December 12th marked the release of Starship Rubicon, a game that hundreds of Kickstarter backers have been waiting two and a half years for, as well as a slew of fans since who have had to make due with the teaser trailers. But Starship Rubicon is noteworthy for another reason: it's the first title published by Cheerful Ghost, marking a new endeavour not only to write about great games, but also to publish them.
After I dove in and experienced the game, from the difficult but not unfairly punishing combat, to the satisfying soundtrack by indie game musician Beatscribe, to the funny quips by the tutorial computer -- I was tickled pink. Well, I was tickled more of a deep fuschia. I have a doctor’s appointment next week. I’m sure it’s fine.
I sat down with Starship Rubicon’s creator Wick, and the head of Cheerful Ghost, both as publisher of the game and purveyor of the website that you are currently reading this on, Jon Dodson, to do some brain-picking about the game’s journey and Cheerful Ghost’s solid first foray into the world of game publishing.
Alex Atkins: To get started, I would like to congratulate Wick on his work with Starship Rubicon, and Jon on a strong first entry for Cheerful Ghost’s new publishing endeavour. How do you feel about how it’s turned out?
Wick: Thanks! I was too afraid to have anything but low expectations but I'm pleased that they have been handily surpassed. As our first crack at making a finished game and publishing it, I call it absolutely stellar. We didn't go over budget or deadline, got 95% of the planned features ingame (OK, 85%), have had only a few bugs to work out in the first patch, and I've received nothing but positive responses + constructive criticism. Our philosophy of reaching out to really small-time let's players and twitch channels (rather than trying to go big) is one that I'm very comfortable with and seems to be paying off.
Jon Dodson: Thanks Alex. I can't think of a better recent moment than watching people play Starship Rubicon and them having fun with it. It's a special kind of magic when people love the things you are a part of.
Alex Atkins: Wick, what inspired you to make what we now know as Starship Rubicon? What was it that made you say “I’m going to make this game!”?
Wick: In the beginning, there was a free weekend and a desire to pop out a quick Asteroids clone. Then I kept seeing stuff in other games that I thought I could do better and added them to the game. One shot-in-the-dark Kickstarter project later and I suddenly needed to craft this mess of features into a coherent game. Since then, it's mostly been a practice in trying to fill the design space of a space shooter in the most interesting way that I could. I owe a lot to that slow start - it kept my scale manageable and unintimidating, which let me really nail the core mechanics.
Alex Atkins: The fact that you made Starship Rubicon all on your own is pretty impressive. Were you ever tempted to hire outside help?
Wick: In the beginning, I was way too controlling and had too few resources to even consider it. Anything having to do with programming, I could mostly just unhealthily pull all-nighters to power through, and I can fake my way into making my art look good. The only parts of the game I contracted out were things I simply did not have the skill sets to do well: music and character portraits. Nowadays, I'm a little more humble. Some of my favorite parts of the game came out of listening to others and incorporating their ideas, even if I wasn't 100% into them at the time.
Alex Atkins: Hypothetical, rapid-fire question - don’t think about it, just answer. You’re in the cockpit of your starship. You’re limping along on one thruster thanks to your last encounter. Nav systems are shot. You’re depleted of those missiles, you know, the good ones. Your cat is tearing ass around the cockpit (why did you BRING HIM?!) because he’s pissed that you gave him dry food instead of wet. And to top it all off, the CD is skipping. The question is: Lowes or Home Depot?
Wick: I AM A LITTLE BUSY RIGHT NOW I DO NOT HAVE TIME TO FILL OUT YOUR GODDAMN CUSTOMER SATISFACTION SURVEY. HOW DID YOU GET THIS NUMBER ANYWAY. I'M ON THE DO-NOT-CALL LIST. I KNOW MY RIGHTS.
Alex Atkins: Jon, when you first told me that you would be publishing games, two things popped into my head simultaneously. The first was excitement and well-wishings. The second was a sort of fear, that you’re way braver than I am for taking something like this on. What made you decide to start publishing?
Jon Dodson: I don't think you were alone in feeling some fear with Cheerful Ghost getting into game publishing. :D I met Wick as we were showing our stuff at various game conventions. We became friendly and over the months it clicked with me how good the game really was. He had Kickstarted Rubicon and after that was making changes to it but those changes weren't very visible to many people. I talked with him about publishing the game and he seemed interested. We worked out the details and then stuff happened and we launched the game. So, originally, it was because I thought Rubicon was a great game that deserved more attention and a wider audience. After the process of publishing Rubicon was in motion I also noticed that there are a ton of other great games being made in Oregon. Since there are so many people making games right now it's hard to get noticed. Many game developers in Oregon are great at making games but don't know how or have the time to promote them. I look at working with Wick publishing Starship Rubicon as a partnership and I sort of fit in to help him.
Alex Atkins: This question has two parts so strap in. What research did you do beforehand, and is there any advice that you’d care to give someone that might be considering doing the same? Something you wish you’d known going in?
Jon Dodson: Wish I'd known: Because of when I got involved with Rubicon and all the upstart work it took to get the "publishing machine" started we broke some of the rules around promoting your game. One major rule is that you shouldn't wait till release to promote your game with the press. It makes sense, it's better to get people to notice your game early and then keep beating the drum until launch. A Nickel of Free: If you are just starting out take projects with people you trust and you know you can ship. If you can't get excited about building your audience slowly you're going to have a hard time. Make it easier on yourself by setting goals you can achieve. The only thing I can think of that I wish I could go back in time and tell myself is that we would get a great response from people in the streaming and let's play community so focus on them.
