Fugitive Games, as they explain on their Kickstarter page for their first project Into the Stars, is “comprised of crafty veterans on the run from traditional development at places like DICE, Capcom and SCEA so they can build games that focus on fun and community first.” We recently had a chat with Fugitive Games’ Ben Jones, who is currently development director for the studio’s first game Into the Stars.
Ben Jones’ journey into the vast expanse that is game development began with Day of Defeat. After Day of Defeat was picked up by Valve, Jones realised “hey, this was something I really wanted to do”. After attending college and grad school for games, Jones began a stint with Sony, subsequently working on MAG and spending a little time on SOCOM 4. After that, Jones moved to EA, where he worked on Medal of Honor and the Battlefield series. Each member of Fugitive has equally weighty experience. Art director Alden Filion previously worked on Lost Planet, Earth Defense Force and Battlefield 4. Marc Janas, the project architect, worked on Battlefield 4’s Dragons Teeth DLC package, along with the Medal of Honor and SOCOM franchises. Creative director Roy Orr’s credits include Shadows of the Damned and Lost Planet.
With all those gritty, realistic shooters, it may seem a little surprising that the team would choose a space exploration game to work on. “We had some other concepts that we were talking about that were really focused on Oregon Trail, and different concepts that were really about this journey.” Jones told us. “All of us are really fond of the space genre, and where it’s going now is obviously very interesting, but it’s kind of how we grew up. We grew up playing all these games [like] X-Wing vs Tie Fighter. The Dig, for instance, is one of my favourite games of all time. Stuff like that really resonates with us still to this day and we were like ‘you know what, we really want this kind of journey and exploration to play out in space’”.
Jones revealed that working with the space genre “provides us an exceptional amount of leeway… it allows us to compose things that people understand on a fundamental level, but really stretch those boundaries and do interesting things. Whereas the games that we’ve all worked on for the past ten years have been very rooted in ‘realism’, this for us is something different and it’s an opportunity for us to really spread our wings and allow players to experience something unique.”
As well as the influences stated in their Kickstarter video – The Fifth Element, Guardians of the Galaxy, Oregon Trail, FTL, Out There – art director Alden Filion and creative director Roy Orr have been playing Elite a lot, so there are some clear influences. Jones gave a nod to Star Wars as being a space genre giant, as well as Star Trek and the way the captain relates to their crew.
The Fugitive team’s $85000 target seems quite low, considering the ambitions of the game. Jones revealed that Into the Stars and the Fugitive team are not really under much financial pressure. In fact, the cost of core development itself is mostly covered. While it was possible to deliver the game in some form off their own funds, the team made a definitive decision to take the project to Kickstarter. The supplementary funds in the kitty from a successful Kickstarter campaign will enable them to improve the final product – starting with the audio. “We know that we want great music, we know that we want a fantastic audio suite – and, trust me, we plugged in a lot of sounds on our own and, you know, it was okay, but it certainly wasn’t up to the level of gameplay and the visuals that we were providing.” Jones said. “So we know it was important, but that really clarified it in our mind… and that’s why we pursued the Kickstarter.”
Specifically, they decided to court space game audio exemplar Jack Wall.
“Jack [Wall] was actually our first choice.” Jones told us. “He is synonymous with the space genre in gaming.” Getting into contact with Wall was relatively straight forward – Alden Filion had previously worked with Wall on Lost Planet 3. After pitching the concept and seeing some visuals, Wall decided to hop on board – and this is where the Kickstarter came in. “[The Kickstarter is] going to pay for Jack’s soundtrack completely, and it’s also going to pay for a complete audio suite, which includes original sound effects and voice over work – it’s very comprehensive.” Jones said.
While Wall’s participation was the core goal of Kickstarter, there are some added benefits. The extra money will also buy the team “a couple of months of development that’s very focused on polish. Whether or not that produces some new ideas, or allows us to integrate stuff that’s low hanging fruit that we really want but is not in our current development plan, is yet to be seen, but I will say that our ultimate goal is to use the rest of those funds for polish and ensuring that we’re delivering a stable and enjoyable experience first and foremost, and then we’ll look to continue to add content after release.”
Going it alone has created a few difficulties. Having such a small team naturally increases the workload, meaning they “don’t have the luxury of the resources and the support structure that you would get at a larger publisher, so we have to handle everything, from production to marketing to packaging to distribution – you really are doing it all.” It also puts a strain on their expertise “because it means that we’re going well beyond the normal juggling that we do in development to actually juggle different fields in parallel.”
