This exclusive interview with Airships: Conquer the Skies creator David Stark covers everything from how he got into game development and the challenges therein, to future projects and what games he currently enjoys playing.
Airships: Conquer the Skies is an indie steampunk airship designer where players build, command, and destroy vessels in attempts at world domination. Or at least, when playing the Strategic Conquest mode.
Players can choose to build an airship, land cruiser, or even a regular building with a surprisingly large number of design options to choose from. Weapons, lift, thrust, armor and more affect the flying and movement capabilities, as well as the structural integrity of the creation. Build something too big, and it might just collapse after getting hit with a few rounds.
Airships has been under continuous development for the last two years, and David Stark intends to keep at it. The most recent patches added grapeshot cannons and monstrous creatures to the game for players to fight. If you have the right stuff, you can even tame fire-breathing dragons.
Speaking of fire, both it and explosions are risks players have to manage in their designs. While it may be great to have a ton of ammo on board, there’s a chance a stray bullet could trigger an epic explosion, shredding your battleship into tiny, flame-ridden pieces.
John Butler: So tell us a bit about yourself. What got you started into Game Development?
David Stark: I was definitely one of those kids who would constantly make up stories and games anyway. So when I got access to computers — some ’90s Macintoshes — I started putting together games of sorts using FileMakerPro, which is really a database software.
I then got heavily into Escape Velocity, a ’90s Mac game that was heavily data-driven and moddable. So everything in the game was in data files with a documented format, which meant you could change stuff around and add stuff.
From there, I tried to learn programming, which was hard at first because I didn’t really understand the basic principles or have any useful tools. I bashed my head against C for a while, and then found a dialect of BASIC that I could use, which is what I used to make my first “real” games, e.g. an Asteroids clone.
After university, I spent about three years doing non-games software development as an employee, after which I quit to become a freelancer and game developer.
It still took a long time to get anywhere, though, because shortly after I quit, I developed some very RSI. Recovery took a few years, and then a few years to have the financial stability to do more than a little bit of game development.
So basically, by maybe 2013, I was finally in a secure and healthy enough position to devote a fair portion of my time to game development.
JB: Is that when you started development on Airships: Conquer the Skies?
DS: I started development on Airships in October, 2013, yeah. It actually started out as a kind of a cathartic quick prototype about things blowing up.
I had just found out that a company I’d been working for heavily had been concealing from me that the founders got into a massive fight.
Said founders had been happy to withdraw their funding from the company while re-assuring me that everything was fine, so I’d keep working. When it finally came out, I had massive unpaid invoices.
Of course, as a freelancer you have to accept that sometimes, you don’t get paid. But it was also the way they’d been happy to lie to me, and the fact that they had plenty of money, they just thought they could get away with not paying me.
Funnily enough, I just got that money last week, after three-and-a-half years of chasing them through the courts and forcing the company into bankruptcy.
Anyway, the original idea was really just a fairly simple game where you’d put together some Steampunk airships and have them blow each other up.
JB: Well, that’s a happy end to the story then! I know what that’s like myself. So, going back to your comment about Escape Velocity. I played the Windows port of EV: Nova for hundreds of hours back in high school and college, so I can imagine the Escape Velocity series made an imprint on your game development?
DS: Yes, definitely. The first game didn’t really have all that much of a story compared to EV: Nova, but it was kind of a sandbox game. It felt like a world you could be and act in, rather than a linear story intercut with action sequences. And the fact that the game was easily moddable meant that there was a big community of people making these mods, which is something I’m trying very hard to also encourage with Airships.
JB: I can definitely tell! There’s an excellent selection on the Steam Workshop. I believe you have made a few mods for Airships yourself?
DS: Yes, I think the best way to learn modding is by being able to take apart and play around with an existing mod. You can start out by taking a mod that adds a new gun, and just changing the name and some of the numbers you recognize. That’s really easy, and you’ve already made your first mod. Then you can work your way up, figuring out what each value does and how the whole thing is structured. If I just released a big tome of documentation but no examples, it would be very intimidating.
I also get a fair number of people asking me how to get started in game development. The main advice I give there is that getting to a state where you can change around things and see the effects is the most important thing. If you try to learn it by reading books or watching tutorials, you end up feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. If you get to a point where you can experiment, you have more fun and learn faster.
JB: That’s quite true. So on that note, what development goals do you have for your game, and what can we expect to see this year in Airships?
DS: At this stage of development, it’s mostly about fleshing things out. The most recent update added a number of monsters for players to fight, but I had to cut a number of them to make the release deadline. Then there’s various areas where the game does not work as well yet as I’d like. I want to deepen and re-balance the strategic conquest mode, where players attempt to unite a number of city-states under their banner. I want to give players better support for multiplayer fights and events. And right now, I’m deep in the process of figuring out how to improve performance. Simulating the actions of hundreds or thousands of air sailors and modules in realtime turns out to be quite taxing.
It’s also about triaging what goes into the game. “Version 1.0” is arguably a bit of an arbitrary milestone, but I want to deliver a finished version of the game that is playable and well-rounded.
After all, some people enjoy playing a game again and again while it’s being developed, while others would rather see the finished, working product. I want to cater to both.
So when I have cool ideas for complex new features that aren’t really needed, I put them on the list of things to put in post-release, as an update or expansion pack.
Since I develop Airships on my own, without a publisher or investor to impose external deadlines, I have to be careful to exercise some self-discipline when it comes to adding things.
