Daniel DiCicco is the man behind StarDrive, a real-time space 4X strategy game due for release in Q1 2013. Dan came from being a lawyer to a full-time game developer. Dan succeeded on Kickstarter in a time where this crowd funding platform was still in its infancy. That helped him gain visibility, and eventually the interest of Iceberg Interactive, who decided to invest in Dan’s dream to develop a space game of his own.
I was on the Netherlands with Dan this week. Excellent guy, and a very nice Team there at Iceberg Interactive. Dan went to Holland to show the latest progress to Iceberg Interactive, which is StarDrive’s publisher. In this interview Dan talks about StarDrive, the Kickstarter crowd funding platform, and gives some tips to people who are thinking in developing their own game.
If you prefer, you also have the interview in text form below.
SS: Why and when did you decide: “Hey, I really want to make this game!”? And how different is it now since you first imagined it?
Daniel DiCicco: Well, you know, actually I started making a board game and I started designing these mechanics for a board game, I knew I had to design a spaceship and you have a blast of pieces, and I started realizing that the math is way too complicated for a board game, so I have to make this a computer game. I’ve always been a passionate computer gamer, but I really didn’t know anything about making computer games. So, I googled it and I just started learning. I mean I knew how to program, but I didn’t know anything about games programming. So, I slowly started learning the technology.
The difference today from what it was a board game is huge. It’s nothing like it. I knew I wanted to do the modular ship design, that was always the basis of the program. But, early on, it was less of a 4X game and more like a series of challenges, that you’d have a fleet and you would go from challenge to challenge. That still sounds kind of fun to me but I realized that what I really wanted to do was this big 4X game.
When? Was about two and half years ago. I started doing this in my side time, but it came a point where I was about 6 months into it when I kind of developed the final vision, and, I threw out everything I’ve done. I scrapped it and started over, because you know, when you don’t know how to make a game you make a lot of mistakes. Once I had it figured out I decided to start over and that’s how StarDrive was born. So, about 2 years ago.
SS: What about sources of inspiration for developing StarDrive? What other games, films or books do you think have inspired you the most for wanting to develop this game?
Daniel DiCicco: The obvious one is Master of Orion 2. I mean, everybody who really likes 4X games I feel like, you know, loves that game. John Scalzi, you know who he is I’m sure. He wrote Old Man’s War. He’s an excellent science fiction author who really got me excited about the realities of space, what would happen if you’d met other aliens of the same level of technology. It would probably be a pretty brutal competition for worlds and difficult to move resources.
Kim Stanley Robinson, he wrote this book called Red Mars, Blue Mars and Green Mars or whatever it was. It’s about colonizing Mars and the difficulties those colonists would face, and I thought that, well, all those things were inspiration, especially for the economic system because I wanted there to be a real, you know, a real sense of having to move goods into space. It’s not just hope we colonized the planet and now it’s ready to go. So, if you would colonize a planet and just leave it alone it’s not really going to grow, it needs help, it needs help from the home world.
That formed the economic basis of StarDrive. And then, of course, came the bigger concepts of designing ships and how to do diplomacy. I mean, I’m taking a bit of my favorites, Civilization and Master of Orion.
SS: StarDrive is a space 4X strategy game, but you label it also as an action game. What made you go with this mixed action-strategy non-conventional formula for a 4X game? And, what exactly are the game’s action elements?
Daniel DiCicco: Well, you know, StarDrive has evolved over the course of its development and, I think when I first started it, it was a little bit more focused on your flagship. As I love Escape Velocity, that was also a huge inspiration. You can tell by the graphical style immediately if you look at Escape Velocity and look at StarDrive. So, that’s really about where the action part came in.
