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Rise of the Robots: An interview with Simon Roth creator of Maia

Posted November 5, 2012 by Richard Plant in Editorial
Ship or shoe?

Indie developer Simon Roth is certainly making a splash in the small-scale development scene. As well as being an outspoken commentator on the scandal of developers who no longer receive royalties for sales of their work, he’s also been garnering a lot of attention for his first major solo project—space colony building sim Maia. The pitch for the game is simple: humanity is taking its first faltering steps out into the galaxy, and you’re put in charge of building the first extra-solar colony. Mine, refine and build structures to feed and house your colonists, and protect them from the deadly world around them.

With art and design led by a single developer and a procedurally-generated world to tempt in detail-oriented players with a passion for creating their own stories, Roth’s game tempts comparison to indie giants like Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress. Those are some pretty big boots for a designer to try on, but Roth could just be the guy to fill them—his previous work includes stints with Frozen Synapse devs Mode 7 and Terry Cavanagh, creator of the fiendish VVVVVV.

Simon launched Maia on Kickstarter last week, offering early alpha access as well as a number of other intriguing rewards for backers. The game has reached almost £30,000 as of the time of writing, about a third of the way to Roth’s goal. Join us as we talk about Maia, the trials of an indie coder and just what players can expect to find out there in space.

Hi Simon, thanks very much for speaking to us about Maia. Before we introduce anyone to the game, how about telling us a little about yourself, your history in games and how you got into the development business?

I’d be hard pressed to define exactly how I got into games development. As a child I had an Acorn computer to mess around on. I used to love playing the games, and since most of them were beautiful Amiga ports they really captured my imagination.

I really wanted to make games and my brother taught me a few commands of BASIC, with which I built a Space Hulk inspired text adventure. It was broken and basically unplayable, but a game none the less. As I grew up I got into a bit of Qbasic and tried to build a city management game, where you’d trade resources like food and weapons and then try to wage war with neighbouring cities. I eventually got stalled at my inability to produce graphics for the game and gave up.

I then didn’t make any significant games for some time. I used a few text adventure generation tools, but became frustrated at impossibility of going beyond the limitations of my tools. The internet just didn’t exist like it does today and I had no idea how to learn how to code in a low-level language.

Parallel to this I had pursued my hobby as an artist. And by the time I was fourteen I was doing freelance 3D graphics over the internet. I ended up running a small business of freelancers after school. By the time I went to university I was working making naval simulators for a massive multinational called Transas, who would fly me around the world and have me build entire cities in 3D.

I went to study for a BA in “Computer Animation and Visualisation” at the National Centre of Computer Animation in Bournemouth. Coding was a small part of the course, but I immediately jumped in head first and started building graphics engines. Using these, I got a summer internship at Natural Motion in Oxford, where I learnt how to make decent production code. I ended up writing my own game engine called “Black Skies” for my major project. With that, I applied for a doctorate and was embedded at Frontier as a technical artist on The Outsider.

In the past you’ve worked for some major studios, including for Frontier Developments on Kinectimals. You’ve also worked with some indie darlings, including Frozen Synapse developers Mode 7 and Terry Cavanagh. I know a lot of readers will have an idea of jumping from sterile cubicles to coding in hammocks, but what was the actual experience of going from one to the other like?

At the end of the day, making games is intense work and the difference between indie and AAA isn’t that big. With independent development there is a feeling of much greater control in what you are doing, although there is a bigger cliff to drive off should things go wrong.

The best feeling in indie development is knowing that you are making the best piece of art possible, unaffected by incompetent people in suits or a slimy marketing department. It’s also great to have the creative freedom to give up on a feature that just doesn’t work or to create a new one without putting your job on the line!

Chillin' out, maxin', relaxin' or dying horribly in the vacuum of space

And now you’ve struck out on your own with Maia. What prompted you to take that step? Was there just no prospect of doing this kind of work at a bigger developer, or is it more to do with having creative control?

It was a general stagnation with my life that drove me to create Maia. I’m obsessively creative and passionately driven, but had embroiled myself in a doctorate programme that had drained the life and soul out of me.

I needed to start fresh, cut my losses and go for broke. DIY or die. It’s a massive gamble and a step into the unknown, but it’s completely reinvigorated my creativity.

Your website describes Maia as a game where you “manage colonists and build a prospering community” and “try not to get them killed”. Other commentators have described it as being somewhat like Dwarf Fortress in space. How would you describe Maia to someone who had never heard of it?

Maia is a space colony management simulator. It puts the player in control of a mission to construct a self-sustaining subterranean base on the Earth’s nearest habitable neighbour, Maia.

The game merges complex environmental and AI simulations to create a deep and engaging experience, but keeps the interface transparent and easily accessible, allowing anyone to pick up and play. It brings fresh character, humour and interactivity to the management genre. It has a unique aesthetic inspired by 70’s science fiction, delivered by a unique custom engine, which provides the visuals to rival that of many AAA budget titles.

Management games have been a pretty quiet field for some time – the only big releases being intricate Elizabethan trading sims and so on. Recently however, it’s seemed to open up a bit, perhaps as a result of mobile gaming. What do you think Maia brings that has been lacking in sim and management? Have you ever thought about porting to tablet or phone?

Maia brings back the idea of a “God Game”, taking higher level control of a situation, but having less direct input on the actions of your charges. It should put us back on the track we fell off at the end of the nineties. My frustration with the management genre is that it’s been assumed that the target audience is a bunch of nerds who like to balance spreadsheets. There’s a swathe of titles out at the moment that only really seem to appeal to a specific subset of Germans.

While it seems appealing to developers (especially programmers) to expose so much of the guts of a simulation to a player, they seem to forget that having something out of your control can be more fun. Indeed a little bit of automation or randomness can drastically improve the gameplay.

Mobile gaming has gone entirely the other way, pushing the games into really shallow experiences. I’m yet to find anything in the Android store which really appeals to my creativity as a player. That’s a real shame as phones and tablets are almost as powerful as a Xbox 360 now, so there’s no reason we couldn’t have some deep, complex and interesting games. Maia on mobile is something I’ll certainly consider. It would need to be a tighter experience to work on a handheld, perhaps more akin to Bullfrog’s Theme Hospital.


About the Author

Richard Plant

Author, producer, dreamweaver… also actor. Willing to talk at length about JRPGs for food.


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