I’ve been debating adding interviews to the site for a long while, and I finally got off the procrastinating fence to post the first of many (hopefully) insights into the development of your (also hopefully) favorite titles on the Xbox Live Indie Games channel. Foxhaut Games, the UK developers behind the awesome ‘Astralis‘ (Review here) and all-around great human beings, agreed to answer a few questions. I clapped my hands excitedly, knowing I could copy and paste someone else’s words and get a ‘free’ post out of it! On with the questions!
Hey guys. Thanks for taking the time to do this so soon after release. Astralis is a fantastic game, and also your first game, so it makes sense to start at the beginning of everything. How did the team at Foxhaut come together? What / When was the genesis of Astralis? Any inspirations?
We came together as a result of a shared appreciation for video games, and discussions regarding what might be achievable for an indie developer. Being able to create an indie game – this was something none of us had done before, despite Alec Parkin and Daniel Dobson’s experience in the games industry.
Astralis certainly has its inspirations – films like Enemy at the Gates, the acclaimed Gaunt’s Ghosts series, Army of Darkness (Evil Dead). And then there is Resident Evil, Gears of War, Quake, Doom, Duke Nukem. There is so much to celebrate within these games, such atmosphere to draw upon. We loved the action elements within them. We wanted to create something bombastic, yet we also felt from the start that the protagonist should be free to make moral choices, and this grew into the ability to actually perform ‘judgments’.
An ‘early’ Astralis trailer.
Enemy at the Gates, huh? That helps explain the Russian connection. Hopefully that means a Macropai-ed version of Jude Law or Ed Harris at some point… Ah, forget that. Back on topic. Just being on the outside looking in, Astralis, to me, changed pretty significantly over the past year. How did the idea change throughout the course of development?
Originally the project had a different name, and we had a different set of goals for how the game would play, and the visual style. Things grow. They evolve, because as you’re building, it, you understand more and more about what it should be. We think this is healthy, because the process is more like steering a car than getting on a train. You adjust, you look at the road ahead, the map, you know where you want to go, but you need to steer and make choices along the way.
We started out with a top-down view, because we love top-down games, and we wanted to be able to see the Commissar himself on screen. This grew into an ‘over the shoulder’ view, as we found that the aiming and shooting was more intuitive like this, and you were closer to the action. The Macropai get really close to you – they want to devour you, but in so doing present a bigger target, so it’s intuitive to deal with the closest ones first. It wasn’t something we anticipated, but instead driven by player feedback – our goal was to make the controls accessible immediately. They needed to feel familiar to players who hadn’t played Astralis, but already know what they like.
Things like swimming, the ‘roadie run’ unlimited sprint, and being able to kick while you’re reloading – these were all things that emerged as new ideas as the game grew. And then there is the ‘save beacon’ system, being able to save anywhere once the immediate area around you is secure, by planting your save beacon in the ground, once you’ve earned enough points to place it again. That felt a bit like the way a rock climber places spikes in the cliff at regular intervals, so that if they do fall, they don’t actually die! Again, it wasn’t something we planned, but rather discovered as being fun.
The save beacon was definitely a cool feature, and I like that analogy; makes me want to go mountain climbing again! Sorry, off topic, I know. It’s not really covered extensively in the game, but it seemed like there’s a larger backstory / mythos to the Astralis world. Is there any story bits that you feel players should be more aware of? How did you settle on the concept, and why are there so many Russians in the future of space exploration?
The Interstellar Military Commission is hinted at during the opening scene, near the crash site. It is broadly responsible for mankind’s expansion into the galaxy and colonization of planets, and highly communist! Astralis explores a dystopian post-solar expansion with parallels drawn from the Soviet Union in the eras of Stalin and Khrushchev. A Commissar wields political as well as military power, and this is something we haven’t seen explored within a video game.
Russia has historically demonstrated their interest in space flight, exploration beyond Earth, and at times even led the way. So in Astralis, the IMC, the Empire, it’s an extension of this goal, an exploration of an Orwellian society that has grown beyond our own solar system. An extension of the ‘soviet manifest destiny’.
Justice on Tellaryn IV is swift.
Were there any ideas / gameplay elements that had to be cut from the game? Anything you would like to add, or expand upon, either in potential DLC or in an all-new game?
We want to talk about DLC – it is controversial. We’ve all seen ‘downloadable content’ that actually exists on the disc! And it just gets unlocked. We think that’s criminal. You bought the disc, it’s already yours. Why should you be made to pay again for something that is yours? Real DLC, where you’re actually being given new data, should you pay for that? The answer will depend on the developer, and what players choose to do. No one has to buy horse armour if they choose not to.
In Astralis, we are planning to provide all updates for free – this is how XBLIGs work – It doesn’t cost the developer any money to update their game, instead it is an investment of time and effort. We have an update planned, yes. It will be free – our way of saying thank you to the community. But it is a surprise – we can’t talk about the details until it is complete, and in your hands! Updates are a vital part of the indie movement.
Gah! I’m impatient when it comes to DLC! Not even a hint? Fine. How did you settle on XBLIG as a release platform? What are your opinions on XBLIG and indie gaming, now, and in the future, both on Xbox 360 and Xbox One?
XBLIG led the way for indie games on console. No other console platform has as many releases, or is as open. We believe in openness – when Astralis was released, it happened because other developers, not Microsoft, judged it as being worthy. That is democratic. It is really important, because… well, let us take YouTube. Imagine you make a video, but before you can put it up, someone at Google has to view it, and decide if it is ‘ok’ for it to be available. Sound crazy? But this is how it is on other console platforms at the moment. It isn’t necessarily because they want it to be this way, more a legacy of how business was done when games couldn’t be available as downloads.
XBLIGs are historic, because it is the first time that indie developers got their hands on the ball, so to speak. I think gaming needs this and more of it. Let indie developers make games, release them, and then players can decide. There will be more content like this, and gaming will grow, just like YouTube.
With the Xbox One – we are very curious about what it will mean for indies – the promise of ‘every console can become a devkit’ is fundamentally democratic. If you’re going to buy something, you should be able to run code on it if you want to. Be part of an ecosystem where indie games are welcomed, plentiful, and all games are listed together. We’d like to point to Digital DNA’s games as examples of XBLIGs that have been bigger than many XBLA titles, sometimes by millions of copies, at an arguably more compelling price point. An open market is a good thing for gamers!
Here, here! I couldn’t have said it better myself! Thanks again for taking the time, guys, and best of luck!
Our pleasure. We hope everyone enjoys Astralis!