In the first part, we met the two-man team behind the upcoming swashbuckling space adventure, Rebel Galaxy. Now, it’s time for more on the game itself.
In lots of games with random generation, the story can feel swamped by the sheer amount and variability of the content on offer, but Double Damage Games are making the storyline in Rebel Galaxy strong enough to stand out.
“The environments and the solar systems that you’re playing in are all randomly generated, so every time you play, they’re different,” says Erich Schaefer, president of Double Damage. “The storyline is not so randomly generated, that will just flow, mostly linearly. But you’re free to branch off, maybe you have to become a little stronger before you can get back into the storyline, you can just do that the way you want to do.
“In the end there will be a grand finale,” he adds.
Travis Baldree, CEO of Double Damage continues: “It’s kind of like a Fallout 3 or Oblivion. There’s a main storyline, but most kinds of people drift off and do other stuff and dip back in,” he says.
“We’ve been doing random games for a long time. I think this one’s easier, because the scope of the content that we have to balance is smaller. I mean, we’ve been making action RPGs forever, and they all have 10,000 different swords that have to level gracefully across the whole game, and all these different weapon types. All those have had a narrative as well, that has to sit within a randomly generated world. But honestly, dungeons are a lot harder than space; you don’t have to worry about the walls intersecting the wrong way.”
Rebel Galaxy builds a diverse universe by fusing together different qualities that a planet can have, in an effort to make each discovery feel new, untouched by human hands, just like space should. “The solar systems themselves are generated with a variation of a piece of software called Accrete that generates solar systems based on dust accretions,” Baldree says. “We start with a solar system itself, which can have different kinds of planets, and each of those filters down with what different kinds of governments and economies can be on those kinds of planets. And then we populate that with, I’m going to call them ‘set pieces’, this might be an asteroid belt or a nebula or whatever. These are distributed according to certain rules, and so it’s built up in layers of randomness. And then the missions, those are going to choose locations based on whatever parameters the mission has, as far as where they’re going to be, how far away, and so on and so forth. Where stuff is, and the kinds of things it’s near, and the kinds of enemies you’ll face, is, to a certain extent, unpredictable. You might be having that first battle in a lightning storm, in a nebula, way off on the rim of a solar system, or it might be really near some starting station.
“Most of the characters you interact with, you do out in space. So they’ll be the captains of other ships, which could be military, or pirates, or merchants. And then they’ll be characters that you’ll interact with on stations. So there’s always a bartender, because every station has to have a bar. There’s mercenaries that you can talk to and interact with in the bars, and you can hire them, and they have their own personalities and ships. Story characters, which come from various different alien races, or human, or robot. You either interact with them in ships that you find out in the world or again on these stations.”
In this universe, you can choose who you want to be. There’s no physical representation of the player in Rebel Galaxy, so you’re not bound by character customisation tools. “[You’re] very much a blank slate, the character is you,” says Baldree. “The gender is never referred to, the race is never referred to, you can be whatever. I have two girls, and they don’t appreciate it when they have to play a guy.”
“It’s menu based, there’s background scenes that you’re navigating between when you’re on a station, but if you think about classic Wing Commander Privateer, when you dock with a station there’s a series of scenes that you go between, and characters that you interact with, but you never see your character, you’re not walking around physically.”
“In a sense, you are the ship,” Schaefer adds. “So instead of role-playing games we usually make, you give yourself helmets and swords and stuff, this is the ship and you outfit yourself with new defences, new weapons and turrets. The other way that you can express your personality is through the dialogue trees. These enemy captains that hail you out of space, they’re probably asking you for help, or they’re demanding you drop your goods and flee. But you get a lot of dialogue choices to either be aggressive towards them, or defer towards them. But there are ways to express your personality through the dialogue choices.”
Baldree continues: “They’re all tied into the faction system too, so how you treat people actually affects how that faction will respond to you in the future. So if you go around insulting a bunch of merchants, merchants in general, of the same faction, may not appreciate you so much. The same is true for the military or pirates. So you can pretty heavily push your faction back and forth. If you want to be a pirate, you can ingratiate yourself to pirates through combat, through hailing and talking to them, to doing morally questionable missions out at smuggler stations. Once you’ve done that, you get access to pirate stations, and you can talk to pirate mercenaries, and you’re going to get different kinds of missions available.”
Your choices aren’t judged on a binary scale in Rebel Galaxy. Factions have their own sense of morality, and your actions will change the way characters treat you, but you won’t be sprouting devil horns after a particularly ruthless exchange.
“It’s more shades of grey,” says Baldree. “We don’t really have concepts of good or evil, and there’s no good or evil slider so you can see how good or evil you are. It’s really more tied to the factions, so there’s less moral judgement. In some cases it’s pretty obvious, if there’s a trader trundling along and he asks for some help and instead, you blow him to pieces, that’s not necessarily a good action, but we don’t flag that as, ‘oh, you’re now being evil’.”