It’s not necessarily balancing the workload that was most difficult, but rather the aspects of development. “For me, where I was used to being a lead designer or someone that was very focused on creative direction, now I’m kind of taking a back seat to that and really focused on production and development and contracts and partnerships and all this other stuff, while having to keep an eye on the game and play it every day and make sure that we’re driving towards all these targets. That’s a different experience for me for sure, especially the balance of that.”
Thankfully for Fugitive, their team is “exceptionally balanced”. Working so close to each other enables them to help each other when they may be falling short.
Along with the challenges come a suite of rewards. Foremost of these is independence.
“We get to work with one another to work on something that we really believe in and that we’ve wanted to do for a long time.” Jones said. “This is our opportunity to build something for a community, with them in parallel, to build a product that we can really believe in and call our own”
Fugitive have talked to “some” publishers about Into the Stars, and they’ll “see where that goes”, but currently the team are more focused on development. “When you’re working for a big publisher,” Jones told us, “those kinds of decisions [about the game’s direction] are very gated, and they have to make their way through layers and layers and layers of management in order to get blessed – and oftentimes they’ll come the other direction, where you’re getting a major decision being made by marketing or someone on the publishing side that has a major impact on the product but you have no control over – it’s just dictated to you. And, you know, that’s an understood part of publishing, and we get that, but that’s something that we really wanted to move away from, because we feel like between us and the community we’re creating we can cultivate these ideas on their own, and they can be impactful, and they don’t need to be vetted by marketing or PR or any of the other layers of publishing in order to be successful.”
Jones did say that they will be courting publishers to bring Into the Stars to consoles, because they’d “love to” get Into the Stars to consoles, but console presence is dependent on the publishers’ whims as gatekeepers, but it’s not something the team are actively seeking right now.
Another one of Fugitive’s choices enabled by independent development has been the use of Unreal Engine 4. According to Jones, the decision to use UE4 mostly “came down to timing”. Epic had just announced the engine when the team were looking to start the project, and all the support structures and pricing and market factors played a part in their decision to pick up UE4, but the most important factor was the team’s familiarity with Unreal. The team members have a history with Unreal Engine 3, having built and shipped games on that engine in the past, so knowledge of the tools and processes involved in working with Unreal heavily weighted the engine in their favour.
That’s not to rubbish the other popular indie alternative Unity – “Unity is also very approachable for indie devs, and they offer a lot of support as well… I certainly feel the impact that Unreal Engine 4 has had on the indie community, especially in announcements of late, but I don’t know that [UE4] will end up eliminating Unity altogether – that just seems a bit far-fetched.”
But Unreal Engine 4 does enable the team to harness massive amounts of graphical fidelity – and to Jones and the team great graphics are very important for this project.
“We’re trying to deliver this experience that’s a bit nostalgic – you’re drawing on things you’ve felt or experienced before, whether that’s Oregon Trail or FTL, Out There, games like that. We’re pulling those experiences together, and for us it’s really about delivering that in a beautiful, 3D, and open world. In order to really pull that off, we had to really push the graphical fidelity as far as it could go. For us, if it’s not beautiful, if it’s not visceral, if it’s not something that I’m really engaged in, then the rest of it starts to fall apart – if I’m questioning the graphics, what am I questioning next?”
Currently, after a little over a week, Into the Stars’ Kickstarter is hovering around $83000, which is just under the $85000 target. Jones and the team have so far been “blown away” by the response to Into the Stars’ Kickstarter. “Especially those first 36 hours – I, just, we were all sitting there, trying to work, but just hitting f5 constantly. It is just amazing. People’s comments and the general reaction has been just incredible – we feel really fortunate.”
“Moreover we’re excited – this is the project we wanted to work on for a long time, and to see that kind of reaction from a community and group of players out there that shows that hey, this is the game that they want too, is amazing… It’s been months in the shadows with this, where we’ve had to be very quiet when we’ve wanted to scream from the heavens, so we’re really excited to have it out there, and for the community to validate what we’re doing.”
Into the Stars has been in development for less than a year, but it’s already just coming into alpha. The next few months will focus on world population and content creation. The lead-up “front end” of Into the Stars’ development – the part where the game’s systems get structured – has been the most significant amount of work, and the back end – where content is added – is expected to go relatively quickly. Fugitive are just now entering the content creation stage. “We’re really excited to get [to the content creation stage], because we think that’s the most fun part – writing all these amazing encounters for players to experience.”
Be sure to read part two of our interview with Fugitive Games, covering all the gameplay details of Fugitive’s upcoming game Into the Stars. Don’t forget to follow OnlySP on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date with all our latest interviews, we plan on airing one every week for the foreseeable future!