Testing the Outer Limits of EVERSPACE
ROCKFISH Games knows a thing or two about making a space shooter. Much of the studio's team, including CEO and Co-Founder Michael Schade, were responsible for the Galaxy On Fire games; an award-winning series that redefined the boundaries of mobile gaming.
After nearly doubling its goal in a successful crowdfunding campaign, the young studio set its sights on shaking up the space shooter scene on PC while exploring the limits of storytelling within a roguelike.
Unlike a more traditional sim that focuses on realism, EVERSPACE is all about bold arcade-style action with fast movement and blockbuster FX. EVERSPACE is a game that begs to be seen in motion. But, with such an emphasis on story and features like crafting, there's more to the game than just guns-blazing dogfights.
Schade's passion for the game is unmistakable as he shares his thoughts on the genre, the variety of mechanics at play in EVERSPACE, and why level design in space is a little more tricky than you might think.
What was the inspiration for EVERSPACE?
MS: We have been playing a lot of games with roguelike elements in the last few years and grew quite fond of the genre. We especially liked FTL, Rogue Legacy, and The Binding of Isaac, just to name a few. Most of the modern roguelike games are 2D games with retro graphics, so the idea was to tread new ground by mixing roguelike elements with stunning 3D visuals.
The space genre was quite an obvious choice, as the team was responsible for the Galaxy On Fire series with the roguelike aspects setting us apart from pretty much all other space games out there. We also felt that no space game since Freelancer really got the mouse and keyboard controls right and has had that arcadey, pick-up-and-play feel to it.
Once a specific type of dungeon crawler, "roguelike" has become more of general design philosophy. What does the term mean to you?
MS: We think the most important aspect is that through random elements and/or procedural generation roguelikes offer high replayability. Players never know what will happen next and will have to be very creative and spontaneous when the odds are stacked against them. As most roguelikes don’t have permanent progression, players will only get better by gradually learning more and more about the game mechanics and getting more skilled.
EVERSPACE seems to treat death as a part of the player's progression, rather than a final consequence of failure. How does this system work?
MS: Players will die a lot in our game and we don’t want the player to feel frustrated by that. Players will of course learn from their mistakes and get increasingly skilled by playing, but we also want to give a sense of progression by being able to buy permanent upgrades right after death with the credits earned during the last run. Some will make the ship stronger, other will unlock whole new features, giving additional motivation to have another go right after dying.
How do you keep players from becoming overpowered with this system, and is there a reason players might still try to avoid dying?
MS: Players will naturally try to get as far as they can to either finish a run successfully, achieve a new record or to collect enough credits in order to unlock a more expensive upgrade they have always had their eyes on. Thanks to the random generation, it can always happen that you’ll find yourself in situations you simply underestimate. So even experienced players with many upgrades won’t be able to finish the game every single time. And players that became too skilled and powerful can choose to play the next run on a harder difficulty. We also have big plans for a special hardcore mode with perma-death and a wide variety of selectable rules that offer all-new challenges and should keep the game interesting.
What are some of the ways in which players can customize their ships and how does this affect play-style?
MS: Once players have found the right blueprint - which they keep as part of the permanent progression - they can always craft their favorite equipment during a run if they have collected the required resources. But, an important part of the game is also exploration and using whichever equipment you can get your hands on. This encourages trying different playstyles and discovering which devices, consumables and weapons are better suited for certain situations.
For example - we have a certain device that greatly enhances all your weapons when installed, but also permanently takes down your shields, encouraging an all-offense playstyle. Others devices, like the cloak and teleporters and long range weapons, offer the possibility to avoid fights and put a higher emphasis on resource collection. We even want to further encourage different playing styles by adding two more ships and other pre-run customization options that are still in the planning stage.
You're also placing a heavy emphasis on storytelling. How does that fit in with the roguelike design?
