Over the past week, TechRaptor has had the chance to interview a game developer many of you know for other reasons. Lost sometimes in his involvement in GamerGate, Slade Villena, aka Roguestar, is an indie dev working on a game called FleetCOMM which is currently on Kickstarter seeking funding for a PS4 port. We took the chance to talk with him via email about his game, the way the various Kickstarters have gone for him and the gaming industry as the primary focuses.
FleetCOMM is a space squadron based tactical shooter that was originally crowdfunded way back in 2012 that has had some tumultuous times that we are able to discuss with Slade throughout the interview. It was recently greenlit and has a demo findable via its Kickstarter page.
TR: Introduce yourself for everyone and what you're working on these days.
Slade: My name is Slade Villena, a former artilleryman in the USMC turned game engine programmer. I'm part of FleetCOMM, a tactical squadron space shooter coming to Steam (recently Greenlit)
TR: Can you explain the Codex that FleetCOMM uses and why you believe it is revolutionary for RTS games?
Slade: The Codex tactical tool in FleetCOMM is basically a maneuver generator (for now, designed for 2D combat).
Not just for RTS; I believe the applications for these kinds of player augmenting tools can fit well in MOBA as well. Even for Shmups. Very few games are exploring this kind of mechanic, some people may find a bit of mechanical similarity to Transistors maneuvering system.
By opening up that space, exploring custom built maneuvers, I believe we can advance 2D gaming combat, and allow gamers to experiment with combat flow they haven't experienced (let's be fair about it, most RTS and MOBA control schemes inherit from 15-20 years of the traditional controls like Diablo, Dune 2, or Warcraft).
Most online PVP games revolve around "point and click" controls and APM dexterity. Controlling multiple units is often "blob" combat; hard to wield, and the difficulty of controlling multiple units escalates as you gain more units. The Codex tool allows for maneuvers controlling multiple units, each maneuver bound to 1 key. So in a sense, the Codex tool "economizes" actions-per-minute.
For now, FleetCOMM explores this in a single player space. Eventually, I'll move this kind of system to an online PVP arena.
TR: What is the difference between the Codex and something like a Macro system, or is it merely a better organized and set up way of doing that?
Slade: Most macro systems are hard to wield, and I'm not limiting that to shooters; mmos like FFXI have complex macro systems. Most macro systems are also text based. Editing them isn't as intuitive.
The FleetCOMM Codex system allows for a visual interface, and also allows gamers to see their maneuvers executed and edited in real time.
TR: While you talk about it some in one of your kickstarter posts, originally FleetCOMM was backed with the idea that it would have online play. To any backers who are disappointed by that removal, what would be your response?
Slade: I'm preparing FleetCOMM to be shipped out as a single player game for now. I do plan to continue its development for multiplayer in the near future, and hopefully I have enough sales/funding to allow for that possibility.
In all cases, I'm already going to double my backers rewards on FleetCOMM, everyone who bought a "OmniPass" (basically like a season pass for games, except its for all sequels to FleetCOMM) will get 2 omnipasses, and everyone who bought the game reward will be upgraded to an Omnipass.
Its not really a "removal" of the feature, more like a failure point.
The FleetCOMM project will continue to pursue a multiplayer version, unfortunately, it will have to be delayed to a future game sequel.
The inclusion of FleetCOMMs networking hook also had technical risks I could not afford at this time. FleetCOMMs Codex system, as well as its maneuvering design introduced compelling network security issues, particularly with players exchanging Codex data with a server.
This was one of the biggest flaws in the earliest proposals for FleetCOMMs kickstarter. The engine created new features for combat maneuvering, while also introducing network security problems that I haven't seen in most game engines.
Postponing FleetCOMMs multiplayer aspect was 50% because of network security concerns; the last thing I'd want is to endanger gamers with my lack of netsec resources (consider that FleetCOMM only has 1 primary programmer).
TR: Beyond the Codex, what do you believe helps FleetCOMM stand out among many space shooters?
