Rejoice, heretics. There's going to be a brand new, turn-based and faithful PC adaptation of legendary Games Workshop boardgame Space Hulk, and I am really very excited about this. So I had a good old chat with Thomas Hentschel Lund, boss of Full Control, the studio behind this sci-fi strategy game of man versus alien in desperate battle. Inside: the first (and excellent) in-game screenshots, details on how it works, what's been tweaked, if it's as brutal as the source material, whether PC or iOS is the lead platform, whether it nods to the old EA first-person games, and how the whole thing happened due to one very happy accident involving a fire pit.
(You can click on the first two screenshots in this post for fancy HD versions, by the way).
Thomas Hentschel Lund: Space Hulk Space Hulk Space Hulk Space Hulk Space Hulk Space Hulk Space Hulk!
RPS: I'm not sure I can pull off another post like that, sadly. Might need to get you to say something more.
Thomas Hentschel Lund: You made my day that afternoon, that was the most fantastic response I got to the announcement.
RPS: I will try to more insightful this time. The obvious question is what are we in for with this game? We don't know much about it yet.
Thomas Hentschel Lund: What we're overall aiming for is to take the board game experience and make a digital game out of it. What we mean with that is not taking it literally, 1:1. If you have in your head the boardgame as you play that, and XCOM, and mix those two together. That's the game experience you can expect from Space Hulk.
As you play the game and move around, and see your tactical squad, we have an action camera that goes down into the corridor and shows the action up close. Or if you're in Overwatch and a Genestealer's going down a corridor, the camera will sometimes switch down and into an over-the-shoulder shot with the Terminator firing an Assault Cannon. You see the Genestealer in real-time moving up and then suddenly it hits and splats.
So, that kind of vision is what we aim for on an overall level. And trying to make it as cinematic and creepy and claustrophobic as possible.
RPS: Have you made any changes to the game mechanics, as well as to the camera stuff?
Thomas Hentschel Lund: Yes, we did do some changes. I mean, it's still turn-based and that's the core of it. The game itself will play a lot like the boardgame but we do some optimisations to make the game more fluid, a little bit more action-ish. Some of the things that we've been doing are you can click on a tile past a closed door and the door will automatically open, so you get a little bit more fluid gameplay instead of going to the door, standing in front of it, opening it and then you can click onwards. Getting a little bit faster gameplay out of it will still keeping the core, essential boardgame, turn-based feeling.
We had a look at things like the Flamer rules. In the boardgame the Flamer is essentially done like it is due to book-keeping rules. The rule is that if you flame a certain tile, the entire tile that it sits on is lit up with flames. It doesn't discriminate if it's a one-tile corridor or an entire room, so we changed that into a template-based system. What you target is actually like the first title, where there's a cone after it. So you can envisage throwing a bucket of water, and it hits the floor and spread out to both sides for a certain range. We're still trying to cover the same amount of real-estate with the flames, but we just want to make it a little bit more computer game instead of a boardgame. We could of course have gone for a 1:1 conversion but we simply don't think that will cater to a computer game crowd as much.
We did some other game rules changes too. We've tried to keep it to as few as possible. One of the things that we wanted to do was have asynchronous multiplayer, and to be able to do that in an enjoyable way we will most likely remove the ability to cancel out the enemy Genestealer movement with Command Points during their turn. It would be really odd if they can select to move a Genestealer five tiles, and on the third tile in asynchronous you have to roll back and redo parts of your move because the Terminator player after seeing the five movements says "oh, roll back." That doesn't work in an asynchronous mode.
RPS: Are you going to keep in the synchronous mode, or ditch it entirely?
Thomas Hentschel Lund: It's one of those things we haven't decided yet. If it works well enough that we can simply do it, or we can also automate some of the things... This is just raw ideas I'm throwing out at the moment, but at the end of the Terminator term, if I have Command Points left and this guy spots somebody, he shoots. Stuff like that, Command allocations that you would otherwise do as Terminator player.
In synchronous mode yes, you could definitely try to interrupt things with a space bar press, for example, and say "yes, I want to use Command Points now." But we don't know if it's going into the final product yet.
RPS: How are you tackling the singleplayer campaign, in terms of in the boardgame it's quite visible what the opposing Genestealer is up to, how many units he's going to deploy and where they're coming from? Doing that means there isn't too much surprise or shock.
Thomas Hentschel Lund: Yes, we definitely want to take it a little bit further. The story that we want to tell is that you're [Blood Angel Captain Michaelus] Raphael sitting on the strike cruiser outside the Space Hulk, and you scan into the Hulk. So what we're going to try to do is have only parts of the level in the line of sight of Terminators visible as 3D models with nice textures. So if you turn to the right, the corridor that you were looking at before will turn into a like a radar scan image. That's one of the ideas that we want to try to go with, see if that adds an extra dimension to the atmosphere. And also going a little bit more for the radar blip kind of imagery, having something fuzzy going on in that direction.
