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Extrasolar and the perils of reverse-engineering other games’ success

Attempting to reverse-engineer successful games can be a worthwhile exercise, but there are some important things to consider, said Rob Jagnow, creator of Extrasolar.
Attempting to reverse-engineer successful games can be a worthwhile exercise, but there are some important things to consider, said Rob Jagnow, creator of Extrasolar, at a GDC talk Monday. "Game developers spend a lot of time looking at other games attempting to reverse-engineer their success," said Jagnow. "But when we allow our designs to be driven by lessons learned by others we succumb to tunnel vision. And we limit ourselves to compete with others in that space." Jagnow asserted that "the space of all possible games is enormous" and that there can be tremendous value in "taking a less-crowded route" in order to arrive at "a more interesting niche." If you’re first to find one of these unexplored niches in games "you’re in a great position to own it," he said. It’s this thinking that helped Jagnow and his team at Lazy 8 Studios to create Extrasolar, an unusual and intriguing web game in which players assume the role of a remote pilot, sending commands to a remote rover as it drives around a fictional planet Epsilon Prime in search of alien life. The rover moves in ‘real time’ and can take an hour or more to reach new locations on the planet, encouraging unusual rhythms of play. "To help make unusual design decisions and assumptions we hired other voices from outside of the community," explained Jagnow. "Unconventional designs come from unconventional contributors." By way of example, he noted that many of the Extrasolar’s missions were designed by the botanist, Jane Van Susteren. "We would not have seen this kind of design had they come from a hardcore World of Warcraft player." Extrasolar, which launched a few weeks ago, took three-and-a-half years to develop with a team of four programmers and one artist. Jagnow revealed that the team has spent in the region of $600,000 on the development to date. To help the team navigate the difficulties of making the hundreds of low-level design decisions required, they agreed a set of overarching rules to guide the development. "Finding a set of values allowed us to make fast, consistent design decisions," he said. "It’s often tough to get team to agree on low-level decisions. It became a lot easier decide on the smaller decisions once we had these broader values to reference." In order to keep from becoming creatively rundown during the development process, Jagnow participated in regular game jams, something that he encourages all developers to participate in, regardless of their industry experience. "Jams are so liberating and fulfilling," he said. "When you’ve been grinding on a game for years, completing a game in 48 hours is energizing. It’s also a place in which you can fail safely."

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