In my search to find my first (ever) game developer to interview, I took what I felt was a complete shot in the dark and reached out to Mobius Digital Games, developer of the upcoming open Solar System time-warp camping adventure, Outer Wilds. The game recently made headlines as the debut project for the brand new crowdfunding platform, Fig, and was already very popular amongst its followers - its Alpha build downloaded over 90,000 times.
I was amazed and humbled that they agreed to answer a few questions from a rookie journalist, and I've picked their brains on the design fundamentals of the game and crowdfunding campaign.
GS: I've played a lot of games, and I can safely say that I haven't seen anything quite like Outer Wilds. What would you define as the foundational pillars of Outer Wilds' design?
Alex Beachum: We have three major design pillars that guide our creative decisions.
The first is “curiosity-driven exploration”, which is just a fancy way of saying that the sole purpose of exploration in Outer Wilds is to seek answers to questions you have about the world (e.g. “why am I stuck in a time loop?”) Of course it’s on us to make sure that you can actually discover the answers.
The second pillar is that “things change over time”. Space (the XYZ kind) is naturally a big part of most exploration games, but we wanted when you explore to matter just as much as where. Having planets that fall apart and hurtle around the Sun also feeds into that sense of fragility and insignificance that is so central to the idea of space exploration.
The third and final pillar is “backpacking in space”. The tone of Outer Wilds is largely inspired by that feeling you get sitting around a campfire at night looking up at the stars. Only in our version, you’re part of NASA and the campfire is on the moon.
GS: What has been the toughest part about about getting exposure for Outer Wilds?
Avimaan Syam: Crowdfunding is in large part built around organizing a community to action. The community of players & fans that love Outer Wilds hadn't been previously brought together, so in a lot of ways this campaign is our way of building that community. That's a very difficult thing to do, but we've been learning a lot in the process about how to do it better.
GS: This game has won some pretty prestigious awards from the Independent Games Festival. Other big titles that have won this award went on to do some pretty big things (Minecraft, Fez, Papers, Please). Is there an added sense of pressure within the team to make sure the game lives up to those standards?
Avimaan Syam: Winning that award really made us realize we had to finish the game and get it out there, for ourselves and for our fans. Finishing a game is a very hard process and challenge enough--we are grateful to be amongst such prestigious and awesome games, but we're mainly focused on making Outer Wilds as awesome as possible regardless of awards.
GS: A lot of people look at crowdfunding and don't really appreciate the amount of work it takes to prepare for a campaign. Talk about some of the challenges you faced in making sure you were ready.
Avimaan Syam: It is exhausting, and there's no perfect way to do it. Planning rewards, creating videos, developing new content, editing text, etc. We were working on it for two months leading up to it, and even then everything changes once the campaign starts: you see what works and what doesn't. Based off some advice, we took the demo down because it's not an easy pick-up-and-play game. Two weeks later, we're rolling out a revised demo because people wanted a better feel and understanding of what they're signing up for. It's good, tough experience.
GS: You've had the alpha build of Outer Wilds downloaded over 90,000 times (myself included). What has the gamer reception been like?
Alex Beachum: Gamer reception has been overwhelmingly positive! Honestly, I’m happily stunned how much people have enjoyed playing the alpha, especially considering most of the narrative content hasn’t even been implemented yet. It’s also been a blast hearing about all of the crazy things players have tried (like outrunning the thing that happens at the end of the time loop, which I didn’t even know was possible).
GS: What are you most proud of about Outer Wilds?
Alex Beachum: I’m extremely proud that we succeeded in making an open-world exploration game that avoids giving players explicit missions or quests, yet doesn’t feel aimless. Instead of telling players what to do, we simply hint at mysteries and places that exist elsewhere in the solar system and rely on their curiosity to do the rest. And what do you know, it actually works!
GS: When all is said and done, how do you want people to remember Outer Wilds?
Alex Beachum: I’d be happy if people simply remember it as “that game where you roast marshmallows in space”. What I really hope is that it inspires people to explore the real world (whether that means space or the bottom of the ocean or the human mind or whatever) simply for the sake of curiosity. By which I mean c’mon space programs of the world, Europa’s not going to explore itself!
GS: Not to sound like a fanboy (too late), but how cool is it to work with Masi Oka on this project?
Masi is a very cool, creative boss but also skilled in the worlds of business entertainment. He knows what works in art & technology and he's very giving--just this last Monday he ran us through an improv session!
As it stands now, Outer Wilds has achieved almost 90% of its initial funding goal with just under two weeks to go. In the time that I have played the Alpha, it is immediately apparent that the amount of care and detail put into the game is dwarfed only by its masterful design.
A huge thank you to Alex Beachum and Avimaan Syam for taking the time out of their busy days to answer these questions.