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Meet the Team and Learn the Story Behind the Development of, Rebel Galaxy

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Based in Seattle, Washington, Double Damage Games is made up of Erich Schaefer and Travis Baldree, two of the developers behind the critically acclaimed action-RPGs Torchlight and Torchlight 2. Their new game, Rebel Galaxy, draws on a variety of influences to deliver a unique take on the space genre, different to the myriad of more traditional sci-fi games hitting the market. Combing a blues-rock soundtrack with a strong desperado spirit and kinetic, involved combat, Rebel Galaxy is built to be a swashbuckling adventure rather than a nuts ‘n’ bolts simulator.

The two-man team at Double Damage have a long history of collaboration, working together on many successful projects. Following the release of Torchlight 2, Schaefer and Bladree broke away from Runic Games, a studio they’d helped found, to a create a smaller, more flexible company, where they could make the games that they wanted to.

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“I’m a designer and tester, and I just try to help Travis out any way I can,” says Erich Schaefer, president of Double Damage games. “Before this, we were at Runic Games where we made Torchlight and Torchlight 2, we were some of the co-founders, and we’ve split off to do a sort-of micro studio.

“I got started back in 1993, I was just doing some graphic art, weird stuff on the Macintosh, and fell into this group making a game for the Atari Lynx. All this doesn’t make any sense, other than I got into the business by accident. Started up a company called Condor with my friend David Brevick, and my brother Max, which became Blizzard North that made the Diablo games. After that, I quit Blizzard, and started my own company with a bunch of guys called Flagship Studios, we made Hellgate: London. Travis was involved with the Mythos part of that. Then when Flagship Studios crashed down, we started Runic Games.

“My career sort of started by accident, but I love it,” he adds.

“I’m the CEO of Double Damage Games,” says Travis Baldree. “I was the president of Runic Games, we tend to shuffle these around, everybody gets a title. I’m the engineer on this project and I’m the chair of design with Erich and art directive, I guess. I do art when it’s needed. Like Erich said, I was at Runic Games, ran that for about six years or so, and I was the project director on Torchlight and Torchlight 2, and before that, Erich and I worked at Flagship together for a while. I was running the North studio, working on Mythos. And before that, a bunch of Junk that nobody’s ever heard of,” he jokes.

I always wanted to make games since I was little,” Baldree continues. “I had a Commodore 64 and did type-in programmes from the back and tore them apart. When I was in high-school I was making really terrible PC versions of Street Fighter Two and anything else I could think of. I can remember I had a lot of very,very weird ultima variants that I made. So I’ve been making, or attempting to make games for most of my life at this point. The first real game development job I had was at Wild Tangent where I made, for a long time, a lot of advertising games. I did more racing games than I care to remember, and I will probably never do a racing game ever again. The last thing I did there was Fate, an action RPG in the sort of Diablo vein, and that was my entry point to working with the guys at Flagship.”

Despite the high-quality output of Runic Games, the Double Damage team were looking for something different. “There’s only two of us, and there’s never going to be any more,” says Baldree. “That’s probably the biggest difference.”

Schaefer continues: “We started this half as a quality of life operation. We both got sick of managing teams. Travis had to manage the Runic team for a long time, and before that I was managing at HellGate. We just got tired of managing, and wanted to make games. We also had this cool idea for the game we’re talking about today, Rebel Galaxy, which didn’t quite fit our Runic team and we just got tired of looking for buy-in from the team and explaining what we were doing to publishers, we just wanted to do what we wanted to do. And so far, so good.”

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Without the confines of larger scale development, the concept for Rebel Galaxy could be better defined, layering original ideas over elements of classic sci-fi. “I think Erich initially pitched a space game,” Baldree says. “I want to say it was kind of a 50s vibe. Classic retro sci-fi vibe. A more traditional space, exploration, combat game.”

“I pitched this as our follow-up to Torchlight 2,” Schaefer interjects.

Baldree continues: “I’d just played Black Flag, and thought ‘why don’t we try and do naval combat with this’. And then I think we decided we would jam in some more Star Control 2isms, like the characters that you talk to. Back when it was something we were still pitching at Runic, there was actually a ground base component to it, because we had a lot of level designers and we wanted to make sure they had stuff to do. And it sort of evolved as we made it, it started out with some really traditional, epic space music and it’s slowly gotten this more unique vibe the longer that we’ve worked on it.

