Space Hulk Space Hulk Space... Hulk? Full Control's adaptation of the cult classic Games Workshop boardgame turned out to be a divisive experience after early excitement. A buggy launch (though rectified later) didn't help, but players seemed polarized between enjoying its careful faithfulness and being put off by what some felt was too slow and rudimentary. Rab was very much in the latter camp when he covered it for us.
Last month, the Danish devs unexpectedly announced Space Hulk: Ascension edition, which has a looser, faster, flashier interpretation of the hallowed source material, including adding roleplaying mechanics, revised combat, different types of enemy, many more weapons and a slew of brand new missions. I talked to their lead Thomas Lund about the intent behind this deliberately more 'videogamey' standalone expansion, what's changed both on the surface and deeper down, the critical differences between a boardgame and a videogame, why the two Space Hulks are companions rather than replacements, his response to criticism of the first game, why it had a messy launch and what they've learned from it all.
RPS: Why are you making Space Hulk: Ascension?
Thomas Lund: The primary reason is that, we did the boardgame, and we tried to stick as close to the boadgame as possible, with all the implications of that. We're really proud of what the product is now, and it pleased a group of gamers who usually do not get games, at all, in the digital space.
At the same time, also during the development of Space Hulk, we knew that there was a videogame in there as well, that could still be a turn-based strategy game, but a lot of the rules in the boardgame are there for the physical interaction and the mechanics are there to have fun with rolling dice.
It's hard to recreate, and also some of the mechanics are there because there's a tension going on outside of the boardgame, between the two human players who sit there. Essentially, we knew that, but we stuck with wanting to make the digital conversion. Now Ascension is basically the product out of that, where we take the core of Space Hulk and now we twist it into the game that I think a lot of people expected us to make. With a more videogame approach. That is to cater to that side of the audience. We don't see this as a replacement game, but we see it as there are now [both] offerings. If you want to play the boardgame because you're a fan of that kind of style, you can pick the old Space Hulk. But if you are a videogamer and want a more videogame approach, but with the same style and theme, then Ascension is the game that you want.
RPS: Just to clarify, they exist as completely separate products - you're not getting any access to the other if you buy just one?
Thomas Lund: Two complete different audiences, two complete different products, as such. So it is what we would call a standalone expansion. Content from one doesn't go over into the other one. We didn't just take the DLC we had from the old Space Hulk and re-wrap it and make like an Ultimate Pack with a new label. We redid a lot. Almost all of the missions are completely new - we have 103 at this point in time.
Obviously we took some of the models from the game that we already did, so we didn't have to do new Terminators, for example. We did add Ultra Marines and Cyclone missile launchers. We have taken out the dice mechanics and put in percentage rolls for things. We've taken a look at some of the rules and said 'why is there a draw in the close combat?' It's because there is a tension between two people rolling dice, and if it's equal then they have another go. But in a videogame, you don't have tension in that kind of way when you're rolling against the computer, so the draw doesn't add anything. So we removed that - either you win or you lose.
Another example of that is the jamming of the Bolter. In the boardgame, that's a pure random roll: if you have the wrong dice, your gun jams. In Ascension we kept the core idea of the Storm Bolter being able to jam, but we reworked it into an overheating situation, so if you continuously fire it overheats and you cannot fire for one turn. So you have to do some heat management. It's turning it into a game mechanic that the player can control, instead of a random dice roll.
RPS: So the idea is that all of the game's workings are visible now, and you don't get blind-sided by a random number popping up?
Thomas Lund: More or less, but essentially when you look at some of the things, like shooting at enemies, it's a percentage chance. If you look at it from a pure mechanical point of view, what happens is that you roll a 100-sided die, but people playing a videogame don't see that as a dice roll, it's a chance roll.
We took a look at Space Hulk: the boardgame in terms of what else you could do with it, and try to move it beyond what the cardboard box contains. But at the same time, Space Hulk is a very specific thing. It is Terminators vs Genestealers. We cannot just throw Orks in or play as Chaos or have Eldar raids. That's not what Games Workshop has as a definition of what Space Hulk is. But taking that and, within those limitations, asking what we could do to add more complexity to the game, and what is it that makes a videogame more than a boardgame?
