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‘Frontiers’ Interview – Trailblazing With Lars Simkins

Frontfeat.

Frontiers is an RPG adventure currently being developed by AAD Productions for PC, Mac, and Linux platforms. AAD Productions is a one-man studio created and headed by Lars Simkins (Lead Designer/Artist). Simkins is also a veteran VFX artist who has worked on Breaking Bad, Fringe, The Hunger Games, and more. Along with Simkins, musician, Steve Barnes, is creating the soundtrack for Frontiers. Development of the game began in February 2012, and the first trailer was released just a few days ago.

 

We recently had the chance to talk to Lars Simkins about the development of Frontiers and some of the stand-out features that it will bring to the table.

IGM: You started out as a VFX artist; how did you transition into the game development industry?

Simkins: I actually still haven’t made that transition! Yesterday I worked on Frontiers in the early AM, then spent the rest of the day doing a Breaking Bad shot. My whole life I’ve been holding a scale with video games on one end and VFX on the other, and they just tip back and forth over time. In middle school I made short films, in high school I made video games, in college I made short films, then video games, etc… Frontiers is just the scale tipping back the other way. Maybe permanently this time, but somehow I doubt it.

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IGM: As a new indie developer, can you talk about your inspiration for Frontiers?

Simkins: Two games: Daggerfall and Minecraft. Daggerfall was a mess in many ways but the feeling of a truly open world has never left me. Ever since playing it I’ve wanted to see a game in that mold that emphasized exploration above all else. And Minecraft is the game that finally tipped the scale back to games. I’ve never missed a deadline in VFX, but I came close the day I was working on my spherical obsidian fortress. I had to give my wife my login and say ‘Change it, and don’t tell me what it is.’ I was like a crack addict.

There are other games that I pull mechanics from too. System Shock 2 is my favorite game of all time, and I’ve stolen some of their skills mechanics. I’ve stolen some of Fallout 2‘s as well. But they’re more like distant cousins. Daggerfall and Minecraft are the mother and father.

 

FRONTIERS screenshot 11

IGM: Frontiers has a few features that differ it from other open-world games, like the dynamic path system and the slower tempo of gameplay. Can you detail how these features work in-game?

Simkins: The slower pace is pretty simple: when every mechanic is built around exploration, you end up with less stress and aggravation. Nothing kills my desire to explore faster than getting killed by a rat because I haven’t spent ten hours grinding in the main city. That’s not to say there aren’t threats or challenges, —bears are tough, really tough, and you don’t want to get caught in a pack of wolves— but there are ways to deal with them that don’t involve frantic combat or grinding.

The dynamic path system is the one truly unique mechanic. A game world doesn’t really feel ‘real’ to me until you can alter it in some permanent way. It feels like a set or facade. So the most important thing paths achieve is letting you make your mark.

They also allow for fast travel. Going over the same ground twice is the enemy of exploration, so fast travel is essential in a game like this, but it can also take you out of the game when it feels like teleportation. In Frontiers, fast traveling means you literally walk along a path, seeing the rolling landscape go by, but with time sped up by a factor of 10. So you never lose your sense of distance or accomplishment as you zip from place to place.

You can create a path starting at any landmark —a city, some ruins, your house, whatever— and extend it with Path Markers, which are little stakes that you craft Minecraft-style from natural materials. There are a few restrictions —path markers can’t be too close or too far apart, because the Bezier splines get funky if they bunch up— but generally paths can be as long or short or wiggly as you want, and you can place Path Markers anywhere but open water. As it’s created it will not only show up on your map but also in-game as a beam along the ground. This can be really helpful when traveling at night. (I’ve wandered off a few cliff edges groping in the dark without a torch.)

FRONTIERS screenshot 8

IGM: This project is very ambitious for a two-man team. Do you think you’ll meet all the goals you’re shooting for?

Simkins: It’s actually a one-man team, at least for now. And it’s definitely ambitious. I think I’ll meet all the goals I’m shooting for, but not always in the ways people might expect. I sort of think about features the way I think about VFX shots. In a VFX shot if you need a building, you don’t model the whole thing, you build the side that’s facing the camera. And if the camera doesn’t pan up, you don’t build the top either. You do the absolute bare minimum because deadlines are looming.

That’s harder in games because you can’t predict where the player will go, but the idea still applies. For instance, when I say ‘NPC’ most people probably envision fully animated Skyrim-style villagers roaming around spouting voice-acted dialog. But an NPC in Frontiers is very limited, because I don’t have the means to do all those things. You won’t be able to kill them, for one thing – you can make them angry, but not kill them. If you could, interlocking quests would have to account for deaths and the complexity would overwhelm me. But functionally they accomplish the same thing as an NPC with all the bells and whistles, at least within the context of this game. So that’s how I keep things manageable.

 

IGM: Do you have any plans to include multiplayer or mod support into Frontiers?

Simkins: This gets asked a lot and I’ve tried to be careful about answering because I don’t want people to think of them as planned features. I want to do co-op, so I’ve tried to avoid design choices that would make implementing multiplayer co-op more difficult than it has to be. But it’s not something I could do well on my own. The only way it would happen is if it gets crowdfunded and I can hire a specialist.
FRONTIERS screenshot 3

IGM: What do you see as your biggest hurdle to get past during the development process?

Simkins: Thinking you have to be a super genius to make games. I’m not saying that’s a common problem, but it was a big problem for me. Some of the folks out there making games are just incredible, artistically and technically. Me, I’m a decent artist but not great —most of my strength in that arena comes from pragmatism and the speed at which I work. I’m an unquestionably mediocre programmer. And yeah that sucks in a way. But neither of those things means I can’t make a good game. It just means I have to work a little harder.[/private_insider]

Frontiers has a planned release date of January 2014. You can check out the game’s IndieDB page, or follow Lars on Twitter at @Railboy.