Factions are important in the workings of the universe, and they promise to be as diverse as the planets they inhabit. “We don’t have a final count yet, because sometimes there’s variants of factions,” Baldree says. “The militia in one solar system is not necessarily really the same faction as the militia in another, but it’s still a militia. So ticking off all the people in solar system A, might not have the same effect on solar system B. There will be a substantial number, they’re partitioned out by race, occupation, there’s guilds and bounty hunters and miners.”
“And pirates,” Schaefer interjects.
“Yeah, lots of pirates,” continues Baldree. “Some of the pirates hate each other, so there’s more than one pirate faction, it’s not just a generic, ‘oh, there’s pirates’.”
The playable space in Rebel Galaxy will be large enough to give these factions room to breathe, or not breathe, because space is a vacuum. But so far from release, the final boundaries haven’t been set.
“We don’t know what the final size is going to be yet either,” Baldree says. “A solar system’s fairly large, they’re not real scale, they’re definitely abstracted, because we wanted you to run into stuff more often than not, and space is normally actually pretty empty. What we’re doing, since it’s randomly generated, we have the flexibility to push and pull that number of solar systems that constitutes a game, so that the content feels appropriately spread around. It should be a fairly substantially long game.”
Schaefer explains: “One way I like to describe it, is I think the initial starting solar system has somewhere like 20-30 stations out there, lots of different points of interest, many more than you’d ever actually go see. It takes about five or six hours of gameplay to become stronger than everything in that system and want to move on. My guess is the storyline will have five to eight, maybe more, solar systems to get through. So, if you multiply that out, 20-40-60 hours, we’ll see when we’re done.”
“It really depends on how you play too,” Baldree adds. “Because you can mainline story, or just go off and do side stuff.”
You’ll also meet characters from various alien races throughout the adventure. “It’ll be five or six actual models, says Schaefer. “We’ve some ideas for secret, hidden races too, but they’re not fully expressed like the other ones.”
Baldree continues: “There will be different human factions too, like the religious faction, stuff like that. I think there’s going to be about five alien races roughly. And they each have their own full sets of ships, from fighters all the way up to dreadnoughts. They’ll have solar systems where they have sway, or a majority.
“Right now, if there’s any voice in the game, that’s a guy, it’s me. Basically what I do is I write out what I’m going to say in English and then I just have a general idea of the kind of gibberish I want to speak over the top of it, and I look for words that are kind of the same in a sentence, and then I just say it. I wish I could say it was more technical than that, and more awesome, but no.”
“Linguistics on the cheap,” Schaefer jokes. “The female voices are almost all Travis’ wife also.”
As you progress through the systems and upgrade your ship, the enemies you face grow along with you, aiming to keep the challenge steady and rewarding.
“They get to use a lot of the same kind of weaponry and equipment that you get to use,” says Baldree. “But each of those has a, we call it a technology level right now, which is sort of an aggregate for a ship, gives it a rough level. As you’re going through the game, and things are getting better and better equipment, more powerful ships, they effectively have a level, but it’s not discrete like you’d have in an MMO.”
“We do give you a sense,” Schaefer says. “Enemy ships show up with warnings and symbols on there saying, ‘wow, these guys are way outclassing you, you probably want to run away’. Or ‘these guys are wimps and probably don’t have anything good’.
The way we balance this is similar to the way we’ve balanced other games, and that’s sort of self-paced. It isn’t a real linear game, so if people are having trouble, that’s OK, it’s expected that sometimes they’ll be having trouble, they’ll have to take so side paths, or beef up their ship, or get some better guns. They’ll also find themselves overpowering the nearby enemies, so hey, just fast forward, jump to a new system and start fighting the tough guys again. The self-pacing, and the single player nature help out on the balancing tremendously.”
Economics are important in Rebel Galaxy, giving the player the ability to maximize profit if they tailor their trades to the market.
“We do want a lot of the things you do to have an effect on the system you’re in,” says Schaefer. “Stations can have famine events or tech booms that you can affect. You can prolong famines or cure famines by buying a lot of food cargo and bringing it to those planets. That all affects the economic underpinnings of the whole game, there is a dynamic economy that you can affect, whether or not you can change the allegiances of the stations is one thing that we’re considering, but haven’t done yet, so we can’t promise.”
Baldree explains: “Each planet has its own economy which is derived from some of the random elements of what kind of planet it is, the government, the economy, the actual planet type all feed in the kind of stuff that they have and what’s legal. You can influence those economies by dumping things into, or removing things from that economy. The demands and the supplies, you get to influence that. Then the different economies can influence each other based on events, like a war between two planets. At present, there’s not like a galactic economy, it’s more each planet has its own, and you’re establishing trade routes and deciding what a good run would be based on those different economies.”
