One of the starriest corners of the PC space gaming universe has been cultivated by just one man: Shawn Bower of Starwraith 3D Games. Mr Bower has been making games for years, and has slowly graduated into impressive free-form space sims with the Evochron series. The most recent game, Evochron Legends, has a recently released demo, which I recommend that you go play. After the jump we talk to him about his epic indie project, and hear about the brain-mulching scale of Legends' freeform, multiplayer galaxy.
RPS: Why should space-flight gamers be interested in Evochron games over, say, one of the other spaceflight games such as X3?
Bower: A gamer may enjoy both, I sure do. But for some unique attributes offered by Evochron, here are some details. First, it provides a seamless universe. Most space games present 'space' as a series of rooms that can only be accessed by a 'jump gate' door of some kind. Evochron's design lets you fly from one solar system to another seamlessly without being locked out by some kind of wall or gate door, giving you the option of travelling there at your own pace and exploring the space in between. You can travel through Evochron's universe at cruise speed, with built-in jump drives, or by using optional warp gates to speed up travel time. So for explorers, they can venture into deep space to find uncharted systems or just travel off the beaten path to stay off the radar and avoid being detected. With this kind of freedom comes some risk as well. Several players have even gotten lost in deep space and have sent distress calls to other players for rescue.
The range of gameplay options is also very diverse. From spying to racing, asteroid clearing to solar array cleaning, bribing for better reputations to managing on-board crew members, Evochron includes a variety of optional activities beyond just combat and trade. A player can make a pretty good living without ever firing a shot, if they so choose. Or they can focus on more action related objectives. They can also switch at any time. Evochron is a technical simulation, not a character or story based game, so the player is not limited to predefined roles nor do they have to follow a static plot pattern. Players are free to play the game the way they want and complete the objectives they prefer.
Evochron also includes both single player and multiplayer, you are not limited to only one or the other. MMO's only let you play online. Single player games only let you play offline. Those that offer both modes often require you to give up what you earn in one mode any time you want to play in the other. In multiplayer, many games even make you start over if you just want to play on a different server. Instead, Evochron lets you keep what you earn in either single player or multiplayer, letting you keep your progress, ships, crew, weapons, equipment, cargo, and wealth. Legends also lets you save anywhere during gameplay. Many others require you to be at a particular in-game location before you're allowed to save.
A functional in-scene 3D cockpit is also a critical part of the design equation. When I fly a spacecraft, I want to be treated like a pilot and not a camera operator. So Evochron includes a HUD with a compass, pitch ladder, and FPM (flight path marker) along with 3 cockpit displays for ship status, 360-degree 3D radar, and target MFD. These systems help provide a realistic sense of situational awareness at a level not typically found in the genre. Players can use these systems to develop a diverse range of combat tactics far beyond just turning to face and shoot a target.
Complimenting the avionics/instrumentation is the physics system, which is Newtonian based with optional computer assistance. Instead of the typical instant rotation movement found in many space games, Evochron incorporates a thruster based rotation movement system. Each control action realistically has an opposite reaction to counter it. So when you yaw left, thrusters engage to turn your ship and when you center the control, counter-thrusters engage to smoothly stop the movement (rather than suddenly 'jerking' to a stop). Players can also turn off the computer assistance to manually control the thrusters themselves. The result is a more realistic representation of how a spacecraft would move and handle in a zero gravity environment. It also allows for some unique maneuvers not typically available in the genre, such as flipping around to fly backwards while firing back at a target behind you.
Diverse control options are also a feature of Evochron. In addition to joystick, gamepad, keyboard, and mouse flight control, the game also supports full variable control for all six rotations and directions for gamers with more complex control systems (HOTAS devices for example) that have sufficient axis channels. Mouse control also has 3 optional modes to accommodate player preferences for either a pointer method or a directional method.You can hire crew members to enhance your ship's capabilities, not a common feature in first person perspective space games. You can negotiate trades directly with other ships, both AI controlled and human players. Many other games limit your trading to stations or planets.
So in the realm of 'sandbox' games, I've worked to design Evochron as not only having a detailed sandbox, but one with plenty of toys in it to play with.
RPS: Blimey. Okay. Can you tell us a little bit about the background to Starwraith 3D Games? Perhaps include a bit of information about the studio, and how you came to be making these huge, seamless space pilot games? And can you explain the chronology of the Evochron games, and where you're headed with the series?
Bower: SW3DG is primarily the effort of one space-sim enthusiast who has enjoyed playing and developing such games for over 20 years. In 1999, I launched SW3DG to focus on creating space games I wanted make, support, and play. Over the years, I've gradually moved from making space combat shooters (StarWraith) to freeform space-sims (RiftSpace and Evochron).
