XBLIG Uprising Developer Interview: Gristmill Studios – developer of XenoMiner

As part of our ongoing coverage of the Indie Game Uprising III we asked Gristmill Studios to tell us a bit about themselves and their upcoming game, XenoMiner (read our PREVIEW of the game HERE).  Gristmill Studios was kind enough to take the time to tell us about  their studio’s game and their career as a developer.  The full interview can be found in its entirety below.  Enjoy, and of course a big thanks to Gristmill Studios for taking the time to answer our questions.  The interview was conducted with Jeff Krause, Jesse Nivens and Doug Graham.

First, tell the readers a bit about yourself: what is your history as a game developer, previous efforts, why you decided to start getting involved in making games?

Jeff: Growing up, I was the kid that would rather power up my Commodore 64 and climb into my stolen Chameleon in Battletech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception than play sports, ride bikes, or eat. Even when I was young I knew I wanted to make games, but fast-forward 25 years and I found myself still playing the games instead of making them.

I had made feeble attempts at crafting a computer game, including a senior project that should have gotten me laughed out of the Computer Science department, but nothing to be proud of. And now I have kids of my own, and they are as insane about games as I was. They are the inspiration that has caused me to return to my youthful aspirations to stop playing sports, stop riding bikes, stop eating and make my dream come true!

How would you describe your game in a sentence? What do you feel makes your game special or unique?

Jeff: An awesome voxel-based sandbox game in space. Can I put “awesome” in there? I could go into the programmable bot, the floating islands, the survivalist aspect, but for me it is the whole atmosphere that wraps around you.

If you had to pick one specific game to describe as your inspiration (for this game or in general), what would it be?

Jeff: XenoMiner is a first-person adventure game with building-blocks and a procedurally generated world, and it is, of course, inspired by Minecraft. However the content we built into the game is full of the games and characters that inspired us; from names of the awards and equipment to the AI companion who helps you throughout the game (we named her Daisy in a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey). Almost everyone on the team played M.U.L.E. when they were young, and that has also been a big inspiration for XenoMiner.

How long did you spend in development? Could you walk me through the timeline for the game, all the way from the conception of the idea to the final marketing of the game a few months ago? What software and tools did you use?

Jesse: We started doing a bunch of voxel experiments in 2011 as we fleshed out the idea of a fortress building game where you try to keep a team alive in an apocalypse situation. That game had a 3rd person isometric view. Then, this spring we decided to do something for the Dream.Build.Play contest in June. With about three months to work, we decided to continue with voxels and sandbox building, but simplify things by making it first person, getting rid of the team aspect and removing enemy mobs.

We’re all scifi fanatics and gravitated toward the idea of a survival situation for a marooned astronaut. Moving to a science fiction/space setting gave us a great way to introduce programmable bots, which have become the most exciting feature in the game. After Dream.Build.Play in June, the Indie Uprising crew asked us to sign on. We spent the rest of the summer trying to perfect our feature-set for release. We still have tons of stuff we want to add in updates, and are already making plans for future versions.

Have you in the past, or do you currently have plans to work in any other platform?

Jeff: Actually one of our major development efforts over the last year, Etch, was designed with tablets in mind. We prototyped it out in XNA, but we are looking to do a port to iPad and Android – probably via Unity. We’ve done several side projects for Android in the past, but nothing substantial enough to call a “publish.” We are also hoping to bring XenoMiner to the PC (as well as Mac and Linux, if there’s enough interest) later this year.

What made you decide to develop for XBLIG?

Doug: Though XBLIG isn’t living up to it’s potential yet, it can be a good place to introduce indie titles or ideas to the gaming community. The open nature of the Xbox Indie channel and it’s accessibility to developers through the XNA toolset is hard to beat. Though developing games for web or PC can be thrilling, you get an electric tingle up your spine the first time you load your game up on the LCD, and your brain says: “I’m playing a game on an Xbox. It’s my game. That’s my game on an XBOX!” It’s an amazing feeling built upon years of nostalgia – we grew up playing Nintendo and Atari – so consoles are a big part of why we wanted to be game developers.

A game’s soundtrack can make or break a game, tell us how you selected yours. Did you produce in house, team up with a music producer or simply purchase royalty free music?

Jesse: We started out with royalty-free since we don’t have a music producer on our team. Then we had a good break when, in the meantime, I was working on the art for xXRx’s new record, 333ch2. They have a dark, electro-industrial style that really fit in with the mood of XenoMiner. Lucid Darqly from xXRx had always wanted to score a game, so when I asked him about writing some music for XenoMiner he said yes immediately. He wrote some new tracks to use in the general game play, along with letting us use xXRx’s song Wraith Dream on the title screen.

