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November 27, 2023
10 Min Read
As Orbitect is just a few short weeks away from release, I wanted to write something that I like to think is one of the things I do best: meandering reflective introspection. Orbitect is a game which is near and dear to my heart. My feelings towards it are directed in, revolve around, and go well beyond the game itself. In this post I’ll explain more by breaking it down into three key reasons why. Buckle up.
Orbitect is Indie.
‘Indie’ is somewhat of a nebulous term these days, as video game development teams come in myriad forms of sizes, experience, and budgets. I’m not going to argue the semantics one way or another, but instead try and articulate what indie means to me and why I feel as though Oribitect is an indie game incarnate.
I have written in the past about the power of transferable skills. This is something I feel passionate about because a “generalist” can be seen as a pejorative - someone whose skill-sets are lesser than. Intellectual wanderers who flit from subject to subject and never do any one thing that well. But making indie games - like many things in life to me - are about problem solving. And problems come in so many different shapes and sizes and are solved in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways.
The philosophy of “no one person is any one thing” is baked into our team. Our game designer James has extensive game production experience. Our programmer Ryan has embraced a love for technical art and visual effects. I designed the music and sound effects but also created some data-driven tooling for us (which I spoke about previously) and co-ordinated our outsourcing. I have never designed the narrative for a game, but as a sci-fi geek and a prolific waffler of the written word, I took the reins and have had a blast as the writer / narrative designer for this game (it’s not a narrative driven game by any means but I dare you not to at least chuckle at the puns!). We have supported one another with our variety of experiences, played it fast and loose with our roles, respected one another’s skills, perspectives and experiences, and created something that has been incredibly fulfilling - and genuinely great - as a result.
Our version of indie development pushes beyond the creatively stifling culture of heuristics, processes, formality in job roles, and generally inaccessible job requirements that feel self-referential in nature (“you need to have shipped three games as a Senior Bloopy-bloop to be able to ship this game as a Lead Bloopy-bloop!”) which compartmentalizes people and their ambitions. These are the forces that prevent people venturing outside of their pigeon hole - lest the imposter syndrome fester - and prevents bringing new perspectives and a vibrant diversity to this wonderful creative endeavor. When you develop an indie game there is a technical and creative freedom that is almost indescribable. You do not wait to be told or given permission. There is nobody to say yes or no on how to achieve a specific something, or that an opinion or suggestion isn’t your role to decide. A good idea is a good idea, but more importantly what’s key is that you are given the freedom to prove your chops and deliver on that idea yourself.
I’m not saying that these things are unimportant - in fact I believe that done for the right reasons and in the right way, they are crucial to sustainably embracing the complexity of a studio growing at scale while working on a singular creative vision. And they arguably (rightfully) exist to help assuage any collaboration conflicts, get people in roles that require a very specific skill-set, and prevent a toxic austere culture that could develop from people who think their view is the right one regardless of the value of experience. But why can’t we have the best of both worlds? We’re a core team of three, with select others helping us out periodically. We can embrace all of the structure, governance and controlled workflow that comes with production, best practices and general experience in a specific role - but at the same time play fast and loose enough with formality and structure so that we can pivot, iterate and learn in a way that is truly agile, nimble and exhilarating. With this mindset, there isn’t an outside-looking-in, or an attempt to ‘break into the industry’ at a specific role; it is the industry that forms around and encapsulates you as you contribute to it. And while this is all approached with a humble humility and awareness that you never truly stop learning, it is that curiosity and openness that drives forward progress in any meaningful way. You may not be able to do everything as well as you’d like, but you have the freedom to try anything and see where it takes you.
For me, this is the mentality of indie games, and it has been the mantra of Orbitect’s development.
To play a complete devil’s advocate to this, I will say on reflection that we have made many mistakes. We prioiritised things in the wrong order. We would often think we had consensus on something when we actually didn’t (owing to our light touch on documentation). Our look and feel - and even the game’s genre - evolved substantially over time as the nature and intention of the project changed (more details about that below!). These are lessons learned that we will take with us into the next adventure, but I would make all of these mistakes again - and then some - if it meant we could keep the close, fluid, trusting, collaborative, creative and vibrant environment that we have created for ourselves.
Orbitect is real.
The second reason I love Orbitect is that we’ve actually made it.
Last year I wrote some thoughts reflecting on a decade of writing music for games. I had noted that a substantial amount of projects not used were beecause the projects were cancelled. From my experience, this is extremely common.
