Zer0sum Games is an independent game studio based in Portland, Oregon. It was started by Superslice friend, attorney, Daniel DiCicco. For some time now, Dan has been putting his blood, sweat, and tears into a 4X action/strategy video game titled, StarDrive.
It’s a game where the goal is to build a space empire starting with a single planet and a small number of space vessels. The intent is to forge out into the galaxy, explore worlds, build colonies, and discover the StarDrive universe.
At the heart of StarDrive, is its ship design and combat engine; it takes a module-based approach to ship design. It allows players to create custom designs where the composition and placement of ship modules have a direct effect on the performance of a ship in regards to combat. Strategy, discipline, and “smart” design are key in this game.
DiCicco has recently launched a Kickstarter project to raise funds that solely go towards garnering more art and design for StarDrive. Support creativity, bolster the entrepreneurial spirit and contribute to the development of StarDrive; you’ll at least receive an awesome game out of it.
TONY TRINH: How long has it taken to develop StarDrive to get to where you’re at? I know you have been up in the lab assembling things for awhile. Give me a brief time-frame of the design development and execution of this game.
DAN DICICCO: StarDrive actually started as a board game. I was working on some concepts in April of 2010, and what I realized is that the math of what I wanted to do with a board game was just too complicated. I know how to program, but at the time I didn’t know anything about video game design. So I googled it.
Everything I know about designing this game, I learned from Google. I followed tutorials on drawing images to the screen, rendering models, setting up lights, handling input, playing sounds — and piece by piece, the game started coming together. By October of 2010, I had a pretty decent framework going and so I hired an artist to start making some spaceships for me.
(DD cont.) But originally, StarDrive was going to be a 2D game. I realized around November of 2010, that really, 3D is where it’s at. The difference between coding a 2D versus a 3D game, well, it’s huge. So back to Google I went, and I kept on learning.
By May of 2011, I had StarDrive looking like it looks now. It’s been a huge investment of time and of money, but it’s something I am deeply passionate about. StarDrive should be totally complete by June of 2012.
TT: It’s impressive that you are self-taught. I think one of the innovative things about StarDrive is how it combines the traditional aspects of a fighter game and commingles it with the interactivity of design within the construct and world of the game. You know, there’s a sense of authorship that takes place. Also, the control of design operates on a micro and macro level; you get to design your own badass starship, but you also get to build an empire and orchestrate it. Can you talk about this layer of the game?
DD: I believe that most people have a biological imperative to improve themselves and their situation. The best video games unlock this potential by allowing a player to create something they can be proud of, whether it is a powerful mage in a role playing game, a giant monument in Minecraft, or in my game, a sprawling and powerful space empire.
(DD cont.) In StarDrive, your empire’s success comes from your creativity in your ship designs and from the shrewdness of your economic and political decisions. If you can manage to beat the game, I want you to be proud of that accomplishment, and also hungry to do it again against real human opponents.
TT: Right. A game ceases to be a game without strategy and parameters. I appreciate this careful attention to, as you say, economy, politics, social constructs. I’m not saying that games have to make some post-structuralist argument or commentary, but I do think good art always touches on these topics in some way. Whether it be a science fiction book, film or video game. Speaking of economy, how does one accumulate capital within the StarDrive universe. How does one “do work”?
DD: The main work in StarDrive is the acquisition of new planetary colonies. Colonies produce resources that are simplified into 4 categories: food, production, research, and money. Each resource fills a role. Food is consumed every game “turn” by the colonists on your planet. Insufficient food supply leads to starvation and population shrinkage; sufficient food supply allows population growth. The larger a planet’s population, the more resources it can produce. Production of resources generally is tied to planetary populaton.
(DD cont.) “Production” is the resource used to build ships and buildings. For instance, a “mine” building will increase the production of a colony; however, you need production to build a mine. Building up a colony from the initial outpost to an industrial juggernaut involves ensuring that the planet has enough food for the population to grow, and enough production to bootstrap your way up.
So, I tried to model colonization of planets somewhat realistically. When you first get to a planet, you have very little with you, and you are not able to produce very much. However, you can accelerate planetary growth by assigning freighters to carry goods throughout your empire. The freighters are largely automated and will bring food, production, and also new colonists to your recently settled worlds.
