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Crew Control: The Mandate Interview

It's Full of Tsars!

Currently, I don't think there's a more interesting Kickstarter project than The Mandate. When I first saw footage, I was confused - was it a 4X space game, an RPG or a turn-based tactical combat sort of a thing? It contains all of those aspects in one great smouldering fusion of sci-fi concepts but that's not all. The Mandate is a lore-rich story of Tsars in space, with procedurally generated galactic sectors and strongly defined crew members, each with their own personality, skills and cultural attachments. It's a complex game and hard to summarise, so I spoke to Ole Herbjørnsen (Executive Producer) and Michael Douse (Community Manager) of Perihelion to uncover some details. There's an enormous amount of information about this hugely promising game below.

RPS: Hello! Games set in the infinite vast of space appear to be as popular as ever, with a new Elite on the way and Star Citizen raising millions of dollars. How does The Mandate differ from those games?

Perihelion: Hi Rock, Paper, Shotgun! The Mandate has more differences than similarities with a game like Star Citizen. The Mandate is not an MMO, but a deep singleplayer sci-fi RPG with an optional cooperative element. We put emphasis on the crew that inhabits your ship and the player creates and controls a captain character, who can walk around on his ship and interact with crew, dignitaries, prisoners and captains from other factions. The dynamic between ship and captain, crew and officers is very important to us. Our backstory spans 1500 years and features Imperial Russia in space.

We of course understand that this is a space game; it will probably share the same demographic as games like Star Citizen and Elite but… I guess this is where a Venn diagram would come in handy. Let’s just say a major MMO isn’t going to quench the thirst of players looking for a deep, old-school, AAA single player experience with cooperative elements.

RPS: Could you summarise the backstory? I understand it covers millennia so feel free to concentrate on the most important parts.

Perihelion: We unfortunately have a rather grim outlook for Earth. Due to overexploitation, our planet slowly dies and the warnings are ignored by governments all around the world who are not able to respond to the crisis for various economic or political reasons. Private space projects are initiated to allow the privileged and the few to leave Earth behind. One of these projects is initiated by Russian oligarchs, and to cut a long story short, colony ship Romanov is launched into space with hand picked colonists in cryostasis, and after many years of travel come upon a habitable planet, a new Earth, which is named Novy Petersburg. There’s a ton more information for lore addicts, such as the Articles of War, and the Empresses Twitter feed.

RPS: How important is the lore to the game, and does the need to tell a story within a specific world ever conflict with player freedom and procedural content?

Perihelion: The lore has been constructed as the canvas for the player, so to speak. It is up to you as the player to use your crayons to paint the picture and create your own adventure. Your story should be unique, and the campaign is structured to allow for branching story-lines and possibilities, and to react to the player’s actions. The lore is there, it is rooted in both historical sources and in speculative sci-fi, but it is up to the players how much they want to dig into it. There are quests, dialogue, and that sort of thing, but when you do things, how, and which you pick from, is entirely up to you.

RPS: Speaking of the procedural content, how much variety is there between systems? Can you give some examples of the kind of things the player might discover while exploring?

Perihelion: Certain planets, star bases etc will be predefined by us. Others will be randomized. We will have nebulas and other strange phenomenon which will be mini sandboxes where procedural content is generated or spawned from. There will be derelict ships, stations and events to explore and engage with. Perhaps you rescue survivors and have them join your crew or sell them off as slaves (if you are that type of captain). We are really looking to Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and Firefly for inspiration on what exactly can and will happen in space, scripted or procedurally generated.

This of course gives us ample opportunity to keep things fresh with minor updates, adding extra procedural content and even end-game content, something we think is pretty important. A good RPG isn’t over when the story is.

RPS: The focus on the ship's crew suggests a smaller scale, more Firefly than 4X, but the player's ship is enormous, right? And it'll be helping to expand the boundaries of the Empire?

Perihelion: Focusing on the ship’s crew was not a decision meant to deter away from exploration, we simply believe they should tie in hand-in-hand. Look at the Battlestar Galactica at the end of its journey: taped up with gaffa tape, the crew falling to pieces. That’s what makes exploration exciting, not just some scratches on the outside of the ship - but at every level. Bandaids for all!

