Landing on the Moon – Joe Ybarra and Josef Shindler on Shackleton Crater
James Merrett recently sat down with founder Joe Ybarra and vice president Josef Shindler of new development studio Joe Got Game to discuss their upcoming title Shackleton Crater. Some may recognise Joe Ybarra as one of the co-founders of gaming giant Electronic Arts. Ybarra actually worked as a designer and producer on many of the company’s early products, including the very first release of Madden. It was definitely something of an honour to have even a quick chat with him and Shindler about their plans for Joe Got Games’ debut.
AF: So, how are things going?
Shindler: Oh yeah.
Ybarra: Yeah, we’ve definitely been busy, but we’re pretty excited as well. We’ve been working on starting up the company and then the pre-production for our first product here for the past five months now. We’re getting closer and closer to launching our kickstarter here, so the main focus for our company now is that we need to start marketing and going back to the pre-production to work on the game some more.
AF: You’ve just announced your new game is called Shackleton Crater. For those who don’t know, can you explain the general concept of it?
Shindler: So yeah, what we have right here with Shackleton Crater, the idea at its most abstract and higher-level core: is that we want to go back to the Moon. Looking at it from there, and this is free of the game for a second here, we have this vision that we want to go forward to the stars. We want to explore new places and do new things. So then we thought about it, looking forward- how would we go about exploring this thing? We started using existing space agency data to help inform our decision making. I’m not sure if you’ve looked at the website, but we’ve been using ESA and NASA data to help design all the stuff that you’ve seen so far. All the modules, all the rovers, even the Moon itself is all based on that real information. What we are trying to do and what we’ve come to a conclusion with, is that we’re trying to model how we would go about colonising the Moon. We could say is that we’re building a strategy game, but we’re doing so free of the tropes of the genre itself. We’re actually focusing on the realistic simulation of how we would actually go ahead and build this thing on the Moon.
AF: You’ve done a lot of research into the Moon and the possibilities of colonising it. Did you ever consider just going with futuristic and impossible ideas instead of ones grounded within real life expectations?
Ybarra: Actually, we’ll end up doing that regardless because the stretch of time that this game encompasses is a hundred years. We’re postulating that the events of Shackleton Crater begin sometime in the first half of the century, say- 2030 or thereabouts, so we’re already 15 to 20 years into the future from today. If we look at the face of the technology that we have right now in front of us, for all we know about 120 years from now we’re going to be borderline science-fiction. So that’s the area where we’ve invested a much more futuristic kind of thinking. As Josef said earlier though, we want to do so in a way that is consistent with new technology, so we’re not inventing faster than light travel or anything that is out of the ordinary. Instead what we are doing is extrapolating from things that we already know how to do and then making them happen. For example, launching grain manufacture on the Moon. Were just taking processes that already exist here on Earth and sending them up, based upon the available resources we’d have on the Moon.
AF: Do you believe that we could colonise the Moon at some point in the future?
Ybarra: Do we believe that?
Ybarra: Oh yeah, absolutely. This game is all about that belief.
Shindler: Yeah, you’d better believe we believe it. One of the things that we are looking at very closely, as I pointed out with the simulation stuff earlier, is that we’re sitting down and saying “OK, what are the realities?” We’re really breaking this down to the micro-management level from a game design standpoint. What that’s all informing us is that yes, this is actually a very real process and we’re figuring out a whole different bunch of ways to do it. That’s one of the things that’s going to make the strategy of the game very interesting, because we can actually say ‘OK, you aren’t just building a lunar colony’. It actually comes down to what type of lunar colony that you’re building, and what you’re trying to get out of that.
AF: The project is being funded via Kickstarter. What made you decide to take it there instead of going through the traditional funding route?
Ybarra: Well, when we originally came up with the idea of starting this company a couple of years ago- we were contemplating going through the traditional investor and publisher type of arrangement. As Kickstarter started to emerge as a viable mechanism for raising capital, one of the realizations that we came to was the idea that this was a better way to do it. First of all, because you get an affirmation that people want your product. That’s the first thing that you get out of it. The second thing you get is that you get the community. We believe that Kickstarter is not just a place to sell product, but it’s also a place to start building a group of people that are passionate about the subject matter that you will have and actually putting together a real community around that, so that we can foster word of mouth. We can foster getting people to contribute to the project itself. We expect to get real scientists and other people that really have a passion for our subject matter to contribute to our efforts here in terms of blogging, in terms of posting to our forums and giving us feedback about the game during its beta cycle and so on, and this is a perfect way to get both. We get the funding and we get the community at the same time, so this is absolutely wonderful from my perspective.
AF: Do you believe that Kickstarter is the way forward for games to be funded, or do you feel that it’s going to become oversaturated with content?
