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Gearbox On Remastering Homeworld, Mods & Multiplayer

"The better this does the more likely there is to be a follow-up"

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Just before I got hold of some early code for Gearbox’s upcoming remastering of unbelievably beloved space RTS Homeworld (which I made some stupidly oversized and stupidly pretty screenshots and video of yesterday), I had a chat with the studio’s Chief Creative Officer Brian Martell, plus Community Manager Chris Faylor about the new version of Relic’s game. Why do this rather than make their own space RTS? How was melding Homeworld 1 and Homeworld 2’s multipalyer going to work? What about mod support, past and future? And did they feel having something as respected as Homeworld in their stable would help with Gearbox’s… chequered reputation?

RPS: How come it’s remastering mania all of a sudden [we’ve had Grim Fandango and The Indigo Prophecy recently too]? Is there something in the water?

Brian Martell: It’s probably a good combination of both of those things. For us, Homeworld was something that people hadn’t played in ages, there was no digital version, so it made a lot of sense to bring it back. Given the opportunity of the THQ bankruptcy and all that it made some sense. In that respect, for us it was a little more noble .We wanted to make sure it was out there. I don’t think we had an understanding that there would be a wave of this sort of thing. But it’s kind of nice, right? In a way, if we think of this as the art form of game-making, it kind of stinks that as technology dies off and becomes overcome with the new badass thing that these things should just sit back there and be leftovers. So I’m kind of excited to be able to relieve some of this, what’s in some cases childhood gaming, in a new version.

RPS: Why do this rather than make your own space strategy game, if you’ve got a love of them?

Brian Martell: Sure. We have tons of ideas here that we could have done, for space operas. For us, I think Homeworld has a special place in the industry, so that part of it was we wanted to be able to help it rise from the ashes. I think it’s also just some dang sexy spaceships. I think they’re some of the best designs over the last twenty years, these guys have done such a phenomenal job, especially when you go through the concept and you see what their intention was. To be able to get from that to have what’s actually in the game now be a lot closer to what they intended was really nice.

As game developers, we’re always working with the limits of the technology. We can only realise our dreams up to a certain point. So this is kind of our way of freeing things, because of our involvement with all the original creators. It’s been a way for them to bring this stuff to life in their own vision. The way they intended it. When you look at the backgrounds and ship models, all the audio that we’ve been able to redo, all of these things have been able to revamp and made to a level they were always intended to have.

For example, we remastered all the audio because Paul Ruskin still had all his old DAT tapes. The original games were all on CD, so their audio’s compressed, the video’s compressed, it was kind of crappy even then. Nobody’s been able to experience them at the high quality level they were recorded at. For these guys, they went to the trouble of getting real instrumentation, having almost like a mini symphony orchestra record the music, then it had to be super-compressed and streamed off a CD. That’s terrible. It’s kind of nice now because we’ve been able to really let that swing and be amazing in the way that it was intended.

Chris Faylor: I think one of the coolest bits was when we got everything, when we acquired the Homeworld property, some of the delivery included all the internal documents that were post-mortems from the original Relic Entertainment Crew. They were talking about “oh, I wish the technology enabled us to do this, or I wish we had this”, so from the get-go we were able to have a list of things that they had wanted to do at the time but just didn’t have the technology for. And then in our conversations with them we were able to help realise that.

RPS: Is there a line in which you become George Lucas, where you screw with it too much because you can?

Brian Martell: [laughs]. I think that’s the trick, and I think we all look at that as an example of what not to do. Episodes 1 to 3 were massively successful on the monetary side, but for the franchise felt like a mix. Whether that’s a case of somebody like George Lucas becoming so powerful that he felt like he didn’t have to listen to people… There are some really cool books lately on the making of the Star Wars franchise and you see that when he had surrounded himself with some really exceptional people he actually did a better job of making the movies. So we wanted to avoid that kind of thing, obviously. When we were able to talk to Rob Cunningham and Aaron Kambeitz, who were the art director and lead artist, that’s the place for starting. These games were visually stunning, and our mind’s eye has elevated them to such a high standard. So when you go back and look at them you realise how clunky they are. So one of the things we did when were talking to these guys was to reassure them that we weren’t doing a George Lucas on them, we weren’t making them overly shiny or plastic or whatever the case may be for the Special Edition versions of Star Wars. We were actually realising their vision as intended. It was really important to use to make sure that we were really integrating those guys into the team in a way, making sure that they were able to give the kind of feedback they’ve always been able to get.

Then you have the cinematics and things being personally handled by someone like Aaron, and able to be at such a high resolution because he’s got all his original sketches and he’s such a masterful painter. Especially even in the ensuing years, these guys have gotten even better. They were fantastic then, but they’ve improved over 15 years. And they surround themselves with a team that’s capable of helping out. That’s why the backgrounds are stunning and amazing. This is the kind of stuff, so if we make sure these guys are happy, why wouldn’t you use their input?

Chris Faylor: There’s a couple of other notes too. We had to make sure that the classics were out there no matter what, as untouched as they could possibly be for the sake of history. The untouched classics, the only changes that we’ve made is to enable them to run on modern operating systems.

We weren’t the original creators of Homeworld. We’re huge fans of it, but we wanted to respect that legacy and the intent that the Relic Entertainment crew had. The only change I can think that would be construed as significant is that, for Homeworld 2, the voice of the mothership, Heidi, they tried to have her reprise her role from Homeworld 1 when they first recorded it. Heidi at the time was very pregnant, and that had changed some of her vocal cords, so she didn’t sound like herself. So they had to recast that role for Homeworld 2 but in the day. When we looked at that we realised there was an opportunity to get Heidi back in the studio and have her record all the mothership lines for Homeworld 2 remastering, so there’s the same voice in both games.

Brian Martell: Everything is really the same game, all the way up and down, except the visuals have improved and some of the gameplay quirks here and there that needed to be corrected, that had been languishing because Relic stopped doing anything with it in the ensuing years. It is, to all intents and purposes, the same games, except more beautiful and awesome.

Chris Faylor: It’s really interesting reading forum comments, because back in the day for Homeworld 1 and 2 you didn’t have Steam. The way that you got updates was you went to somebody’s site, a download site, and you downloaded the update. So there have been some bugs that were fixed in later patches for the game that some players weren’t aware of. It’s been really fun to read some of the comments, “man, I hope they fixed this” then someone pops up and says “actually that was addressed in patch number blah blah.”

RPS: Was there temptation to fiddle despite your determination not to?

Brian Martell: Sure, but if there was approval to do something we would go back to the original guys and ask them what we should do. But I can’t think of anything off the top of my head there was anything. I think most people were very committed to this idea of bringing it forwards.

Chris Faylor: Any of the biggest underlying tech changes have been as a result of bringing Homeworld 1 into the Homeworld 2 engine.

Brian Martell: That was an important thing for us, as we think about what we’re going to do in the future. It became obvious to us that we didn’t want to have these two separate games that would splinter our community. The singleplayer side of Homeworld 1, the whole thing was brought into the Homeworld 2 engine. The reason for that was it was a more updated engine, a stronger engine, a lot more capabilities for rendering even way back when. It had just started understanding what shader technology was, a whole host of shadowing, and all these different things which are all very commonplace now. That seemed like we needed to do it to make sure that we integrated it into one engine.

As we move forwards and think about doing things like mod support and if there was to be DLC, if there was ever any chance of doing that, we wanted to make sure that there was a great foundation. And then of course you have to go back in and make sure it plays the same way, and that the quirks and difference of Homeworld 1 still happens. And then there was multiplayer, what were we going to do there? By unifying that we now have the ability to have all of the factions from both games, and all of the maps, played against each other, so that’s kind of fun too.

