Drifter, Kickstarter and Warpgate

Fellow indie dev Colin Walsh (@celsiusgs) recently put up a Kickstarter for his highly ambitious iOS (and if Kickstarter backs it, Mac and PC) space exploration/trading game.

This is the first Kickstarter project I’ve backed.  I threw down $50, partly cause I wanted the poster, but mostly because I wanted to put my money where my mouth is.

See, I don’t like Kickstarter.  But looking at the Drifter project, it helped me realize, it’s not Kickstarter I hate, it’s the projects on Kickstarter.

So many Kickstarter projects are needy and scream of failure.  If nobody is willing to seriously fund your project traditionally, and you don’t believe in it enough to spend your own money, why should I care?  Everyone seems to be asking for a handout.  I made a game without such a handout.  Sure I begged borrowed and stole to make it, but I didn’t ask the public for a dime.

So why the hell did I fund Drifter?  I think it comes down to 3 very good reasons.


  1. I have been tempted with Kickstarter in the past.  It seems so easy.  Throw up a video, write some snappy text, figure out some cheap rewards and reap the benefits of people willing to overpay.  I think my general distrust of Kickstarter will keep me from ever using it (I have no problem going back on this if I prove wrong).  But I needed to know what it was like to back something.  $50 is well worth the experimentation.  I dropped $1500 on Gun Runner stickers as an experiment, what’s an extra 50?
  2. I believe in the project and the developer.  Colin has shipped.  He had the excellent Red Nova game.
  3. This ties directly into #2.  I have a stupid love for Space based Exploration.  So much so that back in 2009 I started on my own Space based exploration game.


Now I’m going to talk about Warpgate, a game I made for the iPhone and iPad.

It all started with a uDev contest.  Mr. Fic of dojotron.com was working on a game he hoped to dominate the uDev contest with. He was all about the glory, not the prizes.  He settled on a game that would become Laserface Jones.

Mr. Fic is a much better artist than myself, but I think even he would agree that he’s not a professional artist.  He had made some killer enemies and ground items for Laserface, but he needed some stuff that didn’t’ feel flat.  Even though it was  a 2D game, it needed some 3D source art to complete the look.

Sitting in my Harlem apartment we scoured the internet for any kind of cheap 3D models.  We started naturally at TurboSquid.  They were all crap, until we stumbled upon a single alien ship that looked pretty bad-ass. This got me thinking about my love of space based exploration games.  This guy had everything we could need.  Starships, space stations, even backgrounds.

I devised a plan, I bought everything the guy had.  All told I probably spent $300 for at-least 200 3D models, all sized properly for the iPhone.

At the time, I was working on Top Gun.  We made some major advancements in our 3D game engine.  When we released Top Gun, I dare say it was one of the best looking 3D games for the iPhone.  We were doing some advanced light stuff, as well as some very aggressive compression techniques.  I remember Eli Hodapp being blown away with what we got the iPhone to do (there was no such thing as a 3GS at this time).

With Top Gun wrapping, I set my sights on the game that would become Warpgate.  Immediately I put my 3D models into the Top Gun engine and editor.  Everything just magically worked.  Top Gun is entirely XML driven, and Warpgate would expand on that system.

There was very little to a product pitch for Warpgate (at the time I was calling it Empire) to the Smiths.  I showed them the 3D models, and how they would look in engine, and then showed them how cheap they were.  I got the green light.

Warpgate was heavily inspired, obviously by Battlestar Galactica and obscurely by Age of Booty.  I love that epic two large battle cruisers pull up side by side and exchange a volley of missiles or cannons at each other.  I wanted to recreate that.

I had one major mission with Warpgate, I wanted to achieve something of Scale.  I wanted a huge Battlecruiser to dwarf the small runabouts in the game.  Ultimately I had to sacrifice some of the scale due to collision and navigation issues, but for the most part I was able to keep it.  One thing I’m super proud of is how you can zoom out to a tactical view, then zoom back in, with super intuitive controls.

I got to Demo Warpgate at a swanky event Phil Ryu was throwing at WWDC at a Comic Museum (it was full of Watchmen stuff at the time).  I even got to meet Woz!  The part of the demo I was extremely proud of was when I zoomed the camera all the way out form the starship to reveal the huge solar system.

The design doc for Warpgate was both very complex on a technical level, but very open in design.  We wanted to have a working economy, where you could buy low and sell high.  We also wanted ownership like in Escape Velocity (we were enjoying people calling the game a 3D version of EV for iPhone).  What we had decided on early was not to have a narrative story.  This was an exploration game.


We were wrong.


We had a finished game with all these great features–randomly generated missions (which were either Kill X, Bring me Cargo Y, or Scan Planet Z), a full economy, you could buy every starship in the game, you could mine asteroids, you could raise and lower your faction standing with the different factions.


And it was boring.


The testers lacked any real goal.  There was no reward, no payoff.

So I sat down with my intern engineers and worked out a plan for them to build a mission system, entirely XML driven that would allow me to craft missions.  It was touch and go, I kept adding new functions I needed.

But I had the pleasure/misfortune of writing over 500 missions, from the scripting of the missions to the writing the dialogue.  I had to name characters, come up with interesting things to do, and balance the game.

It was not an easy task, but I did it.  It pushed the game way back in dev, but god-damn was it awesome.  Sure at launch I had a few bugs with the more ambitious missions.  But we had built some amazing failsafes to prevent the player from getting stuck.

I still look back at Warpgate with a sense of “Damn, did I really make that?” pride.  I wish there was more discussion on the missions, the inside jokes and gags.  The cool parts I was really proud of, with scripting and impact.  The missions where I gave the player a choice that actually affected the game.

So to Colin and his game Drifter I expect great things from you and your game.  Warpgate was one of the hardest but most rewarding devs I’ve ever done.  I’ve asked myself what would I of done different, and I can come up with 3 things.


  1. Investigated making the game a fly the ship from behind style game like Drifter.  We chose the more RTS camera because we thought it made more sense on a touch screen.
  2.  Started on the Missions early on, from the story and pacing to the technical functions.  I didn’t fully figure out my voice for the missions until late in the game, and I didn’t know my main plot at first.  If I was to write it again, it’d be more gripping early on.
  3.  Not to knee-jerk react to initial impressions.  There were vocal people who didn’t like how we did combat.  We let the game AI drive your ship while you focused on firing weapons.  They wanted accelerometer controls.  I caved, and I really really should not of.  These people were wrong.  That’s all there is to it.

So there you have it, Warpgate, a game I think everyone should play, it still looks drop dead beautiful on the iPhone 4 and new iPad, it has some advanced rendering techniques, and it’s just plain fun.

Warpgate - Freeverse, Inc.

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