Image courtesy of ROCKFISH Games

Everspace 2 delivers a handcrafted universe brimming with space combat

Brian Crecente |
May 17, 2023
ROCKFISH Games is an independent AA game studio specializing in cutting-edge space action RPGs for PC and consoles. Industry veterans Michael Schade and Christian Lohr founded ROCKFISH Games to create a new breed of adrenalin-filled adventures for space shooter fans through their acclaimed EVERSPACE IP. After spending 30 years as joint entrepreneurs in the 3D graphics and mobile gaming space, Schade and Lohr built ROCKFISH Games from the ground up alongside their former team of veteran talents to the current studio of 25 cherry-picked game developers and community experts from across the industry.
In 2017, ROCKFISH Games delivered a shade of roguelike play to the space combat genre with Everspace. More than five years later, the studio released Everspace 2, an evolution of the original that pushes the space combat franchise into the realm of action role-playing game and expands the universe into a living open-world.

The new title, which hit Windows PC on April 6 and has a planned summer release for Xbox X/S and PlayStation 5, is already garnering high praise for its scope and detail. TheGamer notes that it’s easy to lose track of time in the game thanks to its “stunning locations.” And MMORPG.com writes that “Flying around space is exhilarating, fighting against enemy ships is a rush, and the story keeps me guessing.”

We spoke with ROCKFISH Games about the early history of the franchise, why Kickstarter was the best route for developing both games, and how Unreal Engine empowered the team’s decision to shift from procedurally generated areas to more than 100 hand-crafted locations.
 

Around what ideals and goals did the studio form?

Michael Schade, CEO and Co-Founder of ROCKFISH Games:
We’re a very tight team, but have a diversity of preferences in terms of different gameplay, visual design, and storytelling styles we prefer individually. The team likes to challenge each other constantly, always pushing the limits, while also always having each other’s back. Everyone fights hard for their ideas and loves to debate passionately, but we always allow plenty of room for failure to encourage trying out new things. I try not to change general direction too much and avoid micromanagement even though I also have strong opinions. I believe it’s important for discussion to happen but within a fostered culture of respect.

Basically, our team always owns the vision of the game we’re working on. I’m responsible for where and when to set the goal posts to make sure I can sell our products to potential partners and as many fans as possible, while my business partner has my back and keeps the studio lights on.

Our veterans have been working together for two decades on action, fighting, racing, sports, and role-playing games for all kinds of platforms. They followed me and my partner even when times were super tough and the future was very uncertain, but deep mutual trust and having achieved many lofty goals together have forged us stronger and stronger. Our story has attracted a bunch of great new talents over the years, so it seems we’ve been doing quite a few things right. As we keep moving forward, we’ll continue to double-down on our bottom-up, family-style way of rolling things by not bringing any VCs or publishers on board.

What made you decide to create the original EVERSPACE?

Schade:
The shortest answer: We love space games! Many of us at the studio fell in love with games like Wing Commander and Freelancer as fans of the genre. Most of our team have been working together for years on space titles in prior ventures and EVERSPACE seemed like a natural extension of our talents.
Image courtesy of ROCKFISH Games
Every single person on the team loves sci-fi, especially big properties like Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica ... and the EVERSPACE franchise is our way of contributing to the genre. We are proud of what we’ve created so far and plan to continue expanding the universe in games and perhaps even other mediums in the future.

With the original EVERSPACE, we wanted to make a slight departure from the genre of space shooter games. While we love many other games in the genre that came before, we noticed that the universes they were set in felt empty and bleak, mimicking real zero-G physics and the vastness of space.

With EVERSPACE, we wanted a colorful universe that felt big. We wanted it to be filled with ancient mysteries, out-of-this-world locations, and spacefaring lifeforms against a backdrop where anything could happen.

What did the team learn from the experience of launching the original EVERSPACE?

Schade:
Coming from a decade of making award-winning 3D mobile games with our in-house engine, EVERSPACE was our debut title on PC and console at our new studio, so there were a ton of new things for us to learn. Not only learning the ropes in Unreal Engine, but also all the hurdles of development for those new platforms. The team was super excited about the unlimited possibilities of Unreal and pushing technical limits on much more powerful hardware.

The greatest experience, however, was to share our vision early with our former fans and take it to a whole new level through open development and live streaming during nine months of collaborating with our community in Early Access. This was an entirely new concept to us, and we could have not made such a successful debut game without it.
Image courtesy of ROCKFISH Games
How did you apply those lessons to this sequel?