Think of The Mandate more as a 4x game seen from the perspective of one fleet, or a couple of fleets, as well as a handful of systems. It is a different perspective than the Galactic Emperor perspective of Master of Orion (MOO) and its spiritual successors. We are huge fans of MOO but we are not trying to recreate it with The Mandate. You start out with a small frigate that is approx 200 meters long but it pales in comparison to the types of ship you will get access to later on! We’ve got blueprints for some of the ships, comparing them to modern craft if you’re interested. These can be found on the website.

RPS: How do you maintain the importance of individuals in such a large world?

Perihelion: How do you not? Keeping everything running smoothly is such an over-looked but exciting part of deep-space exploration. It adds another level of depth that everyone, we believe, is clambering for. We saw it a little in FTL, but we want to dig deeper, and bring out the emotional side, too.

As captain you will employ a chain of command to hone your skill into an effective military machine. You will interact more closely with your officers than your crewmen. But as your crewmen rise in rank, or you decorate them or promote them, you will grow attached to them. Ultimately you can take a crewman all the way from enlisted to NCO to commissioned officer to a full-blow captain, sending him or her to various educational institutions in between. The first time you promote a crewman to full captain and give him or her command of their own escort ship should be a very special and proud moment for the player.

RPS: You cite Battlestar Galactica as an influence - will inter-crew conflict play a part? Do you have sleeper agents and ways to create paranoia?

Perihelion: Yes, your crew will come from different factions. These factions may be at odds with each other. In addition there may be tension between the enlisted, the NCO and the commissioned. What example do you set? How much of a disciplinarian are you? Do you play by the book or overlook minor transgressions? Take heavy losses with a loyal crew and replace them with new and unfamiliar faces and you may suddenly discover there is a saboteur or spy lose on your ship…

As a side note, we’re approaching differences between the crew from the perspective of wide-ranging cultures from various factions and colony ships. We don’t wish to portray any race of people, so much as play with the way in which factions and cultures interact with each other in the game. We have been asked by some people “will America be represented?” etc, and really we do not wish to ‘represent’ any race of people.

RPS: Given that crew members can die and be replaced, are they more a collection of stats - like an XCOM soldier - or will they build relationships and personalities? If so, how will that part of the game play out?

Perihelion: Crewmen start out as enlisted and will progress until they become senior enlisted. During this time they acquire basic skills automatically which are relevant to what type of tasks they are assigned on the ship. Once a crewman reaches senior enlisted rank, it is time for you as captain to take a more active interest in their development: Is this individual suited for specialization as a fighter pilot, a marine, a science officer or lavatory maintenance expert? Review their military service record and then decide, you are the captain, after all. The enlisted will acquire specialist skills as well as level up these skills until he/she reaches max enlisted rank. At that point in time you can either enroll the individual into an NCO training course or just leave him/her in the current assignment, so skill proficiency will continue to increase, but new skills will not be acquired.

A crewman that successfully completes NCO training will receive a limited amount of talent points which can be invested into different leadership skills. These leadership skills allow the NCO to affect enlisted in close proximity, either boosting their efficiency, morale etc. NCOs will continue to acquire talent points which the player can invest. Once the NCO reaches max rank you can send him/her to the war college to train as a commissioned officer. Commissioned officers gain command skills which allow them to command NPC escort ships in your fleet and affect NCO in close proximity. A max rank commissioned officer can be promoted to a full-blown captain. A captain can command a starbase as well as starships of any size. Together this makes up our human chain of command in The Mandate.

In parallel with acquiring different skill types you may discover that certain crewmen have vice & virtues which define their personality and make them more or less suitable for specific roles. A crewman that “hates pirates” could be useful as a marine but probably not as a chef! Certain vice & virtues may be acquired as a result of specific events in the game: an NCO who is discovered to be “unfit for command” will probably not make a very good commissioned officer. A marine who guns down 10 enemy crew who have surrendered, may have questionable morals and probably not the ideal candidate for ship’s counsellor.

RPS: What kind of mechanics do you use for combat, both between personnel and between ships?

