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RPG Codex Interview: Blackspace, Sci-Fi Physics-Based RTS

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RPG Codex Interview: Blackspace, Sci-Fi Physics-Based RTS

Interview - posted by Crooked Bee on Sat 13 October 2012, 10:23:42

Tags: Blackspace; Kickstarter; PixelFoundry

Occasionally we at the RPG Codex offer you interviews about non-RPGs that we believe may be of interest to you. This is one such case. Blackspace: Plan. Dig. Defend. Survive's concept is that of a hard sci-fi RTS with a focus on mining, defense, customization, and realism. Its key features are "a destructible spherical play surface, direct control of the environment and extensive use of physics to make the experience more organic and non-formulaic." There is also an emphasis on upgrading and modifying your ship and operations to suit your play style. The three-man team behind the game, PixelFoundry, were previously involved with EA Sports, but moved on to found their own indie studio in the hope of turning their passion for innovative hard sci-fi video games into reality.

Blackspace is currently running a Kickstarter campaign, but to be honest things aren't looking too good, with under a half of the $350,000 goal raised to date and only a few days left to go. We have sent RPG Codex user skuphundaku to talk to the devs about what Blackspace has in store for us when and if it hopefully releases.

Let me begin with the question that is, I believe, on many people's mind: what motivated your move from developing sports games for Electronic Arts to starting a crowdfunding campaign for a hard sci-fi indie game?

We have always been sci-fi fans. EA Sports was a great experience and it was enjoyable working there but we had some pent up creativity that needed exploring. Getting to have control over more parts of the game is also very attractive. I think the motivation for us comes from the same place that motivates anyone to go out and try something risky, its an adventure into the unknown and a chance to make something different, big, or new. You may come back with some cuts and bruises, but worst case, you’ll have some great stories, best case you find something really cool.​

How and why did you settle on a realistic/hard sci-fi game, given that nowadays many tend to shun hard sci-fi in favor of fantasy or the kind of soft sci-fi that is essentially "fantasy in space"? Were you concerned about the fact that other hard sci-fi Kickstarter projects, such as Ground Branch and TorchShips, failed to reach their funding goals?

None of us have been much for ‘fantasy’ style games, though I can't say we only base things on reality either. Visually we like to lean toward realism. We base our game and its mechanics on realistic concepts, but we are not slavish to the limitations of reality. We are talking about the future and exploration of space. There are surely things out there that will confound us and challenge what we think we know about everything from physics to math. From a game play perspective we choose aspects of reality that are suited for enjoyable gameplay. There is a tedium to full realism that we want to avoid, not only because its hard to represent in a compelling way, but because we don’t expect our players to be astrophysicists. I think the key is to carefully choose the things that add to the entertainment value of the game.

As far as whether or not we were concerned about reaching our funding goal due to our choices, I’d say 'hell yeah'. Though no matter how it turns out, we wouldn’t have changed anything foundationally with the game to suit a perceived preference. The whole reason we broke off from EA was to make the games we wanted to make. Obviously we think this game will have wide range appeal if we can get past some of the preconceived notions about ‘games like this’.​

What inspires the game's concept? Personally, I'd say the videos you've released give me a Battle Zone vibe, and the defense against the enemy hordes reminds me of Harvest: Massive Encounter. Also the spherical play surface recently made an appearance in the successful Planetary Annihilation Kickstarter campaign (and has been toyed with in various game development communities around the web for some years). Am I correct in my impressions? What other sources of inspiration have you had for Blackspace?

We were avid Total Annihilation players and the one aspect we loved the most is how the terrain and physics would sometimes determine the outcome of whether or not a projectile would successfully hit its mark, or sometimes a shot aircraft could crash land onto a structure damaging it in the process. That said, when we started to think about the gameplay design aspect of Blackspace, we did not want to be influenced by other games upfront. It was only after we figured out what we wanted on a high-level design that we then started to notice some similarities with our design vs. other games like Battle Zone, so we made sure that we are not re-inventing the wheel if we don’t have to. As for the spherical play surface, we have been working on this game for quite sometime now, and even though a number of games have used a similar approach, I don’t think I have seen any that have implemented a spherical play surface with full physics interaction. Games like Spore, Populous and the likes have used a fairly rigid set of rules when interacting with the environment.​


Leaving aside the impressive visuals and physics, have you already decided on the gameplay mechanics or are you still working on that?

When it comes down the second-to-second game play mechanics (lander flight), we believe we have nailed down the majority of them. That said, there are still various aspects to fill in and we also want to make sure that the mechanics we have in place will work nicely with different set of varying conditions such as different gravitational constants or different lander upgrades changing the engine thrust power. Menu interaction is a piece that still is under heavy construction. There is a lot going on in this game and we want to make it all as quickly and easily accessible as it can be during gameplay.​

One of the game's features is the Lander, the ship you customize to your play style. Is there going to be a first person option (Battle Zone-like) and/or a strategic viewpoint option (Total Annihilation/Supreme Commander/Planetary Annihilation-like) for controlling the Lander?