Schade:
Even though EVERSPACE 2 is very much an open-world action RPG, the DNA of the first game can be seen throughout. We’ve carried over many lessons learned from the first game, mostly the fast-paced moment-to-moment combat EVERSPACE excelled at. Even with our genre shift, there was no way we were going to not try to improve the already-exceptional space shooting fun. Ship choice in the first game was a frequent discussion in the community and with this sequel, we wanted to offer even more options on that front. There are nine different ship types with upgradable tiers, each with their own perks, playstyle, and ultimate attacks. A tip for new players, stock away credits to try out a different ship. You might find a new favourite way to play. Personally, I love big tank-y ships that can take and dish out massive amounts of damage.

Beyond space shooting, we found that characters in EVERSPACE, and the follow up DLC EVERSPACE: Encounters, to be a hit with our community. In EVERSPACE 2, you’ll see a number of familiar faces and a whole lot of new ones. As the story progresses, a whole roster of unusual companions will join Adam’s team, each with unique unlockable perks that provide very useful upgrades.

I’m also glad to see that the team has leaned into the banter between Adam and his AI companion, HIVE. It was something I enjoyed in the first game and the two have really great chemistry together.

What made you decide to return to Kickstarter for EVERSPACE 2?

Schade:
Our first Kickstarter campaign was incredibly successful. It was with the support of the community who rallied around EVERSPACE that we were able to develop and self-publish our first game. It also served as an excellent platform to get the word out about what we were making, drawing in space game fans and media.

Returning to Kickstarter wasn’t just another way to crowdfund EVERSPACE 2. We wanted to approach our community and space game superfans with the chance to get hands-on with an early version of the game before anyone else. Backers were given our prototype demo as an early look at EVERSPACE 2 before nearly everyone else in the world, including the media. This prototype would later evolve into the demo that remains on our store page which more than 276,000 people have downloaded so far.

Having the ability to self-publish EVERSPACE 2 has been a big benefit not only to our team, but to fans of the game as well. With full control over the release of EVERSPACE 2, we were able to ensure the game is released at the level of quality that we aim for with no external pressures, aside from a community excited for 1.0, to release early.
Image courtesy of ROCKFISH Games
What drove the decision to pivot from the first game’s roguelike approach to a full-blown open-world looter shooter for EVERSPACE 2?

Schade:
EVERSPACE 2 is the game we wanted to make when we first started ROCKFISH Games. With the first game, we turned to roguelike mechanics to save on development costs and timelines, but Adam’s story as a clone really captured us. As we moved to more of an open-world action RPG, we continued to explore what it means to be a clone in a galaxy full of human and alien kind. Adam not only struggles with finding his way in the universe and his way out of the Demilitarized Zone of Cluster 34, but everything is more dangerous now that he’s only got one life to live. With more room to tell story in this sequel, we’ve surrounded Adam with a crew of misfits as he navigates everything the DMZ has to throw at him while chasing a payday big enough to buy passage out of the system.

How dramatic are those changes?

Schade:
Significantly so! While EVERSPACE 1 fans will recognize the exciting gameplay and visual style of some of our more colourful star systems, EVERSPACE 2 is a very different game.
Image courtesy of ROCKFISH Games
The first and most dramatic difference is the sheer scope of the game. At launch, we’re going to have more than 100 handcrafted locations on top of all the procedurally generated areas that randomly created jobs and events take place in. A first-time player who sticks to the main story with only minimal exploration of side content is going to spend more than 30 hours playing. Completionists ferreting out every secret are going to spend upwards of a hundred hours to find everything. We’re looking forward to seeing just how long the first few 100% speedruns turn out!

Narrative is another aspect that we’ve dove further into. Where the first game had about one hour of spoken dialog, EVERSPACE has more than four! We’ve expanded the cast of the game as Adam is joined by many new faces and some returning characters from EVERSPACE and EVERSPACE: Encounters. While fans of the first game will instantly recognize many callbacks to the first game, we’ve made sure that people hopping into this sequel as their first experience with EVERSPACE games aren’t left out.

Undertaking this story has been a massive task for our small team. Our writers and designers have produced over ten thousand lines of dialog that appear in the game which we’ve localized in thirteen different languages. On day one, we’ll have voice overs in both English and German, and we’re looking into French and Japanese V/O for future updates.