Some of it is about tactical choices. The computer is better at handling a lot of the formulas and you can have more complexity going, and that's one of the forces on that versus the boardgame. We added a lot of choices to the player. One of the examples being that all the weapons have different firing modes. Storm Bolters can do single shot or aimed shot, suppression fire which is in an area, everything in that area will lose some action points next turn. Those kinds of choices are given to the player now, giving them more control of the game and how they want to play it, but still within the definition of what Space Hulk is.
RPS: Have you identified any changes you have made that are likely to prove controversial with the traditional fanbase?
Thomas Lund: Yes, we have. I don't have a specific thing that I can point my finger at, that they'll say this is wrong, and if they do we can say "hey, this project is not for you if you're a purist, because if you're a purist you would want to play the digital boardgame."
RPS: You mentioned that the two games have completely different audiences - you don't expect much crossover?
Thomas Lund: Oh, I think there is a large group of crossover people. I hope that they enjoy both of the games, and we give people who own the one game a discount on the other one, so they don't have to pay full price. We really think there is an audience that could have been hit with Space Hulk the boardgame that we didn't reach because they expected a different kind of game.
RPS: So what did they expect, do you think?
Thomas Lund: Faster gameplay, more choices. We added RPG elements so you earn XP as you play a mission, and that carries into the next mission. You can upgrade your stats and weaponry, you can unlock things as you move along. Things that you would expect from a modern videogame, those are the things that we addressed here - [Ascension] is still hard, still tough, and in some ways it's even tougher than the Space Hulk digital boardgame. But it's different.
Also, we changed the entire theme and look of the game. When you enter a mission, you do not see the layout. There is no strategic map, there is no 'where do I go?' thing. You get a marker that points you in the right direction, and it tells you to go find the console that opens the airlock to the next mission, for example. Then you have to find it, and the way you find it is by opening doors, going into corridors and going into rooms, and the light turns on - that way it reveals the level as you move around. That subistantially changes the gameplay of the entire project. The game is very, very different than playing the boardgame, where it's more tactical analysis of 'where are enemies coming from, how do I protect myself, if I put a guy on overwatch down this corridor it can block off the entire flank...' All these kinds of things you won't know, and you won't have this kind of thinking as you move around. You have to move your squad in a tight cluster, and discover the level, and figure out how to get to the mission area.
The Genestealers, you don't see them until they're close to you. You have a perception skill, and there is some equipment which improves the perception range, so you can hear them around a corner, but until they're in perception range or in line of sight, you don't see them. That way you can't plan what you do or with whom. It's a very different and cool experience in itself.
RPS: As a thought experiment - probably too subjective to work - if you weren't involved in either game, were just a player, which of the two games would you choose?
Thomas Lund: Ha, that is a difficult question. For me, I guess it's both - and I know that is the politically correct answer - but it's two different things for two different mentalities. If I want to play a boardgame experience, if I wanna have that cardboard feeling, then yes it's definitely the old game. If I want to play something that is more modern, where I have more connection to things, I want to upgrade, all these other things, it's definitely Ascension.
RPS: Heh, thought experiment unsuccessful, I think. What new stuff, if any, have you put in to work on the tension and atmosphere of the game, which is an essential part of Space Hulk in any form?
Thomas Lund: We changed all the audio to make it more horror-like. We changed it so that there are different types of enemy - so you have your purebreed Genestealers with claws, you have ones with scything talons that are slower but hit harder, you have acid maw variants that act a little bit like the Boomer in Left 4 Dead. If you kill them, they create an acid cloud around the body, so you want to kill those from a distance. We have feeder tendrils that get a bite attack - if they hit you with it you lose action points for the next turn, so you get poisoned and it slowly builds up again as your system flushes it out. We also have armoured variants of these guys, which gives you different types of things that you need to do with your weaponry.
And there is reason to run around and discover things, find out what is around the corner, not necessarily go straight for the objective, but see what you can find.
