Chris Picone - CSH Picone
Alex - Alersteam (Team Leader)
Interview by Chris Picone, 15 August 2020
Alersteam is one of the most promising, ambitous, and under-rated indie game developers around at the moment. They’re working on Exoplanet: First Contact, a first-person roleplaying game with similar gameplay to Fallout 3, et al., but with a Space Western setting which is reminiscent of Firefly but very much its own beast. Joining me today is Alex, the team leader, to have a chat about the influences behind the game, his experiences with Kickstarter and Early Access, and the current state of the game.
CSH: How did the studio come together? You’re scattered across the globe – your old Kickstarter page mentions Rusia, Ukraine, Germany and the UK – so there must be an interesting origin story!
Alex: Long ago I had a dream to develop a game and I began to develop an engine for it – in those times, the Unreal licence cost about $500 and Unity didn’t exist at all, at least in its current state. I made a post on Russian website Gamedev.Ru which attracted the first people who joined my team. We were very ambitious. At first, we wanted to make a vampire game in an alternative history setting: the Peter the Great era but with hackers and conspiracy theories. A cyberpunk vampire game set in the past.
We managed to create a little demo but the development was difficult; we didn’t have enough experience, it was hard to work for free and, as a result, some of the members left the team. Soon after, I was contacted by our current game designer, Alexei. He told me that he had many ideas and a couple of friends who might help. He said that if we joined our forces we could make a kick-ass game. I liked Alexei’s ambitiousness and he was a huge fan of role-playing games so I decided that it would be great to work together with him. The original team gradually dispersed. The new collective gathered but the game designer and I always stayed true to our goal. The project’s vector changed direction several times before it reached its current version.
CSH: The team’s gone through a few changes then. I think that’s a fairly common process for indie developers to go through but suspect it’s less common for them to survive it. What does the team look like now?
Alex: The current team consists of 12 people, five of which are coders. The rest are 2D and 3D designers, level designers, game/quest designers, a scriptwriter, sound designer, animator and our PR manager. We also use services of the freelancers: in VO and the development of some texts, because there are no native English speakers in our team while the game includes a lot of text content. We are very serious about the quality of the dialogues and descriptions, so we spent lots of time to properly control this matter.
CSH: You mentioned before that one of the reasons your original game fell over was because the team wasn’t experienced enough. Is the new crew a bit more weathered? Any claims to fame?
Alex: Half of the team have experience working in big companies, on single and MMO projects. Some of us have been working on mods or otherwise in the industry but outside game development. There are no “celebrities” among us, we are all just “normal guys,” united by a goal to make an interesting game.
CSH: Exoplanet has been in Early Access for a long time. Is game development a part time job or do you also work for other companies? If you have other jobs, what are they? Do they influence your work?
Alex: Some time ago we really released an Early Access version of the game and many things have happened since that time. The speed of development wasn’t very high, partly because many team members didn’t work in full time mode and the overall number of members was much less than it is now. And, as it often happens, sometimes we’ve not made the most efficient decisions.
We decided to rethink and reinvent our priorities and processes, widened the team and switched to full time development mode. All of this became possible due to support that we received after the game was released in Early Access.
Recently, we developed a brand new location that is in private testing now but soon will become available for everyone. The next, larger location, is in development now. Wid did a lot of work in development during the last year. Development significantly increased and I’m sure that soon our fans will see Exoplanet in a completely new way.
CSH: Alright, onto the game then. What can you tell us about Exoplanet’s main character?
Alex: Jack Sharp is a pretty simple guy. He is not a “chosen one” and he’s no superhero. He even has a very simple name - it just hints that he is a good shooter. Sometimes Jack can be greedy, sometimes rude, sometimes he is too empathic and sometimes he may even run from the battlefield, not giving a damn about his reputation. In the beginning of the game the player learns that he had worked as a contrabandist, but there are no details.
Despite his image being partly “defined,” in the final cut of the game you will have an opportunity to choose his background. Also, many decisions will be made by the player himself and this will form a unique character of “your own” Jack Sharp.
We are eager to give the player as much freedom as possible, to live “his own” story of Jack. And, when it comes the time to choose, the only true choice is the player’s choice.
CSH: What were some of the inspirations behind the game? The influence of Firefly is unmistakeable
Alex: In terms of setting, it’s true, we were inspired by Firefly and other works of the space opera genre. This setting is really vast and rich. Take a look at Star Wars, for example - it’s a space opera too. It’s a setting where the impossible becomes possible; adventures are more saturated and the characters’ stories can be really unique. I think it reminds each of us of his childhood days when our imagination was unleashed and we would be sitting with a friend in a living room, in a cardboard box covered with a blanket, imagining we were flying through outer space. You could be a cool cowboy wearing a stylish hat and riding boots, discover the unknown corners of the universe, investigate the conspiracy of a sinister corporation, save innocent extraterrestrial beings, or become the most notorious villain!
CSH: Has Exoplanet been influenced by any other media? Books?
We are very fond of old school science fiction: Stanislav Lem, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, sci-fi movies of the 1980s (often b-movies too). Also, Thomas Main Reid’s books about Native Americans. Jack Sharp’s personality was partly inspired by Han Solo of Star Wars and Malcolm Reynolds of Firefly.
CSH: Exoplanet has a really strong colonial theme but I couldn’t quite place the influence. The setting is clearly based on the Wild West but are there any specific
events, battles, towns, or characters from the time that influenced the game? And are the Abori modelled after American Native Indians?
Alex: We don’t refer to any exact historical events. We have explored the conquering essence of human nature: even after hundreds of years passed, despite all the new technologies, the essence remains the same. People always want to move further, seize more resources and enslave new worlds. We, the developers, don’t try to judge it, we just projected history into the future.