There’s a lot to talk about, but the last I’ll mention here touches on our shift in genre. As we developed EVERSPACE 2 into an action RPG, we invested in developing systems that would appeal to space shooter fans who just want to blow things up, but also included levels of complexity that RPG fans who love crunchy numbers and skill combinations can really dig into. Our testers really have their hands full with all the different combinations of ships, perks, and equipment combined.
Image courtesy of ROCKFISH Games
What other major changes does EVERSPACE 2 bring to the mix?

Schade:
Stepping away from the rogue-like gameplay of the original, EVERSPACE 2 is an open world action RPG with looter-shooter mechanics. That means we have more characters, more missions, more side quests, and more of everything really. We’ve handcrafted more than 100 areas throughout the solar systems of Cluster 34 and each is packed with side quests to discover, secrets to uncover, puzzles to solve, and lots of loot!

The first EVERSPACE included light RPG mechanics, but with this sequel, we’re leaning into that side of design in a big way. Leveling up grants all-round improvements and swappable perks that let players customize their playstyle.

Equipment is a big one. Favourite weapons from EVERSPACE make a return along with many new options. Finding, buying, and crafting a wide variety of weapons and ship equipment is the real key to survival. Even the most skilled pilot needs top-end gear to survive some of the challenges that’ll be thrown at them. It’s worth noting that if a situation is too hot, it’s easy to jump away and find another area to get more XP and new gear.

We’ve expanded on ship design styles. As you purchase new ships, you’ll be able to play with more options for wing and thruster types. We’ve also added a wide range of customization color options and decals for people to collect and personalize their ships with.

How did Unreal Engine help you shift the game’s approach to open-world with deep RPG systems?

Hans-Christian Kühl, ROCKFISH Games Lead Game Designer & Gameplay Programmer:
The “open world” in EVERSPACE 2 consists of over 100 handcrafted locations, which are all separate maps as well as one map per star system where we use Unreal Engine’s world origin shifting to cope with the large distances used in space.

Except for a handful of sub-levels, we don’t make use of Unreal Engine’s level streaming system because our maps are fairly limited in size. Each map has a distinct theme, should be easily comprehensible and navigable and ultimately invite players to explore all points of interest in the search for better loot and untold stories. This individual approach to level design helped us to split up the workload while ensuring that levels are rich in variety.

For the RPG systems, we use efficient native base classes and various inherited Blueprint child classes so that designers could easily tweak effects and also implement simple logic for the vast quantities of perks, weapons, enemies, pickups, challenges and other things you would expect in a game like this. Most balancing values come from rapidly imported data files so that we can make changes while having the editor running at all times.
Image courtesy of ROCKFISH Games
Seemingly everyone compares EVERSPACE 2 to games like Diablo or Destiny. How did you manage to nail that feel for the game?

Schade:
As a fan of the Destiny series, I love that! Internally, the pitch for EVERSPACE 2 was “Freelancer meets Diablo”, and we really committed to nailing the feel of gearing up your character with a wide variety of weapons and equipment to provide a wide range of options for players to specialize their ships and find different synergies. The design team really wanted players to feel like they can experiment with different weapons and gear, or if they’ve found their groove, be able to find straight up upgrades and continue on as they wish.

Things get really wild when legendary items with special unique perks start dropping. Our Early Access and test branch players have found some incredible combos that let them tear through even some of our toughest challenges. Many of these legendary weapons and gear can only be found in modifiable endgame push-your-luck combat scenarios called Ancient Rifts, a callback to the rogue-like gameplay of the original game.

With so many ship class and equipment options, balancing has been one of the biggest challenges we’ve tackled in the home stretch of development. As with the really great looter-shooter games, we want to provide exciting challenges and the tools for players to overcome them. Of course, as an action RPG with deep crafting options, EVERSPACE 2 players can use collected resources to make gear that fits their preferred build. Still, nothing beats watching a boss ship explode and drop that top tier gear you’ve been hoping for.

How did you set the game apart from other modern space games and from your previous title?

Schade:
I think that many modern space games are tackling the genre in their own way. Some focus more on base building and huge procedurally generated regions, while others aim for more of a realistic approach with distance and exploration. In general, I’m pleased to see that space games as a genre has been making a comeback in recent years and I think our EVERSPACE games are no small part of that.

With EVERSPACE 2, we want to give the sense of a massive universe, but do so through many large-sized handcrafted locations. Each system has its own unique character that really shines through in the environments the team has created. By hand crafting each area rather than relying on procedural generation, we add more personality to the universe and players avoid that “I’ve seen this before” feeling. 
Image courtesy of ROCKFISH Games
Were there any particular challenges that Unreal Engine helped you overcome that you would like to talk about?

