Interview with Dan DiCicco (StarDrive)

Posted: 2011/04/09 in Indie Games

Dan DiCicco is an aspiring Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG) developer with an ambitious space combat/trading/exploration game with RPG elements under development, slated for release this autumn. I caught up with him recently to talk about his project, what inspired his game, whether he plans to stay “indie” beyond this first project, his feelings on XNA development and the XNA community, and more.

Writings of Mass Deduction:
What’s your full name, and your location?

Dan DiCicco:
Dan DiCicco (zer0sumgames on twitter), Portland, Oregon.

I like your site. I am working on a spaceship RPG/4x [“4x” games are strategy games set in space — “explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate”]. I am so deep in this game. About a year on it at this point. That footage is missing some key developments over the past few days.

I see your game has momentum for ship movement, how “Newtonian” is it trying to be in its physics?

I haven’t put a lot of effort into perfectly mimicking newtonian physics. All objects have mass and react how you might expect them too, but I’m not using a physics library.

What were the inspirations for your game?

Masters of Orion 2, Escape Velocity, Mount and Blade, and Gratuitous Space Battles. I am trying very much to make a love child of all of these games.

No Star Control? What about other XBLIGs like “Starchon” and “Abaddon Retribution”?

Star Control was a game that I somehow missed in its time. My first home computer was an apple; the preminent spaceship game from my youth was Escape Velocity. As for Abaddon, I like it and thought a lot about what they did, but generally I am steering for a less arcadey experience.

What went into the decision to release the game in the Xbox Live Indie Games Channel?

Well about a year ago, I didn’t know anything about writing games. I coded game-like stuff for Northrop Grumman before and I had a good grasp on coding — but honestly I couldn’t even draw a sqaure on the screen, so I googled it and I started learning OpenGL. After burning many hours learning what matrices are and textured quads and blahdeblah, I figured there must be an easier, more modern way to do things
so I looked around and I found XNA.

The price was right, there seemed to be a ton of support, and lastly all you need is a good product to be able to publish. The barrier to entry is low. In a year’s time, I have come a long, long way. Things that I struggled with when I first started are second nature now.

I am using the SunBurn engine to do most of my rendering, and that has saved a lot of time that could have been burned trying to code a great 3D engine from scratch.

Many developers cite the XNA community as being a real plus in developing for the platforms it supports (Xbox Live Indie Games, Windows Phone 7, and Windows PCs). Has it lived up to its billing for you so far?

Absolutely. People have been very, very helpful. The sample projects provided by Microsoft were invaluable in helping me figure out what to do. I am a real reverse-engineer type of coder; if I can see it done in an example and look under the hood, it’s a lot easier for me to rip out the guts and modify them for my own use. The forums are also a great resource, but it can be hit or miss in my experience.

Back to your game, you’ve mentioned it’ll be a little less arcadey than some, which sounds good to me personally. Can you describe the gameplay in more detail, particularly in ways that may not be evident to someone watching your pre-release preview video?

Games that intrigue me most have living worlds and what I have done is created a sandbox universe that feels very alive. To feel alive, the ships in the game need to behave realistically. They need to have purpose when flying from one place to the other. That purpose is dictated by an underlying supply and demand economic system; planets can be colonized, they can produce resources, and they also demand resources. So an AI trader that you see flying around is actually trading just like a player. That’s just one example.

Another major goal of my game is to provide a deep ship-building experience. If you look at my pre-release video there, in the lower left corner is a ship-shaped indicator filled with squares. Each of these squares is in fact a separate ship module that is individually collidable. You have to balance out your power needs, armor placement, crew needs, weapon placement, and so on, to get the best ship. I want a ship that can have pieces of it blown off and disabled — I don’t just want a health bar. Every ship in the universe has this same layout, and it’s all being simulated across 200 star systems at 60 fps. I’ve put a lot of effort into it — the collisions were a nightmare for a while.

Finally, you can play the game a lot like you would a 4x. Or not. It’s up to you. But if you want to, you can in fact start your own colonies and make money supplying them. Or you could be a pirate, or a trader, or whatever you want. That’s really the goal.

I chose a top-down presentation because I feel like a lot of space games in this genre recently (Evochron, X3) — they lose something in their 3D-ness.

You have to explore an unknown galaxy, expand your presence into (building outposts, colonizing planets), you have to exploit traders or planets for their resources, and exterminate your foes. That whole thing. So this project is ambitious, that’s for sure, but I am not on a time crunch. I want to be a professional game designer, and I want to enter the scene with a bang.

So there’s an Elite-ish element to the gameplay, even though the perspective’s been shifted from first-person out-the-cockpit view to a top-down view.

Yes, totally. The galaxy is largely randomized except for some set pieces.

If this is a means to an end (getting noticed in the game’s industry), would you hope to stay independent and increase the number of platforms you release on and/or move to Xbox Live Arcade, or to leave the indie scene behind to get picked up by a big development team one day?

No, independence is the goal here. I’m already an “indie” so to speak in a different field. I have a solo law office doing criminal defense and family law, and I couldn’t have it any other way.

Designing this game, though, is a total passion. I also believe that if I can produce a good product that people really want to play and replay, then it has the potential to be very rewarding.

Was there anything else about your game, about XNA/XBLIG, about the experience of starting out as a developer, or anything else at all you want to share with our readers?

I have settled in on a title: “StarDrive”, and I expect to release in October 2011. You can find me on twitter @zer0sumgames. Finally, I really appreciate your work, WMD. I’m glad to have the opportunity to share my dream here and I hope people are interested in what I’m doing.

I am, at any rate, I’m quite eager to play it when it comes out. Thank you for your time.

Thanks man, take it easy. Now, back to that thruster shader…

  1. Dan says:

    Ignore the fact that the video says “Fleet Battles!” I settled on StarDrive, as indicated.

  2. I hadn’t heard of StarDrive before, but now it’s very much on my radar. It sounds right up my street.

    I always enjoy your interviews, Steven. It’s good to hear things from a developer’s point of view, and I particularly appreciate the regular questions about influences and the community.

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