We’re back with a new interview! Today I got the chance to interview David Stark, developer of one of my favourite indie titles: Airships, Conquer the Skies. I have no big introductions for today’s article. The next Indie Corner Episode will be slightly delayed as I take some time off, but I hope you enjoy the interview. Here’s a link to Airships, available on Steam, GOG, and Itch.io!
Let’s start off with an introduction! Please tell me who you are, and what do you do?
Hi! I’m David Stark, an indie game developer from Zurich, where I live with my partners, two cats, a snake, and many inbred guppies.
What game/studio are you currently involved with? And what position?
I’m currently working on a DLC for my game Airships: Conquer the Skies. I’m a solo developer, so I do most things myself, though I do have contractors for music and some of the artwork.
What advice would you give those who wish to enter the industry?
Figure out what you actually want to do. Most indie games are massive financial failures, whereas bad pay and abusive management are rife in the AAA industry.
So do you want to enter the industry, or do you want to make games? Because you can make games as a hobby or as a side gig, which removes a lot of these pressures.
If you do want to go down the route of for-profit indie development, you need to make sure early in a game’s development that this is something people actually want. I know this sounds trivial to the point of being meaningless, but the number one mistake is indie developers making a game that just… doesn’t stand out, doesn’t excite anyone.
For example, my game, Airships, is not at all everyone’s cup of tea, but for some people, it’s exactly what they want, and that’s why it sells.
If you still have time to play video games, what are some of your favorite ones to play?
The games I tend to replay a lot are Crusader Kings 3, Vintage Story, Six Ages: Ride like the Wind, Caves of Qud, and Master of Orion II. Recently I’ve also enjoyed Dune: Spice Wars.
How did you get into your chosen field in the industry?
I got a degree in computer science, followed by doing a bunch of normal programming jobs for a few years, after which I got bored of that and decided to strike out as an indie developer. I then proceeded to fail thoroughly for many years, keeping my head above water with contract work, before eventually making Airships, a game people were actually willing to buy.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Looking into the eyes of the new recruits, knowing many of them won’t make it back.
The most frustrating part is when I know that there’s some kind of bug affecting people, but I just don’t have the information to figure out why it happens. You can spend a lot of time and effort trying to track down this information – asking people questions, adding more logging and checks – and somehow, the answer still eludes you.
What lessons have you learned during your time in the industry?
You need to show your game to people as quickly and often as possible. When you do, observe how they interact with the game. Asking them questions about their experience is much less useful than just observing them carefully. Where do they get stuck? Where are they having fun?
What are your future project(s)?
I have a prototype that’s been hanging around for years begging to be made. It’s not exactly the same kind of game, but it’s also about horrible things happening to small simulated people.
I might also turn some of my favorite smaller projects from my itch.io page into more fully-featured games, for example Corvus Sector, a 100-turn space 4X game.
If you couldn’t be a game developer, what ideal job would you like to do?
That’s a surprisingly tough question. I used to want to be in science, but a lot of my friends were treated very badly in academia, so now, not so much. I love cooking, but I don’t think I’d want to be a cook. I guess I’d want to be a novelist, which feels like a cop-out because that’s so close to being a game developer in my mind!
What were your greatest challenges during the development of Airships: Conquer the Skies?
Getting multiplayer to work reliably. It’s treacherous – getting multiplayer to work under ideal conditions is not hard. But people have so many different machines, network connections, ways of playing the game, that getting from “it works in the lab” to “it actually works” is a huge amount of effort.
What are your plans for Airships: Conquer the Skies during 2023 and beyond?
Right now I’m working on a DLC for Airships that will introduce ship captains and city governors with special abilities. Captains can outflank their enemies, produce smokescreens, and use magic to make them suffer. Governors can reduce unrest, declare useful edicts, and deal with monsters. Both of them can react to your behavior and evolve into different versions of themselves.
I hope to get that done by… 2023? Mid-2023 if things go well.
After that, it honestly depends on how well the DLC does. If it sells well, I have ideas for some more DLC that I could make. If not, it’s probably time for a new project!
What games were your greatest inspirations in designing Airships: Conquer the Skies?
FTL: Faster than Light for the ship + crew aspect. Master of Orion II for the ship design aspect. Cortex Command for the side-on view and the way everything explodes.
What is your ideal video game if money and time was no object?
I’d like to stun Firaxis with a sufficiently large amount of money so they’d give me Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri IP, so I could make a proper modern version of the game.
Or maybe I’ll just make David Stark’s Epsilon Eridani! If it happens, you heard it here first!
More about You
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I play computer games and help run a game development hub in Zurich. You mean non computer game stuff? I really enjoy cooking. I like trying out new recipes, and I also like the physicality of cooking as a counterpoint to my other activities.
Coffee or Tea? Or (exult deep breath) what other drink do you prefer, if you like neither?
Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon.
You can travel anywhere in the universe. Where would you go, and why?
Assuming the travel comes free with the relevant life support, to the nearest planet with sentient non-human lifeforms. I mean, come on!
Pick any three fiction characters. These are now your roadtrip crew. Where do you go and what do you do?
Miles Vorkosigan (Vorkosigan Series), Camilla Hect (Locked Tomb Series), and the magic carpet from Aladdin. We’d do a massive pub crawl across the Americas. The magic carpet is because I can’t drive and I wouldn’t trust the other two to drive either.
Finally, what superpower would you most like?
Given that I just had a heart attack a few weeks ago (yes, I’m too young for that), I think I’d go with a mutant healing factor, thank you very much.
Airships: Conquer the Skies: