Developer Interview: Xander Davis on Astrogun, Indie Potential and the Wii U
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
"Gamers are dreamers, I think we all care deeply about realizing the dream"
Earlier this summer a story that caught the imagination of the Nintendo Life community revolved around Xander Davis, an independent developer that declared himself to be a Wii U believer — he'd previously dismissed the system prior to its launch. It was a case of going hands on with the system and its concept changing his perspective, and he was then further won over when he discovered the supportive policies in place for Wii U eShop publishing.
Soon after Davis confirmed that his studio , Astrogun would be bringing its next project to the Wii U eShop — Project CIDER, which was described as a "Mythic Sci-Fi Action-Adventure Game"; Davis explained to us how excited he was to be publishing on a Nintendo system.
The kid in me is so thrilled to be making a game for a major Nintendo console that I dug up all my Nintendo Powers from 1988 onward and have been pouring over them for inspiration. It's a good feeling, and I think that's already making its way into the game design. I'm fulltime developing Project CIDER now, and the next few months are especially going to be very intense with a lot of rapid development. It's a very exciting time.
We've now caught up with Davis once again to get an update on the project's progress, and in this detailed interview we also discuss his views on the wider games industry and the increasingly important role of 'Indie' developers.
Nintendo Life: First of all, can you introduce yourself and Astrogun to our readers?
Xander Davis: Astrogun is an independent studio that's been really going through some evolution in its first two years now, to the point that I'm really interested in it being an art studio that produces video games, other interactive short works, and even client commissions. I'm also exploring helping other indie game studios in an agency model and producing stock assets. I've been working in graphic design and digital media for over a decade now, in the games industry for half a decade, the latter with an odd sense of jet-set alienation. Every time I'm onto the next gig, movers would come to my place wherever that is that year, pack up for me, and within hours I'd be on a flight to a whole new city and state for a whole new client. The industry is volatile, but that volatility seems to be culminating now in eversion.
When I founded Astrogun in 2012, a week later Ouya was announced and the idea of indies developing consoles games for the living room was unheard of. How distant a time before that now seems. Fast-forward to the end of summer 2013, and self-publishing for indies is the new normal for every next-gen console, almost as much as it is for iOS, but we're all waiting for it to kick-off. In that time, I've been working at triple-A studios and ramping up Astrogun at night, two fulltime jobs really: the day-job that pays and the moonlighting that I pay for the privilege of doing. It's always been that way with me and my various endeavors, beyond Astrogun where they all seem to be converging and finding its voice. This year alone, I've focused the studio in different phases and disciplines: on game development, virtual reality with the Oculus Rift, cinematic digital comics, independent film, original music, and now Project CIDER. In that time, no one really knew what was going to happen for the next-gen and, as if things were falling into place to an almost absurd degree, all major consoles can now be playgrounds for us as creators, even platforms that break video games out of game territory and further into realtime art. Profound possibilities.
I've never actually met any of my team members; we're a post-geographical studio. It's one of the ways we're very far ahead of the triple-A industry, but they'll catch up with us eventually. I found my team over the cloud, we do all of our work at Astrogun entirely over the cloud, and the team is fluidly shifting as we fluidly shift among our projects. So maybe I won't have to jet-set so much to do digital work, which is an obvious inevitability of production. With this and the rapidly changing industry, we really are in a new era that, in the coming years, will look nothing like the past, and Astrogun is meant to know and define that.
NL: You attracted plenty of attention when you expressed your new-found enthusiasm for the Wii U earlier in the year. Can you summarise how the system changed your initial perceptions earlier this summer?
XD: There's an undeniable magic to Nintendo that overrides the black and white, cold, and even bleak outlook a lot of people have about some of Nintendo's recent choices, an outlook I was quick to fall into as well. Almost everything I've been outspoken about on Nintendo's future and the Wii U has indeed more or less happened, and I don't regret having those positions. I was obviously too brash about them, but it was frustration. But it's like, 'okay, now what?' Is it better to roll up your sleeves and get involved, do something about it, be part of something? In the end, it's that heart that will keep Nintendo going, and it's their heart in their games that pulled me back to them and their platforms.
