Former Edge staffer and protein bar-lover David Valjalo marks his first appearance in our corner of the internet by chatting to Born Ready Games’ leader designer Chris Redden about successfully Kickstartered mech/space combat game Strike Suit Zero. Discussed: the resurrection of a genre, the issues around meeting public promises, changes to the original plan, the rich UK developer Kickstarter backlash and if the wild success of Star Citizen suggests a space combat revival.
RPS: When we previewed the game last year, it was developed by DoubleSix – tell us about the transition to Born Ready Games and the genesis of the project…
About three years ago we were looking to do a space game – we were big fans of the genre – and we were thinking maybe it was a good time to get the genre going again. So we thought “let’s have a go!” We were able to get Junji [Okubo] onboard for the concept designs which really spurred us along and we were able to get [composer] Paul Ruskay onboard too, which further encouraged us. We just went for it. That was when we were under the name of DoubleSix. It was about nine months ago now we had a management buyout, then we shifted to Born Ready to carry on the project. It was pretty uneventful on our side of things in terms of making the game, we just carried on. We moved offices about five minutes up the road in Guildford.
RPS: How did you rope in Okubo and Ruskay?
Junji had done some concepts on previous pitches for us before, and we had staff at the time who were friends of his, it was perfect timing. As for Paul, we were big Homeworld fans, and when we had Junji onboard we just thought it’d be amazing to get Paul too, for the soundtrack… so we just sent him a Facebook message.
RPS: Their names will attract a certain audience, they’re identified with specific games, is it intentional to invoke the likes of Steel Battalion and Homeworld?
Especially with Paul it was because we were fans – they each had the sort of styles that we wanted for the game. The atmosphere Paul created for Homeworld, we wanted that. And Junji’s mecha design style, he’s considered a western-style designer in Japan, he does very mechanical designs, whereas a western audience might not perceive it that way, it gave us the blend of east and west that we wanted.
RPS: Many people have suggested the mecha combat genre has died its death. Why do you think that is and why is it ripe for revival now?
I don’t actually think it ever died in the sense that fans went away. I think the industry grew and the larger markets were the console space, the FPS, those kinds of games. The fans didn’t go away, they just weren’t as numerous as that audience. But now with digital distribution, Kickstarter, you can just get your game directly to your fans, it’s much easier getting contact with fans, you can go straight to the space game audience. And there’s a whole new generation who’ve grown up now who need to be introduced to the genre, so there’s a whole new set of fans waiting out there.
RPS: So it’s an issue of distribution?
Definitely. You go into a store and a space game that sells to two million people has to compete with a game selling to 20 million. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the two million selling game is a bad game, just it can’t compete in terms of shelf space. But shelf space isn’t important anymore.
RPS: What were some of the key titles, the tomes, you and the team referred to during development?
There’s a big three for me. Wing Commander, the whole series in general, the X-Wing series and Freespace. And I think they’ve each done great things in their own respect. The X-Wing series has always been great with story. I think Wing Commander has always had really great dogfight gameplay. And Freespace really nails an epic scale, the sense of you being stuck in the midst of a great battle.
RPS: What elements did you want to remedy/avoid that the genre has traditionally held dear?
We tried to reduce the complexity of playing this type of game. I actually really enjoy having a million buttons on my keyboard but I don’t know that everyone does. And it doesn’t contribute massively to the game having those [excessive] features, they’re a very niche part of the genre. What makes it fun and interesting is having stories and battles as the focus, we can have that without having a keyboard with 50 keys to control the game in-front of you. We had to abandon that – unfortunately – but I don’t think it harms the game.
RPS: Would you say it’s more casual, then, than the typical, traditional space combat title of yesteryear?
I’d say the controls and learning curve of piloting can be called casual, but certainly the gameplay itself is not. It will be very harsh, very difficult to learn. But in a nice way. There’s a strict learning curve – you’ll want to go back and get better at it. The battles are interesting, there are lots of mechanics to get used to. You just don’t have to think too much about settings and the keyboard.
RPS: So what’s the ideal control method – did you design with a gamepad in mind?
We didn’t want someone to have to have a peripheral. That’s been another bane for the genre, as people moved away from having peripherals on PC. There’s a lot of emphasis on mouse controls. WASD, traditional style, feels like you’re playing an FPS but you’re piloting a ship. It works really well. But in terms of the number of buttons, we had to make sure it fit on a PS3 or 360 pad.
RPS: When we previewed the game last year, branching storylines and missions were a major draw – are they still a part of the game?
We don’t have branching missions. We had to focus on one area or another. We wanted to deliver a better story, and it was hard to keep branching missions in a short campaign. We tried to keep elements that would change missions, so you can go back and play in a way that will give you a different ending. There are multiple endings.
RPS: With the January release looming, are you entering crunch now?
We’re working hard [laughs].
RPS: Is there an added pressure due to the public promise when you’re funded via Kickstarter?
I actually think the Kickstarter has been more encouraging than anything else. It’s really different. When you’re showing the game to the “real” real public, they’re very critical and don’t accept certain issues that, say, someone in the press would. So their response has been really great, and its spurred us on, made us confident in what we’re doing.
RPS: So with Kickstarter the advantage is dealing with an in-built fanbase?
Yeah, it’s kind of like, “well people like the game already so let’s get it done”.
RPS: You were originally slated for a summer release this year – what happened?
The branching campaign… when we moved away from that, we had to rework missions, that kind of thing. Also, half way through development we wanted to overhaul the visuals. Compared to its showing at Gamescom last year, it’s dramatically different. In general we just wanted to spend more time polishing it.
RPS: Kickstarter was initially all about the underdogs, smaller developers like yourselves, how do you feel about the “big boys” moving in there now – Molyneux, the return of Dizzy and Elite?
I think the nice thing with Kickstarter is it’s entirely controlled by what people fund or not, no-one’s having an arm twisted to donate. If Elite comes along, gets a lot of attention and people want it, that’s great. What I really like is it’s turning more and more people onto the idea of Kickstarter [in general]. In the long-run I think the nostalgia stuff will run out – there’s only so many games we can remake on Kickstarter.
RPS: So original IP will be the future of Kickstarter?
I think it’ll be a mix, I think certainly there won’t be as much nostalgia as there is today as we’re running out things to remake.
RPS: Has Oculus Rift affected your design process?
It hasn’t really changed much in terms of inputs, gameplay, it’s more about how you present information to the player, there’s more to think about in terms of HUD and context. The information we give to the player is something we’re constantly working on, how to give information to the player that’s not confusing.
RPS: What’s your view of Star Citizen, another space game coming soon thanks to Kickstarter?
I think it’s really great, I love to see more space games. It’s Chris Roberts: Wing Commander. Before these games started coming back, the last really great space sim was Star Lancer, from Chris Roberts. I’m actually also a really big fan of the Wing Commander movie, despite no-one else being, I really liked his ambition with it, and really hope Star Citizen succeeds.
RPS: So are we on the cusp of a space combat game revival?
I really hope so and I hope it’s not a fad thing. I like to think that the way the market works now, your genre [of choice] is always available now, at all times on the internet. Whether it tactical RPGs or space combat, it’ll always be there now.
RPS: Thanks for your time.