Indie Developer Showcase, Day One: Captain Forever

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Welcome to Day One of The Escapist‘s Indie Developer Showcase, a five-day celebration of the individuals and small teams who are making a big impact on the games industry. Each day we’ll feature a new developer and new games to play, so keep checking back throughout the week for more indie goodness! To see the full list of developers, click here.

You may have heard of Jarrad Woods, aka Farbs, before. He gained some notoriety last summer as the guy who left his position at 2K Australia by making a game that happily told his superiors “I Quit!” Up to that point, he had been designing games in his spare time, including the acclaimed classic game mashup ROM CHECK FAIL, but right around his 30th birthday he decided to go indie full time. That clever resignation introduced the world to Farbs, but it wasn’t the last we would hear from him.

Captain Forever, released last fall, was praised by players and critics alike for its addictive gameplay of blowing up rival spaceships and assimilating their wreckage to make an even more powerful craft. In fact, it took home the prize for Best Game at GDC China’s Independent Games Festival, which Farbs recently attended to pick up his brick of yuan. The award may have been a validation of his decision to go indie, but Farbs is not resting on his laurels. He’s already released a sequel called Captain Successor and is busy working on a third game in the series. The Escapist spoke with him about his journey so far as an indie developer.



The Escapist: Tell us a little bit about yourself. You’re based in Australia, right? What’s a day in the life like?

Jarrad Woods: Well … I’m Farbs. I have a slightly unhealthy obsession with videogames. When the games I developed in my day job strayed too far from my tastes, I quit to make my own stuff from home. This decision coincided with my 30th birthday, and I suspect this coincidence was no, uh, coincidence. A normal day for me is now: Wake up at the same time as my partner (who has a regular job), snooze until guilt sets in (usually about 20 minutes), slip on bath robe and walk across the corridor to my office. At various times across the day I’ll eat, bathe, reply to email and work on the next episode of Captain Forever. When my partner gets home I head downstairs and check email on my laptop while pretending to watch TV. Living in Australia doesn’t have much to do with it – I could live in a submarine and my day to day life would be the same.

TE: You got a lot of press for your resignation-as-game, A Message for 2K Australia. What was the impetus for the game? Did you expect it to get the kind of attention it did?

JW: A Message for 2K Australia happened because both sides of my conscience agreed with each other. From my right shoulder I heard “Make something nice to announce your resignation.” Then from the my left: “Put it on the internet. Don’t ask questions.” I thought a few people might get a kick out of it, but I was quite unprepared for the response, especially from mainstream media. If you go indie, you need publicity photos. You don’t want this printed in the national papers.

TE: Captain Forever pre-launched in September, and Captain Successor launched in November. How fast do you anticipate being able to design new sequels? Are you working to much of a schedule?

JW: Since I don’t have a publisher, I have no external deadlines, so like Blizzard or Valve I can say my games will be done when they’re done. Unlike Blizzard or Valve, I’m just one guy sitting alone in his house earning roughly minimum wage, so I guess the business plan isn’t perfect. I aim to finish a new episode every few months, though they all take different amounts of time. My medium-term goal is to finish two more episodes, then look back on the series and determine whether I can afford to keep it as my primary project.

TE: You’ve set up a sort of “subscription” model with your work where paid users automatically get access to sequels. How has the response been so far?

JW: Well, the game actually has fans, so I guess that’s a good start. I think the concept won’t be properly tested until I release more episodes. On the one hand, I think most supporters aren’t honestly expecting future episodes, so they’ll happily receive them as free games. On the other hand, I think some supporters will have developed expectations about future releases, and since these expectations will all be different they can’t all be met. Hopefully I won’t upset too many people.

TE: What’s the biggest ship you’ve built in Captain Forever?

JW: The biggest ship I’ve built would be about one-quarter the size of some of the behemoths the players are constructing. Captain Forever takes about 15 minutes to complete, at which point you’re left in the endgame where you can zoom around in your ultra-powerful ship fighting enemies for no particular reason. This is when I stop playing, because I’ve won and there’s nothing left to do. Surprisingly not everyone plays like that. Some players spend literally hours with this part, slowly growing and growing and growing their ships to unbelievable proportions.

