We caught up with Alexander Zubov and Clay Cameron from chock-full-of-syllables indie developer Kot-in-Action Creative Artel, which recently released top-down shooter Steel Storm: Burning Retribution on their e-shoppe, Steam, Desura, and Ubuntu Software Center.
PXOD: Tell us a little bit about yourselves and how you got involved in the gaming industry.
AZ: I began playing games on PC in 1993 as I recall. My dad took me to his work, where they had a PC with Intel 80386 CPU, loaded with such games as Dangerous Dave, Deathtrack and Wolf3D. That was in Russia and that was a pretty high end PC at that time. When I was in high school, our Computer Science teacher allowed us to play Doom on LAN and that’s when I began modding. I modified map01 for a better deathmatch experience and since then I was drawn into the modding world. I never worked in the game development field before (although I always wanted to work there) and when the indie movement began to grow, I decided that it was my time to become a game developer.
CC: I’m Clay “daemon” Cameron. I’ve been into computer games ever since I can remember as a child. I was probably 8 or 9 years old when I first got my hands on a computer. I remember having a stack of 5 1/4 disks loaded with as many 2 color games my brothers and I could get a hold of and an operating system that booted off floppy disks. I got into programming a little bit in middle school, but kind of fell out of it until 2005. One night while editing a Quake map I decided that I wanted to do more, so I set off into the Internet to find a thriving Quake modding community that is still alive and well to this day. I began to learn a bit and started writing my own mods, and then one day I ran into motorsep in IRC. He convinced me to join up with Kot-in-Action, and here we are today.
PXOD: What are some of the games Steel Storm draws inspiration from?
AZ: I have read a lot of remarks about Steel Storm reminding people about certain games. I never played those games and I have not even seen them before. I played a couple of side scrolling shmups on NES, but I don’t recall their titles. I drew my general inspiration from Konami’s Jackal (NES) and Raven’s MageSlayer (PC). However, instead of using characters and magical/urban settings, I decided to create a sci-fi game with hovertanks (yes, the player controls an advanced hovertank and not a jet or flying vehicle).
CC: Honestly I can’t say any specific games were an inspiration for Steel Storm. There are a lot of small aspects that are inspired by the library of games that I’ve played personally, but no large features were really inspired by one or two specific games. For example: the Beam Cannon and Storm Spread were obviously inspired by old side scroller games involving flying a ship through space and picking up weapon power-ups, and the CTF and DM game modes are sort of standard for most games now.
PXOD: Steel Storm was made using the DarkPlaces engine. What caused KIA to choose this engine ?
AZ: As I began experimenting with modding, I chose ID Software’s game Quake (as many other gamers did at that time). It is a perfect modding platform for all times. Quake’s source code was released under GPL license and people began adding cool features into it. With time, I learned about the Darkplaces engine (which was built upon GLQuake GPL engine). It was nothing like other engines at the time I discovered it. The engine supported Quake 3 Arena’s content, it rendered real-time lights and dynamic shadows, QuakeC scripting language, etc. Darkplaces engine is the most solid game engine out there (despite lacking some modern features and not being too fast when real-time lighting is used), it has outstanding networking code, I have a good understanding of the art pipeline and the tools, the Quake modding community has been pretty active and the engine is under the GPL license (which did not restrict commercial use of the engine). Those are the “selling” points of the technology we chose to power Steel Storm games.
CC: I have to agree 100%. The major selling point for me is the QuakeC scripting language.
PXOD: Steel Storm features a bright, cel-shaded aesthetic. How did you decide upon this look and feel?
AZ: I like the anime and manga art styles. That is one of the reason I decided to use cel-shaded aesthetic. Another reason was to cut production time. Being the only artist on the team doesn’t help productivity, when it comes to modeling highly detailed models, baking normal maps and creating beautiful life-like textures.
PXOD: What were some of the challenges Kot in Action faced in developing a game independently?
