Wednesday, 5 May 2010

CaptainD Interviews Mark Featherstone of MoonPod Games

Mark Featherstone is one of the brains behind MoonPod Games, who have to date created three gread indie titles including the supremely awesome Mr Robot.  I asked him various questions about his games, the indie gaming scene, etc.



1/  When did you (and your two cohorts) make the decision to set up your own company, and how did this come about?

I worked in the mainstream game industry for quite a while, at Gremlin Graphics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gremlin_Interactive) on Soccer, Tennis and racing games on the Playstation/PC. Then at Atari for a while and finally at Rage (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rage_Software) on a cool transforming mecha game called Gunmetal (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_Metal_(video_game)) for the Xbox. I had a great time and learned a lot, but I was ready to go it alone, just to see if it was possible and to stretch myself creatively. In the mainstream, game companies come and go, it's quite a volatile industry and you never have complete creative control. Plus you never have any connection with the players. Two good friends came with me, but they've moved on to richer pastures now. So currently Moonpod is staffed by my wife and I. If you don't mind the lack of money it's a great lifestyle, I get to work with my best friend on something I love and also get to spend a lot of time with my young daughter and my dog Sunny :)


2/ You seem to have specialised in combining genres that wouldn't normally be thought to mesh well - was that a conscious decision or did it just happen?

To get noticed as an indie, your games must be trying to be different, unique. If I have a budget of $10k and EA have $25,000k then I cannot compete and I have to offer something you cannot get anywhere else. I started programming at a young age back in 1981 on the ZX81 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ZX81). So I grew up alongside many different genres and saw how they would flourish for a while in the high street and then die out. I saw the mainstream hook into sports games and first person shooters and then drop everything else. It seemed a waste to me and it's indie's job to look for new genres and also re-imagine old ones, to offer things the mainstream have forgotten. I was playing Asteroids and thinking this is one of the oldest, simplest game genres, I wonder what could be done with it to make it feel fresh again and that is how Starscape came about (http://www.moonpod.com/English/about_ss.php), it wasn't really a conscious decision. Similarly, I was reminiscing over old isometric games like Head Over Heels (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Head_Over_Heels_(video_game)  ) and wondering why nobody played them any more. I concluded they were just too damn hard. This is how MrRobot evolved (http://www.moonpod.com/English/about_mr.robot.php), it's meant to feel like those old isometric games, but offer more variety of play and be a lot more forgiving. With Word Pirate (http://www.moonpod.com/English/about_wordpirate.php) I noticed word games seemed to be dying out and I wondered what it would be like if I made one that was real time instead of turn based. They usually have a slow, thoughtful and relaxing feel to play, but I wanted to see if you could make it fast and furious and how that might feel. So I never consciously decided to make genre mixing games, it just evolves from the thoughts and questions I have while playing.

3/ How successful have your three games been so far?  Which has been the most successful (in terms of sales) - Word Pirate, Mr Robot or StarScape?

Well, I've been making games as an indie for a long time now so I must be doing something right :) However, as I touched on earlier I've never had a huge hit, but I'm not doing this for the money, it's more of a lifestyle choice. Starscape is the most successful game so far I think, I just love talking to players and getting that feeling that people are having fun with something I created.
 
4/ Which of the three games are you personally most proud of?

Starscape if I had to choose, but I always love the one I'm currently working on as it has my full attention. I think Starscape gets the indie formula just right. 1. it's different from anything else 2. it's easy to play and although it offers something new, players "get it" immediately as it's couched in the familiar. 3. it looks great and players love eye candy.
 
5/ Do you have a game in development right now?

Yes indeed. It's production name (which always changes in the end) is "Robot Invaders". It's kind of a mix between tower defence, elite and sim city - which sounds a bit mad and is yet again a genre mixer. I honestly don't do that on purpose.
 
6/ What were your favourite games in the early days of computer gaming - the 8-bit and 16-bit eras especially?

I went through zx81, atariVCS, spectrum, commodore64, atariST, Amiga, Sega megadrive, NES, SuperNES in those early days, as well as being an avid collector of hand held games (http://www.google.co.uk/images?q=donkey+kong+hand+held&um=1&ie=UTF-8&source=univ&ei=2jnhS5GIIpKi0gSu-92fAg&sa=X&oi=image_result_group&ct=title&resnum=1&ved=0CBYQsAQwAA ). In fact I distinctly remember my dad smashing up my Entex Space Invaders hand held the day after Christmas, because I wouldn't stop playing it and drove him mad.  I remember Elite, Pitfall, 3D Ant Attack, Head Over Heels, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Zelda, Super Mario, Streetfighter 2, Streets of Rage and Sonic. There are just too many great games to list!

7/ Do you have any heroes in terms of game programming - people whose work inspired you to enter the industry?

From a techy standpoint I always loved John Carmack, he is the ultimate geek and I got the impression he did what he wanted, when he wanted. From a design point, it would have to be Shigeru Miyamoto from Nintendo and Richard Garriott from the Ultima games.
 
8/ How much bigger do you think the indie gaming sector can become?

These last couple of years it's exploded in popularity with indie game offerings from Xbox Live Arcade, Wii Ware, Playstation Network and iphone. Those console manufacturers have brought cheap super high quality indie games to the masses (some might say too cheaply, I hope it's sustainable). Add to that the explosion of free flash indie games, free experimental games and the spread of low price subscription driven casual game portals. Indie developers have never had so many eyes on them and so many opportunities, which is great, but it also means unprecedented competition for media attention and it's moved control into the hands of middle men (the people who own the consoles and games portals). I hope this isn't one of those gold rush, bubble might burst, type scenarios. It's exciting and a bit frightening.
 
9/ Do you have any favourite indie games (other than your own)?

There are the indie super heroes like Braid (Jonathon Blow), World of Goo (Ron Carmel), Defcon (Chris Delay), Castle Crashers (Dan Paladin), Flower (Jenova Chen), Pixeljunk Shooter (Dylan Cuthbert). I think they must have done the most to bring indie games out into the mainstream. They are an awesome bunch, but they scare me a little, I mean they are working with big budgets and seem to be expert media personalities. I identify a bit more with Avernum (Jeff Vogel), Gratuitous Space Battles (Cliff Harris), Astro Tripper (Michael Michael), Droid Assault (Caspian Prince), Aveyond (Amanda Fitch), Venture Arctic (Andy Schatz), Platypus (Anthony Flack), Sleep is Death (Jason Rohrer) and Fashion Cents (Troy Hepfner). I talk to a lot of those people, they are a cool bunch and I really love their games.


 
10/ Any chance of MoonPod doing a Supercars style game?  (I'm just itching to see a good update of this game and haven't found one yet!)

Supercars was a fantastic game! Some say it was heavily influence by Super Sprint (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super_Sprint), made at Gremlin where I used to work! Hmm, perhaps the readers can suggest some kind of crazy genre mashup for it?  :)

Thanks for agreeing to the interview!  I'm sure it will bring you great happiness etc.

Thanks very much for giving me this opportunity to spout off. Remember kids, support your local indie! And come talk to me on the Moonpod forum (http://www.moonpod.com/board/).



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