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While I love sinking my teeth into a really meaty, long game, I don’t have the time to devote to gaming that I once did (How, how did I  play more than 100 hours on Pokemon Yellow?). Now I find myself drawn to games with shorter play time, or that I can pick up and play without too much effort. So I was delighted when a friend pointed me towards a game called 39 Days to Mars, which is currently being Kickstarted.

39 Days to Mars – Kickstarter Pitch from surrealix on Vimeo.

The game promises, for “the change you have under your couch”,  a co-op puzzle adventure game on a steampunk spaceship setting sail for Mars in 1876. While the ship itself is the height of modern engineering, the crew isn’t quite up to snuff. In addition to keeping the ship up and running, you must ensure that the two characters, Sir Albert Wickes and The Right Honourable Clarence Baxter, are well rested, well fed, and entertained. Its developer describes it as a “coffee break adventure game”, with missions only lasting about 20 minutes. The game is slated for a February 2015 release on PC, Mac, Linux, and Ouya, with more platforms to come if the $4000 stretch goal is reached.

The whimsical concept art, stupid but lovable characters, and the idea of short gameplay sessions piqued my interest.  Developer Philip Buchanan graciously agreed to answer some of our burning questions about his game, his art, and which of his characters would win in a fight.

Why Mars? Why steampunk? And why the name HMS Fearful?

There are a few different factors here. The inspiration for the game came when I was reading about VASIMR (the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket). It’s a new type of ion propulsion that is more efficient than current rockets, and the designers reckoned that it would allow for a mission to Mars with a travel period of just 39 days. I always get excited about new technologies and this really captured my imagination; hence the conception of 39 Days to Mars.

Steampunk is great fun to work with as a creator. The raw and exposed mechanical side of the genre appeals to my background as an engineer, while the traditionally rich colours make it fun to work with as an artist.

Concept Art for the Very First Co-Op Puzzle in the Game
Concept Art for the Very First Co-Op Puzzle in the Game

What games or other media are you drawing inspiration from? Steam punk usually screams Jules Verne, but your lovable, bumbling idiots seem more like Monty Python characters.

My version of steampunk is influenced by countless authors – the usual suspects Jules Verne and H G Wells, as well as Philip Pullman, Philip Reeve, Neal Stephenson, and the wonderfully stilted worlds of Jane Austen. You’ve correctly hit upon that hint of absurdity, and it probably comes from my love of dry comedy – from Monty Python and Rowan Atkinson to the typical Kiwi satire of John Clarke. It’s mixed with my own melancholy and longing for a romantic age of adventure and engineering that never really existed outside of our imagination.

Your game’s main characters are two explorers from the 19th century. Obviously, this fits well with your steampunk aesthetic, but is there any other reason you’re interested in that time period? (I’m drawn in particular to your comment about voice acting adding “a touch of British imperialism”.)

This is linked to my comments on inspiration in that it’s simply a fun setting to work with, but it probably also has something do with my upbringing. New Zealand was founded as a colony in the 19th century, and so a lot of our modern history stems from this era. There’s a parallel between the early explorers who sailed halfway around the world in such elaborate yet ships.

Is there any story in this game, or is purely, “here is puzzle, go solve it?”

There’s obviously a story arc about the voyage to Mars, and there will be small sub-plots when things go wrong. I’m trying to build up a world through the memories and interactions of Albert and Baxter, but this is no epic and there’s no over-arching plot about supervillans or space monsters.

In a fight, who do you think would win? Sir Albert Wickes or The Right Honourable Clarence Baxter?

It would be a duel at 30 paces. Sir Albert Wickes is the better marksman, but The Right Honourable Clarence Baxter would take the shot when Albert’s top hat fell forwards over his eyes. Due to his terrible aim, the bullet would shatter a porthole and both contestants would be sucked out into the depths of space to never be seen again.

Let’s call it a draw.

Extremely competent characters probably wouldn't need player input anyway.
Extremely competent characters probably wouldn’t need player input anyway.

39 Days to Mars is meant to be a co-operative experience, where two people control characters on the same device. Am I going to watch to kill my friends after playing this game, or is this a game that will bring us closer together?

I hope you’ll be closer together!

You describe 39 Days to Mars as a “coffee break adventure game”, with expeditions only taking about 20 minutes to play. What kind of challenges or opportunities does this present to you as a developer? How do you get players to care about characters or get hooked on game play in 20 minutes or less?

