Steven Peeler has been developing RPGs as Soldak Entertainment for 13 years now. From his first title Depths of Peril up to last year's Zombasite, you always know you're playing a Soldak game right away. He manages to cram a great deal of depth and innovation into a compact file size.
We talked to him about his design philosophy and the things that have changed for indie developers over the years.
What's your approach to game design? All of your games are quite similar except for one or two prominent features, such as different settings, the zombie parasite in Zombasite, or a more goal-oriented approach in Din's Curse. Are you starting with specific features in mind that would make the new title stand out, or is it just a matter of experimentation and iteration until you have found something you're happy with?
My design approach is actually a combination of those two things. First, I come up with a few key ideas that makes the game unique from other games in the industry and our own previous games. These are basically the ideas that everything else builds on. Then I write up a relatively short design document. This document fleshes out the key ideas a bit more, adds a lot of smaller details and ideas, and basically is my overall direction for the game.
This essentially becomes my initial todo list for the project. The rest of the project is like you said experimenting and iteration where I'm implementing items from my todo list, play testing, adding new ideas from my play testing, adding ideas from the rest of the team and external testers, removing items from the list that no longer fits or are no longer feasible, and then repeating these last few steps until I'm happy with the game.
Your games feature a dynamic world where things are happening even without any player input and non-player characters are, in fact, treated like actual characters with their own motivations. You have explored this quite a bit already, but do you think this can be further expanded upon, leading to even more emergent gameplay?
I definitely think we still have room to expand on the dynamic world ideas. In every game of ours, that had a dynamic world, we have added new possible outcomes, given entities in the world more tools to work with, and made it more clear the cause and effect of things that happen. I don't see this changing anytime soon.
How would the perfect Soldak game play?
I think in the perfect Soldak game you would be constantly surprised by what could happen or a specific sequence of events even after playing hundreds of hours.
Has one of your games ever surprised you?
Oh, sure. Usually it is something like I'll rescue an NPC while distracted by something else and they will betray me by setting up an ambush. Things like that will momentarily surprise me. Of course, I know what is possible, so it's not a complete surprise.
However, every once in a while there is some interaction of the different systems that makes something happen that leaves me completely baffled. Like right now you can launch projectiles at your NPCs in Zombasite and they will usually move out of the way of the projectile. I have my suspicions, but I'm not quite sure why they do that.
One aspect of your games that is constantly being criticized is their graphics. Do you feel that they hold your games back in terms of commercial success, or are there enough customers more interested in mechanics than in eye candy?
I'm sure we would sell more copies of our games if they had better graphics. However, I'm not sure Soldak would survive spending a lot more money. It's basically a gamble that could make the company much more successful or bankrupt us.
There are many gamers out there that care more about gameplay than eye candy. It has been a struggle over the years getting their attention though.
Speaking of struggling: you've been selling your games directly from your website for quite some time. How do your games on Steam and other portals fare in comparison? Is it still possible to be a successful indie developer that way, or do you think that you'll eventually need to change your approach due to the changing landscape of digital distribution?
Where we sell our games has definitely changed over the years. In our first few years, nearly half of our sales were direct, we managed to get a few small retail publishing deals, and Steam was pretty big, but not huge. Now days, Steam has gobbled up a huge chunk of the digital game distribution market including a lot of our direct sales.
Except for Kivi's Underworld we've always managed to get our games on Steam, so while there has been a large shift of where our sales come from, it hasn't really changed much. If we ever fail to get a game on Steam or Steam decides to abuse their market position, we will have more trouble than we would have in the past though.
How hard has it been to get press coverage? I know you're still doing your own PR, and with the flood of press releases we get each day, I can imagine that this is increasingly difficult.
It has definitely gotten a lot harder to get press coverage the last few years for small indies. There are just so many games coming out, it's difficult to cut through the noise especially if you are like me and would much rather focus on actually making games instead of marketing.
I noticed that there have been quite a few Youtube channels that covered Zombasite. Is this the future of game coverage?
I'm not sure I would call YouTube channels the future of game coverage, but they are certainly becoming an important part. The most annoying part of this is that every time we release something, we get tons of emails from people pretending to be some big YouTuber, but they are just someone scamming developers for free keys. It's usually not hard, but it's a pain to wade through these for legitimate YouTubers...
How would you rank your own games? Which ones do you consider successful in terms of your own personal development experience, which ones were harder to make?
I pretty much always think the latest game is our best. Kivi's Underworld was the only exception to that (I think Depths of Peril was better). I think with all of our games we have successfully created something that is quite unique in the marketplace. Our games might not sell a ton of units or compete graphically with some games, but there really aren't any other games quite like ours.
Most of our games were harder than the others in some manner. With Depths of Peril, I built the entire engine from scratch (this is before Unreal & Unity were options). With Din's Curse, I put in a lot of work and experimenting into expanding the dynamic world aspects so that the world evolves based on what the player does and what the other entities in the world do.
With Drox Operative, we created our first and only space based action RPG. It was quite a bit of work to figure out what would still work and what new things we needed to do to fit that setting. And finally our latest game, Zombasite, is our most ambitious game to date and contains systems from all of our previous games and a few new systems. Getting everything to work together was a big challenge.
What's next for Soldak? I reckon you're working on your next title already?
We are now working on 2 different projects at once since they overlap a bit. The first is going to be an expansion for Zombasite. I can't say a whole lot yet, but there is about to be a large uprising in the Zombasite world. Will it be for good or bad?
The other project is going to be a separate game that is focused around the ideas of hardcore characters with random skills and traits, the next generation of character is evolved from his/her parents, and each world has a random setup and win conditions.