A while ago, I wrote about my impressions of Game Labs studios and their Naval Action – a hugely successful maritime combat sim that’s been receiving constant support for nearly five years, shaping the character and teaching patience. In that article, you could have also read that the developer is constantly, and, judging by Steam ratings, also quite successfully working on a handful of projects. I wanted to know more about Game Labs and I managed to chat with their boss, Maxim Zasov, who answered my questions regarding Naval Action, as well as the functioning of the studio itself. Have a nice read!
Przemek Bartula: Let's start with the fact that the studio has been around for 7 years; has released three games, all quite successful, and enjoys a great community. However, only a few Western players know who works at Game Labs. I know from conversations that they usually view Game Labs as a studio consisting of “a bunch of Russians.”
Could you tell us more about the studio and its driving force: the people who work there? Brief research showed that the studio employs developers with extensive experience, some of whom worked in companies such as EA or DICE. How many of them are there?
Maksim Zasov: The company started operations in 2013. There are three founders, two of which did not have any video game development experience before starting the Labs. Aleksandr Petrov was working as an R&D director in software middleware firm, Maksim Zasov was a business director in Wargaming, and Denis Khachatran was a technical director in Dice and worked on Battlefield 3.
The company works as a lab that consists of 3 small studios located in different countries, most of the developers work at home. Naval Action team operates from Ukraine and several other countries. Total headcount is 24 people, we are currently working on 5 games and several prototypes.
Interesting fact: Maksim Zasov met Aleksandr Petrov playing Pirates of the Burning Sea. They both sailed for Britain and Pirates for several years on beta servers, then Roberts, and then the Caribbean Server. They thought they could do better. Naval Action was the first game for the 2 founders, who, while developing Naval Action, were actually working on Ultimate General Gettysburg as well, with the creator of Darthmod – Nick Thomadis. Denis (the third co-founder) joined slightly later and helped to build the open world technology for Naval Action, and brought with him a great artist, who guided the existing art team in making it beautiful. Both Naval Action and Ultimate General games turned out fine, the latter got multiple awards including best wargame by PCGamesN, and top 25 wargames of all time by PC Gamer.
How did a Ukrainian studio get such a passion for maritime themes and the American Civil War? It's a pretty distant topic for anyone east of the river Elbe. What games, if any, were you inspired by?
Nothing looks better than sea from land. But of course once you go out to sea, nothing looks better than land. This duality of desire creates the creative energy for Maritime subjects.
On the serious note: Ukraine has a large coastline and was one of the key ship building bases for the Russian Empire. St Pavel 2nd-rate was built in Nikolaev shipyard in Ukraine. We like certain historical themes and everyone probably wished to be a pirate, a captain, a general, a space engineer, and we will cover these desires over time, one by one.
What games did inspire us? There were not many games when we were growing up, so we can only name the usual suspects: Z, Sim City, Civilization, Panzer General, Dungeon Keeper and similar classics. None of these were maritime games, and we could not stop thinking about making one ourselves. Actually… The one game that helped guide our desire for maritime combat into the right direction was Pirates of the Burning Sea.
Ultimate General: Gettysburg and Ultimate General: Civil War were outstanding games in their genre and basically outmatched any and all competition. I’d wager we haven’t had a game so well designed since Sid Meyer's Gettysburg. How did you prepare for creating these, and where do you think their success stems from?
Preparing for the game is not hard, you just have to read all the books on the subject and then play all the games on the subject. After you have read everything and more, you will be able to see if you can make your game a lot better than everything you played. Once you researched the subject well, your goal is to make all other games on the subject not worth playing.
Good games require 3 things: good code, good art and a secret ingredient. First two parts are hard but doable with enough practice and knowledge. A secret ingredient can be replaced by a dragon warrior scroll. This is a secret of success - a dragon warrior scroll.
For Ultimate General the main motivation was the lack of beauty in hardcore strategy games. We were unsatisfied that most strategy games on the subject were hex-based and looked ugly (green on brown or worse). We brought historical maps alive and invested heavily in AI. This combination was what many fans of hardcore wargames wanted.
Throughout the four years of development, Naval Action has become a really good open world MMO game. From an alpha tester's perspective, I know it was a bumpy road full of errors and community drama. How do you evaluate the final product and what do you think was the most difficult part of this project? What's the biggest mistake you've made? What surprised you the most?
Keep in mind – for everyone who participated in Naval Action development it was a first game. For a first game it is a good game. In terms of market and competition we can say the same thing. Naval Action is a good Age of Sail game, probably the best on the market now. 5 “Skull and Bones” out of 0.
The main problem during the development was finding out what works and what doesn’t in terms of deciding what to add and what to change. As we found out, changing live products generates friction and even hate. Even when you improve the game, someone might not like the new change. This happened with every improvement, from the UI to leeway.
In terms of main problems now, there is only one problem that’s unfixable – the instances, but they allow large battles coupled with a large, open world, which makes it a good trade off. The project has prepared us for everything and the next game would be 10x better as a result.
The second biggest mistake was engaging the community after launch too openly. Everything you say was amplified, dissected and sometimes taken out of context which caused problems. Once you reply to one user, all users now expect you will reply to each of them. Once we moved from 100 testers to 50,000 active players on launch, things changed, but we still talked the same way as if we had with 100 testers. More varied community required us to be less passionate and open, and more political, neutral and soft, but we missed it.
The biggest mistake was constant changes and over tuning.
