lovers4Toronto-based Asteroid Base’s Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is the type of game that’s difficult to describe and also rare, even when it comes to independently developed video games.

This is because Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is all about co-op, although if you’re a solo player (like me) you’ll have the option to choose a surprisingly intelligent pet to help you on your journey. The game involves a mix of intense teamwork, managing power-ups and rescuing kidnapped space bunnies from their thorny, metallic prisons.

We sat down with Asteroid Base’s artist and game designer, Matt Hammill, and asked him a few questions about his studios’ recently released title.

Question: I guess the first thing I’d like to ask is why did the game end up getting delayed for so long? If I’m not mistaken, the original release date was set for some point in 2013, right?

Matt Hammill: That’s right. And boy were we wrong! A big reason we didn’t come close to hitting that deadline was that the final game we made is much, much larger in scope than what we originally had in mind. We built the prototype at a game jam, and our biggest plans for it at the time were that we would release it free as a brief single-level arcade game, and treat the project as a learning experience.

It was only when started getting amazing feedback from other people that we realized the concept had more potential, and we decided to flesh it out into a full-size game.

The other main reason for the delay is that this has been our first game as a studio, and for two-thirds of us, it’s our first game ever. Two years ago we basically had no idea what it takes to make a complete game. We were kind of using our weekend game jam prototype as a baseline for how quickly we could make progress.

But as soon as we started working on a full-size game, with lots of level content, bosses, upgrades, skill progression, UI, etc., we quickly learned why other devs talk about project lifecycles as a “U” with high energy, fast progress at the start and the end, but a long, slow slog in the middle.

Question: What inspired you to develop the game’s co-op mechanic? Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime’s co-op mode is some of the most fun I’ve had with a video game in years.

Matt Hammill: That’s awesome to hear! All of us have really fond memories of growing up with couch co-op games, from Battletoads and Gunstar Heroes when we were kids, to ObsCure in the PS2 era, and even later when we would drag our Xbox 360s to each other’s apartments to play local games of Left 4 Dead.

But what really pushed us to do co-op at that initial game jam was the work of some of our friends in Toronto, like Damian Sommer’s A Friendship in 4 Colours and Spooky Squid’s Cephalopods Co-op Cottage Defense. These were great little jam-sized games that we could play with our friends from outside the game dev scene. It was a social experience, and we wanted to tap into that too.

Question: Was implementing an AI partner part of the development plan all along (I tend to play the game solo and while it’s a lonely experience, my AI companion seems pretty damn intelligent in your game). Also, do you have any plans to expand how solo players can play the game?

Matt Hammill: Once we decided that we wanted to go commercial with the project, we knew we had to implement a 1-player mode. Part of the reason was because we didn’t have the budget to do online multiplayer, so this would at least make the game playable for folks who don’t have a friend beside them.

The second reason for 1P mode was that we as devs needed a way to playtest levels on our own as we were making them. All throughout development, we were constantly tweaking and adjusting the space-pet’s behaviour as we would discover new edge cases where the AI would mess up.

The reason for presenting the AI companion as a pet rather than another human character was because we knew that it would feel different than real co-op. In 1P mode, you’re the boss–you don’t need to worry about conflict with a partner, but on the other hand you need to keep an eye on what your pet is doing, and give orders to ensure they’re focusing on the most important task. Casting the AI partner as a pet dog or cat just felt natural.

As to your other question – no, at present we don’t have any plans for additional 1P modes.

How has Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime evolved over the course of its development? The game seems widely different from what was shown off at IGF years ago, particularly when it comes to power-ups.

Andrew Traviss: Matt Hammill: Yup, the game has evolved a lot over the years, but at the same time it’s still very true to the original game jam prototype. Even from early on we had a pretty polished (albeit razor thin) vertical slice, which probably contributed to people thinking that we were closer to completion than we were.

Powerups are one area where there has been a lot of iteration, though. When we first showed the game at IGF, powerups would give you a predetermined upgrade (e.g. more guns) for a limited time, and there was no player choice involved.

Later, we changed the upgrade system so that powerups take the form of gems, and we leave it to the player to decide where to place each gem. For example, a Beam Gem will have a very different effect on the shield than on a turret. Suddenly, players started having conversations about which parts of their ship to upgrade – it had become part of the co-op gameplay.

And to take that further and give room for even more player decisions, the final version of the powerup system lets you combine two different gems in each station for different effects, opening up a lot of room for experimentation and player discussion. (Credit where credit is due: we’re totally stealing from Gunstar Heroes’ terrific upgrade system.)

Question: Was there any specific portion of the game you felt was extremely important to get right? Continuing in that train of thought, what was the most difficult part of the development process?

Matt Hammill: Since the concept of the game has a lot of built-in complexity (manning all your ship’s battlestations) it was extremely important to make the core interactions and controls super easy to understand, so that gamers and non-gamers could team up together and be on somewhat even footing.

We wanted the challenge to come from complex situations, not complex inputs. We spent a lot of time iterating on the controls to keep the whole game playable with a directional stick and two face buttons (jump and shoot), so that anyone who’s ever played a platformer could play Lovers. We also did a lot of testing on our tutorial level and our button prompts in order to make everything as quick and clear as possible, without leaving anyone behind.

The most difficult part of the whole process was probably finalizing the difficulty curve. It took us a long time to realize that our own thoughts about difficulty were totally irrelevant, since we were clocking hundreds and hundreds of hours on the game.

In the end we had lots of differently-skilled couples playtest the game, and iterated a lot on the difficulty, and even so, the overall response is that the game definitely falls on the tough side. Difficulty balancing is difficult! We also added a Casual difficulty setting, too – hopefully that helps some players.

Question: How did you settle on working with Microsoft rather than Sony for the console version of the game?

Matt Hammill: It’s certainly nothing against Sony, they’re awesome folks too! But from the first day we decided to target a console release, we knew that going through certification on two platforms at once was out of our reach.

We submitted our application to the ID@Xbox on the first day it opened, and the team there has been really communicative and helpful the whole time. With simultaneous launch out of the question, we knew we had to choose one, and in the end we chose Xbox.

Question: Are there any plans to bring Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime to other platforms in the future?

Matt Hammill:: Nothing to announce at the moment, sorry!

Lovers is a Dangerous SpaceTime is available for $14.99 on PC, OSX, Linux and Xbox One.