Rebel Galaxy is an open world with many dynamic elements, such as the working economies. Double Damage hope that this will lead to a more involving, immersive experience when the game launches. “Every solar system is continuous, so you can just fly freely around,” says Baldree. “Each ship has a warp drive, which allows you to more at high rates of speed through a system, and that’s affected by how close you are to masses, you get pulled from warp if you get too close to solid objects. But you can travel around inside of a solar system relatively quickly. Warp drives are also things you can upgrade to move a higher rates of speed. To get between systems, you use jump gates, and once you’ve purchased a jump drive, it lets you activate and jump through a jump gate, which is a more instantaneous kind of travel.”
But aside from these jump gates, you actually do all the piloting around,” Schaefer adds. “You do warp from one side of a system to another, but you actually steer, and there’s advantages to doing so. You get some indication of what’s coming ahead, even though you’re flying at a billion miles an hour, and can kind of dodge it a bit. While you’re flying, you encounter a lot of random events, you might hear a distress beacon, go out, investigate and find it’s a merchant who needs help, or you find out the beacon was an ambush, so even though you’re doing a fast travel, zooming around in the system, there’s plenty of stuff that will take you out of you route, if you choose to. There is a giant map so you can see where you are, but it’s not map-based travel.”
“The ships are actually all there, there’s thousands of ships flying around doing their stuff,” Baldree explains. “So, you’re pulled out of warp if you legitimately run across them. There’s traders flying around, you can fly up to them, you can see them in the distance. Your radar gets a longer range when you’re in warp, so you can see further out. But you can slipstream your warp right up to other ships that are warping. If you get close enough, you can actually drop out of warp and it’ll pull them with you, that’s how you hijack. It’s all active.”
Double Damage are using a custom engine to create their game, utilising the enhanced programming speed that comes with familiarity to achieve their goals with such a small staff. “We’ve got a heavily modified version of Ogre 3D, which is kind of an older, MIT licensed engine that we used when we were at Runic, so it’s been bent to my will over a long period of time,” says Baldree.
“Whenever you go and license a new engine, there’s kind of a long ramp up time, where you get comfortable with it, you find out what you can and can’t do. Especially with this first project, knowing exactly how everything works is a huge win for me, it makes it a lot easier for me to predict how long it’s going to take for things to happen.”
“The engine and the tools are pretty heavily derived from the Torchlight stuff,” Schaefer says. “Even though the games don’t look like each other at all, but they’re pretty heavily the same stuff. I’m familiar with all the data tools, to balance weapons and economies, because they’re the same tools we used for Torchlight.”
The gameplay and mission structure in Rebel Galaxy carries the same spirit of variability as the universe it’s set in. “It depends on what kind of player you are, you can be heavily into combat, you can also do trading, you can do mining, you can invest in mining equipment to get a higher yield from mining,” says Baldree. “Moment to moment, you have some main story missions to follow, which you might not be engaging in right now, then a series of side missions. Those could involve investigating, or combat, or delivery, or other activities that you can do. So you’ll travel to a location, or a series of locations to perform that task, more often than not, you’ll run into something along the way. It might be a transponder that you can hack, intercept a signal and find some cache of goods, or maybe you’ll come across a trader who hails you, and maybe you’ll do a couple of quick trades because you’ve got something in your hull. Or maybe the military will be nearby and notice that you’ve got contraband and they call you, and you have to try and bribe your way out, and eventually, maybe you arrive at your target destination, and there might be a battle already in progress and you join it. It’s going to be a mix of combat and economy, and these side activities, with the backbone of the story arc.”
“Story missions have a little bit more variability in the way that they work. Often times you’ll have conversation options and other ways of performing a mission. I think in the first mission, there’s four or five ways you can actually complete it. The very first mission you get is whiskey bootlegging, and you’re given some cash and you’re supposed to meet a guy and make an exchange. And you can intimidate him into giving it to you, you can just hand him the cash and take the whiskey, you can blow him to pieces and steal it, you can just go buy it somewhere else, often those missions don’t just have one solution, specifically the story kinds of missions.
“Because we’ve got a kind of clockwork world going on, where other ships are moving around and doing stuff, sometimes those events intersect with the missions that you do. So I might go do combat with some pirates, and if there’s a militia convoy nearby, and if I haven’t made them angry, they’ll be able to detect the combat and they’ll jump in and lend a hand. But the same might hold true for a pirate convoy that’s going by.
“Some of them, you’ll be joining a battle in progress, and you’re supposed to be helping out one side or another. Some will be more assassination, strike missions, where you’re just supposed to blow up some guys. There’s delivery missions where you’re taking cargo from one location to another, you might hit a blockade on the way. There’s sourcing missions where you have to go find a good deal on stuff, and bring it back and get a hefty mark up. There’s protection missions, where you have to make sure that certain ships survive. Then the story missions have more subtlety and variability, and are less specific.”