“Having the big character dialogue is really a Star Control 2 throw back. I really loved that part of Star Control, where you talk to the Spathi, and they immediately surrendered, that sort of thing. When we were talking about the characters, my art direction on those was that they should be like Dark Crystal Muppets in space, this kind of hand-crafted, rubber masks, sort of thing.

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“The music was accidental, I was listening to The Black Keys one day while I was playing, and I was like, ‘this sounds way better than the generic spacey music we’ve been using, maybe it’d be cool to do sort of a blues rock kind of thing’. I was thinking of motorcycle outlaws and a little bit of a western element. Firefly has kind of the western in space kind of thing, and ours is a little bit more Roadhouse, it’s got more rock to it and less country. Although still plenty of slide guitar, I guess.”

The team’s gaming roots have informed many of the design and mechanical choices in Rebel Galaxy, which owes a lot to the celebrated space exploration games of the 80s and 90s. “Games-wise, I’d add Wing Commander Privateer,” Schaefer says. “It had a sandbox feel, we wanted to capture that. You could just go out, follow a storyline and see what’s going on in the galaxy, but a lot of people like to go out and do what they like to do, whether that’s being a pirate, hunting down bounties or cargo missions, or mining asteroids. We got the sandbox element from those type of space games.”

“I really liked the lonely frontier vibe you got in Privateer too,” says Baldree. “It seemed like there was nobody on any of the space stations, they were in the middle of nowhere and there was just five drunk guys at the bar. It had a kind of specific outsidery vibe that was really cool.

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“There’s a lot of Elite in there. I’ve got a copy of Elite actually sitting next to me with my commodore. I really like the new Elite Dangerous that Frontier’s put together. They did a really awesome job.”

In part two on Wednesday, we’ll look more into Rebel Galaxy itself, the story, the gameplay, and the systems Double Damage are implementing to build a living universe.

Follow OnlySP on Facebook and Twitter for the latest on Rebel Galaxy and all things single player.

Lead Interview and Features editor. Eats, games, and leaves. Tweet at me! @Jiffe93

Exclusive Interviews

The Occupation Designer Reveals Game Length, Talks Design, Inspiration, and More

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The Occupation promo

After a protracted development period, fixed-time thriller The Occupation is set to release in one month’s time. Between its retro aesthetic and immersive sim-inspired gameplay, the game is shaping up as one of 2019’s most unique titles.

In light of that, OnlySP recently spoke to Pete Bottomley, designer of The Occupation and co-founder of developer White Paper Games to find out more about the promising project.

OnlySP: I thought I’d start off with a fairly obvious question. Given the real-time nature of The Occupation, how long can players expect a single run through to last, and by how much can that time be shortened or prolonged by the player’s actions?

Bottomley: The core gameplay is designed around 4 hours of play. There are some sections that are untimed, whether it be for narrative impact or tutorialisation for the player. As we’re playing through the game as a team, it’s taking us around 6.5 hours to play through the game.

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OnlySP: How many endings does the game have?

Bottomley: The game’s outcome is a reflection of the steps the player took through the game. I think when playing games, you always want the outcomes to reflect your approach and we’re massively inspired by how games such as Dishonored can tackle that. Our hope is that the ending you experience feels like it reflects their approach and actions.

OnlySP: Tied to that, approximately how many playthroughs would be required to see everything that the game has to offer?

Bottomley: Our intention wasn’t to design a game that required multiple playthroughs. I’m personally the type of player that plays through a narrative, gets an outcome, and that’s my story. That being said, we’ve tried to fill the world with a lot of content, and because of the real-time character simulating actions, hopefully with second and third playthroughs, players will uncover different ways to solve challenges or narrative threads they hadn’t picked up on before.

OnlySP: How did you come to settle on the politicised premise of an Act robbing citizens of civil liberties?

Bottomley: Since we invest so much of our lives into making games, you have to work on something you feel is meaningful and rewarding of your time. At the time of concepting The Occupation, there was a lot of friction between what was happening in the UK and abroad. It affects us all and we wanted to work on something that may put people’s views into perspective.

Our previous game Ether One dealt with the difficulties of seeing a family member suffering with dementia and our aim is to continue these important themes throughout all of our games.

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OnlySP: Also, issues surrounding privacy and freedom of speech, among other civil liberties, are pertinent right now. How close to your mind were the modern concerns about the topic while you were concepting the game? And have real-world events impacted the story of The Occupation across the development period?

