Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening depending on your particular location in time and space. Regardless, we do not discriminate here at the Sunday Sidebar. So: welcome! This week I bring to you a choice interview with none other than Dan Tabár of Data Realms, who finally released Cortex Command last month after over a decade of development. Despite that, the game is still not considered ‘finished’! Read on to find out more.
Who are you and what do you do? How many are on the Data Realms team?
I’m Dan Tabar and I’m the development director for Data Realms. We’re a small indie studio that is virtual – all our members are spread throughout the world: Australia, Argentina, US, Sweden, UK, Finland, etc. Contributors come in and out as needed and as their time allows. Currently it’s me and a programmer (Miroslav Adamus) in Slovakia full-time. he has been working on the completely new tech/engine for our next project for over two years already.
Have you begun work on it also?
I am still working on fully polishing Cortex Command – it shipped at a ‘complete’ and fully playable state, but we were careful to not call it fully polished and perfectly finished, since it isn’t. We didn’t do a good enough job of communicating that distinction, so there have been some misunderstandings. At this stage, that’s nothing new to us; we’ve had a very unconventional mode of development, beyond the game just taking so long to finish – publicly giving out incredibly early test builds for free, for example.
Mainly because people have certain pre-existing expectations about how quickly a game development project should be progressing. Our relatively ultra-slow pace, that goes in fits and starts, is not what most fans are expecting for what they think is a promising game. It’s tougher for our fans than us, though. For us, it’s the only way I would want to make games of this complexity and ambition.
If I had tried to make this thing in one go, including learning everything from programming itself, to engineering the engine, to designing the tactical game on top, to building a working GUI for everything, and then designing and building a strategic metagame on top of everything, I’d have burned out long ago. It’s coming along nicely, and much more quickly since I’m not the slow programmer bottleneck on it – Miro is a much better programmer than i am, so, hopefully the game we build with it won’t take another decade!
How did you get into videogames development? What is your personal history?
I played a lot of them as a kid. Starting with C64, moving onto Amiga500, and then PC games mostly. Amiga and PC DOS games influenced me the most: Worms, Liero, XCOM (or UFO Defense, as the original was called in Europe), Dune 2, Cannon Fodder, Rampart. Liero (a real-time action version of Worms by some Finnish dude) was the initial inspiration for CC. I saw that there was so much more potential for the format and concept than just Quake gameplay in Worms, so I started picking up programming, and set out to finish little doable projects, like making a snake game, or making a cube spin on screen. I ordered programming books from Amazon, and learned what I needed to make the little projects happen. then I set out to make a real, finished game with Liero as my main inspiration.
I vowed to myself to finish a game with this project, something I could proudly call complete. Although I’m there today in terms of completeness, I wouldn’t yet call it fully finished. For instance, I still want to add Steam Workshop integration, and squash some bugs that people have reported, and polish the newly baked metagame gameplay. I hope to be mostly done with all that this year.
How was the Indie Megabooth for you? What did you learn from it? Do you intend to attend it in the future?
It was a surprisingly positive experience. The crowd had a really good vibe and even though those who stopped by were split down the middle on whether or not they’d heard of or played it before, everyone seemed very much into the game and positive. The Megabooth itself is a great concept, and I would love to be a part of it at future PAX Primes also. It was my first PAX, and overall I was surprised with how much I enjoyed and got out of it. So, two thumbs up!
A great many of the other teams are old friends (for instance, I shared space with Andy Schatz of Monaco). We go to the same conferences every year. Andy was kind enough to offer some extra space for me, and, well, it turns out you’re not really supposed to share booths, but they let it slide. Then, next door there was Ichiro Lambe, Andy Moore, and Eitan Glinert.
“I’m just a bit numb from it all.”
Your game just launched on Friday September 28. How has launch been?
Yeah, it went pretty smoothly! There were some folks on Steam who were confused about the state of the game (complete, but not fully polished) due to our difficulties in getting that message across clearly on the Steam store page. We’ve since added some language about that as best we could and that Valve would allow, and the threads in the Steam forum hub complaining about it are left there so people researching the game can have their expectations set accordingly. Other than that, yeah, our team that pulled the 1.0 launch together really did it beautifully. We had a really talented guy in eastern Siberia (Anton Pikalov) who made the launch trailer. He produced, directed, and edited it completely. He also modeled, animated, and rendered 3D CG sequences based on the in-game characters.
Danny Baranowsky (dannyB) scored it, too. Anton sent him a rough preview, less than a week before launch, and dannyB delivered a score. It all came together perfectly, mere days before launch.
It doesn’t feel so different to have the 1.0 out yet, no. Maybe it hasn’t sunk in yet. This has been a big year for me: I got married like a month before the launch, I turned 30 a couple of months before that, and became a US citizen in April. So there’s been this cavalcade of big life events. This is the latest in the series, so I think I’m just a bit numb from it all.
Do you think of Cortex Command as primarily a single-player, or multiplayer game?