MS: Many roguelike games only give some sort of narrative context instead of a full-fledged story. One of the reasons for this is the heavy use of randomization and constantly having to start from the beginning. So, it’s not an easy task to pull off. Without spoiling too much, we think that we found a great way to integrate the many deaths of a player into the story in a meaningful way. You will meet different characters that have their own mini-storylines, some of which will play a part in the main story. Players will gradually unravel the secret of their own existence which will become more clear with every death.
This isn't your first space-combat game. You and much of your team created the Galaxy on Fire mobile games. What was it like transitioning from mobile to PC game development?
MS: The mobile market is very different from PC. Most of the titles are free-to-play and require you to put the monetization design on the same level with the actual game design, which will usually lead to compromises. Our team members wanted to create a game that they themselves would like to play, which is a pay once play forever space game. So, that was one motivational push. The other one was breaking the technological limitations. Though mobile platforms have become incredibly powerful, there are always limitations when it comes to controls and the UI on small screens. Making a game that only depends on our creativity and determination, paired with a reliable engine that lightens our workload and lets us concentrate on game-specific tasks, is our (and probably every game developer’s) dream.
Why did you choose to use Unreal Engine 4 in creating EVERSPACE?
MS: UE4 is very powerful and wonderful to work with. It's very handy for prototyping and tweaking. It allows us to make very fast progress and minimizes technical problems, letting us focus on the game logic. It also has so much graphics power that our technical lead can go absolutely crazy on the particle effects.
On that note, EVERSPACE is brimming with FX, making for an undeniably visually intense experience. Why was this such a focus?
MS: With the vibrant, dynamic visuals we want to put more emphasis on the action-oriented focus of the game while setting us apart from overly realistic space sims. We want people to immediately understand that this game is not about realism but all about the fun.
What are some of the challenges people might not expect when approaching level design for a space environment?
MS: Heavy use of randomization can cause random problems, so it’s not easy to find the balance between too many rules and limitations and too much freedom. We also wanted to get the balance between exploration and fighting right. It took a while to tweak the distances separating points-of-interest and the general sizes of locations, the complexity and level of detail of the environments, and the number of enemy encounters. Players shouldn’t get lost either. Though they have six degrees of freedom and space is basically endless, our level geometry is mostly spread across an imaginary plane in front of your entry point. This greatly helps people find their way around.
How does the sound design fit into the overall player experience?
MS: Sound is vital to creating the right atmosphere, tension, and even visual FX. But, sound design in a roguelike can be tricky.
A static soundtrack does not work because we want each run to be a unique journey, but complete randomization has too much potential for odd combinations. So, different sounds are tied to specific results of procedural generation, creating a soundtrack that is somewhat controlled, but still unique.
To give you an example, each sector has a style of background music to give the player a base sense of place, which will become more dramatic as the threat level rises. At the same time, the individual sounds coming from points-of-interest, like the eerie metal groans of a battlefield graveyard, combine with the music to help further define that region into a very specific and memorable location.
Of course, combat is one of the most exciting features of EVERSPACE, so we have put a tremendous amount of effort into the sound design there. It is completely possible to learn to identify your enemy's weapons and, with Dolby Surround 5.1, even dodge incoming projectiles with sound alone.
EVERSPACE is currently available while it's in development. Have you had any surprises from players?
MS: It is quite surprising to see how many hours some players have already stacked into the game. There is a guy who played for more than 250 hours, which is absolutely unbelievable considering the game is not even finished! And, even though the game is quite hard, there are people out there that are already doing speedruns and succeeding in no-upgrade-runs where they reset the game and try to reach the end without having any upgrades installed. We did not expect this to happen; at least not so soon. Our community is also very verbal and active, having already given us a lot of useful suggestions.
What's next for EVERSPACE and where can people learn more?
MS: We recently released an update that adds an additional player ship, a difficulty selection, and many more other tweaks and features. Then, there is a third player ship coming before the end of the year and we are already working on the story elements that will be added next year. Other features for the full release include animated cockpits and the aforementioned hardcore mode. And, of course, we will constantly gather user feedback and tweak the game.