It’s no secret that we here at Outermode are big fans of Spaceplan. The little clicker that could started life as a free browser-based prototype, pairing worryingly compulsive clicker gameplay with a surprisingly smart story, some welcome wit, and a galaxy’s worth of potatoes.
With the help of publisher Devolver, creator Jake Hollands was able to return to the prototype, expanding it into a full title for PC, iOS, and Android, along the way tweaking the gameplay, adding a full (and brilliant) score, and introducing a brand-new second half.
Fortunately for us, Hollands seems more flattered than alarmed by our borderline obsession with the game, and agreed to answer a few of our questions about Spaceplan, science, and spuds.
“At this point it was too late to turn back, and I had to run with the potato theme.”
Outermode: Why the humble potato? Were any other vegetables or tubers ever in the running for the starring role?
Jake Hollands: Before applying a narrative to the game beyond the initial premise, it was going to feature ordinary power generators & probes. It needed a comedic hook however, and I figured a potato would be appropriately silly.
When I added the first probes to the game I thought, “Oh, Probetato works…” so I went with that. I wanted to add a satellite — “Spudnik” came to mind, and was the best pun I’ve ever come up with. At this point it was too late to turn back, and I had to run with the potato theme.
OM: What’s your favourite videogame potato?
The only one that comes to mind is GLaDOS in Portal 2. I’ve seen a lot of people reference Portal 2 when talking about Spaceplan — I hadn’t thought about it until after I finished the original prototype (same goes for The Martian!)
OM: Have you had many players attempt to correct your understanding of astrophysics?
JH: Despite all of the issues there might be with astrophysics, many (a NASA scientist included) have corrected me on the power units instead (‘watts’ being incorrect). Of course, I added Scientifically Accurate Mode in the options specifically to satisfy these people. I still get people emailing me to tell me that it’s wrong though.
OM: You expanded the game a lot for the full release, essentially adding a whole second half. How much of that was stuff you’d wanted to make but needed a publisher’s support for, and how much came about only after partnering with Devolver?
JH: When I made the original I wanted where your probes landed to matter — I was considering adding biomes on the planet which would be more rich with resources, or contain particular types of mineral. It was way beyond the scope of the project however, particularly as it was in 2D at the time. When I had the opportunity to expand the game, I adapted this into the target-hitting mechanic which is in there now.
Originally I had no plans to expand the story, but whilst experimenting with ideas the inter-dimensional idea kinda hatched outta nowhere and I was really excited to add it. Well not entirely out of nowhere — many have correctly guessed a potential influence, but I won’t mention it here!
“Games like this can live or die based on sound design.”
We also added the soundtrack — on the original game I wasn’t going to have any sound at all. I had a peer of mine (Guy Cockroft) test the game a month or so before release however, and asked if he thought sound was necessary in a browser-based game like this. He said that games like this can live or die based on sound design, and I’m very grateful for that advice. I asked if Logan was interested in working on it, and think that his addition was instrumental to its success — particularly during the boot-up phase of the game, which immediately tells the player that they’re going to get a quality experience.
When it came to the full game, I was very excited as it meant we could have Logan create a full soundtrack for it — I don’t think a soundtrack would have worked on the browser version. We considered having a procedurally generated musical score to go with the format of idle games, but I’m glad we went with proper hand-crafted tracks — they’re excellent!
OM: The second half also delves into some surprisingly expansive sci-fi territory. 2001 seems like an obvious influence, but what else did you have in mind there?
JH: For the ‘planet puzzle’ portion of the game, the idea actually came while I was browsing the strange depths of YouTube. I came across this sort of cult following — similar to flat Earthers — who believe that the Earth is a giant machine. Inside it’s like the Death Star, and we naïve peasants know nothing of the giant vessel whose shell we live upon. Those videos really fed into the idea of those unfolding planets. Unfortunately I can’t find the videos now!
In regards to the ending, I just loved this hopelessness of finding another universe just like ours in the infinite multiverse. It was probably influenced partly by that episode of Rick & Morty where they accidentally Cronenberg the whole world, and Rick easily finds a new one. In Spaceplan, finding a home just as special as ours isn’t so easy.
“I came across this sort of cult following — similar to flat Earthers — who believe that the Earth is a giant machine.”
OM: Had you played many clicker games before you started working on Spaceplan?
JH: Yes, Cookie Clicker being the first and A Dark Room being the best. I looked to Cookie Clicker‘s simple mechanics, and A Dark Room‘s story for inspiration — the way it tells you as little as it needs to keep you interested is great.
I’d been wanting to experiment with the genre for years, but put it off since it always felt a bit like low-hanging fruit — like you may not be taken too seriously making a clicker. Decided to give it a shot regardless, and I’ve been completely wrong — the response has been great, even if half the praise starts with “it’s a clicker, but”. In fact I love that so many comments start like that — it shows that it’s challenging expectations.
OM: Without spoiling things too much, the second half slightly breaks clicker genre conventions by adding slightly more complex gameplay. Did you worry that would break some of the hands-off appeal?
JH: I did, yes. I think that it’s worked out fine though and lends itself quite well to the format — you can still save up through idle play, then when you have a minute or two, give the game some real focus and try to succeed on target-hitting. I think that it’s a welcome break from the gameplay before it, but I’d love to hear comments & criticism on the decision.
OM: Spaceplan is also pretty notable for being a clicker that’s not free-to-play. How did you figure out the pacing and progression system without micro-transactions to fall back on as a way for players to speed things up?
JH: I really don’t like how a lot of clickers use micro-transactions to speed up progress — it really abuses the gameplay, which we all know is a Skinner box — it’s fundamentally designed to get you hooked quickly, and give little reward. I wanted to give more reward, and not exploit the player’s interest. That hook was used to introduce the story instead — once the clicker novelty has worn off, there’s a finite story that you can complete for closure.
“Devolver were the only publisher willing to go the non-micro-transaction route.”
As a note, Devolver were the only publisher willing to go the non-micro-transaction route. Others didn’t think that it would sell, and had no interest unless micro-transactions were crammed in. I’m very grateful that Devolver believed in the game and gave me the freedom to do it right.
In regards to pacing/progression, my metric for the prototype was that I should be able to complete it in one full 8-hour work-day, with it running in the background while I pretended to do work. On the full release it was a little more complicated since it had to work for PC, tablets & mobile — mobile would more likely be played during commutes and down time, rather than while working. The game had to gain power while you were away to accommodate mobile, but this meant that you could complete the story with less interaction. To alleviate this, I increased item prices to slow that progression, but for more active players I added the sparkifier allowing them to progress faster if they really want to.
Opinions on pacing seem split between players — one half feel that it ends too quickly, because idle games have given them this expectation of taking months of their time; the other half praise the game for not overstaying its welcome. I designed it for the latter half, and hope that it has perhaps started to adjust the expectations of the former group.
OM: When will the world end, and how? Can potatoes save us?
JH: Hopefully not before we become self-sufficient on another planet, and surely through our own apathy. Can potatoes save us? To quote Douglas Adams, “It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes.”