Perihelion: For boarding combat we will employ a cover system, stances, utility tools like hacking devices, personal shields etc. Boarding combat will be isometric, exactly like an RTS. There will be a long list of technology to unlock and use both when defending your ship from enemy boarding parties and when trying to board other ships. Some examples are automated defensive turrets, bulkhead doors and force fields.

For space combat we are targeting a slower, more deliberate pace. You command a capital ship -not a nimble fighter that zaps through space (You can, however, equip your capital ship to launch flights of fighters and bombers to use against your enemy). Your ship will take time to respond to your commands and turn to maneuver and you will feel the mass of the ship.

Specifically for combat we are doing away with the standard hit point bars which when depleted make your ships go boom. Instead we are developing a sophisticated damage model where sub systems can be knocked out and taken offline. Knock out engines or the artificial gravity well and it is fairly obvious what the implications are, both for ship combat and boarding… Also we will feature 3D combat & multiple shield facings. You can experience some of these already in the interactive ship designer and destruction demo that we released earlier.

Your crew is important during space combat as you can assign crew to different stations and thereby boost the effectiveness of certain systems. Later on you will gain access to specialized reactors which allow you to play with power output, power allocation and overloading systems. Jamming, ECM and ECCM are key to being successful in space combat and avoiding detection by using your environment or minimizing your ESM (electromagnetic signature) is a good alternative to brute force and charging straight into the fray…

Space combat will be quite deep and we intend to introduced the various elements gradually to make the experience as accessible and intuitive as possible.

RPS: The mention of cooperative play is interesting but also causes people to worry that playing alone might mean they miss out. Is that the case? How does the multiplayer work?

Perihelion: The Mandate has been created as a single player experience, with cooperative elements. No, you will not be missing out. Very soon in the game you will be able to build additional ships and create a small fleet. NPC officers can be assigned to command these NPC escort ships and support you in battle.

For multiplayer we will have “coop on demand”. Think of it a bit like in Left 4 Dead where another player can join your game in progress. We want to make it easy to both invite friends and other players to help you out. Other players will join with their own personal ship, captain and crew to replace the NPC escort ships. You can work together for the duration of the battle and then go each your separate ways, or play together until one of you needs to pop out, or something..

A more involving multiplayer group would play a longer session of the campaign together, where you visit each others universe and work together to achieve specific objectives. Be it allying with a certain faction, solving tricky quests or tracking and eliminating a notorious pirate. We are also designing The Mandate such that each player can specialize both their captain, their ship(s) and their home base. It may make sense to visit a friend’s star base to buy some custom upgrades which you yourself have not researched.

RPS: I'm eager to see a game that places the crew above the ship but hopefully the ship will still get some love. What kind of modifications can the player make? Are they always bound to a single ship?

Perihelion: No, you start with a single small frigate but will soon advance to larger ships. Our ships are built with a modular approach and each ship consists of a forward, midship and aft section. Upgrading and replacing these sections will have gameplay implications and they are the more frequent upgrades you will conduct. The more seldom upgrades you will do is actually switching to a new (and sometimes bigger) ship with new visuals and gameplay stats. Old ships can be decommissioned, mothballed or assigned to NPC officers as NPC escort ships.

We have rich crafting and researching mechanics in The Mandate and these activities all take place at your home base. Not only will you be able to research and produce new upgrades and technologies for ground combat, but so too will your ships receive the same love. Again, our focus on the crew is an additional element, it doesn’t deter away from anything else. Your home base will start out small but be highly upgradeable, and it is both a place to rearm and upgrade your ship, recruit and train your crew as well as research and manufacture new upgrades. We are inspired by the original X-COM for the research and manufacturing aspects, but the crew elements is also present in the base. You may assign a defensive fleet of NPC ships, let merchants setup shop, build quarters where ambassadors from other factions may reside etc.

RPS: Do you have any specific artistic inspirations for the ship designs?

