Astroneer's ex-AAA devs explore a strange new world of indie life

Three former Halo devs share lessons they've learned from transitioning to indie life, and how those learnings have shaped the way they design and market their sandbox space game Astroneer.

Last month my little tributary of the Twitter river rippled with moving images of astronauts sculpting colorful alien landscapes.

These were the first public glimpse of System Era’s debut project, Astroneer, and for a few days it seemed like you couldn’t glance at Game Dev Twitter without seeing someone tweeting or retweeting these little snippets of twee space life.

“I don’t know if we’ve had time to process it yet; it was like a viral hit, and we didn’t think that was possible,” System Era cofounder Jacob Liechty tells me during a recent phone conversation. “Now people have high expectations. We’re like, ‘Oh shoot, I guess...we have to make a game now.’”

System Era has in fact been making this game, in some sense, for roughly two years.

“We spent the first year of that learning hard lessons, and the next year doing something better,” says Liechty. “We’re all triple-A developers so we think we know how to make games. But it’s completely different, making your own game.”

Behind the cute Astroneer assets is a small team of former triple-A developers who Liechty says have learned some hard lessons about what it takes to succeed as an indie, yet still feel like their big-budget background gives them an edge -- even in a highly competitive market some developers believe is going through an “indiepocalypse.”

“There’s always ‘-pocalypses,’” counters Liechty, with a laugh. “Of course we feel that competition heavily, because we’re seeing these games that are very similar to ours and we’re worried.”

“It seems like every time we reach a point where incompetence no longer sells, that's an apocalypse,” chimes in Astroneer engineer Michael Wilson. He and fellow System Era cofounder Paul Pepera are sitting alongside Liechty. “I think that, at least we have more experience than the average indie developer, and we hope that can translate into a quality product, which will in turn rise to the top so people will see it.”

Liechty tells me he quit his full-time job as an engineer at 343 Industries last year, where he’d been working since 2011. He looks back on that decision and regrets it sometimes; he thinks he could have learned a few more important lessons before sacrificing the safety net of a regular paycheck to work full-time on Astroneer.

“Because you jump into [indie development] and you think you’re working on the right thing, and then actually no, you aren’t, and you realize six months later you could have been making a lot more progress,” he admits. “My own failures are all tied to having this overly triple-A mindset about what you’re working on.”

Chief among his lessons learned is the importance of getting your game to its minimum viable playable state and improve upon it holistically from there, rather than focusing on one component or another to the detriment of the whole.

Get to a minimum viable game and build holistically from there

“Like, my problem was that I worked on engine stuff way, way too much, rather than focusing on making a real, playable game,” says Liechty. “My triple-A mindset made me think we had to solve all these engine problems early...but I learned it’s more important to make sure you’re learning the right things, and making sure you know the most important thing to work on right now, in order to improve your game.”

What’s the best way to learn what you should be working on? Your fellow developers. A lot of early work on Astroneer was wasted, according to Liechty, in large part because System Era didn’t get out and show the game to their peers. If they had, he reasons, they might have spotted things that weren’t working much earlier and avoided months of wasted time.

You're never too busy to talk to your peers

“I spent eight months of my life working on this game, and if I’d take the first month of that to talk to and learn from other people, I could have saved a lot of time,” says Liechty. “I think I avoided actually reaching out to indie communities, getting their feedback, and basically having them tell us that, ‘Hey, your game is shit. Even though you’re triple-A, your game is shit. I know you’re used to having your game be awesome, but your game is shit.’”

So hey, maybe don't be afraid to talk to show your work to your peers! Though to be fair, it’s rare that I speak to an indie developer who isn’t incredibly passionate about being active in the indie game community. By contrast, the Astroneer team seems removed from that community, something Liechty recognizes and chalks up to their time spent at big studios.

“Coming from triple-A, you kind of feel a distance from indie devs. They seem like these super-spry, almost crazy kind of people who think they can do anything,” admits Liechty. “Triple-A people also feel like they can do anything, but they have this chip on their shoulder that like...they’re the pros, you know? That they’re the real pros.”

Where does that big-budget studio experience help them? The System Era guys can all agree on one big thing they took away from triple-A: How to sell.



"None of us were actually in marketing, but we got to watching it happen. We got to see how you hype up a huge audience," says Liechty. "We got a little bit lucky, but it was all planned."

If you want your game to get noticed, advises Liechty, watch how big marketing machines work. Think strategically: What do people want to see, and when will they be most receptive to seeing it?

If you want to get people's attention, find your hooks

"Like, we got a lot of comparisons to The Martian [movie] and, like...of course we knew The Martian exists, and so we thought maybe that would be a good time to release our trailer," says Liechty. "That was intentional. You just have to be strategic like that."

That mindset also extends into actual game development. The System Era devs seem happy to be a part of the indie community, but also a bit puzzled by indie game makers that don't spend time considering how to design not just the game they want to make, but the game that people will want to play (and therefore pay for) months or years down the road.

"There are so many devs I admire so much for making the games they want to play. You hear that like a mantra: 'Make the game you want to play," interjects Pepera, who's an artist on the project. "And that's completely true, and that will make you happy. But it won't necessarily sell."

At AAA studios, says Pepera, nobody is really worrying about making the game they want to play -- they're worrying about making the game that a whole big chunk of the market will play. The Astroneer devs are trying to get away from that approach a bit ("If you want to make a game like Halo you don't quit 343," jokes Liechty) and make their own thing -- while still selling it like it's the next big thing.  

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