Derek Smart is either famous or infamous, depending on who edited Wikipedia last. He's either been making games for twenty years or making the same game for twenty years, and he's either a maverick indie genius or mad fool, depending on who you ask. But he has never stopped making games. We caught up with him to talk about his new game, Line of Defense, a remarkably ambitious MMOFPS. It was pitched to us as a challenger to Planetside 2, and we asked him more about that.
RPS: For our readers who haven't time to read your FAQ, what's the deal with Line of Defense? I understand it's a bit like Planetside.
Smart: Yes, but the only reason people are comparing it to Planetside is that it's one of two games like Planetside that are high end and tailored to a more niche FPS market. Outside of Planetside, there haven't been any games in the MMO space that do that. Line of Defense is being compared to Planetside simply because it's an MMO, but anyone who's played my previous games, particularly my 2009 All-Aspect Warfare will recognise that it takes some elements of that game and all we've done really is started from scratch and built a new game, sort of targeted it towards the MMO market and because Planetside is already there, we're getting these comparisons.
RPS: What's the big conceptual difference between Planetside, Firefall and your games then?
Smart: Well, there's a lot. For one thing, our worlds are different - much, much larger, we have a lot more assets, we have a lot more gameplay features, and we have the added space combat areas. In Line of Defense, you can do combat in fighters in space, around a planet, you can dock with star stations in space and fight your way through them, and the same thing in a derelict carrier. Firefall is dedicated towards resource collection and stats and all that, Line of Defense is purely about combat. If you can't handle a weapon, whether that's a first person weapon, or a vehicle or an aircraft...
RPS: SWTOR has its own limited space combat and Eve is out there, crossing over with Dust 514, will you be doing something similar with Galactic Command?
Smart: Well, I'm just going to flat out say it: the space aspects in both of those games is just rubbish. Eve is more of an accountant's spreadsheet in a space setting. When you look at the traditional space combat games, anyone who calls Eve one needs to be taken out back and shot. Eve targets a specific market and they're very good at it - it's a good game, don't get me wrong. I just hate when people compare it to what WE have come to know as a space combat shooter, especially someone like me who's spent 20-odd years developing those games.
Dust 514, that's just going to fail. There's no ifs, maybes or buts about it. The proper way I think that would have been done would have been to do an Eve sequel and bolt Dust 514 into it. That's the problem when you start in one direction, your user base clamours for something they're expecting and you can't shoehorn it into what you have right now and you really can't go back to the drawing board. The thing is, as you probably know, all my games have had this planetary aspect to them. You just can't have an all-encompassing space combat game where you have planets and you can't enter them. In my very first game, Battlecruiser 3000, we had that, even though it was patently rubbish, because the technology just wasn't there. If you trace all my games from that first one in '96, you'll see that with every derivative version, every sequel, it's always progressed, to put more attention on the Planetside aspects of it. All-Aspect Warfare is predominantly about planet-side combat, with a space element. Galactic Command Online is just a kind of game, that takes all that, and adds the complexity from my previous games. It's Eve plus Dust 514 on steroids, the difference being I've spent twenty years doing that. Galactic Command Online won't be anything like Eve or Dust, because I'm not tacking anything on. Every single thing about planet-side combat, trading, exploration, space combat, going inside stations... it's all built in. You get to see a preview of Galactic Command Online in Line of Defense because both games share that engine we're building. I've never started from scratch if I haven't had to, why reinvent the wheel?
RPS: So you always iterate on the existing engine, are there still bits of code in there from your first game?
Smart: For Line of Defense? We actually wanted to build it off the All-Aspect Warfare engine, but one of the biggest problems with that game, in my opinion and that of my install base, was that the world was too large. You cannot populate such a large area and really do it justice, and still not have performance issues. Though that game sold, I wanted to do more on the planets, worlds and regions but couldn't. We built a prototype engine off All-Aspect Warfare, a few months later, I looked at it and thought “you know, I'm trying to shoehorn legacy tech in with new tech. You can spend twelve months trying to shoehorn these techs together or you can spend twelve months doing something else.”
We just scrapped the whole thing and went and licensed the Trinergy Vision engine, now called the Havok engine, and rebooted the project. Anything to do with logic or AI, like weapons-handling from All-Aspect Warfare, we used, if it had to be done from scratch, we did it from scratch. The most important thing in LoD, I wanted to build an all-Aspect Warfare on steroids but this time do it properly in how the worlds were built. To populate them properly, I needed a very, very powerful engine and I didn't want to build one.