Since I usually play/test it solo, it’s hard not to think of it as such, but I absolutely wanted it to be a game you can play on the couch with a few friends. I went to quite a bit of trouble making sure it works with gamepads, split screen, and any kind of combination of co-op and versus modes you can think of with four people. It’s definitely a game that you have to learn in single-player before you can play multiplayer. I mean, all those games I named as influences, I experienced most of them playing with friends at the same computer. It was a great social thing from childhood. We’d all sit in front of the same screen, and just hang out and play these games that were built with that in mind. They’re some of my best childhood memories. That ‘hot-seat’ style of play is long-gone, and I miss it. The closest analog today is the living room.
Cortex Command had an extensive beta. What are your plans for the game going forward?
As I mentioned earlier, we’re going to make sure the biggest bugs are fixed, and get the metagame polished up. and add Steamworks integration, which I expect will be huge, considering the seasoned and vibrant modding community, and how moddable and modular we’ve built the game to be from the ground up.
I hope to be done enough with it this year to where I can really shift my main development focus onto our next project, and join Miro in active development on that. I look forward to it, as he’s been doing some really exciting stuff that I can’t wait to dive into.
And for yourself and the rest of Data Realms? You’ve been working on this for almost 12 years or so, even whilst relocating from Sweden to Arizona. Are you going straight into the next project with no rest in-between?
Oh, I rest all the time – that’s why I took so dang long! There have been a couple of year-long hiatuses in there. Again, this is why I never felt burnt out or like quitting on the goal I set for myself. I didn’t expect it to take this long, of course. I just went off and did something, anything else as soon as i started to feel a bit fed up with the project. and stayed away however long it took to actually get excited again, and then it’s fun to come back and pick it up!
Are you still holding off from porting the game to consoles?
Yeah, I had dreams of it a few years ago when XBLA was hot, but its allure has faded, to say the least. Not only in terms of the sales potential compared to the early days, but also the horror stories from multiple indie friends’ lips: just getting your game onto any channel, you naturally have to jump through some hoops. Let’s just say some are higher and smaller than others, and then some are on fire. [Laughs] On the other hand, there’s Valve, who presents the easiest and most pleasant possible option, and yields the greatest rewards. It’s a no-brainer. In a way, being so damn slow is an advantage, because I’ve been able to see my peers rush and fall into pits that I can then gingerly step around.
What was it like working with Andy Moore previously?
It was an experiment, trying to bring in anyone other than myself to do that kind of thing (Community Management). I’m not very good at it. It was great working with him, except I maybe didn’t do a great job of actually feeding him info or things to do. He had a tough job indeed. It was worth trying though, and we ended the short experiment as friends, so there’s not a whole lot more to say really, other than I still suck at that kind of thing, and I haven’t been able to delegate it since.
Cortex Command is significantly more complicated than standard indie fare. How long do you expect it takes before players can fully understand its intricacies?
PAX was great for playtesting this kind of thing, and seeing how people reacted to the game’s steep learning curve. Some did great, some… needed guidance. It’s hard to handle. I personally hate tutorials, especially ones that force you to step through them. Learning a game and its interface has always been part of the fun for me; just like I had to do with all the games I inherited from my brother back on the Amiga. I think most players have problems, but learn tips from other members of the community, either through forums, or the wealth of YouTube videos out there.
Jens Bergensten of Minecraft/Mojang tried it when 1.0 launched. He also had big problems getting into it, until he found some YouTube tutorials, and then he tweeted that he ended up losing sleep because he was playing the game.
I think that sort of word of mouth is huge, not only for spreading word of the game, but to have people help each other get into it.
What is the most difficult part about being an independent developer?
The most difficult part is probably actually seeing a project through to completion… There is so much work, that you have no idea of. The second most difficult part is seeing a vocal minority make a huge nuisance of themselves because they don’t ‘get’ the game, and get really angry about it or anything you do, and react poorly. That is hard to deal with right after you’ve worked harder than you’ve ever worked (and many people ever work) on anything in your life to get it done. So, that’s the downside. The uncertainty of finances and success are kind of nerve-wracking too but also motivating in a way.
The upside is easy: Playing your own game and realizing you’re having way too much fun with it, then seeing others do the same. It’s the bomb. Especially people who ‘get’ it and are therefore pretty similar to who you were when you set out to make the game. I mean, I made the game for myself, but it turns out a lot of people are like myself and enjoy the same kind of things in a game, so it’s a kick to see them enjoy it just like the younger me would have. It’s easy to spot the games (especially indie ones) that are built like that. Retro City Rampage is a great recent example. Games like that have so much heart.
Finally, what’s your most prized gaming possession? Is there anything you’re still holding onto from the dark ages?
I have an amazing specimen of the Commodore SX-64, with some choice games, and two mint joysticks that are not the same ones, but the same model as those I first played my C64 games with. I recently busted it out to play the retro-port of Canabalt, by Adam Saltsman and dannyB. Adam was here in Phoenix when he was working on the original version of it. I bought one of the first cartridges of the C64 retro-port. Mine was one of the first carts that were sent out. It is magical.
You can watch Dan playing Canabalt on the link below:
That was great! Thanks for your time.
Thanks for your interest!
Cortex Command is available to purchase on Steam here. As stated above, the game is billed as complete, but is still receiving updates.