Interview with Mario Mihokovic, CEO of Little Green Men Games

Starpoint Gemini Warlords Featured Image

Those familiar with space combat and economy simulation games have no doubt heard of Starpoint Gemini Warlords. The game dives deep into the fantasy of piloting your own space craft, but incorporates elements of role-playing games in a very unique way. Players have such a deep control over the customization of their ship that it really begins to feel like it is their unique craft. The space that Starpoint Gemini Warlords takes place in is massive as well. Yet even though it is massive, it is far from empty. Troves of enemy units lay in ambush throughout the regions, there is a large diversity of enemy units and alliances, and you can fill an area with your own fleet of ships. Truly, it is a game worth picking up if any of this sounds up your alley. Recently, we had a chance to trade some questions and answers back-and-fourth with Mario Mihokovic, CEO and Co-Owner of the studio behind Starpoint Gemini Warlords: Little Green Men Games.

Gamer Professionals:     As developers, what are some of your personal inspirations behind your design practices and philosophies? (Other developers, games you loved, nostalgia for a certain era of games?)

Mario Mihokovic:     Well, actually, all three. When I was younger, my first fascination was space and space movies. Second one was technology, computers, and games. Creating space games was a perfect way to combine both. Every Star Trek and Star Wars movie I saw triggered an imagination explosion where I had so many visions of a different Universe and my place there. Creating the Starpoint Gemini games was our real chance to create an entire new world and it was so much fun and hard work materializing this idea. As we advanced through development, we also learned about that entire process from business and professional aspect. That led to seeking experiences from other, senior developer teams, and that gave us some role models to follow. One would certainly be Frontier Developers. They are loyal to original game ideas and concepts, and have a great way of keeping games alive and engaging the community. When we mention nostalgia, yes we are nostalgic definitely, me included. I somehow feel that about 15-20 years ago games had more spirit and a more in-depth feel, and were created by true enthusiasts. Today it is more about business and money, and many games are based on Hollywood blockbuster principle – big, spectacular, and shallow. In some game genres it fits perfectly, but in my opinion, some specific games actually suffered quality decline because of it. I would always choose gameplay quality and fun over pure visual presentation.

Starpoint Gemini Warlords ShipGP:     Were there other games or media that influenced the design for Starpoint Gemini: Warlords besides Star Wars and Star Trek?

Mario:     Absolutely, we’re not hiding that at all! From TV shows and movies, the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises gave us love for capital ship concept. From games Freelancer, Wing Commander and Starfleet Command gave us ideas how to pursue a good, immersive experience. From Battlestar Galactica we took the massive space battles visions. And from Mount & Blade we took base the gameplay idea for Warlords and its hybrid genre concept. How well we implemented these intentions is, however, on our players to decide…

GP:     What aspect of Starpoint Gemini Warlords did you want to be unique from others that occupy that same third-person space strategy genre?

Mario:     You have very good space shooter games out there, you also have great 4X space games. Our intention was to merge both in a single game. The idea actually came from thousands of players during our Starpoint Gemini 2 Early Access. They enjoyed winning battles and advance in experience and power, but they also wanted to have a way to achieve permanent results and a permanent impact on the Gemini system. So we decided to develop a system for players to achieve control of entire factions, and command the conquered territories. These 4X elements completely recrafted the concept of the game but we are happy with the results. You now basically start the game in a manner very similar to the previous Starpoint Gemini 2, but as you progress and turn to a globally powerful figure, gameplay changes and you start working much more from a global perspective and act like a true Warlord of the galaxy.

GP: Why the decision to go with a spin-off as opposed to a full-blown sequel?

Mario:     That was actually just a string of events. Originally, we wanted to develop a large expansion pack for Starpoint Gemini 2, with stated 4X elements. Hence the name. However, our own game engine and entire concept of our SPG2 game were not prepared to accept such massive changes. Moreover, merging two opposite game concepts made us change almost everything else from Starpoint Gemini 2 as well. The result was a game that, except in initial gameplay similarities, is a completely different product with almost no common assets. And it plays differently (especially later in the game), and took 2 years to develop. Therefore, it definitely was an entirely new product, but the name was simply inherited from an original expansion plan.

