Interview with Philip Buchanan – Creator of 39 Days to Mars

It’s interview time again! Michael had an e-sit down with Philip Buchanan, the mastermind behind indie title, 39 Days to Mars.

Michael: How did you get from little old New Zealand to Square Enix and now working as an independent developer?
Philip: I actually took a fairly round-about route, going from a Computer Engineering degree at Canterbury University to a PhD in image processing – about half of which I studied with a computer graphics research group at Lund University in Sweden. It was through this that I ended up in touch with Eidos Montréal (who were working on Deus Ex Mankind Divided) and through that, their sister company Square Enix Montréal. After four years of juggling full time development at Square Enix with my spare-time project of 39 Days to Mars, I realised that if I ever wanted to finish it I’d have to work on it full time – which I did.Michael: Where did the idea for 39 Days to Mars come from? What were your main inspirations?
Philip: 39 Days to Mars started life as a small web game after I read an article in a science magazine about the VASIMR spaceship engine (which could “take humans to mars in 39 days”). It seemed like a great idea for a game, and so I started working on it.

Both the characters and the setting were inspired by my love of old sci-fi and adventure books. I’m an avid reader, and everything from classic books to more obscure childhood favourites – Jules Verne, Asimov, Norman Hunter – gave the background for the two intrepid but slightly incompetent characters. Growing up in New Zealand, I’m sure some of the dry NZ humour has slipped into their personalities as well.

The setting and art style came from a mix of engineering drawings & architectural plans from the time and the crazy inventions of illustrators such as W. Heath Robinson and Quentin Blake.Michael: What has been the hardest part in creating this game as an independent developer?
In terms of development, what is the biggest difference between working for a company as large as Square, and now as an independent dev?
Philip: The main challenge working alone is balancing the work across all parts of the game. Some days I would be working on low-level technical details, others I’d spend drawing the artwork, writing the dialogue, or designing the UI. On top of this is the time spent focusing on marketing and PR, talking to platform holders and negotiating publishing deals. It’s hard to change focus so significantly, and I have to be careful to spend my time where it’s most needed.

Michael: The indie games market is flooded with games, how have you tackled this to achieve a point of difference?
Philip: The game is designed from the ground up to support two players. There is a single-player mode where you can play it solo, but it really shines when you play it with a friend or your partner. I feel that there aren’t enough long-form multiplayer games out there, and hopefully 39 Days to Mars can fill this gap.

Some NZ questions:

Michael: What do you miss most about NZ?
Philip: There’s a lot I miss about New Zealand! The people and our relaxed approach to life is something I feel we overlook and is underrated. The easy and open access to our amazing nature, and the system of DOC tramping huts and tracks is unlike anything else I’ve seen. Being an avid camper and tramper, it’s something I really miss. And having family and friends back in New Zealand is tough, because it’s such a long trip to make regularly to see everyone.

Michael: If you could bring one iconic Kiwiana item to you right now, what would it be?
Philip: Vegemite. I take some back with me every time I visit NZ, but I just finished my last jar!

Michael: Are you ever going to come back?

Philip: Yes, I hope so!

A huge thanks to Philip for taking the time to answer our questions! If you haven’t already, go and purchase his game here. Follow him on Twitter @Philipbuchanan

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