Alex Atkins: And how has the response been so far? In regards to the future of Cheerful Ghost’s publishing endeavors, do you feel defeated, or nay, galvanized?
Jon Dodson: The response from gaming press hasn't been noteworthy. The response from the game streaming and let's play community has been tremendous. Gamers that pick it up also seem to love it even if they think it is hard, which it is. The future of Cheerful Ghost publishing is good in that I am looking to sign another game next year. I am holding off talking to developers about it right now because I am really focused on Starship Rubicon. Since I grew up in the 90's and was in a band trying to sell tapes at shows I sort of view Indie publishing in a similar way. We might not ever get rich, but we enjoy making games and showing at cons and watching people stream our games. Over time we might rock out a few hits but few of us "make it big." I think being part of the Portland indie game scene makes the band analogy even more true than other places.
Alex Atkins:I finally watched Frozen and I don’t think it deserves it’s hype. Just thought I’d tell you.
Jon Dodson: I agree. My partner and I saw it and we both agreed it was a fine movie, I just didn't understand the intense craze it received. It subverted some gender and plot cliches so I give it a nod for that. That said, I didn't find the art direction my style and when I heard "the song" I wasn't blown away. Apparently I wasn't Disneys target audience for that one. With that, Josh Gads voice work was good and if someone asked if I wanted to build a snowman while singing I'd probably do it. Monkeys riding on horseback with machine guns is way more my style.
Alex Atkins: The written word may be the only form of time travel we’re ever able to access, if that Einstein guy knows anything at all. When you read a written work, you’re transported not only to the time in which it was written, but also into the mind of the writer. What words do you have for your future selves, who are no doubt looking back on this from upon your future toilets, reminiscing about the time you weren’t trillionaires and had to peruse the net-o-sphere from some moronic handheld/laptop device?
Wick: Dear diary, today I started selling my game. What does that mean? I guess it's officially "done", which is a weird concept after seeing it as so malleable for so long. Does that mean I can't change it anymore, or does it just not count if I do? I could go replace all the graphics with doge face icons, just like 2048 did. It would take an hour, tops. "Starship Dogeicon", I'd call it. Sorry, tangent. It means that some sliver of the population will play it and be entertained and hopefully laugh and then think a little. What is the point of the entertainment industry? I have a day job so I have the luxury of choosing projects that let me go to sleep philosophically sound. Does this game do that? I think that the best thing it could mean is making somebody think: "wow, like, oneish guy made this? I could make things!" and then picking up programming for the first time.
Jon Dodson: I hope we stuck to our guns and didn't get the brain to computer interface. I know all the kids might be doing it, but doing things the old way with keyboards, mice and voice input was always fine by us. I know this puts us at a disadvantage because people with the interface are improved in nearly every way but we were happy even with our flaws. I just wanted to say thank you for living through that and hope you find happiness with the last remnants of unaltered humanity.
Alex Atkins: Wick, Starship Rubicon was born out of a successful kickstarter project, originally titled Rubicon. How has the response been from your kickstarter backers that have been anxiously awaiting the final product?
Wick: I got this comment on one of my beta signups, I think it speaks for itself: "as a side note, your project is the kickstarter i'm most pleased to have backed. helping a person with modest goals and some ambition turn a "sure, why not" idea into a life-changing moment is the best feeling in the world and i'll keep supporting you all the way."
Alex Atkins: How was working with Beatscribe?
Wick: Tremendous. I cannot overstate how awesome it is to work with someone who thinks a project is rad and is enthusiastic about jumping on board. He also somehow magically nailed my insane specifications like "heroic, but sad, but exciting, and with an awesome and memorable melody line."
Alex Atkins: What can we expect to see next from Wick?
Wick: Oh man, I'm so excited. I'm one of those "games shouldn't just be entertainment" folks, so my next project is going to be this fusion of my neuroscience research and newfound game design skills. Think SpaceChem, but using (and stealthily teaching) real neural circuits.
Alex Atkins: Are there any plans to show at upcoming conventions? Will we be seeing Starship Rubicon at the Indie Megabooth perhaps? *insert hopeful emoji*
Wick: *Meaningful silence* Talk to my agent.
Jon Dodson: As much as I don't love huge crowds the Indie Mega Booth may be in our future and it would be great to be a part of. Wick and I haven't officially talked about it but we will soon and when we know more I'll talk about it loudly.
Alex Atkins: I want to thank you both for taking the time to talk with me. Any last words? Not like, before you die or anything, just for the end of the interview. Philosophical musings on the hubris of man? A good quiche recipe you’d like to share?
Wick: I think I already filled my quota of philosophical musings. Instead, here's a quote from some long-forgotten article that has rung true for me throughout the project: "Well, for computers, explosions are much easier to create than stories."
Jon Dodson: In general if you have a dream that you can't shake you should go for it. Mad riches won't meet you but you will learn something on the way and there is meaning and value in working on things. I want to thank everyone that has supported Starship Rubicon in buying it, playing it, talking about it, creating a video, writing something, interviewing us, retweeting, resharing or liking.
You can help Starship Rubicon get on Steam Greenlight! Go here to vote: http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=331311253