I’m a big fan of strategy games, so a few weeks ago when I rediscovered Neptune’s Pride II: Triton I picked the game up again and started playing in earnest. I reached out to the game’s creator, Jay Kyburz, and we sat down to talk a bit about the game, as well as his history in the video game industry.
TJ Porter: Hi Jay, thanks for taking the time to talk with me. You worked at Irrational Games a few years back, what was it like working for a big developer like that?
Jay Kyburz: It was really great actually. It’s very different to working as an independent developer, but it’s nice to work on a big team. You get to own your own small part of the games, and focus on doing it really well as opposed to having to spread yourself thin and do a bit of everything as an independent developer. That’s one of the things that I miss. The other thing that I miss is being able to go into work every day and to be with a team that really knows what they’re doing. Talking to them or bouncing ideas off them is very helpful for solving some problems.
TJ: You were working on Bioshock while you were there. What’s it like seeing how big the series has gotten?
JK: I think it’s great to see how it’s grown. I was still at 2K until Bioshock 2 shipped and I did build a few levels and do a bit of work on that. I guess that I feel a bit of pride that something that I’ve worked on has gone on to be so successful. It’s nice to be a part of a great game and a great team like that.
TJ: I can imagine that it’s a nice feeling to see something you worked on succeed like that. So what was behind your decision to leave 2K and Irrational?
JK: I’d been at Irrational for a long time, nearly ten years. We had built a couple of these big games and the team was really big. There were over a hundred people on the team spread around the world and I think I was just a little bit burnt out. It was great being able to focus on that one thing, but sometimes you do need a change. I had done those things a lot and there wasn’t really an opportunity for me to do other things, and I wanted to try something new.
I also wanted to work on something that I owned. Bioshock is great and it was great to be part of a big team but I wanted something to be mine. When I stay up all night and work through the weekends, the game is my baby.
TJ: So now that you’re on your own, what has it been like trying to get funding for your games? Have you looked at private investors, Kickstarters, or been funding it yourself?
JK: My first idea was just to build some very small games, not spend too much money on them, and let them grow, so I never had to search for funding really. A few years ago I did apply for a grant from Screen Australia, which is how Neptune’s Pride II got built. They gave me a little money to spend on art and to put into some programming time.
Then I applied for a second round of that a year ago and I started working on a second version of my game Blight of the Immortals. I’ve never really looked for private investors.
TJ: What was it like going through the government grant program?
JK: Screen Australia is primarily interested in film and television but they were interested in new media and interactive bits and pieces. The process was simpler than I thought it would be: just sit down for a week and write an awesome application, which you would do anyway as part of designing your game. Just put down whats exciting about your game, your top level features, and cross your fingers.
TJ: So, with Neptune’s Pride II you’re using a freemium model where you can play the base game for free, but you can pay to unlock extra features. With some many games like League of Legends following this model, do you think we’re going to see more games like this?
JK: Yes, I think it’s really an extension of what’s always worked: having a demo or a trial period. I think having a sort of trial that never expires is the next step. I remember when I was young and couldn’t afford many games I only ever played demos but because they were all hard limited to a certain number of levels or amount of time you could never really get deep into a game. I think having a demo that you can keep playing is good, and then pay when you want a little bit more content or when you can afford it. I think it’s silly to turn away players who enjoy the game just because they can’t afford it or you haven’t fully convinced them. I want people playing my games more than anything, buying is really secondary.
JK: I think that browser based games are already pretty big, but I went to a lot of effort with Neptune’s Pride to make sure that the browser interface would work well with the iPhone or iPad. Maybe it’s not as good as a native app, but you can load the game up on your phone, deploy a fleet, send out a message, and it works pretty well. Being able to write the program once and have it work on all sorts of platforms is what is interesting to me. I didn’t want to be just a mobile developer. That’s not how I play games or how I like to do things. Most of the time I’m at my desk and want to use my computer and its big screen, but when I’m on the couch I want to be able to bring the game up on my tablet, or when I’m on the bus I want it on my phone. I want Neptune’s Pride to be accessible like that and I think I’ve mostly succeeded. That’s also my goal for my new game Blight of the Immortals.
TJ: So, talking more specifically on Triton, what inspired you to make a game that takes weeks to play out?
JK: Just that I’d played a few games like that in the past and enjoyed it. I like having the time to think about what I’m doing and to interact with the players. I’ve played some of the old style play be e-mail games. They were mostly turn based and I just like that format. It’s just so much easier now since you don’t have to install the applications and all.
TJ: I’ll be honest, Triton is the first game that I’ve encountered that plays out over such a length of time. My real time strategy experience is from Age of Empires which takes a few hours. I’ve played Civilization which takes a day or two, but having a game that takes a long time and that I can check in one a few times a day is fun.
JK: Yeah, I really love Civilization, but once I left university and started working, I didn’t have time to sit down for two days and play a game. I really like the dropping in dropping out. When you’re siting at your desk working it’s hard to find blocks of a couple hours but it’s easy to find a few minutes before a meeting or during lunch. I like to squeeze my gaming into all these little cracks in the day rather than finding big blocks of times.
TJ: Since the game takes so long to play, is it difficult to playtest it?
JK: Yes. That’s why you guys are helping me playtest it every day. I like to make small changes and then test them. I’m always playing, but don’t like to make as many radical changes these days. Sometimes we might test a weird feature in a private game somewhere after inviting some people from the forums to join. So it takes a long time an development can be slow as a result.
TJ: Does the time investment make it difficult to find players? I know at least from people I’ve shown it to there’s been a split between “oh that sounds cool” and “that sounds like it takes way too long.”
JK: I haven’t really been looking for active players too much, it’s just sort of grown by word of mouth, so I can’t really answer that question.
TJ: Do you have plans to change that, or are you happy with the word of mouth right now?
JK: In a few months time I might invest some time and write a really good AI, write a few interesting rules and scenarios and try to push it out there a little harder, but I’m in no rush.
TJ: Given that player interaction is so important in Triton, do you have any interesting stories of players acting in a way you didn’t expect?
JK: Probably about a year ago we didn’t have the 64 player games, but I think that they’ve added an interesting new dynamic. In the 8 or 10 player games it’s all about the first few weeks and the tactical battles. In the 64 player games there’s a new dimension where you need to keep an eye on different parts of the galaxy. You need to make friendships rather than picking enemies. At some point you need to stop fighting with the people you’re at war with and play catch up with the parts of the galaxy that are more peaceful and have gotten ahead. That doesn’t happen in the smaller games and I think that’s a more interesting dimension. It’s not so much a funny story about diplomacy but I think it’s an extra dimension and it’s really great when it does happen.
TJ: When I’ve had the chance to play the game a bit more I’ll definitely have to jump in a try one of the big games.
JK: I wouldn’t worry to much about it. Don’t take it too seriously, just have some fun with it. I don;t think the game is really about how well you know the rules or min-max your stats. I’d say that 90% of your victories are about your relationships with the players around you. The rest just works itself out.
TJ: So you said that you were working on a sequel to Blight of the Immortals. Anything to share about it?
JK: It’s a much bigger game than anything I’ve made before. It’s got a half million dollar budget so it’s got a lot of art and a lot of content. It’ll have a similar focus as the first Blight of the Immortals in that it’s a more cooperative game. It’ll have a similar slow real time gameplay with the players trying to muster forces and deploy heroes to fight back the spread of an undead plague. It’s similar to the original but it’ll be steamlined, the mechanics will be a bit better thought out, and there will be a lot more content.
TJ: Okay, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me.