On November 3rd, 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 2 into outer space, as a precursor to future missions carrying human occupants. The test subject inside the Sputnik 2 was a stray dog from the streets of Moscow named Laika. The Soviet Government always maintained that she was euthanized before her oxygen would have depleted on day six of her terminal voyage. However in 2002, it was revealed that she in fact died of over-heating within hours of entering near-Earth orbit.
Rather upsetting, isn\’t it? Well thankfully we can soon enter a world in which Laika never died, thanks to the work of Indie developer Minicore Studios. They are currently seeking funding for their debut game Laika Believes, which could come to the Wii U if it achieves its stretch goal of $95,000. In order to find out more about this reality in which Laika continued to live out her life, I asked CEO and Lead Programmer John Warren some questions about this game.
Firstly, who are Minicore Studios? How many people are currently working for Minicore Studios? How did you get into the games industry?
I was a graduate student here in Austin not 100% content with my job prospects. I didn\’t really want to work in mobile infrastructure dev, didn\’t really want to work with MMO makers (of which there are many in Austin), didn\’t really want to join a huge AAA with a record of massive lay-offs every six months (of which there are many in Austin!).
So I took the opportunity to start a company during one of my independent studies. I kind of did it just to see if I could do it. I\’ve always loved games and wanted to make games. Starting the company seemed like a good way to see if I could recruit the necessary folks to join up and make something great. That was back in early 2011. I received more interest from folks than I really anticipated. Our creative lead, Peter Odom, is really the reason I felt so confident about setting out to do all of this craziness. Peter was the first person I recruited and this partnership is really the backbone of a lot of what we do.
Anyway, more folks joined shortly thereafter and we decided we wanted to make Laika Believes. That’s really the first project we had in mind and it’s been our baby for two and a half years now. But we hit some snags and made a couple of mobile games along the way for various reasons. Which cut into our dev time, so that’s partially why it’s taken so long to get the game out.
We\’ve fluctuated from five core people and gone up to……I think……twelve people at the max. Right now we\’ve got ten people working on the game. It\’ll probably grow again once we start doing hard console development. Right now we\’re just focused on the PC/Mac/Linux build. Getting that as close to done as we can before shifting resources to the consoles we want.
That sounds like quite an adventure setting Minicore up! As this is your first game, do you have many other platforms in mind?
Well XBLA/Xbox One were basically ruled out until Microsoft decided to pump the brakes on their regressive policies. The game was originally built in XNA, so XBLA is honestly an easy slam-dunk for us now that it’s rumoured we\’ll be able to self-publish soon. I\’ve also been a big fan of the way Sony has handled their business, so PSN/Vita is another focus of ours.
I also have a very sweet spot in my heart for Nintendo and I genuinely like the Wii U. I want to see Laika Believes on Wii U so I can play with the Gamepad! 3DS is probably my favourite piece of hardware in my house right now, but I honestly don\’t know how well it would work. I think controls would have to shift in pretty substantial ways for that to work. We\’ll see, though.
Consoles are stretches for us, not only in terms of our ongoing Kickstarter but just our abilities in general. We\’d be relatively new to console dev, so we have to prioritize intelligently and not get too buried. The transition to XBLA is easy. The transition to Sony/Nintendo would be a bit more difficult, so we have to be realistic about it.
Certainly makes sense, considering this is your first game! What actually is Laika Believes, in terms of genre, and what is the story behind it?
Laika Believes is a 2D action/adventure/platformer. You\’ll play in an alternate history as alternate history Laika, who doesn\’t die in space, but rather returns to Earth with robot armour. It’s your job as the player to investigate what’s happened to the world in her absence and why the new imperialist Soviet regime has gained so much power.
Laika’s real story inspired our desire to make the game; lots of interesting facets there. Did the Soviets learn enough from her journey? Lots of scientists who worked on the project say \”no.\” What would happen if these animal experiments continued in a more drastic direction?
When I watched the video on your campaign page about the history I actually got a little choked up!
Yeah! We\’ve just always been interested in her story for so long and seen nice homages to her in other media, but we haven\’t seen anything about her at all in video games. It is hugely tragic and sad, which is honestly one of the tightropes we walk with the game.
There are numerous 2D platformers heading to the Wii U, even from Nintendo’s internal studios, what makes you think Laika Believes will stand out amongst the rest?
Combinations of game play mechanics make Laika Believes a unique experience compared to other 2D platformers out there.
First, there’s the three-branched skill system that allows for the player to create an experience tailored to them. There’s your fairly obvious offense skill tree, which affects how your weapons operate in standard (and not-so-standard) ways. The Defense skill tree affects your shield ability, which serves as almost a block from a fighting game. The Utility/Exploration tree allows the player to explore more freely and gives players a specific edge. For example, this is where you\’d control your Raw Nano efficiency. Raw Nano works almost like currency in the game. You collect Raw Nano and can use it to build armor packs, ammo stacks, grenades, etc. You can also break down things into Raw Nano — if you never use the Shotgun but have lots of ammo for it, break it down into Raw Nano and get what you want out of it.
But yes, we\’ve definitely tackled some fears about 2D platformer over-saturation. It’s something we\’re worried about, but ultimately I think the depth of game play and the depth of narrative and setting that we\’re offering really sets us apart. There are so many little things that make us a little different. I think it adds up to a pretty big difference compared to some of the other games.
As far as length of the game, that’s still a little tough to say, but super quick players could get through in a few hours, but the norm will be closer to 10-15. Exploration-heavy players (like myself) might get the most out of the game.
