Interview: Castaway Station Is More Than Just a Deckbuilder, It’s a Story-Driven Adventure

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Castaway Station - via Bad Zombie Games

Castaway Station is an innovative 2D Card Battler survival game, featuring an in-depth narrative and freedom for exploration. With over 150 cards available, it allows players to navigate the threats and limited resources of the planet and devise a perfect strategy for survival. It combines elements of roguelikes, RPGs, and survival games, making the overall experience highly rewarding.

With such a unique setting, we could not help but have a quick email interview with Andy Cargile, President at Bad Zombie Games, to gain more insights on the overall development and inspirations behind the Castaway Station. 

Introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your work on Castaway Station.

Andy: Hi! I’m Andy Cargile, head of Bad Zombie Games in Seattle, WA. I worked in UX design for over 30 years in high tech in startups and Microsoft. I spent 8 years at Smart Technologies where I created an internal startup in game-based learning. My team and I shipped 7 full award-winning titles there such as the Monsters vs. Fractions franchise. I was laid off last April and started Bad Zombie Games with a second mortgage so I could give my team a softer landing. We shipped Castaway Station in about 4 months with the game engine we created at Smart (and which they let us use). 

For Castaway Station, I had an amazing team of Developers, Illustrators, a Composer, and an Animator. I played multiple roles as a Game Designer, Producer, Story Writer, UX Designer, and Illustrator. I had help from several folks at Fire Opal Games, a Seattle game design studio I worked with at Smart.

The game starts right away with survival aspects. How did you balance the difficulty of limited cards and permanent death?

Andy: Roguelikes should be hard. We used a legacy mechanic to allow players to keep any currency and item upgrades when they replayed, and this helped them get stronger as they also got more skilled with the xenomorphs they faced. 

Also, we assigned the xenomorphs levels and in the early missions, players faced the easier ones. Mostly.

First Look Castaway Station
Castaway Station – via Bad Zombie Games

With 28 missions and branching paths, how much replayability does Castaway Station offer?

Andy: We started with a lot of variability in missions, mission paths, and xenomorphs in the middle and later missions. But we got feedback from players that the early missions, which were less variable, were too grindy. We took that to heart and in release 1.5, we added significant variability in mission paths, types of creatures encountered, and cards earned. It significantly improved the early game balance and replayability so that players would not need to grind so much to get to their second character.

Another key aspect of replayability involves the 4 characters players can play. They play two together collaboratively once they find the second character. Each of the four characters has different skills, different cards, and a few different weapons. The unique cards for the characters allow them to form some great dynamics in battles. For example, Nichelle has teamwork cards that buff her partner’s strength and Yu has some cards that benefit greatly from higher strength. You can create some very powerful loops between the characters. 

Finally, we have almost 50 xenomorphs. Some are very rare and only appear in one or two encounters (before you get to the final boss). Finding them is always a hopefully pleasant surprise.

With the release of Update 1.50, you have said that the difficulty is reduced for initial missions. What kind of changes were made to make the gameplay more rewarding?

Andy: We tuned the xenomorph health in some cases for the first few (solo) missions by cloning a xenomorph and giving the clone a slightly lower HP. 

We have a fantastic Game Object Database that lets us make most of these changes to our database without requiring coding. That gives us fantastic development speed and radically reduces our testing cycle time.

Castaway Station - via Bad Zombie Games
Castaway Station – via Bad Zombie Games

The challenge Castaway Station brings is very unique to a card-builder game. How does the Legacy System help players feel like they're progressing despite setbacks?

Andy: Thank you! We found that for most players, it’s not fun to keep going through battles with the same available items in previous runs, so we created the Legacy system. As Jay Schneider, my consultant at Fire Opal Games put it, “We want to make death fun.” So in some ways, the Legacy system rewards early death and trial and error in battle tactics. This helps players find their groove in the mid-game when their xenomorph difficulty and variety really ramp up. 

There is also a bestiary – a log of the xenomorphs they find, their abilities, and more. It’s part of the Legacy system as well, so in subsequent runs, you can learn or remember what a particular creation does even if it was in a prior “life.”

What were the major challenges involved during the development of Castaway Station?

Andy: Two big ones were time and money. I had a limited amount of funding from my second mortgage that gave us a run rate for about 4 months or so. It took a lot of teamwork to pull this off in 4 months. Fortunately, my team and I had been working together for several years and we found a lot of ways to “bend time.” 

The biggest challenge was marketing. I had enough money to build the game but very little for marketing. I knew this would be a big challenge, but I went ahead anyway, working with what I had. Most of my marketing effort has been low-cost. It’s been a rough learning experience for me but I am so proud of my team that we created the whole game in the time we had.

Castaway Station - via Bad Zombie Games
Castaway Station – via Bad Zombie Games

What was the inspiration behind Prima Centauri B and its ecosystem?

