Interview with Airstrafe Interactive LLC from the United States

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Michael Duan (Top Left), Nancy Duan (Top Right), Yiming Wang (Bottom Left), Anne Chen (Bottom Middle) and Jordan Grayson (Bottom Right) | NYX Game Awards

Airstrafe Interactive LLC

Airstrafe Interactive is an indie game studio founded in 2019. They value self-expression and creating dynamic games that focus on systems-heavy gameplay. The team of five people (Michael Duan, Nancy Duan, Yiming Wang, Jordan Grayson, and Anne Chen) developed Saleblazers, a game that focuses on systems-heavy, dynamic gameplay.

1Please provide us with a brief bio of yourself and your background.

Nancy Duan: We are a small indie 5-person team composed of Michael Duan, Yiming Wang, Anne Chen, Jordan Grayson, and me.

Michael Duan founded Airstrafe Interactive in 2019 to create systems-heavy, dynamic games that provoke a sense of wonder among players and allow maximum expression. He holds a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Southern California.

Nancy Duan: With my background in finance, I volunteered to help with operations and business administration. I hold a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the University of Southern California.

Yiming Wang has been studying computer science in the United States for 7+ years, specializing in object-oriented programming. He attended the University of Southern California and received his Master's in Game Development. USC provided him with many projects and opportunities that exposed his skill sets to the gaming industry and opened up many ways to connect, which is how he discovered Airstrafe two years ago.

Jordan Grayson studied Game Design at NYU Game Center. He was originally from Southern California. After Jordan finished his studies in New York, he was delighted to return to SoCal to work at Airstrafe on Saleblazers. In his free time, he enjoys cooking, playing board games, and hanging out with his two cats.

Anne Chen is a game developer who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor's degree in computer science/computer graphics in 2021. She enjoys the technical and artistic aspects of games. She worked on a few small games with friends and enjoyed making assets, concept art, and coding for them.

2What led you to become a Game Developer / Marketer?

We were gamers long before we became developers.

When Yiming plays games, he likes to think about how all the mechanics and visual aspects shape the whole game. The rush to make a ball roll in Unity in high school made Yiming realize that making games was his destiny.

Jordan has been fascinated by games since playing them with his father as a child. NYU's program made him realize he could make a career out of creating the kinds of games he loved so much as a kid, and he jumped at the opportunity to do so. As soon as he started working on his first little game, he became hooked on the feelings of freedom and discovery that come with making a game.

Anne became a game developer because she was interested in the diverse applications of computer science in games. She also enjoys incorporating creative and artistic input into her work.

3What is your role in the company, and what traits should a game developer / marketing professional possess to be successful in their role?

Yiming's contributions and areas of expertise as a Senior Software Engineer range from crafting gameplay systems and multiplayer networking to optimization. Yiming believes that a game developer must have skill versatility, adaptability, and agility.

As a game developer, you never know what new problems you will have to solve, so you must act quickly, act accordingly, and act to the best of your knowledge. With the rapid development of new technologies, developers can never stop learning.

Jordan is a Senior Game Designer. His role involves conceptualizing and detailing many of the mechanics and features that breathe life into Saleblazers. Throughout the development process, he has dedicated himself to shaping the narrative and quest structure of the game. The opportunity to create and refine playable areas related to gameplay and quests is a privilege he cherishes, as it allows him to make Saleblazers' world as immersive and satisfying as possible.

Jordan believes that a successful game developer has a love of games at their core. Playing games and learning from them is incredibly valuable, but constantly enjoying games instills a sense of what fun can be, which is essential to creating something fun yourself. We strive to make a game that we love and hope it brings the same joy to our players.

As a Software Engineer, Anne's work involves programming new game features and resolving any issues that may arise. In her opinion, a successful game developer should always keep their eyes on the bigger picture in terms of their project and the game industry. This broad perspective is crucial to our success.

4Tell us more about your studio / company.

Airstrafe Interactive is a studio that seeks to bring self-expression to the forefront of gaming through emergent sandbox interactive experiences. We achieved this with our debut title, Saleblazers.

5What is your own definition of a great game?