Also, you know, StarDrive is a real-time game, and I suppose you can call StarDrive a real-time strategy game but that doesn’t quite capture the 4Xsness of it. But the action comes from the fact that you can actually control any ship in your empire, any ship. You can control a colony ship if you want. You can steer it with ‘WASD’ just like you would in Escape Velocity, and you can fire the weapons manually, and you can aim at subsystems yourself. Or not. You don’t need to do any of that. And that’s why it ended up an action-strategy. But I suppose if I had to say it today, I would call it a 4X RTS.
SS: You already replied to a bit of this, but, what was your approach when designing StarDrive? Was it very iterative or did you had already a very solid idea in your head, and sticked to it religiously?
Daniel DiCicco: Definitely it was an iterative process. I use a lot of paper, real paper, you know, an ancient device. I would fill all those ideas and bring them home to the computer and implement them, and then playtest. Actually, the community that developed around StarDrive, it’s still quite small but it’s a very loyal following. That has helped me develop a lot of these ideas, scrap the bad ones, improve the good ones.
So, it’s not just, you know, it definitely wasn’t drawn like a blue print and then implemented. It was…, it’s a living thing to me. It’s always changing and always getting better, and sometimes a little bit worse too, it’s part of the design process, it’s a little up and down.
SS: Tell us about the development Team. I understand that it all started just with yourself, but how many people have contributed directly to the StarDrive project so far?
Daniel DiCicco: Well, directly somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 to 10 people have contributed. I mean, I’m designing it and programming it, and then we have a very talented artist that made all the ship models, his name is Ariel Chy and he’s been critical to helping lead the art direction of the game. Jeff Dodson is the composer who’s made not only all the music but all the sound effects on StarDrive. He’s also had a strong hand in the visual design.
And then we had a number of artists who made the visual art and the motion graphics for the animated diplomacy scenes. And then the Team here at Iceberg, you know, they don’t have creative control but they have creative input though. They have the experience and the wisdom. They are people who really know and love these games. And, of course, the community of StarDrive. So, there will be a long list of credits.
SS: In which way do you think you have evolved the 4X genre and dealt with some of its shortcomings, like let’s say the excessive micromanagement, or boring late game stages?
Daniel DiCicco: The way it evolved the genre? It’s an interesting difficult question. Let’s say some areas will push the ball forward on the diplomacy aspects. Diplomacy can be somewhat shallow in 4X games and the AI can be schizophrenic almost. I remember in early builds of Civilization 5, you know, the AI would declare war on me and I would thought we were allies, I thought we were friends. So, I really tried to bring a consistent design for the AI to the table, to try to make it understandable and have their motivations be clear.
And also to provide deep characterization for the AI. One thing I’ve seen, and there’s not a lot of examples of this in the genre, but when someone tells me that they are angry with me for x, y or z, it’s usually just a boilerplate type of thing that the AI is saying. The characterization that I feel we brought to the table here is that each race has its own way of saying why they’re angry or what they’re happy about, even in a simple thing like rejecting a trade offer they have their own kind of unique flavor, so that’s something that I think is pushing it forward.
Dealing with the conventions and some of the shortcomings of 4X, so, we provided automation options, so, governors will take care of managing your colonies in the late game. You can even turn on things like auto-colonization, auto-exploration, various infrastructure building can be totally automated. And, really you needn’t even be in direct tactical control of your battles if you just want to send your fleet into action it will take care of itself, it doesn’t require a micromanager. It will benefit from micromanagement but it doesn’t require it. So, if you want to be a tactical player it’s there, if you want to be a strategic level player then that’s it, then you can do that also.
SS: Which is your favorite 4X phase and why?
Daniel DiCicco: Extermination! Yea. For me it was always been about the combat. I mean, I like the ship designing too, so I suppose you could call that the exploitation phase. I really love getting that new laser beam or whatever that is to equip my ships and upgrade them, ultimately it always came down to crushing my enemies.
And that’s why the emphasis in StarDrive is so much on ship design and combat because that’s what I love and you can see my passion shine through there, because it looks you know…. Yea, I think that’s it, the extermination phase.
