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IMAGINING THE PALE BLUE DOT - AN INTERVIEW WITH SAM BARHAM
BEFORE WE LEAVE, the first release from Balancing Monkey Games, a small studio from New Zealand, was published on the Epic store this month. We got a chance to play the game and speak with Sam Barham, Chief Monkey at the studio, about the production, Space Whales, and what caused the Peeps to have such unique personalities.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Let’s start with an easy one. Tell us about yourself.
My name is Sam; I’m from New Zealand. I’m married with three kids; I’ve been a software developer for 22 years now. I’ve worked in all kinds of things, from children’s TV animation to server dev ops. Three or four years ago, my wife finished her master’s degree, and the agreement was that she had been locking herself away doing that, and it was my turn to do something, and I’d always want to do game development. So I started it as a hobby, and it grew from there.
How would you pitch this game for anyone who hadn’t heard of it before?
It’s a mostly non-violent city-building game set in your own cozy corner of the universe. We wanted it to feel cozy and not too stressful, but still a bit of a challenge. It’s all about your wooden people, the Peeps, and seeing them go about their lives.
What was it about this genre that attracted you?
I like playing them. I like the ant farm aspect to it, there are always people walking around doing things, and it’s something that I wanted to create.
Is it just you or is there a team?
There’s a team. It started as just me, but then when I’d been working on it as just as a hobby, I entered it into the New Zealand GDZ context. I didn’t win, but a successful developer came along and offered me funding to work on it full time. The full team ended up being me, another programmer, an artist, a UI artist, a composer, and a marketing guy.
The tone of the game feels a bit melancholy, was there a particular feeling you wanted to impart on the player?
I guess I was going a little bit sad and a little bit hopeful. I wanted the idea that everything is gone, and you’re coming out of possibly a bad place and recovering from that. So the emotional underpinning is hope, but not that everything is great. It’s hope and rebuilding from something in the past that’s bad.
What inspired you while making this game?
The main inspiration was the Anno series, particularly 1404, which I played heaps. When I was designing the game, I went back to see how they did things. Same with Kings & Castles. Whether or not it was how did they do that, or how did they not do things.
What was something that proved a problem while designing the game? What surprised you?
Just getting the balancing right and trying to give players all the information they needed without it being cluttered. The visual UX design was a struggle.
The game has a very beautiful and distinct day night cycle. It creates a great sense of scope and the feeling of the planet living around you. How intentional was that intentional in the creation?
It was more of an accident, certainly to begin with. At the start, there was no day-night cycle; you were just stuck on one planet. Once we decided to make it multiple planets, it made sense to have the sun at the center and to have that cycle. It still took ages to figure it out and get night right, so it was still playable. The second programmer I hired has a background in fine arts and photography, and he figured out how to make it prettier, along with a second shader that just made things look so much cooler.
The original idea for the game was even more centered around the Space Whales. Where did they come from?
That was actually the original germ of the idea for the game. In my hometown, there’s a festival parade thing during the winter, where people go around the center of town with huge homemade lanterns, multiple people carrying them on poles. The first winter I went, there was a giant whale with a skyscraper growing out its back, and I thought, oh gosh, I want to do something with that. Also, just going through trying things out, we figured the idea of these spacefaring whales that graze on planets.
There’s also a great sense of adventure or, more accurately, discovery to the planet.
That is part of it too. That feeling of discovery, what’s around the corner, what’s over that hill, that feeling that there’s more to find. The mystery of this partly constructed planet that expands as you go.
I like that you mention the game is mostly non-violent, since there is an implication of other kinds of violence, as colonization itself is a violent process.
The whole idea of it being nonviolent was something that changed over time. Game development is an evolutionary thing; it just evolved. We eventually decided that it was important there were no other tribes to fight and take over and all that. But I didn’t want to hide the idea that there was no violence in this. Later on, in the game, some Sphinxes will destroy your builds. Nobody dies, but it’s how the universe is. And there’s the implication, as you say, due to colonization. So I wanted to be clear that it isn’t violence because there is.
I love that all the peeps have identities and quirks, where did you get the idea to make them singular instead of one big mass?
It’s actually a book I’m reading about Viking myths. I was struck by how they’d introduce characters, not even main characters, just people on the side, and it would be like, “here’s Snorey, who owns five cows.” It was just daft little bits of character that had nothing to do with the story, and I’d read that book and thought it was so great I needed to do something with it. We sourced a lot of it from our Discourse community, where people could suggest names and backgrounds and all that.
Is there a goal to the game or is it endless?
There is a goal, but I won’t say what it is. But you can get to the end of the tech tree, and there is a finishing point, but the game gives you the option to keep going past it if you want.
The game is now out on the Epic store, do you have plans for other stores down the line?
We fully plan on bringing it to other stores once the exclusivity period is over. We don’t have any plans to announce, but other platforms are an option we’re going to explore as well.