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Zero Point Software Interview

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The following is an interview that I conducted with Carsten Boserup from Zero Point Software in late April of 2014. They are currently working on a AAA Indie title called Interstellar Marines. It is a gorgeous upcoming first person shooter with guts and ambition. The game is currently in alpha and is available on Steam right now in early access.


I’ve been playing Interstellar Marines an awful lot recently, and I’ll be honest with you, I really can’t get enough of this game! Is there anything that you can tell these readers about what exactly Interstellar Marines is?

First of all, the concept for Interstellar Marines came about in the 90’s. The designing & development itself actually started around 2004-2005 where we had this dream of making a game called Interstellar Marines actually come true. In short, the game is about the very first Interstellar Marines program, where the best of the best soldiers from all different countries are gathered together in one training facility and are trained to react to all different kinds of threats, not just terrorism or enemy countries, but they are also tasked to intercept, or to be the first to respond to any potential alien threat. The “first-response unit”, if you will.

Outstanding! Well, I know that it’s obviously a first person shooter (having played the game myself), and, you know, you guys are an indie company working on a very large scale first person shooter. What exactly sets this one apart from all the others? I know you have Call of Duty, and Battlefield, and all these HUGE titles out there, and you guys are so small trying to go up against something so large, what exactly can make this game different from those other games?

The first thing that comes to my mind is what we are really aiming for and that is that  this game is more like a simulator than it is an “arcade” game like Call of Duty and, to some extent, Battlefield, which I consider to be a bit more tactical, more hardcore. If you compare it to those games, it really leans more towards a simulator, which is really what we are aiming for. That’s why I think we want to make a point that this game is a Sci-Fi game set in a believable future. So it’s not really gonna be “fantasy sci-fi”, it’s really just gonna be more straight forward sci-fi.

That’s really obvious when you play the game, I mean the graphics are just incredible with the lighting and the level of immersion, it’s absolutely fantastic. It really is absolutely amazing. Even the environments themselves change as you play the game. I don’t want to sit here and gush too much over it, though [laughs].

Interstellar Marines - Marines

Being as small as you are, you guys have had to have some roadblocks along the way, I mean Interstellar Marines has been in development for a long time. How have you guys stayed afloat in this time of hardship? With a title that’s this big and a team that’s so small, it’s had to be difficult, especially financially.

It’s certainly been a massive challenge. Myself, I just came on board in 2013, I was working for another company, and I came across this ambitious project [called Interstellar Marines] and I wanted to help in any way that I could. Dedication is really the keyword here, especially as indie developers and directors, we just want to see this game succeed. We’ve already played this game several times in our heads, and we want everyone to play the same game that we have. So in the end, I guess it’s just a mixture of being dedicated to what you do, mixed with some craziness [laughs], and we really just feel like the world needs this game. I don’t really mean to sound too audacious, I guess, but really it has been all about our dedication and hard work, as well as our understanding families that just back us up all the way.Family is really important, because they are really the first to sacrifice because the income just isn’t there. We lean a lot on investor money, family help, and dedication. It might sound weird that we are so ambitious with such a small team, but we’ve been working on this game for a long time, even when we went bankrupt, and there were several guys just working on the engine and just building the source code and just really being productive. As you said, there are amazing graphics in the game, and we are still only in early alpha. They’ve just been able to make things perfect. That is also reflected in our gameplay, because we release this stuff on early access and it’s all very bug-free, issue free. Not completely free, but I’d go so far as to say it’s the most bug-free game in early access today. You see a lot of games that are fully released with much greater resources than we have, they have ten times, no that doesn’t even cut it… fifty times the number of people and they have one hundred times the number of issues in their game on release.

Obviously as an indie team, working on something that’s as ambitious as this, you guys have learned a lot. What can you tell me about what you’ve learned, as far as fighting through these hardships that you are talking about, obviously family and money, and other things, these are all a huge deal to “small-time” developers, and it’s a struggle that you all go through. What can you offer to others out there who are making their own games and who might be thinking about giving up to help them continue down the path?

There are so many, it’s very hard to pick. It’s always good to keep things very realistic, which is weird coming from someone who is working on something that many would say is very un-realistic. [laughs]. But I feel that our goal is realistic, and I think that the team think’s that it’s realistic, even though we have to push ourselves to continue in development. We just have to believe in it, otherwise we will fail. Many of us aren’t people that necessarily work for money, money is just something that pays the bills, gets you a couple more trips to the city, and beers.

So the important stuff?

[Laughs] Yes, the important stuff. The main thing is that we make something that we love doing, something more real. It’s not just at work, it’s actually coming home, thinking about the game, coming up with a great idea, writing it down in the middle of the night, maybe going into the engine, finding stuff to optimize, you know? It’s really important that you see it as more of a lifestyle, as an indie game developer.

So one step at a time, basically?