RPS: You hoped the game would be out in 2011. How far did working with the new engine set you back?
Smart: It set us back four months, it wasn't such a big deal. The thing with licensing a really good engine is that all you bring are your assets and your logic. For us, because there was nothing in the prototype we could rescue with minimum effort, we ported what we could, trashed what we couldn't, and licensed a whole bunch of Middleware, Speedtree for the trees, something else for the animation. In my estimation it set us back about six months. I wanted it out for Christmas 2011 but I pushed it back to June 2012, there was no incentive for me to release it as I didn't need the money. One of those luxuries being an indie: I didn't want to do All-Aspect Warfare 1.5. With the feedback we're getting from the stuff we've shown, I think I made a good decision there, but we'll have to wait and see.
RPS: You're doing your battles in limited areas and with population caps of 256. Is this decision taken from All-Aspect Warfare essentially being a beta for this game?
Smart: In a way, yes. I wanted to make sure the planet-bound worlds were detailed enough to make them interesting. Anyone who compares a base in All-Aspect Warfare to a base in Line of Defense will automatically see that they're night and day. But all those things come at a price, the more detailed you make a world, the more hassles you're going to get in terms of performance, and if it's a multiplayer game, well, all bets are off. This time I decided not to compromise on the world but on the multiplayer experience - because I don't really need a million people in one small 250 square kilometre base, but if I had 256 people who love the world they're playing in and we can go over the top in populating it, I think that's a better trade off.
RPS: Could you give me an example of a good space combat game, if you think Eve is a bad one?
Smart: X-wing Vs Tie-Fighter!
RPS: Do you think there's been anything since X-Wing that's matched up to it?
Smart: No, no. Wing Commander was okay, but that was a different kind of game. All these games have an audience and all go their own way.
Smart: Yes, I was coming to that. Freespace 2. There have been a few, but gamers are finicky, you know? When you want to build these kind of games, you really have to know your audience, because you really can't please everyone. Someone who plays Freespace or Eve, there's always something they want “why I can't go onto a planet?” or “Why can't we have Newtonian physics?” Independence War was a really, really good one, which had really nice environments and a good space combat engine. You can't really compare them, they each have their own audience and we like them all equally.
RPS: And a good MMOFPS? Has anything beaten Planetside?
Smart: Well, the original I thought was good. The problem with the original was, in my opinion, that it was way ahead of its time. It had its problems, but back then everyone was crazy over Orcs and Elves. It kind of petered out. I'm a big fan of all games, I have an exceptionally, unhealthily large library, and I chatted with some of the Planetside developers about this, my biggest concern is that they're looking to do Planetside 1.5 and I think they'll regret it. From what I've seen and heard, I don't think they've gone far enough. Just because it was ahead of its time, it doesn't mean that Planetside is going to work in 2012. Gamers expect more. I'm sure it'll do the numbers, but only this time it won't be ahead of its time, this time, it won't be able to compete.
RPS: Planetside is a fairly egalitarian game: everyone can compete after completing training. Your game is more elitist, you've described how there's an ultimate load-out in your game and if you saw him, you'd want to run away.
Smart: The reason I mentioned that is, you have the ability to build your character anyway you want. You're going to be the guy who's going to get access to all the best vehicles and items, have all this crap falling off him, but also there might be another guy like me who's spent all his resources on a high-powered sniper rifle with an X-64 scope and a jetpack, and I'm the guy who's at the top of a building who can take your head off with one shot and that character you spent all that time building is now worthless. That's how I want the game to play out, so that no-one feels intimidated by something somebody else has, which is what's good about having a game based on twitch, not based on skills that you buy.
RPS: Assuming the game has matured, a new person coming into the game won't find this a level playing field?
Smart: Absolutely not. Everybody has the ability to stand out on his own. Let's face it, games are not competition, if you take competition what's the point. You have someone who wins and you have someone who loses. If I'm a new player and I started off with a shotgun and a few grenades, I'm certainly not going to engage with guys running around with rocket launchers. I mean you don't that in a regular FPS, it's foolish. I don't expect anyone to do that in this game, but this isn't a game where hit or miss is determined by rolling the dice. It's not a game where you can buy a skill that makes you shoot straight; if you remember Planetside, because of the technology at the time, firing was based on a curve. So even if you had the best weapon and tech, you still had to compensate for that firing curve. In this game, someone starting off who wants to be involved in high-level combat anytime, anywhere has to use his senses and know his limitations. A man's got to know his limitations.