A great game attracts, educates, and inspires creativity. Great games allow you to immerse yourself in a world where you can be whoever you want and carve your path. They allow you to connect with others through collaboration, competition, or shared experiences. Above all, great games give you an enjoyable experience.

6Describe the genres of the game(s) your studio / company specializes in, as well as its main characteristics.

Saleblazers is our first title, and we hope it showcases our expertise in survival, open-world adventure, and simulation genres. In Saleblazers, we blended many aspects of our favorite genres and tried to connect them seamlessly into a cohesive and enjoyable game.

We also discussed developing games in the horror genre. As a studio, our core specialty is combining disparate genres in unique and sometimes humorous ways. We find fun in everything we create and adapt the setting and genre to best facilitate it.

7Tell us more about your ideation process.

Our ideation process has changed as Saleblazers mature towards our early release and beyond. Now that Saleblazers is in the hands of players, we get constant feedback from our players about what works, what doesn't work, and what they would like to see improved. Getting player feedback and exploring what specific things we can change or implement to make Saleblazers more enjoyable for everyone is always exciting.

Sometimes, an unlikely change in another area of Saleblazers is the best way to address what seems like pretty direct feedback about multiple different things. This design puzzle is very engaging for us as a studio. Before the release, we were solving a similar puzzle with much less information.

We relied on internal and external testing and drastic changes to the core aspects of the game to find the most fun gameplay loop and create a solid foundation on which to build the rest of the game.

8Congratulations! As the winner of the NYX Game Awards, what does it mean for you and your team to receive this distinction?

It is an honor to be recognized by the judges of the NYX Game Awards. Our studio has worked extremely hard to bring Saleblazers to early access, and we are still working hard to update and improve the game, so this award has made our team feel recognized and appreciated. We created Saleblazers to be a game we enjoy. Seeing others enjoy Saleblazers as much as we do has been an incredible experience.

9How has winning an international award help promote your company and game?

We've worked hard to craft Saleblazers to appeal to different cultures, and we hope to reach a wider audience after winning several NYX Game Awards. A primary focus is to improve our localization support for players in other languages. We hope that the international recognition of winning multiple Grand NYX Game Awards will help us reach more players around the world.

10What are the challenges of developing / marketing your winning entry(ies)?

Developing Saleblazers was a unique challenge. We learned a lot during development, mainly because Saleblazers is our debut title. We focused on finding fun at every stage, which led to the expansion of the project's scope several times over five years.

Pivoting to the most fun aspects of the game sometimes led to tough decisions about how to shape gameplay and the overall experience. However, this approach led us to create the unique experience that is Saleblazers today. When we play Saleblazers now, we enjoy every minute of it, and it's all thanks to the incredible effort we put in while looking for that fun.

After our Early Access launch, we found that marketing is as much a challenge as development itself. Airstrafe Interactive is both the developer and publisher of Saleblazers, so we are marketing ourselves on top of continuing to develop the game towards 1.0.

We considered partnering with some marketing companies and publishers but ultimately decided that we know our game and our community best, so we have been exploring grassroots marketing since launch. However, without the support or name recognition to work alongside a larger entity, we have sometimes struggled to get the word out about Saleblazers.

Fortunately, our players have become strong advocates for our game and have helped us a lot by spreading their love for Saleblazers by mouth. Maintaining our community of players on Discord and Steam forums is not just a priority; it's the heart of our game.

Having our developers respond individually to forum posts, suggestions, and feedback channels takes a lot of time and effort, but it gives us a special connection with our players. Our dedication to our community has helped us ensure that every voice is heard. We consider every suggestion. It has paid off so far, as some of the best updates since launch were only possible thanks to player feedback.

11How has the country, you are based in, helped during your ideation process?

There are more than a few parallels between the gameplay loop players experience at Saleblazers and our studio journey in building a startup in the United States of America. Players start their shop with nothing and build a retail empire across the island using the things they craft and earn. Our location and experience in the United States influenced this story and theme.

We have tried to extrapolate this experience into something broadly accessible and enjoyable. Similarly to how the United States is a melting pot of many cultures, our studio represents many cultures, and we have also done our best to incorporate them into the game. Saleblazers Island is diverse and features many different experiences in our NPC characters, and the activities players can engage in.