Perihelion: So far we have only shown ships from The Mandate and in particular The Grand Fleet. They are designed to be robust and mass produced with redundancy in mind to retain combat effectiveness in protracted engagements. However, The Mandate is not one unified Empire but, consists of many factions that have retained their own culture. There are several colony ships with Colony Ship Romanov being one of them. We have introduced three other factions so far in the campaign: Colony ship Europa, Colony ship Arkwright and Colony ship Black Eagle.

There’s a flare of a little of this, and a little of that, in all our factions. However, it’s important to stress once again that culturally, we’re not representing any group of people, aside from of course our Tsarist inspiration. Mainly, all our artists are huge fans of science fiction, as we all are, and it would be senseless to suggest that they don’t have their own inspirations in mind. That said, we don’t drive them, we let them create.

RPS: When I think of games that focus on crew, the first two that come to mind are FTL and Space Station 13. Does The Mandate have anything in common with those games?

Perihelion: We have played FTL and enjoyed it. That being said our game references and inspirations stretch a bit further back than FTL, which is fairly recent. However, if you liked FTL and would like to see deeper crew interaction and on a bigger scale, The Mandate may warrant a closer look. There as an article which claimed we were “doing what FTL did wrong, right”, and that’s really not something we agree with. To some extent, it’s apples and oranges. In actual fact, similarities were drawn between The Mandate and FTL not by us in the design phase, but by the press quite far into our campaign. Space Station 13 isn’t something we’re immediately familiar with, and I won’t insult the developers by quickly Googling the game and providing a half-assed comparison.

RPS: Can I name my crew members? I've always wanted to let certain people accidentally fall out of an airlock.

Perihelion: You will name your own captain. As for other crew on your ship, they may have existing names based on their culture and background - remember how we talked about the way in which your officers et al are recruited. You will be able to give them call signs (which may display instead of their real names) which should hopefully satisfy your airlock fantasies!

Whilst it makes little sense to literally change the birth name of characters given the terms of their employment, we’re in pre-production so if it’s something the players are really vocal about, we can have that discussion.

RPS: How are you finding the process of running a Kickstarter campaign and do you feel confident about your progress?

Perihelion: Kickstarter is both challenging and humbling. Building a community from dust is no easy feat, but it’s something that we’ve managed in the first 30 days thanks to the depth of lore, and the tireless effort of our team. Collectively, we’re working on this 24/7, and our idea of a break is reading the forums and answering questions on Kickstarter. After working 14 hours on a piece of programming, or complicated art-work, there’s nothing better than reading the words of 1000’s of people who want to see the project go live. They know some of us by name, and we know some of them by their usernames.

On the business side of things, aside from raising a community, getting the attention of the media is difficult. Finding the right PR company to work with us was quite challenging, because we wanted one with a deep understanding of the European market. We found that in DeadGoodMedia, and consider those guys a part of the family. We’ve got some traction now, and whenever we get mentioned in the media, we see a surge of backers. There can never be enough media attention, and we often see some new backers complaining that they’d never heard about us before X story, or Y article.

We’ve just started rolling out cross-promotion with other Kickstarter campaigns, and we’ve got some huge announcements lined up for the next few weeks.

Despite being a developer with over half a century of experience, we don’t have any famous names which would make people jump at the chance of a rebirth of an original creation. That said, some of our development team have a long list of credentials that might surprise you… but we cannot reveal everyone who is working on the project at this stage. We don’t want to sell The Mandate based on who’s making it, so much as how awesome the concept is in the eyes of the players.

RPS: I hear that there will be recording sessions with a voice actor next week. Somebody known to sci-fi fans. I assume it's Chris Barrie of Red Dwarf fame but I'm not sure how strong his Russian accent is. Any clues?

Perihelion: Our dear actor never took a ride on The Rimmer Experience, or ventured upon the good vessel Red Dwarf (or Starbug for that matter), but keep guessing! However, the colour you mentioned as part of your guess was recently associated with our voice actor…

Grand Admiral Lister would be hilarious, though.

RPS: Thanks for your time!

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About the Author

Adam Smith

Former Deputy Editor

Adam wrote for Rock Paper Shotgun between 2011-2018, rising through the ranks to become its Deputy Editor. He now works at Larian Studios on Baldur's Gate 3.