Frontiers interview: exploration, discovery and survival in a one-man made indie RPG
In keeping with its focus on discovery, Simkins wants Frontiers' quests to constantly direct the player towards something new and exciting - rather than what he calls the "FedEx exploration" of picking up an item and couriering it somewhere else. "It's hard to eliminate those entirely but I try very hard to link them to some interesting lore or to a unique village or something the player wouldn't have a clear incentive to find on their own. I try to take the same approach to temples/ruins and give the player something to do once they get down there - a puzzle, or a unique item, or a cool machine."
"The story and the game world will progress with or without your intervention."
This also applies to the story. The game starts as your home is destroyed by an 'Orb' - the latest in a string of increasingly frequent attacks that continue as dynamic encounters throughout the game. If that wasn't enough, your uncle - a famed explorer - has disappeared across the "Rift", an impassable barrier to the South. Finding an answer to these mysteries is high on your to do list.
Unless it's not. After creating your character, you'll be given a history, profession and series of "expectations that are placed on you". But as the player, you'll be free to decide your own path. "The choices you make from that starting point will take you different places," Simkins reveals. "You can choose to quit your profession, or simply ignore it altogether. The story and the game world will progress with or without your intervention."
Beyond your initial choices, you'll be able to progress your character down a number of skill trees. Pathfinding, for instance, improves path creation, and also gives you access to different modes of travel, including horseriding and hang gliders. "I love hang gliding," Simkins enthuses. "I love walking up to a cliff, equipping the glider and leaping off, then drifting gracefully down to the rooftops of a city miles away."
"I love walking up to a cliff, equipping the glider and leaping off."
Survival ties into the need to replenish your hunger bar. "You can't die of starvation," Simkins says, "but it will keep your health low, and this makes it difficult to use skills and magic." By investing in Survival skills, you'll be better equipped to hunt, gather and identify the food you collect, as well as gain bonuses to health. "These types of skills sort of replace the stats you find in a typical RPG."
Rounding out your regular upgrade paths are crafting, which will eventually let you create "almost anything in the world", and Magic, which covers everything from potion brewing to individual spells like invisibility and weapon cursing. There's also a fifth skill tree, called 'Obex'. "When you start the game most of the skills in this tree are hidden," Simkins teases. "They're a lot of fun but I don't want to spoil anything."
While the goal of the Kickstarter is to ultimately bring more people into the project, so far Frontiers has been created by a single person. It's a great example of the power and flexibility now offered by game creation tools, and Simkins has nothing but kind things to say about the game's Unity engine - calling it "a dream to work with".
"Unity hits that perfect sweet spot."
"I've done a lot of programming over the years, and I'm decent at it, but I'm nowhere near good enough to create an engine from scratch. But I also chafe when creating mods because finished game systems force you down a narrow path. Unity hits that perfect sweet spot - it makes enough decisions to provide a foundation while also getting out of my way when I want to strike out in a weird direction. It's literally the first tool I've ever used, in VFX or game development, that I don't find deeply frustrating in some major way."
Which isn't to say it's been an easy process. "Early on I had to cull almost 90% of the game when I started missing deadlines. There were a lot of sandbox features that were just overwhelming me. It was for the best, but staying motivated and positive through a purge like that can be really difficult."
In light of its progress, the reduction of scope would appear to have paid off. If Frontiers can balance its grand ideas with its exploration focus, it has the potential to provide a fascinating world to get lost in.