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Road To The IGF: Vision Videogames'  SpaceStationSim

Road To The IGF: Vision Videogames' SpaceStationSim

October 6, 2006 | By Alistair Wallis

October 6, 2006 | By Alistair Wallis
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Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants, today’s interview is with Bill Mueller of Vision Videogames, developers of SpaceStationSim.

SpaceStationSim has been developed over a 5 year period, utilising a team of over 20 people, as well as over 30 contributors from NASA. Of the game itself, the company comment:

”Create your own International Space Station and CREW! Build your own ISS with real Modules and cool Components. Get up close and personal, managing up to six astronauts while they live, work and play in space. But watch out for that bumbling Space Tourist! He just might crash your ship!”

We caught up with Mueller via email, and asked him about the game, and its entry in the IGF.

What is your background in the games industry?

I have a 30 year history in professional audio and video production with multiple Grammy nominations, TEC awards, and Monitor Awards. In the 80's I edited audio and video presentations for Microprose products like Railroad Tycoon, F15 Strike Eagle and others. My game playing experience goes back to pounding quarters into Asteroids machines on breaks in rock and roll clubs.

When was Vision Videogames formed?

In 2000, I sat on the board of directors of The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, an international non profit organization that treats brain injured children all over the world. In the capacity of Vice Chairman of that board I met Hideo Morita, the son of Akio Morita, the founder of Sony Corporation. Mr. Morita asked me to create a video game company to help support the non profit work of the Institutes. He offered to loan the company seed money to create the game through his holding company in Japan.

I submitted a business plan and after its approval in 2001, we began the process of hiring staff and creating game design ideas. We hired Noah Falstein as a design consultant. We worked on the game until early 2004 at which time, Mr. Morita's holding company was unable to continue with us. I then bought the company assets of Gentle Revolution Software and continued on with Vision Videogames, LLC and a smaller crew. This is our first title.

What inspired SpaceStationSim, and why did you decide to make it?

Being an independent, non profit child-oriented company, we could not very well build a first person shooter, so our choices of game designs needed to be very creative. I hated virtually every non violent "edutainment" product I had seen for the last ten years and wanted no part of building another Reader Rabbit.

My wife and I are very successful home schooling parents to four sons and I have twenty five years of educational experience. I was an educator of college level audio and video vocational courses and had created the entire curriculum for The Sheffield Institute for the Recording Arts. We both knew that if software was to be instructive, it would first have to be lots of fun.

I came up with a number of game concepts, always trying to be as efficient as possible. One idea I had was to create a series of Rescuer Games designed around a first person shooter engine like Quake or Doom. Instead of running down halls shooting people, we would run down halls rescuing them from fires, earthquakes and floods.

While in a board meeting discussing these ideas, another board member, Dr. Ralph Peligra (Chief Medical Officer NASA Ames Research Center) suggested that we make an International Space Station rescue game utilizing the NASA X-38 as an escape vehicle. I thought that NASA might not get behind the concept of a game built around disaster at the ISS. Another board member, Phillip Bond - a holder of the world record for memorization - suggested that we build a Sims type game aboard the ISS. We all thought it was a great idea and off we went.

What were your expectations from your game, and do you feel the end product lives up to those expectations?

I have always worked with the top tier musicians (Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, etc.) in the industry, and my expectations are stratospheric. The demands I place on myself and my staff are extreme. It has taken five years and more blood sweat and tears than I ever imagined, but the game is finally up to most of my expectations. That is not to say that the game is fully complete. We intend to continue to make it better and better, but I am very proud if our accomplishments. SpaceStationSim is the first video game in history to be certified by the Space Foundation as a Space Inspiration product.

What do you think the most interesting thing about your game is?

I am a believer in a musical concept of satisfaction and surprise. When you get the balance right, you have a hit. Too much satisfaction and you have disco or Muzak. Too much surprise and you have noise.

SpaceStationSim is satisfying in that it is built on a concept of creation, cooperation and care, like the most successful PC game in history. SpaceStationSim is also full of surprises. It takes place in a unique micro environment, the International Space Station, in the most uninhabitable place in the universe, open space. It portrays humanity's greatest attempted project, long term life in micro gravity.

The ISS is the foundation of the colonization of other planets. It is the place from where man will either take to the stars or collapse back to the wars, strife and ecological morass of Earth. It may be the only hope for mankind to survive it's own undoing.

SpaceStationSim give the player the opportunity to take part in that process, to understand what it takes to live in space and feel a sense of ownership and pride in the most forward looking agency to ever exist in any county in the history of man, NASA.

How long did development take?

It took us 18 months to acquire a Space Act Agreement from NASA. Total development time is approaching five years.

What has the development process been like?

Five years on any project is a lifetime of work. We have gone through entire team changes and luckily, the best have come at the middle and end of the process and not the beginning. Hiring staff through game employment agencies is a mistake I will never make again. Brilliant programmers are as rare as moon dust, and Greg Beauchesne is a stone cold genius. All through the process though, I have stuck to the original concept. Always trying to be more clever, to get more bang for the buck, to improve graphic quality, to improve on what had gone before.

What's the game's target audience? Space Review called the game a "contemporary space program-themed computer games for kids" - is this accurate?

The only thing I have issue with that description is the word "kids". This is not a kid game in the usual sense of the word. It is more a 12 to adult game for people who either like to build things, or are interested in space exploration.

NASA gets 18 billion hits a year on their web site. The single most requested improvements requested on the feedback forms is BETTER NASA TYPE GAMES. These requests come in at the rate of around 1,000,000 per month! The audience of space loving individuals is out there and we hope to give them something more to their liking than Star Trek or Star Wars.

What do you think of the state of independent development, and how do you think independent games fit into the industry?

I have never been impressed with the intelligence level of publisher reps. I have had reps play a year old disc and give us odd feedback when the new disc was sitting on their desk. The popular opinion regarding the slump in game sales is players waiting for the PS3. I think that is unbelievably egotistical on the part of the industry and even harder times are right around the corner.

I believe the slump in the industry is due to a lack of Creativity and Originality. Good game play will bring a new audience, better graphics will only bring in the 5% of players who give a damn about pixel count. Pixel count is not game play. Games are bloodier and bloodier because the designers are getting more and more boring and less and less creative. There are of course bright spots, but overall the games industry appears to me to be very similar to the music industry in the late 70's. Disco dominated the scene and eventually the entire industry collapsed, leaving grunge and hip hop to climb out of the basement and dominate for thirty years.

Have you checked out any of the other IGF games?

No, I don't get out much as you can imagine.

Which recent indie games do you admire, and which recent mainstream titles do you admire, and why?

Civilization IV and Katamari Damacy. After I finish this game, I intend to play other peoples games, enjoy music, talk to my kids and breath fresh air. I am going to go on vacation, swim in three oceans, sing in a band and sleep late.

Do you have any messages for your fellow contestants or fans of the IGF?

I will say the same thing I have always told my audio and video students; only do this if you cannot see yourself doing something else in life.


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