Slade: Most real time shooters operate in the context of "one ship/hero/character", and it's been traditionally effective in the genre. I wanted to challenge gamers by having them control multiple units. (In the current FleetCOMM beta, 5 combat drones capped for each squadron, I'm thinking I can bump that up if testing permits)
Turn based combat games excel in multi-character control, the success of RPGs, turn-based tactics games, and "Civ" games show this. However, when it comes to real time combat games, very few examples show up. Controlling and moving as a squadron of units has been rarely explored for real time combat. As of this writing, I can only think of RTSs that allow you to control a "blob" of units.
Overall, exploration in multi-character control is something needing a boost in combat games.
TR: For a tactical squadron game, why did you choose to go with real time over turn based?
Slade: In the context of FleetCOMM, its actually my fault why it didn't end up as a turn-based tactical game.
The original goal of the project was to be a PVP+CoOp game executed in real time. Due to a lack of funds + staff, the project settled for a single player game instead. And with that, FleetCOMM executes in 2d real time.
It is technically possible turn FleetCOMM into a blend of turn-based action + real time combat. Frozen Synapse explores this kind of system very well. Also, FleetCOMM was primarily developed on a PC, a keyboard allowed me to have more controls over a squadron in real time.
If FleetCOMM gains enough funding for a tablet port (Android or iOS), the limited control scheme on those systems will demand a turn-based tactical system, similar to Frozen Synapse. At the moment, FleetCOMM is focusing on its PC release first.
TR: You mention keyboard being a key goal to the control right now, and how you would adapt to mobile, but how do you plan on adapting to the lesser number of input keys of Consoles?
Slade: Just going by the numbers.
There are 11 major keybindings in FleetCOMM, 2 of those are for squadron movement (speed up, speed down), the rest are combat and auxiliary systems.
A PS4 dualstick controller has 8 major buttons (4 left hand, 4 right hand), and 2 triggers on each hand.
Much of the navigation setup, if I go to a PS4 devkit, will be moved for a similar configuration to twin stick shooters, along with bindings for any button on a PS4. The mouse module in FleetCOMM PC really just aims the pointer on screen, so thats a trivial binding.
All in all, a PS4 entire button space will be mapped to FleetCOMM, since it already fits.
TR: During the development of FleetCom there was a long period where you went without discussing anything or posting updates. What happened, and why did you not update stuff during that time period?
Slade: Blunt answer, we ran out of fuel to develop FleetCOMM during 2013.
We had a major falling out in the team, and I was forced to go on job hunts. FleetCOMM had an attempt for a second round of funding in DEC 2012, which failed spectacularly. (Lesson learned, don't try to crowdfund during Christmas). Overall, combination of lack of funding and "real life" problems contributed to loss of moral in FleetCOMMS dev team.
Much of the engine was in shambles during that time, and I was struggling to put it back together. There was also a lot of financial stress with all team members at the time, not just myself. Overall, we had to go dark until we could show a better game. FleetCOMM has had its mistakes, but my team never let those mistakes bury the project for good. I can honestly say, during that time, FleetCOMM was barely on life support as a project.
My team literally had to revive it close to death in 2014.
Our funding for FleetCOMM was seed funding, about 18k US$ for 6 guys, that funding lasted us about 1 summer, and parts of fall, to get the project bootstrapped in 2012. We were gunning for a beta version of the game around late 2012, early 2013. However, there were a lot of internal complications that stressed out the team. One particular issue was money to keep the project going.
The funds were enough to get all major art assets and music assets complete, however, the kind of product we were seeing once it all fell into place wasn't as good as we wanted it to be.
When our second round of funding failed, it was a severe blow to the teams morale. We turned into "volunteer your time" kind of project. The lack of updates on that end was my fault, and failure. Most of my team hate going on social media, and hate being "visible".
Why the lack of updates? Because we weren't comfortable showing broken pieces of work. That, and I was the only programmer left on the team, trying to juggle software engineering, while managing 5 other people where FleetCOMM is their first serious game project.
2013 wasn't a good year for FleetCOMM overall.
