Flagship Q&A: Real Time Strategic First Person Starship Combat Thingy
One of the things I love about having this blog is that finding new games can happen in completely unexpected ways. Take Flagship, for example. The only reason I found out about is because I noticed the URL of one of the devs’ emails when they commented on another post, and followed it to the game’s website. Once I saw the game’s screenshots and videos, I had to learn more, so I reached out to the devs for more info. What follows is a detailed Q&A with developers Brad Jeffrey and Matt J, and I hope you find it as enlightening as I did. :) Enjoy!
Brian Rubin: First, please tell us about yourself and how you came to work on Flagship.
Brad: Hello! My name is Brad and I’m the coder/lead designer of Flagship. I’ve been tinkering with games and modding for about 20 years (ever since Doom was released), but I only got serious about making my own games about 4 years ago. Flagship actually started out life as a mobile game inspired by the final battle in Wrath of Kahn. I liked the concept but the game wasn’t quite meeting my expectations. After 9 months of development, a combination of factors lead me to restart the game as a desktop title, built for the Oculus Rift. We’re now nearly a year into development and things are really starting to click into place.
Matt: I’m Matt, co-creator of Flagship. Among other things I’m handling the modelling, music and sound design. Doom was also where I started my interest in game design, extracting the WAD file and swapping out the Imps for bumble bees. Weird I know, but in my defence I was only about 9 years old! In recent years I’ve been mostly creating music and sound effects for games under the name ‘Farcloud’. When Brad told me he was moving his game to the desktop, I was super excited and demanded that we make this game together. We make a good team, I’m always pushing for crazy ideas to make the game bigger and Brad is very good at reining it in and making sure we finish the game in a realistic time frame.
Brian Rubin: Where did the inspiration for Flagship come from, and how did you get the project started?
Brad: The inspiration for Flagship came from many places, we’re both huge sci fi fans and have watched pretty much every major movie and TV show that revolves around spaceships; obvious favourites being the various Trek incarnations, Babylon 5 and Firefly (never could get into Andromeda though!). As far as games go, I’m a huge Wing Commander fan and of space sims in general, the general aesthetic of Flagship is heavily influenced by those games. The idea has been kicking around in my head for years, so it’s hard to pin down anything specific. It’s a melting pot, really.
Matt: You missed out Star Wars! You’re fired. But in all seriousness we both always loved Total Annihilation, Wing Commander: Armada and Star Wars: Rebellion (Supremacy in the UK), we played them for weeks on end. I’m a big fan of RTS games, my favourite being Total Annihilation as it was simple but extremely fun. Empire at War was a great game but I felt it lacked the depth of Rebellion. I think I’ve always just wanted a Rebellion 2 though! The Homeworld series is also a big influence. The idea of a Space RTS played from the first person perspective really excites me, as I haven’t seen it done before.
Brian Rubin: Now the game is played from a first person perspective, yet you command not only your own ship, but eventually fleets as well. Tell us about the UI you’re creating to make this all manageable.
Brad: The current UI design is probably not too dissimilar to what you’ve seen in other RTS titles; the key difference is that rather than splitting the interface into panels and windows, we’re applying those controls to physical consoles on the bridge of your ship. The console you’ll be using most is the central mapping table. We haven’t shown it yet because it’s still being developed, but this displays a top-down view of your ship and other ships in the local area. You can command your fleet and target enemy ships in much the same way you would in any other RTS. There will be other consoles for power allocation, resource management, weapon control etc. but using them is mostly optional. Our plan is to enable the player to make all the vital decisions from the central mapping console. Ideally, it will be possible to play the entire game without ever looking up from it (though you’ll be missing out if you do play that way).
As far as controllers go, at the moment the game is played with a keyboard and mouse, but we backed the Sixense STEM Kickstarter (wireless motion controllers) and will be attempting to integrate that system when the devkit arrives next summer. The mouse/keyboard combo works fine but it would be nice to give VR players another option. It’s probably worth mentioning that while the game is being built with the Oculus Rift in mind, it can be played on a normal monitor as well.
