In part one, we talked to Ben Jones of Fugitive Games about the team’s upcoming space exploration game Into the Stars, and how they decided to make the game what it is. This time, we’re finding out just what makes Into the Stars unique.
Ben Jones is an explorer. “I’ll generally spend more time in a tile than I should.”
“I love exploring and checking out all the elements that our team is populating within these different tiles, so my threat level is usually pretty high when I’m about ready to leave that tile, and I’m constantly getting attacked and like ‘aargh!’ just scrambling, trying to survive and just get into the next tile at that point. And then I start the journey again – I seemingly don’t learn my lesson.”
Into the Stars places you in the captain’s seat, charging you with the safety of your crew and human cargo. The basic idea is to leave your “home planet”, travel through various areas – Jones’ tiles – and arrive at your destination in another star system.
Of course, nothing is ever that simple.
Forced from home by an invading alien force, the game begins with your ship gearing up and leaving into hyperspace for the target star system. In this system, there is one lone planet capable of sustaining humanity. And between your ship and that planet is a whole lot of trouble. “From alien encounters, to you scavenging for resources, moving around obstacles – there’s certainly a lot within the world to make that interesting.” Jones told us. The narrative is a frame for the emergent experiences the player will have as they fight, scavenge, explore, and flee the alien threat. This narrative bookending lets the player write their own story from their experiences, keeping each playthrough fresh. The journey is the story. We did try asking Jones about whether Into the Stars would have alternate endings, however he came back with the always coy “I don’t think we can get into that just yet.”
The game revolves around random encounters. “You find a ship that’s drifting in space.” Jones explained. “It’s foreign to you – what is this? It’s just like hanging out in limbo drifting. You’re like ‘I’m going to check this out.’” You can decide to send a landing party down to investigate the wreckage. The game checks whether the trip is safe and the team is successful, and there’s a chance the party will return with something helpful or interesting, such as parts to repair your ship’s modules, or rare gems to upgrade your ship, or perhaps something else the team have yet to reveal. There are also possible trading opportunities with passing ships, or combat encounters, or other investigations that might reveal new things.
There are both proactive and reactive encounters – the player can choose to initiate some, but sometimes things just happen. “Especially where it concerns the alien force that’s pursuing you.” Jones told us. “You can be ambushed by them at any time. They’ll uncloak and you’re going to go into a battle sequence – and you might not be prepared for that. You could be like ‘oh I’m making this final push for a planet, I’m almost out of fuel, I’m almost there’ and you’re ambushed, and then you have to deal with that.”
Random encounters follow both the Pokemon and the Final Fantasy XIII models. For most of the encounters with the world’s population you’ll see floating around space, waiting for you to avoid or initiate, like FFXII. Other times, the enemy will pop out of nowhere and start a fight, like in Pokemon.
Much of Into the Stars’ gameplay is driven by choice – and the constant balance of resources with risk and reward. Players decide on a destination and, when you get there, you make your choices. Will you send a landing party? Or a mining rig? Heal your crew? Or attack those ships for resources?
Jones gave an example where your best engineer is heavily injured. Do you choose to send him to the med bay, even though you are heading into dangerous territory and may need to rely on his combat experience? Or do you keep him at his post and risk his death to ensure the ship’s victory in the oncoming battles? Choosing how to spend your resources weighs heavy.
Another example is planetary interactions. Approaching a planet will give you a type of danger report, which displays how risky an operation is. The report changes based on how you go about preparing for a mission. For example, choosing certain crew members with different levels of experience will impact the chances of success. Do you send down your most valuable crew members on difficult missions with a low chance of success to raise your gain? Or do you shunt off a few inexperienced newbies that you can afford to lose, at the cost of a higher risk of failure?
Less immediately stressful, but no less important, are the choices you make about customising your ship. Customisation takes the form of a series of menus that you can access while assembling your ship before setting off on your journey. These options include the ability to select a number of different Modules, Crew Members and Resources.
