Road to the IGF: Starseed Pilgrim

Droqen's Starseed Pilgrim is up for the coveted Excellence in Design award at the Independent Games Festival later this month. We talk to him about the game's origins, his collaborators, and some real-life gardening gone bad.
As part of our Road to the IGF series, Gamasutra is speaking to each of the finalists in the 2013 Independent Games Festival to find out the story behind the games. Today we speak to "Droqen," creator of Starseed Pilgrim, which is nominated for the Design award.

What is your team's game development background, if any?

Maybe I'll start out by telling you a bit about the team? Feels like a weird word to use for us four. Ryan Roth (@dualryan on twitter) changed Starseed Pilgrim forever with his sound. For years it had been this colorful but audibly dead game, and he came along just a week or two before release and made nearly every sound you'll hear in the game now over the span of three days. Starseed Pilgrim, up until this point, felt almost forgettable. He completed it and made it something beautiful. Mert Batirbaygil ( made art so long ago that I can hardly remember what the old prototype looked like, but he too changed Starseed Pilgrim forever. Verrrry early on in development we got together and he changed my desaturated and kinda ugly art into the really welcoming and colorful landscape that exists now. Credited NOWHERE IN THE ACTUAL GAME is Allan Offal ( whose contribution was more intangible. As he's done with several of my previous games (most notably FISHBANE, for which he designed about a quarter of the levels), he provided extremely valuable suggestions and critiques. He'll probably hate me (hi offal) for writing up so much about him, but we've never really been able to agree exactly how influential he's been on my games. If you're a game designer you'll probably understand what I mean when I talk about all the 'what ifs' a game in progress can attract. "What if you had a flamethrower?" "What if this was multiplayer?" "What if you added dynamic lighting and mirrors?" He's provided me with, as opposed to the previous examples, a lot of perfect 'what ifs' and some really solid advice on what to change and what not to keep over the years. Okay, on to me, I guess. I did... the rest. I carried the game with me everywhere I went and programmed it all and made the original graphics and the only original sound effect (singular). My game development background, which I actually know, goes something like this: At the age of three or four (I can't remember which; I was bad with numbers back then) I made Doom levels. I tried to graduate to Duke Nukem 3D, but the editor was too tough for even my dad, so I gave up on that dream. I figured out basic programming concepts using RPG Maker 95, learned Visual Basic (from my dad), then proceeded to spend several years mastering Game Maker (this is definitely where I really learned how to program and design games). After that came Java, C#, and Python. Then came University. Briefly friendless, I made the original Probability 0 and did not pay attention to class. Then having accidentally befriended an amazing group of people, I continued to make games and did not pay attention to class. I met a lot of incredible Toronto developers and got a summer job working on Sound Shapes -- which, bumpily, turned into a non-summer job, and I quit school. Roughly a year later, Starseed Pilgrim was nominated and my brain exploded and here we are.

What game development tools are you using?

I've settled in pretty firmly with Flash. Starseed Pilgrim was built in Flash; I've been working with FlashDevelop and FlashPunk for a few years now, and I don't see that changing too radically any time soon. Oh, I guess I forgot to mention that in the timeline above!

Where did the concept come from?

As closely as I can remember, I was leaving behind me a freshly-abandoned series of projects (as I so love to do) and looking for a new idea to snag me. I asked for ideas on an IRC channel and was given the nugget that would eventually become Starseed Pilgrim (I can't remember who said it! If it was YOU, send me an email or something so I can know at last and take that knowledge to the grave). Paraphrasing here, it was this: "What if you made a game where you had to plant platforms?" To this day Starseed Pilgrim builds out to 'PlantingPlatforms.swf'! This seems like an appropriate place to link the earliest still-existing prototype from all the way back when I didn't have a good name for it -- or nice art or any sounds other than the sharp 'POP' that persisted as THE ONLY SOUND EFFECT until shortly before release. (I can't imagine how I ever thought it was enough.) There's more to Starseed Pilgrim than what came out of just this, but most of that I'd forever regret revealing! Much of the game's strength comes from what you discover and I wouldn't ruin that for you for anything. Let's just say that upon this base mechanic I allowed myself room to grow and to implement all the weird meta-worldly stuff that I don't normally get to pursue. Oops, maybe I said too much.

How long have you been working on the game?

That prototype I linked above was released October 11 of 2010. It's been two years and a few months, now, and I do think the update I released not so long ago fixed everything that needed to be fixed. Two years and a few months in no way accurately reflects how long I've been working on the game, though. In that time I worked on a ton of other stuff; I don't think Starseed Pilgrim ever really left the back burner. There were just a few friends who fell in love with it after trying it -- and who would remind me, at every opportunity, to just finish the damn thing already! Even I was telling myself to finish it. Here's a quote from me from March, 2011: "I've got to get this done! "I have two projects (this and P0) which are kind of around in their final stages of development but I'm not doing them! "What the hell, Droqen." I don't really think I was wrong. Starseed Pilgrim had been 90% done for a year and a half before I finally finished it. This wasn't even a case of "the last 10% takes 90% of the work," there was honestly almost nothing left to do but to make some tough tiny decisions, write some super easy code, and get sound. Sound ended up being the dealbreaker, though; it was worth the wait.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any standouts?