RPS: Do you think you know your limitations, Dr Smart?
Smart: No, I don't. Being aware of my limitations would mean I set a goal for myself that's unachievable. If I did think about them I wouldn't still be doing games that very few people play. The fact of the matter is I do games and I do design. Sometimes, you think “can I do this?”; of course I bloody well can. The more you aspire to excel at something, the more you're good at something that you really believe in, the limitations go out the door, because you get blind-sided by what you're doing and common sense takes a back seat.
RPS: Other people go “we've been told that doesn't work” and don't do it. You go right ahead and find that out for yourself.
Smart: Yep. When I started out, people kept telling me it can't be done. Then there were people all over the internet, knocking the technology, of course I released the game and all that chatter ended up being rubbish because, 20 years and 14 games later, I'm doing the same damn game. Because I perfected what I started out doing, I just ended up iterating in different forms over the years. And I got good at it.
RPS: The industry has come full circle from people programming in their bedrooms to having to work for massive publishers because there was no other way of getting games out there, to back to people making mobile games in tiny teams. You've been doing it all the time; do you feel vindicated in your model?
Smart: In a sense, yes, but I don't consider it vindication. It's like the internet; we all started out on crap modems and by the time we were 56K, it just exploded, designing different types of games. Eventually, everything comes full circle. For me, as you know, I've never ever worked for a publisher, I've never had a job. That's because of the choices I made from the start. I got a lucky break on my very first game and, over the years, because I know where all the skeletons are buried, I know pretty much how everything is done, I was careful to use that for my advantage. One of the things that got hammered into my head was; if you want to build the game that you want to play, you have to build it; you have to fund it. I have to stay indie, to do what I want to do. If I lose that capability, I'm done. The thing about it is, the indies doing it today; they have it easy. They have all these free and cheap tools; they have exceptionally good delivery medium. There was only so much you could do back in the day; you still needed a publisher for a few things. As you know, I've had my share of publisher aggravation; it was just a necessary evil. Nowadays, the whole Indie revolution is back in full swing, for the same reason that companies like Atari are going to the dustbin and recycling their properties onto mobile.
RPS: Does the current publisher model have any long term lifespan?
Smart: It's only dead for the companies that really needed publisher support. Publishers have always made their own games. The thing that's changed is that, now if they want a game or a team, they just buy them. They come in-house, recycle one or two games, then get rid of them. It's just another way of the bad behaviour that publishers are notorious for, that hasn't changed. The old model isn't going anywhere, it's just going to the part where we're not going to bother giving you a million dollars and two years to do a game; we're just going to buy you and then we call the shots, and everything comes in-house. That model, they know it's unsustainable, but let's face it, for every publisher-developer game there's a thousand independent games and the funny thing is; everyone makes money regardless. I don't think there any independent developers left who have any way of getting meaningful publisher support without giving up their socks and kitchen sink. Because everyone needs the money. Even with all these tools out there, you still have to get the expertise. If you want to spend two thousand dollars building a mobile game, trust me, there's someone out there who can spend $100,000 building the same game. But they'll beat you, even if their game is worse than yours, because it's all about metrics and marketing.
RPS: Going back to the game, you have persistent vehicles that can be destroyed; is that totally, or can they be repaired later.
Smart: No, they can't be totally destroyed; that's because we wanted people to be attached to their assets. They all degrade, weapons degrade, vehicles too. The concept of a destroyed vehicles just means it's totally unusable.
RPS: The factions; obviously in your universe you have 13 alien races; you've chosen to go with just one, humans, and have civil war inside that one. Why and what's the differentiation between them?
Smart: I didn't want to throw everything in there; those races all appear in my lore and in Galactic Command Online. By starting with those two factions, it'll give me a chance to see what works and what doesn't. Because it's an MMO and we can always build upon it, we'll try it and see how it goes; if it goes well, we'll start introducing other races and factions. Plus the issue of creating assets.. you can spend a quite a lot of time building a front end that allows players to customise their characters to the hilt. But guess what; that gets very old and it doesn't make the game any better. All Points Bulletin is proof of that. I didn't think that throwing in all thirteen races plus their factions would make this a better game; two factions, make them as best as you can, do really good assets, throw it out there, gave it feedback, and stagger releasing things by expansion packs.