Maybe it's Pavlovian, but when I bought the Wii U and held the GamePad and watched the screen glow with the Nintendo logo, I got that warm fuzzy Nintendo magic feeling again. That magic I grew up with since NES. It's there in the Wii U and will be there in the games that come out for it. Nintendo competing in a nuclear arms race in the console wars isn't entirely necessary anymore to make effective experiences, and I think Nintendo was just one generation too early in that assumption before. Now it's much less about graphics and more about experiences. The industry in general seems to have a communications problem in the last few years. It's having trouble explaining its own magic to the fans that want it, which should in fact be the easiest thing for them. Apparently, then, that magic will be best explained by what matter most: the games.
NL: As an Indie studio, how aware were you of Nintendo's eShop publishing policies before becoming registered as a Wii U developer?
XD: So much industry gossip was exploding around the next-gen consoles and revolutionary concepts like Ouya, the Oculus Rift, and Steam Box every day last year that it kind of got lost in noise. I heard of it, but wanted to see what was going to happen next, waiting for all the cards to finally get laid out on the table. Now that the dust has settled, and in part thanks to Nintendo reaching out to us, these opportunities are clear. It's taking a long time to ramp up, because game development takes a long time. There's so much of it from so many different directions spilling out constantly now that it's easy to forget that, but an individual game, especially a good one, can take a long time to nurture and develop into something that has true impact.
I don't see it as a coincidence that both Microsoft and Sony have seemed to match what Nintendo has offered to indies, and Nintendo deserves a lot of credit here for extending such an olive branch.
NL: As a follow up, what are your thoughts on these policies, and how are they in relation to other platforms of which you're familiar?
XD: I don't see it as a coincidence that both Microsoft and Sony have seemed to match what Nintendo has offered to indies, and Nintendo deserves a lot of credit here for extending such an olive branch, to have that kind of insight. Nintendo's terms and programs are phenomenal. The only thing that's missing is that all consumer consoles should be firmware-updatable to become devkits for free. I actually tweeted that Microsoft has to do this after a damning Edge cover over the Xbox One vs. the PS4 was unveiled earlier this year. After Mattrick left, they did exactly that. Not that they're listening to us, or maybe they finally are. Maybe they now see how listening is actually important. But it's so obvious a thing to do, since iOS, I think all console holders should be doing it.
In the end, the fact that all three major console holders have open arms to indies now is really a correct identification of where the industry is moving anyway, that it's turning inside out. After E3, it seems Microsoft especially did an about-face on their indie policies, full-stop. Sony perhaps best set the tone for how important indies are going to be in the new generation at E3 this year, and now it seems all three of them have begun to generally offer the same kinds of programs and terms. To me, it always seemed inevitable, but to be honest, I'm a little surprised it happened so quickly with enormous companies like these. It's a good sign these kinds of things are happening.
NL: The crux of your previous turnaround with the Wii U was that you confirmed Project CIDER for the system. Can you summarise the concept for any readers that may not know much about it?
XD: A lot of it is still in early development: Project CIDER is only three months old and I am its sole developer right now. I've completed the prototype, gameplay vertical slice, and am now into art vertical slice for a demo, where I'll be ramping up an art team here soon. So for that scale, I think it's going tremendously fast, but there's a long road ahead. The prototype that I built in a week and showed on YouTube used temp assets, so really none of the IP had been developed at that point, intentionally. I just wanted to make sure it was fun, and then I'd craft one around that.
In CIDER, a young boy and his friends use ancient machines to zip around a galaxy of worlds, uncovering an interstellar mystery and cult surrounding an evil consciousness growing inside the galactic black hole center. You play a young boy living in an ancient human colony on the Moon, the last bastion of humanity. He dreams of being an explorer, like his parents, until they went missing in a recent expedition in the lunar caverns. Earth has been destroyed for thousands of years, hanging beyond the artificial blue sky of the domed colony in broken chunks, and the reasons for this have fallen into myth, nearly all but forgotten. This is what his parents were onto. When your classmate who is also part of the Astronomy Academy has detected a signal from the center of the galaxy leading down below the lunar surface, she asks you to help her on an expedition of her own. From there, the discovery of ancient teleportation machines sets you both off on an epic adventure to not only find your parents and return them home, but to eventually realize the fate of the entire galaxy may be in your hands.
NL: What would you say have been some of the biggest sources of inspiration for this title?
XD: Project CIDER is in many ways my next-gen cover song and remix of Chrono Trigger and Zelda: A Link to the Past. It was important for me to capture that childhood sense of wonder I had when playing those games growing up. I played my heart out of A Link to the Past during a summer between school years, and have kept playing it ever since. When I saw Chrono Trigger in Nintendo Power for the first time, it immediately captured me. There was the picture of Crono in a flying time machine with a girlfriend and his anthropomorphic frog pal. I mean, what's not to get here?! It was immediately awesome.
