Indie Spotlight is a weekly article series at Gaming Nexus that explore the origin and development of unique and innovative games designed and produced by independent developers. Each article includes a developer interview that focuses on examining the concept and design processes involved with each project. Indie Spotlight strives to showcase new and upcoming games that range from a variety of genres and development studios across the world.
Post-apocalyptic setting? Check. Brutal and challenging gameplay? Check. Bleak vision of the future infused with supernatural horror? Check. In-depth role-playing elements involving crafting and skill systems? Check. Turn-based combat system? Check. Pixel art visuals reminiscent of retro gaming? Check. NEO Scavenger from Blue Bottle Games has players awakening in an abandoned cryo facility with little less than the rags on their back along with the single goal of survival. The game weaves numerous elements together into an innovative and unique gameplay experience that favors thoughtful strategy and exploration over mindless barrages of explosions and gunfire. With the ever-increasing trend of games succumbing to the casual gamer requirement, it was most surprising to discover NEO Scavenger's focus on presenting players with a number of challenging factors from acquiring food and water to surviving against brutal enemy encounters.
Founder of Blue Bottle Games and the creator behind NEO Scavenger, Daniel Fedor, took part in the latest Indie Spotlight to provide insight on both the game's origin and development process, along with further examining various aspects that comprise the unique gameplay. In addition, Fedor discusses the game's future and what he has in mind for potential adaptations on other platforms.
Interview with Daniel Fedor Could you introduce yourself and talk about your various roles with the development of NEO Scavenger?
My name's Daniel Fedor, and I'm the founder of Blue Bottle Games. Blue Bottle Games is pretty much a one man operation, so I've been responsible for NEO Scavenger's design, coding, art, writing, sound effects, website, business, marketing, and just about anything else you can imagine.
There are two exceptions, however. First, I've been fortunate to have some top-class help from a designer named Cameron Harris. His design and writing input has been extremely valuable in the past few months. Second, the music you hear in NEO Scavenger was composed by Josh Culler. He's been doing a great job of capturing the vast, lonely, and exotic feel of the setting with his pieces so far.
Can you provide a brief history behind the origin of Blue Bottle Games? What other games has the studio released thus far?
Blue Bottle Games officially opened for business in January 2012, so NEO Scavenger is its first title. I've actually been working on NEO Scavenger since May 2011, but immigration restrictions prohibited me from opening a business until this year. (I'm a US citizen living in Canada.)
Prior to that, I worked at BioWare for about seven years. I was the lead tech artist on Dragon Age: Origins, and for a brief spell, on DA2 as well. Later, I transitioned into an associate producer role on ME3. However, my heart was set on building a game of my own design, so I decided to try my hand at making indie games.
What were some of the reasons behind having the game based in a post-apocalyptic setting? Were there any particular sources of inspiration when creating the setting and world?
There were a ton of inspirational sources, to be honest. I've been into pen and paper RPGs since I was a kid, and we played a pretty high volume of AD&D, Rifts, Shadowrun, and Car Wars when we hung out. Rifts was definitely a favorite of mine, and you'll see some of that come through in the setting of NEO Scavenger. I liked it's particular blend of tech and supernatural elements in a post apocalyptic setting, and it's hardcore brutality. Though, the Rifts setting went a bit too bonkers for my taste, and I hope to maintain more restraint in NEO Scavenger's setting.
Fallout is also a strong influence. That game had a huge impact on me, and I loved many of the decisions they made in making that game. Their use of a GURPS-like advantage/disadvantage system really resonated with me, and prompted me to eventually buy GURPS to learn more about it. Unfortunately, I never got to play many pen and paper sessions using that system, but I really wanted to try it.
Finally, there are a raft of other games and media that played a part in NEO Scavenger's influence. Silent Storm's inventory and scavenging mechanics, for example. Blade Runner and Shadowrun's metroplexes. Even the encounter system has roots in point and click adventure games, like Beneath a Steel Sky, as well as choose your own adventure novels. It's hard to list them all, frankly, but I definitely appreciate that I'm building on the shoulders of giants before me.
Can you elaborate further on the "supernatural horror" element of the game in terms of how it's incorporated into gameplay and the world?
As mentioned above, Rifts's supernatural elements were really exciting to me. And although some of them were a bit lighthearted, many of them were quite dark. And later, when I discovered Lovecraftian horror, I really started to appreciate the horror genre. I liked the idea of dark arts that cannot be controlled, beings that are beyond our reckoning, and especially, mankind being the underdog.