Ybarra: I think as with all processes that we see everywhere, things are going to morph and turn into something that is pretty different to what we see right now. It’s very difficult to predict how that’ll go because it’s still such a new phenomenon in the industry that we don’t have enough of an track record to try and determine how this will work. I think one of the things that we’re seeing is that as fundraising levels become higher and higher, it’s not inconceivable down the road that Kickstarter could be used to fund a large scale project that you would normally see coming from a large studio- AAA titles where the budgets are in excess of $20-30million. It’s not unreasonable to see that happening. Right now, it’s kind of hard to believe that you could pull that off today, but a year or two from now that may not be the case. On the other side of the coin, what we do expect to see is a whole lot of smaller companies that are very independent that don’t require millions of dollars to build a product, but have modest budgets that are in the tens of thousands or less- and the idea is that it gives them an opportunity to A: Get funded and B: Go back to the community thing, know who their customers are and establish a real opportunity for them to launch as a company. I think that we’ll see both of those end goals happen, but it’s going to take a while as everyone is still trying to figure out how to do this right.
AF: Can you talk about any of the incentives that you’ll be offering via Kickstarter?
Shindler: Yeah, we can mention a couple of things. Obviously, we are selling the game itself. This is a base thing. I know one of the things that will be different about what we’re doing compared to everyone else is that we are actually going to be tailing in some of the expansion packs. One of the things that we’ve got by building the game the way that we have is that we have a game design that is extremely extensible. We can very easily and very quickly put new modules into the game. This means that if we want to do something like an alien invasion, we can do that post-Kickstarter at an absolute minimum of cost. So what we are doing is not just selling the game, but we’re selling those next few expansion packs that we’re planning down the line.
Ybarra: I think also, as you’ll see when we launch the Kickstarter on Monday (11th March), that we have the standard offerings. We have a tier where we have T-shirts, we have another tier where we have posters. We also have tiers where we offer the players in-game presents, where we’ll allow players to name different objects. As you know, we have the entire surface off the moon to work with here- so there’s a lot of opportunities for us here to give people recognition for their contributions and give them some long-lasting presents here in the gaming space.
If you then look at our stretch goals, I think there’s a couple of things that we’d like to comment about that’s important for people to realise. Our first stretch goal is at $1.5 million, and we intend to give an extra copy of the game to everybody that contributed because this is a multiplayer game. This game is designed to be played in groups of four people, so what better way to do that than to make sure you have multiple copies to give to your friends and everyone else? So that’s at 1.5 million as a stretch goal. The other two stretch goals are at $3 million and $4 million, and really reenforce our fundamental belief about the subject matter. At $3 Million we intend to take the entire surface of the moon and import it into the Unity engine and make the data set useable by end users. We plan to not only put it into the game, but we also plan to give it away. We’ll put it into the public domain. The ideas we have, I want to share with the rest of the world so they can see them in a way that they’ve never seen before.
Later at $4 million, our intent is that at some point in the future after Shackleton Crater has been on the market for a reasonable period of time, we intend to make the game completely public domain. The idea is that we want this game to be a permanent fixture in the gaming space. We want other people, after we’ve moved on to other projects, to support the project as well. What better way to do that than to make the code available? So that’s our other intent with this, and again- it’s because we really believe strongly in the subject matter to the extent that I want to share this with everybody.
Shindler: This reinforces that Kickstarter itself is the place to do this, because the community that is going to be looking at this game and wanting it are going to be there right from the very beginning.
AF: You’ve worked at many big-name studios such as EA, Ubisoft and Warner Bros. How different is that to working at a smaller, independent studio?
Ybarra: Well, I think that the most obvious thing that’s different is because we’re small, we’re more nimble. We’re able to react to situations immediately and we can turn on a dime. It’s a much harder thing to do when you’re working for a larger corporation that has thousands of employees. I also think the idea of working should involve a very personal relationship. In many of the companies that I’ve worked with, I’ve had hundreds of people working for me and it’s very difficult to establish a real, tight, relationship with more than a handful of those people because there’s just so many of them- whereas in our team we all know each other, we all work with each other very closely and we can push each other in different ways that are harder to do in bigger companies and so on. I think the other thing for me personally is the fact that because I’ve worked with the large companies, I understand the mechanics of publication and how the audience works. It allows us to take that knowledge and play in those spaces, even at this small scale. That gives us a tremendous amount of capability here in order to deliver a great experience to our customers.
AF: We’re just coming up to the end of the interview- is there anything else that you’d like to add in before we wrap it up?
Ybarra: Well, the one thing I guess I’d really want you to take away from this conversation is how passionate we are about building this game. I want to build this game because I want to build this game. The rest of this stuff is a way to share the game with everybody, and to be able to make sure we have the resources necessary to build the game I want to share. I’m not going to be building a whole lot more games in my career; I’ve already had the privilege of working in the industry for thirty years now, so I’m scratching my head thinking ‘Well, how many more years am I going to be able to do this?’. So then I’m thinking ‘Hey, Shackleton Crater is likely to be one of the last of a handful of games that I’m going to be making over the next ten years.’- I’m going to make sure that every single one of these things really reflects not only my skill but also my interest and passion for gaming in general. This is something that we’re building with great pride and passion here.
Shindler: He says it better than I can, so we’ll leave it at that!
The Kickstarter for Shackleton Crater is currently running.
All images were sourced from JoeGotGame.com