RPS: I don't quite understand the imprinting system; can you explain it?
Smart: I have to go back to the FAQ and clean it up. Imagine you have a car; the keys are your imprint. Or your cellphone that requires your thumbprint or your biometrics. If you buy a weapon and you don't imprint it, you get killed, someone can take it. But if you really like it, you've built it up and you have all the attachments, scope, silencer, tracer, the whole nine yards, then you imprint it, that means your biometrics are used to imprint that weapon, so it can't be stolen.
RPS: Are there customised items that can be stolen? Why would anyone want to steal an item that hadn't been customised?
Smart: Well, you won't find any uncustomised items in the world and blueprinting something is very expensive. So you really can't buy something and say I'm going to imprint this right now. Well, you can, but it's really expensive. What happens if you buy a sniper rifle, that you can afford today, and you pay the money for it to be imprinted, and play for a few more weeks then think I'm better off buying this other rifle and go and customise that... guess what, imprints are non-refundable.
RPS: So it's a very expensive save. Eve has the same thing with clones and insurance... any game where you have to buy insurance...
Smart: Haha! Well, it's all optional. Unlike Eve, it's not cheap; I don't want everyone doing it. You can only imprint high-value assets. Those assets take time to build and take time to get used to. If you've got to the point where you have enough money to imprint your favourite weapon, your jetpack, your wingsuit, I mean I want them to do it, but they're expensive to acquire and hard to find.
RPS: You have AI players in the game as well, in case players want to work in a squad or fireteam without necessarily playing with other people.
Smart: It works the same as All-Aspect Warfare. They're typically companions with a brain. Anyone who's ever played All-Aspect Warfare with AI squadmates knows that they're highly intelligent and bring that over to Line of Defense. They're very, very expensive; they're like companions, not everyone is going to have them.
RPS: Will you be able to buy them in a cash shop?
Smart: Yes, yes. In the cash shop or you can have them manufactured for you, custom-made.
RPS: Is this your first experience with a F2P game?
Smart: Not really; I run Alganon over at my other company, Quest Online. That was subscription, I came in and made it F2P and the rest is history. The reason I have a hybrid model for Line of Defense is that I really wasn't sure what direction to take. There are those who don't like F2P, because they think it's Pay-to-win, which is nonsense when you think about it, and there are those who just buy the game and have at it. Why the hell not, let's give both options and they get to choose. The two models are: one you download the free client and you get a gun and a prayer; the other you download the client, and you get character and weapon selections, and off you go. The access to experience points, certifications, it's all different when you buy the client as opposed to the free version. There's no subscription whatsoever.
RPS: How do you see the free players competing against the high-end players? Is it like “how many five year olds you can fight?” Do you set them against each other or do you let it happen organically?
Smart: No, it's organic. You have to remember, the difference between rifle A and B is down to whether it's got a scope, a silencer, a grenade-launcher, whether it uses AP rounds and so on. It's not an issue where noobs have access to inferior rifles. Noobs always have a chance. It's not different to players who enter Call of Duty and Battlefield, it sucks to be the guy everyone picks on. But when you promote teamplay... because this game is absolutely not run and gun. Anyone who tries to play this game, or Planetside for that matter, as run and gun, is going to have a horrible time. When you start playing, join a squad or fireteam - don't go off on your own because when you're on a team, every bullet counts. Five noobs carrying a high-powered ZS10 rifle are perfectly matched to five top level players carrying ZS10s with grenade-launchers - because the latter might be terrible shots.
RPS: If you weren't Derek Smart, but a man looking at Derek Smart from the outside, how would you describe Derek Smart? What would you hope Derek Smart will be in the future?
Smart: I would say I'm an eccentric, enigmatic person wrapped in a complete contradiction of the norm. I think about myself all the time, how did I get here, how did this happen? The only thing that keeps coming back to me is that I didn't start doing this for fame and fortune, I did this because I wanted to make a living from something I love doing. The cool thing about this is that all creators, whether you're writing a book or software, your works live on after you. When I retire, most people won't remember Derek Smart as that guy who did those crazy games 30, 40, 50 years ago; they'll think, oh that guy was fun, that guy was nuts. That's how I'll be remembered. My works will live on, and your name is attached to what you do.
RPS: Thanks for your time.