(DD cont.) Your trade network is therefore vital to properly growing your empire. Consequently, defending your trade network (or attacking your opponents’) is absolutely critical. Research is produced at planets as well with research facilities that you build there. You can choose to focus a planet by building higher-level, more expensive research buildings. You can also trade with alien races to acquire tech.
(DD cont.) Finally, buildings and ships all cost money for maintenance. You have to have sufficent population to tax for income, and you can also raise money through trade with alien races and by researching economic improvements. The work of StarDrive is balancing all of this. And also, of course, planning and executing your military strategy.
TT: This is an intricate simulation; you have trade, commerce, industry, growth, and technology/evolution/progress all in play and it’s rounded out with some fantastic design. You mentioned working with an artist on the design of the ships. I know that you have started the Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to develop more art and design for StarDrive, but can you tell me about how the design process worked between Zer0Sum and Ariel Chai? What was the working relationship like? What kind of input or criteria did you give him for the look and feel?
DD: Good question. I was extremely lucky to find Ariel. I spent a long time looking at portfolios and I decided to give Ariel a shot because he has a lot of experience and also because he had worked on a project similar to mine in the past.
Developing that relationship was tentative at first. I sent him my general ideas for the first ship, he sent me a quote and some concept mockups, and it was very professional and attentive in this. Ultimately I was extremely impressed with his first effort and I think we really are on the same wave length concept wise.
But Ariel is more than just an artist. In a way, he is the art director. He takes my ideas and refines them and shapes them, as much guiding the process as taking instruction.
Finally, Ariel’s extensive game design experience has proven invaluable. Basically, the man knows his shit about games and his knowledge of industry standards has been very helpful. Again, I feel very lucky to have connected with this particular artist and StarDrive would be very different if not for him.
TT: In the Kickstarter synopsis, you mentioned that you were inspired by the game elements of Master of Orion II and Escape Velocity. What are some of the other science fiction sources that influenced you? Book, episodic television series, or film? That is, other than Star Trek: The Next Generation, which I know you’re a huge fan of. By the way, what’s the politically correct term these days? Trekkie or Trekker?
DD: You know, I never liked Trekkie or Trekker. I just like Star Trek. A lot (TNG!). But actually a huge recent inspiration has been John Scalzi‘s Old Man’s War series. This is Hugo/Nebula award stuff that somehow flew under my radar until just this year. The series is about fighting for valuable colony planets in a crowded and hostile galaxy. I put a few homages to the series in my game.
(DD cont.) Other great space colonization material includes Red Mars and Containment, both of which are really wonderful depictions of the hardships space colonists might face. TV shows like BSG (Battlestar Galactica) and Firefly have been inspiring, and some lesser known shows like Defying Gravity have been inspiring as well.
(DD cont.) Finally, tons of other space games exist out in the ether that I have played and enjoyed over the years. As I learned more about game development, I have gone back to play many of these games with a much more analytical, deconstructive perspective. What are they doing? How are they doing it, and does it work? But I look at other genres as well when it comes to gameplay elements, not limiting myself to just space games. Many games have similar gameplay even if they don’t share the same subject matter. So the Civilization series has of course been a large inspiration as well.
TT: (in P-Stew voice) Engage! Forgive me, couldn’t resist. So what’s next after you receive proper funding? There’s talk of online multiplayer functions and an RPG element. After that? Have you possibly considered a smartphone app?
DD: Definitely we’ll have multiplayer for StarDrive. I can’t wait to see people duking it out online in their custom ships. A lot of where I go with this depends on the reception of the game. My main focus for now is to deliver a strong, polished product that really scratches the itch that I know is out there for a game like this. Thereafter, I’m going to do a few expansions and tweaks inside the StarDrive universe.
Rather than doing a smartphone app, I am likely going to do a Windows Tablet/Surface app. I believe that the Microsoft Surface is on its way within the next couple of years, and the code framework that I’m working with right now is a microsoft product (called XNA) that allows development for Windows, Xbox, and Windows Phone platforms. So what I’d really like to have is one of the first, best games out for the Windows Surface when that blows up. But we’ll see. Again, at this point, I just want to make a great, polished game.
The work that goes into a video game like StarDrive is amazing, and if you are interested in learning more, video game design colleges can show you how to create amazing games too.