Popular culture is an important driver of public interest in space. Most people have watched Star Wars or Star Trek, and these artifacts inform real-world decision-making about how we engage with space. Check out this recent op-ed in a popular publication about the merits of Donald Trump’s Space Force. If you don’t recognize the title’s reference to Star Trek, google it.
Particularly for millennials and younger individuals, games have become an important popular culture medium. Games are a central part of their lives, helping them deal with stress and serving as vehicles by which advertisers affect their behavior. Today, games affect our perceptions of space, too: just look at how popular this video is that added the Halo soundtrack to Mike Pence’s speech about the Space Force.
A growing cultural medium is independent games. Sometimes via large platforms like Apple or Android’s app stores, but also for those who know how to create a website, independent game developers can bring entertaining virtual experiences to the masses. It is a “democratization of creativity”. And with the growth of popular crowdfunding websites like Patreon and Kickstarter, those developers can finance themselves.
Filling Space spoke with John Ayliff, one such independent game developer. Besides creating Seedship, a game that tests players to colonize other planets, he has also written two other games and a sci-fi novel.
Why did you decide to make Seedship?
I’ve always been fascinated by space exploration, and I wanted to make a game that was about the peaceful exploration and settlement of space, not about going out there and fighting aliens. As you said in your intro, popular culture drives interest in space and shapes how we see it. But popular culture, especially games, very often depicts space as a venue for war and conquest, and that primes people to see it that way in real life. Hence a video of a politician calling for the unprecedented militarization of space, set to music from a game about being a faceless sci-fi super-soldier.
In Seedship I wanted to depict space more realistically than is normal for pop culture (no faster-than-light travel, for example), and also more peacefully. You’re controlling an unarmed ship full of refugees, looking for a new home. When you encounter alien spacecraft, that’s depicted as two mutually incomprehensible entities trying to understand one another, not two potential combatants facing off. If you settle on a planet with a native civilization, you get a score penalty if the humans end up conquering them and a bonus if they live in peace. You’re trying to preserve what remains of human culture, but you also get a bonus if you enrich it by incorporating elements of alien culture. It’s about peaceful settlement of space, not conquest.
What were challenges?
The biggest challenge was keeping the scope under control. At the start of a project it’s easy to think of lots of cool features the game could have – especially with a text-based game where you can include anything you can write about. But if you try to include every idea you end up with a mess. So a lot of the design work was paring down my ideas into something specific and coherent, which wouldn’t be too complicated either for me to make as a solo developer or for the player to get into. I originally wanted to make a big open-ended space exploration game, but the scope became clearer once I decided to give the player a specific goal that would end the game: find a planet to found a colony on. After that everything fell into place.
Given public reactions to the game so far, what changes would you make if you could?
I think I’d have tried to make the outcome rely more on player judgement rather than randomness. Right now you can sometimes get a good result just from colonizing the first planet you find, which leads to kind of disappointing games. I also think I might have tried to flesh out the alien natives more and add more possible outcomes in how you can interact with them. Even if you exist peacefully with the natives, the game still presents it in terms of colonization, with the humans setting up their own society alongside the aliens’. Really, if the natives cover most of the planet, there’d be no room for you to set up your own society and you’d be arriving as immigrants in theirs. I’ve already updated Seedship once since I launched it and I intend to do so again, so I might tackle these issues in a future update.