Friends, there are a ton of space games coming out, which is great for us fans, but for developers, it means you have to do something special, different, unique in order to stand out. Based on my time with Deep Sixed — a very detailed space exploration game and ship management sim — the developers of the game have definitely achieved something special indeed. Since we weren’t able to fit the developers into the podcast schedule before their Kickstarter ended, I still not only wanted to learn more about the game myself, but to get other folks excited about it as well. Therefore I sent some questions to Ryan Hewer, Project Director at Little Red Dog Games, to discuss the game further. The very awesome and detailed answers are below. Thanks for reading, and if you like what you read, be sure to head to the Kickstarter and help ’em out!
Brian Rubin: Where did the idea for the game come from, and how long have you been working on it?
Ryan Hewer: I was messing around with the ideas behind Deep Sixed around mid-2015 when looking for ways to extend an old engine that was written with adventure games in mind.
I had put together a little proof-of-concept demo where you had a spaceship bound for Mars with a crew of specialists and things would keep breaking down in real-time, forcing the player to constantly switch between crew members. I’ll tell you, it was a lot of fun, but it started to feel more and more like a walking simulator as the little pixelated avatars were constantly scurrying around the ship and waiting for instructions. And as fun as it was to have the little astronaut sprites accidentally airlock themselves, the team thought a crew-management sim was already fairly well-tread territory, so I went back to the drawing board. I’m glad too, Tharsis would come out a few months later and the two were dangerously similar.
I remember the first really legitimate design work began about January 2016. We knew early on we wanted to build on a reputation of strategic single-player gameplay that has players making tough command decisions, but with a completely different thematic influence. Deep Sixed, funny enough, was originally penned as an undersea survival game with the same dystopian-futuristic undertones, but we really wanted the player to experience the uncertainty of interacting with mysterious wildlife. We were really impressed with Subnautica, and how Unknown Worlds’ does a great job building a whole alien ecosystem so we went back to our original prospects of a science-fiction story in space to give us some more flexibility in terms of the sorts of situations a player may encounter, but those deep-sea influences are obvious and embraced in our creature designs in the nebula.
But in all honesty, the biggest influence on this game has to be the episode “33” in the newer Battlestar Galactica series. It’s the first episode of the first season and the titular carrier is forced to warp into a place, stay there for 33 minutes surviving wave after wave of hostilities, and then warp out without any reprieve in sight. This is the exact feeling we want to accomplish with every mission of Deep Sixed.
BR: How many individual systems are modeled in the game? Each room seemed to have at least a dozen things to interact with.
RH: As far as “systems” go, there are twelve distinct major systems currently in the demo that include: weapons systems, the scanning radar, the ship’s hyperdrive, the power reactor, targeting subsystems, ship’s ventilation, radiation, external probe control, hull integrity, AI integrity, power storage and photography. Three more are planned: ship’s cabin thermal controls, spectrum-scanning (switching to infrared or ultraviolet imaging to piece creature camouflage) and audio recording and broadcasting systems (to lure creatures and affect their behavior).
Now, within each “system” there can be multiple points of failure. For example, if radiation levels in the cabin continue to rise, it could be that a reactor door was left open, or the radiation scrubber has failed mechanically, or that there is a software error in the ship’s drivers (not yet implemented) or that you just happen to have warped into a really radioactive portion of the nebula. In all, our goal is to have enough going on inside the ship that players won’t be memorizing repair steps, they’ll be conducting diagnostics and considering options for repair.
BR: How did you come up with the cylindrical/ring design for the ship itself, and what kind of design challenges did that possess.
RH: A lot of arguing went into that one. Going back to that inspirational episode of Battlestar Galactica, we knew already the ship has a single purpose: map space while being pummelled in all directions before enough is enough and we have to go. A ship like that would have no crew-quarters, no amenities, no coffee-maker, no thrusters, nothing that would imply that a person would be on it longer than a few hours at a time. Mechanically, it was important to me that players be constantly looking out windows, so integrating a torus into the design seemed a natural fit. We knew that the hyperdrive should be geographically located in the middle of whatever this ship is. The exact number of rooms in the torus was debated a while before we settled on five. We then took every single room and modelled it out of cardboard. Seriously! Check these out.
