I first picked up survival RPG NEO Scavenger from a Humble Weekly Sale in 2014. After a few hours playing, I regretted not paying full price for it, even if it was still in Early Access. When the mobile version came out in 2017, I made a point of picking it up day-one, full price. Having spent over a hundred hours on the Steam version, and a few dozen more on the mobile version, I have to say I’m definitely a fan. Back in February, the developer Blue Bottle Games announced Ostraunauts, a spaceship-life sim set in the same universe as NEO Scavenger. I reached out to Daniel Fedor to talk about the upcoming game and his story as a solo developer.
Life at BioWareBefore founding Blue Bottle Games, Fedor was a BioWare employee for seven years. He started as Technical Artist on an internal engine project (possibly the Eclipse Engine), before advancing to Lead Technical Artist in Dragon Age: Origins. He was also Art Lead for the Dragon Age: Origins console ports. “Mostly tech art and managerial stuff on the art pipeline,” he said. “They just made me sound cooler than I was.” He was already on the pre-production team of Dragon Age II when he requested to switch onto a smaller, experimental project, which required a producer rather than a technical artist, so he switched roles and cities, moving to the new BioWare Montreal studio. This was in 2009.
This experimental project never saw daylight, and Fedor was then rolled into the Mass Effect 3 team as a producer, “mostly on the multiplayer component.” At this point, he was already preparing to leave BioWare. His particular contributions to BioWare games don’t have much glamour to them: “I did manage to have a hand in some cool facial rigging and animation tools for the Dragon Age animation team. A lot of asset standardization and optimization stuff. Mesh exporting tools. Those sorts of things.” However, some of his best work never saw release, and there’s a glimpse of what-could-have-been:
In terms of stuff I'm most proud of, I confess that a lot of what I worked on never made the cut in BioWare. A cloth sim for cloaks in Dragon Age: Origins, hair mesh and materials, a GUI editing system… I even pitched a game to Ray [Muzyka] and Greg [Zeschuk] [founders of BioWare and producers of Baldur’s Gate] at one point. [...] And some giant piles of hay. If you're in Dragon Age: Origins and pass a giant pile of hay, there may be some of my mesh/material stuff in there.
Nonetheless, Fedor considers the experience at BioWare invaluable: “I'd say it taught me a lot about asset pipelines, managing projects, business analysis, and a little bit about everything that goes into a game. That, and how important team cohesion is.” All of which would most likely come in handy as a solo developer. It was in 2011, a day before the North American release of Dragon Age II, that Fedor announced he was Going Rogue:
It's 8am. Monday. In five minutes, I will begin my morning routine for work. It's a routine I've had, in one form or another, at one employer or another, for almost 12 years.
In five weeks, I am leaving my job. I'm leaving a salary; leaving security; leaving the halls of one of the most respected game development houses in the world. I'm leaving, so that I can start building the games of my dreams.
It was hard pulling the trigger on this one. Was now the right time? Should I wait a bit longer? Save a bit more? Like many crossroads in life, when faced with a difficult decision, I turned to the wisdom of those I deeply respect:
Truth is, it may never be the right time. I could always save more. I could always prepare more. But right now, I've got a couple years saved up. I have no mortgage; no children; no student loans. I have engaging ideas I'm ready to try.
Rogue StateThe Game Dev Gone Rogue blog went from March 2011 to September 2013, and it covered every possible aspect of game design and indie development in bi-weekly updates. It’s a compelling read for any aspiring or budding indie developer, or even for anyone looking to break into the industry in some capacity. As he looks back on it in 2019, Fedor still has a lot to say on the transition from his role at BioWare to his adventure in solo development. He told us about it with a bird's eye view of the industry at the time:
I was just getting tired of big-budget, big-team, multi-year projects. I wanted more creative influence, and more hands-on time with actual game development. A lot of what I did at BioWare was supporting creators, not creating directly.Fedor’s “allergy” to high burn rates also compelled him to stay away from crowdfunding, which was particularly popular around 2012-14, when he developed NEO Scavenger. At the time, titles inspired by old-school games, such as Pillars of Eternity and Wasteland 2, managed to raise millions of dollars in successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaigns. There were dozens of other minor indie games that jumped on the bandwagon and also managed to achieve modest amounts of funding. Fedor recalls the period with sobriety:
Don't get me wrong. Supporting those teams was cool. I mean, I was there 7 years, after all! And some of my closest friendships are from BioWare. But I just needed a change. I was burning out.
