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Interview: Dan Tabar (Cortex Command)
MAY 27, 2008
An interview with Dan Tabar, the developer of Cortex Command. Data Realms' debut release has been called awesome, astounding, heaps of fun, and even proclaimed as the greatest physics game ever.
Hi Dan, how about we begin with a small introduction?
Howdy, I'm Dan "Data" Tabar. I'm the 'Development Director' at Data Realms, which is the fancy title meaning I simply run the game dev here.
I was born and grew up in Sweden, but now live and work in Phoenix, AZ. Mostly work from home, but a few days out of the week I work out of the offices of the good friends and fellow indie developers Flashbang Studios. Just to get out of the house and be a little social.. also helps boost my productivity to get into the office environment from time to time.
Have you released anything else in the past, besides Cortex Command? Anything that we can download?
Nope! I've worked professionally on several software projects before though, from a lab at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, to stints at Rainbow Studios and 2XL Games here in Phoenix.
Oh.. the spacecraft docking simulation app I worked on at NASA might still be on the lab's site... but it's not really worth checking out.
How did the name Cortex Command come about?
I've had this vision, or extrapolation for a long time, about what's going to happen to us and technology in the future. And it just seems like everything points to that as computer simulations and integration with our brains improve, a lot of people are going to eventually be spending more time in simulated environments than in real life.
I mean, look at MMO addictions already. A lot of people choose to spend more time and effort in these still crude simulations, through still crude human-machine interfaces, than in their real lives. I bet when both the games and the interfaces (monitors, mice, keyboards) improve radically, some will actually opt to amputate their entire bodies, in order to live their lives entirely in simulated worlds.
So, out of this crazy sci-fi premise, comes the story of Cortex Command, where a lot of people have done just this, and it's enabled them to easily travel through space, since they don't need elaborate life support systems to maintain their obsolete natural bodies, but only their brains.
Also, if you can remote control and remote sense through disposable bodies, wouldn't you make sure your brain was as physically safe as possible? Hence the bunkers prevalent in the game.
A lot of the story and details we have planned are only hinted at currently, so there's going to be a lot more to reveal in the campaign.
How long has the game been in development?
Cortex Command has been a kind of super long-going project for me. Like seven years and counting. I started working on the engine in high school in Sweden with the intention of learning 'real' game development, and it's been put on the backburner for long periods several times while I was working different full-time jobs or trying to do college here in the US.
Early on, though, I vowed to really, actually, FINISH the project and make a full game out of it. That commitment to myself has pulled the project out of the back burner time and again.
Is it officially the longest indie game in development then? Since Cave Story took Pixel five years to make.
Well, I wouldn't be surprised if he (Pixel) has put more actual man hours into CS than I have into CC so far, considering those long gaps in active development for me...
I'm quite sure that fans are dying to know the answer to this question. When will Cortex Command be completed?
I'm really interested to know that myself!
About mid-2006, I decided to give independence a shot and quit my last job in the 'big' games industry to really pursue and make a living off Data Realms and Cortex Command. So I've been working 'full time' on it since.
While I don't expect it to take another 7 years to complete the damn thing, it's certainly got another year of development to go, considering all the stuff we've got planned for it.
When I say 'we', I mean me and Arne Niklas Jansson, the other guy I've been collaborating with heavily on the project for the last four years. He's done almost all the art, contributed much of the design, and even programmed some of the art pipeline tools.
Can you mention briefly some of the big features that we can expect in the coming build releases?
Regarding new features, I've got a series going now on our Dev Log with just that, each post talking about a new completed item for the next build.
The biggest thing I'm really excited about right now is the integration of Lua scripting into the engine. With the help of an excellent helper library called LuaBind, I've managed to expose an incredible amount of control of the engine to script writers. Modders will be able to literally make entire new games with the engine (through scripting) if they wanted to.
The real thing that's left to do in the game is the whole campaign mode, which will have a sort of turn-based, strategic meta-game going on top of it, with a series of story missions loosely and not entirely linearly linked together.
But there will also be a lot of dynamically generated missions mixed in, like 'establish a mining base here', or 'defend your base from sudden attack here!" If you fail to protect your bases, you will lose the regular income you gain from them each round.
How has the response for Cortex Command been so far?
The response to the game has grown slowly through word of mouth over the years. I made a point of having a forum and releasing builds very very early on.
What has also helped spread the word is that I've submitted the game to IGF for... I think 5 years in a row now, which has gotten our website link onto the entries list page there each year. We haven't made it into the finals yet, but that linking alone has driven a lot of our traffic and slowly built our fanbase. The compounded exposure we've gotten over the years absolutely built our fanbase, which are now paying customers.
Also, the IGF deadline each year was a great motivator for me to get my ass in gear and hit some milestones. If it wasn't for IGF, the game would not be in a state that we could be selling it at this point.
Are you entering any other competitions then?
Yeah! This year there's at least five big indie-specific game competitions: IGF, PAX10, Indie Game Showcase, IndieCade, Slamdance. Actually three of them are new for this year. I just have the deadlines in my calendar, with a two-week alarm set.
It's really great and worth it to enter all of them for the same reasons mentioned for IGF. Well, the difference is that imposed deadline... a background din of 'please finish the game' from the fans isn't as effective as a real deadline to shoot for.
Since Cortex Command is only for Windows, any plans on getting it on other platforms?
Actually, yes. We have found someone reliable and competent to do the Mac port, and he'll start working on it in a week or two. He should be able to do the port in a couple of weeks, no problem. I'm going to announce details about that later.
How about consoles?
Not yet; we're focusing on finishing the game first. The Mac port is such low-hanging fruit that we're doing it early. Any other ports will probably come later when the game is more complete.
What's the biggest challenge you've faced during the seven years you've spent on developing Cortex Command?
Mostly with personal discipline to sit down and actually do real work during the day, when there's a lot of distracting errands to run, and other tasks to get done, or just lazily surfing the web. The classic problems of working from home, basically.
Do you still play your own game after seven years of working on it? (besides specifically for the purpose of testing)
On the rare occasion, we have a few guys over to do the splitscreen games. And it's always a pleasant surprise for me how much I enjoy and rediscover the game again.
Played any good indie games lately?
Yeah, been enjoying that Cactus Arcade collection. And Noitu Love 2, of course.
Oh, and Voxelstein 3D recently blew me away... there's something really appealing about being able to manipulate every single one of the smallest building blocks of the simulation: Pixels in CC vs. Voxels in V3D.
Any advice for budding game developers?
Yep: Just set up a modest goal/project and learn what you need to learn to finish it. Keep doing that, always shooting higher. Learn by doing.
Anything you'd like to say to all of the Cortex Command fans out there?
Stay tuned, you haven't seen anything yet!
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