette here and there, and that we might pass one some entirely. We make sure to work directly with people writing them so that doesn’t happen very often. We really geek out on vignettes that offer a glimpse into city life on Vegas Prime, the cultures of the people that live there, and that offer choices that allow the player to define the protagonist. Choices with consequences. Characters with depth. Stuff like that.
4. If someone comes up with a stellar vignette would you consider including it in the games main storyline?
STUART: The vignettes we’ve already seen have been so creative and imaginative, that it almost seems like a disservice to incorporate them into another story line. They really do stand on their own. We do sometimes alter our main story line to make room for exceptional vignettes. Instead of thinking about our main storyline as the end-all, be-all of the game or something a vignettes should aim to be part of, we think of the game as a shared space for storytelling. Our story is just one more story in that space. A good one, but just one.
When are we going to get to play?
STUART: We’re planning on a release sometime this year, if things go well. One concern is actually finishing the game, and another is building enough a community around it for it to have a home when we finally get to release it.
Do you have any advice for other Indie developers trying to get their first game out?
STUART: Wow, there’s really so much advice that we could share. We’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot of things through trial and error. Mostly error. If I could narrow it down to one or two things, it would be these:
Find balance between the skills to make a game and skills to release a game. The act of making a game is an act of engineering and artistry. The act of releasing a game is an act of entrepreneurship and community building. You have to find a balance of those things within yourself or your team. There’s not much worse than to have a great game sitting unloved and unplayed in a Steam graveyard because you have no community to celebrate it. So, try to understand who is going to really love your game and try to build a community for and around them.
Break the rules. One of the benefits of being an indie and not a AAA studio is that you have a lot less financial risk. You’re not working with $100M budgets. So take a page from French New Wave cinema and break the rules. Explore. Take what works for you and trash the rest. Indie game developers are the Avant Garde of the game industry, rejecting the Academy of AAA studios.
All of the above, but I’ll add…
Understand your players and build your community. I know this is what Stuart said, but it’s the most important thing you need to do if you want wide adoption of your masterpiece. If you don’t have a huge marketing budget, the only way you can raise your visibility in a sea of content is by having people in your corner that can tell the world about your awesome game. If your serve your community, they will serve you in return, and that’s the best way to build a fanbase.
Start small. VPR is the 4th (or maybe even the 5th) game that we’ve worked on as a team. It’s really important to make the first game smaller than you want it to be, and then either expand on the concept, or take on something a little bit bigger the next time around. If you take on everything that you want to do all at once, you’ll easily get burned out trying to solve your harder problems.
Keep moving forward. This can be a long process, and it’s important to not lose focus on the end goal despite all of the things that are happening everywhere else. I follow a general rule where I get at least one thing done a day. That can be as complex as knocking out a piece of functionality, or as simple as throwing some ideas at Stuart.
Is there anything I missed that you’d like to bring up?
STUART: This was a lot of fun. Thanks for letting us be a part of it! I think the only thing I’d add are some links for people who want to check out what we’re doing and maybe join our Tales from Vegas Prime crew!