RPS: Potentially that could affect the strategy quite a lot, you're going to alter the tactics that you'd use in the boardgame if you basically can't see any of what's going on?
Thomas Hentschel Lund: We don't want to go in and change a really cool, well-balanced, well-played game, and we're not going to dumb it down so it turns into a shooter. Our vision is that we essentially want to keep the claustrophobic atmosphere, you're up against millions of Genestealers potentially, you're the underdog. You're going to lose this game three out of four times, just as in the boardgame.
For me, that's one of these essential things that I like about the boardgame. It's challenging. You're playing against a huge amount of enemies, and you will most likely lose and have that last stand kind of feeling. "Yes, I actually made it into the objective room with my last guy and he flamed it one turn before the Genestealer got him in the back!"
RPS: That's the XCOM thing again, I guess - making players expect to lose a lot of guys as they play. Space Hulk's even more unforgiving though, which might make it a hard sell for anyone who wants an easy ride.
Thomas Hentschel Lund: Yes, and I'm sorry to say but an easy ride is not going the game that we're going to make. It's not going to be a shooter. It's trying to keep the roots of this is a challenging game for you to play. Just... similar to the boardgame.
RPS: Have you taken any inspiration from the old EA DOS games at all?
Thomas Hentschel Lund: They are a completely different thing, but we are definitely trying to take a few of the menu things and some of the ideas that they that, and trying to put that in as a homage. We don't want to try to reproduce what EA did in the old days. They essentially took a turn-based game and made it into a more action, real-time thing. We're taking the boardgame and making a turn-based game with some action elements. I'd much more compare it to XCOM than I would the old EA games.
RPS: Hopefully XCOM's sparked renewed interest in turn-based, so you won't just be appealing to old school Games Workshop players.
Thomas Hentschel Lund: That's one of the reasons for not doing a 1:1 conversion. We want to have Space Marines players thinking this is actually a cool game, we want [downloadable Warhammer 40,000 console title] Kill Team players to play this. It's the same theme, it's the same world, and pushing it into that XCOM kind of direction blends a little a bit, but it's still essentially at its heart the boardgame.
RPS: I've been looking at the screenshots you sent me for this, and they look really good, properly good. So I immediately worried that they'd been tarted up a lot for promotional purposes and the game won't actually look like that.
Thomas Hentschel Lund: [Laughs] I'd say it's 99% in-game and 1% Photoshop. The reason we Photoshopped it is, y'know, when people look at it they have to have that little extra for the first impression. But essentially those are the tactical camera view that you will see as you play it, and also an example of the action camera that you'll see when a Terminator's shooting at a Genestealer running down the corridor. So essentially what you see there is the game, with that lighting.
RPS: Yeah, the lighting's what really makes it, so I hope that's as it will be in-game throughout.
Thomas Hentschel Lund: Yes, it's going to be dark and gritty, and the audio side will make it sinister too. It's sinister at its core, and that's what we're aiming for.
RPS: Some people have worried that, because it's coming out on iOS too, that's going to bring down the PC version. Should we be worried?
Thomas Hentschel Lund: I think the screenshots speak for themselves. They have nothing to worry about. We are making a PC game, and we are doing a downscaled port for iOS. The downscaling primarily comes not from the game mechanics, but in the art department. It's not possible to run the same lighting, the same specular normal map shaders as you can on a PC game. So we're going to do the best-looking PC game that we can and, in quotation marks, 'dumb down' the iPad version.
RPS: PC's lead platform, then?
Thomas Hentschel Lund: Yes, it's definitely <em>the</em> platform that we're aiming for. This is a PC game with an iPad port, it's not the iPad version released on PC.
RPS: You're still shooting for cross-platform play?
Thomas Hentschel Lund: Yes, we are. Game mechanics-wise and content-wise, in terms of missions to play and features, it's almost the same. There are very few things that we can't do on iPad but can on PC there, so we're going to try to keep the iPad version as complete as possible, but PC is number one.
RPS: Have you got the cross-platform stuff actually working yet internally? So often you'll hear some developer say they're going to do this then for one reason or another they give up on it before release.
Thomas Hentschel Lund: Yes, this is our fourth turn-based game, and the last one that we did was Frontline Tactics. That actually features cross-platform multiplayer, so you can sit on iPad and play a PC player. There's some heavily optimised stuff going on in Space Hulk where we're removing some very small features we added in on Frontline Tactics, where we introduced a sense of latency in the multiplayer, but we're going to make this as fluid as possible.
RPS: How's co-op going to work?
Thomas Hentschel Lund: We're going to do it so you play two squads and each player controls a set of them. So I come in with my five guys, and you could come in with your five guys, and while it's our turn we each do our own turns and play against the AI.
RPS: And presumably you'll massively ramp up the number of Genestealers in the map?
