Interview: Cargo Commander

“Do a straight Q&A!” they said, “Make it unedited!” they said. I did that but it was four thousand words. What follows is an abridged conversation between Maarten Brouwer and Daniël Ernst, the co-creators of Cargo Commander, and myself.

Where did the inspiration for Cargo Commander come from? Both in terms of the themes and the mechanics?

Daniël: The first idea for the game sprouted when I was trying to come up with a concept for a game which could be done in my spare time during my normal job (I worked at Triumph Studios, the studio behind the Overlord games). 

The first sketch sketch I made was about a guy trying to keep his spaceship clean, but space debris would keep knocking into his ship and he would have to clean up the mess and venture into the space debris to get it of his ship. It was a way of dynamically building up levels around the mothership which would serve as the main hub. The project never fully formed and the studio had to layoff most of its core team. After which I asked Maarten if he was up for an adventure.

After some iterations we drifted away from the original game idea. Maarten introduced the idea of randomly generated containers and the space walks. Which made the gameplay deeper.

Maarten: The procedural level generation wasn't inspired by a specific game. Though I had played a few rogue-like games in the past, they were a bit too punishing for my taste. I was also intrigued by games like Mount & Blade (with its emergent stories) and Left 4 Dead (with the AI director), the feeling that you had a unique experience that wasn't meticulously laid out by a game designer, but that occurred naturally, through chance and through your own actions.

Daniël: Then the story became to emerge. My dad worked in a factory where he would work long hours. Besides a couple of moments where the family could visit the factory. The factory was also not a place where you would bring children and it probably wasn't a very healthy place to work in; there were multiple signs with descriptions how you could be disfigured or killed by the machinery. It felt completely alien to me. When we started the game my dad had worked at his job for 40 years and busted his knee which forced him to do mind numbing work until his pension. This served as the core concept for the story and some of its gameplay. The repetitive nature of the work, Cargo Commander as a man of few words unless he is cursing, Cargo Corp exploiting their employees, The Home Container and the isolated spaces with there own theme and so on.

Misha Velthuis, who made music for all of my creative stuff since high school, had written the song ‘Homesick Blues.’ This song focused on the cargo commander wanting to go home to his family. I put the song on repeat and came up with the email system and the drawings of your son as a reward. We had this nice division in writing the story: I would focus on writing the family bits and Maarten would write all of the Cargo Corp emails and messages.

Going home was an important theme which found its way in most of the game's design. The farther you would venture into the containers the quieter ‘Homesick Blues’ would sound and the more likely you would be to die or be sucked into the black hole. To make the player want to go home and repeat your work day over and over we had to make you feel isolated. The only human interaction is through emails and drawings from home. It made you feel for the Cargo Commander.

We then had to decide what the core gameplay would be. We had a lot of discussions about it. I wanted to make it more arcade and Maarten wanted a longer game. In the end we had two modes and Maarten and I had both our own favourite modes I guess.

It's amazing to me that the game came from such a personal place. Is that something that working on a smaller project as part of a smaller team allows you to do? I can't imagine Overlord being inspired by one person's childhood.

Daniël: It certainly helps. A game with investors needs to give them their money back and then some, so they tend to go in the direction of proven concepts to secure profits. Or if they have the freedom to go beyond your typical power fantasy they still have to make it accessible enough for the target audience. A publisher can even intervene in what color you should make a title logo or what kind of posing would work best on the box cover. Of course there are some exceptions (like The Last of Us).  

But I guess the most important thing is that there is less that gets lost in translation between departments. You have a direct line between you and the player, so you can focus on small details and play with their expectations and put in more of your own experiences.

Of course it also got it's downside. Since we had a two man team it's hard to get in enough content.

Maarten: Overlord was probably inspired by very weird things (knowing the lead designer) but it's certainly true that the more people have influence in how things are going to turn out, the more muddled it all becomes, and personal influences become unclear. I also like games that show a more personal view, they can be much quirkier and interesting. For instance Far Cry 2 raised really interesting ethical questions at the end, but for later sequels the men responsible were replaced by more commercial thinkers and everything becomes a theme park. While small indie teams are not that bothered by management hierarchies or meddling publishers, I think there's a risk of everyone wanting to pitch in.

You both talk about how working in larger teams dilutes whatever vision the game had at the start but you mention examples of "AAA" games that have more unique visions; Maarten mentioned Far Cry 2, while Daniel talked about The Last of Us - why do you think those games managed to be a little bit more unique? Is that down to the trust of the publisher? Or is that down to the strength of the person running the project to stand up to pressure?

Maarten: I often hope that sometimes a key person in the publishing company feels that it's worthy to take a few risks and potentially make less money if that means a better game, but I'm a bit too jaded to really think that. So I also think the publisher probably trusted the developer's track record, or a strong-minded designer took a good stand (or stayed under the radar, not all publishers are as closely watching).

