Published on November 12th, 2015 | by Patrick Garde0
Interview with Sarah Northway of Northway Games
We had a chance to talk to Sarah Northway (@sarah_northway) of Northway Games. She is the developer of the turn-based strategy game Rebuild. We recently reviewed her latest title, Rebuild 3: Gangs of Deadsville, and rated it 4.5 out of 5 stars, that’s why we wanted to find out more about her. We discussed about their history, travelling as an indie game developer, experience living in the Philippines, challenges, funding games via crowd-sourcing, and more.
Could you share a little bit of history of Northway Games?
After Colin released Fantastic Contraption in 2008 (he wrote it on weekends with help from me), we realized we could make a living by publishing our own games on the internet, something that had been much harder before. We quit our jobs and founded Northway Games, then decided that since we could live and work from anywhere in the world, that we should live everywhere. So, we traveled for the next 5 years, living for 2-3 months in each country, and made games.
What is it like working with your husband, Colin?
We alternate who leads each game to avoid butting heads on the design, so Rebuild is mine and Contraption is his. Since we are both programmers, we usually need to team up with an artist as well and often have two games on the go at the same time. Our best experience was finishing Incredipede together.
What are the pros and cons of travelling as an indie game developer?
We got lonely, especially in rural areas where there aren’t a lot of people we could talk to about things like video games or the internet. But there’s an amazing online community of indie game developers who we have kept in touch with, and visiting them in their home countries have been some of our best travel experiences.
You’ve lived in 14 different countries, what is the best place to work as a game developer?
I get the most work done in rural areas like Bocas del Toro in Panama where there is nothing to do but hike, swim, and work. Cities are great and exciting but there are far more distractions.
By the way, I’m from the Philippines. What was your experience in our hospitable country?
This was one of our best trips. We stayed for 3 months on beautiful Mindoro where we needed boats to get everywhere, and I could take a kayak out to go snorkeling on the reef almost every day. We met a lot of very wonderful people there and went on long, memorable hikes out to remote villages. It was one of the first trips where we traveled with other developers and that made it even better. I tried betel nut for the first time, swam with my first sea turtle, and sailed in my first boat race. It was also the first (and last) time that we had full-time servants to clean and cook dinner for us. They were very nice people and it was great to have help when we had a lot of visitors, but it was a constant reminder of the wealth disparity between us and our neighbors there. This is something we often struggle with while travelling, though we usually stay in more humble digs and pay rent by the month. We’re unbelievably privileged to be able to do what we do.
How did you come up with the gameplay idea of Rebuild?
I had this idea of a grid of buildings with different uses, kind of like Sim City but where you had to fight your way through an existing city then defend it against something. Zombies were a natural fit because they can be a constant, dumb, constantly advancing foe, and also I love gore and post-apocalyptic survivalism. I added in my love of Choose Your Own Adventure books (I was into Choice of Games at the time) to make the narrative, though that didn’t come through fully until Rebuild 3.
Rebuild 3 was released last September, almost three years after Rebuild Mobile. What were the challenges you’ve faced?
Well, it was supposed to be a 2 year project, for one thing. Everything took longer than expected and I ended up completely rewriting the engine from scratch rather than using the previous games. I realized I’m not very good at being a boss and I had a lot of trouble delegating work to other people. The one thing that worked out extremely well was developing it openly with the Rebuild community. I had a tremendous amount of support from fans all the way along, through the Kickstarter and Early Access which were big successes. In fact, part of the reason the project took a year longer than expected was because I wanted make the game as good as it could be for all the people who cared so much about it while it was still being made and I took every suggestion to heart.
How does Rebuild stand out against other turn-based strategy games?
Rebuild has more of a focus on simulation than most strategy games, letting you get to know your survivors and see their individuality. It goes beyond combat to questions of personality, morality, and political leanings. As you play, you’re shaping a new civilization from the ashes of disaster, and some of the fun is just to see what will happen.
The game was crowd-funded, crowd-supported and crowd-tested. Were you surprised to see a positive response from critics and gamers alike?
I did some early polling of existing Rebuild fans to find out what they wanted to see in Rebuild 3, so I knew people were excited. But since the first two Rebuilds were browser and mobile games, I wasn’t sure how people would react to a PC downloadable Rebuild and whether they’d buy it on Steam. Turns out, I didn’t need to worry, that was clear as soon as it launched on Early Access. It’s actually doing better there than on mobile!
What are the new features we should expect in Rebuild 3 as compared to the previous versions?
Rebuild 3 is bigger in just about every way. There’s about 10 times as much writing, the survivors have tons of new equipment, perks, backstories and relationships. There’s an entire campaign mode this time, and a new option to play in real-time (turn-based is still available as well as the old method of assigning survivors to missions).
Any advantages and disadvantages of funding your game through a crowd-sourcing platform like Kickstarter?
Many developers stress out and spend a LOT of time working and worrying about their Kickstarter campaigns. I had an easier time than most because millions of people had already heard of the game, and especially because I didn’t need to fund the entire game, just the art and sound. Kickstarter helped me get the word out and connect me with the people who became alpha and beta testers. I’d definitely do it again.
What’s next for Northway Games?
We’re working on a new game with Radial Games and I just came on board as a programmer. The game is Fantastic Contraption VR, which is a sequel to our 2008 browser game, but for the HTC Vive. It’s the most exciting project I’ve ever worked on. We have no idea what’s going to happen next in virtual reality, what will work or what boundaries we can push. It’s thrilling and still in its early stages – we’ve only been working on this game for 4 months but are already nearing Early Access!
Thank you for answering all of our questions, Sarah.