Brian Rubin: How does a typical game play out? For example, do you explore, find resources to gather, build more ships and conquer enemies, for example, or is there more to it than that like trading, missions and so on? If there are missions, what kind can we undertake?
Brad: For the initial release of the game we’re looking at exploration, resource management and tactical ship-to-ship combat. As much as we’d love to include trading, diplomacy and missions, we’re a team of two looking to deliver this game inside of two years (at most), so we’ve sadly had to rein in the scope. Our hope is that the game will sell well enough on initial release to allow us to expand the game into other areas. Limited scope often fosters better design anyway.
This is all subject to change, but the game starts with humanity on the retreat after losing Earth to a mysterious invading force (not terribly original, but we’re working on it). The human race has been reduced to a handful of border colonies and space stations, which you must initially hold against the pressing enemy fleet.
Each star system has between 1-10 planets, and each planet is surrounded by a set of control nodes. The more nodes you control the better you will be able to maintain control of a planet. Warping a fleet to an unoccupied node of an enemy planet comes with a chance of remaining undetected (depending on the distance and environmental factors), the idea being that you could split up larger enemy fleets with diversions, then hit them full-on with a surprise attack.
Resource management currently comes in the form of metal, food and water. Metal is required to build ships, stations and planetary outposts; while food and water are required to keep the human colonies going. As you can probably guess, different planets will offer varying levels of resources, but that comes with some hard choices. In the spirit of Battlestar Galactica there is a finite amount of humans left, and running out of people is a fast track to losing the game. Choosing to build metal refineries over food processing plants means you can build more ships, but eventually people will begin to starve, and each life lost reduces that counter! Every ship lost will cost human lives as well; escape pods will give the player the opportunity to save some, but a ship must be sent to physically pick them up (sometimes at great risk). On the flipside, establishing new colonies and keeping them well stocked will gradually increase the human population.
Brian Rubin: The first person engine is pretty impressive based on the one 2D video I saw (don’t have an Oculus Rift), as it could render quite a bit on screen at once. Could you please give us more details about the engine being used in the game?
Brad: This probably won’t be a huge surprise, but the game is being built with Unity. It’s easily the most flexible game creation tool we’ve ever used and takes away most of the heavy lifting involved with 3D graphics programming. The only real downside is that it’s next to impossible to add full modding support, which is a huge shame as we’d love to see Star Trek and Star Wars mods for this game.
Brian Rubin: In the video I saw, you were the lone person on the ship you were in command of. Will the game eventually feature crewmembers to handle certain stations, or is the ship controlled more by an assistant AI of sorts?
Brad: There will definitely be an AI crew, the only station you really have to use is the central mapping console. In the videos we’re flying the ship manually – which has probably confused a few people, but the truth is it should be pretty rare that you’d actually need to do this. You can walk over to any console (say, power management) and override the settings if you want, but otherwise the AI crew member will manage it for you.
The AI captains of other ships in your fleet will level up over time as well, higher level captains are far more likely to hold their own against superior force.
Brian Rubin: How is combat portrayed in the game? Is it more hands-on like in Bridge Commander, or is it more tactical like in Nexus: The Jupiter Incident?
Brad: This is a tough one to answer at this stage, but our focus is more on tactical decisions rather than micro management. You will be able to target specific enemy systems; manager power between engines, shields and weapons; switch turrets between offensive and defensive modes and divert shield power between quadrants. There probably will be micromanagement stuff there for the players that want it, but the core of the game will revolve around choosing which ships to deploy and how to use them, how much of your fleet you’ll dedicate to defence and how much you’ll send to the front line. Whether to surround the enemy or concentrate fire on key targets. Battleships, frigates and fighters will add a sort of rock, paper, scissors element too. We’re still experimenting, but we have a keen idea of how we want things to ‘feel’. The tricky part is balancing the various mechanics to get there, we definitely don’t want it to feel like you’re just banging ships together.
You can also send your ships against an enemy force without joining them yourself, but you’ll have limited command over the battle itself. It’s also likely you’ll have to choose between multiple battles should the enemy decide to attack you on multiple fronts.