Marco Unger, ROCKFISH Games Lead 3D / VFX / Environment Artist:
Unreal's powerful Blueprint system allowed both game and mission designers to implement gameplay logic at a very high level without the help of a programmer who would only need to provide a solid base class for the actors (what Unreal calls its gameplay objects). It also enabled our artists to implement their assets precisely the way they imagined which is particularly important for particle and sound effects that are often entangled deeply within the game logic. This opened up a lot of resources for our programmers and generally allowed all involved parties to work more autonomously.

You’ve mentioned how using Unreal Engine helped you create a beautiful and visually stunning universe. What were some of the ways you worked to breathe life into your galaxies?

Unger:
One particular rendering feature that we made heavy use of was Volumetric Fog. Unreal's implementation of this stunning technology enabled us to place and shape fog volumes with pinpoint accuracy to create the unique atmosphere of our in-game levels. Our level designers had full control over color, density, noise and even shading of the volumetrics. We even implemented a boolean operation that allowed them to subtract areas that should be excluded from the fog, for example interiors.
Image courtesy of ROCKFISH Games
Aside from that, Niagara really brought our particle effects to the next level in EVERSPACE 2, especially compared to the predecessor which used the older system, Cascade. The amount of control artists have over the behavior of the particles is simply amazing. Making the switch from Cascade was intimidating at first but soon we realized how much more powerful Niagara would be and now we wouldn't have it any other way.

The game has been in Early Access for more than two years. How has it evolved over those years?

Schade:
When we launched into Early Access in January 2020, EVERSPACE 2 had around twelve hours of story content spread across the first two star systems. Early Access launch was a very polished build that showed much of what we wanted to do. Over the last two years, we’ve added six major updates bringing new areas, ships, gear, cinematics, quests, characters, voiceover, languages, and more for Early Access players.

The feedback we’ve had from the community has been incredible and, in many cases, we’ve made significant changes to the game based on what we’ve heard. The most recent, and probably the largest change, is our switch from static leveled enemies to storyline-based level scaling enemies—providing greater challenge to already explored areas.

Why did you decide to officially launch the game in April and what will that mean to players and the title?

Schade:
EVERSPACE 2 was originally planned to release in 2022. We delayed the launch to continue expanding the scope of the game and to polish already created gameplay and content using additional funds from our PC GamePass deal. While it’s tough to let go of a project we’ve been working on so long, we believe our April build meets our high quality standards.

Will the game continue to evolve post launch and if so, how?

Schade:
Launch day is not the end! We have a massive free update being planned for later this summer that will include new gameplay features, customization options, and perhaps new voiceover languages. For all you Xbox and PlayStation fans, EVERSPACE 2 will launch on consoles later this summer—watch for dates on that release in the months ahead.

Earlier this year, the German government gave ROCKFISH Games a very generous 1.65 million euro grant for development of the first expansion for the game. We want this paid DLC to be not only more gameplay areas, but also have significant story content. Our creative team has already started concepting what this is going to be and I look forward to when we can share more!
Image courtesy of ROCKFISH Games
Are there any particular new Unreal Engine 5 features you are looking forward to using in the future and if so what are they and why?

Unger:
EVERSPACE 2 uses pre-baked lightmaps and reflections and, while it looks pretty good, it puts strain on our workflow. We had to set up a build server exclusively to render lightmaps overnight. Even with the smallest tweaks to environmental meshes or levels, a full rebuild was often required. The lightmaps were also responsible for a large percentage of the game's file size.

Looking forward, we can't wait for Unreal Engine 5's implementation of Lumen, the famous real-time lighting technology, which, optimally, would reduce the need for pre-baked lighting solutions and maybe even supersede them.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about EVERSPACE 2?

Schade:
The team has hidden many, many secrets through the game. If something seems unusual, go explore it!

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Where can people find out more about Rockfish Games and EVERSPACE 2?

Schade:
EVERSPACE 2 is available on Steam, GOG, and the Microsoft Store. We bring EVERSPACE 2 to consoles later this year!

We’re most active on our Discord and we stream nearly every Friday on Twitch and YouTube. If you’re curious about the game, check out the rest of our content on our YouTube channel. We’ve got many trailers and videos posted that dive into the making of EVERSPACE 2 and show game development builds from the last two years.

Social media-wise, find us on Twitter and Facebook where we post about events, game updates, and what the studio is up to.

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