November 13, 2017

The Fantastically Dangerous High Seas of Maelstrom

By Brian Rowe

Maelstrom wants to upend your conception of seafaring conflict. Instead of a dry simulation filled with the methodical plotting of courses and trajectories, Maelstrom combines arcade-style action with heavy customization and fantasy inspirations to create an intense game of naval combat that hits like a cannonball.

Multiplayer combat is the heart and soul of Maelstrom, and every Captain brings something new to the battle. With a wide variety of options for customization, including race, ship types, upgrades, and crewmembers, you'll never know exactly what you're up against until the iron starts flying.

An effective captain must be adept at strategizing in the heat of battle, positioning and predicting movements to line up shots, grappling for boarding, and even ramming when the going gets rough. But, players will also have to contend with other dangers of the sea, including fierce currents, fog banks, and deadly creatures lurking below the waves.

With production credits including Overwatch, League of Legends, and The Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War series, to name a few, Admiral/Founder Blaine Smith and the team at Gunpowder Games are no strangers to blending action and strategy, and rethinking conventions.


What inspired you to create not only a naval combat game, but one centered around action and fantasy as opposed to strategy and simulation?

Naval games are such a robust design space that we didn’t want to limit ourselves to a stereotypical, age of sail, pirate game. People have played and loved those games for the last 25 years, including myself. But, how about a reboot? Let's dust it off and reexamine what has been done and what’s loved about those games and what can be put aside or updated.

We started by building the entire game around a core feeling. A punch-a-hole-through-your-enemies-hull feeling. The more crunch and slam we can get in the better. That feeling permeated into the ship controls as well. We yearned for quick responsive ships, almost like fighting game characters that cut and weave in and out of danger seeking to exploit each other's weaknesses instead of just plodding along trading cannon fire until someone sinks.

We’ve embraced and embellished that feeling of commanding a warship, of wielding incredible firepower, and of firing a thunderous battery of cannons to have them slam into an enemy ship and see the fire and chaos. Be it by cannonballs, ramming, or boarding, every action in Maelstrom has resounding impact.

How do the three races - Humans, Orcs, Dwarves - factor into gameplay?

The fantasy races were a great fit for the game because they pushed the boundaries away from a stereotypical naval pirate game, and each race has inherent traits that make them unique.

HUMANS  - The broadside-centric ships of mankind are the fastest afloat. Each ship is armed with a large number of the most modern cannons available, giving them unmatched range and broadside firepower.

ORCS - The orcs' shark-pulled ships are incredibly maneuverable and have a large number of forward-facing cannons, making them deadly on the pursuit. The orcs themselves are ferocious fighters, unmatched in close combat during boarding actions.


DWARVES - Dwarves disdain pithy wood and flimsy sail, instead forging great armored steamships. Dwarven steamships can withstand far more punishment than the ships of other races and are armed with massive heavy cannons on all sides. Though slow, all their ships can switch gears and sail in reverse.


What sort of options do players have for customizing their ships?

Maelstrom has deep progression and customization systems, encouraging players to mark their personal stamp on each ship they own. Each race has access to unique ship upgrades known as hardpoints. Hardpoints let you create different play styles for each ship rather than being strict upgrades. Captains and mates further strengthen the customization.

For example; here are two vastly different play style kits for the exact same human frigate, Ashborne:

For visual customization, we also plan on getting as many of the high profile physical upgrades that we can on ships when players upgrade them, such as sails, armor, flags, warpaint, figureheads and more.

Do captains and crew members affect gameplay as well?

Yes! Each captain brings their own unique personality to ship combat in the form of a special ability known as a captain's trick. These abilities provide a host of new tactics and strategies you can bring to battle. You might, for example, assign Knight-Admiral Harrowfel for devastating, long-range Flare Gunpowder, or Princess-Captain Morrigan Shale for the speed she brings with her awe-inspiring Phoenix.

It looks like the environments can play a large role in combat. What sort of dangers will players face and how can they use them to their advantage?

Navigating the volatile seas in Maelstrom has its own challenges. Maelstroms provide daunting arenas where savvy captains can exploit the tidal force and gain positional advantages. Captains can sail into currents to speed ships along their way or hide in fog banks to ambush the unwary. And of course, we have to mention the ill-tempered Leviathans that add extra layers of chaos and mayhem.


The Gunpowder Games team has a heavy background in AAA development. What has the experience of building up a new studio been like?

It has been a whirlwind of excitement, positivity and a lot of hard work. We have team members all over the US, Canada, and Europe, so keeping everyone communicating and on track was the hardest part. We’ve had weekly playtests over the entire cycle of development so everyone can show off what they achieved each week, as well as plan for the next week. But, having veteran developers that believe in what we’re doing and who push to make the game better all the time makes it highly rewarding and really fun.

Why did you choose Unreal Engine 4 on this project?

Unreal was an easy choice for Maelstrom. The entire team was already familiar with UE4 based on previous projects, so we slid right into a comfortable production cadence with little ramp up. UE4 has a robust and beautiful engine with solid documentation, videos, and an outstanding community that’s as excited as Epic to help each other be successful. We recommend it any time other developers ask what engine we’re using after they’ve seen Maelstrom in action.

Tell us about a tool or feature of UE4 that has been particularly useful during development.

Definitely Networking - UE4 has easy to learn object and value replication which allowed us to do weekly multiplayer tests in no time. It also provides more granular control over what objects get replicated to whom, how often a value is replicated and how precisely floating point values are replicated. In Maelstrom there are times where countless cannonballs may be flying around in the world at the same time, and UE exposing controls for their replication has proven valuable to us in delivering this experience in a smooth and synchronized fashion to all players.

Gunpowder Games was recently awarded an Unreal Dev Grant. How has that influenced development?

The grant was a tremendous windfall for us. The accolade and recognition was a huge moment for the team. When you’re working on a game in the dark for a while and you finally show someone outside the studio and get that kind of positive response, it’s just fulfilling beyond words, and it has been a highlight for the team and the studio. The money itself has afforded upgrades to water shader, and more engineering.

Where should players go to stay up-to-date with Maelstrom's development?

The best way to get the latest news, private access sign-ups and the other fun stuff is to subscribe to our monthly newsletter HERE. You can also follow us on Twitter @GPG_Maelstrom.