Daniël: I think it's a bit of everything. I mean Naughty Dog has a tremendous team, the amount of detail is insane. And of course a team with a proven track record enjoys more trust. But still I think for bigger games you have to have something to ground the audience, something recognisable. For example Last of Us has your conventional cover based combat system and "zombies". But it used the interactivity or the lack thereof to get an emotional response from the player.

So you talk about the two modes - the arcade mode and the Journey mode. Can you tell me a little more about those - why did you guys decide to lock Journey mode behind the ranking system?

Daniël: My girlfriend was studying abroad and when I came to visit her, I would play CC with her housemates. They would also play when I was not there, trying to beat each others highscores. There was this addictive competitiveness that started to emerge in the game that people seemed to enjoy.

The Blackhole rush also made venturing into the hierarchy of containers intense. Which made the home container feel all the more quiet. And the leaderboards made it feel you are one of many, but you would only see your colleagues as skeletons in your sector or as a name in the highscore list. It actually makes you feel all the more lonelier. So thematically it also made sense.  

Maarten: Well, I would be the 'Journey' guy, though that mode is rather tacked on with very little time spent on it, so I'm not sure if I like it better than the normal mode. I myself don't like time limits too much, and envisioned a version of the game in which you can explore and backtrack freely, and decide tactics based on the layout and the available resources. There are some cool and smart routes and actions possible in many situations, but often you're just quickly taking the most obvious way. But we decided to focus on the arcade idea, which did seem the most low-risk, and the Journey mode was a quickly made alternative based on the other idea that was added for a bit of variation. It doesn't work very well though, so to be clear it's a secondary mode and not the core game, it's initially locked and not integrated in the main flow.

I look back at Cargo Commander now and think of all the games that followed: FTL, Rogue Legacy, Binding of Isaac among other and, while they might not be directly influenced by CC, I see your game as separate from this obsession we have with the genre.

Were you guys aware that a movement like this was occurring? Or were you guys out there on your own, with your own influences, making CC?

Daniël: Nope not at all. The design process was very fluent. It actually started out as more straightforward platformer. But it became more of a rogue like when the game progressed. The randomly generated containers fit the dynamic level structure of the game. At one moment the game was too easy and it felt not threatening to venture into the docked containers so having to partake in ammo management solved that part. I don’t think we even called it a roguelike until the players started calling it one. 

It's interesting as well that Maarten in particular talks about procedural generation and how games now take a lot more from Minecraft than they do from anywhere else. Was the extent of the procedural generation you want in the game, achieved in the final product? Or did you guys ever conceive a more complex vision of what we have today?

Maarten: We wanted to have much more content and variation in the game, but at a certain point we decided to complete the game with what we had up until then, or we feared that it would never be finished. I think I could go more berserk with generation procedures if we'd had more level design ingredients, with rare objects that could be used for special cases, sectors that stood out in a certain way and clearly different waves. We also had some plans for rare special events, like meeting characters, surviving space storms or boss fights, which could use some interesting mechanics.

That whole area brings me to one of the things that has changed the landscape, particularly for indie teams, and that is Early Access. What do you guys make of it? Is that something you think you might have pursued for Cargo Commander if it released today?

Maarten: Good question.. I'm currently helping out for an Early Access game, and while it has many advantages, the pressure from the players can be quite overwhelming. For games that don't have a clearly outlined scope, players will keep wanting more and different things, and it could have been even harder to finish the game. I also think Early Access works best for games that you really can play for a long time, like multiplayer or crafting games. But still, it might have been a good option for Cargo Commander, just for the extra testers and feedback and a chance to build a bit of a community.

Daniël: Come to think of it Early Access would have been great to stress test networking. We had some nasty networking problems at launch, as is kind of the norm nowadays. But yeah early Access would have been great, I think Cargo Commander could have benefited from a community type of approach. But sometimes what a player want is not the best thing for him.

I think my final question would be; are you guys happy with Cargo Commander? Both in terms of the product we play today and how it did for you guys financially?

Maarten: My feelings about Cargo Commander are mixed: it's really cool to have made a game that people enjoyed, and I'm proud of certain parts of it, but the parts that didn't work out as well will nag me for eternity. I'm not really sure what we should have done differently at the time. We probably would have published it ourselves if we knew Greenlight was coming (though Greenlight didn't start off too well and we'd probably have been stressed out waiting in GL limbo for a year). Financially: let's say that for a first game it was quite successful, but objectively we would have made much more money if we spent the time washing dishes.

 

An enormous thank you to both Daniel and Maarten for their time, patience and support. Also their ability to decipher endless CC, FWD and standard replies as if it were nothing. And best of luck to both of you going forward.