Arrived in early access on Steam in February 2018, Deep Rock Galactic has followed a rather exemplary journey until today. It is slowly approaching its official release as it accumulates its updates. The opportunity to take stock with Soren, CEO of the Ghost Ship Games studio that develops the game.
Can you introduce the team to us ? How many people works for Ghost Ship ? Where do you come from, etc ?
We are currently 21 people working at Ghost Ship Games. Most of those are developers (code, art, design), and then few for QA, social media and admin. We started out 6 developers back in April 2016 after Microsoft closed down a the Copenhagen based company Press Play.
To be more precise, it was 5 of us founders that came from Press Play, and then they needed someone to act as CEO. So, I joined in 1 month later. Not that I have ever been CEO before, but I was up for the challenge. My own background is programmer, then designer, game director, teacher, consultant, producer, project owner, and now CEO
Us 6 founders had more than 100 years of game dev experience combined and that is part of the secret to our success (or so I believe).
I see that Press Play had a coop/survival project named Knoxville. It has eventually been canceled. Is this related to Deep Rock Galactic ?
Knoxville is not direcly related, but it was part of an effort at Microsoft to do Open Development. So, at Press Play, they did 3 different prototypes and then the fans voted for what the company should produce. Knoxville won the vote, but one of the other prototypes had some ideas that was used as inspiration for Deep Rock Galactic.
The core idea was to take the fun co-op cave exploration from Minecraft and then add cool weapons. By the way, the Open Development approach was hard to do in a company owned by a big corporation like Microsoft, but when we started Ghost Ship Games, we still thought the idea was good. So, we had it as one of our strategies, to develop the game in collaboration with the fans and to be as open and transparent about the process as possible. Today, it is clear to us that this strategy has also been a huge part of the success.
My next question was “Where does the idea of Deep Rock Galactic comes from ? How it started ?” but you have already largely answered the question. Something else to add ?
Hehe, yes, I got a head start on that one, didn’t I ?
Another inspiration was obviously the Left 4 Dead games. They proved that a pure co-op game is possible and the core shooter gameplay was something we wanted to nail as well. From the feeling in the game, we talked about movies like Aliens, Descent and Starship Troopers.
And there are the aspect of the dwarves. To begin with, we just had “digging for gold in caves”. And then the naturally person to fill that role would be the fantasy dwarf. We then set in space to make it possible for us to introduce “magic” through sci-fi technology and then we just kept iterating to find our version of a space-mining dwarf. We follow a lot of the dwarf tropes, like they are hardy, they band together, they drink beer, they are proud of their beards and so on. But we also stray away a bit, like they don’t have scottish accent – and their look is slightly uglier than popular fantasy dwarves. It turns out that there is a LOT of gamers that simply LOVES any game with dwarves. And here we have a game which is almost a Dwarf Mining simulator. So that turned out to be a really nice hook to draw attention
You keep reading my mind ! I was going to ask “What are your inspiration for the game ? L4D remains the reference in term of 4 players FPS coop experience. Many studios tried to reproduce its success without succeeding”.
So for Left 4 Dead, we did not want to just copy/paste the formula. But we wanted to focus on why that game is such a great co-op experience. We also had some ideas on what to improve. Like, making sure that a new player to a team is always a valuable asset. So, for that we looked at classed based games like Team Fortress 2. And then we went with this approach of creating synergies between the classes and let the co-op aspect feed from that. The dwarves also played into the co-op focus as they are all about working together to accomplish something.
Can you tell me more about the lore of the game ? I think it’s very discreet for now (and that’s very fine with me) but do you plan to develop it ? You have the trophy room for example, will there be other things like that ?
The lore of the game is on purpose not developed a lot. We really wanted the fans to chip in and build their own stories and imagine the lore. So we put in some seeds for this. The legend of Karl is the best example. We added him into some of the voice lines and later into some of the randomly created Mission names, and then the players took it and ran away with it, creating poems, stories, memes, fan art. That is an example of how we want to develop the lore. Spread out small bits of information and then let the fans have fun with it.