The complete list of IGF finalists I've played as of right now: Incredipede, Guacamelee!, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, Thirty Flights of Loving, Cart Life, Dys4ia, FTL, Star- wait, that's me, Super Hexagon, Hotline Miami, and VESPER.5. I really, really want to play Samurai Gunn. I kind of want to speculate more about the games I HAVEN'T played but looks can be deceiving. Well, except for, as I've said, I really want to play Samurai Gunn. I've wanted to for MONTHS! Standouts. Oh, no. I've been just fine answering so far but now I'm getting some manner of stage fright. Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime looks really slick, and being in control of a giant ship in the middle of the screen is something you honestly don't see much in games! The game itself is a co-op blast and I can't wait to play the newest version. I've been playing VESPER.5 for months, and it's hard to really describe the experience of playing it as... well, anything. Fun? It is unique, and it has as much of an effect on you while you're not playing it as when you are. I can't wait to see a little more tomorrow. I did not play enough Cart Life. I caught a glimpse of a world, bought a sandwich, was worried I'd be mugged. It is not a friendly game. I look forward to trying it a few more times until the way the world works finally clicks, and I can start thinking about selling coffee and talking to shop owners and not getting mugged instead of feeling extremely lost. Three! Three is enough.

How do you define an "indie" game developer?

"Indie" is a word I'm kind of uncomfortable with. At one point it, as a shorthand for "independent," it meant independent of publishers. From there was born the ideal that independent developers were free to make really amazing stuff that publishers would normally crack down on. The term has become a pivot for arguments of legitimacy and respect. Are you indie if you make expressive stuff? There are games that people say "feel indie." There are technically independent developers who are only so because they're part of a publisher rather than under (but answering to themselves is just as bad). If a game designed by a developer is distributed by a publisher, does that game cease to be indie? What if a game is developed under a publisher who is really accepting of ideas that "feel indie"? So, I think I had to get that all out. Keep in mind that maybe this is just my definition of "game developer whom I by default respect as a game developer (but there are other ways to gain/lose my respect and perhaps you do not care about my respect and that's cool too)": My definition of "indie" game developer is one who, more important than being independent from publishers, is independent from all those factors who make publishers undesirable. To be "indie" requires that one does not allow a desire for money to influence a game's development. Or, if you'll allow me to take it a bit further, one cannot allow for any ulterior motive. Any motive at all apart from "What game do I want to make for its own sake, and how do I make this thing the best it can be?" detracts from being "indie." Importantly, "indie" does not imply good and the opposite does not imply bad. People who aren't "indie" can still be fine game developers and a great people. They may create a fun game; they may create an amazing game; they may create my favorite game, or yours. This is just my attempt to get at what I really feel is actually IMPORTANT about being independent from publishers, and one of the many factors that can help a game developer make the best and most interesting things. Here's one final thought: Even a team of individually indie developers can de-"indie" a production. Conflicts of interest are inevitable, and it's easy for "How can this be the best?" to descend into "How can this be something we can all tolerate?" This definition of mine is an extremely slippery slope if you think about it too much. Therefore, I try not to! I just try to make games :D

This game seems deeper than its "game design," is there a certain feeling you're trying to evoke?

I don't really know what came first: my love of discovery, or Starseed Pilgrim. There are a lot of things that I added not because I thought they would be interesting to discover, but because I thought they would be interesting to interact with. As it turns out, mystery and wonder are powerful emotions. At its inception, I wanted Starseed Pilgrim to be a game about planting platforms and I tried to think of how to make that as interesting as I could. I figured that out, and scattered over years, added more; I never added clear instructions because I have no love for those, and I learned that the world became more interesting that way. Though I'm sure I didn't express it properly to him, Ryan Roth's audio work -- his creation of the orchestral soundscape that is now Starseed Pilgrim -- reflected and magnified perfectly everything I ever wanted it to evoke. I moved through a phase of wanting to evoke growing and filling up your own spot of infinite emptiness; and a phase of wanting to evoke a feeling of exploration; and a phase of wanting to tell a scattered story. I think all these feelings came together to make Starseed Pilgrim what it is and it's richer for having been through them all. I'm happy with what it is now: a very empty landscape in which I've planted the seeds of wonder.

Explain the game's title.

Earlier today I was trying to remember the answer to this very question: where the hell did 'Starseed Pilgrim' come from? I came across this old picture with a mix of familiar art and art that just looks weird now: (Multiple characters because it's composed of multiple screenshots) Originally and in the first pass of new art, the seeds really were stars. I took their shape from Probability 0 (the original at that time! The new one uses the same stars), and they stuck for a little while. They stuck just long enough to find their way into the name, I guess. Now they're round circles, and somehow still starseeds. At the time I was struggling with that, but I'm pleased as hell with the name now. It grew on me. If you do a search for "starseed" you get some weird results that I'd never heard of until at least a year or two after the name had been firmly locked in. As far as "pilgrim" goes, is there any other word more appropriate for one who travels through an infinite expanse of nothingness in search of... something, you hope? (I suppose there must be. Exile? In any case, Pilgrim felt right, and it's a word you don't see enough these days.) There was a ring to 'Starseed' and 'Starseed Pilgrim' sounded even better, so I went with it and stuck with it.

Have you ever done any real life gardening?

Not really, but... I got close, once :) Very, very briefly I dabbled with it when one day many years ago (something like eight years ago? I was in grade eight or nine. Seriously, a long time ago) I was in a grocery store and very, very bored. I was waiting for my interview because I was trying to get a summer job at said grocery store (spoilers: I didn't get it. They weren't looking for summer employees) and I happened to be standing by a rack of seeds. So, as if they were magazines in a waiting room -- they were more interesting, actually -- I browsed through little rectangular seed bags until I came across moonflowers and decided to buy some seeds because they were really cheap and sounded cool. From what I read I remember they would flower at night and close up during the day. They'd sprout from vines that would climb any appropriate surface! Even crestfallen from summer job rejection, I walked home, seeds in hand (or pocket, wherever) and planted them next to my house. I kept them watered and there was enough light and, one day, they sprouted! Excitement abounded: I'd nurtured my little moonflowers to life! Green shoots poked out of the dirt! Then bugs ate the sprouts to death, and I never gardened again.

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