We were cancelled from school that month due to massive snow up in the Midwest, where I grew up. Instead of staying in, I grabbed my snow suit and a shovel and I trudged door to door asking to shovel driveways. By sundown, I came back with my face half-frozen, frost in my eye brows, my mitten fist clenching enough cash to ask my parents to drive me to the store so I could buy Chrono Trigger. It's that. That's what I'm trying to hone in on and infuse into Project CIDER. What was it about those games that got me so into their worlds and their sense of adventure? How did it capture wonder so well? Why is it that, years and years later, these are still my favorite games of all time? I realize it's incredibly ambitious to try to make my own kind of Chrono Trigger or A Link to the Past, foolish even, but game development takes so much time and dedication, it might as well have a foundation in something you have that much passion for.
The key that is now increasingly important to me as I develop CIDER is finding ways to push its design into new territory. The original prototype was subtitled 'Zelda on Crack', which described the fast-paced intensity I wanted to craft into the gameplay. I grew up so involved in Final Fantasy games of the 90's, good 'ol Squaresoft. JRPGs now are so menu-based and tedious these days, with such awkward storytelling sensibilities, that I wanted to make something like 'a JRPG without all the JRPG bullshit'. I wanted to get that genre back to its roots and then find new ways to crank it to 11.
NL: How has development and, in particular, the team progressed and expanded over the past few months?
XD: I have been fulltime with Astrogun most of this year now, and CIDER has come a long way for a few months. Developing it entirely on my own has been a challenge, and I'm living on my savings, so I don't have the resources to hire contractors like I was doing with an earlier project. However, there's been a great response from past team members about getting involved. They see how I focused on game mechanics first and really put all my energies on putting together an actual game prototype as the top priority, first. There's something concrete to go on now; it isn't just ideas. They see it shaping up and its potential and they've offered to help. I'm even getting people looking to get started in game development and simply build experience and credits, so I've been staffing up on interns too. Last week, I just added four fresh 3D modeling and animation graduates from England to the team, and am getting a plan together for assignments now. Astrogun is very bootstrap, but it allows us to be in control of the project and the creativity. There's a lot of good-will in the open collaboration for this project right now, so it's exciting. It's also surprising; I didn't think I could build a team without funding, but they can see what this is, and they want to be a part of it.
NL: Are there plans to utilise any Wii U-specific functions for this title, either in the likes of Miiverse or the GamePad's control options?
XD: CIDER is the type of game that can play on any platform well, so there's a lot of thinking about getting it out there to everything. I'd be more interested in coming up with smaller projects in parallel that try more artistic approaches with interactive development. A smaller project might find ways to explore and leverage the screen for very specific reasons to do things that could never be done without it. I don't want to tell you yes about CIDER, because Chrono Trigger or A Link to the Past didn't need any of the Wii U's unique features to become classics, so those features won't be there just for the sake of it. If we can discover a good enough reason for it, then great. If not, maybe we'll find a reason for a whole new, smaller project that explores this more directly.
NL: As a "Mythic Sci-Fi Action Adventure Game", will this be a fairly lengthy experience, or perhaps short and focused?
XD: This is something I'm experimenting with now in the design. My first instinct is to say, yes, this will be a huge epic adventure. However, as a small team, this would mean we'll be making fans wait a long time for it. So are there new, better ways to approach this, to tell that kind of story? Episodic? Vignettes? I've seen very short games that have provided amazingly engaging stories or experiences in 15 minutes with low-poly art. Are there ways to break apart the CIDER experience into puzzle pieces that create a broader and more satisfying tapestry than showing all of it in one longer game? Like releasing singles instead of an album, and each single hits very different notes. Because of the Internet as a massive and always-accessible archive of everything, creative works are kind of a continuum now, aren't they? Looking for innovations in how we even tell stories so that they make sense to us as a small creative production shop could result in something actually more engaging to us as creators, as gamers, and as global pop culture.
NL: You're currently working towards a demo and you've mentioned plans for an early-access dev build on PC. How far along would you say the project is, and do you have a ballpark release window yet?
