Rise of the Robots: An interview with Simon Roth creator of Maia

Posted November 5, 2012 by Richard Plant in Editorial
Ship or shoe?


Looking at the screens that you’ve been sharing as the development progresses, I’m reminded of nothing so much as Startopia, Mucky Foot’s tragically overlooked space station simulator. I’m interested to know whether you are drawing from the same pool of influences I am, or coming from a completely different direction? Can you see a line from what you’ve been reading, watching or playing to the game?

The Startopia thing embarrasses me a bit! All I knew of the game was its name, I’d never even seen a screenshot. As soon as I started showing Maia, people started popping up and comparing the two. I still haven’t got around to playing it, it wasn’t on sale anywhere for years. Now it’s out I just can’t find the time!

I’m drawing from a huge pool of films and books when I come up with things for the game. I love hard sci-fi and the difficult questions the genre raises.

Maia takes place in a procedurally generated world, opening up the possibility of endless variation in setting. Were there particular reasons that drew you to a somewhat randomised world, perhaps in terms of sheer scale? Do you think that this involves a trade-off with a more, for want of a better word “designed” experience, where players are directed to what the developer thinks are important things?

I think, for this sort of game, that its important that the players make their own stories and this means they have to be given unique worlds, where their experience is their own. This plays into the simulation aspect, where a unique world might create a certain set of circumstances that creates brand new game-play events.

There will be plenty of tightly designed components slotted into the overall procedural system. Some things you just can’t write an algorithm for and have to do by hand. Although work intensive, it helps add artistry into the world, which the players unconsciously pick up on and appreciate.

Has there been a circumstance during development where unexpected complexity has produced results that you couldn’t have predicted? Anything that’s changed your plans about how to implement features or systems?

Oh plenty. When you start hammering different simulations together the maddest things start happening. It’s pretty cool and can lead to new gameplay that would have been impossible to design. One of the most recent examples of this is the foliage on the surface level, which becomes unbalanced and grows and spreads faster than it is destroyed. So if you don’t manage it carefully you get trapped inside your colony by a dense jungle, totally unable to maintain your defences against alien critters (who move through the jungle with ease).

It’s probably inevitable that you are going to run up against comparisons to Minecraft, but where Notch’s game trades on the idea of building architecture from simple systems, Maia looks to be more about surviving – starting with a system that is complex but understandable, but becoming eventually overwhelmed. Would this be a fair way to look at the difference? Could you see Maia becoming one of those solitary pursuits that people do together, feeding off each other’s experiences?

There is definitely a lot to tie the games together. Boiling them both down to their essence, it’s about appealing to the imagination of the player and rewarding them for exercising their creativity. The higher levels of gameplay above that are, of course, very different and I think your distinction is right.

I really do hope that people start trading their experiences of the game. I discovered both Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress through reading player diaries of the games and I’m planning to deliver the same sort of personal narrative development in the gameplay of Maia.

At the moment, you’re targeting Windows and Linux platforms, is that right? Was it an important factor for you to be able to launch on the open source platform? It’s true that the Humble Bundle has reported higher average sales figures from Linux users, but have you seen a great deal of interest from penguin fanciers?

Yeah. Windows and Linux, hopefully Mac too if I can raise the funds to put together a development system for the platform.

I haven’t had a lot of interest from the Linux guys yet, but I think it’s a shamefully under supported market. In my case it’s a no-brainer, the Maia code is C++ and getting it running on the main Linux platforms won’t be too much of a problem.

The Linux supporters generally pay more, but to be honest, they can be the most demanding to support. You are looking at four mainstream distributions, with different drivers, windowing systems, file systems etc. When I worked on VVVVVV I ended up running twenty simultaneous virtual machines to test just three different distributions. It felt like something out of the Matrix.

Talking of sales decisions, I understand that you’re going to be making the alpha release available to the people who pre-order through your website. What can they reasonably expect to see in that early preview? Are you at all worried that putting out an incomplete version may turn some potential users off at this early stage?

I’m terrified of it! Especially with a deep simulation like this, you can’t just get it into a semi-working state and ship the alpha. There is no way to provide a “vertical slice” or “minimum viable product” without massively breaking or faking features. Hopefully people will accept that this isn’t a small project and accept the flaws in the alpha. With so many early alphas about I think people are becoming generally more aware of what the world “alpha” really means.

As for what it will contain, I’m not sure. I’m hoping to have basic colony design, some colonists with basic AI, a few room types, the lava and atmosphere in. The benchmark is to get 10 minutes of good playability in the first alpha.

Robot looks at dog. Dog looks at robot. End of days.

Is it still a no-brainer for indie developers to go to Kickstarter, even as it becomes clearer that backers regard their cash as a pre-order, and not the philanthropy it was originally conceived as?

I’ve warmed to Kickstarter substantially over the last year. When the site had very little traffic, there wasn’t any reason to use their system. Now, however, they get a lot of people browsing the site for projects to back. That transforms the service into a great marketing tool.

Plus, in terms of using it as a sales tool, it’s a really great deal for developers. Selling the game on the usual digital distributors would mean giving them a hefty 30-40% cut. Kickstarter is a fraction of that and still provides most the services such a distributor would. Indeed in some cases it is a lot better, for instance I get a mailing list of all the backers of the game that I can then communicate with. That’s really important to me since this game depends on having a strong community to give feedback on the development.

Last thing, what’s the next step for you? What can we expect to see in the next few months? And if readers are interested in backing the development, where should they go to get more information?

The next step is some really intense development to get us to a semi playable alpha to release in mid-January. Expect to see a lot more videos, game-play and music being released really soon. And of course there will be a funding drive imminently.

There’s plenty to see and find out on the site, but we also have a busy forum, an active twitter feed and a rapidly growing presence on Reddit. I’d definitely get on the mailing list to make sure you don’t miss any of big things that we have coming up!

About the Author

Richard Plant

Author, producer, dreamweaver… also actor. Willing to talk at length about JRPGs for food.