We survived it though, and made it better during 2014, starting with this post: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/mercenary-games/vigrior-maneuver-warfare/posts/624410, since this time, especially after stabilizing the engine + seeing more volunteer work finish off, we were more confident in pushing more updates to our backers.
For us it isn't really about the lack of funding; our team is fairly conscious of presenting our work. All of us are in this constant fear of putting out a substandard game.
The current demo speaks for our progress, and getting greenlit on Steam proves my teams commitment.
TR: You are now running your third Kickstarter for the game, your first got it originally funded and started, your second failed and now you are running one to port it. Why do you believe that people should continue to back your game when no final product has come out and they have already supported it?
Slade: This deserves a very detailed answer, because it is something that I actually talked to Kickstarter staff about in person. What people don't realize about Kickstarter projects; there are some that do "multi-stage" funding. During PAX 2012, I approached the Kickstarter staff during a panel and asked specifically about the topic of "going on multiple kickstarter runs for the same project".
1.) On the topic of Kickstarter projects going on multiple funding rounds.
Their common reply during the KS panel at PAX was "just ask the backers and start the project".
"Go for it."
This upcoming Kickstarter for FleetCOMM features a playable demo, in our first kickstarter, we had a combat prototype. I would not have gone up with another KS otherwise, I wanted to show the games progress live, so people can see for themselves, it's not just a bunch of fancy videos with power point mock-ups.
Another thing people don't see too often is how open I am about game development itself. Every success/failure point in FleetCOMM is actually reflected in most private game companies. Projects are pitched out to managers, higher ups, and project leads ask for a time allocation and X number of funds/staff/resources. Some projects don't even advance in the funding stage, or are developed and scrapped altogether.
With crowdfunded game projects, however, all project mistakes are visible. The FleetCOMM project isn't afraid to show our failure points, we want to be honest with gamers after all. In this context, the FleetCOMM project treats the gaming public as the higher-ups and investors. It's not a "final product" as of yet. However, the project is in it's final phases of development.
The project shows its merits by being recently greenlit on Steam, and the demo being widely available on Linux, Windows and Mac. 2.) On the topic of marketing.
My team will never be "gamedev rockstars"; we don't really have the kind of reach most established studios have. We also don't have access to private investment. We don't have an advertising budget (or for that matter, an actual budget :P)
Crowdfunding is one of the few options my team to gain fuel for the project, and raise awareness for our product.
For us, this 3rd major round for FleetCOMM funding isn't just to score fuel for a PS4 dev-kit, its also showing our product off before we launch on Steam.
3.) Why we chose Kickstarter for "pre-release" funding round.
Best detailed on this image, explained on kickstarter.fleetcomm.net
TR: From what you're saying, multiple rounds of Kickstarter were always the plan for FleetCOMM ?
The option for multiple rounds of funding was discussed after we consulted with Kickstarter staff during a panel in PAX 2012 (late August that year), this was after we were funded on Kickstarter in May 2012.
If the panel/KS staff said there were concerns with multiple rounds of funding, we would not have pursued it.
However, since we were asking for seed-funding levels (less than 30k), I felt it was a good fit for my small team > keep iterating the project on our own time and pursue a Kickstarter when the time is right. The precedent set with other Kickstarter projects (not just games), along with frugal goals (I'm not asking beyond 100k and such) made it less of an issue.
And again, this isn't really different from what actually happens in the gamedev world, its just more open.
TR: What did you learn from your first two Kickstarter attempts that you have been able to use this time?
Slade: A.) One Word : Marketing.
I suck at it, lol.
Really, I'm just a gamedev programmer. I literally had to train up on pitching and making videos. I found it easier to just talk to gamers via forums or twitter, but 1-to-1 talks are time consuming.
I also learned that it's extremely difficult to crowdfund a "low profile" project. My team isn't composed of "gamedev rockstars", which limits our visibility.
Also, in our first 2 attempts, we didn't have access to Twitter, Facebook, and went on Reddit only a couple of times. A few online publications picked us up in 2012, but overall, our first KS only got 450+ backers.
Again, we're not high profile, and we're still learning how to expand our visibility. We don't want to depend on Kotaku/Polygon/RPS and other sketchy gaming sites for visibility, and would rather find gamers interested in FleetCOMM directly.