AZ: Not having enough free time to dedicate to the development process and lack of manpower were the major challenges. The game started out with two developers, one artist and one coder. I have a family and both of us held full time jobs through the course of the development. Eventually, closer to the end of the development cycle of Steel Storm: Episode 1 we had to hire a level designer to help us meet our goals.
CC: I was also still learning a lot of things about QuakeC and Darkplaces when we began, and I was just beginning to refine my way of doing things, so early development was a little slower than later development. It probably also didn’t help (time-wise) that we decided to use the engine in ways which most other modders weren’t use to and had little knowledge of, for example Client Side QuakeC or CSQC. We also discovered a lot of engine bugs along the way, which got fixed of course, but still added to dev time. I also became more and more willing to quit my current job (3 of them) on a dime’s notice as development went on. So I was kind of torn between monetary security and my desire and responsibility to finish the project.
PXOD: How has it been working with Valve through the release of SS:BR on the Steam Store?
AZ: It has been a smooth ride. Steam’s toolset is not without it’s problems, but it is very solid and is easy to understand. The support ream is responsive and knowledgeable. It has been fun.
PXOD: Your game has also come to Linux through the Ubuntu Software Centre; do you feel USC to be an appealing proposition for indie developers to tap the Linux market?
AZ: The Linux market is very fragmented. USC is a good solution for Ubuntu market. However, while Ubuntu is one of the most popular Linux distributions, it doesn’t represent the whole market. Hopefully with Desura releasing their Linux client things will change and game developers will be able to cover most of the Linux market.
PXOD: KIA released Episode 1 of Steel Storm for free to raise brand awareness before the release of Burning Retribution. How effective was this distribution and advertising method?
AZ: Yes indeed, we released Episode 1 for free to raise awareness and too see the feed back from end-user. It is hard to say if it was effective or not. Our download counter says that 310,000+ copies of Episode 1 were downloaded, we got into Top 100 for IOTY 2010 award and we won a Unigine license. However, only a small fraction of that number of downloaders bought Steel Storm: Burning Retribution. There was no way of tracking those downloaders and letting them know that the new installment of the game came out.
I am sure if we would have released Episode 1 on Steam and consequently released Burning Retribution on Steam, we would see greater success. There are [a] few exceptions to the rule, but essentially proper marketing is the key to success. I think releasing Episode 1 for free did not serve its purpose.
PXOD: What game design process did Steel Storm go through? Was it “code now, play later,” or was there a constant playtest emphasis every step of the way?
AZ: Being a small team and developing content parallel to developing the code, led us to test things as they were implemented. This way we made sure we don’t have to go back and overhaul major chunks of the game that were created a few month prior to the testing session. We had a vague design document at the beginning and didn’t have any art asset lists. I made concept art on small pieces of paper during my lunch hours at work. So we were creating things on the go, improvising throughout the whole development cycle. Looking back, I can say that it was not the right thing to do. It’s a learning process and we will try our best not to repeat the same mistakes with our next project.
CC: Being the game logic coder for this project, I have to say that I could never do a “code now, play later” type of development process, because generally when I code something, I test it immediately. I want to know if it works. The only thing that was really treated this way was the editor. I would still test all the features as they were implemented, but I didn’t want any missions that might be saved in a bad way if they were created early in development. We still had a few editor headaches, but this approach saved us a lot of time re-making missions because of a bug that’s been lurking in the shadows for months.
PXOD: Are there any future ports of the Steel Storm series planned, perhaps for consoles or other platforms?
AZ: It is incredibly hard to expand to the console market without having a publisher. Thus we have decided to stick with the PC downloadable market for a while. We are also looking forward to porting it to the mobile platforms.
PXOD: You won the Uningine competition last year, any hints on what you’ll be making with that?
AZ: No comment. We shall see what happens in the very near future.
PXOD: Thanks for your time.
Thanks for following along. Stay tuned for an upcoming giveaway of Steel Storm: Burning Retribution and our full review.