Indie games have quickly become dime-a-dozen as the video game industry continues to boom. And as such, it’s ever more difficult to pick the better games from the crowd. Every week, it feels like I’m hearing about some new indie platformer or first-person experience; those games that heavily rely on some sort of unique twist or gimmick. I mean, don’t get me wrong, some of their ideas are really cool, but of late, I’ve been hankering for something a little different.
Back in my day, couch co-op was a really big thing. It’s something that we all did growing up, and it’s something I’ve sorely missed as multiplayer has primarily shifted online. Video games are kind of my thing (surprise!), and when I have the guys around for beers, playing games is something we all want to do, but our options have grown increasingly limited. It was for this reason that I took a keen interest in a new indie title called Space Dust Racers; one that was neither a platformer or first-person shooter, but instead what I’d call a massively local multiplayer game. Described as “Smash Bros. on Wheels” and allowing up to 16 players on one screen, it was exactly what I had been looking for!
Naturally, I wanted to learn more, so I reached out to the studio to ask some questions. Space Dust Racers has just been greenlit on Steam, you see, so Senior Artist, Stephen ‘Pops’ Honegger was more than happy to stop for a chat!
￼Could you tell us a bit about Space Dust Studios and your role within the team?
Stephen: We are a team of five developers based in Melbourne, Australia, who have worked together on and off over the last decade at a mix of AAA studios – most recently, Visceral Games (Electronic Arts).
Over the years we had discussed the possibility of starting up our own studio, and when Visceral Games Melbourne closed it’s doors in late 2011, we dispersed and took on jobs elsewhere.
Grigor (fellow senior artist) and I started to discussed working on an interactive children’s book for tablets, which had a bunch of really fun ideas and mechanics, but it was pretty niche and wouldn’t likely pay the bills! We had stayed in touch with Nathan Thomas (Art/Creative Director), who had moved to Crystal Dynamics in San Francisco. He mentioned that he was planning to move back to Melbourne and was interested in doing “something.”
When Nathan returned we three began talking about a bunch of game ideas. We were all interested in scifi and space craft, so we started to work up a concept for a crew based scifi game with RPG elements inspired by series like Firefly.
Around this time, we started speaking with Michael Davies (Lead Gameplay Dev) and Glen Stuart (Lead Tech Dev). We had all worked together for years, so knew each others skills and abilities, and, most importantly, knew we could survive together in the Indie Developer trenches!
As we are a small team, we take on multiple roles and tasks. My main responsibilities include animation and modelling: everything from environment to characters and vehicles.
What would you say was the driving inspiration behind your new title, Space Dust Racers?
Stephen: After we prototyped our Firefly inspired sci-fi multiplayer game, we began to realise that the project scope was huge, and too big for our debut project. Michael had been hosting regular “Mashed” sessions and Nathan had been introducing his kids to karting favourite “Crash Team Racing”. Space Dust Racers kindof grew out of combined elements from both of these games, plus we all love competitive couch and online multiplayer games.
How would you best explain your game to someone who hasn’t heard about it before?
Stephen: The best description we have actually came from someone playing Space Dust Racers at GDC this year, who said excitedly “it’s like Super Smash Bros on wheels!” I think that sums it up perfectly. It’s not a split screen like karting games, all players share one screen in the spirit of classics like Micro Machines. The objective is to take out as many opponents as possible, by using ridiculous weapon pickups or by ramming other players off the track. The focus is ￼definitely more combat than racing. In fact, there are no laps or finish line, it is all about keeping up with the pack and taking out as many of your friends along the way!
Why did you go straight to Early Access and cancel your Kickstarter?
Stephen: It was partly in response to how well our Steam Greenlight process went (we were Greenlit in just one week!), as well as how sluggish our Kickstarter progressed.
In the case of the Kickstarter, there seemed to be plenty of interest in the game but we simply weren’t getting traction with press or enough people to our campaign page. In hindsight, we should have done a bunch of things differently, but we were learning and reacting as we went.
The Greenlight was a completely different story, though. We did very little to promote it, yet it received a lot of positive interest, feedback and it was quickly successful.
So by going to Early Access, we are able to focus our energy completely on getting a solid experience into gamers’ hands as soon as possible, and then continue to build and iterate based on feedback we receive, and where we see people are having the most fun.