B.) Playable Prototypes/Demos are extremely helpful
I don't think FleetCOMM would have gotten this far without prototypes and demos. The project has never wanted the stigma of being a "fancy pitch on powerpoint". We want to be super-honest with gamers, since there's a lot of high profile Kickstarters that have been pitched out, looking nice on paper and video.
Overall, having demos and prototypes shows our teams commitment, and we hope to give the gaming investor more confidence by showing our products development state.
C.) Make a Thunderclap.
https://www.thunderclap.it/projects/22079-fleetcomm-steam-kickstarter < I'll let this speak for itself. If you want to be visible, you MUST make a Thunderclap for your game project.
D.) Avoid physical rewards as much as possible.
I'll be extremely blunt about myself on FleetCOMM; I'm glad we didn't fuck it up with physical rewards. We have a few art-packages needed to deliver to backers (about 2 dozen), but the majority of our rewards for FleetCOMM are digital in nature.
Shirts/mugs/miniatures cost money, time, shipping, and take away from actual costs of development. I'm extremely glad I alleviated that risk.
E.) Never give up.
This isn't just about the past 2 Kickstarter, or even FleetCOMM literally almost getting cancelled. This is about pride in game development.
I've seen too many Kickstarter either 1.) under deliver on wildly pitched expectations, while their funding exceeds 100k US$ or 2.) Kickstarters that just outright abandon their project and leave the backers in the dust.
Crowdfunding IS a revolutionary market, and it still is despite the many high profile projects out there failing.
Unfortunately, everything bad about game development is now publicly open if you ever crowdfund. The fact is; everything you see is *exactly* what happens in the games industry; it used to be hidden behind meetings, closed doors, and private companies. Now its seen by all gamers.
We do hope people see the efforts made by out team in keeping FleetCOMM alive, and we're heading to Steam when its time to release.
TR: How do you think people seeing more of the innards of game development due to crowdfunding and early access will affect the industry going forward?
Slade: A. Maturity and responsibility on ALL sides of gamedev.
Gamers are grown up folks now, not just a niche pocket of society at large. Gamers occupy professional fields, academia, and even government institutions.
Despite many blunders in Early Access (Spacebase DF9 as an example), and highly underwhelming deliveries ("Broken" Age is an example), the models for crowdfunding are actually highly beneficial to student projects, independent+homebew and "Double A / AA" studios.
It's only been 5 years since Crowdfunding became a market phenomenon, over time, if it does stick around, you'll see gamers become gaming investors.
B. Clickbait + Outrage Culture intensifying
I hate to bring up senior gamedevs like Peter Molyneaux into the negative context, but in his case, I think opening up game development also allows yellow journalism to push their agenda and allows for corrupt bloggers to smear and slander gamedevs careers and legacies.
Opening up gamedev means opening up the mistakes. These mistakes can get magnified under the lens of "Trial via Social Media", an unfortunate trend in online outrage culture.
TR: What is the difference between working with a big firm like Zynga and a small team like your current one ?
Slade: $. Dosh. Money. Resources. Game Philosophy.
Zynga definitely had a huge coffer. It was a game company, during my time in it, that could make *any* kind of game project if it wanted to.
Unfortunately, Zynga was tied to Facebook at the time. "Social Games" was the media darling.
However there's these aspects that I have with my current team;
It's what keeps FleetCOMM going.
On a personal note: during FleetCOMMs first Kickstarter in 2012, we had an extremely generous backer ($3000+) who contributed anonymously. Later after funding, I found out that the backer was estranged family that wanted to reconnect with me. On that, FleetCOMM became something personal, and allowed me to reconnect with family life.
TR: I saw that in your updates - its a wonderful story there - do you care to tell us a bit more about that whole situation regarding your family member?
Slade: I'm afraid to "over share" this actually. :)
But I'll give you the cliffnotes, and it isn't really that dramatic.
I became estranged with parts of my family when I left the Marines and headed for university life. After having a stint with Zynga (and then leaving), I didn't really have much options in terms of work, so pursuing the FleetCOMM project was one of the few things I had being a game developer.