In promotional material, Double Damage have stated that Rebel Galaxy is not a strategy game, preferring a more tactile and practical approach to gameplay. But that doesn’t mean that they’re trying to make a superficial game, the minutiae is still there for the people that want it. “You have lots of control over the ship,” Baldree says. “You control the steering, the thrusters, the brakes. You can control any station on the ship. You also have access to deflectors that you can use, if you purchase them, to ameliorate damage instantaneously. You can also set AI for any section of the ship that you’re not manning at the time.
“In a lot of ways this is a lot like the naval combat in [Assassin’s Creed] Black Flag, if it had a lot more World War Two type naval combat elements with fighters and large turrets. You can switch at any time between the stations on your ship, which can be clusters of turrets or individual turrets and man them directly, so you can get down to your Millennium Falcon turret cam, where you’re just blowing stuff away, or you can be manning the broadsides. Whenever you’re manning any turrets you can actively be steering at the same time, so you’re manoeuvring, protecting the wounded areas of your ship, because where you’re damaged matters, you’re switching between different weapon groups. Unlike a classic spacefighter game, where you’ve usually got one target at a time and you’re kind of focussing on them, in this you can be engaging more than one target at a time, because you have a wider view of the battlefield.”
“I’d differentiate it from a cockpit, dogfighting game in more ways than that,” Schaefer adds. “There’s more of a situational view of the entire battle, so you want to position yourself away from the majority of ships and train your big guns on some ships, and maybe your turrets are taking on other guys. You’re not a pilot, you’re more like a starship commander. In fact, all the navigation is really on a 2D plane, it looks like you’re in a big 3D space, and there are things that violate the 2D, but navigation and most of your combat is.”
“There’s been a lot of evolution of the control and how it works,” Baldree continues. “How you lock onto targets, what sort of assistance you have when you’re firing long distances. We have a safety valve, in that you aren’t required to control everything. If it’s all too much for you, you can tune the AIs on individual turrets to do specific things and fulfill a specific role without you having to personally man it. You’re almost always going to get an advantage by choosing to do it yourself, but we’ve tried to make it so that people that are not going to be able to rapidly switch between stations are still going to be really effectively play, and you can also hire help if you’re ever feeling like, ‘this combat’s just too much for me, I just want to hire some guys to come along and take care of this, I’m going to turn all my turrets to AI and I’m going to coast around the edge’.
“Initially, I did all the control mapping on the controller to ensure that it’d work, then mapped it across to mouse and keyboard, on PCs you can rebind everything.”
Rebel Galaxy is different to most of the Double Damage team’s earlier work, in that it ditches some ubiquitous RPG mechanics. But similar concepts can be found other parts of the game’s design. “There’s not a skill tree, there’s no points you put in your character, there’s no skill point investment,” says Baldree.
“There’s one little exception to that,” Schaefer adds. “We’ve got the ship computer system that you can upgrade with software modules, those will be like passive benefits that you see in RPGs skill trees. But it’s simpler than that. It’s mostly just the hard points on your ship and what’s on them.
“When you get a better gun turret, it’s going to look better and sound cooler, and that’s all lessons we learned from making ARPGs like Torchlight.
“I’d say that the whole game is about trying to upgrade your ship, trying to get bigger and better ships with more guns, more turrets, more systems, faster, and outfit those with more cannons, stronger lasers, better rockets. To do that, it’s primarily economic, you’ve just got to make money somehow. That could be by hauling cargo, mining, bounty missions et cetera.”
Double Damage are bringing Rebel Galaxy to PC, Mac, PS4 and Xbox One. While many of their previous projects have been PC only, they feel that it’ll work just as well on console. “Long ago, I made Diablo for the PlayStation One,” says Schaefer. “We don’t tend to do console stuff, this is my first primarily controller based game.”
“We’re already trying to make sure that we meet a reasonable minimum spec, so that people can play this without having to have ridiculous hardware,” Baldree says. “So given that the consoles are pretty new, and they’re so PC like, it’s practically the same components, it’s so much easier than, for instance, the 360 port of Torchlight 2. This is just so much easier,” he laughs.
“We’re closer every day to announcing a release date,” says Baldree. “But we’re probably not going to announce one until we’re pretty darn sure what it is. We also don’t expect to release every version on the same day, because I don’t think we can possibly pull it off. They’ll probably go in sequence, so the steam version will probably come out first, then as the console versions come out of certification, they’ll come when they’re completed. It’s being developed on all platforms simultaneously, so I have running builds on everything all the time, it’s just the end process of getting it out the door is different from platform to platform.”