For all the exhilaration and creative freedom that I’ve spoken about above, the reality of life is such that after the initial honeymoon-period excitement of a great idea for a game dies down, then other competing priorities, the various challenges and setbacks, the reality of needing to put food on the table, and the sheer power of will required to get started and slog through the nitty-gritty parts of a project will set in, and projects end up faltering and folding.
That’s why the fact that we’re nearing the release of Orbitect - Propulsion Games’ fourth title - feels triumphant in and of itself. I can take barely a modicum of credit for this; up until a year or so ago, Propulsion Games was primarily a labour of love from my brother Ryan, with me making a periodic appearance to provide soundtracks before swanning off again on another project. The first few releases of the Propulsion Games portfolio is truly a testament to Ryan’s inspiring work ethic, discipline and motivation (Ryan if you’re reading this - there I said it, okay?).
Orbitect was a bit different. It started off in 2020 as a hobby project between Ryan and two friends (Martin and Lewi). The game was a cube-and-panels construction physics-based resource management game. The construction element was extremely fun to watch, but the resource management elements proved harder to make unique and notable in a genre that already has so many quality titles. When our friend James entered the fold, we experimented with completely re-designing the genre, keeping the core blocks-and-panels construction, but changing practically everything else about the game. Heck, I even scrapped the soundtrack and started again from scratch (the original music is here if you fancy a listen).
The game pivoted towards rogue-lite styled gameplay, and our ideas and skills started to coalesce into a project with real potential. As the weeks turned into months, our ambitions grew and we had pushed ourselves further than we had in any title previously. The project continued to evolve into a team-based project with many of us playing a variety of roles and learning from one another, imbued with the indie spirit (as I’ve waxed lyrical about further up).
Over the next few months, our powers combined like a proverbial Captain Planet, and Orbitect in its current form emerged. We previously shared a two year development video of Orbitect, which i’ll link to again below - you can see the identity crisis that it went through and how it emerged with clarity as the weird little mashup that it is:
We found ourselves in a position in 2023 where the stars aligned and three of us were able to dedicate a day in the working week solely to Orbitect. It’s not lost on me that this is an incredibly rare, privileged and wonderful thing to happen. To be able to wake up in the morning and spend the day working with your nearest and dearest on a video game project? It’s a dream come true and for me, is one of the biggest markers of success. If everything with Propulsion Games were to end tomorrow, I will be forever grateful that we had this time together. Incredible.
Orbitect is fun.
When it comes to trying to measure the success of making a game, intrinsic joy aside, what I’ve said here means diddly squat unless the games we make are actually fun to play. Every major and minor revision we made during development was in the pursuit of finding the fun.
Ultimately, we are not in control of the actual commercial success of Orbitect. Whilst I believe in the predictive power of data, and acknowledge there are certain metrics available that can provide insights on indicative success - I’m not going to pretend to be an expert in navigating an already saturated and often unpredictable market, or that I can predict the unit sales of this weird little project when there are so many variables at play.
I spend an inordinate amount of time researching the topic of indie game ‘winners’, general discoverability, and understanding the elusive contemporary kingmaker: The Algorithm™. I oscillate between fascination at the fractal-like levels of research that can be undertaken to understand this arena and utilise its lessons, and throwing my hands up in the air and resigning myself to the fact that so many of us are trying to write, analyse, and advise knowledge in a topic that is inherently unknowable to any truly accurate predictable degree. At least in a way that’s relevant to a game like Orbitect.
What I do know for sure is that I actually enjoy playing Orbitect (and I’ve got a lot of games to work through). It sure is a game that is fun to play. Over and over again. There have been many occasions where a day of work has been waylaid due to us watching one another simply play the game. I see that as a good sign. Who knows. Time will tell!
There we have it. A dream come true - a 1,000+ day journey that has been an absolute joy to work on. An experience that has pushed me beyond what I thought I was capable of and inspired me to push myself even further. A game that is truly indie to me. A game made by and with my family and friends. A game that we were able to bring to life and a game that’s actually fun to play. These are the things I think of when I think of Orbitect. There’s also some relief that we’re nearing the end of this mammoth journey. And a melancholy that we’re nearing the end of this mammoth journey - but ultimately, slightly confusingly, a feeling that actually we’ve only just begun on this mammoth journey.
Thanks for reading!
Orbitect is a construction roguelite mashup available now for PC (Windows).
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