BR: With so many systems interacting with each other (such as power systems and the like), how do you keep it all straight when designing the game so that, when we’re playing the game, it’s manageable?
RH: Denis (our lead programmer) and I produce a lot of spreadsheets and design documents that show all the systems, how they interact with each other, the ways in which they can fail and the ways in which they can be repaired. (These kinds of documents are definitely part of an exclusive-tiered Kickstarter backer package, for those who want to see a horror you can’t unsee…) Sometimes I screw up and end up proposing new systems that might undermine other mechanics, but we’re usually pretty good about that. The bigger problem is how characters interact with events. Say, for example, the player is midway through complaining about a lagging targeting system when the power goes out. We want the conversation between the player and AI to be as organic as an indie team like ours can develop, so we’ve put the severity of a failure in a hierarchy and put in place a number of interrupting statements like, “Hold that thought –” so when something not as serious is being discussed while something more serious happens, players literally interject and note the more serious event. It’s pretty cool to see in action.
BR: Are there keyboard shortcuts to switch rooms, or will they be added? I couldn’t find any while I was playing and I NEEEEEEED them so badly.
RH: Oops — we really should have added this before sending you that demo, shouldn’t we? It will absolutely be there in the final product and probably be updated in the demo very soon.
BR: In the version I played, the primary activities seemed to be mining and combat. Will there be other types of missions we’ll be able to undertake, such as, say, taxi, diplomatic or cargo hauling missions, for example?
RH: Great question — there will be reconnaissance missions where you need to observe (or even stimulate) certain creature behaviors, there will be a couple salvaging missions, timed missions, scanning missions and anything further that I say would spoil the story. Often you think you’re going in for one thing, and something else is going to happen that will turn the event on their head.
BR: Will one be able to upgrade the ship so it, say, breaks down less often, or pumps out more power?
RH: There are thirty-one possible ship upgrades at present, divided between six systems: weapons, scanner, hyperdrive, power, the probe and the hull. Some are mutually exclusive and have some trade-offs. Among the upgrades there are options to produce more power, regenerate power over time or emergency-boost your power to full every mission.
BR: So far the voice acting has been superb, especially the ship’s computer. What was your process of finding and coaching the voice actors so they’d be so effective?
RH: With our first game, Rogue State, we had a fourteen-person cast all attempting accents with mixed results. I am so grateful now to have the budget and the time for a much more character-driven two-person cast, and I have nothing but wonderful things to say about them both. Jameelah McMillan is a true professional that has invested herself in understanding the game and how the pilot fits within it, bringing that cynical, sharp wit to life with a hint of defensiveness. Holly Lindin is a veteran from Rogue State and was such a delight to work with that we went to her first with an extremely difficult role: an AI who experiences a noticeable transformation in personality as the game progresses. Neither Jameelah nor Holly require any coaching beyond an explanation as to the context of their lines. Both almost always nail the line in the first take. I think both would be delighted to hear you think so highly of their work so far.
BR: So far the in-game manual has been superb. I know there’s a Kickstarter perk that allows a printed copy, but will we be able to buy one separately as well?
RH: Well, it’s never been discussed before now. If the demand is there, we will happily produce a printable manual for our fans to go with the game.
BR: How are you finding the Kickstarter campaign so far, and what’s been your biggest challenge?
RH: Game development is hard. Kickstarter fundraising is harder. People are loving Deep Sixed, but asking people to take time out of their day to play it is a full-time job in of itself. We plan on being a success story. We plan on getting funded. And everything we are doing this month is in support of getting the word out that Deep Sixed is fun, it’s a safe bet and it really does need your help to get funded. We are so lucky to have a great community keeping motivated (and keeping us motivated) throughout the campaign. They’ve been our cheerleaders, and our advisors, and our investors.
BR: Finally, what’s the one piece of advice you’d like to share with aspiring first-time game developers?
RH: There are so many really fun, polished, perfectly realized games out there that you will never see because they were built around the principle of “if it’s good enough, the people will come”.
If that’s your plan, you run a really big risk of losing everything you’ve worked so hard for. You need a plan from Day One as to how you’re going to build a community and promote your game. And if you’re crowdfunding, don’t expect it to bring impressions to your campaign, that has got to come from the community you have already built. I share this as somebody who is better at making games than building communities, but is learning quickly how important it is to balance the two.