We are irrationally excited about Hardware: Shipbreakers. Insanely excited. And it's not often that a strategy game gives us reason to be able to say that this early in development. With the gameplay reveal still lurking over the horizon (set for around June) we're not even able to show you exactly how this RTS will work, and yet the excitement bubbles to even higher levels. Why is that? Well, there's the amazing concept art, and a founder of Relic, and art-lead from Homeworld, Rob Cunningham, telling us that it's “The ultimate vehicle fantasy,” but he would say that, wouldn't he? And concept art for games always looks pretty good these days. Why, then, should we be so giddy with hyperbole?
I'll tell you. Oh, and there's a brand new trailer down there, too.
The first reason to be excited is the developer itself. Vancouver-based Blackbird is a thirty-man team, many of whom previously worked at Relic. Aaron Kambeitz and Cody Kenworthy are two of the best game artists in the business. As an RTS team, there's hardly a finer pedigree.
For a game concept, there could hardly be anything cooler: “Hunt for riches among a graveyard of derelict starships on the mysterious planet, LM-27. Reclaim precious cargo and adopt exotic technologies from the space-wrecks littered across the desert wasteland. Combat hostile competitors, equally desperate for wealth. Survive harsh storms and burning temperatures.”
Put the two of those things together, and oh my.
“We are envisioning an epic sci-fi roadtrip where the player gets to experience all of the crazy, amazing fun you’d have from controlling units that are epic in scale,” says Cunningham. “To clarify that: we're on a desert planet, far away. This is an exo-recon/survival mission! You want a thing that inspires confidence. This is Paris-Dakar but madly in the future.”
It's a game of PvE, and a game of PvP, set in a giant world of wrecked starships. Salvage and space archaeology as a game concept to underlie reasons for conflict and co-operation. You can understand why I am frothing with excitement about this. Cunningham makes that worse as he talks about the beauty of giant machinery with an air of familiarity: “Understanding all of your options and customizable upgrades is critical to a new vehicle models success, as well as understanding their function, and mission optimization. Trucks are utilitarian, while the Prius is for those who want to save on gas mileage, and the BMW M3 is for those wankers who want to go fast without regard for others…” He goes on to explain that this stuff is reflected in his world: “You can customize all your units. This is the persistent element of the game where our players can invest in, manage the capabilities of and optimize the functions of their fleet.”
Great big vehicles hauling abandoned technologes from the guts of a dead planet. Yeah, that's the stuff. And that's been beautifully rendered so far by the concept art. It's clearly very important to Cunningham to allow concept to meet reality, as he explains: “There's always a market for good style regardless of any trend, but at the same time technology has brought ultra-realism to the screen, and people aren't wowed by that stuff much any more. Just being in 3D is no long impressive. They are hungry for a style and ethos in a visual approach. They always have been, of course, but it's particularly acute now. People are going to respond to a unique style even more than they might have done ten years ago.
“I think we're entering a wonderful age where the delta between dream and reality is getting narrower and narrower. For Hardware, the concept art is extremely similar to the game. You can get one of the world's best concept artists to make an image and know that you can pull that off.”
“You’ll see a transition from the concept art to the gameplay,” says Cunningham. “The transition is amazing. The guiding vision is our concept art and the in-game art visuals will parallel the quality of the concept art in all regards. That was a key criteria for me in founding Blackbird, our visual quality of concepts needs to make it into the gameplay just as it has in our other products.”
Oh, but there's more to be eager for. And that's the idea of a huge world to explore and work on. Cunningham's accounts of it thrill me to the core. “This is an immense world,” he says. “A very deep fiction, and for that, we’ve created a new technology that can display amazing terrain. That terrain is a backdrop of the session-based gameplay in the same way that ‘outer space’ was the setting for the original Homeworld, the first real-time 3D RTS game. In that way, Hardware is the spiritual successor to Homeworld. The terrain is immense just like the vastness of space is immense. “
This latest trailer, as you can see here, nods to some of the ways in which Blackbird are going to try and explain their formidable creation: “This Prospector’s Guide is our in fiction device that allows us to convey game backstory and gameplay information to the player in advance of it being deployed in the game,” says Cunningham. “Ideally we can gauge the interest of our audience and players by how they are reacting to certain concepts before they go into the game. This allows us to deploy the most compelling and sought after content and features first. This was a critical part of Homeworld and we’re bringing that fiction ‘DNA’ element along with us into Hardware.”
There's lot of reasons to be excited, but perhaps chief among them is Cunningham's unwavering confidence in their concept. He says, quite boldly: “There’s plenty of opportunity in the RTS genre as well as the sci-fi genre. Combined, we’ll make another pioneering product that starts a new era of RTS and revives the genre in ways that most don’t expect.”
He says this from the position of someone who has created a studio to make a vision of a game, that comes partly from his experience, and partly from technology finally allow him to do things he'd previously only been able to imagine. “For me personally it's sort of a combination of market development and technology development. Hardware I was dreaming about in 2007, but what was the market doing? What was tech doing? You couldn't make Jurassic Park without the CG, make it four years earlier and it would have been a disaster. The same is true here.”
Cunningham's colleague Dan Irish chimes in to support this claim for Hardware to be striking while the iron of innovation is hot: “Similar to how Homeworld was innovative with 3D, the parallel here with massive terrain and massive vehicles, is being innovative with the gameplay which encloses PvP and PvE experiences, and with the online infrastructure. The technology allows us to produce these gameplay experiences at this scale – connectivity was part of the puzzle that would make this game fun.”
We're going to see a lot more of Hardware in the summer, with a closed beta happening at the end of the year. Even with everything being clouded in the fog of Blackbird's PR war, this is one of the biggest blips on the RPS readout.
Watch for more.