Erin Robinson, the game designer and artist of Gravity Ghost gave a talk at the Phoenix Independent Game Developers Association meeting this month. I was able to sit down and talk with her for a little bit about the development of her game.

Olivia (O): Can you talk about some of the roadblocks hit while you were developing the game?

Erin (E): There were couple of game mechanics that we spent a good amount of time on that didn’t end up being interesting in the final game. For instance the terraforming with the trees. You know, even though I really like the way they looked when they grew they weren’t interesting enough to justify keeping them. People would grow the trees and say, “What now?” and I would say, “Oh they’re just kind of pretty you know?” So that wasn’t a good enough reason to keep them in and I was determined that everything in the game should be you know, interconnected and feel important and valuable. So in the end I cut them even though I was quite fond of them and we had worked on them for like I said a long time.

O: During your talk you spoke a lot about your inspiration for the game, such as Euphloria. Can you talk about the genesis of Gravity Ghost?

E: It started out as a game I was making to teach myself to program. Where it was more like asteroids and it was literally about a spaceship flying through space. And then you know I just ended up not being super interested in the shooting mechanic and I started to care about gravity wells you know pulling on the ship and moving the ship through the space where things are pulling on it and not crashing it. I just turned it into a character and had them hop on the planets and all of a sudden it became something that was not like anything else I had played before and there’s something really fun about it even when it was really difficult to predict what was going to happen in the game. And so I thought it was worth pursuing and so I kind of went whole-hog.

O: What is with the foxes? Where did that idea get started from?

E: I wanted her to have an animal friend and I liked that foxes are not necessarily good or evil they are mostly like tricksters, you know? Or they are kind of a… It wouldn’t…  If her friend had been like a lion that would have had a certain connotation that it’s this like this noble creature. You know that is regal and powerful. Instead I wanted something a little bit humbler than that, you know that was her friend. You’ll notice earlier in the game [development] I actually had the Fox talking and like that was totally the wrong direction. What I needed to do was keep the fox as a literal fox that didn’t do anything, you know, too human-like and that made him a lot more interesting and sympathetic. Especially given what happens in the game. I won’t spoil anything but yeah it was important to keep it. Especially to contrast with the fantasticness of space. Space is very impressionistic and there is goofy magical creatures that show up. And I wanted that to contrast with her backstory. And so her backstory really is all very literal. You know it just people having ordinary Earth problems, in a kind of old timey setting because it takes place in 1947.

O: So the fox kind of like grounded everything?

E: Yeah, yeah, in a way because she has this tragedy in her life and her way of dealing with that is to kind of run away and spend time in the woods and make friends with the animals. As opposed to facing that she’s lost her parents and so he ends up being somebody that she projects a lot of issues onto, you know? I think that she finds a companion in him. Just somebody who is not going to like challenge her or whatever. Not going to yell at her for being out late. So she really anthropomorphizes him, but it is really important that he is a real fox because you find out about his life as you go through the game. You’ve played the whole thing right?

O: Right.

E: Yeah, yeah so you know. The fact that he is a real fox comes back to bite her.

Gravity Ghost and Fox

O: In terms of nonviolence, how important was the philosophy of the game? Like where did you come from with that?

E: You saw in the earlier demo there actually were ships shooting at the girl, right?  It’s not like I set out to make a non-violent game. It was just that jumping around was difficult enough without something shooting at you and enjoying the gravity didn’t need that layer on top of it so I just took it out. You know she had health and lives and enemies and all of the things that I considered very videogamey because like I said, I was trying to learn to program so I put in these things. You know: when health goes to zero, respawn the girl at this location and play the noise. Things I was trying to do to learn how to code them and then I was just like, ‘if I took all this out, the game is a lot better and then you can just focus on enjoying the gravity for what it is.’ So, It doesn’t really come from a highfalutin moral ground it’s more like it didn’t work for this particular game and so we left it out.

O: What advice would you give for someone who is making their first game?

E: (Laughs) Keep it small, keep it simple, and I would say if you can, just release it for free because that means people will start. More people will play it and you can start to build your professional reputation that way. My first three games we’re freeware and that means more people will play it rather than if you just try to put up a paywall right away. You kind of need to establish a reputation before you can start asking for money. At least I think so. There’s a lot of people who are able to set up a Kickstarter and make a decent video and make money that way, but that money comes with strings attached and if you don’t deliver on that that’s your reputation. It’s all difficult.

O: When did the idea of like the two-for-one, kind of like the game being shared, when did that come into play for you in the development process?

E: I was trying to figure out, you know what are some things we can put on the preorder page to make this really special. And that was one of the things I came up with because it fit very much with our philosophy that the game should be accessible to people who don’t play very many video games. So we did a couple other things like we offered a free MP3 of the song on the trailer on the pre-order page to say, ‘thank you for checking this out.’ I already mentioned the stuff about the social proof showing you know, here are some reviews that say that the game is decent. It’s not just me telling you about it. So yeah I really tried to set it up to show it was a game you could share with people.

O: What have you been playing recently?

E: I played a game called Avernum 2. It’s an old school RPG. The developer, it only came out in January actually, but it’s very much an evolution of a design this particular developer has been working on since the 90s. If you can believe it. I played one of his games in like 1997 and he makes a new one of them every year. His name is Jeff Vogel, Spiderweb Software, and I am a real fan of his work. It’s very D&D inspired so everything has a story to it. Whenever you are in a new location a little bit of text pops up and explains what’s going on. So the art, even though you could consider it pretty primitive, it’s like the description will be like, “You are standing in an underground cavern and there is a waterfall pitching into the darkness” and you know I don’t know.  It’s like kind of having to use your imagination and I like that about it.

O: Knowing what you know now what would you have done differently?

E: I almost feel like the game had to take those twists and turns to become what it is. I mean I would have liked it to not take so long but we needed that for it become what it is. And so just for next time I think I’ll try to take steps to make sure we are able to ship something in a smaller amount of time. That’s the only thing I wish would have been a little bit different. The game and the result I am really happy with. I don’t want to be going five years between game releases. My last commercial game was 2010 and then I kind of had to find ways to pay the bills throughout all of that before my next game came out. Which I did but it wasn’t always easy. I’d like to be releasing games more often because then I feel like we have a little bit more wiggle room to not run out of money.

O: Not sleep on couch cushions and stuff?

E: Yeah for instance. I don’t know my threshold for comfort is pretty low (Laughs).

You can check out the Indie Haven review of Gravity Ghost by Nathan Ortega.