Developing a game in open alpha sounds a lot like living in a glass house: thousands of people are watching what you do, and critiquing every move. Indie survival/exploration game Under the Ocean is just such a house, and Michael Reitzenstein is one of its residents. Thankfully, I managed to catch him in the midst of hectic development on the intriguing indie title and chat about game design, and the future of the project.
Jon Dantzler for Comics Bulletin Games: Hey there, Michael! Jon here from Comics Bulletin. I’m stoked to hear more about Under the Ocean.
Michael Reitzenstein, Programmer on Under the Ocean: Thank you very much!
CB: Under the Ocean, while definitely its own beast, contains many elements of indie greats Terraria and Minecraft. I’m personally seeing some Dwarf Fortress too. What were some the biggest influences on the design?
Reitzenstein: We didn’t consciously include elements from those titles; each game in its own way is exploring quite a similar question; you start off with nothing in a (semi-) realistic world, what next?
I really want to get into Dwarf Fortress, but I can’t figure out what the *$@$ is going on. I guess I need to find a friend that plays!
CB: In what ways did you want to take Under the Ocean beyond its prequel Under the Garden?
Reitzenstein: To give some context, Under the Garden was a four week competition game, made by Paul in a four week crunch.
We wanted to see what it would be like as a full game, with a much more complex and detailed environment.
CB: What is it like developing a game in open alpha? Do you find it helpful or intimidating?
Reitzenstein: I think that overall, it’s a very positive experience. Being in contact with fans, getting feedback and the like is extremely valuable. There are some trying moments – if the build is broken for a few hours, beware the wrath of the forums. But we’re blessed to have incredibly enthusiastic fans that want to see the game succeed, and that is invaluable.
CB: At this stage, the most striking element of Under the Ocean to me are its incredible visuals. I also thought that unlike many games that would deal with such a dark idea – being stranded on an island – Under the Ocean keeps a quite colorful palette. Were there deeper design decisions behind this?
Reitzenstein: I think it’s very important to be subtle when dealing with the emotions behind the Under the Ocean scenario. I think in that sense, if we had of made the graphics dark and foreboding, we would have failed.
In the moment it may even be satisfying or fulfilling exploring where you’ve ended up – mixed with a sinking, dull feeling of despair.
I’m especially happy with how Chris deals with these emotions in the music – the sound track is shaping up very nicely!
CB: A lot of what we’ve seen of the island (or islands, thanks to random generation) is cool. However, can we expect anything along the lines of varied topography in the future? Jungles, maybe? Dare I say…mountains?
Reitzenstein: As a matter of fact, there’s a whole update centered around this to come!
CB: On the topic of future development, what about multiplayer?
Reitzenstein: We would love to do multiplayer, and we’re working on it, but we shy away from promising it to our fans just yet. It increases the complexity of the project quite a lot, and we don’t want to make big claims and then run out of money trying to build them!
When we know we can do it, we’ll shout it from the rooftops!
CB: Do you think Under the Ocean works best from a sidescrolling perspective? Why did you decide to make the game this way?
Reitzenstein: It’s hard to know what direction the game would have taken if it were 3D, but our feeling at the time was that it would basically end up being Minecraft with more survival elements – it would probably sell great, but that’s not really our primary goal!
CB: Does the survivor have a story?
Reitzenstein: Right now, not really – we’re going to have a bunch of scenarios in the future, which will change your backstory and how the game is played. Some will be authentic to the feeling of the game, others might be downright silly! But, of course, optional.
CB: Following that, what’s your broader opinion on story in games? How much is too much?
Reitzenstein: A strong story in games, done correctly, can make for fantastic games.
But not all games need it, and it shouldn’t ever be shoehorned in where it doesn’t fit. Especially if you can’t do a good job of it!
I’m a fan of what some people in the industry call porno stories in games – a five second exposition which introduces the action afterward. The evil robots are invading Earth. No time to explain, start shooting!
CB: What’s a finished Under the Ocean gonna look like? Like what are the biggest features or goals missing that are not currently present in the alpha?
Reitzenstein: There are probably 20 big updates before we’re done. Whole classes of stuff you can do – rafting, farming, smelting etc – are not even touched yet.
CB: Any development plans beyond Under the Ocean?
Reitzenstein: At this point it feels like my life’s work. But if one thing my 10 years in games has taught me, after you’re done, you brush it off and start on the next project.
Jon Dantzler lives in North Carolina. Gifted with a Game Boy while in utero, his childhood was full of games. He started writing when he was 11 and now devotes the majority of his time to either activity, usually accompanied by
beer and food. You can read his tweets, mostly about said beer and food, at @TYBasedJon.