Doug: The royalty-free music was from www.incompetech.com. Kevin MacLeod is a real godsend to the indie game scene, and deserves a lot more attention than he probably gets. We were lucky to find our own composer, but a lot of indies go to incompetech, and it’s high quality stuff.

If there was one thing you could improve on, or simply do differently in development what would it be?

Jeff: We all just work on the game when our schedules allow. We all have full-time jobs, families, girlfriends, pets, plants, um, dance lessons. Because of that, it can be hard to have time to develop, but from the beginning we made a point to set aside one night a week where we can all get together and focus on building our games. If I could do anything differently it would be to make this a full-time gig.

How did you go about deciding on the name for your game and why did you end up with the title you have? Were there any rejected titles that didn’t make the cut?

Jeff: When we started out it was called SpaceMiner. My project folder is still called that. Then suddenly everyone was calling it XenoMiner. I think I missed the memo.

Doug: We threw around several names. SpaceMiner was the working title, but that was just a quick descriptor so we could get the project started. We wanted to bring attention to the fact that this was a sci-fi game, but still advertise that it was a voxel sandbox game. We knew we had to have “Miner” in the title to convey that – if we had named it something else, most gamers would have missed it. That’s one of the troubles with XBLIG, you don’t have much to make your marketing story with, generally just your title and your box art.

Many gamers dream of making their own games, what advice would you give someone hoping to make the jump from gamer to developer?

Jeff: I would say have kids, but taken out of context that statement would be weird. First realize that it takes work. A lot of work. But if you are willing to invest the time and effort, there isn’t much to keep you from succeeding. Oh, and keep the definition of “succeeding” to “I made a game” instead of “I made a game and got rich and bought a monkey to dress up as a butler to follow me around wherever I go.” Keep it reasonable, people!

Doug: I think the biggest hurdle to making your own game is willingness to execute. Lots of gamers have great game ideas, but very few of them are willing to put down the controller and pick up the keyboard. At some point you realize that you can either spend four hours a night playing CoD and Madden, or you can sit at a desk and start making your own game. Most people never make that choice.

The XBLIG market has had mixed results so far in its existence. What do you believe could make it better? What do you believe could improve the service as a whole, from designer to consumer?

Jeff: Events like the Indie Game Uprising go a long way to getting quality games into the spotlight. I mean, really, what do big name companies have that we don’t? They have talent, we have talent. They have great ideas, so do we. They have an awesome system to build on, we have one that we share. But the big difference is people are aware of games coming out because they have the ear of the media. We have very limited resources for PR and marketing. If we had more ways to get a title seen than just telling our friends on Facebook or Twitter or family reunions, it would go a long way.

What can fans of your game(s) expect in the not too distant future?

Jeff: Lots! We have only just begun with XenoMiner. We really want to flesh out the space survival aspects of the game – maybe adding pressure sealing or some kind of life support to interiors so players can build more life-like outposts and stations. Our programmable bots are also an area we will continue to build out – they are a such a fun feature already, and we have tons of cool concepts we could add to them. Some of the guys have discussed biodomes containing organic growth. That may have been a reference to the Pauly Shore movie, but if not it would be a sweet feature!

What game in the Indie Uprising are you most excited to play (besides your own of course)?

Jeff: That is tough, they all look great! If I must choose one then I think the one that really caught my eye is Entropy. The graphics are slick, the gameplay is challenging, I love first-person games. I’ve watched the trailer half a dozen times now. Then I’m going to play the crap out of XenoMiner.

Anything else you would like to say?

Jeff: Thank you for taking the time to talk to one of the gaming industry’s little guys! Follow us on Twitter, @gristmillstudio, to get the word on new developments and feature updates.

We would like to thank Gristmill Studios once again for taking the time to answer our questions!  Stay up to date on all of our coverage of the Indie Game Uprising III by bookmarking the following page: CLICK HERE.  CBR will be providing previews, developer profiles, interviews and of course reviews for every game involved in the Uprising. And, as always, support indie developers!

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About Tristan Rendo

I've made movies, written and performed music, and in January of 2011 got bored and started the awesome gaming site you see before you. My gaming roots began with the original NES, and endless hours spent spilling quarters into machines at the local arcade. I have a personal collection of over 200 Nintendo 64 games, and for many years it was the only system I owned. I re-entered the modern generation of gaming consoles when I decided to purchase a 360. I typically prefer the single player experience of games, so I’m usually playing through some single-player campaign, but can occasionally be found doing some damage in Halo Reach.