RPS: To address the elephant in the room, there was some heavy criticism to the first game, not least from this site. While I hear you when you say that there's a difference between people who wanted a direct adaptation of the boardgame and something more videogamey, how much are you receptive to any of that criticism?
Thomas Lund: Yeah, there was some criticism which was on the point. There was some criticism that was from the context of the reviewer wanting the videogame more than the boardgame, and there were personal opinions that I just didn't agree with. But that's always how it is. I think that we're not blind to criticism. Yes, we knew that we were going to do a boardgame conversion, and we were pretty open about that all the way along, but not everybody understood what that meant. In that way we failed the communication part. But the criticism of us not making a videogame instead of the boardgame I think is a little unfair.
We did have some criticism on the launch quality and that was totally OK, because it was too buggy. Even though we fixed it up within the next few days of launch, it was too buggy at launch, there was no doubt about it.
Taking all of the feedback into account - all the criticism that was in the context of the boardgame, and there were things that didn't work out either rule-wise or bug-wise or similar - I think we addressed in all the updates that we did. We've been very pro-active on updating since launch.
RPS: Why was it so buggy at launch? And were you aware in advance that it would be?
Thomas Lund: Yes, we knew that we had a race against time. We had a lot of development all the way up to the end, and we had some bug fixes that were done in the last few hours, that fixed bugs but introduced others. For example, the animation bug that meant you would visually walk into a wall. That was created in the afternoon that we were releasing, because we were trying to fix something else.
Since we're self-funded, we only had money for a very short time left. We had a release slot on Steam, and we had a pre-order counter that was ticking down. So once we went into pre-order, that was it. People were refreshing Steam to see the counter tick down, and just suddenly saying "hey, just wait a week or two more " was not a possibility as such.
RPS: How did it work out for the studio?
Thomas Lund: Yeah, you but only get this launch once. It spills into your metacritic rating because all the big sites review it on the first day, and if you bodge your launch - which we did, I'm totally honest about that - it's not something you can repair afterwards. Even being extremely pro-active afterwards, fixing all the bugs, doing free add-ons, adding new features, you don't get rewarded for that part.
Yes, you get rewarded if you're looking at Steam ratings from community members. Before we started doing the Steam sales and going out to a larger audience we had around 90 positive ratings, and we took that as a sign that we did hit the target audience. We actually delivered a product that the core fans, and the people who actually played it after the updates, thought 'yes, this is a good Space Hulk.' So that was satisfying.
At the same time, we totally realised and took on board the criticism of 'why didn't you do the videogame? Why is there no level progression, no carrying over units?' The basic answer being 'because it's not in the boardgame', but at the same time there is this Ascension product that's in there, that is the opportunity we're going for instead.
RPS: What about the grey area between videogame and boardgame, flair and polish stuff that doesn't affect the faithfulness, like the fact we saw too many repeated animations or the Terminators walking was too slow and tedious? Would you defend that stuff as necessary?
Thomas Lund: [pause, slow intake of breath] We could have done the Terminator walk cycle switch in the option menu from day one, yes. But it was a conscious choice of doing it like that, and also based on what Games Workshop said - "hey, that is a Terminator walking, that is the speed that he does." That might be one of the places where us as fanboys, and Games Workshop as fanboys, should have looked at it earlier and said "OK, that might be, but is it good in a videogame?"
RPS: Certainly when I saw it in a short demo at Rezzed it looked very appropriate to Terminators, but then when I'm playing a full game and I'm waiting again and again it's a very different matter.
Thomas Lund: Yeah. And we added the option later. And one of the things we wanted to do with Ascension was add some faster gameplay. Essentially, all the animations that are in the game have been reworked, and we're still adding variations into the combat and the death animations. We posted a few last week on our Facebook page, just to show some of the kill animations and that they're different, and much more gory. We have a long list of those, where we create variations and variations. But also the Terminator walk cycles have been sped up. There are some places where the animation system in the old game where a Terminator, instead of taking a nice 90 degree turn around a corner, walks up and looks into a wall, turn 90 degrees on the same tile and then move onwards, slowing the game down. Those are the things that we've taken now and reworked, making them more fluid and faster.