Taking the indie plunge was terrifying. Especially financially. But emotionally, it was exhilarating at first. It was a huge weight lifted, and I really had to reign myself in from noodling endlessly on everything I could think of. (I still do, frankly.)
Over time, that exhilaration started to ebb and flow along with trepidation, as the game's strengths and weaknesses were discovered, and the business evolved. It was still a net positive, overall. But not without its stress.
The design and business philosophy you linked to was indeed there from the start. I love games that focus on role-playing, exploration, customization, problem solving, and story. So I naturally wanted to work on them.
The business philosophy part was a mix of my own personality, and a bit of reacting to current events of the time. I was more interested in making good (or at least, interesting) games than I was in getting rich. And certain business practices really bugged me.
Farmville, for example, was still pretty big at the time, and the predatory mechanics bothered me. Things like sucking you back in all the time, incentive to spam and rope-in friends who may not otherwise be interested, and lack of spending controls for folks with addictive/compulsive behaviors.
DRM seemed like both a waste of time and potential for annoying customers, so that was out. Ads seem antithetical to immersion, so I avoid those, too.
Seeing how quickly money gets spent at a AAA studio also made me allergic to high burn rates. I wanted the absolute minimum burn rate I could manage. I wanted plenty of runway to make the right game, and not be forced to compromise the game vision.
And finally, I just wanted people to love the games I made, and their worlds. I wanted the games to be a sort of RPG core book from which they could continue having their own adventures, sharing with others.
Kickstarter was all the rage at the time. And I think NEO Scavenger would've been a bit different had I gone that route. Probably the biggest reason I didn't, however, was twofold.In a Game Dev Gone Rogue blog, he also admitted to another benefit of self-funding: “The buck stops with me. It's my dime, so I call all the shots. I like knowing nobody can step in mid-project and say, ‘We've decided you should make a knock-off of game X, because that has started monetizing well. Forget about your original idea. Creativity and soul are expensive. And risky.’ Nope! With self-funding, I'm the captain. I seek the fortune. I set the destination. I make the rules. I keep her afloat. And if I screw up, I go down with the ship.”
First, I was terrified of taking people's money without having something to offer in return immediately. It's stressful enough to be burning one's own savings on a gamble that might not pay off. Doing it with thousands of others' money? Jesus. I'd probably have a stroke.
But it was also a very different game landscape at the time. Flash was a viable ecosystem for making games. It wasn't unusual to make a mid-four-figure sponsorship on a Flash portal, and residual income after that. And that on games which were typically developed over months, not years.
NEO Scavenger was originally to be a 3-month project, to be shopped around to sponsors on portals, with the aim at making maybe $5-15k. Then I'd start the cycle again.
6 months later, I was starting to realize I had something more like a premium game than a free portal game. And more than a few other devs had managed to launch Flash games on their own sites with a paywall. Maybe I could, too?
So I ended up sort of doing the middle thing: I beta-funded development of the game. That way, folks got their hands on something *now*, but the extra funds would give me more runway to expand on the game. I even did three tiers for those who wanted more. The highest included a limited, hand-written postcard from me, sealed with a kiss.
The first 200 postcards all had that lipstick, and man, was I over that before long. Even just writing a personal note on each card was hard enough!
I also had voting points for sale on the site, and each tier came with different amounts. Players could use these to vote on which feature they wanted next, from a list I had up on a special, members-only poll. That actually worked out pretty well.
I still don't think I'd do a Kickstarter-style campaign. At least, not for a whole game. Maybe for a feature or expansion. Something like Patreon might actually be an interesting alternative. Just work diligently on stuff as long as people are funding it, and stop when they are not. I don't know if I could support my family on that, though.
Helming the ShipIt was this creative freedom that animated the development of NEO Scavenger from the very start. It’s a remarkably deep setting for a solo indie title, with a lot of allusions to classic post-apocalyptic and cyberpunk settings, and a lot of storyline threads that the player can choose to follow or not. Nothing is ever explained, and unraveling the full story of the protagonist Philip Kindred might take multiple playthroughs, not accounting for many gruesome deaths at the hands of weird creatures and other predators. Fedor talks about the worldbuilding and design as an obsessive but invigorating creative process:
Before I wrote any code, I had a spreadsheet which read more like a wishlist of stuff I wanted possible in the world. Cybernetics, ruined cities, supernatural creatures, ultra-urban megacities, horror elements...you know, typical stuff held over from my adolescence.Based on what we’ve seen so far in the announcement teaser, Ostranauts will not only follow in the footsteps of NEO Scavenger as a game in the same setting, but it will also walk the fine line between casual and hardcore. These are games that can be played in short bursts, in the background while you do something else, yet still also brutally punishing if you’re not paying close attention. Fedor says that, while real-time, Ostranauts was developed with the same mold of gameplay in mind, inspired by some of the best management indie games available.