Andy: I am a huge advocate for story and worldbuilding. One inspiration was thinking about what it would be like if you were on a ship in the 1600s and shipwrecked on an unfamiliar continent. You would have no frame of reference for what was dangerous, what was helpful, etc. Prima Centauri B reflects that kind of new, deadly, beautiful environment. I also looked at some of the strangest, odd landscapes on earth for inspiration. Most of the areas on the planet are derived from real places here on earth.

The second inspiration came from biology. I guess I am using my 2 Bio degrees from Stanford after all now. I wanted different xenomorphs so worked out a rationale for why most had no eyes and had other senses. Most predators have a magnetic sensing organ. They can “see” through things but have no detail or color “vision.” To compensate, they generally have huge mouths with teeth, or worse. The graphic novel and movie character “Venom” was an inspiration here. Nichelle figures this out and constructs some new weapons that take advantage of this weakness. 

Herbivores and omnivores (prey) tend to have a lot of eyes and a stunning visual system for spotting predators. They are big, sturdy, and armored like herbivore dinosaurs were to stay alive. The team only meets one in this first release.

Characters of Castaway Station
Castaway Station – via Bad Zombie Games

Are there plans to expand the character cards, bestiaries, and equipment in future updates?

Andy: There are. I am designing a DLC now that adds a few new characters with some very interesting skills and cards. One is a Drone Master. I am also adding a new area of the map past the mountains, new exotic flora and fauna, new weapons and consumables, more missions and variability, and a “pet”. 

Right now, it’s only me—I’m cheap labor—so it is slow going doing it on the side. I’m looking to secure funding to get the first release going with some marketing and then building the second.

You mentioned blurring the lines between genres. Can you elaborate on how Castaway Station combines elements of roguelikes, RPGs, and survival games?

Andy: I love this question. I find that the deckbuilder design of the game can be a great medium for storytelling. Like most RPGs, characters have their looks, sets of skills, etc. Unlike most RPGs, the characters’ cards in Castaway Station add some depth and personality and let players get to know the characters better. The animated cut scenes of course add to that. 

For example, Yu is a chess master. You’ll see it in the names and functional aspects of some of her cards like Queen’s Gambit or Ruy Lopez (chess moves and openings). Singer is a swordsman. Nichelle loves poker. 10-8 has all sorts of surprising abilities. Yu’s love was the captain of the ship. She went down with her ship leaving Yu alone. Nichelle lost her dad. The characters bond and develop throughout the game as they take on and complete missions, each of which has a purpose in the storyline. 

So far as roguelike and survival games go, I took to heart what it must take to survive in a strange new world after your starship crashes. Players have to find salvageable items from crash spots, drop pods, and containers. Some missions are supply runs where they can find and replenish items. These tend to have a lot of variety in paths and xenomorphs. Yu has to find the others, one by one. As she does, her team builds. Connections are made. Some will almost certainly die before they get to the end (of this first release). 

Finally, among some other innovations in the game, players can create their unique cards for the characters. They can tie into a character’s special skills or build out a set of effects that complement a character. You can create some really interesting teamwork loops in this way – something that doesn’t come with the given card set.

Bestiary from Castaway Station
Castaway Station – via Bad Zombie Games

What advice would you give players to manage their options and create effective combinations during combat?

Andy: First off, play the cards to depletion. The final charge applies a double effect, which can be a game-changer, and you can always find more. Equipment items add character cards to the player’s deck for the specific run, so you have access to cards this way as well. And, you can always recharge the better ones in the Shuttle. Some cards may be worth hanging onto to replenish but a player who has a lot of cards that are mostly depleted in their hand in a tough battle, not wanting to use them, will struggle and often die. 

Create character cards as soon as you have the material to do so. Unlike the other cards, these do not have charges and do not get used up. A clever player could even recreate a favorite card that does have limited uses this way. There is a ton of variety in how you can craft these. 

Always watch for teamwork cards available in character 2. In several cases, starting by playing a character 2 card before character 1 plays their hand can set off a very valuable loop. 

Get to know your equipment. Each equipment item brings character-specific cards to the character’s deck for the mission. These cards have charges too but there is also a different set for each character. Some pieces of equipment are particularly useful for tough xenomorphs. Your drone and hoversled also bring their unique cards to a battle in the story deck – a third deck that is location-based that both players can use. These cards do not deplete.

With the game released for PC and iOS, are there any plans for console versions?

Andy: That’s a great question. It’s tough to balance spending time, effort, and money on porting to a new platform versus doing a new release. I’ve looked into other platforms, and except for Android, our publisher and my analyses show that the ROI isn’t there right now to port to consoles. I’d love to see it on Xbox especially, but it’s not in the “cards” right now.

Castaway Station is a roguelike deckbuilder survival game by Bad Zombie Games. The game was released for PC and iOS on 12 July 2023. 

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