SS: Tell us a bit how the 4X phases play in StarDrive and how they may play different from other 4X games.
Daniel DiCicco: Well, the exploration phase involves – you can do this manually if you’d like – sending your ships out to explore new star systems and when they get there and they fly close enough to a planet and then its qualities are revealed. Some planets will have anomalies on them. Ground based anomalies. Things that you can’t just detect with a starship, so you need to send an away team. You need to build a ground troop and deploy it to the planet to explore, say, it’s a mysterious ruin or some other ancient building. And this will unlock maybe a small quest or just for some flavor. So, that’s one thing.
Another phase of exploration are more space-based encounters, so there’s some factions that exist in space. Some are friendly, most aren’t, at least the ones you run into. Of course you also run into other players, other computer controlled opponents, and begin doing the diplomacy there. You know, in a lot of ways StarDrive is just very classic. You’re slowing discovery the galaxy and what’s there, but we’re trying to spice it up with as much randomized elements as we can fit in there. And, the sky is really the limit when it comes to that type of thing. I feel that you can’t really have too much exploration elements.
For expanding, what we’ve added is this economic systems where we got to bring all these goods and colonists out in space. You need to design these trade routes, in such a way as to maximize the growth of your colonies. It’s not enough to just colonize your planets. You need to make sure that you’re supporting them from the home world. But, other than that, it follows a very classic model. You need to build improvements in the planets and you need to focus the planets you decide where you’re going to specialize a colony.
The extermination phase, I know not necessary, you can be a peaceful race. But, some combat will be absolutely necessary. For instance, in Master of Orion 2 – a great inspiration – the best systems always had Guardians, being it a Space Amoeba, or a Space Dragon, or whatever. The same is true in StarDrive. There’s something there that is going to block you from getting that nice world. So, you’re gonna have to clear it out.
But, maybe you’re a war-like race, and when it comes to that then you’re going to get all the options you would expect. There’s tons of different types of weapons, different beams, cannons, missiles. There’s disabling weapons, EMP, and of course all the counters to all these types of weapons: point defense weapons, fighters, fighter bays. We’ve got tactical ground combat, so you could actually play out the ground combat as a little chess board type of thing.
And then, so, explore, expand, oh exploit, sorry I missed exploitation. I mean, the exploitation phase in StarDrive is really more about the technology. I suppose, this is always how I would always define the exploitation phase. I mean, you need to leverage those worlds that you find in the expansion phase into creating the economy to both unlock new technologies and then build ships with them. And, there’s really no big surprises there, as long as you’re using the tools we give you to build a strong industrial base you’re gonna be moving forward there. But, some of the ways that you can keep that going kickstarted and move faster is through the diplomacy, exploiting your allies to trade with them, having them giving you technologies you don’t have, and ganging up on enemies that may be trying to stop you.
But in all ways, StarDrive is a true 4X, you know, we’re not skipping on any of these elements.
SS: How important do you think your successful Kickstarter campaign was in the overall game development progress? And, looking back, do you regret having set such a low goal barrier at the time? $7,500.
Daniel DiCicco: No, not a tall. Kickstarter was not then was it is today. It was like a different world. If a game got $15,000 out of Kickstarter it was a great success. So, I figured, you know, I ‘ll just see what I can do. I didn’t really know where it would lead. But, in less than a year I had a pre-alpha concept of the game to having almost a completed game with publish support here at Iceberg, and, you know, we’re ready for the world stage. So, I’ve gone from the guy with the dream to a guy with a game.
So, Kickstarter was totally responsible for that. Because, if it wasn’t for Kickstarter, for instance, I wouldn’t ever met Iceberg Interactive, you know, there’s the publicity, there’s the funding. I mean, Kickstarter works as advertised.
SS: What’s your take on Kickstarter and the crowdfunding scheme in a general sense? What advice would you give to others that may be on the fence thinking if Kickstarter could be a good idea?
