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Interviewforge: Codehatch Explain Starforge

Lumberjack Days?

Tiny teams making incredibly ambitious games seems like the most thrilling aspect of the latest wave of indie games. And nothing is more ambitious that sci-fi action world-builder thing Starforge. It's literally incredible, as in actually challenging our capacity to be credulous. It's made by two guys, who call themselves Codehatch. We talked to them.

RPS: Can you tell us a bit about who you guys are, what your backgrounds are, and how you came to be working together?

Sworin: We grew up on farms near very small villages in different parts of Northern Canada, where the villagers traded with pelts and gold coins, and generally regarded computers and other modern technology as strange, frightening sorcery. So as self-taught game developers we were anomalies. We both began learning how to make games at the age of 10 and continued learning at every opportunity we found. Our school suffered as a result, but neither of us cared; we wanted to do what we loved.

We met when we were in our early twenties, by chance we both lived on the same street in Edmonton, Alberta. We started collaborating on different project ideas and this was the first time either of us worked with another game developer. After tossing around different possibilities we settled on one in particular that stood out, and on September of 2010. StarForge was born.

As we developed StarForge we also worked physical labor; grunt work by day, development by night.

On the night of May 29th 2012, we just managed to conjure up something at least somewhat playable. Although it wasn’t stable and wasn’t polished, we were exploring a lot of uncharted territory with it. We whipped up a YouTube video to show off some of the experimentation we put into the game so far.

Something was odd—we noticed that the video just started spontaneously collecting views within minutes of silently uploading it to our channel. Steve went looking around for a possible cause of this popularity surge, and sure enough, Reddit had multiple threads about our game, exploding with upvotes and comments.

A couple hours later our servers were stuttering in pain from the onslaught of internet traffic. It hit the #1 spot on the front page of Reddit—an absolutely ecstatic moment for us—but not so much for our servers… RIP. So what would any developer do in this situation? Throw it up on the Pirates Bay, of course! That's exactly what we did.

About ten hours later Notch came along declaring on twitter that he had a “nerdgasm”. Then press sites like Rock Paper Shotgun started to hunt us down the next morning. We couldn’t sleep. It was possibly the best and the most nauseating time of our lives; over a decade of work finally noticed, and the first time we ever made any real success in game development. The waves of support from fans soon enabled us to quit our day job and vegetate in front of our computers, making cool video game stuff like we’ve always wanted.
Nathan sent us a resume and portfolio, and based on the work we saw, we decided overnight he’d be our first employee. He finished an internship with us while we worked out of our stuffy little apartment.

Since then we've hired two more full time programmers, got actual office space here in the city, and eventually released on Steam’s Early Access Platform. In the future we plan to keep expanding to get quality updates out even faster.

RPS: What led you to make StarForge? How clear were you about what you wanted to accomplish? Was it something that evolved as you worked?

Sworin: Will was playing a lot of StarCraft 2 and Minecraft during the summer and thought it'd be a blast to mix the two up with a healthy dose of FPS. He called Steve, who said, “Cool—add physics and procedural 3D Tilesets and I’m in.” So off we went to work. We were at a time in our lives when we didn't care about risk; our focus was solely to make the game we always wanted to play.

We were always working on the Fort Wars mode from the onset. Eventually we realized we needed to work on this mode last since the game wasn’t ready at the time for the gameplay and balancing it demanded. Instead we focused on Survival and Fort Defense, which could be built up progressively.

The game was definitely an evolution over the first year and a half. When we were working together at our day Jobs, between sawing logs and picking rocks we’d chat about design ideas. After the long day was over, we'd be happy to be back at our computers to try and put those ideas into action.

RPS: Can you go into a bit of detail, for readers unfamiliar with the project, about what StarForge is and what you guys want it to be?

Sworin: StarForge will bring you into a new world lightyears away, filled with alien sights and sounds on a vast uncharted landscape. It’s a fully simulated planet, filled to the brim with innovations that challenge your gaming preconceptions and push the boundaries of technology and interactivity.

StarForge is a RTS, an FPS, an RPG, and a world-building, physics-driven sandbox. It was inspired by many great games, including Minecraft, Warcraft 3, Starcraft, Borderlands, Terraria and Halo.

You’re given a simple premise: Earth is slowly becoming uninhabitable and overpopulated. You, a more-or-less ordinary human, were chosen to migrate to another earth-like planet, where humankind could possibly persist and thrive. It’s a beautiful place, saturated with life; it was like opening your eyes for the first time. But then you realize – you’re marooned here and far away from the comfortable civilized safety of your previous technologically advanced homeworld.

This untouched, untamed land is yours for the taking—survive, harvest materials from the land, and forge a new civilization with the tools and knowledge you brought with you. Build cities, build machines… build weapons… but just remember that you’re not alone and your decisions will affect how the planet responds to you. It is home to many other creatures who may or may not enjoy your presence in their territory.

We have procedural weapons, crafting, physics movement systems, ground-space travel with no loading screens, procedural voxel terrain, and much more either released or in development. We ultimately want the game to be whatever you want it to be, providing players with the opportunity to build and create their world as the imagine them. Players can become whoever or whatever they want to be, and can build themselves up as high as they can, with no ceilings holding them down.

RPS: Do you think the game has a particular philosophy behind it?

