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Boldly Going: Artemis' Thomas Roberston

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Artemis: Spaceship Bridge Simulator – the most Star Trekky game ever made, despite not being a Star Trek game. Following our discovery of this new gaming life and new sensation, I chatted to its creator, Thomas Robertson about why, how, inspirations, future frontiers and South Africans.

RPS: Why do this, basically? What inspired you, other than the obvious?

Robertson: Long ago, when my buddies and I all had Commodore64s (like, 25 years ago), I had an idea. I could link our computers together and play a game like the Star Trek bridge. One machine would run the simulation and the “main screen”. Each other machine would be a bridge station, like Helm, Science, or Weapons. That idea has lain dormant in my brain for a very long time, but recently my muse told me “Make it. Now.”
So I finally did. I like to tell people that I’m an artist and game code is my medium. I’m lucky and secure enough to make the games I want to make, when my muse tells me too.

RPS: Apparently there was an old DOS game named Bridge Crew – was that an inspiration? How does this move things along?

Robertson: No, I’ve never played or seen that game. I love scifi, of course, but I tend to get inspired by novel mechanics or techniques, not media (though Tron hit me and my friends like a ton of bricks when I was 13). Now that people are discussing Artemis, they’ve educated me in similar games, like a sub sim called Dangerous Waters. But I didn’t know of a single game like Artemis while I was making it.

RPS: Were there any appropriately Star Trekky elements that you couldn’t make work?

Robertson: Well, the more you look at Star Trek movies and shows, the more you realize they were created by scriptwriters, not techies. There’s so much in Sci-fi that’s inconsistent or unworkable. For Artemis, I’m still changing things, but my current UI is inspired by the LCARS/Okudagram standard. I say “Inspired by” because LCARS really isn’t a perfect UI design. Also, there’s a lot of concepts in sci-fi (but not in Star Trek) that I’m eager to add, like smoky missile salvos.

RPS: What’s the balance between, essentially, it being a videogame and it being a live-action roleplaying thing? How much does the former require the latter to work?

Robertson: I love the social aspect of Artemis, and always intended it to be played in one room. BUT, I’m a game coder. I worked hard on the program and figured I’d let the social thing work itself out (humans are good at that). I never thought about LARPing while making the game, but now that it’s out, my LARPer fans are a vocal part of the users that are helping guide the development.

One reason Artemis strikes a chord is that the shows have already taught everyone how to play. Not the individual buttons, but the social aspect of working together as a bridge crew. None of my testers have had any problems fighting over who gets to be captain, or ignoring orders, or anything like that. BUT I’ve made several changes to the game (and will make more) because my testers simply assumed something could be done and ordered it so. The engineer can strengthen individual shields, or shut down all power to hide in nebulas, and the comms officer can demand surrender, only because one of my captains ordered it.

RPS: Would it work played remotely, or would that just ruin the experience?

Robertson: I personally think it’s a different experience played remotely. But, as a veteran game developer, I recognize that players play my game the way they like, not the way I like. The fans on my website have already found and shared ways to connect remotely, and it seems to work okay. But I’ll be changing the game to make it easier and better for them. Ultimately, if the users play it in a way that I never thought would work, that’s great too. I’m not so arrogant that I think I know the only and best way to do anything.

But, let me say for the record that I oppose any attempt to turn Artemis into Halo-with-spaceships. If a player wants simple deathmatch, with respawning players and weapon pickups, why would they not choose one of the many great games that already do that? I believe deathmatch is fundamentally incompatible with going-where-noone-has-gone-before.

RPS: Do you worry that LAN is out of fashion and people just don’t carry their PCs round to each other’s houses? Or is the intended audience’s passion going to overcome that?

Robertson: Now that Artemis is out and has a growing fan base, I’m not worried that not enough people will play. I’ve had several people email or comment that Artemis will revive their moribund LAN nights. Also, netbooks (which run Artemis just fine) are crazy small, powerful and cheap. I’ve bought a set of Netbooks to take to conventions, for $200 each! Let’s face it, videogaming isn’t going to get less convenient.

RPS: If you could call it Star Trek: Bridge Commander or suchlike, would you? Or would you rather stand alone?

Robertson: Well, as a game developer I’ve always been down on licenses. Seriously, why would anyone pay $1Mil to make a game based on a film from 1985? It’s such a waste, and such a Hollywood way of looking at things. I’ve always said that the only two brands worth anything were Star Wars and Star Trek.

In 1997, I was lead programmer on the Star Trek: Secret of Vulcan’s Fury game for Interplay. I got an earful of how Paramount works. They’re litigious and difficult to work with, and they exist only to pimp their brands. So I see no way in Hades that Artemis would ever be a “real” Star Trek game. And I’m fine with that.

RPS: How do you feel whilst playing it? Empowered, ridiculous, both?

Robertson: Artemis is tons of fun, but I really enjoy being an observer on the bridge, while others play. There’s profound joy in seeing others have fun with your game. Unfortunately, almost no developer gets to be in the same room as those who are enjoying her game. It’s like we work so hard to make the game, then send it off like a message in a bottle, hoping someone, somewhere will find it. MMO devs are better off, since everyone comes to their server to play. If players insist I be “in character”, I say I’m the Chief Engineer of the Stardock. I built the Artemis, and know everything about her, but I’m only an adviser, and not part of the crew.

RPS: Do you plan to expand it, and how? Would you want to go to a fancy-pants full-3D engine, or is this more of a Dwarf Fortress situation, that making the thing work properly and have all the features you want is the priority?

Robertson: I didn’t know my engine WASN’T fancy-pants… Seriously though, I’ll expand the game in every direction, including the graphics. I think Tarn Adams has a severe blind spot when it comes to GUIs, but I doubt I’ll ever make anything half as deep as DF. Right now, I’ve got a lot of eager player who are sharing all their great ideas with me, but I’m also waiting for experienced crews (with lots of missions under their belts) to step forward and tell me what THEY want. I want to keep the game accessible for novice and expert alike, and yes I know that’s hard.

RPS: How’s the plan to have fans send in videos going? What’s the best one you’ve seen?

Robertson: It’s great! I post all the submissions here. The best one so far is clearly by a group of South African geniuses:

RPS: Pike, Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, the bloke from Quantum Leap or nu-Kirk?

Robertson: I respect them all, but the answer is Kirk.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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