Airship Dragoon – The Interview
Lloyd has a chat with Steve Acaster, the developer of Airship Dragoon – which can be found on Steam’s Greenlight program.
Airship Dragoon is clearly and proudly anchored in a steampunk universe. What are some steampunk influences that have inspired you and can be seen in the game?
Airships! But I guess that one is rather obvious. There is something majestic about dirigibles in a manner which winged aircraft do not possess. They seem to glide effortlessly and silently, moving with grace whilst aeroplanes are noise and can’t just turn around on a fixed point. They’re oceanliners of the sky.
I always imagine their interiors decked out in mahogany and sumptuous shag pile carpets. You don’t much more steampunk than airships … except maybe goggles. All the characters in the game wear different goggles, with the exception of the British who have their goggles hanging around their necks. I tried to design the goggles for each faction to be indicative of the nationality, so the British have very traditional goggles, the Dastardly Pirates have an eye patch, the Austro-Hungarians a monocle and the Americans have wrap around shades to symbolize their modernity.
The “evil genius” weapons are also a popular steampunk theme. As the game progresses and the player upgrades his troops equipment the hardware becomes a little wackier. There are railguns which can blast through objects, a laser type “lightning gun” and of course no steampunk arsenal would be complete without a good old fashion “death ray”. There’s a little joke about radiation poisoning on the information screen for the “Atomic Death Ray”.
Defence-wise I came up with the idea of having a harness which projects a moving image which dazzles the enemy and reduces their accuracy. The concept for that was based on the naval “dazzle camouflage” of The Great War. I really liked the striking designs and wanted to include them visually. The great thing about steampunk is that there are no hard and fast rules, nobody is going complain that it isn’t scientifically or historically accurate – it’s not supposed to be! Steampunk is a lot more fun and a lot less po-faced than many other genres.
Science fiction can be quite sterile and take itself far too seriously. Nobody thinks that a characterture of Dick Dastardly with a zeppelin and a death ray is sterile!
It’s clear you are a steampunk fan yourself. What are some of your earliest steampunk interests?
When I was young I used to “mod” models. I’d buy kits of aircraft and tanks, usually pre-1945 designs, and then match and mix the parts to create weird and wacky models in a retro-futurist style. A custom aeroplane can never have too many wings or propellers! Gaming wise, I always prefered my flight simulations to be from The Great War rather than anything modern. Back when dogfighting was a real thing with skill and not radar lock missiles.
I remember playing Wings (I think it’s getting remade courtesy of Kickstarter funding), Knight of the Sky and Dawn Patrol. There was also an old flight simulation where you could design your own steampunk aircraft and fight zeppelins but for the life of me I can’t remember what it was called. It was good fun though and there is just something cool about old, ugly aeroplanes with their propellers on backwards.
What is it about the steampunk genre that got you interested in the first place?
It’s alternative history, Victorian Science Fantasy. There is a huge scope for concepts without restrictions of real world problems like science or physics. Want a metal zeppelin with 15 inch naval guns that could never get airbourne never mind collapse under it’s own weight and lack of structurally integrity? No problem for steampunk!
I once met an engineer who complained about how the Enterprise in Star Trek was structurally unsound. A lot of science fiction gets quite serious, whilst steampunk is a lot more open to the ridiculous. The dirigibles in Airship Dragoon are powered by furnaces and have chimney stacks bellowing smoke. It looks cool and it’s a fun thing to have.
Uniforms are great. The whole imperial military clothing with it’s stiff collars, brass buttons and copious amounts of starch has a real adventurous and swashbuckling aesthetic. They don’t have to be utilitarian or historically realistic, it’s Victorian styled fantasy. Take a bit Zulu War redcoat, a Great War dress cap, throw in more brass, a monocle and a huge moustache.
It’s pompous at the same time as being ridiculous. You can let your imagination run wild with the whole genre. And of course goggles!
Can you describe the moment of inspiration for Airship Dragoon? What led to the initial spark that led to the game’s development?
I was playing some modern strategy games and found that they all seemed to be made for “fast plays”, like something to kill time whilst waiting for something else. A lot of current gaming is aimed at casualization, things which are fast and forgetable with the minimum of thought and input required. I always prefered more indepth gaming and a player led experience.
I used to play a lot of Steel Panthers (World War Two rather than Modern) which is outrageously hardcore, going as far to use actual real world algorithms for armour penetration. I have also been a big fan of Julian Gollop’s games who created the original X-Com. Growing up I played a lot of Lords of Chaos and Laser Squad on the good old Sinclair Spectrum 48k.In fact I refer to Airship Dragoon as a “Golloplike”!
I really liked the way X-Com had individual characters with unique identities but were also very mortal. I’d send these guys into combat and they’d start getting mowed down and the survivors would panic as their morale collapsed. The battles were procedurally generated and I really liked the style of emergent gameplay. I wanted the sense of individualism and the constant threat of mortality. I wanted to make a huge game with lots of depth and lots of variation with each play through, a lot of games seem very small and short these days.