The story behind the game will certainly set it apart from anything Nintendo’s first party teams will be bringing to the console! How far are you into development of the Wii U version and are you planning anything unique for the format?
We\’re still definitely in the middle of our Wii U R&D phase. I know the kinds of features I want, but haven\’t had much of a chance to get my hands on features that might not be as obvious for us. For example, I know exactly what I want to display on the Gamepad and how that\’ll work. But other features like Miiverse are still not super clear to me in terms of what I\’d want out of it.
It’s safe to say that there\’ll be a fairly sizeable delay between when we get Laika Believes out for its launch platforms and when we\’ll have the stretch consoles ready to go. I hope that gap isn\’t too big, though!
The Wii U has garnered a lot of negative press since its launch last year, why did you decide to bring your game to the platform?
I think a lot of the negative press has been fair, first of all, but also fairly dismissive and malicious at times. You look at a lot of console launches over the years and I couldn\’t tell you a console that I\’d define as having \”a great launch.\” I think they\’ll definitely pick up their game with a combination of safe First Party content, some smart First Party retreads (super excited to play Wind Waker HD), and indie support.
The Gamepad makes so much sense for Laika Believes. Aside from pure Nintendo nostalgia and wanting a side-scrolling game on Wii U, knowing that the Gamepad might actually make the Wii U version THE definitive version of the game is pretty exciting to me.
I think Nintendo’s drive to be more open and accommodating is a huge help to indies like us. If they just keep that transparency going, I think they\’ll have a bright future with indies.
What do you currently plan on using the Gamepad for, which would make the Wii U version THE definitive version?
So one of our big differentiators is the map system we\’re using. Instead of this flat 2D grid of rooms you have or haven\’t explored, it’s an organic structure that we\’ve built. It’s a unique combination of 2D and 3D. This way, we can build these organic structures that make sense to the narrative but also use cues and clear map markings to show when the player has changed direction.
On Wii U, we\’d obviously have the ability to permanently display the map on the Gamepad and allow the player to manipulate the view of the map using touch controls. We\’d also shift hacking (which right now is a pretty simple mini-game) into something a little more fun on the Gamepad.
The basic funding goal is set at a reasonable $20,000, but the Wii U stretch goal is $95,000. That’s quite a leap, how do you explain it?
So if you look at the stretch goals you can see a prioritization take shape. We feel it’s more important to be able to expand some of the animations in the game, followed by Sony console support, followed by Wii U support. This prioritization has everything to do with business viability, which pains me to say, but right now it’s just more attractive to have a game on Sony’s platforms than Nintendo’s. If we had the financial room to take some risk, we\’d be prioritizing both because I really do like the Wii U and want to see it thrive.So that’s why it’s a bit of a climb on our stretch goals. It doesn\’t mean that we won\’t put it on Wii U if you don\’t hit that mark. It just means we\’ll then be reliant on sales of the initial platforms for Wii U support. BUT (shameless promotion incoming) if we had some help getting up to that stretch goal, that would be amazing.
How did you find the process of becoming an approved developer? How happy are you with the level of communication and support Nintendo have given you?
They quietly lifted their barriers of entry a few months ago — I filled out some paperwork and that was basically that. It’s actually remarkably simple to gain access to the necessary portals to get started. Their communication has been totally great, though we haven\’t had a need to communicate all that much so far.
When we get a little closer to doing hard work on the Wii U version, I\’m sure there\’ll be snags we hit. I\’m not too worried about their communication, though.
Is there anything you would like Nintendo to do to make new games possible, such as the recent news about Construct2 coming to Wii U, making HTML5 development easier?
We have a passing interest in HTML5. I think their Unity announcements have already done the trick for us. We\’re not currently building in Unity (2D toolkit stuff was not where we needed it to be until very recently), but we will be for future projects. Knowing that we\’ll be able to publish pretty easily across so many platforms is a huge deal.
Would you like Unity to support 3DS?
Yeah I mean that would really be icing on the cake. I suppose that’s the missing piece now that I think about it. If they ever managed a cross-play system a la PSN/Vita, that would be bananas.I\’d love to buy a game once through Nintendo and share saves and play on both Wii U and 3DS.
Once Laika Believes is complete, what’s next on the cards for Minicore Studios – a new game or perhaps a sequel?
So Laika Believes was originally conceived as this one huge game, but we split it into three natural parts. If the first game does well, we\’ll be able to finish the other two parts within a year and get those out. Since making the other two games won\’t require our entire team’s input, we\’ll be able to start working on another project. We have a few projects in mind, but right now we\’re 100% Laika 100% of the time. Then there’s The Sky Below and A Single Star
Can you tell us anything about how these parts differ?
Haha! Well I\’ll definitely tell you as much as I can about The Sun at Night, but the other two would spoil something I don\’t think we\’re ready to spoil. The Sun at Night refers to something pretty specific (which I won\’t spoil), but it also refers very generally to the unnatural order of what is happening to the world now that the imperial Soviets have taken over the world. The empire is almost like seeing \”the sun at night,\” which would be alarming and unnatural.
Finally do you have any closing comments for our readers?
Just that we want Laika Believes in front of as many people as possible. Saw someone tweet yesterday (and now I can\’t remember who) that multi-platform development isn\’t just about more sources of revenue, but about sharing an experience with as many people as possible. Couldn\’t be more accurate! Thank you for your support!
Thanks to John for taking some time out of his busy day to answer our questions, we wish you the best of luck with the rest of your campaign!