Bottomley: The world around us always inspires us, but we don’t really rely on specific events to drive any part of the game’s narrative. When you’re developing a game that tries to get its own narrative across but ground it in the real world, you have to try to distil them to focus on the story you’re trying to tell. In a sense, real world stories inspire us but it’s more of an observational thing rather than a particular event we want to depict faithfully. We tend to focus on the emotional and societal impact of the event itself.

OnlySP: How present will those sorts of themes be within the average player’s experience? Or should players expect to be able to lose themselves entirely in the investigation without really leaning on the context?

Bottomley: We aim to put context on all of your actions in the world otherwise there’s not much meaning behind the choices being made. That being said, you can choose to follow certain narrative threads over others, which allows the player to follow the most interesting lead they come across.

OnlySP: Players take the role of a journalist in the game; how accurate would you say your portrayal is of the technologies and general aesthetic of late ‘80s Britain? How much research went into getting the language and atmosphere of the era right?

Bottomley: It’s interesting you raise that point as we’ve just been speaking about the world limitations in this game. In our previous game, Ether One, we aimed to deliver a grounded narrative that had certain sci-fi elements. With The Occupation, we wanted to go even more grounded and aim to deliver a world that belongs in the ’80s so any aesthetic and technological choices were always taken into consideration. Surrounding yourself with these limitations can create really cool gameplay mechanics such as our pager as a message delivery system, public payphones to update your objectives, and fax machines to deliver information.

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OnlySP: The game has been delayed twice now, both times quite close to the scheduled release. Is there any chance you could shed some light on the causes of the delays?

Bottomley: Delaying a game is a gut wrenching decision. You’ve put a promise out there and you push yourself to deliver. We’ve aimed incredibly high on this game both technologically and in the game’s design. On top of this, we wanted to deliver the game in as many languages as we could along with sim-shipping on PC, XB1, & PS4 and doing a retail disc submission so that people could pick up the game in stores if they wanted to hold a physical representation of the game. Because of these platforms, the game has to be ready a couple of months in advance to help distribution and all the different regions to have the version of the game you intend for them. With complexity always come more bugs and since our last game shipped in a buggy state, we didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. We’ve QA’d the game for months and had support from our publishers in helping to identify the issues. As with any game, we’ll no doubt spot some issues on launch, but we’ve already put processes in place to address these as quickly as we can and hopefully the execution of the game will immerse people and keep players engaged so that nothing disrupts the experience.

OnlySP: I recall on Twitter that you once wrote that you were testing the possibility of a Switch port. How seriously have you looked at that possibility and what’s the likelihood?

Bottomley: Right now we have a Switch development kit frustratingly gathering dust in our studio. Since we’re a small team, it can be a tough choice trying to figure out where to best use your resources. We’d absolutely love to get the game onto Switch but we’ve not tested a build yet. It’s the first thing we’ll be moving onto in March so we should be able to update people as soon as we know how The Occupation runs on it. Thankfully using Unreal Engine makes this process a lot more straightforward and we’ve seen a lot of developer friends find success on the Switch so it’s a great opportunity to reach a larger audience.

OnlySP: How does it feel for you and the team to be just about ready to wrap development after four years of work?

Bottomley: It’s not quite set in yet. Although we’re done with the game and excited to see the reception it gets from people, it’s really only 50% of the work, especially when you’re in a small team. We’re currently planning all the marketing and PR opportunities along with reflecting on the development cycle and figuring out what we can do better (to hopefully not spend another 4 years on a game!).

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OnlySP: Finally, do you have any closing comments for our readers or anything else you’d like to say about The Occupation?

Bottomley: The whole team has put an incredible amount of energy into The Occupation. If you look at our previous game compared to The Occupation, you can see how far we’ve come. It’s been a huge learning curve for the studio both technically and in production and we’re excited to move onto another game to push ourselves. We’re unable to do that without game sales. It sounds corny, but we really can’t develop games without our community’s support. We value each purchase and we want to grow and keep pushing to create more interesting games. We have a lot of goals and drive and we’re focusing on growing and creating more experiences for the player. If you’re reading this and have purchased any of our games, thank you. It absolutely means the world to be able to wake up in the morning and be excited to develop games. Thank you.


The Occupation is set to release on March 5, 2019 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

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