Thomas Hentschel Lund: Yeah, yes. [Laughs]. Killing Genestealers, that's going to be fun. That's the essential thing.
RPS: The one thing that isn't on show in the screens is the interface - can you give a sense of how that's going to look? Minimalist or busy?
Thomas Hentschel Lund: The in-game UI we're going to keep as simple as possible. We like minimalistic-styled UI, so it's in theme, green radar-scan kind of look. You'll have a mouse cursor context sensitive sort of thing, so if you hover over a tile you'll see the amount of Action Points written over it. If you right-click and hold down you get a selection of arrows so you can select the direction that you want to face. So the Terminator walks up there and turns, again to get a more fluid game.
RPS: And savegames? Can you save mid-mission are or you going full Iron Man mode?
Thomas Hentschel Lund: Oh, we haven't decided yet. The question also comes back to do we have an undo button? We discussed this just this morning, but there's no conclusion yet.
RPS: It's a tough one. If the option's in there, even the most faithful, purist player is going to struggle to resist the temptation to use it.
Thomas Hentschel Lund: Exactly [sighs]. It's also, for example, one of these things with the interface, where we want to enable a player to think that he's actually playing the boardgame, so in the options he can turn on seeing the dice rolls or having a more tactical view. Or if you're more of an action player, you might be "who cares about dice rolls? I just want to see if I hit it or not." So we'll try to cater to both of these groups without putting them in a box, so boardgame players don't have to only be boardgame players. We'll have options that you can turn on and off, or mix them up.
RPS: A lot of people said in our comments that they weren't familiar with you chaps' stuff before, so if they were to look at your earlier games would they be quite representative of what to expect here or is it a major departure?
Thomas Hentschel Lund: It's both. We've been trying to keep this turn-based niche alive for the last few years, as I said this is our fourth turn-based game. So we've been doing this for a long a time, and we've been trying to push into the same direction as XCOM did, having a bit more of an action camera, less interface, a more fluid play. So if they go out and try our previous games, they will get the sense that we've been heading in this direction for a long time.
The new part in this is that previously we were three or four guys, and we were taking it slow - we are indies, and self-funded. But we've been moving it up slowly on the art side. We started off doing iPhone-only, then went iPhone and PC, and now we're doing a PC game with an iPad port. We've been ramping up. Right now we're at 12, 13 guys, primarily in the art department, and it shows.
RPS: How did you end up doing Space Hulk? Did you go to Games Workshop or did they come to you?
Thomas Hentschel Lund: It's a funny story, actually. At GDC last year, I was standing in a hotel lobby, warming myself at an open-pit fire they had there, and this older guy was standing right next to me doing the same. We were saying "nice cold weather here, blah blah blah" and he asked me what I did. So I said "yeah, I have this small indie studio, and we're doing digital board games and trying to keep turn-based alive." So he says "hey, I have over a thousand board games in my basement." We kept chatting back and forth, and he asked what kind of games I would really like to do. I said "I want to do Space Hulk, it's the game of my dreams." Then he hands me his business card, and it was Ian Livingstone. So here I am pitching, without knowing, to one of the three founders of Games Workshop.
RPS: Wow, that's a lesson to always talk to whoever's around at you at GDC, because you never know...
Thomas Hentschel Lund: Yeah, and he wanted to introduced me to the head of licensing, and I was like "Oh, yes please." And he did. That was pure luck, but from there on it was the usual stuff - you go over there, you pitch the idea, you pitch the business and so forth. At the end of the day they decided to give it to us, and it was like "wow." A dream come true. I've been trying to pitch it to THQ for many years, but they've been ignoring me and the general idea of Space Hulk.
RPS: That might have been a blessing in disguise, given what's happened to them.
Thomas Hentschel Lund: Exactly. So I'm sitting here making my dream game. It's fantastic.
RPS: And all because it was cold at GDC.
Thomas Hentschel Lund: And I can also say that, the ink isn't dry yet, but we're also in discussion for another turn-based game license.
RPS: Ah, interesting. I could take a few guesses but I might leave the readers to speculate. Do you have anything firmer in terms of a release date for Space Hulk?
Thomas Hentschel Lund: Tough question. Later in 2013. [laughs] I've been in games and software for so many years that I know promising anything firm is going to be like shooting yourself in the foot. But it's not going to happen on this side of Summer. And it's not going to be a Christmas release. Hmm!
RPS: That narrows it down quite a bit. And you're able to put it out solely when you're ready, no-one's mandating when it should come out?
Thomas Hentschel Lund: Yes, we're totally independent of any kind of external influence, except for what the Games Workshop guys have. They have other products and they're trying to give us a window of the most possible attention without releasing other stuff at the same time. We'll know more for sure soon. And we have signed a deal with Steam directly already. No Greenlight, no middlemen publishers. Definitely cool for us and for people wanting to buy the game.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Space Hulk will be out between Summer and Christmas this year, then. More soon, hopefully.