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XenoMiner Interview With Gristmill Studios' Jesse Nivens

Feature; Sep. 26, 2012; Channels: Video Games; By Kyle James Hovanec
Subtypes: Interview
OMGN sits down with Gritsmill Studios and discusses its latest indie title

OMGN recently sat down with Jesse Nivens, one of the designers behind Gristmill Studios' latest title, XenoMiner, and discussed the inspirations behind game, what gamers can expect from the title, and what the future holds for the studio's next big project.


1. Tell us a little more about your company and yourself. How did it get started? What was the inspiration or drive behind assembling this studio?

Gristmill is a group of dedicated individuals who have grown fairly organically over the last couple of years. We began when a couple of developers, inspired by some of Paul Graham’s writings as well as the entire community, decided to start spending their spare cycles on making something. Over time, the group added other similarly motivated people; it’s actually incredibly hard to find the right kind of personality. You need someone with skill but mainly dedication. It takes a lot of grit to keep throwing hour after hour of your free time into making something as large and complicated as a fully polished, publishable video game.

2. How many people worked on this game? What was the inspiration behind XenoMiner?

We have a pretty big team for an indie studio. Gristmill started with a couple of developers who worked together in the corporate world in Madison, Wis. Something special happened, and others must’ve seen something good in the group, and more people joined. At this point, we have six developers, three artists, and a good relationship with the musician who created the score for XenoMiner.

XenoMiner has many inspirations -- the Gristmill group as a whole tends toward survival and sim themes. We wanted to capture some of the tension and wonder that mix so naturally in a space setting. You have all the claustrophobia and anxiety of deep sea diving, the extremely alien and harsh, unforgiving environments, and at the same time, all the beauty and excitement that other planets and celestial objects contain. From 2001: A Space Odyssey to Battlestar Galactica, and maybe a few too many games of Outpost as kids -- I guess we’re all sci-fi geeks in this group.

3. Gameplay wise, it looks very similar to Minecraft. Is this intentional, does it play similarly, or is it its own unique style of game?

Most of us at Gristmill really love Minecraft, and there is no point trying to downplay its influence on us. Minecraft may be the most exciting thing to happen to video gaming since Doom popularized what went on to be called the first-person shooter. And there’s something to that story: For three to four years after Doom was released, first-person shooters were called “Doom Clones,” and over that period, the usage of “Doom Clone” was gradually replaced by first-person shooter. Video gaming is like the music industry in that remixing and re-interpreting the past keeps everything moving forward. A good example of that is how Notch took the essence of what made Infiniminer fun, injected some Dwarf Fortress and Dungeon Keeper, and made the perfect game.

When Minecraft was released, that was the invention of what will be called first-person builders -- or Voxel sandbox games, or sandbox builders -- in a few years.  Minecraft was more than a game: It created a genre. And we’re working in that tradition with XenoMiner. Our goal is to find new ways to advance the genre and add something new to it. We wouldn’t have done this if we thought the end product would just be Minecraft in space with a space oriented texture-pack.

4. The game market is saturated with both triple A releases and smaller indie titles all fighting to get the attention of curious gamers. How does XenoMiner stand out from the rest?

XenoMiner is a very big, fully featured game for the indie channel. It has hundreds of hours among six developers, three artists, and a music producer. We’re starting it off at 80 MSP so you get a ton of gameplay for a dollar. XenoMiner is a Voxel-based building game, but unlike most other Voxel-based games on Xbox, you are in a procedurally generated world that is only limited by hardware.

It’s hard to describe how fun this game is. There are two different things happening at the same time when you start: First is the fact that you’ve crash-landed and been marooned on an alien moon, so you have to find a way to survive in a hostile environment with no oxygen and no atmosphere to protect you from the local star. Once you get settled in, the second element comes into play: With nowhere to go for a while, you can start building the extraterrestrial colony of your imagination.

We can’t wait for people to try out the grav boots. They don’t come easy. You’ll have to do some serious mining to get the necessary components, but once you have them, it’s a completely different game. You can build vertical hallways, climb the sides of buildings, and even build an upside down city on the bottoms of the Xeno moon’s floating islands.

5. Do you have any other titles that you have been working on or have ideas for?

Last year, we released a game called Devilsong on XBLIG. It is a dogfighting simulator set in an asteroid field. The goal with Devilsong was to make a fun space-fighter game for multiplayer and get it all coded and wrapped in a month or two. We were testing ourselves and what we could do as a group, as we had just formed the studio not long before. We also have a tower defense game, called Etch, for iOS that’s basically finished. The iOS market is crowded and difficult to break into, so we’re holding off on Etch until after XenoMiner comes out and we have some more people interested in our games. As far as ideas for new titles: We’re full of them! But right now we’re trying to focus on XenoMiner ... There is still so much we want to add to it.

6. What are some of your favorite games or games you consider to be influential in both your role as a gamer and as a developer?

We’re all big fans of an '80s game called M.U.L.E. I remember begging my dad to rent that on NES week after week, and whenever it was checked out by someone else, it was a sad weekend. We loved M.U.L.E. so much we even gave it a shout-out in XenoMiner with the naming of some of our equipment. Rampart, which came out on NES in 1990, is an influence, and hopefully at some point, we’ll be able to bring in some of the build/destroy/repair cycle into XenoMiner when we start adding sealed chambers, airlocks, and basic habitat functionality -- along with a more aggressive environment. It’s also funny that most of the people on the team were crazy about Battletech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception when we were young.

Then, of course, there’s the suite of games that came together to create this genre: Dungeon Keeper, Dwarf Fortress -- which is like the Chuck Berry of the modern sandbox genre -- and of course, Minecraft, which, if Dwarf Fortress is the Chuck Berry, would probably be The Beatles.

Xenominer is now available through Xbox Live as part of the Indie Games Uprising III line up. It is 80 MSP 


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