Space. The final frontier. Apparently. It’s just so big and vast and expansive and huge. So how can one person hope to fit the infinite possibilities of space exploration into a game? Drifter, by Celsius Game Studios, procedurally generates its planets as you explore, trade, fight, and survive in that big ‘ol vacuum we’re all floating around in. Drifter is already available in beta through Steam’s Early Access program, and it’s seeing constant updates and support from the Celsius team. We talked to Celsius studio head and brain behind Drifter Colin Walsh about all things space, procedural generation, and how he plans to handle the upcoming PS4 and PS Vita ports of Drifter.
“Drifter is inspired by the space games I played when I was much younger and that made me decide to make a space game of my own.” Walsh revealed. Foremost among his influences for Drifter were Frontier, Privateer, and Starflight. “Ultimately I want to try and capture the feeling I had while playing those games but to also bring my own perspective and creative effort to the genre to hopefully make the game something special and worthwhile.”
Drifter is a procedurally generated space sandbox, and it is truly vast in scale. According to Walsh, Drifter contains “a huge galaxy featuring tens of thousands of star systems to visit and explore.” As you explore, you are also offered a variety of other tasks to occupy your time the way you want to. “Right now the game features trading, mining, bounty hunting, procedurally-generated missions and even piracy but I want to add more of course.” Walsh told us. “By the time the game reaches release it will have an exploration mechanic and a story-focused mission arc, among other things.”
Trade plays a central role in collecting credits to spend. It works by communicating with inhabited star systems, each of which has a selection of goods up for trade. You can buy or sell those goods at each of the space stations in that system. “Due to the different political and technological development levels of these systems these trade goods will either be in demand or be available for sale.” Walsh explained. “It’s the player’s job to figure out which goods and what systems offer the most lucrative trade routes.” Credits are used to upgrade your ship, buy new equipment, and to purchase new ships, and Walsh is planning to add “player deployable space structures” in the future.
You don’t get to zip around the galaxy exploring and trading unaccosted, though. Drifter’s universe is divided up by a variety of NPC factions mostly hovering around the “core colonized star systems” giving the universe a lived-in feel – and not all of the factions will play nice with the player. “The player will be starting in The Unaligned Worlds Treaty Zone which is a sort of ‘Wild West’ where a number of star systems have joined together to protect each other from the two main political factions, The Solar Dynasty and The Commonwealth of Free Stars who generally fight one another for ideological reasons and over resources.” Walsh explained. “In addition to these political groups there is also a loosely-organized band of space pirates that operate in and around the frontier at the edge of known space and finally there is a group of fanatics known as The Song of the Infinite Abyss who attack and capture ships and their crews, who are never seen again.”
Factions will react to the player dynamically through the future implementation of a reputation system, planned for the official release version of the game. “The idea of the reputation system is to create a mechanic where the various factions in the game will treat the player differently, positively or negatively, based on what the player does in the game.”
Another system planned for version 1.0 is the exploration system. “I want to create a shared experience where there is a large number of hidden things to discover in the game such as anomalies, relics and artifacts.” Walsh told us.
Of course, the final version will also look prettier. Drifter is currently using placeholder planet textures, but Walsh wants to further differentiate Drifter and its planets by having “a variety of beautiful, unique and alien worlds throughout the galaxy in the game.”
It all comes back to the procedural generation system. Along with randomised planets and stars to make visually distinct systems, other features of systems will be generated to add variety to gameplay. “[E]ach system has different technological and political development levels which affects the availability and prices of trade goods and equipment.” Walsh revealed. “[E]ach system will feature things like asteroid fields, anomalies and artifacts which can be discovered and interacted with.”
After release, Walsh isn’t content with simply relaxing. He has plans to implement a number of new features post-release, such as a permadeath mode and manual planetary exploration. In exploration mode, planets are represented in a “3/4 style top down view where you’ll be able to fly your ship over the terrain and find a suitable place to land.” Walsh told us. “Once landed you’ll be able to use an all-terrain exploration vehicle to scan for and locate areas of interest such as mineral deposits, artifacts and hidden caches of supplies and equipment.”
Games in Early Access can be nebulous with their updates rapidly altering gameplay. For the PlayStation releases, though, Walsh is planning on things being slower. Since Sony has no early access scheme, Walsh is waiting until Drifter reaches version 1.0 to release the game on consoles, meaning the current flurry of updates on PC won’t be mirrored on console. It won’t remain static, though, and Walsh plans to keep all versions of the game up to date through patches via PSN.
Graphically, Drifter is “somewhat… intensive”, but not so much so that the PS4’s hardware will have any trouble. While Walsh can’t confirm final performance just yet, he sees “no technical reason why the PS4 won’t run at 1080p and 60fps”. The Vita version will run at the handheld’s native 960×544 resolution, and “as close to 60fps as [Walsh] can get it.”
The idea to bring Drifter to the PlayStation began in 2012, after Walsh realised that the Vita “might be a good fit” for Drifter. This was before Sony’s big push to court indies, so at that time Walsh “didn’t get particularly far in trying to make something happen.”
“That all changed in 2013 at the Game Developer’s Conference when I ended up meeting with Sony and they immediately showed interest in having Drifter on Vita and PS4. It wasn’t long after that that I had access to hardware and support and it’s been an excellent and positive experience overall, I have to say.”
With Sony’s consoles providing a home for Drifter, it’s natural to wonder if Microsoft’s hardware will get a look-in. Walsh’s answer, at the moment, is a solid maybe. “I’ve talked to Microsoft about bringing Drifter to Xbox One,” Walsh explained, “and while nothing is confirmed it would be nice to bring the game there. Assuming that launch parity isn’t a problem the only thing preventing an Xbox One port is my limited time to deal with porting the game to different platforms.”
Walsh doesn’t have a specific release date for Drifter at the moment, but he’s aiming for “before the end of the year” for PS4 and PS Vita. That, of course, depends on how complete the game is by then. Walsh is intending for Drifter to support Sony’s Cross-Buy feature, but that’s ultimately dependent on whether it’s possible to do so with the final product. Drifter is already out on PC in Early Access form through Steam. If you’re interested in listening to some soundtrack samples, you can find them on Celsius Game Studios’ site.
Thanks to Colin Walsh for chatting with us about Drifter. We’ll keep track of how it’s going and bring you all the latest as we know it.