Sworin: Yeah, totally—we founded CodeHatch with the belief that the ability to create, explore and interact with our imaginations, as though imaginary things really existed, is something everyone should experience.

Video games are the closest thing we have, being the only interactive form of art we know. But they are expensive, take a long time and require specialized skill; something that very few of us have. Even though we game developers have leaped as far as we have, there will be still countless untold stories and unexplored worlds trapped inside our minds. Very few people will be able to set them free, yet even for those who can, they are but the mere glimpses that seep between the financial and technical barriers that hold us back today. As a result, many projects die. Those that survive usually adapted to the harsh commercialized climate: They appeal to the widest audience possible, recycling the same safe profitable design recipe over and over, instead of providing diverse content to our diverse interests.

They dumbed down or removed features to cut costs. They use tricks to keep us playing a game long after its novelty has long since depleted, instead of making the costly decision to provide new content. They put franchises we love in the hands of people who view games solely as an instrument of profit. We will not rest until this changes.

We strongly believe in procedural content, and StarForge is an early reflection of that. For example, our 3D Tileset system, a block-building mechanic that works similar to Minecraft but creates highly detailed buildings, is a good starting point to show how simple interactions could allow ordinary players to create what might usually take hours and cost hundreds of dollars. Our infinite terrain system allows high quality, endlessly vast, malleable terrains to be generated at the click of a button – something that’d literally take a human artist or designer forever. Even most of the textures in our game are procedural, using technology called "Substance".

We strive to push the industry in the direction of giving the creative power to the player. We hope our games will put game development into the hands of players in easily accessible ways that are fun to play, with our algorithms becoming more powerful after each generation.

Our ultimate vision is to eventually create an industry standard of procedural or AI assisted creativity, used by gamers, hobbyists and professionals alike. We hope that through our influences, we as an industry will someday render our current costly, risky, confusing, time consuming, and stressful ways as another stepping stone in history, and lead developers and gamers everywhere into a future where reality and imagination become one.

RPS: "Infinite terrain" is one of your feature flashes - what does that mean in practical terms?

Sworin: It means mountains, plains, deserts, caves, depths, and even a fiery alien “hell”. Yeah, if there is such a place on an alien planet it'd be 30 hours of digging straight down. A scary place no doubt, populated by the remnants of early 90's FPS shooter monsters and a heaping dosage of badass.

That's the beauty of infinite voxel terrain. You can go as far as you want, in any direction, and never see the same thing twice in one journey. It’s procedural, so the world unfolds itself around you in a different way each time you start a new game.

You will be able to sculpt racetracks, tunnels, mountains, or whatever else they feel into the terrain. You may even have to face war from the aliens whom live underground and enjoy feeding on new settlers.

We plan to launch the terrain in a coming update hopefully by the end of summer.

RPS: The immediate response people seem to have to StarForge is to question how ambitious it is - do you think that's fair?

Sworin: Yep, that's fair. After all, something of this magnitude has probably never been produced before. So naturally people will question it coming from a few young developers. But neither of us are quitters. Will spent 7 years making his first game Silas, released it, and fulfilled all of his contracts. Steve was always buried in his code every waking moment. Our business partnership compliments each other.

We believe this type of game wasn't made because publishers are unwilling to have risk and ambition like this. So here we are, making the game day by day, year by year, until it is done.

We personally believe we will have no problem achieving our vision, and we think our progress so far backs that up.

RPS: Can you tell us a bit about your IndieGoGo campaign - why did you decide to do it, and how did it work out for you?

Sworin: The IndieGoGo campaign was a great success, and we ended up being their top gaming campaign ever at the time! We thank RPS, other media, and of course our fans for helping us by get the word out, since that is the area we lack the most. We decided to do it to raise funds for developing StarForge, basically guaranteeing us a year of development.

RPS: How important do you think the crowd-funding trend is?

Sworin: It is very important; we think it's one of the best things to ever come for independent developers. After all, with the raised capital you can create a better game and get it done quicker. You also don't have to deal with shortsighted investors and such who just want to make a dollar; rather, everyone who buys in cares about the game and only that.

RPS: Can you tell us exactly where the game is now in its development, and where it's going?

Sworin: We are still in the alpha stage and expect to be until late this year. We aim to release the final version sometime in late 2014. Currently we have just released a major update which contains the Procedural Weapons, Multiplayer, Resource Pallets, Overhauled Movement, Fort Defense, Ground-Space Gameplay, and so much more! Our next target is to fully produce the Infinite Voxel Terrain, foliage the $#!% out of it, and further refine our Multiplayer to support Survival mode.

Well the first would have to be how the trees fall and such. We were inspired by our lumberjack days and really learned the mechanics of it. The chainsaw duel was also inspired by this.

The slammer turret was born when Will saw Steve working on the physics movement and thought a giant spinning chunk of metal would be great fun.

The procedural weapon system was always interesting, and due to some bugs Nathan accidentally enabled it to produce Darth Maul type double-sided chainsaws.

But we think one of the most defining moments was when we first got the 3D Tilesets working. It was really late at night, Steve finally cracked the code and Will made just the right combo of art to make it happen. That was the first time we realized we had developed something really special. The future never seemed so bright.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Starforge is an early access game on Steam.

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Jim Rossignol