Indie Investigations – Starr Mazer, An Interview with Don Thacker

This week, I had the fantastic opportunity to talk to Don Thacker about his upcoming title “Starr Mazer”, an interesting blend of two very distinct genres, the point-n-click and the shoot-em-up to create an epic sci-fi experience. It features a crisp art style and a soundtrack composed by many fantastic musicians, including Virt (Shovel Knight) and Manami Matsumae  (Mega Man) amongst others. They are currently in the midst of a Kickstarter, with the modest goal of $160,000. They have three days left on the Kickstarter and have to still raise $14,000 at the time of writing.

And now, the interview!

1. How are you, and can you tell us a little about Starr Mazer?

I’m great, thanks! Starr Mazer is a retro-sexy point-and-click adventure SHMUP (shoot ‘em up) game being developed by Imagos Softworks and TOO DX. It’s much more than two seemingly disparate genres mashed together, though. At the heart of Starr Mazer is a super dynamic procedural system that allows us to build both action and story elements for the game in a procedural manner. We’re not calling that manner “procedurally generated,” as most of the content is hand crafted in modular chunks that are stitched together intelligently by the system in response to your choices and actions. Instead we’re calling it “procedurally loved.”

Also, it’s about a badass space pilot who’s been asleep for 130 years and is awakened to a blasted galaxy where nearly everyone wants to capture him, kill him or totally not go on dates with him. He has a ship, the Starr Wolf, which is the best ship in any game ever. That’s objective fact.

2. What inspired Starr Mazer?

I grew up playing SHMUPs on my TurboGrafx-16. It was unarguably the best console of the ’90s. Okay, maybe that was just because it was what I had, but it was amazing. The TG16 was great for SHMUPS, as it had a dedicated graphics processor. SHMUPs are pretty terrible for story, though. Tons of action, but for story you’re mostly stuck with, “The aliens blew everything up, HAWK, and now you need to go blow THEM up!”

My second favorite genre of the time, way back in the day when dinosaurs walked the Earth and used 1440 baud modems to connect to Prodigy, was the point-and-click adventure. PNCs are great for story! Tons of story but for action you’re mostly stuck with “Use HAMMER on PRISCILLA -> Sorry, you CAN’T DO THAT.”

Both of those genres are super cool, and were super cooler when I was a kid and not a discerning adult who knows things about things and stuff. I think they were both products of limitation, however.

It’s the future now. We have flying cars and dehydrated water and instant coffee! We can do ANYTHING. For instance, we can use mature game design methodology to merge the best parts of two genres into one cohesive experience. Also, induction hobs. HAVE YOU SEEN INDUCTION HOBS???

3. What has been the easiest part of development?

Inventing. We’re 9 very creative people. Sitting around a pizza and coming up with amazing stuff is healthy (HEALTHY PIZZA!), functional and very helpful for the design process. It’s also super easy. The design concepts for Starr Mazer can go from inventive to INSANE in two slices of five-cheese, and leaves us with a billion ideas that we need to then scope out.

4. What has been the hardest?

Scope. We have a very, very defined version of what Starr Mazer should be. Its scope is defined. Sticking to that requires concentrated effort. We’ve got two places for ideas right now, the “release” board and the “potential sequel” board. So many amazing ideas come from working together, though, that it becomes hard to not want to throw everything in there. We’re beholden to backers, however, to deliver on a promise – so sticking to that promise is paramount.

From a tech perspective, we’re all pretty well versed in most of the things we’ve tackled thus far, so not much to report on that front. Not yet. We’ve got some ambitions, though, so I imagine 6 months from now this answer will be completely different.

5. How was the game funded, and did this add extra stress to the development?

The game is currently in a Kickstarter Campaign phase. Imagos Softworks fronted a bunch of money to get started, but we are seeking the remainder of the budget from public backers on Kickstarter. At the time of this writing, there are 4 days left on our campaign. It seems like we might just make it, which is great, but we have a handful of amazing stretch goals we’re trying to smash to make the game the best it can possibly be. Go check it out! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/imagosfilms/starr-mazer

The campaign has been incredibly stressful. You’ve got a team of 9 Kickstarter babysitters sitting where a game company should be. We spend between 80% and 100% of our time trying to promote the campaign and manage the inflow of questions and offers.

We also started a Twitch TV station, StarrMazer.tv, that broadcasts DAILY throughout the campaign, with special guests and Q&A sessions and examples of us building the game. It’s become quite popular, and we’re likely to keep it up in some form after the campaign is over, but right now it’s immensely stressful to carry a 4hr Twitch show to support a Kickstarter campaign AND make progress on the game.

6. Do you wish you had gone with a publisher to deal with anything? Is being an indie beneficial over that?

We’re actually in discussion with publishers right now for some post-campaign support and eventual marketing muscle. I think there’s nothing wrong with pure publishing deals if the numbers make sense. It could be the thing that helps an indie sell a game. We think Starr Mazer has its own audience, and are confident that it will sell no mater what, but the reach of a publisher, plus some of the covered up-front costs, are beneficial.

Though we’re a new company, however, we’re built from industry people and know how to manage a publishing deal. A publisher might not be the best option for everybody. Every team, and every game, is different.

7. Is there anything you’ve learnt during development that you wouldn’t have learnt otherwise?

Absolutely. Tons. Too much to be contained here. I’ll have to just pick something. You forced me to do this, YOU DID!

I think that messaging – public messaging – is a huge lesson learned thus far in the making of Starr Mazer. We have what we think is a solid concept, and we describe it in ways that we think make sense. Once people SEE the game, it clicks, but our messaging – after 26 days of non-stop Kickstarter madness – seems to have needed some refinement.

Some people think the game is simply R-Type stapled to Space Quest VI, for example. It’s not. It is so very super not. It took us nearly a month of constant discussion with the public to come up with a closer analogy:

The idea of mixing Super Mario Bros., pipes aside, with Flappy Bird sounds insane. Try to imagine that. It would be weird. People who love Mario Bros. could hate the Flappy Bird sections, or people who love Flappy Bird could hate the Mario sections. DIVISIVE. INSANITY! EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE!

But check it: Mario Bros. players already love the Flappy Bird mechanic, because it’s the swimming mechanic in every Mario Bros. game. We just don’t call it that. It’s just part of the game. You don’t “enter the swimming section of the game” and wonder if people who like swimming games will hate the running and jumping sections. It’s just melded. It’s complete. The Mario Bros. experience INCLUDES the swimming mechanic.

So too does Starr Mazer’s unique story-driven game-play INCLUDE horizontally scrolling spaceship battles. That’s been hard to get out right to people. Learning that language, communally, through conversational iteration, has been a learning experience.

8. What indie games do you like to play besides this?

I’m pretty hooked on Rogue Legacy right now. That’s my go-to stress reliever until it gets too stressful itself. Hotline: Miami is super bomb. I’ve played through Sreamworld Dig, like, nine times. Xeo Drifter HAS MY VOTE.

9. What is your favourite game of all time?

Oh man. Wow. That’s rough. I did this on StarrMazer.tv when we had Rami Ismail and Renee Gittins on the show, I think I said Mega Man II. I’ll stick with that. FOREVER.

10. Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Don’t eat metal.

Unite to Fight for Robot Rights.

 

Starr Mazer can be found on Kickstarter, and you can check out its website for more information too. The team can also be found on Twitter: @Starrmazer

 

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