So yes, that kind of criticism we've totally taken in and are addressing. Enough? That's a good question. We'll see later on. But we are addressing a lot of these things on the basis as well that we're not doing a multi-platform game with this one. It is a PC title. So all the visual effects, the entire lighting system, the input controls, all these things are tailored towards a PC game.
RPS: Why is it PC only?
There's two answers to that. One is commercially. There was a huge amount of people who bought it on PC, and way less on tablets.
RPS: I'm slightly surprised - it almost seemed like a better fit for tablet than PC.
Thomas Lund: Yes, it is interesting, but it's also a trend that I'm hearing from more and more people, that premium games on tablets are slowing down in sales, a lot. That is definitely one reason, looking at it from a business point of view, that the main audience wanted the PC game.
The other thing is on the technical side, since we do so much with lighting, and a lot more about there is darkness and shadows and light cones, and you turn on light as you move along, there are animations in the lighting systems... All that stuff is not technically possible on tablet.
RPS: Did you compromise the PC version of the original so that it would run on tablet too?
Thomas Lund: I don't think we compromised. I think we tried to find a good middleground in some places, one of them being the control system. The control system definitely was one where we thought 'how can we make something that would work with both?' An example would be where you click on a tile and change the direction you're facing. On the PC version, you had to drag in the direction that you want to face. That is a natural thing on the tablet, it's not necessarily a natural thing on the PC. But it worked fine. That is possibly one of the places where we maybe, if we had more time and money and all these other things, could have done two different control schemes.
On the visual side, I think it was just basically what we could afford to do. It wasn't a conscious choice of making it was it is, it was what we could afford to do with the budget. No big publisher was going to back funding us with millions of dollars, it's all our own investment. That also puts limitations of what you can do.
There is no one place that I could point at and say we compromised, but is there stuff that I would have done more on? Yes, sure. There always is.
RPS: What is the one main thing you would have done differently, with hindsight?
Some of the things we are doing now, for example. More cool visual effects, more [deep voice] blood. More animation variations. This time around, we do have the time and we do have the team members to do that stuff. This time around, we can simply address those things and have really, really cool visual effects which are much more PC and high-end. Since we did Space Hulk, we got a technical artist in from io Interactive, who's absurdly good, has done a ton of shader stuff. If we'd had him on the original one it would have looked totally different.
RPS: How much concern is there that the mixed reception to the first game, whatever the reasons for that, will affect Ascension's chance of success?
Thomas Lund: There is definitely some concern of are we able to show people that this is a different game? That people should take a look at this if they didn't like the old one? If they did like the old one they will probably look at this anyway. But that is one of the things that we need to work on over the next month, and up to launch. We need to be able to show people what this is and how it plays. We'll be giving some people preview code, we'll be doing dev videos, like the first 10 minutes of Space Hulk: Ascension, those kinds of things. We have a game here has ten times the amount of levels that the first game shipped with, three [Space Marine] Chapters, a shitload of weapons, it looks really good, it feels really good, there is a new UI... The entire game as a package is so much better and more polished in that way.
RPS: Could you have made Ascension with the resources you had for the first game? Could, in an alternate reality, this have been the first game?
I don't think so, no. And also a lot of the feedback that was given throughout the last year has fed into the idea pool as well. We really, really wanted to do the boardgame for the last one. That was it. It wasn't an option for us to do it differently. But that's all the stuff that now we can be happy about now. This doesn't replace it, but... I have to use careful choice of words here, but it's a better package. In some ways it's a better game because it's more of a videogame and it fits the platform better. It is what most people, I think, expected. And it's just amazing where we are now compared to one and a half years ago.
We're maturing as well, as a studio, and the code base, and all these other things. Having two games in production, with Jagged Alliance shaping up really well, some of the skills or subsystems spill back and forth between projects. We're at a great place now to make these kinds of games. It feels good, and it feels good to be here and still be an independent studio.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Space Hulk: Ascension Edition is due for release before the end of the year. I hope to get a chance to play it before then.