XD: I initially thought to just release the original prototype from June and deploy free updates to existing customers. That way, the game would start generating a cash-flow to support us, it would grow over time, and then naturally draw more people in, a snowball effect. I like the idea of this model a lot, because it's more casual. I think half of these Kickstarters are making promises they will find very difficult to keep, even with funding. It's important to me as a developer and as someone that respects my fans that I actually prove out the game before taking it to something like Kickstarter. In the meantime, I hope people decide to donate to Project CIDER on the website (http://www.cidergame.com), as every little bit helps, but I'm trying to do this without a big funding campaign to start. At some point, though, Astrogun and this project are going to need the help from the fans. I hope we can deliver our demo for Early Access within a few months.
But speaking of releases, I also have something special planned that we will be commercially releasing on PC (Windows / Mac / maybe Linux) soon, before CIDER, that is a sort of focal point for Astrogun and Astrogun Fans to converge. It will be there that fans can be invited to check out what we're working on up close, including work on CIDER and other things, in a totally unique and more elegant way. It also gives them a chance to get involved with it all. In fact, I can confidentially say Astrogun is about to release something that has never been done before. Being a small independent studio allows us to do things like this. Stay tuned for further announcements.
NL: Would early access beta demo functionality on the Wii U eShop be a welcome option, or is that a practice typically reserved for PC?
XD: I am very interested in this, and I don't think anyone has ever tried it on a major console before. I need to talk to Nintendo about it. It could open up entirely new possibilities, both from a production standpoint and even a creative one. Whether or not that's for CIDER or a future Astrogun project is yet to be seen.
NL: Nintendo's made a number of announcements regarding the Wii U since the early Summer, so how do you currently see the system's prospects for the Holiday and beyond, commercially and in terms of building a strong games library?
XD: Clearly there's going to be a lot of usual attention on the newest consoles this Holiday, but software will move hardware. I'm looking forward to 2014, when all systems will be out and we can finally get on with thinking most about the games. And playing them!
The fans appreciate that kind of originality and heart that come from indie devs, and independent game development is only getting more and more accessible by the month.
NL: There seems to be a growing contingent of smaller developers releasing download titles on the system, is this a trend that you believe will continue in the mid to long term?
XD: What if the game industry was going back to the garage? Sure there will be your GTA's, your Call of Duty's, but what else? What happens when anyone can download Unity and Blender and start making and shipping games on any platform now? What incentive will triple-A talent have to stay in triple-A, or even try to get in for the first time, when publishers keep on with this cycle of hiring-up and laying-off en masse? While indie games are making two, three, eight individuals newfound millionaires, regularly now, triple-A talent elsewhere moves their families, chain themselves to their desks, earn their publisher millions or even billions of dollars instead, and then get laid-off, not even seeing royalties. It's worse in some places and better than others, obviously, but this is not a new trend anymore. And does this desk-job brick-and-mortar model make as much sense anymore at all?
So from there, it's only going to keep evolving towards a democratization and decentralization of this kind of creativity. Sure, we'll get Assassin's Creed XIII but we'll also get whole new experiences and concepts by scrappy indie devs and artists that aren't even making games but using game technology to make experiences. The fans appreciate that kind of originality and heart that come from indie devs, and independent game development is only getting more and more accessible by the month. There's so much opportunity in indie development now that I can see it out-pacing triple-A easily, in terms of volume of games and content produced, and from that many new gems will emerge from the rest of the crap every year by individuals or small studios. Best of all, those gems might be gems you created yourself. Filtering will become increasingly important, but there will be no shortage of possibilities.
NL: Finally, is there a particular message you want to share with our readers with regards to Project CIDER?
XD: A big part of the approach for Project CIDER is to be less secretive than usual in game development. So engage with me and Project CIDER on Twitter at @XanderDavisLive and visit Astrogun.com to jump into the dialogue that's going. I've actually recruited team members this way, who were once fans on the outside looking in. Now they're in, helping with music or modeling, for example. If I was able to do that with Squaresoft on Chrono Trigger as a young creative kid, I would've lost my mind. It's this level of open communication and now collaboration between fans and Astrogun that will allow us to make something new as a community, to broaden our ideas, and to push them further on low/no budget. Gamers are dreamers, and I think we all care deeply about realizing the dream, to build new places, take on new adventures. We're going to see a lot more of this kind of global collaboration and lines might start to blur. Astrogun is an idea. I'd like to invite you to be part of it.
We'd like to thank Xander Davis for his time.