FleetCOMMs first Kickstarter was seen by a family member. When it reached 9000, that family member decided to contribute her sunday bingo winnings (about 3000) anonymously.
After we got funded, I saw her name pop up in the payments feed, and decided to reconnect.
TR: Do you believe that your position as being an outspoken voice of GamerGate will cause issues in FleetCOMM getting coverage or sales?
Slade: On the topic of coverage in gaming sites; absolutely.
I already have a history of being "outspoken" on game development itself. Just google "Zynga Reddit Mercenary", and you'll find an AMA I did in 2012. That AMA turned into clickbait material for many sites, apparently its a "big deal" if a programmer decides to be candid about game development.
GamerGate has myriads of corruption scandals that were exposed. Myself, along with a few anonymous gamers compiled all our research on the Polytron/IGF/Indiecade collusion here: http://roguestarslade.tumblr.com/post/104633458705/a-call-for-reformation-to-all-independent-game
My association to being one of the leads of FleetCOMM will definitely be dragged because of my involvement in gamergate, as well as crossing industry-insiders in 2012.
I'll even include conversations with senior game developers who've flat out called me a terrorist because of my involvement in GamerGate
Overall, I explored a lot of contentious topics, and continue to be very vocal and candid on twitter about GG. Many of these topics I talk about expose people deeply connected to games sites and politically motivated gamedevs.
Additionally if you scroll through this archive, you'll see FleetCOMM was once listed as an IGDA curation: https://web.archive.org/web/20121113113407/http://www.kickstarter.com/pages/igda
If you remember the heated times in #GamerGate, IGDA actually blacklisted FleetCOMM with their "harassment resources" list. The @FleetCOMM twitter account was actually part of "a list of known internet harassers"
This was the GGAutoblocker, it added @FleetCOMM because of my involvement in #GamerGate
I have since then requested the IGDA to remove FleetCOMM from their curations on Kickstarter, and no longer want any involvement with their corrupt organization.
I do not expect a fair word from them; nor do I ever want it.
I came into the games industry expecting a challenge, and also expecting fair competition. All I've seen so far, post GamerGate, is a deeply connected set of people colluding with each other, against their peers.
After GamerGate, I want no part of these peoples business; whether they are gamedevs, investors, or publications.
Getting "covered" by them will be a fucking insult to thousands of independent gamedevs worldwide, struggling to get a fair word with gamers.
As for FleetCOMMs sales, that's up to gamers themselves. I will however, share some data that's enlightening, and shows FleetCOMMs reach and potential for sales. Included is our data from google analytics.
However, most of FleetCOMMs traffic during its Steam Greenlight phase, came from direct sources and Steam itself. I would guess that half of these people have never heard of FleetCOMM before.
Overall, FleetCOMM stands on its own merits, with or without GamerGate, and I am confident in saying its sales reflect the same.
TR: On that, does it worry you how much power steam has with where it puts games on its market place to decide the fate of game developers?
Slade: All game devs have their "fate" tied to the major platforms .
And at the same time, platforms fates are tied to gamedevs.
I've been hearing rumors about the Greenlight system on Steam. Some devs in my network say its getting phased out, others are saying its a permanent thing (a very contentious topic in my own circles).
Letting gamers decide what kind of novel projects get pushed out was the true wildcard, since the floodgates of crowdfunding were opened.
And it's a rightful evolution. Gamers *should* be connected to means of investing on risky projects. They *should* see what fails, what works, and who to fund.
Overall, the game developer is always in control of their fate. But now, the platforms and the gamers have equal means to match what a game developer provides.
TR: So we've mostly avoided it so far, but I guess we should give you a chance to say what everyone is expecting here. Can you share your thoughts with us in general on Gamer Gate?
Slade: I want to share how FleetCOMM itself was affected by GamerGate, even though it was a project that had nothing to do with it. And I also want to clear the air about my involvement, on a more personal level.
