Steven Belowsky is the CEO of Martian Media Incorporated, an independent games studio in America. They are currently working on a combat/platform title called Waking Amy, which has a Kickstarter project. In this interview, I got to talk to him about the project, experiences as a developer, the calculated risks of launching a Kickstarter campaign and where he thinks the independent scene is headed.
So, very simply - just to break the ice - tell me a bit about yourself, Steven.
Let's see… Where to begin? Well, from a professional standpoint, I do all the design and programming at Martian Media. A little bit about myself - I'm… a nerd. (laughs) I like getting good at nerdy things like the piano and videogames... so videogame design and development seemed like the perfect place for me.
As I understand it, this is not your first project. So, what's your game development resume like?
It's about half games and half simulations. Most of it has been done with the same group of individuals - my close friends.
We've made a couple of rinky-dink games here and there when we were first getting started and a couple of internships took over from there so we didn't really have time to work on games.
So, we were making simulations for museums and we were actually working on a demo for the navy for quite a while. We were cranking out these demos about once a week and every week the navy would say, "Oh, that's incredible!" And then a higher-up person would be like, "can you make us another one?" "OK". And we kept doing that for months and then, eventually, they just cut us off and it was the most depressing thing. (laughs) So, I mean, after that, we just worked on a couple of games. We did a couple of game jams… It's an awesome experience, I highly suggest everyone goes.
You say it was the same group of people… So, was it a natural decision to start Martian Media Inc. or were you in different projects beforehand? What's the origin story there?
Well, as far as Martian Media Inc. goes, there was one day after the last company we worked for couldn't pay us anymore - the company went under.
So, we were all kind of sitting around and saying, "Well, what do we want to do now?" Because it was seeming unlikely that we would all be hired at a new place together, because two of us are still students (the other two just graduated).
But, as far as a natural decision, yeah, it just felt right. I mean, the idea was brought up by me and one of my other friends and the the rest of the group was, like, totally in on it. So, to answer you question, it definitely felt natural.
Tell us a bit about Waking Amy. What's it about? How does it play? Any influences? What made you want to make a game like that?
We've got a folder on one of our work computers that has a lot of videogame ideas. Like, if we randomly get an idea and it's pretty good, we just throw it in there - and that's what we've been doing since the start.
The idea originally was just a girl that's in a coma and you have to somehow wake her up from her coma… and that's all we started with. But it just kinda took off from there.
As for the influences, we really love indie games - even the bad ones - we just love other nerds going ahead doing what they love. Even the great ones, like Super Meat Boy… Another big influence is definitely the PS1 genre playformer - which is just unanimously our favourite genre. Things like Pandaemonium, Crash Bandicoot… stuff like that.
More about Waking Amy - it's a 2.5D puzzle-combat-platormer, so you'll be seeing puzzles… and combat. (laughs)
The storyline, I kinda touched upon - it's about a girl in a coma. A doctor has just invented a new therapy technique and she's one of the first trials for it and, throughout the game, you are trying to communicate.
The story plays out with Amy's mother and the doctor trying to communicate with Amy to wake her up out of her coma and that's where the gameplay comes from. So the gameplay takes place in her dreams, basically.
What made you decide to advertise on Kickstarter?
We've been keeping up with a couple of Kickstarters - backing some of them ourselves - and it seemed like a really good place to get some funding… We saw some games get some great success on there and that's what we're kinda hoping for.
I know some gamers think that Kickstarter games are ten-a-penny, so - very bluntly - how does one stand out in such a massive crowd?
That's a very good question… Well, the first way is we focused really, really hard on the image that you see when you scroll through, when you're browsing through the Kickstarter. We went through design after design, not a big part of development over all, but it took us a while to decide on our final one - and we feel like it literally just grabs your attention to look at it.
What you're saying, it is true that there are a lot of indie games on Kickstarter and the biggest problem we noticed is that people just don't have views; theres no one looking at it. It could be greatest game in the world. We've seen awesome games fail and we were prepared for that.
You mentioned earlier [before the interview] that you think community is a big part of development and that it's important to have a following. Could you elaborate on that? What do you mean, exactly?
What I mean by that is, we had a couple of games we released on Newgrounds but we didn't have one central location for people to come and see what other games we had.
A bit part about Kickstarter is having people who will definitely back as soon as the project launches. Rarely a Kickstater succeeds if it didn't have some sort of following on Facebook, Twitter, etc. beforehand.
Do you think that you personally, or Martian Media itself, would ever want to go into a big, professional company? Or do you think you're fine remaining in the indie scene?
That depends really. The biggest thing is, we want is to work together. We would all love to make our own game and have independent control and all that, but we really just love each other and want to stay together.
Do you have any thoughts on where the indie scene will go from here? Because it's been expanding for a while and, with the advent of things like Steam and digital distribution, it's just exploded outwards into this… huge, huge community. What are your thoughts on the future of it?
It's really hard to say. It was probably easier to make more successful indie games before the explosion that you're talking about. Because, you know… yes, the indie game exploded, but that basically means the market is more flooded.
You know, before, just being indie was all you needed - but to grab attention from all the other indie games is really hard.
Where do I think the indie scene in general will go? I think it's just gonna keep exploding, probably. There's money in it.
Do you have any pet peeves with the indie or Kickstarter communities? Is there anything in this scene that you wish was different or would change?
At a couple of the game jams we went to, there were some people who were just very pretentious but don't have the skill to back it up; people who think that whatever engine they program in is the best, even though there are clearly other options that are equally as good.
That's only what we've seen from the local indies, though. We haven't gotten the chance to meet a whole load of "professional" indies, but as far as the whole scene goes - they're pretty cool, they're just like us.