As a designer, ensuring replayablity is the hardest challenge with a short story-based game. This is something I’ve been focused on for a while, and I’ve addressed this in depth in the Kickstarter Gameplay Update. On the flip side, such a short game is a fantastic opportunity to try things that wouldn’t be possible in a longer game. It’s easier to quickly protype and re-write pieces of the game, and to integrate things fully into the story without worrying about continuity and flow-on effects. Getting players to care about the characters is a difficult challenge no matter how long the game is!

You’ve previously worked on games in team setting. How does creating a game with a team differ from working alone? And on that note, how “alone” are you as a solo developer?

The main challenge of working alone is balancing the work across all parts of the game. Not only am I programming the gameplay, but I also need to take time out to design the puzzles and minigames, as well as spend time on the technical details of platform compliance and of course bug fixing. This is combined with drawing the interface and in-game artwork, arranging sound, music, voice acting, and countless hours of PR and corresponding with backers on Kickstarter. As a manager in a team setting you’re constantly aware of what the team is working on, but as a solo developer it’s easy to get lost in the technical details and loose track of the overall picture.

39days3
Behold the pinnacle of Victorian engineering, designed by the brightest minds of the age.

At $20 and above, you give backers access to an online forum, where they can contribute their ideas to the game in progress. Are you nervous about relinquishing some creative control over your game?

I don’t feel this is relinquishing creative control so much as getting more creative input into the project. Design-by-committee is a notoriously bad way to design a functional product, but brainstorming and throwing around ideas in a group is a great way to expand on interesting ideas and explore things I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.

With this much outside input, I’m a little nervous about loosing the core vision I have for the project. However a lot of people supporting 39 Days to Mars have done so because they like the style and vision of the trailer, and this common goal will help keep the project on track. And of course the final decision on what ends up in the game is still ultimately mine.

Your first stretch goal covers additional platforms beyond PC, including Ouya. Any reason you decided to support Ouya before, say, mobile platforms?

This is a good question, and there is a reason behind the order of the platforms. 39 Days to Mars is designed as a single-screen co-operative game. This works exceptionally well on consoles and computers with full sized screens, but is simply too small to be playable on a 4-inch cellphone screen. To support mobile platforms this requires a new interface, which is more complex than simply giving the games touch control. It means a change in the way the level is displayed, including new layouts for the puzzles and probably a switch to asynchonous same-device multiplayer. Linux and MacOS are the first new platforms because these are purely a technical challenge and the game content remains the same. Ouya is a great intermediate platform, because it allows me to focus on the technical side of porting to Android without having to re-design everything at the same time. We’re still a way from the next stretch goal, but the iPad (and Android tablets) are probably the devices I’m most looking forward to releasing 39 Days to Mars on. The direct physical interaction with the world should be great fun.

Your portfolio, your academic work, and your concept art for 39 Days to Mars suggest that art is pretty important to you. Did you develop your interest and talents in art as a result of developing games, or did you get into games because of your art?

This is a difficult question! I think my interest in art came about as a result of developing games. Having high quality and consistent artwork in a video game can make more of difference to how it feels than adding thousands of new features ever could. After realising this, learning to draw was a necessity for making games by myself. I then started painting for fun and as you can see from my portfolio it soon became a way to relax that was completely unrelated to writing games.

Backer reward at $40: Hand drawn concept art.
Backer reward at $40: Hand drawn concept art.

With more than 2 weeks left, your game is already funded by 200%, and you’re already reached your first stretch goal, so let’s dream big. If the sky were the absolute limit, what things would you want to add to 39 Days to Mars?

I’m fairly happy with the size and scope of the project as it is! That said, if I had a hundred times the budget and was able to work on this full-time, I’d add more content and expand 39 Days to Mars into a full-length adventure game.

kickstarter_reward_papercraft_assembled
Kickstarter Reward at $10: Papercraft model

39 Days to Mars has already reached its initial goal of $1,000, but I want to play this game on my phone, dammit, so help Philip reach his stretch goal of $4000. For $2 NZD (That’s $1.66 for you Americans), you can have a copy of this game for your very own!

Check out the Kickstarter page, the Steam Greenlight page, or check out Philip’s other stuff. You can also follow the game’s progress on Facebook or Twitter.

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