12What are the current trends in the game industry that you are most excited about?

The trend that excites us the most in today's gaming industry is the flourishing of new and exciting indie games, especially in the survival genre. We are huge fans of cooperative multiplayer games; getting a flood of unique and truly fun titles in this gaming area recently has been amazing! We are also excited by some of the technological advancements on the horizon. NVIDIA's work with their AI NPCs in ACE is something we look forward to seeing more of.

13What are the top THREE (3) favorite things about the gaming industry?

Our favorite thing about the gaming industry is that it's based on the principles of having and having fun. As an industry, we provide joy and connection through our art, which is something special and of great value to us.

Our second favorite thing about the gaming industry is being able to participate in something that has significantly shaped our lives. We have a lot of nostalgia for games, and it's exciting to work on them now.

Third, the youthfulness of the gaming industry is a treasure trove of exploration and endless possibilities. Each new step feels like an adventure, offering us the freedom to discover and innovate, a unique privilege in our industry.

14What resources would you recommend to someone who is searching to improve their game designs and development ideas / skills?

Someone looking to improve their design skills and ideas should continue to play games and think about them as they play. It can be a fun and exciting exercise to imagine the reasoning behind why a particular mechanic works the way it does.

They can also learn from the history of the games they enjoy. Try to find dev logs or blog posts from developers detailing their ideation process and technical challenges they overcame while developing a title, or even talk to someone who worked on that game to hear from them. We learned a lot from talking to other developers who faced similar challenges during development.

15Where do you see the evolution of the gaming industry in the next 5-10 years?

Ten years from now, avid gamers will continue to be avid gamers and will continue to introduce their favorite games to the next generation. As time goes on, more and more age groups will play games and will have childhood memories of games. This cross-generational support will continue to grow and is especially exciting as games reach a wider audience, giving their fans a shared experience to connect with.

16Who inspired you in your life, and why?

Our inspiration comes from many sources.

Rarely does a particular person inspire Yiming. His inspiration usually comes from things, events, or moments when he reads or sees something special. If you imagine what a game developer thinks every time he encounters exciting finds, it would be like, "Hey, this can make an interesting mechanic or game!"

Many people have inspired different aspects of Jordan's life. His little brother is an avid gamer, and they often bond over games they enjoy. Jordan's brother's love of games inspires him every time he works on a game to make it as fun as possible so that his brother will enjoy it and obsess over it.

Anne is inspired by her classmates and colleagues who are passionate about their work. She learned from them how to find meaning in life through work and contribute to society.

17What is your key to success? Any parting words of wisdom?

We feel that staying persistent, adaptable, and bold has been critical to our journey towards a successful game. There will always be challenges to overcome, but knowing you have something worth sharing with the world and focusing on getting it to a place where people can enjoy it is the one thing you can focus on to persevere.

Also, being adaptable about what a game is and how you make it is vital to find fun and make sure it gets made. Finally, being bold with your ideas and standing by who you are as a developer ensures that your voice comes through in your art.

18Do you have anything else, which we haven’t covered, that you would like to include in this interview?

If you're looking for a unique survival game that offers exciting combat, quests, exploration, and deep simulation gameplay, check out Saleblazers if you haven't already. We have passionately cultivated a game world that we truly enjoy playing in and plan to keep updating and improving it with our players' feedback. We hope you like it!

Winning Entry

Saleblazers | 2024

Saleblazers | NYX Game Awards
Embark on an epic adventure across the lands as a humble shopkeeper! Build your shop exactly the way you want it, sell goods from your travels, and defend your base from nightly horrors in this open world survival RPG for 1-8 players …
(Read more at NYX Game Awards)

Airstrafe Interactive LLC

Airstrafe Interactive is an indie game studio founded in 2019. They value self-expression and creating dynamic games that focus on systems-heavy gameplay. The team of five people (Michael Duan, Nancy Duan, Yiming Wang, Jordan Grayson, and Anne Chen) developed Saleblazers, a game that focuses on systems-heavy, dynamic gameplay.

Read more about this interview with Alexandre Huger from France, the Gold Winner of the 2024 NYX Game Awards.