Exactly. Take stuff one step at a time. In a way you have the luxury of not having people to answer to as an indie developer, and you need to take advantage of that. It can take a while to recognize your advantages as opposed to working for a big name company where they hire you for your skills, and nothing else. You are more like a tool than a person, something to be used. And some people prefer that, and that’s fine, but indie developers should really consider thinking of it as a lifestyle.

Interstellar Marines Automated Turret Kill

That’s awesome! Obviously people want to hear more about the actual game itself, so I’ll ask you some stuff about that. You guys came out with update 10 pretty recently, which was a very significant update which added crouching and jumping!

[cheers]

[laughs] It’s amazing to actually look at the game now, as opposed to what it was. What can we expect for the future in update 11, 12, and so on?

Well, you are definitely going to be seeing more weapons, you are going to see more gear, you’re going to see different kinds of ammo, you’re going to see more game modes, and many other things. You are also going to see lots of optimizations. We have been working really hard to optimize the game. For example, we have had to work a lot on levels of detail, which basically means that if you looked at a guy across the map, his weapon would have the same detail as if you were right next to it, and that can really wear down the performance, so that’s something that we really had to focus on. What we are really going for right now is we are trying to get a really sustainable multiplayer, so we want to get the multiplayer to a level where it can pretty much sustain itself and keep itself alive, but we also don’t want to release things too quickly with micro updates because we want players to always feel like they are getting a full experience. Everything is based on how the community will receive it. Everything we are working on right now is moving towards a fully functional Co-Op experience that will have up to four campaigns.

I’m glad you brought that up, because I do want to ask you: When can we expect this co-op? I am dying to play it and everyone else online is as well.

What we are hoping for, and trust me it’s something we wish we could start on right away, is that we can begin truly working on it at the end of this year. The reason I’m giving you a very vague answer is that things can change so fast. When we launched on Steam Early Access, there was myself, my co-community manager and two developers, and all we wanted was maybe just the ability to pay ourselves, just so we could live. [laughs] That soon changed completely. We sold so many copies that we could actually triple our staff! It all really comes down to are we going to release an update that really catches on to people and brings in new players, because then things can really change, I mean we are fourteen people now. That’s not just developers, but also people who reach out to the community, CEO, sales, and so on. We especially need programmers right now, though I guess that’s something you always need [laughs]. So yeah, the best answer that I can give, unless something really changes, is towards the end of this year we will really start to work on the first parts of the co-op.

Like you said, there’s thirteen people working on something this large, it’s hard to do. When you’ve got 200 people working on Skyrim and it takes them two years to make, no one bats an eye, but with a game this big with so few people things tend to take a lot longer, and some people don’t really seem to understand that.

And that’s where I want to plug a big thanks to our community, because they have been with us since the beginning, and we are getting more people every day, and they are so understanding. Trust me, it’s not every day that you can find a community that it actually this understanding and accept that you are a small team. We don’t get to send out patches every week, or month, even, and they also understand that we are people too and that we also deal with day to day stuff as well in our personal and private lives, that can also affect development.

And I’m sure that they would say “you’re welcome!” I know that comes from me. So more specifically into the game, you said that we should expect more weapons, and I actually saw the video for the assault rifle that you guys are going to be adding, can you tell me what other kinds of weapons we can expect?

So we’re gonna have all different types of weapons. We’re going to have pistols, we’re going to have shotguns, SMGs, Assault Rifles, Sniper Rifles, Grenade Launchers, and so on. All these weapons are going to have several types of attachments and optimizations. We will have different kinds of ammunition, different kinds of grenades such as EMP grenades, Shock grenades, Flashbangs, and High-Explosive grenades. As far as different types of ammunition, we already have tazer rounds because we can’t have marines killing each other in training [laughs]. We are working on different suits and armors and helmets and all kinds of different things so that you can make your marine the way you want to. This will, of course, include different perks and abilities that we don’t yet have fleshed out, but we will at a later date.

Interstellar Marines - Shark Attack

One thing that I, myself, am worried about is that right now the game is a very level playing field, with everyone using the same weapon (an SMG).

Some people like to say that it’s the most balanced game in history.

[Laughs] Yes, and it really does feel like it. One thing I want to hope, at least, is that this game doesn’t turn into a Call of Duty clone where you can just run around all the time and someone can make a certain combination of perks and attachments and they completely own the game. What are you guys trying to do to keep stuff like that from happening?

So what we are aiming for in the first campaign is to have different weapons of each type. The difference is not going to be massive, but it’s going to be enough for you to have your favorite weapon. However, it’s very important to us that we make sure you can also tell the difference between one type of weapon and another. We have many different ways of balancing these kinds of weapons. If it’s low caliber, you will have lower damage with a faster travel time, and you can manipulate different rates of fire, and many other things that you can change in order to make sure that these weapons are all very balanced. It’s something that we take very seriously, because as you said we don’t want this game to turn into a Call of Duty clone. We have worked on this game for far too long to allow it to turn into something like that. It’s very much a pride thing. We don’t want to be compared to Call of Duty. Don’t get us wrong, we respect the people who play Call of Duty and we play it quite often ourselves, but that’s just not what we want. We want our own game to be a simulator that takes place in a believable future.

