If you love sci-fi then you owe yourself to play Black Market. It's a flash based game currently still in Beta which is a mix of space trading, RPG, and a long story arc containing a whole slew of missions in a universe that's been richly layed out by Big Block Games, an independent games developer based in Wellington, New Zealand.
The game is expansive and visually stunning, and it's quite an extraordinary effort for a small team of just four main developers. I caught up with Michael Reitzenstein (programmer) and expatriate, Paul Greasley (Artist), to discuss a few things about their company and the incredible game they're working on.
Mike, and Paul. Can you give us a background about yourselves in the games industry, as well as your current company, Big Block games?
Michael: Sure! We've both been doing games for a while. Before this, I used to make casual titles under Rock Solid Games, before moving on to more hardcore Flash titles with Rock Solid Arcade.
Paul: I used to work in the Australian games industry at Fuzzy Eyes and Auran, while making indie titles for competition events in my after hours. Then I came over to New Zealand and joined up with Michael to form Big Block Games.
Can you tell us more about Black Market? How would you describe the game, and what are the influences and main goals you've tried to achieve with this title?
Michael: With Black Market, we wanted to take the classic space trading mechanic pioneered decades ago, and bring it to people packaged in a really good browser experience, to let people pick up and play right away.
You've both been involved in smaller casual or indie games in the past. As independent games developers, is this the biggest project you've taken on? Were there any initial fears about working on a project of this scope?
Paul: It's the biggest project we've done with a small team, and considering the features we're planning to put into it by the time we're done, it'll end up the biggest game both of us has ever been lead on.
How big is the team working on Black Market? How long has it been in development?
Michael: We've got four main developers. In Wellington, we have Paul and I, doing artwork and code respectively. We also have Ben in Bedfordshire, UK, who's our writer, and Jesse in Reno in the US, who's done all of the music and sound effects for the game.
What have been the biggest challenges so far development wise for Black Market?
Michael: From my perspective, there's a crazy amount of mission content in the game, which all had to be scripted. Also, there's a lot of balancing to do with so many bridge items etc in the game.
Paul: For me, there's an absolutely huge number of planets, nearly 100 in the game. We reuse and combine different backgrounds using tinting, but it's still a hell of a lot of art work!
The artwork is fantastic with a very finished and polished concept-art feel to them, particularly at the various docking stations where you land your ship. Were they created entirely by hand in a paint package?
Paul: Thanks! Pretty much everything in the game is rendered in 3d as a base to work from, then painted fairly heavily in 2d.
With so many ships, weapons, add-ons, and enemies in the game, has balancing everything been a challenge to get right?
Michael: Yes, and we're still not there yet!
How many lines of dialogue do you currently have in the game? Voice acting would greatly increase the immersion for this game, but how feasable would that idea be?
Michael: The dialog file to give you some perspective is 352kb in size, uncompressed - that's 3x the file size of all the portraits! Ben wrote a huge campaign, and I'm impressed that he managed to keep it interesting until the very end. I don't think voice acting would work to well - it might cost $100k or so to get it done!
You've taken great efforts in providing a sense of mythology and a history to the universe you've created for Black Market. How important do you feel this is for the game?
Paul: I think it's really important that the player feels like they're in a consistent universe, and although most players won't read through it, I think it feels better that it's there.
How far along is Black Market progressing? What is there left to do, and what plans do you have once the title is complete in regards to marketing and distribution?
Michael: We're about ready to get out of beta. The next campaign is in the planning stages - we're going to add a pirating mechanic, where you board other people's ships and steal them. We're also considering the hiring of first officers from the bar, to give your ship special passive abilities, maybe mercenaries, etc.
How has the open beta been received so far in regards to pre-sales and customer / journalist / community feedback? Has feedback helped guide changes and plans or bug fixing?
Paul: The feedback we've had has been fantastic. Our forum is nearing 1000 posts, and players have done a great job of testing the game and telling us what they like and don't like. We've had some people build up insanely high level profiles, to the point where the game is pretty much broken for them - they can kill anything easily.
What major things have you learnt so far during the development of Black Market?
Paul: Making large detailed worlds is much harder than it looks!
Why did you choose flash as the development platform for this game and are there any future plans for Black Market on other platforms (iPhone, iPad, Android, Steam etc)?
Michael: Flash is just the initial platform we chose, as it would allow us to get feedback and players playing the game really quickly. But we're definitely looking forward to doing releases for all of the platforms you mentioned in 2011.