RPS: You’ve made it clear that this isn’t your game, it’s Relic’s but presumably it can’t hurt to have Gearbox’s name associated with this? We can’t mention the studio on RPS without people bringing up Duke Nukem Forever and Colonial Marines. Something as respected as Homeworld surely brings in a lot of goodwill…

Brian Martell: I think you’re right. I think that’s true. I hope that people really appreciate why we’re doing this, and understand the reasons why we tried to do it, and if they feel better about us and swayed in some way, they realise that we’re all trying really hard to make the best games that we can make, whether we stumble or whether we are extremely successful as with Borderlands, these things happen. We all do our best.

Chris Faylor: Our goal at Gearbox is to entertain the world, and when we saw the opportunity for Homeworld arise, we saw something that was missing from the world. Again, outside of the original CDs, there was no way to get Homeworld or Homeworld 2 legally. Even running them on modern operating systems was tricky because of missing DLL files and command lines. To us, we love these games. More so than anything else, we just want to make sure that people have these games to experience.

RPS: How difficult has it been balancing combined Homeworld 1 and 2 units for multiplayer? Did anything significant need changing there?

Chris Faylor: We launch on February 25th, but the multiplayer that goes with that we’re calling a beta. One reason for that is that, as many tests as we can do here to balance the games, we know that there are going to be more matches played in the first day by players around the world than we’ve done across the entire development. We’ve played hundreds and hundreds of games, almost daily, but statically we’re going to be able to say some things that we might not have seen before. This is a game that lives and breathes by its community. Homeworld was kept alive by modders and hardcore fans for 10, 15 years, depending on which game you’re talking about.

RPS: Do you have a good sense of how big that community is? In terms of, how much of this is happening because you can be certain of a certain number of sales right from the off?

GM: Yeah, obviously, we’re business. We’re not doing this out of just the kindness of our hearts. I don’t have the exact numbers, but obviously the better the game does the more likely there is to be the opportunity to work on a follow-up. There is more likelihood of thinking about how to stretch and broaden the brand. We think the community helped us to think about it, we clearly had to make a case for a reasonable number of sales to allow us to be profitable, so we could go from there.

Chris Faylor: What’s been really neat is that, when we got the delivery of all the source code and everything, some of the tools didn’t compile. As part of the development on Homeworld remastered we’ve been working with the mod-makers to help us understand some of the underlying systems, to help us understand what they want out of this engine and their mods. That’s actually been super-beneficial to the point where some of those have been brought on as contractors for their project. One person in particular had some great ideas for multiplayer modes that he wanted to see. We actually had him design those, those are part of the multiplayer beta.

RPS: He must be a very happy man right now.

Brian Martell: Oh yeah, no doubt.

Chris Faylor: The reason multiplayer is beta is one, this is a game that lives and breathes by its community. We want to chart the journey of Homeworld with the fans, because those are the ones who are playing it, who kept it alive and will keep it alive. The other reason is when Homeworld 1 and 2 came out they were powered by Gamespy.

RPS: Whoops.

Chris Faylor: So we knew that we had to replace the netcode. So we’ve been working to incorporate aspects of Steamworks into it. We’ve been doing as many tasks as we can, but we also know that just because something works in the lab, when you get it out in the world that’s a different beast. We want everyone to understand that this is a living, breathing thing that will be shaped by the community.

RPS: It’s going to be quite a psychological shift for some of these people. This thing that they’ve been used to being fixed, unchanging, is now going to keep changing.

Chris Faylor: There are people who’ve been working on mods for Homeworld 1 and 2 for years…

RPS: Which you’re cruelly going to render completely incompatible now, right? [laughs]

Chris Faylor: [laughs] We’ve actually been working with a lot of them to make sure that the hooks that they want are still there. I believe the Complex mod guys are releasing their last version for legacy Homeworld 2 and moving into a new mod for Remastered that they’re calling Rebirth, which will have a lot of the same gameplay mechanics. So we want to do the best we can by these guys.

RPS: A whole lot of people waiting for Star Wars and Battlestar mods in the new version, I suspect…

Brian Martell: Our legal department are like “la la la la” fingers in ears, but I’m sure that will be really exciting. [adopts mysterious tone]. Wouldn’t that be cool?

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Homeworld Remastered Collection is out on Feb 25th.

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Alec Meer

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