Interview with Soldak Entertainment on Drox Operative

In this week’s interview, we caught up with Steven Peeler, designer and programmer of Soldak’s games. Before he started Soldak, he worked at Ritual Entertainment for several years as their technical director.

What got you into game development and how was Soldak Entertainment formed?

I’ve always loved games and programming, so it’s really no surprise that I got into game development. I believe I started dabbling with makes games back in junior high school, so it’s been a while. After a couple of indie attempts, back in the 90s, I finally joined Ritual Entertainment to start my real game development career.

I formed Soldak Entertainment back at the end of 2004 when I left Ritual. I had various normal game job opportunities at the time, but I felt that the marketplace and my skill set were finally at the point where I could create a successful indie game company.

Where did the name Soldak come from? How did you go about choosing it as the name of your studio? We know you originally worked for Ritual Entertainment – could you describe how you went from working there to forming your own Studio?

Soldak is mostly just two random syllables put together that I thought sounded good, but it also roughly translates to “lone tree” which felt fairly appropriate at the time. An interesting tidbit is that we signed a publishing deal with a publisher from Lone Tree, Colorado several years after I named the company.

At the time I left Ritual, I was tired of internal politics and publishers mucking with game design just to leave their mark on the product (I originally had much more colourful wording here) so working mostly on my own sounded much more pleasant.

Soldak has been around for a while now, since 2004. We’ve played and even featured some of your games, like Depths of Peril, in the past. How different is Soldak today compared to when Depths of Peril was released in 2007?

The biggest differences are that we now have a fulltime artist (Steve Hornback) and we’ve learned a lot over the years. We have picked up a few new contractors over the years, but in general, we actual use less people than we did back when we started.

Drox-Operative

Could you tell us a little about Drox Operative? What inspired you to make this game?

Drox Operative is a starship action RPG set in a dynamic, evolving galaxy where several alien races are scouting, colonizing, and expanding, trying to take over the galaxy by diplomacy, technology, and war. As an Operative with your own space ship, it is your job to pick the winning side and maybe even help them conquer the galaxy if you’re being nice, more importantly though is to rake in as many credits as possible.

I was inspired to create Drox because I love fantasy and sci-fi settings. We had done many fantasy games in the past, but no sci-fi games. There are various other reasons, but that really is one of the more important ones.

What is your main vision of the game? Why will gamers fall in love with Drox Operative over any other game in its genre?

My vision of the game is it is basically a 4X space strategy game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate), but from the point of view of one ship that isn’t permanently aligned with any specific faction.

There aren’t really any games out there quite like Drox. You play in a living, breathing galaxy that changes greatly depending on the initial layout, what the races do, what the monsters do, and what the player does. It is a different game with each new sector that you play. You can choose to be relatively passive and go with the flow of what occurs in the sector or you can take control of the galaxy and mould it to your liking. You might just control one ship, but you are a Drox Operative and nothing can stand in your way!

How do you feel about the general reception Drox Operative received? Was it in line with your expectations?

The reception has been pretty good, similar to our other games. This game was a little scary because it was our first sci-fi game. We expected to temporarily lose some of our current gamers, but we gained plenty of new gamers to offset the lost. Our next game is fantasy again, so we expect to see many of those gamers pop up again soon.

How has Steam done for you as a sales distribution platform? Many readers are very curious about what it’s like for an indie developer to release something on Steam. Has it made a big difference to Soldak?

There isn’t a whole lot that we can talk about due to contracts, but getting on Steam is a really big deal. It probably won’t make you rich, but it might be what keeps you in business.

How did you go about designing and producing a game? Can you tell our readers a little more about your process and working methods? And how much has this process changed and developed the last 7 years following your experiences working on your other games?

Nowadays, I spend maybe a week solidifying the design. This is mostly to get a really firm grasp on the vision of the game and enough ideas that we know generally where the game is going. After the initial design, I implement the things that the artists need to do their work. After that, everything is an iterative process of implementing parts from the design, play-testing a lot, keeping and polishing what works well, reworking things that are close to working, removing things that don’t work out, adding new things to the design based on play-testing, and repeating the entire process until we have a really fun game.

In our earlier games, I spent much more time on the initial design document. Since we don’t have a large team that needs to be working on things as early as possible, this isn’t really necessary. Now I design as little up front as possible, so that we can evolve the design as we learn what works and what doesn’t for this specific game.

Indie developers have a notoriously difficult time financially. You have however managed to stay around for 7 years now. How have things been for you as a studio and could you tell us about any challenges you may have had in the past?

We basically stay in business because Soldak has very few expenses and the two full-time people have structured their lives to be able to cope with an income that varies every month.

Have you got any other projects in the pipeline you can tell us about – either in production or at the ideas stage?

When I started working on the interview I had no idea what our next game would be, but since then we have settled on creating a Zombie game set in the Depths of Peril / Din’s Curse world. This game is going to focus more on surviving the Zombie plague, but is going to have lots of elements from our previous games. More details can be found on our forums.

If time and money was no object, what kind of game would you see yourselves producing?

I don’t think we would make different types of games. I think we would polish them more though.

Thank you very much for your time, we’d like to wish you the best of luck and we look forward to what you’ll next surprise us with! Keep us informed :)

Thanks for the interview.

the author

Managing Editor of ManaPool, Peter lives in York, UK and is a great fan and master of turn-based strategy games. If he isn't playing one of those, you'll probably find him in a role-playing game instead. He's definitely not afraid to provide a straight up opinion on any game and has a strong like for indie developers. We all start small, after all.