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TE: Captain Forever won GDC China’s IGF award for Best Game. What did the award mean to you?

JW: It meant validation and a brick of cash! Seriously, though, IGF China gave me a lot of confidence in what I was doing. Going full-time indie was always an experiment, and this was my first sign that it might be a success.

China was nuts. I had a week’s notification, so I wasn’t at all prepared. I had no guidebooks or maps, so I sought navigational help by miming modes of transportation and drawing pictures of landmarks. Weirdest of all was seeing the GDC branding so far from its usual home in the Moscone center.

TE: ROM CHECK FAIL reminds me of music from bands like Girl Talk in that it’s fun just to recognize where the elements came from. Was the mash-up genre an inspiration for the game?

JW: Sort of, but only in so far as I lump mash-ups and remixes and sampling and cover songs together in my head as “cool music credited to people who didn’t do all the work.” I’m both time-poor and lazy, so this concept appeals to me. I liked the idea of creating something new by recombining existing media, and I figured there was enough videogame content to make this happen. The problem was in designing an appropriate structure. My initial idea was to have a C64 emulator run multiple games, frequently saving the entire machine state and swapping to another game in progress. Unfortunately, this meant the games wouldn’t relate to each other, so although you’d play all these cool game fragments, they wouldn’t form any kind of coherent whole.

This led to my second idea, which was to create a game made up of several game archetypes. You’d play a simple Zelda clone with monsters, swords, trees, etc., then suddenly the game would switch to a scrolling shooter with spaceships and asteroids. When TIGSource ran the Video Game Name Generator contest, I spent some time with the Video Game Name Generator, watching it create game ideas by matching different components of the title. This gave me the idea to make a “Video Game Generator” by swapping and matching different game components, and this idea became ROM CHECK FAIL.

TE: How does the experience of indie development compare to your time in the studio system? What have you learned in the last year?

JW: Indie development has been very different. When you look past the superficial differences (nobody to talk to, nobody to play games with, nobody to catch me slacking off), it’s all about direction and duties.

It’s both exciting and overwhelming setting my own work direction. I don’t have a publisher or any external deadlines, so I can release whatever I want whenever it’s ready. The hard part is deciding what and when these things should be. I do have some financial obligations, so I have to ensure my work appeals to at least a few people. I can’t just pull a brilliant concept out of the air, so I spent hours listing all my unimplemented ideas and deliberating over which to work on first. I’ll never know if Captain Forever was the right choice, but I figured any decision was better than no decision at all.

My duties are obviously very different, but not in the way I expected. I thought I’d spend all my time on business administration. Wrong! Let’s look at today for example. Today’s tasks are: two media interviews (including this one), write abstract for presentation at a museum, write abstract for presentation at GDC and arrange promotional music for someone else’s side project. I enjoy these things, and I doubt my business would survive without them, but it’s weird to work whole days without any actual game development.

TE: Do you have any other projects you’re working on right now besides Captain Successor?

JW: Oh hell yes! For years I’ve made stupid, fun projects outside work hours, and I couldn’t stay sane without them. My current side project is my third attempt to build a system for collaborative game-world development. My first attempt (Little Shit Planet – not a dig at Media Molecule) failed when I got caught up in making my own contributions, and the second (Ticky Tacky) failed because publishing to the game-world was utterly, infeasibly difficult. I’m not yet ready to discuss this new attempt, but I think this time I’ve cracked it. Maybe. I think.

I’m also working on the third Captain Forever episode, Captain Impostor, and a number of prototypes for the episode that follows. Captain Impostor demonstrates that Captain Forever is not a linear series, and I think it might surprise a few people … there’s a huge design space around this game, and I’m having a blast exploring it.

Tune in tomorrow, when we speak with Terry Cavanagh, the creator of the mind-bending 8-bit platformer VVVVVV.

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