I did a bunch of additional madman ramblings in various Google docs, and even some code prototyping. I forget who it was, but someone (several people, I'm thinking) reminded me I still hadn't written out a plan. So I took a step back to get a hold on things.
And I'm proud to say, most of that still rings true. I think the "Solving Encounters" bit is one of the biggest cuts I made to that doc. After trying to make encounters respond intelligently to any possible input, I had to give up. There were just too many permutations for me to manage. I had to prescribe all possible paths manually. (Something which would later burn me when it came time to think about localization. Soooo much text.)
As for worldbuilding that was sacrificed, it's...a lot. When you're making a game, you have a wishlist of stuff you want in it. And you'd expect that wishlist to grow shorter as you knock-off each item.
But what really happens is that each item reveals more items that would work really well with that thing. Or completely new ideas that you can't believe you didn't consider before? The reality is that wishlist is longer when you finish than when you start. That goes for both content and features.
Fortunately, NEO Scavenger did well enough that I could start a second game. And by keeping that game in the same universe, but in a different location, I'm able to pilfer ideas from that wishlist, and strengthen both games by expanding their shared setting.
I love games that let me play at my own pace. Especially now that I have a family, I can't just sit there at the computer for long stretches. If my toddler knocks over a glass of milk, I'm not going to let it pool and seep through floorboards while I wait for the next checkpoint. That game's getting dropped right then and there so I can save my kitchen.
So I'd like Ostranauts to keep that leisurely level of impact on players' lives. Pause and walk away when you need to. Save and quit. Come back anytime you want.
I'm sticking with real-time for now because that seems most natural for a team-based management sim. Most of the games I'd look to as exemplars of the genre (Prison Architect, The Sims, Rimworld, FTL, Dwarf Fortress) are done that way. It's what people are going to be familiar with.
If, for some reason, real-time with pause and fast-forward doesn't seem to be working out, I don't have anything against turn-based games. (Obviously.) But I want to see how it feels before I undo all this work.
As for the game being brutally punishing if you don't pay attention, of course! I love games where details matter, so I tend to make mine like that, too.
Working Class Science FictionThe name Ostranauts can be read as a portmanteau of "ostracized" and ‘"astronauts," which Fedor confirms. “There are a few layers to that name, but that's pretty much it. These are misfit astronauts.” There’s also a rather obscure connection to the world of NEO Scavenger: “Keen NEO Scavenger players will also recognize the word root ‘ostra’ from ‘New Earth Ostracon,’ which played a significant role in the lore. An ostracon is a potsherd used by archaeologists to piece together clues about an event or site. Ostraca were also used in ancient Greece when voting to have a member of society exiled, or ‘ostracized.’”
It’s this depth of layers and meanings that made NEO Scavenger’s lore special, and it looks like Fedor is doubling down on it for Ostranauts. “Given that Earth has been cut-off from the rest of the System in Ostranauts,” he said, “you could interpret this as crew exploring a System in exile from Earth, as well as clues about the New Earth Ostracon. I'm totally overloading that name with too many meanings, and it's almost silly. But I can't resist wordplay!”
Ostranauts has a broad baggage of influences. Watching the teaser, I couldn’t help but think of The Expanse, probably the hottest science fiction IP out there right now. Fedor confirmed it: “The Expanse is definitely one influence, as are Firefly, Cowboy Bebop, and Alien(s). Games like Prison Architect, Rimworld, FTL, and The Sims are also influences. Reaching further back, games like Frontier: Elite II, Game Designers' Workshop's Traveller RPG, Shadowrun, Rifts, and World of Darkness games have always been favorites.” You can expect other connections with NEO Scavenger as well:
And of course, I want Ostranauts to continue the tradition of gritty realism mixed with sci-horror from NEO Scavenger.
Local myths will still play a role, too. Dogmen may not make the leap from Michigan to Mars, but there are plenty of things to go bump in the night up there.