Daniel DiCicco: Well, you know, I was in a situation where I was working full time, and also making StarDrive on the side and I thought, boy if could get a little extra funding it could very well help me make that transition from being a lawyer to do what I was going to do. So, what I realize now looking back, is that the amount of money it takes to make a video game is a lot more, then what I asked, A LOT more.
The advice I have is, have a financial plan to make a game done if you’re going to do it. Don’t aim too low. But then again if you aim too high you may miss your goal. So, I think if you’re going into that, it’s nice to have other options too. Kickstarter can be part of your funding plan. You can also get a loan to help finish it, or get a publisher investment. But, my advice is don’t put all your eggs into one basket when it comes to Kickstarter.
And the other side of that is, you know, maintain a healthy skepticism when analyzing a project in Kickstarter because since it’s gone up it’s been, hum, a lot of so so, not really sure if it’s really a real project type things. But overall I’m remaining totally positive about Kickstarter and I think it will be a cool tool that I’ll probably use again.
SS: StarDrive is being highly anticipated by space strategy and 4X gamers. Some hope it will be the best 4X game of the year, or of recent years. Do you feel that responsibility? And, if so, how do you deal with it, and how does it affect your working process?
Daniel DiCicco: Well, it’s terrifying (*laughs*). You know, I started off with this humble idea about making a game, and to hear that people are anticipating it that much is humbling and I, you know, and I feel a strong duty to make it happen. It’s interesting coming from being a lawyer, we have this code of professional responsibility, that is very much drilled into us, you know, there’s even the board that reviews to make sure you’re following things.
So, I almost feel that same level of professional responsibility. To deliver the product that I’m talking about and that people are expecting. I have to do it. I want to be successful. Not only for the people who are playing this game but because I want to continue making games too, so, the best way to doing it is to follow through on your promises.
SS: If I remember correctly you said to have quit your previous job so that you could dedicate yourself solely to this project. What do you see yourself and your company doing in the next years after StarDrive gets released? Is the plan to keep evolving StarDrive with expansions, or even sequels, or do you have any other plans?
Daniel DiCicco: We’re going to stay in the StarDrive Universe for a while. That’s so much I wanted it to be, and, I think we could work on expansions. But, I really want to do more substantive type expansions. Things that add new gameplay modes and features, not just new races and things like that, though that certainly would be in the works. And that could be over the next year. So, say we release, and then take a year to keep building all of what we’ve got, and then re-evaluate.
I mean, I’ve got all kinds of ideas ticking around in my head about where I want to take things, but I think no matter what I do it’s gonna be in the StarDrive Universe. Doing different types of space games. Because actually from a business point of view, making space games is relatively inexpensive compared to say, a simple role-playing game, because the art assets that are needed are basically space ships and effects and some aliens, but not this big environments that are rich with tiny details. And those are the things that take many man-hours.
So, actually, space games, for a small studio like myself, with the artists that I have, we could make a quality product for a small amount of money. So, we’ll stay in space and in the StarDrive’s Universe.
SS: Developing a 4X game can be a very complex undertaking. And, we had some failed launches in the recent past. What do you think you did or are doing different that will make sure StarDrive will not be a failure?
Daniel DiCicco: Well, for one, we retained a professional quality assurance team. Basically, we modularized the game to find the various game components, and they are currently testing them thoroughly. So, everything from bigger oversights, like crash bugs, those are dealt out as quickly as possible. But then the polish, it’s not only about making sure the game is stable, of course that’s the highest priority, but also making sure that icon is tool tipped, you know. Or, making sure that this or the other thing is easily understandable to the player.
We’re totally aware of the recent failures in 4X space, and we are absolutely committed to not being one of them.
SS: I think you already talked about this, but I absolutely love the music in StarDrive. Where did it come from?
