Let’s Move to Deadsville: an interview with Sarah Northway

Sarah Northway is one half of Northway Games and is the developer behind the Rebuild strategy games. We’ve written about the first and second iterations before: they were really rather good. The third installment, Gangs of Deadsville, is also shaping up to be something special.

Together with husband Colin (of Incredipede fame), Sarah travels around the world, moving from place to place to escape a crime she didn’t commit… er, to live in amazingly cool places while working on independently-developed games. Whilst we were exchanging emails the Northways were in British Columbia, moving from the mountains of Nelson to the coast near Vancouver. It’s an enviable lifestyle.

To celebrate the beta release of Rebuild 3: Gangs of Deadsville, I caught up with Sarah to ask a few questions about the game, its development, and the means by which developers can get their games into players’ hands early. Read on, my little zedlings.

Rebuild 3 leader

Shaun Green, heroic leader of a human enclave. And of a beard.

Easy first question: please describe Rebuild 3: Gangs of Deadsville for our readers who are unfamiliar with the series.

Rebuild is a city building strategy game where you scavenge to survive and fix a destroyed city in a post-apocalyptic world. There are zombies, rival gangs, and a whole lot of story wound in. I sometimes call it Sim City meets The Walking Dead, but it also has a lot in common with the storytelling in King of Dragon Pass, if you’ve ever heard of that game. The first two Rebuilds were much simpler games, almost prototypes of what Gangs of Deadsville will be.

I love King of Dragon Pass! In my experience Rebuild occludes its numbers and mechanics far less than King of Dragon Pass, which makes sense for their different narrative contexts. But they do share these emergent stories that play out depending on player decisions. So might this mean that some of the decisions we’re asked to make in Gangs of Deadsville have varied outcomes, with events panning out differently from game to game even where players make the same choice?

I’m trying to aim for more predictable outcomes based on current variables – e.g. how well defended your fort is or how high level your best builder is will have an effect, so knowing that you have a better chance to pick the “right” choice. Where there is pure randomness, I want you to feel like you’re making a strategic choice.

I understand that you’ve been running extensive alpha testing through Kickstarter backers since late last year, and you’ve been asking questions of dedicated fans via the forum on subjects like game pricing and reactive difficulty. How has this affected your development process?

I can’t always predict what players will be passionate about, but when they are I listen. Even though Gangs of Deadsville defaults to real-time, I made turn-based an option due to alpha player outcry. I also added a separate system for starting missions that more closely resembles the one from Rebuild 2. And I’m constantly having to turn the difficulty up for the highest setting (Impossible) as people find ways to beat it.

You’ve also invited alpha testers to contribute game events, opening up the way they are coded to help ease this process. What has the take-up been like, and did you have any concerns about showing the ‘guts’ of your code in this way? 

I was testing the waters for more of a full-blown modding system, which I may still do after release. I’m a big fan of letting players participate in making the game, whether it’s tweaking difficulty variables, writing game events, or inventing new play modes. I’ve used some of their events almost verbatim, and others greatly inspired me & Stephen (my friend who is helping with the writing).

One of the big changes for Rebuild 3 is the addition of a real-time mode of play. What led to the introduction of such a significant change?

This was one of the hardest decisions in the game’s development. One of the biggest complaints about Rebuild 2 was “there’s too much clicking”, and I made a lot of changes to try to improve this. The core game is pretty static and menu driven at its core, but I wanted to give Gangs of Deadsville a more intense feeling of time passing and things happening around you. I think it feels more like a modern rts.

I guess I can see the comparison there – maybe an RTS a bit like Perimeter, which isn’t that modern, but is very much about building placement and planning rather than mashing your army into your opponent’s?

I’ve never played Perimeter. It looks a little like tower defense? But anyway yes, Rebuild is more about managing your empire (if you can call 15 people and a couple dogs an “empire”) and dealing with constant pressure from invaders, vs massing an army for big battles.

Do you think the new mode might hinder the short-burst, just-one-more-turn style of turn-based play that made its predecessors so great?

Luckily, you can easily pause, or switch the game to turn-based mode if that suits you, and I agree that’s a better fit for shorter play sessions. It’s also handy for debugging, which is another reason I kept that mode around!

Rebuild 3 starting out

Each game begins with just a few buildings and a few survivors under your control.

The new and improved tech tree has my strategy glands sweating keenly; it looks a lot more complex than the trees in Rebuild 2. Does this mean that each individual game is intended to last longer? Do techs carry over from game to game, or map to map, as select survivors could in Rebuild 2?

