Road to Indie: A Paradox(ical) experience
By Chris King (with the help of Stephane Oury)
I had a good job, frankly the best job you could get. It was a child's dream. For ten years I worked with what I think has become the best studio in Europe, Paradox Interactive. Surrounded by a team of amazing designers, developers and games professionals, I was able to indulge two of my greatest passions: games and history. I contributed to and lead the design of some of the best games of their genre, such as Hearts of Iron, Victoria, Europa Universalis, and Crusader Kings, all while based in the amazingly beautiful city that is Stockholm, Sweden. It could not have been better. Despite all of that, I took a leap of faith.
In 2013 I left Paradox Interactive, the place I called home for a decade, to start something new and exciting. That journey began with my friend and former colleague, Pontus Aberg. The two of us teamed up to form our own business: Crispon Games. The foundation of my new studio was based around a passion of mine outside of history: Science Fiction. I wanted to try and reconcile my love for this genre that I acquired during my childhood while watching Science Fiction TV shows, reading SciFi novels, and playing games with SciFi themes.
This central idea is the foundation of Crispon Games and how our first game, Galactic Inheritors, came to be. The original Galactic Civilizations by Stardock pioneered the 4X strategy genre and stands out as a true example of what can be achieved. Knowing this and having an appreciation for that type of game, we wanted to build upon that respect and admiration and go back to the basics and design a game that speaks true to what 4X strategy games mean. With Galactic Civilizations, we also looked to Master of Orion, another amazing 4X Science Fiction strategy game released way back in 1993. It focuses on galactic diplomacy, conquest and colonization of alien planets. It inspired us to build upon by adding additional layers of gameplay depth that we felt would speak to a contemporary and highly sophisticated gaming audience.
But before we could pursue the actual development of Galactic Inheritors, Pontus and I first had to put all of the business basics together, the niceties that neither of us had to worry about as designers and employees of a studio. As Crispon Games' founders, we had to first start the company, think about financing, pay the bills, rent desks, purchase equipment, and complete all of the paperwork involved with starting a business. This part takes a lot of time, and I wouldn't say that it was exactly fun. It was an educational experience, however, and felt very rewarding in the end. Being based in Sweden also helps us as entrepreneurs thanks to a government that understands the needs of startups. It's no wonder Sweden is home to so many world-class developers!
After all of the business set up aspects were settled, we finally got started on what our real job was supposed to be: designing and developing a game! As a small studio, we had to start making decisions that we never considered when we had worked in larger, more structured environments with bigger teams. One of our first questions to ourselves involved a basic but important part of Galactic Inheritors' development, an industry old dilemma: to code in C++ or Python? We opted for neither, because in a small team, good old C# is better and faster for development and to build iterations.
Paradox Interactive has laser-focused Quality Assurance, and both Pontus and I share this focus. But extensive QA is a challenge for a small team as it can be very time-consuming and often the multi-hat wearing team can get tunnel vision and miss things that an outsider with fresh eyes would not. As a result of this, we pursued a test-driven development approach, embedding QA in our design and development process from the start. This approach is a big change from what we were used to when working for a larger team with established responsibility and roles, and it came with its own challenges, but it's greatly satisfying when implemented correctly.
During our quality tests and checks, we had to ensure that each piece of game logic had an automated test associated with it, to verify if it was working as intended. Our test-driven development approach ultimately saved us precious time, something we as a small team gain a lot of value from. This also allowed us to enrich aspects of the game more efficiently, keeping us focused on a very pure and uncluttered design for Galactic Inheritors.
Overreaching and trying to do too much is one of the easiest traps to fall into as a game developer, so we were very ruthless in our design. We had to ensure that we were designing a deep gameplay experience for the 4X strategy purists. A lot of ideas that may have looked good on paper were deeply scrutinized. We classified ideas as either potential features to be added later or what we called “false-good” ideas that needed to be scrapped. This is one of the things you learn as a game designer.
At the start of a project you have a pen of cows that you gradually have to slaughter as the project goes on. Ideas that look good on paper but ultimately distract from a game's objectives and experience need to be discarded in order to deliver a stronger and more focused gameplay experience. This essential process is even more important in a startup game developer because you want to focus on your players and your game's roadmap, not waste time or resources investing in ideas that will take away from the experience. Having a game has set goals and sees the light of day, so that it can be tested in the free market is extremely important.
After two years of start-up experience as Crispon Games, we will soon be releasing Galactic Inheritors as an Early Access title on Steam. The game will, of course, not be perfect at the time of its Early Access release. But we are confident that we've developed the foundation of an excellent 4X SciFi strategy game designed for fans of the genre and core gamers. Our extensive development roadmap also promises that Galactic Inheritors will become better, deeper and more exciting over time.