As it applies to NEO Scavenger, I'd like for the supernatural to be a constant specter overshadowing the world, keeping humans fearful. I want people's fears to be a real thing in NEO Scavenger, but I'd also like for them to exist in a way that casts doubt. By that, I mean the sort of plausible deniability we saw in X-Files, where all kinds of crazy could happen, but there was always some doubt about whether it was real or imagined, or explained away with reason.
How do the skills and handicaps function when players create their characters? What are some of the various effects or outcomes that can result from selections made during the character creation process?
Like with GURPS and Fallout, I wanted to give adventurous players a chance to "buy" extra abilities at the cost of certain handicaps. When I first tried that system, I loved it. I found it not only allowed me to create a more unique character, it also created a character with more role-playing opportunities. Plus, it offered customizable challenge, for advanced players.
Basically, I wanted to capture that fun and customizability, so I tried to put together a system that lets the player build something unique, and rewards/punishes them for those decisions. One good example is the choice of taking combat skills versus other skills. You can definitely own the battlefield with the right combat skills, but it often leaves you struggling to find food, or trouble bypassing obstacles that can't be dealt with using force. I hope that when NEO Scavenger is finished, every loadout presents interesting (and meaningful!) options and obstacles.
How complex is the crafting system in terms of items available for producing and combining? What are some of the various item types or objects that can be created through crafting?
One thing you'll notice in NEO Scavenger is that every item has a use. I try not to add anything to the game that's just "vendor trash." The game is built around the idea of scrounging through ruins for supplies, and making-do. In order to fulfill that Road Warrior fantasy, I tried to make everything potentially valuable.
For example, things like dirty rags can be used to make torches, or to bandage wounds. They can also be boiled in a pot of water to become sterile, so they infect less when used as bandages. You can also douse rags with whiskey to sterilize them. It's a pretty literal system, too. In order to add a scope to your rifle, you'll need not only the scope and rifle, but some screws and a tool to attach them with. It's a bit hardcore, but it's the kind of game I'd want to play, and it seems like there are several folks out there who also dig it.
So it's a pretty complex system, but it could also use some work. The game's still in beta, and the crafting system is one of the areas that will likely need upgrading before prime time. Apart from more plot, crafting is one of the most requested areas of development on the feature voting chart.
How large is each of the randomly-generated worlds? What type of locales and enemy encounters can players expect to discover?
The game takes place in the lower peninsula of Michigan, and the game uses a pretty realistic scale. So it'd take days of in-game time to traverse the width or height of the map. Each time the game starts, the game will randomize hex types within the bounds of the peninsula. Certain things are static, though, like Detroit, and certain encounter locations. But the rest is randomized, which means the location of ruins, forests, sources of water, items, etc. are in different spots each game.
Right now, Detroit is the main attraction, apart from the starting cryo facility. There's one other location out there right now too, though I won't spoil it for new players. The plan is to add at least a handful of other places to discover, plus random encounters. It'll depend on how funding goes, and what I'm able to create. But it's my baby, so I want it to be fun.
Can you provide some insight into the process behind creating the hand-drawn art style? What were the decisions behind creating the game through an isometric perspective?
Well, budget and talent were major constraints. I'm not an artist by trade, nor a programmer. So I tried to choose something I thought I could handle, first and foremost. I'm also a big fan of pixel art, as you could probably tell. I've been playing games since the early 80s, and the art style that stuck with me most was found on the Atari ST, Sega Genesis, and the PC games of the late 80s and 90s. There's something really magical about pixel art, to me. I like that it has so much painstaking detail, yet leaves a lot to the imagination.
The process of making the art is pretty unglamorous, though. Just me, my Wacom tablet, and a 2x2 pencil brush in Photoshop. As I discovered, there's no magic tool to create art. One just has to roll up one's sleeves, and paint the whole picture. And it's definitely a learning process. I'm creating things today that I would have balked at a year ago.
What are some of the challenging aspects that players will have to monitor during their quest for survival? With the current trend of making games easier for players, what were some of the decisions behind making NEO Scavenger a harsh and challenging experience? How do you balance the difficulty between frustration within the game?
Judging by fan reactions so far, I'd say nearly all of the aspects are challenging. Seriously, though, I wanted the game to present a struggle that rewarded player ingenuity and resourcefulness. I love it when a game rewards me for thinking of something; for taking the time to consider a small detail. So I wanted NEO Scavenger to deliver that feeling of accomplishment.