Airship Dragoon uses a huge amount of randomization so that no two battles or campaigns are the same, it really does have infinite replayability due to it’s utterly non-linear, player decision driven approach. It’s very much in the vein of the traditional strategy and tactics games which I used to play in the 1980s and 1990s, only in 3D.
What has been the most difficult point in Airship Dragoon’s creation? Are there things that you wouldn’t do again? Any valuable lessons learned?
This is first full commercial game I’ve ever made. Previously I did a lot of modding other games and created smaller smaller technical demos for game concept – one of which eventually became Airship Dragoon. Airship Dragoon took two and half years to make as I did all of it myself. That’s modeling, animation, textures, coding, user interface and much of the audio.
I used the same methodology for this huge game as I did my modding, but it didn’t scale very well. My work process would best be described as “organic” … or possibly haphazard! I ended up rewriting the whole thing three times. Jumping from discipline to another meant that I kept forgotting how tools worked or what particular pieces of code did. Now I comment everything in code!
The next time I design a game I’ll know a lot of simple issues to avoid. I ran a very smaller beta test and next time I’ll certainly look more at player testing beyond other indie developers. Airship Dragoon has quite a few changes since release last September due to feedback from players and a lot of those changes were very small things.
Originally there was no “new turn” screen, the camera just moved to the player’s first soldier and some players didn’t realize that they were back in control. I’m always open to feedback.
Where do you go from here? Are there expansions and future development planned for Airship Dragoon?
Currently I’m working on making Airship Dragoon moddable, and this means creating a “total conversion” to show people how it can be done. I’m creating a “realism” mod which replaces all the battlefields’ painterly textures and models with realistic ones. There is rather a lot of documentation which needs to be written explaining it all.
You’ll be able to mod the variables on all items and weapons too, change pretty much everything in the game. After that is finished I am considering adding a new game mode so that players can choose between the current traditional tactics gameplay or a more action orientated one where troops come under constant fire when the move.
I am currently undecided as to whether I will do this. Anything I create or add in the future will always be as a free update rather than DLC.
You’ve done some distinctive coloured uniforms for the faction units, which look really nice. Do you plan to do more artwork on the “Golden” Pirates in a similar way to the factions in a future update?
The Dastardly Pirates actual have multiple colour schemes based on their class just like the other factions. It might be able to see this clearly as range is a big factor in the game so you don’t often get very close to the enemy. A lot of games seem to think that firefights take place at 30 feet rather than 300, something which I wanted Airship Dragoon to avoid which is why there are three basic levels of ranged weapons. I have been considering creating additional charcter models for all factions after I complete the modding tutorials.
What do you think of the reception for Airship Dragoon so far? What are you doing to get the word out to more potential fans?
It’s been okay actually. Airship Dragoon is a niche strategy game which is non-casual and I think that is one of the reasons it’s been largely ignored in the mainstream gaming press. It doesn’t youTube well for shortplays because it’s very indepth. There’s a lot of fast and furious indie games which can be shown off quickly, in fact there are more indie games than ever before.
Being on Steam’s Greenlight has certainly helped exposure, it’s now in the top 100 of the Greenlight rankings and has driven a lot of traffic to my site. I actually get fanmail occasionally, from people as diverse as Korea girls to Russian soldiers.
Airship Dragoon is seems more popular in the east than the west … basically places that drink tea rather than sugary fizzy drinks, which probably has a lot to do national attention spans! I release development blogs about once a month and pageviews have really gone up since I started.
Being included in the Groupees steampunk bundle also gave Airship Dragoon’s profile a nice boost.
What plans do you have for the future? Airship Dragoon is clearly ambitious…so it can’t be your final stop. What comes next?
I always have the concept of what I will work on next at the back of my mind. I’ve narrowed it down to one of three ideas, two of them steampunk.
One idea is for an steampunk RPG in a procedurally generated world mixing realtime stealth with good old turn-based combat and a plot loosely inspired by Shih Naian’s 14th century novel “Outlaws Of The Marsh” (the legend of the 108 heroes, gotta catch ’em all!). I made a very rough technical demo for creating an isometric randomized world.
Another concept is for a steampunk aircraft game where you can design your own planes and airships. It would probably mix action and strategy, using a global strategy world to move units around and having combat take place in realtime, so quite like how Airship Dragoon’s main campaign works. I was thinking perhaps it would be like a top down shoot ’em up but still more based on simulation than arcade, just without the vertical, though to be honest it still might end up as turn-based, I’m not much of a reaction based gamer. So individual parts of the airframe could be damaged in battle mode and in strategy mode you’d have to organize your supply lines and manage aircrew and the sort.
The third idea is the only non steampunk one and is of an exploration based “surrealist macabre/horror” concept. It would be third person and involve climbing, shinning along ledges, generally exploring a strange and unique world with Lovercraftian vibe. I will probably make a small scale playable demo of each one before deciding which I will choose to be my next game.
But all of that is for later in the year, it’s all Airship Dragoon for the foreseeable future.