Road to the IGF: Lazy 8 Studios' Extrasolar

As part of Gamasutra's Road to the IGF series, Rob Jagnow discusses how his love of ARGs shaped Extrasolar, and how he's been secretly terrified of how people will react to the game throughout development.
For Lazy 8 Studios, this is the second time that the indie team will be chasing an IGF trophy. While IGF 2010 nominee Cogs didn't manage to win for the studio, Rob Jagnow and Brendan Mauro are hoping that Extrasolar will win them the Nuovo award this time around at Independent Games Festival 2014. The Nuovo award is meant to celebrate the most unique and different indie games, and in this regard, Extrasolar is a perfect fit. As Gamasutra discovered late last year, this alternate reality browser game is unlike anything we've played before. Extrasolar sees players taking up the role of a NASA-like employee, moving a space rover around the surface of a planet. As you select co-ordinates and take pictures of your surroundings, you slowly begin to uncover secrets and plot twists. As part of Gamasutra's Road to the IGF series, Jagnow discusses how his love of ARGs shaped the game into how it plays today, and how he's been secretly terrified of how people will react to the game throughout development. (And if you're coming to GDC in March, you can see Jagnow's postmortem on Extrasolar.)

What is your background in making games?

I stumbled into the game industry a bit by accident. While pursuing my Ph.D. at MIT, I spent a couple summers working at Pixar and planned to go back after graduation. But by the time I graduated, I found myself in a relationship and my boyfriend was stuck in Boston for another year to finish his Ph.D. The job hunt led me to a small game studio and I soon found myself enjoying the challenge of game development and seeing the potential of games as an interactive art form. A year later, my boyfriend graduated and got a job at Google, so we moved to San Francisco and I started my own company where I took programming gigs with major studios and spent the rest of my time writing Cogs. That game was a big enough success that my small team earned the freedom to do something crazy and experimental -- thus, Extrasolar. Oh, and for the record, staying in Boston paid off. We've been together for nearly 10 years and I proposed to him at Machu Picchu last summer.

What development tools are you using to develop Extrasolar?

We use quite the array of tools and platforms. The server code, which is responsible for maintaining the gamestate and responding to player actions, is written almost entirely in Python with a few small graphics routines in C++. We tend to do most of our server development and testing on OSX, but the live system runs on Linux with Amazon Web Services (AWS). The client code, which forms the framework of the interactive UI for our players, is written in JavaScript and designed to work on any modern browser, including mobile browsers. Finally, the renderer is responsible for creating all the beautiful images that you see in the game. That's written in C++ using MS Visual Studio. All the renderer development is done in Windows and the live environment also runs in Windows on special AWS instances with nVidia GPUs. For terrain generation, we used some third-party tools like GeoControl and bits of the C4 engine. I wrote custom code for generating procedural plant species and other meshes were modeled in Mudbox and Maya.

How long have you been working on the game?

It looks like my earliest notes for the project go back to April 2010, so we're coming up on the four-year mark.

How did you come up with the concept?

As I was out on a walk one day, I started thinking about how I'd love to bring high-end graphics to audiences that have never been exposed to them before. To do that, I'd probably need to render images in the cloud -- and to make that economically feasible, I'd probably really only be able to render one image at a time. So what kind of game might that be? The answer seemed immediately obvious: space exploration! That's not so different from how NASA explores Mars. I pitched the idea to Brendan Mauro, who did all the artwork for Cogs. He was immediately sold. We dropped every other game concept that we'd been toying with and focused on a prototype for Extrasolar.

How did your love of ARGs mold the game into its current form?

When we started development, I'd never heard of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), but when I pitched the concept to some friends at GDC, that acronym came up repeatedly. So I started my research and learned as much as I could. ARG history doesn't actually go back that far. "The Beast", launched in 2001 in conjunction with Spielberg's movie A.I., is usually credited as the first ARG. These interactive experiences deliver unprecedented realism with stories that blur the line between fantasy and reality. But sadly, I had a tough time finding many non-sponsored ARGs that had run over long periods of time as a successful business model. With Extrasolar, we set our sights on creating the emotional experience of an ARG in a form that's more accessible to a large audience -- a story that can be started at any time and played at any pace without having to be part of a huge community of puzzle solvers.

You're up for the Nuovo Award, which celebrates games that are rather unique and different to your average video game. Why do you think the judges picked Extrasolar as something a little "out there"?

From within the first few minutes of signing up for Extrasolar, we throw some major surprises at our players. We do this to make it clear from the very beginning: Let go of your expectations. This isn't going to be like anything you've ever experienced. Throughout the development of Extrasolar, I was secretly terrified that along the way, someone would say, "This is almost exactly like ." But it never happened. Players have said that they're reminded of Myst or The Majestic. But everyone agrees that Extrasolar is something new. It really feels incredible to have that validated with a nomination for the Nuovo Award.

You've already been here before, up for nomination with Cogs back in 2010. Is there anything that you are taking from that experience with the IGF into this time, maybe tips you can give to other IGF finalists this year?

When we didn't win any awards back in 2010, it made me that much more motivated to try again. And here we are! My biggest advice would just be to enjoy yourself. Connect with current and future fans, meet the other amazing developers, be inspired, and talk to people who intimidate you. It's your time to shine!

Were there any design elements that you experimented with that simply didn't fit with your vision?

Tons. The mandatory delay in Extrasolar is very controversial and testers kept asking for ways to spend more time in the world that we'd created. So we discussed all sorts of mini-games, social mechanics, and microtransactions that players could use to do more. But everything we tried made the experience worse -- it felt contrived or broke the fiction. So we threw all of those ideas away and stuck to our core principle: Everything must support the fiction.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you particularly enjoyed?

I love Mushroom 11 and Gorogoa. Both have a really spectacular visual style and unique gameplay. And I can't wait to play Samorost 3. I've always been enormously inspired by the artwork of the Samorost series.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

It is both an amazing and challenging time to be an indie -- amazing because the proliferation of tools are making it easier than ever to bring ideas to life; challenging because, with such a low barrier to entry, there is a flood of new indie games and it's harder than ever to rise to even modest commercial success. Despite these challenges, I think it's a golden era. Indies have finally earned a much-deserved spot in a mainstream spotlight -- and that's good for everyone.


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