Vince Pavey speaks to Joost van Dongen to find out about his new studio, and why it’s first game Station to Station might be just the ticket for sim fans.
Joost van Dongen is a video game developer that has been active in the games industry for the last 16 years. Even if you don’t recognise his name at a glance, you’ll definitely be familiar with his work. He was one of the driving forces behind cult classics like De Blob, Swords & Soldiers and Awesomenauts.
He set up a new Netherlands-based game studio named Galaxy Grove in 2022, with the intent of creating high quality 3D management and building games. Its first game, Station to Station, is a railway building sim, with a chill vibe and a stunning voxel art style. It was released on Steam earlier this week, and van Dongen has taken some time out of his busy schedule to tell us about it.
Your former studio is probably best known for its work on the MOBA Awesomenauts, but Station to Station is completely different. Was it a conscious decision not to do another MOBA at Galaxy Grove?
I greatly enjoyed my time at Ronimo. The creativity and craziness of making games like Awesomenauts and Swords & Soldiers is amazing. But my own ideas tend to all be in different genres, because I don’t personally play online multiplayer games. My favourite genre is management games and over the years I had written down a large number of ideas for them. I was really enthusiastic about those ideas, but since Ronimo was focused on a different genre altogether, I felt I couldn’t do anything with that. So at some point I left Ronimo to start a new studio, focussed entirely on building management games.
At first Galaxy Grove was just me, making a prototype for Station to Station. Then I found a publisher, Prismatika, who was willing to fund the game. That allowed me to hire a team, and in the past year we’ve grown from just me to 13 people this October. This has greatly changed my role: first I was a solo game creator, then a businessman pitching for funding, and then as I started hiring my role changed more into that of creative director, coach for the people in the team and CEO of the studio. Juggling so many roles means I hardly do any actual development any more these days.
What makes Station to Station stand apart in the business management sim genre from competitors?
The most striking difference is of course the unique voxel style. Responses to that are amazing so far and people really seem to love it. In terms of gameplay, the key thing is that it’s a minimalist train game.
It takes the relaxing vibe of games like Islanders and Dorfromantik, and then adds more structure and goals to that. In Station to Station you can choose to just sit back and relax, but you can also choose to do the optional challenges. It’s also a level based game with a lot of custom places and assets to keep it fresh throughout. A final unique aspect of Station to Station is that it’s entirely free-form. Most minimal management games are grid-based, while our railroads can curve over organic landscapes in any way you like. Overall I think this sets Station to Station apart from other games in the genre quite well.
What are the advantages of using voxel art for the game? (Other than it being really nice to look at – good job!)
Thank you! Many voxel-based games choose voxels because they are an easy way to do landscape manipulation, like the digging in Minecraft. For us however the voxels are purely a visual thing. We love how they evoke a miniature feeling and make everything look cute and unique.
You’re a musician, and previously worked on Cello Fortress and Robo Maestro – did you consider doing another game that was more musical in nature?
Music is always an important part of my games. For Station to Station we built an adaptive music system that makes the music grow as the landscape comes to life. I also allocated a budget so that we could hire instrumentalists to make all melodies in the game played on real instruments, like bassoon, flute, violin and my own cello.
As for making the game about music: I love doing a lot of different things. I’ve even made a cello album called The Ageless Gate, which you can listen to on Spotify. I think a key element with everything I do is that I need to know why I’m doing it. Cello Fortress and Robo Maestro are extremely weird and experimental games.
I knew from the start that they would make very little money and that was okay, because they were my crazy side-things. With Galaxy Grove it’s different because there I don’t just want to make great unique games: I also want to build a sustainable business, with a team and stability and everyone making a decent salary. That’s a bad fit for my crazy music game ideas and a great fit for my management game ideas. So that’s what I went with.
Galaxy Grove is a fairly new studio. What makes Utrecht in the Netherlands a good place to set up a studio?
There’s a really nice gamedev ecosystem here, with lots of studios, several game schools and the Dutch Game Garden, which supports and incubates all of that. Utrecht is also central in the Netherlands, so it’s easy to get to, and it’s a pretty city. One thing I particularly like about the game industry here in the Netherlands and in Utrecht especially is that it’s super open. Studios help each other a lot with knowledge, with advice, with playtesting. If I’m struggling with something, there’s always a door on which I can knock to get a sympathetic ear and some good advice from a fellow professional.
There are only 8 people on your team, which is quite uncommon in 2023. What are the advantages of keeping things small?
I think a key thing when making a game is to make sure that budget and market fit well together. Certain games have the biggest market potential at certain budgets. For example, open world 3D games do best with a big team, big budget and huge scope. Minimalist management games on the other hand currently do very well, but few make enough money to justify a budget of several million euro. So you either need to keep the team small, or not make a minimalist management game.
At Galaxy Grove in the long run we want to also start making bigger, more complex management games. There the expected revenue and scope are higher, so then we will also work with a bigger team.
By the way, this October we’re actually already growing to 13 people, but that’s because we want to do several games in parallel. So yeah, for the time being our games are made by relatively small teams.
Are there any disadvantages? If so, how do you hope to address them?
I think any team size has its pros and cons and any team size has a specific flow. You need to make sure that you structure your team and workflow around that. For example, on a small team I don’t think you should go overboard with Scrum and planning meetings and such. It can all be a lot more informal and efficient if you keep it simple.
With a small team most people need to be generalists. You should avoid having too many hardcore specialists, since there’s just not enough work in any specific detailed specialisation. This does mean you can’t have excellence in every field within the team, so we make sure to hire freelance specialists wherever we lack the expertise ourselves. In this case we hired amazing freelancers to work with us for a shorter part of production: Paul Aubry for music, Sonic Picnic for sound design and Marocha Arredondo for UI art.
Does Galaxy Grove have an office, or are you all working remotely?
We have an office in Utrecht and we work hybrid: three days at the office, two days optionally from home or from the office. We also have a few people who work entirely remotely, but I try to avoid that where possible.
I really like building a studio culture. I think it’s hard to care as much for your colleagues and for the company if you only see them once a year and beyond that are working entirely from home. I know that remote studios will disagree with this, but I personally feel you can build a much stronger bond within the team when you actually meet each other regularly.
When we were fully remote at Ronimo during the pandemic I noticed that meetings were super efficient and productivity was high, but I didn’t get to know the new people at the team any more at all. The random banter during lunch, or when waiting for the others to come into a meeting, got lost online.
Are you also doing your QA in-house?
Yes and no. We don’t have any QA-specialists at Galaxy Grove and our publisher Prismatika hires an external QA company for the bigger QA jobs. But when we need to move quickly, we do testing in-house and just spread it over the members of the team who are not working on something more urgent.
When we want to release a hotfix we don’t want to wait for a QA booking to come through, and we don’t know exactly at which time we’ll need the people. So we just make the build, assign five people internally to test for two hours, and then release the hotfix. This allows for extremely quick cycles, and I’ve gained a lot of experience with organising such tests at Ronimo during our live ops work on Awesomenauts.