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.”
The Occupation Designer Reveals Game Length, Talks Design, Inspiration, and More
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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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