Words by David C. Obenour
Whether dealing with realities known or unknown, the vastness of space offers little room for miscalculations. Hopping aboard a galactic mining ship, you’ve sought to make your fortune by finding, mining, and bringing home precious metals. However you aren’t the only ones that share an interest in these resources, so it’s a race against the competing interests – and perhaps lesser known entities, as well – to stake your claim in Planetoid.
Off Shelf: Planetoid is an interesting game in that, depending on how you play it, it can be more of a space exploration game or a science fiction game. First, I was wondering if you could talk about some of your own interest in space – in the more scientific sense?
Jon Mietling: Space… The Final Frontier… [laughs] I love science fiction, but the reality is also so intriguing to me as well. We are doing so many things that we predicted. Authors like Heinlein, Wells, and Orwell predicted so much of the technology we have in almost alarming detail. I don’t know if I would ever go to space myself but I love following what is happening with Space X and the rest of the astounding things great minds will accomplish in the future.
OS: Beyond that, the fascinating thing about space is the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know – and that’s where science fiction comes in! What are some of your favorite stories, theories or elements of science fiction?
JM: Robert Heinlein, H.G. Wells, Orson Scott Card, and Brandon Sanderson to name a few. I have read hundreds of Sci-Fi novels, it was a challenge I took when working on a game long ago that was not published but I continued the exercise because I loved it. There are so many theories, and I think you nailed it by saying the more we understand the less we understand.
Maybe it’s getting more back to the last question but for me, the biggest thing when it comes to exploration whether in the stars, in a distant jungle, or in a conversation at my dinner table is that our minds should be open to understanding more than our limited perspective. Understanding should be a verb. At the moment we claim we have achieved understanding it dissolves. Understanding must be pursued.
OS: How were you able to integrate these early interests into Planetoid? Are there any elements of the game that particularly stand out to you in how they materialized?
JM: I actually had the cover art a year before the game! I was reading Earth Unaware by Orson Scott Card and loved the ship the Lusitania. I was trying to draw more back then and I painted it. Later the idea of a mining game came to me in a design sprint exercise I was doing where I designed a game a day for 30 days. That sprint spawned Planetoid, Palm Island, and on more that I haven’t published yet. I had the idea on the drive into work, added some stuff at lunch and the drive home and had a working prototype that evening and played it with my wife!
OS: How do you think Planetoid would be different set as a mining game here on Earth?
JM: So Planetoid was fairly abstract at the start, it actually felt like Minesweeper. I quickly moved into space mining probably because I loved the space miners idea from books and – spoiler alert – the aliens consuming resources on asteroids by ingesting them was such a different idea it became my solo mode right away.
OS: As a designer, how much of the setting and theme do you see dictating the player’s experience?
JM: Normally they go fairly hand in hand. I feel like the bigger the game for me the more important it is to let the setting lead while trying to keep the mechanics from being too cumbersome. I always want people to feel like they are part of the game setting. This is more difficult with lighter games and makes me admire designers who can do both in an elegant way.
OS: As alluded to before, the rules for Planetoid are really interesting in the many styles of play offered, simple, standard, solo with aliens, and group play with aliens. What do you like about offering this building style of outlined play?
JM: So this was a fairly emergent process for me. This started as a basic mode, very simple and straightforward. I wanted more as a gamer. It would have been ok to market it as a kids game but my kids are growing, why not a game that grows with them? We can play simple and then upgrade with them.
The solo felt like something I wanted even though it wasn’t an obvious avenue from the start. One of my first games was a co-op game which was easy to make solo. My next was mainly a solo game and through these I met the solo community. Through Palm Island I had people reach out to me in unique situations thanking me for the game since their lifestyle was not able to sustain a standard dining room experience. I realized that many gamers are underserved in this area and it was so awesome to be able to be part of their lives in this way. So I wanted to do solo for that part of the community that enjoys playing in that way. Then mixing the solo stuff back into multiplayer felt like a fun twist. Since you have all the components it was only natural!
OS: Could you talk more about your interaction with the solo gaming community?
JM: I love designing solo since from a process perspective it has such a fast feedback loop. Gathering groups and having playtester gather groups is not easy. It is a challenging area though because as we lean into a very personal thing it is hard to tailor the experience for specific tastes.
OS: You designed and illustrated Planetoid. What do you find as the benefits of having artistic and conceptual control over again?
JM: So Planetoid is a simpler game and I wanted a simpler presentation. I think that was the realm I was living in. After working on a game for three years I then made two very quickly. The art was meant to mirror what I was feeling in the game – it was very raw and straightforward. I like having creative control but I have had the chance recently to work with an amazing artist for our upcoming game CoLab and it is also so fun to give artistic direction and work with others.
OS: If you were to work with another illustrator, is there anyone who comes to mind as someone who’s work you’d like to see for Planetoid?
JM: I have been working with Magdalena Proszowska, who does incredible work, on CoLab. I would work with her in a heartbeat on every project in the future. [laughs] I have a game coming up, Palm Galaxy that may cross paths with Planetoid as far as theme and I’m not sure what we will be doing for art direction but I am trying to delegate more work so more of my upcoming projects will progress at a faster pace.
OS: What’s next for you and Portal Dragon?
JM: We successfully funded a Kickstarter campaign earlier this year with two new games in it. CoLab is a more meaty dice worker placement tableau building game that I have been working on with Jonathan Gilmour. We are so excited to bring it to market! The other is an add-on, Palm Laboratory, which benefits from the awesome artwork of CoLab but brings its own challenges in the style of Palm Island while still having its own flare balancing the danger of your lab with your chosen goal for the game as a win/lose condition.