Objects glide through the galaxy; asteroids hook onto planets which hook onto stars which hook onto glowing orbs, swinging while travelling from one side of the universe to the other. It’s abstract, it’s satisfyingly weighty, it’s an exhilarating ride through a pulsating galaxy, and it was made right here in Australia by indie developer, Jay Watts.
Jay Watts was going to pursue a career in biotechnology (think: genetic engineering), and then he didn’t. Having focused purely on biology and science in his studies, video games were never really on the agenda. When he taught himself Flash programming and began dabbling with Xbox Live Indie Games, little did he know that the hobby project he was working on, Solar, would lead to a follow-up game, Solar 2, which would be the star of some of the indie scene’s most prestigious festivals and give him the opportunity to make games full-time.
“Solar started off as a simple simulation where I drew a few small circular planets, stars and asteroids and added basic physics to them,” Watts says.
“I never considered including shooting or attacks because those things don’t really happen in the actual universe! It also made logical sense to have no boundaries and just have everything procedurally generated.”
The result was a sprawling sandbox of a universe where players complete missions and solve puzzles while traversing a polished galaxy of stars and planets. Movement is seamless and fast, collisions and explosions pack a satisfying punch, and there is a great tactile quality to the way planets latch onto and drag each other along. Solar may have begun as a simple simulation, but Watts identified precisely what was stimulating and exciting about his sandbox galaxy and made them shine in Solar 2.
Since its release, Solar 2 has earned a long list of accolades: winner of Best Audio at the Freeplay Awards, finalist at the IndieCade Festival, selected for the PAX10 Indie Game Showcase at PAX Prime 2011, semi-finalist at IndiePub’s Independent Propeller Awards, and second place at the DreamBuildPlay Challenge. Watts attributes much of the game’s success to testing and tweaking.
“One of the first things implemented in the game was the movement of the player, so whenever I tested anything in the game I’d be indirectly testing movement,” he says.
“Even if I was testing object spawning or ships, if I found the movement to be a bit off, I’d tweak the values. Constant tweaking over the many hundreds of hours I played the game meant that eventually it worked its way to being perfect! It surprises me in some games where the movement is just totally off and awkward, when surely it could have been easily fixed if the developers just played their own game more often.”
Aside from the audio, Watts worked on the entire game himself. As someone with a background in biotech, not game design, how did he manage to bring Solar 2 up to an award-winning level?
“I didn’t face too many challenges or difficulties doing things on my own, but that was for a good reason!” he says.
“The game was designed from the ground up to be a project I could tackle on my own (except for the audio, which I knew I’d never be able to do so I contracted that out). I said before that I started with a few circles and added physics when I was coming up with the concept… well, I started there because I know how to draw really nice circles!
“I made sure when I designed the game that there wouldn’t be any complex graphics or characters that would be beyond my artistic ability, which is why Solar 2 is fundamentally just simple colours, shapes and textures.”
Watts says that his approach to making Solar 2 was about playing to his own strengths, rather than being overly ambitious and not being able to accomplish anything to a high enough standard.
Through his self-taught programming and design skills, Watts has already successfully created a video game galaxy in 10 months where players can grow their solar systems, nurture life forms, explore and battle, and venture into other solar systems to cause chaos and steal planets. But he’s still learning and he aims to keep teaching himself with each new game he works on.
“I have tonnes of ideas for games I want to make, and I want to make them all right now!” he says.
“But I'll need to take things slowly and I have a few projects lined up where I’ll be collaborating with artists. My artistic ability is fairly limited for the games I want to make, so being able to collaborate with a talented artist allows me to realise some of my more complicated game ideas.
“In addition I'd like to come back to the Solar concept and eventually make a Solar 3. I received a huge amount of feedback for Solar 2, so much that I couldn't do it justice with just a patch and easily enough scope for an entirely new game. Although that one is a long time away, as I want to tackle some of those other projects first.”