Starpoint Gemini Warlords Battle

GP:     Did the announcement of the Xbox One X change your plans for how you wanted to release Starpoint Gemini Warlords on Xbox One? Did you consider developing the game for the 4K hardware?

Mario:     It changed our console plans only slightly. 4K version was planned even before, and test versions were already running on test rigs. It looks spectacular but we still have some work on the optimization side of thing.

GP:     Players don’t normally see 4X strategy-based games appear on consoles. What about Xbox and Microsoft made you decide to port both Starpoint Gemini 2 and Warlords over?

Mario:     At first, we were just curious. Xbox offers quite a nice gaming setup, and we noticed not many “complex” games of this type were ever released there. We knew it is very hard to properly port this kind of game to console (due to complex control scheme and hardware demands), but we wanted to see if most games don’t pursue it because it is hard, or because there is no market for such games within the console market. We knew that many PC like-minded players exist on Xbox, so it was a calculated risk. In the end, console players accepted the game very nicely and also reviewed the game even better then PC players. After this happened with SPG2, we realized a certain number of people on Xbox actually crave for this kind of “hardcore” experience. So the decision to repeat that with the next installment of the game was pretty easy. The only difference is that our second release on Xbox won’t be a mere experiment this time. We’re working to ensure a proper release with all updates and DLC’s at the same date.

Starpoint Gemini Warlords Ship OptionsGP:     The transition of a game released on Steam to the Xbox One has been a complicated process for some developers in the past. Did you find bringing over these games to be challenging, or has the process been mostly smooth? What challenges did you run into when porting the game to console?

Mario:     This transition is quite challenging. I wouldn’t say it’s terribly hard, but complicated because you do have a lot of “small” things to consider, and also special requests that have to be met before your game can get certified. New achivements, different loading procedures, following hardware boot-ups and sleep modes, massive optimizations, reworking entire UI, etc. Our game was also not very typical for console so there were obstacles popping up everywhere. On the other hand, the Xbox is a remarkably put together machine that allows for some very nice features and forces you to adapt to unusual requests in development. Once we finished the transition and got certified, we realized many changes we had to do actually worked better than our own solutions on PC version. So, we subsequently updated our entire PC version using tech prepared for the Xbox game.

GP:     Starpoint Gemini Warlords was scheduled to remain in Early Access for 6-12 months, and did leave Early Access after 11. That’s definitely on the later side of the timetable though. Were there any troublesome issues that took longer to solve than anticipated? If so, how did you and Little Green Men Games ultimately address them?

Mario:     Yes, there were some technical issues, mostly linked to integration of several different gameplay approaches in a single game. It all looked very cool and innovative on paper, but making it work was a different story. For example – we had a trading system with values and currency based on our model from Starpoint Gemini 2. When we added a second layer to the game – the strategic one, we realized players cannot use the same currency and have the same means to acquire wealth in that second part of the game. There were too many possible exploits and workarounds. So we had to create a second resource system and parallel management for these. Then, we also had to create a way that partly converts local resources to global resources and vice-versa. In the end we did what we wanted but, from a relatively simple idea, this ended up being almost three additional months of work. And due to the uniqueness of the game, there were dozens of similar situations.

Starpoint Gemini WarlordsMario:     One of the most important ways we solved problems like this was through community. The Starpoint Gemini Warlords game was entirely conceived on forums. We supported vivid community conversations throughout development, and people responded very well since they actually saw their suggested features finding its way into the game during the entirety of Early Access. Every time we were stuck on a serious obstacle, we told the community what the problem is and asked for ideas how they would solve it. Usually, we got dozens of ideas, some were very well elaborated (even by professional programmers), and we took these ideas and made test cases for some of them. Sometimes, some of the proposed solutions were actually good enough to be used as the final “fix”, while sometimes proposed ideas were good enough to spark another solution that was eventually used as a final resolution.

Mario:     Oh, and … sometimes we also searched if some other developer had any similar issue with their games … so if they found a solution… No shame in honestly saying someone has bested you at something!

Those interested in checking out Starpoint Gemini Warlord, head over to their website and Steam page!

This interview was conducted in tandem between myself (Jordan Aslett) and Gamer Professional’s Channel Director Jordan Ramée.