Of course, all of this is just a general line. If you look closer, you will see the stories of simple people and the local inhabitants of the planet, the Abori. As it happens in a real western, we are trying to show the different destinies of different beings. Corporation owners thinking only about profit, soldiers doing their duty, mercenaries who always side with whoever they can earn the most money, colonists who arrived on this planet trying to begin a new life, antigravium miners dreaming of finding a new “goldmine,” two branches of aborigine – those who accepted a new culture and those who resisted it, and bandits and gangs flourishing on a planet distant from the highly-developed worlds. Also, do not forget about the representatives of more advanced civilizations. Each faction has its own motifs to stay in this world and each has its own moral codex to follow.
CSH: I always like to explore other external factors surrounding the creative team and how those factors might have influenced the game. Does the team have any interesting hobbies?
Alex: As far as I know, our main hobbies are playing other games, whether on PC, console, or tabletop. Maybe some of the guys have other hobbies but if they do they don’t talk about them, so I don’t know for sure. We just really wanted to create an atmospheric game with an interesting storyline.
CSH: On your Kickstarter page, you mentioned that you are planning to release the game in chapters. Is that approach still the plan? What stage is it up to now?
Alex: Many things have changed. Initially we thought that it would be small chapters with ~10 hours of gameplay each, that would be released as separate games or additional chapters available as DLC. But the game turned out to be quite big and variable, thus the players will have much more than 10 hours of gameplay and the story will be finished. So it will be a full, complete game now. We are planning to develop it broadwise too, adding many side activities to the main story. Currently we have no plans to produce DLC but I think that if we ever do it, it will be completely new content with its own characters and stories.
CSH: What are you working on at the moment?
Alex: Currently we are developing the role-playing system and AI of the enemies because in the beginning they were one of the weakest elements of our game. Now we are fundamentally eager to solve these tasks because for the RPG genre these elements are one of the most important.
We are also working on support for physically correct rendering. In the last update we added the support of HDR. I have to clarify that we are not going to make a game with the most impressive graphics - this is impossible for such a small team. However, if we want to reach the necessary level of immersion, the picture should meet a certain standard. For instance, after we added HDR, we managed to make the caves really dark while the effect of eye adaptation when you enter the cave creates a very exciting sense of exploration, the intrigue of entering some new, unexplored place, creating excitement through anticipation of what you may find there.
In a word, technology for us is firstly a thing that should improve the game itself, gameplay, atmosphere and narration, but not to be a feature just for a feature.
CSH: Since you’re now creating a complete game rather than producing a story in chapters, how many total hours should we expect the full game to come out at?
Alex: I don’t want to say the exact number of hours because I don’t want to become a hostage of my own words in the future. I just want to mention that there will be much more than 10 hours of gameplay and also there will be replayability - depending on player’s decisions, many things can be done differently during each playthrough. And that’s not including the side quests and additional activities.
CSH: How was your experience with Kickstarter? Any lessons learned or tips you would pass down to other indies considering it as an option?
Alex: Since that time, both Kickstarter and our attitude to it had changed. But I think that the very core things didn’t. If you have an interesting project and a solid demo with a vertical slice or even just a video that showcases what exactly you have, you can go on Kickstarter but most likely you will not raise any funds. But it’s not important. The most important thing is that this way you can find like-minded people, fans, understand whether your idea works or not, whether there a market for it or not. Maybe you will find new partners or even investors. It’s a kind of preliminary release of your idea and a test of strength for it which is always good.
You must remember that Kickstarter itself will not give you anything. You should look at it as at the platform that provides you with an infrastructure for fundraising. All the rest is your own work. Your marketing schemes, your sleepless nights, your search for the traffic, your conversations with haters, your own tests of strength. After a Kickstarter campaign, you will never be the same.
And, yes, you have to prepare for this campaign very seriously.
CSH: What about your decision to take the game into Early Access? Was that a good decision?
Alex: Early Access release was a very important moment for us in terms of morale as well as from a financial point of view. We managed to survive and continue development.
CSH: How have you kept your audience interested through such a long production period?
Alex: We take our community very seriously, we try to read everything they write at all - not only directly to us but everywhere on the internet - and we answer their comments. Also, we often consider their feedback in development.
We think that if the developer isn’t able to establish good relationships with the fans, he probably shouldn’t make games at all. In these times, the community is actually a part of the game.
We try to be maximally transparent with the players and if someone asks us if he should buy the game in its current state if he wants to get a quality experience, we honestly tell him that he shouldn’t. But if you like the game concept and want to support the development, we would be very grateful to you!
CSH: Have any of your fans produced any cool fan art, cosplay, etc. that you’d like to share?
Alex: One of the most important things for us was the support of the community. It helped us realize that some of our decisions weren’t good and helped us correct the vector of project development. Also, fans always cheer us and increase our faith that we are really making an interesting game that people are waiting for.
Currently, we aren’t the most popular game on Steam so we can’t boast with a great lot of fan art but some people really make us happy. For example, one of the fans has developed several mods for our game which changed or improved some aspects of the gameplay. It was very pleasant and unexpected for us!
CSH: How is the timeline looking for the project at the moment? Any estimate on a release date?
Alex: I don’t want to name any exact dates. But I want to say that this year and the following one will be very interesting and exciting for our fans!
Well, I’m certainly excited for what the next year will bring. Thanks so much for your time, Alex! And your interpreter, who’s doing a terrific job. My biggest fear with any game made by non-English-natives – and even more-so when it comes to roleplaying games – is that the localisation will be managed poorly but Exoplanet’s really well done.
Links to developer/game websites:
Exoplanet: First Contact’s Steam page: