Long-haired lover from Liverpool David Valjalo speaks to ex-Relic art honcho and founder, Rob Cunningham, about his new project: a planet-spanning free-to-play RTS called Hardware. Oh, and he also discusses how he's building giant, working robots in his spare time.
I couldn't resist getting Homeworld in that headline. As you'll discover below, the classic space strategy game is something of a sensitive topic for Rob Cunningham. As much out of respect for the trials and tribulations of current rights-holder THQ as his intention to mark his own studio's first big project as a fresh, original RTS on its own merit. But when he says that Blackbird Interactive's bold step into the genre is being worked on not only by him, but a couple of other fellow ex-Relic folk and Homeworld composer Paul Ruskay, you can't help the feeling that an old, faithful dream team is reassembling to boldly go once again and reinvigorate, maybe even reinvent, real-time strategy in the stars...
RPS: So, what's your story been since Homeworld?
Rob Cunningham: We shipped Homeworld in 1999. Relic was still young in those days, so being one of the founders I carried on at the studio as we got more work. My personal story was as art director on Homeworld. We sold Relic in 2004 and continued under the THQ banner for a couple of years. I did Homeworld 2, Company Of Heroes, Dawn Of War. I left in 2007.
RPS: What was so special about 2007?
Rob Cunningham: Around then I started seeing what was happening in the industry and in the marketplace. The rise of online gaming, the rise of free to play. I saw there was an opportunity there. Also, I wanted to do some more innovation in RTS. At the time in 1997 I was sort of ahead of the curve. THQ's appetite for expanding the RTS genre was pretty limited so I thought 'this has got to be done, let's start doing it.' Pretty much then, though, I took a year off from the game industry, did a few other things. The main thing was the eatART foundation - energy awareness through art. It was a complete departure from gaming, an art research lab that's still going strong now. The idea is to build crazy, kinetic, giant robots. We opened an industrial space here in Vancouver, packed it with welding equipment and got to work building crazy machines. There was the Mondo spider, Daisy the solar powered vehicle, a giant robot snake and there'll be a four-legged walking mech coming next. I personally funded it for a few years, we bring them out for big shows and they pay us to deploy the creatures. Massive, multi-tonne robot creatures we're building for fun. And it's happening in the same building as Blackbird Interactive.
RPS: What was the aim and ambition of starting up Blackbird Interactive, having taken a break from games to... build robots?
Rob Cunningham: Blackbird itself - we started up around the end of 2010, we were brainstorming the idea behind the kind of game we wanted to make, watching the market, and we started work on the [current] game which has a working-title of Hardware. We grew the company in 2011 and then here we are, in the present day, with a prototype in development and going into closed beta [in March].
RPS: Who founded Blackbird with you?
Rob Cunningham: There was Aaron Kambeitz who was lead artist on Homeworld and an artist on Homeworld 2, there was head tech lead at EA, Yossarian King, and Cody Kenworthy who was also at Relic from around 2005. We've now got 32 full-time staff working on the game with another six part-time.
RPS: With so many ex-Relic staff involved, is there a lot of Homeworld's DNA in Hardware?
Rob Cunningham: Well they're both science fiction RTS games but the answer to how much of Homeworld is in Hardware is... not that much. In terms of DNA, in the same way parents' DNA is in their children, you can say Homeworld shares DNA with Hardware in as much as it has similar parents. But that's where the similarities end. There is an art style that connects them, but the gameplay is very different, the experience is very different, but what will be the same is that sense of epic, immersive story. That connection with what's happening in the game world. We'll have Paul Ruskay doing audio and music so we'll have that DNA in there as well, so from a creative point of view, a vibe, there are quite a lot of similarities, but in terms of the game itself, it's quite a departure from Homeworld.
RPS: What's the aim and ambition of the game? What else can you reveal?
Rob Cunningham: The intent was to explore what sort of new evolution we could do with RTS. What can I tell you about the game? It's all about massive trucks rolling around in a huge desert. A sort of Tonka truck experience. As with Homeworld, scale is a big deal for us with this game. The vehicles are huge and just get huge-er. It's got that Russian Doll sort of quality, of vehicles going into bigger vehicles and bigger vehicles going inside of even bigger vehicles [laughs]. One of the things we'll be exploring is epic scope with a vast game-board. We'll be doing a planet-scale RTS but deploying it incrementally over time. The first betas will be reasonably small and feel like a traditional RTS: limited map, limited canvas. But as we go forwards into 2013 we'll be deploying ever more, ever bigger maps until ultimately the full vision of the game is a planet-scale map that you spent hours travelling across, a fully concurrent experience.
RPS: It sounds like there may be a free to play element there?
Rob Cunningham: Yeah it's going to be free to play and there's going to be multiplayer in there.
RPS: So free to play is one of the things you think will drive the genre forward?
Rob Cunningham: Yeah, there are many things you can do with RTS - the marketplace is huge - but our personal vision is a big map... you could say in a nutshell the vision is Google Earth meets RTS. We want to develop an RTS game paradigm where there's a very impactive, compelling combat and exploration game on a minute-to-minute basis but there's also this other layer, a macro game, which takes place over days, weeks, months and it's all about territorial ownership of a much bigger map.
RPS: So would you say the RTS has stagnated?
Rob Cunningham: There's lots of innovation happening with it. Look at Kickstarter, things like Planetary Annihilation, I think that's a lot of fun. Stagnation is a strong word but it hasn't moved forward as quickly as I would have hoped. There's a lot of room for growth in the genre, especially in terms of getting it out to a wider audience. It's not stagnated as much as it's focussed very much on a relatively small group of hardcore RTS players. There's an opportunity to bring the RTS paradigm to a much wider audience.
RPS: Would you say "casual" is the next big audience, then?
Rob Cunningham: Yeah, so mid-core users, if we can capture some casual users that's great too. What we want to avoid is that click-fest barrier to entry that a lot of RTS games are known for.
RPS: Do you still think the PC is the home of the RTS?
Rob Cunningham: Yeah I think the PC has got long legs. There's plenty more we'll see with PC. But one of the things we want to explore with our game is a platform agnostic approach where you can access the game across multiple devices and still have a coherent experience with one single player account. We want to break the walls down a bit and reach out to other devices beyond PC, too. It remains to be seen how, in detail, that'll rollout. I'd categorise it as a web delivery platform.
RPS: You mentioned a "Tonka truck" element to Hardware - is it safe to say there's been an influence from the eatART robot-building going on alongside development of the game?
Rob Cunningham: Only in a very cursory way. EatART and Blackbird are definitely different beasts. There are similarities in that both organisations are packed with guys that love... guy's stuff. One of the cool things about the organisations sharing the same space is that one is digital and the other very much real. Some of the guys at Blackbird collaborate to build these mechanical beasts. There's an oil and grease quality at eatART which, when you're at a desk with nothing but digital content, it's nice to get your hands on some real-world material. And the same vice-versa, the robot guys are very curious [about what we're doing] and giving us creative ideas for the Hardware project.
RPS: So, have to ask, could we ever see a Homeworld 3? What's the rights situation there?
Rob Cunningham: Well the Homeworld property is owned by THQ. Anything can happen with the future of THQ, as you know, they have their own troubles. There's an auction taking place later this month for all of their assets, so who knows what could happen. It remains to be seen if they're going to continue holding it. Any discussion about Homeworld 3 I have no position on, it's completely THQ's deal.
RPS: Will you have your eyes on the auction at the end of the month, for those rights?
Rob Cunningham: The correct answer there would be no comment. And basically no. I know there's a huge Homeworld fanbase out there and people get very excited when we start talking about Homeworld. We definitely want to connect with those guys, but we're very cautious about actually associating ourselves with the franchise as we don't own it. We don't want to complicate matters [for THQ] or upset those guys, they've got enough on their plate. We're coming out with a completely different project. If you like Homeworld, you'll probably like [Hardware], but this is not a Homeworld game and has nothing to do with Homeworld.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Hardware goes into closed beta in March.