Up to 16 local players, that’s insane! You can even use your phone as a controller, right?
Stephen: Our controller tech was a solution to the age-old problem of not enough controllers to go around (or when there is enough, you invariably end up playing paper/scissors/rock to see who gets the controller with the broken analog stick!). Maybe 16 players is crazy, but we wanted the number of players in the game to be really scalable, and along with super customisable game modes, it is easy to create your own flavour of game from tense and strategic to all out mayhem!
The controller tech allows players to connect to the game using their smartphone or laptop as extra controllers. You don’t need to download an app either, it’s all browser based, which eliminates the issue of downloading an app. You can simply scan the QR code displayed on the screen and jump straight in. You can even attach multiple controllers to your phone using a USB OTG cable if you prefer the tactile feel of a controller.
As a multiplayer-centric game, what are some of the different modes we’re going to see?
Stephen: At the moment we have 3 modes: Knockout, Leader and Survival.
In Knockout, you receive a point for every other player you eliminate, kind of like a death match mode. In Leader, whoever is in the lead, receives a point for every other player that is eliminated. This allows for some very strategic play as players only benefit from either being in the lead or by eliminating the leader. If any player that is not in the lead eliminates another player, they are only adding to the leader’s score. In Survival, you only receive a point if you are the last player ￼standing. You want to eliminate as many players as possible but also try and stay out of any conflict to give you the best chance of being the last one standing.
With a big focus on combat, what sort of weapons, powerups and modifiers can we expect?
Stephen: We currently have 9 weapons in the game, and there are plans to add more. They are all pretty ridiculous; for example, we have a homing Shark Missile, Space Lube (the most lubricious substance in the universe), BBQ which shoots flamethrower like blasts out from each side of your vehicle and Shockwave which triggers a spherical blast radius that sends nearby players flying.
Customisation is a really core part of Space Dust Racers. By mixing and matching gameplay modifiers, you can drastically vary the different game modes. Some of the the gameplay modifiers include turning off all weapons so that ramming and outrunning become the strategy, adding airstrikes or ghosting so that players that have been knocked out can mess with players that are still in the game. You can even add “Pinball” to amplify the force of ramming other players. There are thirteen gameplay modifiers at the moment and we plan to add heaps more.
It’s great to see so much colour! Could you tell us more about your artistic approach?
Stephen: Absolutely, we went through a period of drab brown and grey for a while there. It is great to see a lot more vibrant colourful games being released!
With Space Dust Racers, we focused on strong forms and colour rather than high frequency detail. Taking a step back from the more realistic and visually ‘noisy’ titles we have worked on previously, we wanted the art to look fresh, vibrant, familiar yet alien with the cartoon proportions and saturated colour palette. Our art director, Nathan, has a background in industrial and graphic design, so has an excellent understanding of form and function. He has this amazing ability to quickly concept some outrageous yet seemingly functional designs, which makes my job of building the 3D assets that much easier. The main influences for the art style came from a number of sources including Ratchet and Clank, The Jetsons, I even used some Road Runner backgrounds as reference for one of the environments.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge working on Space Dust Racers?
Stephen: Definitely running a business. We have a long history of working together and our tools are great, so the development side of thing has gone really smoothly. While we all have experience creating and running schedules and tasks, the amount of time spent on accounting, promotion and PR, creating assets for shows, festivals and submissions has been huge.
￼What do you feel makes your game stand apart from other wellknown titles in the genre?
Stephen: Space Dust Racers takes the best bit of Kart Racers such as Mario Kart and CTR and mashes it with party combat games like Super Smash Bros and Micro Machines. It is the only top down racing game that we have seen to include characters and backstory, making it a rich and immersive world to be in. Having all the action on one screen, combined with our innovative controller tech, allows for a true party experience, where your only barrier to joining the game is not having a smartphone in your pocket. It’s colourful, playful, funny and has fun competitive gameplay that gets you laughing, cheering and jeering with your friends and family.
What platforms/release timeframe are you aiming for, and how can we support your game?
Stephen: We are currently developing for PC, PS4 and Xbox One, with an early 2016 release (with Steam Early Access before release).