First person control of the Lander has been something we’ve been thinking about from time to time. The peripheral spatial awareness of the current third-person view of the lander helps when the user is flying around as well as using certain aspects like tethering something underneath the lander. There may be an option for first person perspective, it is still something were working out. As for strategic views, we will likely have overviews / map views where you can clearly see what is happening, but any interaction with the play surface is done from the Lander perspective. This is one aspect that differentiates us from classic RTS games. Its YOU, you are there doing things and making things happen, not your mouse.​

Is the gameplay going to be restricted to one asteroid at a time, or is Blackspace going to have scenarios that allow seamless and realistic gravity-influenced maneuvers and combat across multiple asteroids?

The Lander is not meant to be an outer space transport, but rather a sub-orbital transport vehicle. If you want to travel to other asteroids, you will need to dock with the main cargo ship and travel to another asteroid that way. We will have events (as seen in our gameplay trailer) where asteroids will collide into your playing field asteroid, which will probably be level ending events (in the event that you cannot destroy the incoming asteroid before it impacts the surface). Additionally there may be orbiting nearby asteroids which are very small that can be accessed by the lander but these will have no significant gravity. They may however offer a strategic advantage if utilized properly.​


In your second video you mention that units which survive combat level up. How much customization will the leveling-up mechanics allow? Are we talking RPG-like customization or rather TA/SupCom-style unit veterancy? Do the RPG fans have anything to be excited about on this front?

I think the RPG fans will most love the customization on the Lander itself, armor, weapons, tools, communications, sensors, engines, will all be customizable and something that each player will purchase to suit their preferences. We have not yet settled on the extensibility of the building customization. There are some game designs that have yet to be tested before we can nail down how much worth we want to assign to the buildings individually. I would say there is a potential for deeper customization but were still under pretty heavy construction in this area.​

Can you talk a bit about how research, money and bases work, and how realistic weapons in Blackspace are going to be?

The player earns money by completing contracts filling cargo holds with specific resources, and any space left over in the cargo hold you can fill up with high worth elements and earn even more profit. You then get to spend the money on purchasing upgrades or researching new tech to unlock weapons, upgrades, buildings, etc. Some technology you can find buried under the surface of some key asteroids. The story of the game will explain why there is tech buried in regolith, but these will open up some pretty cool technology trees and offer some extra upgrades.

As far as weapon realism is concerned, we like to base our tech in reality but we don’t like to be restricted by it. Much of the effects of real scientific discovery can be so strange that before its discovery, it would be thought to be absurd, see ‘quantum locking’. When we are talking about the future and space, the possibilities are endless. I think as long as you start with something realistic you can extrapolate forward a bit and come up with some really cool and plausible solutions for weapons and technology.​

Will asteroids be procedurally generated or custom-designed? Should we regard Blackspace as some kind of next-gen realistic Dwarf Fortress in space?

We are considering the possibility of the procedural generation of asteroids, but it is not currently our focus. Our current goal is to create hand crafted levels and asteroids that are visually stunning and meticulously tuned.​


Related to that, is there going to be a single player campaign, a single player persistent world, or does the initial goal entail only a skirmish/survival mode that you plan on building on top of later? How sandbox or linear do you want the campaign to be?

Of course our initial release would change a bit if we hit our stretch goals, but if we make our goal the main game would be a single player campaign. It will have a story driven main story line, but players can veer off and explore other asteroids and to earn more money, or find new technologies to research, and then come back to the story.

The side missions will have some different game modes, such as seek, destroy, outlast, and recovery. You can find all the specifics about this in update #11 on our Kickstarter.

Once players have completed a level, it will be available for skirmish mode, to discover all the secrets of the asteroid, dominate in stats to compare with your friends.​

In the first Kickstarter update, you introduced the stretch-goals for Blackspace, all of which are multiplayer-related. Are you aiming for an EVE Online-style player-diven, emergent, "anything goes" type of environment?

Many of our stretch goals are gearing up for something much bigger. The game, in some original and more ambitious designs called for an interconnected global economy. That is one of the more important pieces to a larger plan. We don’t just want Blackspace to be a one hit game. We want to build a universe. Blackspace is just the first baby step in that direction. We want to start with some of the foundation, economy and industry. Blackspace represents that. Our future plans involve creating more games that connect with this experience either directly or indirectly. We’re a really long way from getting to realize some of our bigger plans, but we're planning to work our way there one step at a time.​

You set a pretty ambitious funding goal for your Kickstarter campaign. This isn't the most pleasant topic to discuss, but how will you proceed in case your campaign fails?

It’s true the amount is ambitious for a small group of unknown game developers, but it’s a very realistic representation of cost. We wanted to set a goal that would truly allow us to finish this game. In the event that we miss our goal we have a few plans that will get us to the end. Most of them involve pushing the release back quite a ways.​

Thank you for your time.

You can support the Blackspace team and study the available backer rewards on the game's Kickstarter page.

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