Brian Rubin: Will the universe in the game be hand-made or will it be procedurally generated? Also, how large will the game’s universe be?
Brad: It will be a bit of both. The majority of planets and solar systems will be procedurally generated, but we will have certain systems tailor-made for the story. The exact size of the galaxy is still up in the air, to be honest. We’ve currently got around 1000 stars with varying numbers of planets, but we can set that number to whatever we want, within reason. It’s likely we’ll allow the player to define the size of the galaxy when starting a new game.
Matt: We’re also dividing the ships into modules so that they can be procedurally generated as well, although any ship with importance will be hand crafted. We are currently looking into procedurally generating the human population too. There will probably be a lot of crew milling around the ship and you could lose people with each battle so the turnover could be quite high. We also love the idea of the crew gradually showing fatigue as you continue to battle your way through the galaxy. So that babyfaced ensign would turn into a grizzled veteran after 100 battles. If it’s successful we’ll populate the space stations and outposts this way as well.
Brian Rubin: Besides the more direct ways to expand territory, such as combat and conquest, will there be other ways such as diplomacy, bribery and so on?
Brad: Probably not on initial release, unfortunately. The current plan is for humans to be a single faction, and as the mysterious enemy is the only other race, diplomacy isn’t really necessary. It is something we would love to add to the game post-release though. All this might change, Matt really wants more factions/races and if development goes smoothly we may add them. No promises though.
Matt: I’d also love to see diplomacy! :P But we really do need to be trimming the fat right now to make sure we’re not making the workload too big. But that extra fat isn’t being thrown away, it’s just going to sit there for a bit.
Brad: That analogy got gross really fast…
Brian Rubin: If you’re in a fleet, will you be able to transfer to other ships in your fleet, or will you always be leashed to one ship, as it were?
Matt: We’re pretty sure you’ll be tethered to the main ship, but you will probably gain access to newer, more powerful ships as you progress. We do want the universe to feel real and immersive, and while being able to board any ship would certainly add to that, it’s a lot of work and doesn’t really change the actual gameplay in any way. Saying that though, I am designing all the ships to have basic interior layouts, so if we did include boarding down the road, the foundation is there.
Brad: We are planning to add boardable space stations, these are where you’ll repair your ship and customise your weapons loadouts etc. At this point, we feel the time it would take to make ships boardable would be better spent breathing life into space stations and outposts.
Brian Rubin: Will the game feature any kind of smaller craft, like fighters or shuttles? If so, are they flyable by the player?
Brad: You’ll control fighters and bombers on the map table, their primary purpose will be to take out enemy fighters and bomb capital ships. We’ll probably give the player the option of jumping into one (Captain Sheridan does it all the time), but we’re not looking to compete with Star Citizen and it certainly won’t be the focus of the game.
Matt: We have been talking about shuttles too and what their purpose will be. One idea is that you would have access to a stealth shuttle that would allow you to travel to enemy systems undetected, so you could scout out the area or pick up escape pods.
Brian Rubin: What are the win conditions for the game? Conquer all territory, or a majority of it, for example?
Brad: There will be an endgame, it’s a bit of a secret but will involve a certain ‘boss’ unit. Your ability to tackle this unit will be gradually unlocked as you gain territory. Can’t really say much more than that!
Brian Rubin: When can we get our hands on a playable copy, and what is the projected release date?
Brad: It’s still early days, but we’re looking to have the game completed by December 2015 at the latest. To be honest, we’re really aiming to have it completed in half that time, but software development estimates being what they are, it’s best to under promise and over deliver!
It’s likely we’ll do a Kickstarter and/or go the alpha-funding route, in which case it’s entirely possible people could have their hands on an early alpha sometime in the next 6 months.
Brian Rubin: What’s the one thing you’re most excited about in Flagship?
Brad: Finishing it so I can play it! It is my dream game after all. :P We also have loads of ideas about how we can expand on it once the core strategy game is in place. I’m picturing more discrete linear stories, planetary exploration, salvaging shipwrecks, piracy!
Matt: Brad pretty much summed it up perfectly right there.
Thanks for giving us the opportunity to talk about the game Brian!