A little while back, I was made aware of a game called Endless Sky, a one-man indie project that strives to capture the exceptional gameplay found in the Escape Velocity series. As I loved Escape Velocity, I simply had to know more. Coincidentally, just as I was about to write to the author to invite them to do a Q&A, he wrote me an email about his game! What follows is my Q&A with the game’s creator, Michael Zahniser. Please note that I’ve not yet played the game (which is free to download by the way), so these questions come from a place of near pure ignorance. ;) With that said, I hope you enjoy the interview, and thank you for reading (oh, and check out the game too when you can ;).
Brian Rubin: Hey, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. First off, what was the primary inspiration for creating Endless Sky, and when did you start working on it?
Michael Zahniser: I’ve been waiting for a decade for someone to create a cross-platform spiritual successor to the Escape Velocity series – games which I played as a kid and which totally blew my mind at the time. Finally, around the end of 2013, I decided to just write one myself. It’s open source because on my own, I can maybe make a decent game, but if enough other people contribute art and stories and audio, it can grow into something far more awesome.
BR: When you start a game, what kinds of choices are available to you? Do you get to choose a starting career, or a starting ship, or a combination, for example?
MZ: You can choose between three ships: a fast and versatile shuttle, a cargo ship that’s good for making money in boring ways, and a fighter for people who just want to start shooting things. A skilled player can give the fighter some longer-range weapons and use it to lure pirate ships off by themselves in order to disable and capture them, but for most players the early game will just involve taking on cargo and passenger missions. You can work your way up to a low level warship in less than an hour of play, though.
BR: Apparently there are three main storylines. How does one get involved in any one of these particular storylines, and can they be ignored altogether?
MZ: Only one story line is implemented, so far: joining the “rebel” Free Worlds faction. Eventually there will be two other story lines: working for the Navy (against the rebels) or for the Syndicate (a megacorporation). The rebellion has not yet started when the game begins, but once war breaks out (sorry, spoiler!) you can pick up intro missions for the Free Worlds in their territory.
It’s possible to ignore the story entirely, but the game world changes over the course of the story – new technologies invented, etc. – so there are a few advanced items you can’t access without playing through it.
BR: Are the universes randomly generated or pre-made? I’m guessing pre-made due to the inclusion of an editor (which is awesome, by the way), but I’d love to be wrong. ;)
MZ: The universe is pre-made. My pet peeve with random generation is that you end up with a huge universe, but it feels very empty because every part of it is just like the others. There may be people or aliens in each star system, but random generation can’t (really) give them each a distinct and believable history or personality.
In Endless Sky, each world has custom flavor text, intended to provide a sense of history or culture or something interesting or entertaining about it. And, special missions tie in to the history of particular parts of the galaxy. Eventually, there could be many galaxies to explore, each filled with hand-crafted stories and missions and unique alien species.
BR: How intuitive are the controls, and do you have support for various controllers beyond the mouse and keyboard? I ask because I was never good at combat in Escape Velocity. ;)
MZ: It’s always entertaining to watch a new Escape Velocity player trying to control their ship or bring it to a stop over a planet. :) I’ve eliminated some of the frustration for new players, by having the AI take over when boarding a ship or landing on a planet. You can also set up the AI to help you aim your weapons or auto-fire them (which is useful for anyone who prefers mouse targeting + WASD steering).
I don’t own a joystick or a game controller. I imagine supporting them would be relatively easy, but I have not looked into that yet.
BR: I love how efficient you’ve made finding trade routes. Let me ask, how dynamic is the economy in this game, and how much can the player affect it?
MZ: The economy is static. It’s important to the plot and history of the game that certain regions of the galaxy have high demand for food, say, or low availability of medicine. A lot of the factional conflict revolves around richer and poorer regions of space, which are reflected in the commodity prices. Some regions also have more or less access to fissionable materials, for building starship reactor cores (and depending on how the war is going, for… other purposes… as well).
I thought about having a dynamic economy, but commodity trading is a small enough part of the game, that it wasn’t worth the added complexity. When a game tries to do absolutely everything, often that game just never gets finished, so I’ve tried to focus only on features I saw as the bare essentials.
BR: How many ships are available to the player? Are any ships only available to those in a specific storyline or faction?
MZ: There are roughly 50 ships available, and I imagine that number will increase now that some people are getting excited about modding. The Navy has ships that no one else can buy, but you can capture them if you don’t mind pissing off the Republic. Two other ships are only available after completing certain missions. Some alien ships can be bought, and some can only be acquired by capturing them.
Also, there are nearly 200 different “outfits” you can use to customize a ship depending on your playing style. So, the same ship can be a long-range missile boat, or a speedy ship that flies circles around opponents, or a beefed up cargo ship, or whatever else you want.
BR: Speaking of factions, how many are there in the game, and do they react dynamically to you and each other? For example, can factions spark off a war with each other?
MZ: A war does indeed start early on in the game, and the territory of each faction changes as you play through the story line.
Not counting the aliens, there are three main factions, but each one has divisions within it. The Free Worlds, which is sort of a populist / socialist movement, is theoretically democratic but in fact is mostly controlled by an oligarchy. The Syndicate includes some people who really care about job creation and improving the galaxy, and others who only care about money. The Republic has the Navy, who value honor and duty, and are highly respected even by their foes. But it’s run by Parliament, who only support the interests of rich planets and large corporations. And there are various other groups:
BR: Is exploration a possible avenue of play in this game? Can new things be found if one flies far enough away from civilized space?
MZ: At present there are four alien species that each control one or more star systems. One lives in human space. A second friendly species has a large territory that you can find with enough exploration. A third species occasionally raids human space, and the fourth one is not accessible if all you have is an ordinary hyperdrive. My hope is to eventually fill the whole galaxy with different aliens, some friendly and some hostile, so that once the player has a strong enough ship and the right equipment they can sail off and explore, Star Trek style.
One of my principles in laying out the galaxy was: the cooler a thing is, the harder it should be to find. So, there are certain cosmological phenomena that you might only discover after hours of playing and say, “What the heck is that thing?”
BR: How big can the universe be using the universe editor? Alternatively, could you make the game take place in just one huge star system with the editor as well?
MZ: Each star system and planet needs to have a unique name, but there are no limits on size of the galaxy. You can even add more galaxies to the map file, if you edit it manually. A star system can contain any number of planets, but flying between them would be a lot slower than using the hyperdrive, which always dumps you out in a new system at exactly the right trajectory to land on the main inhabited planet.
BR: Are there plans to bring the game to platforms like Steam or GOG, and if so, how is that going?
MZ: Endless Sky is in the top 100 on Steam Greenlight, currently ranked #41. Depending on how much of a hassle Steam turns out to be, I might distribute on other platforms too.
BR: Once the game hits 1.0, what are your plans for post release support in terms of content or more editing capabilities?
MZ: The galaxy editor needs some improvement (in particular, an integrated spell checker). I also need to write documentation for things like creating custom weapons. Other long term goals include: a centralized plugin server. Total conversion plugins. A zoomed-out “tactical mode” for once you’re commanding a fleet of dozens of ships. Adaptive music that changes when, say, you enter a giant firefight. And getting Joss Whedon’s permission to include a Firefly-class freighter in the game. :)
BR: Finally, what’s the one thing you’re most excited about with Endless Sky?
MZ: User-contributed content. Now that the game is receiving more publicity, I hope that some of the people who are just discovering the game will be good at creating high quality sound effects, or sci-fi “matte painting” landscapes, or drawings of aliens, or new story lines – all things that other people can do much better than I can.
BR: Thanks for your time!