I think you're right that there's a trend in mainstream games to be more accessible. I think it's a by-product of the larger budgets they have. They simply cannot afford to alienate anyone if they want to recoup their cost, so they try to make the game more accessible. And sometimes, that means reducing challenge. Larger teams can sometimes dilute the game's vision too, as each person tugs it in a different direction. One of the really cool things about indie games these days is that the smaller budgets and teams means we get more challenging and focused ideas.
When it comes to balancing difficulty, I usually look first to see if the game offers the right tools for overcoming the challenge, rather than reducing the challenge. For example, early on, players complained that they were being killed in their sleep randomly by wandering bandits. It was a cool source of fear to know that sleeping was dangerous, but they were right that it was too random. Rather than reducing the probability of it happening in code, it was a lot more fun to give them noise traps to string up, the ability to hide and conceal their tracks, and camp sites with more or less concealment. That way, the fear was still there, but so were the tools and strategy to mitigate it.
Other than survival in the world, are there any quests that become available to players? Is there ultimately an endgame that players are trying to reach?
There is an overall plot that I have in mind. Some of the hooks for that plot are already visible in the opening encounter, and dialog with Hatter. When done, I'd like there to be that story for players to follow, offering them some direction (and resolution) if they so choose. I'd also like there to be smaller threads and/or encounters to flesh out the world. Stuff that doesn't necessarily have to do with the main story, but offers interesting insight into the world of NEO Scavenger.
I also realize that some players just enjoy romping around the wasteland, so I don't want to force story down players' throats. First and foremost, I aim to make the game engaging in its own right, even if they ignore the story.
When is the game's final version scheduled for release and on which platforms? Do you have any plans to expand the game beyond its flash version to smartphones and tablets?
It's hard to say when the game will be done. I've picked two dates that have both come and gone, so I don't have a lot of confidence in picking a third. The game was much smaller in scope way back when it started. And if I was 100% relying on my savings, it would probably have had to stop by now. Fortunately, publicity picks up once in a while, and I sell enough copies to extend the schedule a bit. As it stands, I've got a few months left of savings before I need to wrap things up, but I'm also hoping to use IGF and some other publicity channels to extend development.
NEO Scavenger is currently available in browsers that support Flash, as well as a download for PC, Mac, and Linux machines. When finished, I definitely want to try and put it on a tablet. Folks keep telling me it would be awesome in that format, and I think they may be right. Hopefully, sales are good enough that I can afford a tablet to try it out!
Is there anything we missed that you would like to mention about NEO Scavenger?
Sure, if I may put on my marketing hat for a moment. First of all, like many indies in the past few weeks, I've submitted my game to Steam's Greenlight program. NEO Scavenger's actually faring pretty well so far. As of this writing, it's ranked #68 out of over 800 titles, so that's pretty good! If any of your readers are Steam members, and they think NEO Scavenger would be a good fit, please vote!
Secondly, one of my goals when becoming an indie developer was to pass on my experiences to the next wave. So many indies shared their experiences before me, and it was such a huge help and inspiration, that I wanted to pay that favor forward. So if any of your readers are considering the plunge, I've been keeping a blog about my experiences.
Otherwise, I think you've done a great job of digging into the "whats" and "whyfors" of NEO Scavenger. Thanks so much for getting in touch!
Games set in post-apocalyptic settings are nothing new by any means, but what sets apart NEO Scavenger apart from the crowd can be found in both its dedication to providing challenging gameplay and an engaging world awaiting exploration. At the moment, the game is playable in a beta version that continually excites at the promise of what's to come in future versions. With a creator that actively discusses changes and new feature requests with the community, NEO Scavenger represents a daring model of game development that few would either commit the resources or effort.
It's obvious upon first glance playing the game or reading the developer's blog, NEO Scavenger is combination of exciting and unique gameplay concepts along with a homage to a time when games focused foremost on the intuition and imagination of their players. Most importantly, NEO Scavenger must be experienced firsthand to truly experience its many elements of genuine creativity and innovation.
NEO Scavenger is available now in both demo and beta versions with support for web browsers on Windows, Mac, and Linux. Further information on the game can be found through the Blue Bottle Games website.
We'd like to thank Daniel for taking the time to answer our questions.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been writing for Gaming Nexus since 2011 and focus primarily on PC games and hardware. I'm a strong advocate of independent developers and am always seeking the next genre-breaking and unique game releases. My favorite game genres are strategy, role-playing, and simulation, or any games that feature open worlds and survival elements.