Evochron began with the original game in 2005 which was later followed by Evochron Alliance and the expansion Alliance 2.0 in 2006. Renegades was introduced in 2007 and the latest, Legends, was just released this year. My goal is to continue to advance Evochron with new gameplay options, graphics, sound, and environment details/capabilities.
RPS: What's new and different about Legends?
Bower: The primary improvements are gameplay and graphics related. For gameplay, Legends adds several new objectives and options. Capital ship escorting, military missions, and multiple waypoint patrols have been added to the pool of available contracts along with other non-contract activities such as new mining and material recovery options and passenger transporting. Players can also take on a fighter pilot role that includes a separate ranking system giving them access to more advanced military ships to own and fly as they advance. New weapons and technology are also available including proximity mines, probes, kinetic and subsystem missiles, and stealth generators. Computer controlled ships are smarter in combat and have a wider range of tactics to use.
Legends also introduces a much higher level of graphics and detail designed for a higher spec system. The space environment offers a much higher level of detail along with new effects such as stellar accretion discs, more planetary ring types, plant-life, new cities, better textures, and more object variety. There are more charted solar systems to explore and plenty of uncharted space to discover hidden locations in. All-new high detail stations have been added including constructors which the player can take raw materials to for building components. Several new capital ship types have been added including Cruisers, Battleships, Command Ships, and Destroyers that participate in military conflicts. A new 3D cockpit and improved UI compliment the visual presentation and help make the game more accessible to new players.
The game also continues the tradition of improvements via updates and the next update will add hangars players can rent at stations to store ships and cargo along with the ability to save design templates for the ships they build.
RPS: Your environments are pretty impressive, and I understand things such as nebulae also impact on the player's experience, can you explain a little bit about that?
Bower: As I mentioned earlier, space is often presented as a bunch of mostly empty rooms, often with just a few rocks and stations thrown in along with some nice wallpaper in the background. Planets are usually off limits, either part of the wallpaper or they merely behave as giant space mines that destroy any player that dares get too close. Evochron gives the player access to the objects they see in space and for useful purposes. They can descend into planet atmospheres and complete activities like harvesting cells from plants on the surface for valuable biological material. Or they can recover water from lakes and transport it to economies that value it. They can land at city trade stations or mine terrain for gold or other valuable material. Planets can also be used for shelter from attackers or as a meeting place for trade deals. While doing these things on or near planets, players can also encounter weather such as rain, snow, lightning, and turbulence. Nebulae can provide sensor cover if you need to escape for repairs in open space and can be mined for photon particles useful in the processing of fuel. Some nebulae can even prevent jump drive fields from engaging, giving players a place to meet for PvP matches without easy escape. Players can even visit stars, black holes, moons, and even massive asteroids with caves. Such environment elements can also include changes in gravity, fuel consumption, physics, visibility.
RPS: What has been the most difficult technical or creative task in making Evochron legends? What do you still have left to accomplish?
Bower: If I had to narrow the most difficult technical task down to one, it would probably be multiplayer. The capabilities of the multiplayer mode in Legends have been expanded a lot and many of its systems had to be recoded or designed from scratch to accommodate new gameplay options and support for more players. It's been an enormous development task for me and will likely continue to be one of the most challenging in the future.
I plan to continue advancing the game based on my own goals for the project and discussions with players. The game's future development depends significantly on what players ask for. If you visit my forum, you'll find a number of discussions on what should and shouldn't be in the game. I also have a lot of discussions via e-mail. Those discussions are a major part in what direction I decide to go with the game. Features like station hangars, support for multiple simultaneous control devices, and changes to the nav map are examples of current development goals based on such feedback and discussions. Those are the improvements currently on my to-do list.
RPS: Can you tell us a little bit about multiplayer in Legends, and what new stuff should players expect?
Bower: They can expect the same kind of experience that single player offers, just with other players being in the game's universe in addition to computer controlled ships. Multiplayer can be managed either with the game directly or with an external server program (the recommended option for more populated sessions). It provides both PvP and PvE options, including cooperative contracts. Players can link together to form squads/clans using tags in their callsign, which automatically sets their threat levels to each other to green (matching tags) or red (different tags). Players can trade with each other, race, explore, or complete a number of other activities available in single player. The game is designed to provide the same gameplay and options in multiplayer that are available in single player with few exceptions. Some players even just sign in to a session to play the game on their own, but still want to chat with others for fun or advice as they play.
RPS: Shawn, thanks very much.
Evochron Legends is out now.