Initially, I started in GamerGate in pseudonym "RogueStar", a small time gamedev, just talking with "CameraLady" on the IRC channels, investigating the Polytron documents linking it to IGF/Indiecade finance collusion + ethics breaches.
My IRC handle "RogueStar" is registered, connected to an email account that names me.
Chelsea VanValkenberg/Zoe Quinn then published some "expose" of IRC logs, some contained and highlighted candid comments from my handle on IRC.
One week later, GamerGate detractors started calling gamers "cyber terrorists". Especially after the Polytron hack, which I do NOT condone in any way. This was around AUG+SEP 2014.
During that time period, there were cracking attempts aimed at my personal/business emails, bank accounts, online accounts, and even my artists emails suffered multiple cracking attempts. I've received several mildly-credible death threats (4/10 on the danger scale, because some of them named my residence address, and even threatened my family and friends). All of these however, I have resolved and secured.
There were also attempts to steal FleetCOMMs source code (resolved and secured)
And for what exactly? Because I got involved with anonymous gamers, investigating some leaked data that #GameJournoPros refused to investigate?
Due to those events, one of my artists no longer wants to be named in FleetCOMMs release credits, and wants to be credited via pseudonym. Not necessarily because he was involved or has a stance on GamerGate, but he felt threatened for his personal safety, and he's also too close to the "indie scene". I'm the only one in FleetCOMM that actively partakes in GG discussion, the rest of my team focuses on FleetCOMM.
Because of this, FleetCOMM is now a Pro-GamerGate project.
We condemn harassment, and support exposing corruption, collusion and censorship in games media. We condemn the threats made against our project and our team, and fully support all gamers who want to clean up gaming spaces.
1 day after FleetCOMM got greenlit on Steam, there were numerous attempts to break into the Steam account controlling the Greenlight page, as well as another attack on my personal emails and bank accounts. All of them were secured, and no threats exist at this time.
TR: What actions did you take on death threats that came in and for those who receive them what would you suggest doing?
Slade: A. I didn't broadcast the death threats via social media. I informed the authorities, informed my family. That's pretty much it. I come from a military background, so personal defense is a way of life. Along with these death threats were online security risks. The usual fare : passwords-unreadable-to-humans, 2 factor authentication. This wasn't "news worthy"; twitter / facebook / blogger sites weren't the first point of contact when it happened, my family was more important.
A1 : Buy a weapon for self defense. It doesn't have to be a rifle/pistol. Train with it. You'll feel a lot safer by doing so.
B. Stop clicking on every goddamn thing in the browser, lol.... This is how people find your residence addresses, IP addresses, phone numbers, housing records.
C. Get VPN, unlimited band. It's 5$ a month for most services, and its worth the security it provides.
D. Call your Congressman. Discuss with them the issue of militarized police forces, and how they overreact to "SWATting" threats.
E. Work out. Fight in a gym/dojo. The more you train yourself, the better you'll feel that you can defend yourself.
F. You're only as much of a "victim" as you allow yourself. Clickbait con artists like Brianna Wu, Zoey Quinn/Chelsea Van Valkenburg aren't "victims" online threats, let alone credible threats. These people make money and influence from pursuing a "harassment" and "victimhood" fiction with their media connections. It derails the REAL issue of online cybermobs, and cyber security, which everyone should be practicing.
G. People who "shitpost" at you on twitter, call you names, or even post funny meme-edits on your timeline, blog, facebook, does not constitute as a "threat" or even come close to REAL harassment. If you really think this way; get over yourself, grow some thick skin, and read this :
Answering an article on TechRaptor about death threats made to me and those close to me isn't "broadcasting" it. The exact details about those threats will remain private (in fact, a majority of these threats have already been resolved, and I'm capable of protecting myself and my family). Exposing the details of certain online trolls only feeds the trolls.
I will however, broadcast the response I have made, which isn't news worthy on its own, its just plain common sense. TR: Anything else you'd care to share?
Slade: FleetCOMM is actively looking for testers on Linux, Windows and Mac.
You can all reach us on Twitter or Steam.
We'd like to thank Slade for sitting down with us today and if you want to find out more check out his Kickstarter!