Exclusive Interviews

Meet the Developers Behind the Retro-styled Sci-fi RTS, XO, Which Hits Kickstarter Today

The XO fleet

This week our OnlySP feature interview focusses on Jumpdrive Studios’ starship strategy XO, which hits Kickstarter today.

Meet Brian Jamison, Jumpdrive founder, designer and art director on XO, as he discusses the retro-styled sci-fi adventure in more detail.

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Jamison’s an industry veteran, designing games for huge names like Sony, Namco and Atari, but grew disillusioned with smaller teams’ reliance on big business to put out their work. With the new indie boom, he’s back in gaming, and XO is Jumpdrive Studios’ first project.

“I made games in the 90s and loved it,” Jamison says. “However, the publisher/developer relationship was way out of balance, so I left. Recently platforms like Steam and GOG have made it possible for a small indie team to make a living. So I formed Jumpdrive to do just that.”

The varied team at Jumpdrive balance new talent with years of experience. Artist Brian Davis [Halo 2, San Francisco Rush 2049] and composer Jim Guthrie [Sound Shapes, Indie Game: The Movie], are joined by Justin Pardo, recent graduate and U.S Air Force veteran, research scientist turned technical director Dominic Mandy, and music industry rep Corey Warning. Based out of an office in Portland, Oregon, Jumpdrive are committed to making XO a success.

“Justin formally studied game development and brings a lot of experience with Unity3D, the engine we’re using,” Jamison says. “Dominic has deep maths skills and a science background that is a perfect fit for things like our physics-based movement. Brian D is a phenomenal 3D artist with a large amount of game industry experience. Corey promoted his own successful rock band before joining the team and has also helped enormously with his music and video production experience. Personally, I have experience managing teams, producing software, and designing games and systems.

“Some very good games have been produced with freelancers and remote development. But there is nothing like interacting with someone face-to-face. You can’t reproduce that even with an always-on Skype connection. During the day everyone hears what everyone else is talking about – the conflict, the praise, the brainstorming, the frustration, the beautiful results. Everything. We all know who’s doing what for the project in real time. I think it makes for a better game. And it makes for a more fun environment.”

XO ship making an escape

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The idea for XO stems from a love of sci-fi books and movies, and the art style pays homage 80s arcade classics.

“About two years ago, my good friend and fellow game industry veteran Josh Partlow and I were enjoying some liquid refreshments and talking about games we might make,” Jamison explains. “I’ve always wanted to play out some parts of Battlestar Galactica in the role of [Commander] Adama. It was there that the core of XO was defined – a desperate race against an unbeatable foe, rescuing people, being overwhelmed with choices, and just trying to hold it together.”

He continues: “After I had the basic concept, books like the Lost Fleet series, Vatta’s War and Ender’s Game gave me lots of inspiration. World War II naval battles, stories of settlers on the Oregon Trail, and even my own experience running two companies during two different economic collapses also contributed.

“We just love the look of those 80s vector games like Battlezone, and some of the visual effects of the 1982 Tron were also influences. We also think that less is more, and we believe we can pull off a beautiful game with a minimalist approach.”

In XO, a mysterious and ruthless foe are hunting down and capturing humans. It’s your job to lead the last surviving battleship away from danger, on a mission where success is your only chance of survival.

“There’s a story that you start with,” says Jamison. “An unknown enemy has descended upon humanity and is harvesting people, taking them away in these massive, threatening ships. How the narrative plays out is entirely based on the choices you make along the way.

“During this journey you’ll encounter characters that may even become major figures in your fleet. All of these people are procedurally generated to keep the game interesting every time you play.”

Difficult decisions are at the core of XO, testing your will as a commander in uncertain times. Jumpdrive hope to introduce enough variety into the formula to keep things consistently fresh and interesting.

“You jump your fleet close to a planet and assess the situation,” Jamison explains. “Multiple events are happening at once. You have to decide who to save, who to leave behind, what to explore; which risks do you take? Right now there are 105 different events that can occur – people to rescue, ships that you can bring into your fleet, equipment you can salvage. On top of that you have to gather resources for your fleet to stay alive. And you have to fight off waves of enemy ships that just keep getting tougher.

“When you judge that the time is right, you order a jump to the relative safety of jumpspace where you can repair, refit, change formations, and manage your crew and their needs.”

“And then you emerge from jump again, at a different planet with new challenges, and hopefully a bigger fleet,” he adds.

Combat in XO

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XO layers its gameplay with an intriguing political system, drawing on the nuanced diplomatic drama of its inspirations, as well as grounding everything in a physics system designed around Newton’s real-life laws.

“Newtonian physics and the politics and leadership gameplay are pretty unusual in an RTS,” says Jamison. “The dynamic formations we have are new. And the ability to issue flanking and covering orders to your ships are something I’ve never seen before.

“But really, XO is more of a distant cousin to an RTS. You can pause the action at any time and issue orders. There aren’t bases you defend, or units you crank out from factories. You can micro-manage but it’s unlikely you’ll be successful if you do. There’s sort of a tech tree, but it isn’t research-oriented as most RTS games are. And it’s single player.”

XO’s focus on realistic physics is intrinsic to the experience, with the forces of inertia and thrust playing a role in movement. However, realism isn’t being championed at the expense of fun, starships move on a 2D plane so that space battles don’t get too complicated.

“We’re finding that basing the game on reality makes it more interesting,” explains Jamison. “Having said that, the game has to be fun more than it has to be real. That’s the main reason we’re limiting the ships to 2D movement – it’s just more fun.

“Tactically, Newtonian physics change everything. We’re used to ships behaving like water-based ships or aircraft in space games. Suddenly, in XO, you can’t stop and turn immediately. You have to be much more thoughtful about where you send your forces. If you’re guarding civilian ships, you can’t afford to overshoot the enemy or get too far away. That challenge is really fun.”

XO also ramps up the tension with “rogue-like/lite” elements – raising the stakes with permadeath, and increasing variety with procedural generation.

“If you know that dying means you have to start over, the game is more intense,” Jamison says. “Yes, it’s more frustrating. But it’s also much more satisfying when you win. We like all of that.

“Our philosophy is to build many modular elements with simple attributes that combine together in ways that we cannot predict. Players will see this at many levels – most obviously is visually in the planets, civilian starships and characters. Mechanically the events, items and also characters in the game have procedural attributes that will dramatically alter how each game plays out.

A conversation tree in XO

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Before launching their Kickstarter today, Jumpdrive successfully took XO to Square Enix Collective, a funding platform where an indie project can win Square’s backing if they get enough votes from the community.

“Square Enix Collective has been a great experience for us,” says Jamison. “We’re honoured that they chose our game. The experience has allowed us to expose our game to a much wider audience. We’ve gotten great feedback on the game, and it has given us an opportunity to polish our crowd-funding pitch. We’re still in the feedback phase, so it’s too early to say if we’ll end up working with Square Enix for the next phase, but we applaud their efforts to support the indie community.”

If XO’s something you’re interested in, you can back them on Kickstarter now. You can also hear more from them on Facebook, Twitter and their official website.

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