I haven’t finished the campaign mode yet, but I’m planning to have tech carry over from game to game as you work your way through the campaign. In the current skirmish mode researching is much easier, but still takes well into day 200-300 to fully complete. You can win earlier than that, but I wanted to add content that will make longer games more interesting.

That sounds great. There was definitely a point in Deadsville’s predecessors where the scales had clearly tipped – those zombie hordes were no match for your elite soldiers and machine gun-armed turrets – and you were just waiting for whatever victory you were pursuing to tick over.

So in a Kickstarter update a few months ago you mentioned overhauling and adding interactivity to the zombie attack system, which previously was basically an invisible dice roll based on statistics. I’m interested to see how that pans out, although the powerlessness I felt in Rebuild 1 and 2 was a big part of the tension there. What’s the feedback been around this change?

Players definitely want more control and more detail during the attacks. I’ve written a system of brief events that give you a couple options that could improve (or worsen) your odds, usually at a cost of resources or some other potential danger. You won’t be able to do much if you haven’t assigned defenders, but it will give you a way to interact with the battles going on – both against zombies and other factions. The update is in testing right now and will be going live soon!

Can you give our readers any juicy examples of the kind of random missions or events they might encounter whilst playing the game?

There are so many events still waiting to go in the game, from investigating the sewers under your fort (eww, why?), to tracking down a thief, or dealing with an epidemic. Here’s one that Stephen wrote when we were discussing how we needed more cameos:

I was passing by a dilapidated AllMart the other day when I heard the sound of gunfire and swearing coming from inside.

I snuck in and found this guy with slicked black hair and a chin you could break rocks on fending off a small horde of zed. With each one he dropped he let off another snarky remark: “Hail to the king, baby!” or “I’ll see you in Hades, yah scum-sucking deader!”

He wasn’t doing doing too bad for a guy with only one hand but they were going to get him sooner or later. Should I help?

Ah, so that’s where he ended up after Army of Darkness! So, Rebuild 3 has been available on Steam Early Access since May. There’s increasing controversy around Early Access, the readiness of games to be played, whether or not they’ll ever be finished, etc. Do you have any thoughts or fears on the subject? What’s your personal experience been?

I’ve backed a lot of Kickstarter projects at the alpha/beta level, but sadly I don’t have nearly enough time to play them all and tend to wait until they come out. One exception was Don’t Starve, a friend’s survival game that blew up and was a big success on Early Access. There are games that are a great fit for that platform; namely ones with a lot of replayability, where each update gives you a fresh excuse to play again. It was wonderful to watch Don’t Starve evolve, and that’s the experience I want to give my players.

I’m annoyed at the games stirring up this controversy and accepting preorders without accepting the responsibility to release a finished game, because they’re making it harder for the rest of us. But luckily Rebuild already has its funding in place and no publishers to cause drama, so unless I get eaten by a bear tomorrow, it’s getting finished.

Don’t Starve is a great reference point. It retains a lot of mystery even after you’ve put quite a few hours in, and that is something a lot of survival-style games tend to lose. Plus it’s had superb post-release support, which it sounds like you’re planning for Deadsville as well?

Yup. Unfortunately I’m under some pressure to get version 1.0 finished, mainly from people who can’t wait to play the mobile version. So it may hit version 1.0 earlier rather than later, then get a few hefty updates with bonus stuff like relationships & children (one of the Kickstarter stretch goals), and possibly modding controls and other languages.

Rebuild 3 choose your own adventure

Events like this pop up every few days.

Along similar lines, you’ve also pledged to ‘kick forward’ 5% of Kickstarted funds to future Kickstarter projects. You’re obviously pretty enthusiastic about the potential of Kickstarter to get projects off the ground?

Heck yes. Apparently I’ve backed 111 projects on there, though I haven’t had time to play many of the games yet. It is excellent fun just to get excited and know I’m supporting these great projects. I do think the most important use of Kickstarter is to get word out about your game and get a community started. In most cases the money raised is far less than the full cost of making the game. For Rebuild it paid about 20% of the total budget, so I am still counting on sales of the finished game to make up the rest.

I had no idea the funding vs. cost ratio was so extreme! I appreciate that this is your first Kickstarter but do you think that’s a common challenge for indie games that go the Kickstarter route?

It is pretty tricky to figure those Kickstarter budgets out. You can end up spending huge $$$ just on shipping rewards alone. The Rebuild campaign was light on the physical rewards, but even I had trouble when the guys who were supposed to do my t-shirts disappeared. I ended up paying nearly 3 times my original budget. Though I think I know why those t-shirt guys went out of business… too cheap to be true…

There have unfortunately been some Kickstarter projects that have soured a little… Facebook buying Oculus Rift, the failure of Star Command to deliver what was promised, that sort of thing. Do you think these instances and others like them cause issues for other Kickstarter projects?

