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

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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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BACK TO THE FUTURE[divider type=”thin”]

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.

Follow OnlySP on Facebook and Twitter for more news, reviews and interviews.

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.

The Occupation

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.

The Occupation screenshot 3

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.

The Occupation screenshot 2

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!).

The Occupation screenshot 1

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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