March 8, 2021

Andreas Betsche

Jeremy Lee on Game Development, Player Feedback, and Starlight

March 8, 2021 | Andreas Betsche

In 2014, Singaporean game developer Jeremy Lee published the real-time strategy game Foresight with his studio Strides Interactive. After a successful but bumpy launch, the brand and the studio were quiet for a long time, but Lee returned after almost seven years with a new game called Starlight: Eye of the Storm. We talked to him about Foresight’s release, the challenges and lessons learned for indies, and what has changed for him since then.

“We did have a lot of challenges in terms of our own experience or lack of it.”

When the space strategy game Foresight finally appeared in 2014, the reviews were cautious, and the game was not the financial success it had hoped for. In retrospect, Lee sees a variety of reasons for this failure. First, he criticizes his inexperience with the industry at the time, and the associated misjudgment of the amount of work such a game project requires. Investor financing was also problematic. Sometimes, the money came too late, and employees could no longer be retained.

Ultimately, the then-publisher KISS Unlimited also misjudged the market and opposed the early access concept, which was still new. From today’s perspective, Lee thinks that Foresight shouldn’t have appeared as a full release in this condition, especially at a starting price that was too high.

“I was really quite violated, to be honest.”

Although Lee emphasizes that there were also many good moments with his team, the above problems inevitably led to disagreements within the workforce. Only years after the release, the full extent of dissatisfaction and mistrust became clear: A former dissatisfied employee is said to have stolen the game’s source code and offered it to other studios for sale. Fortunately, Lee says, Strides Interactive wrote the code themselves, so finding a buyer who could understand and use it wasn’t easy. Luckily, the whole process did not result in any financial damage to the studio.

“It’s not so simple to make an RTS. It is not just that I click on it, move things around, and test it. Unfortunately, it is far more complicated. “

In the end, however, the scope almost makes the project fail. The 3D graphics, especially the voiceover, require much more attention than expected. For example, Lee has the latter outsourced to a studio in India. More than 15,000 lines of voice output are still a mammoth task for most indie studios today, and in the case of Foresight, the dubbing ensured a significantly longer development phase. In retrospect, Lee says, 10% of the whole thing would have done it because compromises had to be made elsewhere.

“If we come up with another game, it could be Foresight 2, but it took so long to create it. So maybe something simpler, maybe something that we can manage easily.”

Unlike Foresight, the new game from Strides Interactive is no longer a strategy game. Instead, Starlight: Eye of the Storm is now a classic 2D shoot ‘em up in the sense of R-Type or Raptor: Call of the Shadows, the latter being explicitly used as a reference. Although the genre changed, the developer decided to keep the scenario and story of Foresight. With Jun Jimin, for example, the popular main character among fans is returning. Initially, Lee had a 3D shooter, like the X-Wing Alliance or the recently released Star Wars: Squadrons, in mind, but then decided on a project that was easier to implement. 

Lee learned from past mistakes. Starlight: Eye of the Storm relies on a manageable game concept, 2D graphics, a spaceship editor, and—last but not least—Steam’s Early Access program. With this, Strides Interactive can now respond more to player feedback.

“You can see Starlight as a mix of a Western and Eastern shoot’em ups.”

Like many of its genre colleagues, Starlight relies on a sheer mass of projectiles that the player has to avoid. These “bullet-hell” shooters are usually aimed at hardcore gamers. However, the philosophy behind Starlight is different. A less experienced audience will also be addressed here, thanks to moderate difficulty settings. 

Even if everything seems smoother now, Lee still reacts evasively to the planned target date of May 2021 for the full release. First, he wants to wait for the general feedback. Nevertheless, the developers are already planning more content for the future. The story is supposed to be told in a campaign mode (currently, only the arcade version is available), in which the players’ performance in the individual missions should affect the course of the narration. With the built-in and accessible spaceship editor, the players should also provide additional content and a level editor may also be planned.

“Singapore actually is very competitive. But it’s a bit irrelevant because you’re always competing with the rest of the world. “

We also asked Lee what it’s like to be a game developer in Singapore, and his feedback was positive. Singapore thus offers both the technical and the political basis for successful game production. The most important thing, however, is to remain competitive in the global market. The key to this is a good workflow and a realistic assessment of your resources without losing sight of the production values.

“They may be ranting or angry, but that’s only because they care. When your audience cares about your game, they will give you feedback.”

Lee knows his way around lousy feedback, so his advice to other game developers is not to take it personally but to extract the essence of the criticism and take it seriously. Here, he responds almost overly humble by stating: “We reproduce, we fix it, and we thank those who ranted against us.” Many indie developers are too arrogant to notice the feedback from players or the gaming press and would fail, so he states. 

“Do not constrain ourselves to just one franchise. We want to explore. We want to go into other games.”

At the end of each interview about the past, it is also worth looking into the future. At the moment, Lee doesn’t know whether there will ever be a Foresight 2. But he remains deeply rooted in his created universe and does not rule out other small games of different genres. A grand strategy game or board games under the Foresight label also seem possible. In this regard, Lee understands the US company Blizzard as a successful role model with its brands in various genres. Even if there are still no concrete plans, it looks like Starlight wasn’t the last game from Strides Interactive. Let’s hope it won’t be seven years again.

6 lessons-learned for Indie Developers

  • Start with a manageable game concept
  • Plan enough time 
  • Invest in your team and build trust
  • Make sure investment comes in early
  • Stay open-minded to other genres
  • Take feedback seriously

We would like to thank Jeremy Lee for the friendly and insightful discussion. His games Foresight and Starlight: Eye of The Storm are available for PC on Steam. 

Andreas Betsche

Andreas Betsche founded Virtual SEA in early 2016 after researching Cambodian mobile games for his Master’s thesis. He has a background in Southeast Asia studies and has worked and lived in Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Since he has been actively playing games since the early 90s, combing both worlds in Virtual SEA brought together both of his passions.

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