I think it’s really great that way
Also, we are right now in the process of adding something called Miner’s Manual to the game. For a long time, this was called the Lore Terminal. But since it will probably not end up containing a ton of Lore (only hints and bits) then we renamed it to something more approriate
We spoke about L4D earlier, is a versus mode planned ?
Short answer : No 🙂 Longer answer to follow…
We build the game based on Peer-to-Peer tech, so for PvP we would probably need a dedicated server structure. In the first half year of production, we did talk about some PvP modes, but the more we focused on the PvE the less interest we got in PvP. And now everything in our game is designed and focused on the PvE co-op mode and any PvP thing would be for a new project. Fans of PvP games are also not exactly the same as fans of PvE, so it might split our fanbase in ways we wouldn’t like.
Unlike other studios, you seem very cautious. “Do not spread in too many directions”. Bravo
Thanks. We try to stick to a single path as much as possible. It’s not easy.
Talking about that, is early access going as planned ? What are your comments on this subject ? How the development is affected by the early access ? How do you manage the suggestions of the players, your first ideas, etc ? And financially, is it more convenient for you ?
Early access has been great for us. When we launched into EA, we knew we had a battle to fight. Players might think this game would not be updated and just quickly go dead. So we planned to do a lot of updates, like 1 each week in the first month. And it work great. Fans realized that we were in this 100% and we build a story that the game was updated all the time. Since then, we slowly lowered the frequency of updates. We needed to do that to have proper time to implement some larger features and content. And no one really complained.
We also learned that communication is key. We are as transparent as we can be. Of course, we can’t disclose all financial information and so on. And we have some contracts with other partners with secret stuff in them. But for all the relevant things related to the game, the production, the updates and the fans, we just tell things as it is.
It can sometimes require an extra effort to get the words right since fans can get upset when we change too much. And rightfully so. I also get upset when I play a game and suddenly the cool thing I had fallen in love with is suddenly nerfed into oblivion. But we have learned that with the right words and support from core fans, we can get most to understand our reasoning and continue playing and supporting us.
Speaking of support, we launched the game with a Supporter DLC. It was a risky move since selling DLCs in Early Access is not seen as a fair move. But it turns out that when you are honest about the intend and even write that in the DLC description then you will actually get support from the fans on it. So we have sold quite a few of these supporter DLCs and a long with the general sales of the game, we are now in a very solid financial situation. And we have not even launched into 1.0 yet.
Suggestions from fans and feedback in general is a challenge. Simply because there is so much of it. We have more than 25.000 unique players playing the game each day. And they all have an opinion 🙂 We took the approach of listening but not engaging in discussions. That has helped a lot. We are still visible in the forums and discord, answering questions and confirming things. The feedback is HIGHLY valuable to us. But we could do this outside Early Access as well – and we will be doing this after 1.0. But Early Access helps players understand that the game might take some more drastic changes, so after 1.0 we have to be a bit more careful what we change.
About release date, do you have one ?
Yes, our official answer is Q2 this year. So April, May or June. We are working hard right now on the final Update (number 29) before we close down for the 1.0 version. The game ia also on Xbox so we need a 4-5 week certification period to be sure to hit a release date.
You recently overhauled the perk system, and you just removed one of these perks in a hotfix. Aren’t you afraid of having to spend too much time balancing the game?
The Perk overhaul should have been done a long time ago. We have learned now that it is tricky to have things in for such a long time (1.5 years) and then drastically change them. So we should have prioritized this differently and will take this lesson with us. Balancing is an ongoing task, as we see it. We have a live game and the meta of the game is constantly evolving. We do not see that time as lost – it is simply a requirement for developing a good game. I expect us to continue with balancing a long time after the launch.
And do you already know if you will had more perks after the 1.0 ?
We have not planned more Perks, but since the system now has a surplus of Perk points, we could probably add some more in the future without another refund of perk points.
Have you been approached by other online shop like EGS or are you interested in ? What do you think about controversies around the EGS?
