Interview: Ayden Lowther, designer of Solar Storm

Ayden Lowther, co-founder of Dranda Games, joins Diagonal Move today to talk about the success of his game Solar Storm

DM: Thank you for joining us this morning. Can you tell us more about Solar Storm?

Solar Storm is a co-operative survival game set aboard a spaceship that has flown too close to the sun. The ship’s Energy Core is offline due to solar flares and players work together to divert power from other parts of the ship. The aim is to get the Energy Core back online and escape.

However, if time runs out or the ship takes too much damage before the Core is back online, the game ends.

The ship is divided into rooms that all have a unique effect. Any player can use the ability of any room when in that room. This provides decisions around timing, what to use and when. It’s a balance of using tools and resources to repair the ship while mitigating on-going damage.

Location asymmetry, combined with the modular board, means that there is a different ship every time you play.

There is also a solo mode, although I can’t take much credit for it. I’m not much of a solo player at all, however, my colleague, Jason Broad, is. He was kind enough to offer to develop a solo variant. It works so well. In feel, it doesn’t differ from the multiplayer game at all

DM: Did the game change radically during the design and development process?

AL:  I have lost count of the number of revisions Solar Storm had. The room powers had to be balanced, we reduced the number of resource types, there were special abilities that we cut completely.

This development happened around the demands of my full-time job, meeting with Simon (Milburn, Dranda Games co-founder) and others when we could. We were absolutely determined to have the game 100% ready before we published. It took two years’ in total.

In the beginning, Solar Storm was vastly different. Literally every idea I had was in it. At this point I had no experience in the games industry. I was completely fresh. I had met maybe one designer in the past but that was it.

The game design progressed well and, after two months work, I felt I had something I could show to other people. I braved taking the game to a playtest meet up, where game designers show each other what they are working on.

Thinking back on it, they were very delicate with their feedback. They said, ‘consider changing these two or three things. What I think they were really saying, in a very polite way, was: ‘this game is awful’.

The great thing about the UK games industry though is that people genuinely want each other to succeed and the advice they provided was invaluable.

We decided the game was ‘finished’ in September 2018. Then we attended the convention circuit – UK Games Expo, Airecon, Handycon plus regular meet ups like the Birmingham Boardgame Bash. Through this we met many people in the industry who went on to help us with the Kickstarter.

Solar Storm box art

DM: The Kickstarter campaign was a huge success with pledges totalling 11.5 times the campaign goal. How you achieved that level of success?

AL:  That’s right, our campaign goal was £5,800, yet we received £68,000 in pledges. A big part of that was due to the great advice we received.

Simon is part of the team at Alley Cat Games and has made many contacts during his time with them. Caezar Al-Jassar, from Alley Cat, reviewed our campaign and told us what was working and what wasn’t.

The advice Caezar gave as was very honest. For example, Caezar suggested that we change the box art. It just wasn’t ‘epic’ enough. A result of my art direction rather than the art itself. After 11 successful campaigns he knows what he is talking about and we listened 95% of the time.

If anyone reading this is thinking about their own Kickstarter Campaign, I would recommend seeking advice from experienced campaigners. It will add more to the cost if the campaign is successful, which can be an issue when self-funding, however, the result speaks for itself.

DM: You are moving into the Kickstarter fulfilment stage, is it a case of ‘now for the hard part’?

AL: The lead up to a Kickstarter campaign is a very uncertain time. With that uncertainty comes a great deal of stress and anxiety. We were completely self-funded. If it wasn’t a successful campaign, how would we deal with the financial loss? Half an hour before Solar Storm was due to go live Simon and I were still deciding what the campaign funding goal should be. That anxiety started to leave about an hour into the campaign!

Although the campaign has been successful, the workload hasn’t gone away. It’s a totally different ballgame and the focus is now on the practicalities of running a business. We are lucky to be in a position where we can seek advice from others in the industry.

We’ve moved away from game design and Kickstarter page creation. We are now talking with manufacturers and freight companies, reviewing postage weights and distribution schedules. Of course, we are also regularly communicating any issues with our backers.

Solar Storm mid game

DM: Is there anything that you will do differently for your next release?

AL: I would ensure the rulebook is professionally written and completed during the campaign rather than after.

The rulebook we used during the campaign was one that I had created. It was ok but needed work. David Digby, who worked on solo mode for Chocolate Factory, agreed to rewrite the rulebook. Unfortunately, we were talking to him about this in October with Essen on the horizon. A very busy time for everyone including David.

We lost a lot of time due to this oversight. If the rulebook had been finished earlier, the fulfilment schedule would be much closer to completion.

DM: What advice would you pass on to someone just starting in the games industry?

AL: Make sure you are aiming to work in an area you enjoy.

I enjoy designing games, I enjoy the project management side of being a publisher. I absolutely love doing these things.

However, if someone working in these areas didn’t genuinely enjoy doing them…it would be like any other job. Eventually, it would grind them down and may even spoil the hobby for them.

Considering volunteering first, to make sure the work is what you think it will be. Simon and I both volunteered previously. It’s a great way to learn about the industry and make contacts with people already working in it.

A version of this interview originally appeared on the Zatu Games blog.