Daniel DiCicco: Jeff Dodson. He composed it all. So, you have 8 different tracks, one for each of the races, to provide them with a unique feel. We have a title theme and a title reprise which you’ll hear in various points. We got some ambient tracks that go along with these things that are on the background while you’re playing the game. Very unobtrusive. He wrote them all. His company is called Rainfall Films and he’s also, you know, part of our company working on StarDrive.
SS: What advice do you have for other indie game developers that may be thinking in developing their own game?
Daniel DiCicco: Well, you know. I was thinking in the other day. Don’t chase your dream. Implement your plan. It’s two different things. If you have a plan and it’s sound than execute it. There’s no magic to any of this. It’s just figuring out what it’s gonna take and decide if you can or can’t do it. You should be able to know. You should be able to look into your plan and know whether it’s possible. And, if it’s possible, all it takes from there is the dedication to anybody that wants to do this. Make a plan and do it!
SS: What’s your favorite game?
Daniel DiCicco: Well, you know. I have to say it’s a tough question to answer. Honestly, I think of all time it’s got to be Civilization, and I’m talking about every iteration, because I’ve been playing Civilization in one form or the other for 20 years. And I’m always playing it, and I always get back and play it, and they are always iterating and it’s getting better and better and better. So, it’s the best franchise that I think exists. Yea, so, I think that’s it.
SS: And favorite book?
Daniel DiCicco: Uh…, that’s a tough one. Let me think on that…. I would have said Cloud Atlas, but then this movie came out and now it’s too so cliché “Cloud Atlas this”. But, you know, mostly my favorite books are always science fiction or fantasy. I really like George R.R. Martin. Hum… if you let me think on this one. That’s probably too many to say.
SS: What’s your favorite film?
Daniel DiCicco: Hum… I don’t think I have a favorite. I can tell you that the answer to both of these questions to me is science fiction and fantasy that takes itself seriously, that tries to create, and successfully does the best works, a believable world, even if it’s got some sort of fantastic elements, as long as it really tries to create a consistent world. Those are the books that I always love. Because there’s some fantasy novels where, you know, the characters’ motivations don’t seem correct. Like even if there’s Dragons or Fairies or whatever, what’s more important to me is that the characters behave like I think they would in the real life. That there’s usually a dark or kind of grey element to the story. Because that’s what life is about, you know, there’s a darker current to a lot of politics and conflicts. And, I like books that capture that. You know, Brandon Sanderson is probably my favorite author. I don’t know if you read anything by him, but he’s done a number of awesome novels, and I think he’s the king right now.
SS: Who’s your favorite character from game, book or film?
Daniel DiCicco: I always liked Malcolm Reynolds, I know a lot of people like Malcolm Reynolds, but, he’s a very solid character. I like how he’s just … you know, there’s this story about some episodes that they didn’t make on Serenity. So there’s one and this one thing where the crew, they visit this planet, and the planet is dying, it’s like the planet is gonna get destroyed for whatever reason. And so the people are begging Malcolm Reynolds to take them on the ship, but if he takes all the people on the ship then there’s a chance that they will run out of air and that they will all die unless they meet some other ship. And the crew is like, you know, they are all debating this moral problem, kind of like a Star Trek type of moral dilemma, right? So, alright, look, let’s just sleep on it. So, like they close out the ship and Malcolm like takes it off, and they leave all the people there, and the crew doesn’t actually get to vote. And, at the end of the episode, they realize that – they never met another ship – so everybody would have died. But I like that Malcolm Reynolds, like, its character makes those tough decisions, these dark decisions, and, you know, that’s the kind of character I like.
Thanks a lot for your time Daniel, and good luck for the final stages of development!
StarDrive’s Beta is scheduled to start in the beginning of 2013, probably mid-January. Pre-orders are expected to start by then on Steam. StarDrive will also be sold in retail form in some European countries. Desura is also another possibility, where actually you can find more information about the game, and also on the StarDrive official website.
For more information on StarDrive’s gameplay have a look at our hands-on preview.Subscribe RSS
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