And I think that part of that is what I read most recently about the new stamina system that you guys are releasing soon. Can you just tell me a little bit about that?

So, as part of the immersion, as a  marine and as a player, we want you to think about every step that you take. We want you to think about when you should crouch, when you should crawl, when you should run, soot, or lean. All of these things are important. Should you aim, or just run around? It’s something you see all the time in other shooters. You just hold shift down and run. You sprint all day long!

[laughs] Yes, that is true.

I mean damn, they are in great shape! So what we want people to think about what kind of gear they are selecting. If you select the heavy armor, it’s going to affect your stamina. If you pick the light armor, should you also take a lot of gear with you because it will slow you down. All of these things are going to be tied into how effective you can be as a marine. And all of this ties into our suppression system that will be coming soon as well. If you are being shot at, it is going to affect your stamina, which will affect your ability to aim as well. Perhaps not as intense as something you see in a game like Battlefield 3, but everything you do will tie into your stamina system. That’s part of the reason why we hadn’t release couch and jump yet because we wanted all of this to be released together because the stamina system is extremely complex. We wanted it to be all in one package, not in separate pieces. However, we surrendered to our beloved community. They wanted to crouch and jump, and they got it. We understand that those things are very basic for a lot of games, but when added to stamina, it becomes much more complicated. But we released it and made it work really well, and people have enjoyed it very much so and we are very happy about that. It may mean that we have to spend a bit more time implementing it to the system so obviously it’s going to change a bit, but we can see how it affects gameplay already.

Well, in the game industry, the customer is always right. That’s kind of how it goes. [laughs] So the last bit of questions I have for you are actually about some specifics in the single player and Co-op. I know that you said that it’s a ways down the road, and that’s just fine, but I know that there are a lot of people out there who are just really excited to get to it. In the video you have on the website, it talks about man’s first contact with other species. However, the only other species I seem to be seeing in various other pieces tend to be shark-dogs or land-sharks. Can you tell me a little more about what those are and about how they tie into the overarching story?

Of course. Well the first campaign is really going to be you training to become an Interstellar Marine, and these Landsharks are genetically manipulated to be a combination of the deadliest predators on Earth, against which you will have to fight and defend yourself.

Interstellar Marines Landshark

So, these things are technically on “our side” initially?

Yes. They are used to help complete your basic training as a Marine. Of course it will be pretty tough in the beginning against training bots, but the final levels or the final parts of your training will actually be against these Landsharks. Before that, your training will be against enemies who use various projectile weapons, but these beasts are to give you training against aliens who are more animal like in nature. So that’s what they are, really. They are also something that will be used later on an enemy planet that will allow the player to sort of “release the hounds”, so to speak. So the players can send them in, and the marines go in and clean up afterwards. That will be their primary use later in the game.

So, the Landsharks are one creature that you will encounter, but your videos mention other sorts of alien contact. Can you elaborate on these other aliens and where you may come from and where you will be fighting them?

That would actually be spoiling.

Uh-oh, okay. We don’t want to do that!

They will be something that will make the game much more interesting, because we don’t just want you fighting Landsharks, and we don’t just want you fighting training robots, or other humans. These other species should appear sometime in the second or third campaign, if I’m not mistaken.

Well, I won’t make you spill the beans before you have to. That’s about all I have for you right now, Carsten, is there anything else you want to add before I let you get back to work?

I really just want to thank the community for all of their support. They have really been there through our ups and downs and they are really the ones who keep us alive. They really help us work towards this dream called Interstellar Marines, and they really are amazing. We continue to ask, as if we haven’t asked them for enough, that they will just continue supporting us in our future endeavors.

And we are definitely going to continue the support in any way we can.

If you want to pick up Interstellar Marines for yourself, you can go to the Interstellar Marines website, or you can go on the Steam store and download one of two editions. You can buy the standard edition, or you can go the extra mile and download the Spearhead edition which comes with all kinds of extra stuff, including an in game icon showing how badass you are.
I’d like to remind the readers that this game is the work of a few people who need all the support that we can give them, so every dollar counts. The more we support them, the better the game will be. If you are a lover of not only indie games, but just video games in general, I strongly advise you check this title out. It will really be worth your while.

About John Mann

is a 22 year old student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. With a major in English and a minor in Secondary Education, he will one day teach the next generation important skills for life. His roots are in his two favorite systems, the SNES and the N64, though he plays most games on his PC. John is married and lives in Jacksonville, AR with his wife Rachel.

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