Since the game was released into Early Access before EGS was a thing, it has never been a real option for us to also get the game on EGS. We talked with Discord back when they launched their store, but for both Discord and EGS (and any other PC store) we would have a similar challenge: crossplay. The game is peer-to-peer based and we are relying on Steam’s build-in service for this (and on Xbox, a similar Microsoft service), so we do not have a way to easily matchmake players across different stores. Epic is currently developing on their Epic Online Service which could potentially solve this problem, but it’s still early days. So until the tech is there we are focusing on Steam and Xbox. As I see it, the appearance of the Epic Store has overall been good for the industry, whether you like their store or not. They have put serious pressure on Valve (Steam’s owner) and since then, Valve has vastly increased their efforts to improve Steam both for the users and the developers. It is always better to have a market where several big companies are competing than one where one is close to having a monopoly. It takes a long time to develop an online store and Steam is years ahead of EGS. But EGS got a good start (due to Fortnite) so give it a few years to mature and I think we have a good Steam alternative.
When were you approached by Coffee Stain? How is the relationship with them? Deep Rock Galactic would not have been possible without them ?
Coffee Stain spotted a very early trailer of ours back in September 2016. We had just a month before that slowly started to showcase some of the development in the Indie Game Developers group on Facebook and this was where we showed the preview trailer and where Coffee Stain spotted it. Then we (Ghost Ship Games) went to Paris Game Connection in October 2016 and met with a lot of publishers, big and small. Coffee Stain was not there as they were still considering how to take the jump into publishing. We got a lot of positive feedback from the other publishers on the project and offers started to tick in. But we were not sure who would be the right partner for us and what they could actually offer us. We had already secured finances through a seed investment and a government fund, so our need was not money. But then, a bit randomly, we found ourselves at Dreamhack in Novermber in the middle of Sweden and the good folks from Coffee Stain was also there. So we met up and there was just an instant connection. They were gamers and developers just like us and they had had a lot of success with Sanctum and Goat Simulator and had very good connections to Valve, Microsoft, Sony, etc. So we quickly decided that they were the right partner for us and have not regretted anything about that decisions.
Deep Rock Galactic would have happened no matter what, but Coffee Stain’s experience, especially on the business side, has helped us pushed the success even further. And initially, they gave us some financial security that meant we could use more time on the game before the Early Access launch. The relationship with our publisher is very close and have not in my 20 years in the game industry had such a good collaboration.
Once the game is released, what is the futur of Deep Rock Galactic ? Do you plan to release new characters? New Game Modes ? DLC ? Other things ?
Our plans for Deep Rock Galactic seldom goes further than 3-6 months. Right now, we are super focused on delivering a 1.0 version of the game. And then we have said that the first big update will very likely include a new type of Mission. We currently have too few mission types to create good feel of variation. So, it’s not what we would call a new game mode, but like the Salvage mission, we want to introduce some new mechanics specific to this new mission type. We know from our player surveys that new content, and especially a new mission type, is very high on the most wanted list. A new character was high on our list when launched into Early Access. But since the introduction of the alternative weapons, weapon mods, overclocks and lately, active perks, we have realized that the need for a new character class is not as critical as we first though. It is also now a huge task to create a new class and we are not sure if we can create one that fits well into the current class-balance between the existing four classes. On the other hand, there is no doubt that if we in the future introduce a 5th class, it would likely re-active a lot of players and give new live to the game. So it will never be taken off the list of future things to do.
What we do with DLCs that is still a bit up into the air. We have had great success with the Supporter Upgrade which is basically just cosmetic items to show your support of the game. So the most likely scenario is that we will introduce a few more cosmetic DLCs and see how the players like that approach. But we are also looking at other games that has left Early Access and how they are doing with DLCs and how their fans reacts. This is constantly evolving as indie developers are finding new ways to make a sustainable business without compromising their integrity. All in all, we hope that Deep Rock Galactic will have a long life, that players will continue to enjoy it and that we will continue to support it with new updates and content.
Thank you very much again for your time. Any last word ?
Just thanks to all our players for supporting us and playing Deep Rock Galactic.
Deep Rock Galactic is available for early access on Steam for € 27.99.