It doesn’t seem like it, looking at the current games on Kickstarter today which are getting some pretty significant pledges. There will definitely be more disappointments in the future, since Kickstarter campaigns are much earlier in development and less of a sure thing than Early Access. But I think on the whole people are willing to take that risk for the excitement of being involved in a game’s development.

What do you regard as the primary platform for Rebuild 3? Obviously the original was a browser game, and the second I’d imagine was most popular on mobile, but this is the first in the series you’ll have released for the PC.

Windows/Mac downloadable is my target, though considering how many people are asking about an Android beta, mobile may be where I get the most sales. But the primary aim is to make this a full pc game first and foremost.

You’ve been working with a small team for Rebuild: Gangs of Deadsville, particularly to help with art. And on that note, Sara Gross was helping with the project in advance of the Kickstarter project, and has now been replaced by Pana Stamos. What happened there?

Sara had other projects she wanted to work on and unfortunately couldn’t juggle us all, but fortunately Pana was happy to join and I’ve been wanting to work with her for awhile. She’s an absolute chameleon at matching the existing style too. The first of her new art is going in to the coming update.

You and your husband Colin (IncredipedeFantastic Contraption) are both independent game developers and have been for several years. And you tend to move around a lot, every six months or so from what I’ve read, moving to new cities or countries and travelling as you develop. Where are you at the moment? How is it?

We decided it was time to see more of our home province of British Columbia, Canada, so we’ve headed to the mountains near hippie-friendly Nelson for a little time in the backwoods. We’re in a tiny town on a little herb and chicken farm, where deer and black bears visit our backyard. We try to spend the summers in the northern hemisphere, then go south for winter. This fall we’re heading to Cape Town, South Africa to hang with our friends from QCF Design (who made Desktop Dungeons).

Do you find that living in different locations directly influences your projects? I imagine you get a lot of different influences: politically, socially, historically, aesthetically, culturally… I’d probably find my interest and focus leaping around all over the place!

Absolutely. I have about 100 ideas for other games based on our travels, and no end of events waiting to go in Rebuild. I also love survivalist stuff in real life, so it’s fun and inspiring to live in the middle of nowhere with solar power or in towns where I don’t know the language or customs. Just picking up and moving every 2-3 months and having to come up with a whole new system for living, working, buying food etc really keeps me on my toes.

How do you find this approach to living financially? I’d hope that with your past successes you’ve got a bit of a buffer?

It’s actually cheaper than our old life in San Francisco. We don’t own anything, rent by the month, and try to fly when and where it’s cheapest. But yes, our previous games have given us a nice runway so we don’t have to worry about a potential flop game sending us back to our desk jobs right away. Hopefully Gangs of Deadsville will fund whatever game comes next!

And how about socially? The common understanding is that working as an indie dev can be heavily incompatible with a social life, and if you’re moving around a lot… 

Living in a town of 500 people does curb your social life, but that’s kind of a benefit since Rebuild’s early access release has demanded some serious focus. But we chose this area because our friend Eddy Boxerman lives a few towns over (he made Osmos with some other folks). We met Eddy and hundreds of other very awesome people at indie developer meetups, and we keep in touch with them all year through the internet. We always make sure to be in San Francisco for the Game Developer Conference (which is like a week-long party for indies), and in Seattle for PAX Prime where we hope to even have a booth this year!

Most importantly – and this is a question my girlfriend insisted I ask you, she’s also a Rebuild fan – how long does it take you to work out your zombie survival plan in each new location? 

Haha, this one can be hard when rental places don’t stock the necessary fire axe and goggles. I think we’ll be fine here with almost nobody living nearby to become zombies in the first place, farms everywhere and a ferry between us and the main road. Also this house has 6 doors to the outside (though only one bedroom…), so I think the guy who built it must have been thinking “exit strategy”.

Perhaps the most obvious question in the history of interviews: when you think the game will be formally release? V1.0 of Gangs of Deadsville?  

Well, I’m aiming for October… but January is more realistic. The good thing about Early Access is I can always tell people “well it’s not done yet… but you can play it right now!”

Thanks very much Sarah. I’m really looking forward to the finished game – I’ve dabbled in the alpha, but haven’t played it much as I don’t want to ‘spoil’ the finished experience. I hope development goes well; best of luck.

Thanks Shaun!