Developer Profiles: A Profile of Cryptstone Games Founder Mark McGrevy - Creator of Star Prospector
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Indie games come in all shapes and sizes, from simple puzzle games to ambitious pieces of classic storytelling.
Indie developer Cryptstone Games was founded by Mark McGrevy in 2005 and recently released Star Prospector, a sprawling galactic exploration RTS/RPG hybrid. With the culmination of seven years of work out in the wild, we decided to see what it really takes to make a game quite unlike any we’ve ever seen.
McGrevy began programming for two reasons.“I was interested in learning computer graphics, and I wanted to make games.”
After time as Senior Programmer for both Autodesk and Sony, he found there was an itch that needed scratching in the gaming industry.
“Cryptstone Games is all about making games that we want to play but aren't currently available,” McGrevy says.
For those who have already played Star Prospector, this approach to gaming is already crystal clear.
Many indie studios head towards the rapidly growing iOS and mobile ecosystems to make quick cash. Some even do it without the intent to even stay in the industry once they’ve made their big payday. OMGPOP co-founder Charles Forman left Cryptsone Games, kept his shares and struck it rich when social-games giant Zynga bought the company for $200 million last month.
McGrevy is cautious about delving into such a crowded marketplace.
“I don't tend to play a lot of mobile games, but from what I understand, a few games get most of the attention in that space,” he says.
In the PC space, indies can be catered to and generate huge buzz from established and legitimate news sources, not just the App Store rankings. “Development time and cost is much smaller than traditional games, so there is less risk, but getting noticed is a challenge in the mobile space,” McGrevy added.
For a game that took seven years, one would expect an impressive attention to detail. Playing the game, it’s easy to see why it took so long — McGrevy did almost all of it on his own.
Work on an engine for a unnamed RPG began in 2005. During design and concept work, the idea of Star Prospector hit in 2007, and McGrevy began utilizing his knowledge of the industry to design, code and publish the game himself.
“The biggest challenge was doing design, art and gameplay at the same time as I was developing the technology,” McGrevy says.
Switching gears between purely creative, conceptual work and more technical, mechanical work was difficult, he says.
“I enjoy working on all of the fields that I've been interested in my whole life. One day I could be doing some concept art for a new idea; another day I could be writing some music,” he says. The downside? “The stress and incredible time constraints working in a small team are all magnified.”
Cryptstone only has two employees. Mark’s brother Jason recently began working as a producer. McGrevy’s goal was always to expand the studio but still keep the company on the smaller side. Star Prospector has about 1,000 textures and models, all done by McGrevy.
“You tend to lose momentum when you switch between orthogonal tasks,” he says. “Taking daily walks with no distractions is the best way I've found to clear your mind and come up with new ideas. Much better than sitting in a room staring at a white board.”
Without all the whiteboarding, how did Star Prospector come to be the RTS/RPG hybrid it is today?
“Single-player RTS games typically keep players interested via the story, but the player’s character doesn't change much over the course of the game,” McGrevy says. He wanted to keep the player engaged in a similar manner to RPG games — by rewarding the player with items and experience. “RPGs usually have a lot of features, such as character customization, loot drops, combat and leveling, all things I find enjoyable in games.”
Star Prospector has a unique visual aesthetic, reminiscent of classic sci-fi movies like Silent Running and 2001: A Space Odyssey. McGrevy says that’s intentional. The original idea behind the Rig (the main player unit) was to have a mech-like vehicle that is reminiscent of the CAT construction vehicles of today. The bots and buildings were designed to look like they just came off a more advanced version of a 3-D printer or standard construction template.
“The ’70s Gerry Anderson TV shows like Space 1999 and UFO were definitely an inspiration for the look of the game. I'm also a huge fan of science fiction books and movies. Frederik Pohl's Gateway was a big influence,” McGrevy says.
Star Prospector has just released some DLC. The new content features a completely new gameplay mode called “Star Prospector — Tower Defender,” which is exactly what it sounds like. McGrevy says the company is very excited about the Tower Defender expansion and now that the free DLC is out, they plan to experiment with multiplayer modes.
“Indie developers are in a great position to get new content and game updates out fast,” McGrevy says. “A large company has many channels of communication to get through, requiring approvals, meetings, marketing and all sorts of things. We started planning our DLC shortly after the game was released on GameStop PC Downloads, and we also pay close attention to our forums where we get great feedback from players.”
Getting out DLC and other game updates is especially important to indie developers. Most indie developers don't have million dollar marketing budgets.
“It's important to keep the game fresh and interesting over a longer period than the traditional first week of sales,” McGrevy continues. “It's a lot of work for the developer, but the consumer gets more value in the long run.”
McGrevy says one of the most important pillars at Cryptstone is to make sure players feel they’re getting a lot of value for their money. Making all the DLC free is certainly a step in the right direction.
Cryptstone Games is living the dream of most indie publishers. From founding to first game, it’s been a long and ambitious journey, one McGrevy wouldn’t necessarily recommend for everyone.
“I would recommend starting slow and making a small game in your spare time and see if you have the discipline and motivation to make a game on your own time,” he says of the common path many indie developers follow. “If you are already in the games industry and working for a great company, like I was at Sony, it's an extremely tough choice to leave and start on your own.”
Still, McGrevy has no regrets about leaving one of the largest companies in the world and making indie games.
“Making games can be a lot of fun, and combining your hobbies with your work is extremely rewarding,” he says. “Experience and education are great, but nothing beats a passion for making games.”
Cryptstone recently released finished the Tower Defender DLC for Star Defender. You can stay in touch with Cryptstone Games via Facebook at facebook.com/CryptstoneGames and via Twitter @CryptstoneMark. You can purchase Star Prospector here.