Perhaps one difference this time is a sense of "comfort amidst an uncaring universe" on one's ship. Your ship is your home. Your crew is your family. Pools of warm light in the cold, blue expanse.
In NEO Scavenger, you were all alone, and had no real companions. This was as much a technical limitation as a design choice.
However, a lot of what made Ostranauts's influences, shows like Firefly, Expanse, or Cowboy Bebop, so endearing was the characters and their relationships. If I can capture even a sliver of that, I'll be thrilled.
I think Unity allows me to do a lot that I couldn't in Flash with the Flixel engine, so there's a pretty big difference this time around. Even just the fact that it's a desktop app first and foremost, instead of me trying to wrangle a web technology onto desktop. I can save games to the file system, instead of browser cookies!Those who follow the Blue Bottle Games news section already know that there’s a lot of transparency to his development process. He often includes screenshots and lot of detail to his updates. He finds this is a necessity to advance into a project, but there are also limits to how much players and fellow developers can influence the process. That said, we can expect an Early Access period for Ostranauts at some point.
And it's true I've learned a few things since making NEO Scavenger. I can't say I'll be perfect this time around, but I'm hoping to have improved. One big difference is that I have years of feedback in mind already, so I can anticipate pain points in gameplay and UI that I might not have before.
I do try to be as transparent as I can. I find mismatched expectations can really kill experiences. I also welcome feedback as I go, because I can't see and know everything. Often players and other devs can help hone the design in ways I would've missed without their input.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Obzyhk4GpYo
That said, it's very important to stop short of design by committee. It's better to have the game communicate a strong vision, so people offer advice that applies to that vision. Otherwise, you might get feedback about a different game than what you're making.
Early Access actually dovetails into that process really well. Assuming the game is playable when it becomes available, people can sort of see where you're going with it. So they can offer suggestions that enhance that experience, instead of blindly offering ideas.
I do plan to do Early Access, but I want to wait for the game to speak for itself a bit more. It's not quite there yet. Once it's hard to put down because fun stuff keeps happening, I think it'll be ripe for Early Access.
A New IndustryIt cannot be overstated how much the industry has changed since NEO Scavenger first appeared in Early Access on Steam. Valve has since retired Steam Greenlight and introduced Steam Direct. The current PC digital distribution platform wars are raging on. Hundreds of indie developers are porting their games to the Nintendo Switch. Fedor realizes that the change is enormous, but remains optimistic. I also wanted to know if he intends to remain a solo developer for good, or if he ever saw himself growing into a team effort.
Yeah, the landscape has definitely shifted! And I feel a bit like Blue Bottle Games is always late to the party with these sea changes.Whether he remains a solo developer or hires a couple other developers to help with the heavy lifting, Fedor will keep making Blue Bottle Games into an indie powerhouse. I have no doubt that Ostranauts will live up to the legacy of NEO Scavenger, a highly intricate and dense game, even with its technical limitations. It had a sense of player agency that anything is possible if you can find a way around it. If you imagine it, you can craft it, and use it as a tool for your survival. This sense of player agency is what sets the gaming medium apart in my view, and I believe that Ostranauts is made from the same mold.
NEO Scavenger on Flash had web portals yanked from under me, and then Flash died a slow death. I was too late for the pre-Greenlight gravy train everyone talks about. Bundles peaked in revenue before I could participate. Always a day late with me!
That said, BBG does have a fairly loyal core following. They've been really supportive about Ostranauts, and I feel it'll find an audience.
Will BBG grow? It's hard to say. I still don't like the idea of having a team relying on the next game to keep them alive. The pressure to make money usually kills my creativity. I'd rather be moderately successful and making games I love, than rich and churning out games I'm supposed to be making.
But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't lonely. I sit alone in my office, day in and day out, tapping away at oversized projects I have no business making. I'd love colleagues. Especially ones who had both the talent to elevate the game, and the enthusiasm to make collaborating fun.
I've dabbled in contracting other devs here and there, usually for smaller tasks. And so far, that's been really good. Enough that I'm more seriously considering my options in terms of scaling-up.
I think it'd still be relatively small, though. Even with a team, I think having a few talented and excited devs is probably the ideal setup.
Ostranauts is slated for a late 2019 release. You can wishlist it on Steam, and follow it on Twitter (and also Daniel Fedor). You can also pick up NEO Scavenger directly from the Blue Bottle Games website, on Steam and GOG, or on Android and iOS.