JB: I can certainly attest to the intensity of large scale combat in Airships. The 1/4 speed setting is much appreciated. In regards to the Strategic Conquest mode, I noticed that most of the negative reviews focused on either that or the low amount of people for multiplayer. What do you have in mind to address these issues?
DS: In any kind of game where you’re trying to fight and win, it’s by far the most fun if you’re not sure if you are going to win. Strategy games, in general, have the problem that the latter part of the fight is often boring.
For example, while I love the first 100 turns of so of Civilization games, I find the final parts of the game incredibly tedious, as you move slowly towards a foregone conclusion. You’re slowly moving armies to mop up your opponents, or managing your empire while waiting for some tech or culture score to go high enough to award you victory.
Airships’ strategic conquest mode has this problem in spades. Once you’re the biggest empire on the block, the rest becomes mop-up.
The first measure to address this is already in, with smaller empires now joining up in alliances to more effectively oppose your rise. I’m also working on alternate victory conditions that should cause the game to stay in that sweet spot of “will I win, or not” for as long as possible, before delivering a fairly swift victory or a suitably dramatic defeat.
With multiplayer, it’s really the chicken-and-egg problem. Two people need to be looking for a game at the same time for a game to happen. Because the game has accumulated players steadily over time, at any given point there’s only a few new players, who tend to go online a few times and then give up in frustration.
The solution there may be partly technological, such as making it easier to schedule matches or instituting a ladder system. But I think there’s also a big social component: if enough people turn up at the same time, multiplayer games actually happen.
And this is now happening — some players are organizing regular Friday multiplayer online get-togethers. So it may be as much about encouraging and supporting that embryonic multiplayer community as doing actual development work.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve found that as Airships becomes more popular and moves towards completion, I spend an increasing part of my time on community management, tech support, and PR.
JB: The bigger and better the game gets, the more details have to be dealt with. So I know you are the primary programmer and creator for the game, so what are your plans for future development of your company? I noticed you’ve worked with a couple of other people on different aspects of Airships.
DS: Indeed. Curtis Schweitzer, who also did the music for Starbound and Staxel, joined very early on. And more recently, I’ve been working with Karina (chirun.deviantart.com) on character and title art.
My general attitude is that I want to try doing everything myself! Learning new skills is a very enjoyable part of game development, and even if it turns out I’m not good enough at something, trying to understand it helps me work with specialists. Having an understanding of lighting and composition helps when talking to visual artists. Having tried to write your own music, even if it was awful, helps when talking to a musician.
Longer-term, I really don’t have ambitions to start employing people full-time, even if I have enough money to do so. Game development is a very risky business. Airships is doing well, but it’s perfectly possible that future projects may not, and being responsible for employees seems very stressful to me. For future projects, I aim to not make games more complex than Airships, and to get better at identifying parts of work that can be entrusted to experienced freelancers like Curtis and Karina.
There’s a big temptation to make each project bigger and more ambitious than the previous one, confusing mere size with progress. I’d like to get better at making more fun with less effort, rather than getting into ever-bigger projects until bad luck sinks one of them and me with it!
Which means that right now, I’m looking at two-to-three prototypes for the next project after Airships, all of which are — I think — less ambitious in terms of size, but more ambitious in terms of who they will appeal to.
JB: Are these prototype projects in the same vein as Airships with the steampunk design-and-fight concept, or something different entirely?
DS: They’re pretty different, though I have noticed that many of my game designs have a common theme of “horrible things happening to little simulated people.”
One I’m currently looking at actually came out of the Ludum Dare game jam about a month ago. It’s called Concierge, and it’s basically a puzzle game. You have to assign guests to hotel rooms. Unfortunately, all your guests are things like vampires, mad scientists, priests, twitchy insomniacs, cultists, and so on. It’s fairly ridiculous, and not a very big project. I’m currently working on an upgraded version, which I’ll then put onto an iPad and shove at people at parties and events to see if they like it.
In another, you control a flying saucer above a simulated city, and must mind-control its inhabitants without arousing too much suspicion. It’s a combination of action, tactics and stealth, all inspired by classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, X-Files, etc. You could describe it as “reverse XCOM” in terms of setting, but it doesn’t play anything like XCOM.
Ultimately, there’s still a lot to do for Airships, so right now I’m mostly letting those concepts stew in the back of my mind for now.
JB: Those sound like great app games! I can imagine killing a few minutes here or there keeping the priest from stabbing my vampiric customers. So besides Airships: Conquer the Skies, what are some other games you currently enjoy playing?
DS: I finally got into playing Nuclear Throne after getting it as part of an itch.io bundle. I can’t say I’m very good at it yet, but it makes for a great game for shooting some monsters for 10 minutes between doing other stuff. And I’m just extremely impressed at all the details — the animation, the way that the enemy AI rewards players playing in a risky, but skillful way.
I’m also again playing a lot of Sunless Sea, now that the expansion pack is out. Sunless Sea is probably the modern game that most recaptures for me the fun I had playing Escape Velocity. That sense of a deep and real universe full of stories. It’s a shame modding for it never took off at all, really.
Oh, and we’ve been playing quite a lot of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes in my flat. It’s one of those games you get envious of as a game developer, because it’s a really clever and fun idea that you know you could have made too, if you just thought of it first.
Apart from that, I want to spend more time this year exploring Twine games. I really enjoy weird and horrible games like Horse Master and Sabbat, but I’m not really plugged into that community at all, so I don’t really know what’s out there.
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[Featured Image by Airships: Conquer the Skies]