Embedding you in the world is the first person perspective the game uses. For your captain interactions, sitting in the big chair, you view the world from the captain’s eyes. You sit in their chair. You see their arms. You touch their screen. The way you navigate the ship’s systems reflects the motions the player uses to control the game. At the touch of a button, though, you can zoom outside the ship in third person mode, controlling the ship and the camera from outside. Third person and first person perspectives can be switched at will, always putting you in the boots of the captain. You can play the entire game in first person, if you choose to, although Jones does not recommend it for navigating asteroid fields.
Into the Stars is very much a survival game that relies on clever, judicial resource management. “[Survival is] very much on your mind, and if it isn’t, as a captain, then you’re probably going to fail.” Jones told us. “You have to have a constant understanding and appreciation for the resources on your ship, and what they mean. If you’re not providing the proper resources for your life support system, your crew members and your civilians on board are going to start dying… Ultimately, the amount of civilians you have and the crew that you have are going to dictate your success, so you’re going to want to do everything you can to keep them alive.”
Into the Stars has a massive playground. So far, there are ninety connected zones, with each zone being five hundred thousand square units. Jones couldn’t provide an exact comparison of zone sizes to existing game spaces created in Unreal Engine 4 off the top of his head, however he plans to come up with a more relatable comparison at some point. Each of these zones are interconnected, effectively creating a single continuous world from the ninety interweaved zones. “We’re not going to say there’s no loading,” Jones said, “but you can just fly straight. You can fly straight through the zones – there’s no interruptions in that journey. And the course is up to you.” He finished – “So it’s really really really big.”
Zones were chosen because the team thought zones would be a “functional and understood way for players to move throughout the world.” It also ties into the “push factor” of the game – the alien pursuers. Each zone has its own threat level, which increases as the player dithers in a particular zone. Higher threat means more random encounters with the alien enemy. This adds a tactical element to movement and progression – “okay, well, I know I need to get back to this planet because I want more hydrogen,” Jones explained, “but I’m going to have to pass through this zone that’s red and super dangerous in order to get there. Do I have to go around? What do I have to do? So we wanted to make that really clear to players, and breaking it up into zones seemed like the most logical way.”
Jones likened the zone system to FTL’s, however, unlike FTL where whole sectors were closed off as you progressed, instead it’s ruled by player choice and progression. Also unlike FTL, the world is not procedurally generated. “This isn’t No Man’s Sky where everything is completely different every time.” Jones said.
“We want there to be an air of familiarity, so I know that this planet is in this zone, and that’s going to be true every time. But what’s happening around it – who I’m encountering and the resources provided to me – are going to be variable. Your journey really is going to be unique, but you’ve got these stepping stones and gravity points that will be familiar to help you along the way.”
The world’s geography doesn’t change. What does is what you encounter where, and what kinds of decisions you’ll take at the helm.
While Ben Jones is an explorer, he’s eager to see how other types of captains emerge. To him, Into the Stars is all about play styles. “What I’m really interested in seeing,” Jones told us, “is how different types of captains emerge. The type of captain who’s like ‘I don’t care about the civilians, I just want to get to the planet and I’m only going to go for the resources that help me do that’. That’s ruthless, but totally possible.” Likewise, there could be the type who just wants to get from A to B as quickly as possible – “like ‘oh, I don’t care about combat as much, I just really want to get to my destination and bounce around and explore’ well cool, they’re probably going to spend most of their time with the pedal to the metal, just throttling forward and grabbing the resources necessary for flight and survival, and avoiding conflict at all cost – it’s a completely other way of doing it.”
Ben Jones and the rest of the team at Fugitive Games feel strongly about what kind of experience they want to deliver. “I really want [players] to take away the captain experience.” Jones told us. He wants to give players the freedom and responsibility to control a ship, to choose their own journey. To Jones, Into the Stars is all about “being able to really feel grounded in this [ship], and this is my ship, and this is my crew, and I’m seeing this through the eyes of the captain on the bridge, and all these actions are my own, and all these choices and everything that’s happening is driven by me – that is an amazingly powerful experience, and something we surely hope to deliver.”