NP%20GSW%205.jpg[Continuing a series of interviews with the indie developers who live on the edge of the cultural consciousness, Phill Cameron has a chat with one of the guys between the sloth of the PC browser based space-expansion RTS genre, Neptune's Pride.]

I haven't slept in weeks. I just try and occupy myself for five minute bursts so that I can justify checking on my empire again. I wonder if Ming the Merciless ever had this problem, or if he just chopped off intern's heads until one of them did it for him. I wish I had some interns. Or a guillotine.

Neptune's Pride is a browser based galactic empire RTS. That might make you think of Farmville with thrusters, but it's far more akin to something like Civ 4, or maybe even Solium Infernum. I mention that last because a big part of the game is diplomacy.

And by diplomacy I mean betrayal. And when betrayal is imminent, you can't sleep. Because you want to be awake when that knife slips between your shoulder blades, don't you? We chatted to Iron Helmet, headed by Australian-based ex-Irrational developer Jay Kyburz, to find out more about the project:

Can you explain a little about yourself and what you do?

Iron Helmet Games is a small group of independent developers interested bringing back and modernizing hard core strategy games. We don't believe strategy games need to be overly complex and in fact the games we most enjoy have simple mechanics and an emphasis on player interaction and diplomacy. We love board games and card games but were beginning to lose our passion for video games. We wanted to take a step back and make, and play the kinds of games that first captured our imagination.

Coming out of Irrational, what made you decide to develop a browser-based space strategy game, rather than continue with the whole first-person genre?

Many of us have been making FPS's in the Unreal Engine for over 7 years, it was time for a change. Strategy games gives us something new to think about, new problems to solve, new challenges. We hope to bring some of the polish of the Bioshock games to whole new genera and platform. We think it's an area that needs a shake up.

NP%20GSW%204.jpgWith Neptune's Pride, you're creating a game that's providing a stripped-down mechanical structure that engenders player interaction on the most fundamental of levels. Was this the intention when you started out or is it purely a happy coincidence of the on-going beta state of the game?

No, thats exactly what we set out to do. It's so easy to get bogged down in the complexity of a strategy game and lose site of whats really important, what the other players are doing. There is no story in Neptune's Pride, no real AI. In Neptune's Pride the players are the heroes and villains. The tension is created because there is no formal alliance system and you have to trust your neighbors. You have to interact with them and work out who are the good guys and who you will attack.

Another reason we stripped everything back was so that players could easily make meaningful decisions and understand their consequence. In large complex games many players find themselves guessing how the underlying mechanics work which leaves them feeling unengaged. We want players to clearly understand what they are getting when they upgrade their stars or research a technology.

Which then leads back to player interaction because, while the most efficient upgrades are obvious, the actions of the other players introduce an element of risk that must be taken into consideration. It might be cheapest to build a science facility on your front lines, but will you be able to defend it?

Following on from that, as you introduce new systems to the game such as concrete alliances, alien races and a more in-depth tech tree, do you see them obfuscating the game a little more, or just providing a more intricate experience for the players to enjoy?

When we add new features we always look back at those fundamentals, we don't want to water down what we have now. The alliance system is a good example, a feature we recently added. We wanted a feature that would help players cooperate in taking down a larger enemy, so when you have "ceased hostilities" with another player you can pass by their stars and share you scanning data, but there is no formal lock-in of that alliance. It can end at any time without warning, and there is no sharing of victory. The important tension is preserved and in fact the risk is greater because your trusted allies can see your stars and their defenses.

NP%20GSW%201.jpgWhile the game is in Beta at the moment, there's still the option to pay for credits and access the your premium services, such as custom and larger games. How has the response to this been?

The response has been great, players are really enjoying the game and seem willing to contribute to its development.

With the free version of the game already so involving, have you seen a large conversion rate from the free to premium service?

Yeah, its a little unexpected, but it seems that one of the best selling points for the premium service has been the private games. We have a significant number of people creating fairly standard games, but making them private and inviting a small group of their friends to play. Its always more fun to play these kinds of games with your real life friends.

Neptune's Pride seems a remarkably versatile and expansive game to be operating within a browser and on flash. How was the engine to work with? Did you meet any particular obstacles when creating the game?

Flash is great, we love working with it. The only obstacles we faced were in learning all the new technologies. Flash is a huge platform and you really need to make a product or two before you could say you know what you are doing. There is tones of stuff we would love to go back and change in Neptune's Pride now that we know Flash better.

We are also just learning how to run a server and maintain an online game. Lying in bed at night and wondering if the server is still up is a whole new level of stress for us.

Has there been any temptation to push the game into a more persistent, wider situation? As in a persistent galaxy that all the conflicts have an influence on?

One of the core principles of Neptune's Pride is to have players interacting and we don't feel a bigger game is conducive to that. We wan't players to get to know and interact with the 6 - 12 players in a game. It's a manageable group. I think generally speaking we would like to keep moving and provide players with a variety of fresh and interesting small games rather than one huge game.

When making the game, did you realise quite how much of a back-stabbing, malicious, deviant, deceitful environment you've created? When testing the game did any of the development fall out over a particularly cutting betrayal?

Haha, no. Though I nearly found myself sleeping on the couch one night when my girlfriend accused me of trading weapons tech to somebody she was attacking. We play in different games now.

NP%20GSW%202.jpgFor a game in beta, it does seem incredibly robust and versatile already. How extensive are the changes you are planning on making to the game before an official release?

We don't plan to make too many more significant changes. We have been internally testing some unique alien races and new technology streams but they haven't been as satisfying as we hoped. I think the game will look largely the same as it does now. Right now we are focused on fixing some very rare bugs and optimizing the server. An official release is still probably a few months away because when your game takes 2-6 weeks to play its takes a while to find the bugs and get your feedback.

Looking forward, what direction are you aiming to take Neptune's Pride, and what's next?

Neptune's Pride is nearly done. We have already been talking quite a bit about out next game. The tech guys have already taken a step back and started building the new flash client and app engine sever. On the design side we have allot of notes but no functioning game just yet.

The new game, while still focused on diplomacy and social interaction, won't be quite so focused on back-stabbing and deviant behavior. Instead we are going to drop the players is a game with a common goal, to fend off an advancing horde. Once it's overcome all players will win. But its not going to be a cake walk, and the players are going to have to trade and interact in order to succeed.

The players will still be the villains and heroes of our story, but all players will share the rewards of victory or the shame of defeat!