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Interview: Retrobooster


An interview with Terry Welsh, former NASA researcher, cave flier enthusiast, and developer of Retrobooster

What would be the elevator pitch for Retrobooster?

I’m trying to reinvent the cave flier for skilled players, players who like skill games. And the big difference is, when you play cave fliers, especially a contemporary one, they usually slow it down. So players can usually control the ship immediately but that usually means the ship cannot move or accelerate too fast, otherwise they’ll turn off impatient players or people who cannot fly it very well right off the bat.

I thought there was a good niche open for a game that’s a cave flier but with a really responsive ship. That lets you do totally different types of levels than you see in this type of game normally.

The risk is some players might try and control it and say, ‘this is way too hard’. But I’ve seen a lot of people, they get in and have enough patience to get used to the controls and I try to keep the levels interesting while they’re doing that. Once they get a bit of practice at it, it can be a lot of fun.

Cave flier is pretty self-explanatory but what are the mainstays of that type of game and what makes Retrobooster different?

Usually it’s all about struggling against gravity, rescuing little people on the ground, and picking up fuel dumps. Those are the mainstays.

I changed that a bit. I kept the people. Because it’s kind of fun to rescue the people on the ground but I also made them more interactive so you can squash them and set them on fire. Because, I mean, how could you leave that out, it would be a crime.

And I got rid of the fuel dumps completely because it’s just a timer in disguise. When you have a fast ship you can have other kinds of challenges.

And struggling against gravity, it’s been done, so I’ve kept the gravity light. It’s just a tool for landing and rescuing humans in the game.

There’s an interesting background prior to getting into development – you were working with NASA before?

Well, it’s more complicated than that. I was working for UC Santa Cruz and they contracted me to an army research lab at the NASA Ames research center. And I’d just tell people that and they’d say, ‘oh, so you work at NASA’, and I’d say, ‘yeah, I just work at NASA’. (Laughs) It’s too complicated to explain, I had about eight bosses.

How has the transition been from research into game development?

It was pretty easy. The kind of work is very similar. I was doing simulator stuff over at NASA. A lot of graphics programming, and now making games, it’s the same kind of programming, it’s just creative.

Why leave to follow the game development dream?

I just like the creativity of it. I’ve always had an artistic side. Doing programming is always fun and interesting but I guess I like more variety and to have some creative work to do as well. And this is like a big, fun art project, unlike others I have had before. I’m really enjoying it.

Is the plan to continue developing?

I’ll have to see how this goes. Would love to make enough money off of this game that I could afford to make another one. That’s the goal really. If that doesn’t work out, I’d have to get another conventional job again and work on it on the side. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t make another game again but I’d have to go back to doing it as a hobby project but that takes so long, maybe I could pick a simpler project next time.

So you’ve been working on this for a long time?

Yeah, I started a long time ago. I just worked on the basics of it first. I did the flying and controls first because I knew they had to be right in this game. And I worked on the particles because I knew there had to be a lot of explosions. So I did that stuff early on and then when testers started liking it enough I decided I’d go full-time and make the full thing.

So you’re working on every aspect, marketing, dev, everything?

Yeah, I’m just doing it myself. I see a lot of teams with 3-4 people on it and that would be a lot easier. If I did another game I’d probably get a few partners on it.

With this particular type of game it might’ve been difficult to talk other people into helping me with it?

Why’s that?

(Laughs) Just because it’s… It’s pretty niche. It’s not what people usually make and play. I don’t know many other people who are into cave fliers like I am. I think they’re a lot of fun. I think that there’s an elegance to how they control and how the ship moves. But I don’t know if other people feel that way. I haven’t seen any indie developers, at least locally, making the same kind of game.

How does marketing work for an indie?

The thing I like about the marketing side of the industry is you can’t just bullshit people. There’s only so much you can do to put a spin on that. You can just talk to people about your game and explain it the best that you can. Once they try it, if it’s just not fun to them, they’re not going to play it anymore. So I kind of like the marketing aspect of games, you can’t just whitewash things very much, you just tell it like it is, and that’s it.

How’s the Greenlight campaign going?

I’ve been on Greenlight for a bit over a year now and put Retrobooster on when I first announced the game. It hasn’t been Greenlit yet but is over 75% now.

Thoughts on the process?

It seems all right and I’ve heard all the complaints about Greenlight but I get the impression it’s a sort of chicken-and-egg problem. Everyone says they want to have different kinds of games and higher quality ones, not just what’s being voted for, but that would be for customers that Steam doesn’t already have. I see the problems with Greenlight and it’s tricky but I’m not sure how to solve it.

And that’s the only way in?

Currently, once you’ve started the process, there’s no other way to get in but I have been approached by a couple publishers who say they can help get me through with or without Greenlight.

Would that be of interest or would you like to stay independent?

I’d like to stay independent for right now. But it’s actually kind of interesting with all these digital distribution platforms because they say you do not need a publisher and can get on yourself but the publisher still acts as a middleman, there’s a lot of gray area there.

Find out more about cave flier Retrobooster and where to find it on the official site.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @Calvin_Kemph.

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