- Let’s say you have a good game (NA launched as a global top seller on Steam). If you change something, you might ruin the experience for someone. So they become unhappy.
- Now if you revert the change, you make people who liked it unhappy as well. So the game gets into an eternal state of being between the rocks and sea, and everyone becomes unhappy in the process.
- So the learning is to only make new content that did not exist in game before or fix major major issues or holes.
What surprised us most about Naval Action development?
Bruce Lee's problem surprised us the most.
Bruce lee once said – “Fear not the man who knows 10000 kicks. Fear the man who practiced one kick 10000 times.” As a result. Players ask for balance, but secretly, the silent majority never wants balance. They want the unbalanced kick they practiced to remain working well and do not care about all the other kicks. Bruce Lee was right. Fear the man who practiced your feature 10,000 times.
Since Naval Action is an MMO, meaning that it’s constantly evolving, could you tell us something about your future plans? How long do you intend to keep supporting it, and how much resources you are going to devote to this project? The assumption being, of course, that the project is making money and has already returned the investment.
We now prefer not to discuss plans before they are laid out. Plans with specific dates became a big source of frustration for many. The game is good enough for 100s of hours: 50+ beautiful ships, interesting combat, somewhat deep RVR, large beautiful map, filled with danger and adrenaline. But we don’t intend to stop. Recent changes in wind mechanics and proper battle sails improved the combat a lot. When we will add more improvements, Naval Action will become even better, it will happen step by step due to team size constraints.
What we do differently these days is this: we focus on the features that increase tactical depth or increase retention. These are the two key areas we are going to work on for the next 6 months.
Why Unity? Why not Unreal, or a proprietary engine? And when will the cannon crews disappear from the game? They keep doing their thing even when the ship is sinking – after 4 years, we know they’re just superfluous.
Unity is a good engine, Unreal is also a good engine, too. Engines are like brushes or pencils, good artists don't care.
Crew animations are OK. They animate the deck in combat and that’s their purpose. Adding more detailed crew is not going to help the framerate. We are not good in this, but we’re getting better. We will show something different in Sea Legends.
Currently, besides developing NA, you’re simultaneously working on 4 other projects: This Land Is My Land, Ultimate Admiral: Dreadnoughts, Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail, and Sea Legends. How do you manage? It must take considerable manpower, a lot of knowledge and time, and you are, after all, a small independent studio. What’s the secret?
The minimum crew required to make a game is a single developer, who will do all art, code, design and marketing. But such developers are extremely rare (vide Notch, Lucas Pope), and they already have their own studios. Since you can’t go lower than one developer, the only way is up – get more developers.
We found that the ideal team is 3-4 people. A lot of games grew out of small teams. Counter Strike was created by two devs, Dota by three, Garry’s mod/Rust – just one person. Our studio is currently developing 5 games with 24 developers.
The secret is simple, good developers and laser-focus on solving emotional desires of players (and don’t forget the dragon warrior scroll).
Sometimes laser-focus is hard to maintain on the way, but we always return to the right path over time. It happens less and less, lately.
I know from personal experience that the studio has a hard time reaching Western community. This is presumably due to differences in mentality between the East and the West, but even though the devs are often right on the forums, it’s the way they express their opinions that causes a negative response from players. Don't you think that hiring a really good person for handling PR would be a good investment? Something similar happened during the production of the IL series, and once the community relations were entrusted to Jason Williams, the reception improved significantly.
For Naval Action, the answer to this relationship question is not simple because solving the Bruce Lee problem is hard. When you change the kick someone practiced 10000 times, they will be unhappy. There is no way to circumvent this; but to be able to find the recipe for online growth we must change the game, and sometimes change that kick. We don’t know the solution yet. We will make some players unhappy unless we stop changing the game.
It could have been explained better, the need for changes, but it was not; some changes were unnecessary and were made due to lack of experience. Or worse, like a rookie soldier, we sometimes flinched under fire and changed necessary improvements back when suppressed.
There were other issues: language differences, too much openness in collection of ideas, which led some users to believe that we were going to implement all ideas from all users, including them personally. Lack of clarity in terms of the criteria on which ideas were going to be implemented or not and why also led to unhappiness. And lack of neutrality in answers and communication style has made it worse.
Recent changes in moderation and chat control will allow us to talk to users through their selected representatives removing the unnecessary friction from the process.
Moving forward, do you want to invest in things like fan wallpapers, more trailers from your games, and other promo materials? Currently, all that can be found on the Internet are things created by the community, and they don't always do a good job at promoting the game.
There is always a balance between spending time on features versus spending time on trailers. Big teams can afford making trailers, promos, wallpapers. We can’t, as Naval Action studio is and was extremely small.
What are the unique challenges related to your geographic localization? What are the advantages?
Not sure. We do not see any challenges that we haven’t seen working from Minsk, or Dubai, or Tallinn or Stockholm. You just need to make a good game.
What is your opinion on Epic Games Store? Is it a good choice for smaller developers, or do you think that Steam is still a better choice?
We have no opinion on the Epic game store. Getting on the store is not transparent, unlike getting on Steam. We have not yet figured out what type of casting is required to get there.
Finally, which of your games do you consider the biggest success?
We do not differentiate between bigger and smaller successes. Our games are our kids, stories we wanted to tell. We don't discriminate between stories read by just ten people and those read by one million players – as long as they are read and available to the public. All of our games have either received an award, or sold well on Steam, or both. We love them all. They did well for our first games.
Last update: 2020-10-02
Losiu | Gamepressure.com