Interview: Egosoft On X Rebirth's Troubled Development
X Rebirth suffered a disastrous launch. Panned by critics and alienating fans, it was easily the worst received entry in Egosoft's long-running space series. It was also the most successful, selling more copies than any other X game. In the six months since release, Egosoft has been working to justify its customers' purchase, fixing bugs, reworking systems, and adding new features. I spoke with Managing Director Bernd Lehahn to find out what exactly went wrong and whether there's any chance X Rebirth can be rescued.
It's probably fitting that our chat begins with an apology. "The state of the game at release, it's something that we feel sorry about," Lehahn says. "We had a lot of trouble with the development over the years and delayed the release again and again. But, honestly, when we released it, I didn't think it was, at the time when we released it we didn't really see that many problems with our tests."
You only need look at the general critical opinions of Rebirth to see why Lehahn is so keen to make these regrets clear so quickly. "It's an appalling, broken mess, and I'm not going back," lamented Craig in his WIT. Meanwhile, those sites that put numbers at the end of their reviews awarded it a measly Metacritical average of 33. For the record, I went a whole two points higher.
It's important to note Lehahn's apology refers specifically to the game's bugs and broken systems, rather than any design decisions. Over the course of an hour's discussion, he is by turns accepting and defensive regarding whether various parts of Rebirth's design worked or not. Lehahn's view of the end product aside, one thing ultimately becomes clear. X Rebirth has been a developmental nightmare for Egosoft from start to finish, one that they still haven't fully awoken from.
Work on X Rebirth began way back in 2007, before the release of the major X3 expansions Terran Conflict and Albion Prelude. It was originally conceived as an entirely separate game from the X series, with a new setting, different mechanics, and powered by a fresh graphics engine. "But then throughout the development we figured it would have been stupid to just give up the fiction, the background that we developed over so many years," Lehahn explains. "The storyline, the books written about it, the factions, which gives us a lot of meat to work with. Therefore we let the game play in the same universe. In retrospect that was maybe a mistake."
Despite sharing the same setting, Egosoft wanted to make it clear that Rebirth diverged from their usual space exploration fare, and was not designed as a sequel to X3. " I never felt comfortable with calling X Rebirth 'X4'," he says. "I'm sure we could have sold more copies if we called it X4, because especially our German marketing wanted to call it X4. Our publisher here in Germany, they were pushing us all the time." It's just as well he didn't. Lehahn believes had he accepted such a name change, the backlash would have been far worse. "Many people expected X4, and it's not X4. That is definitely in some cases a problem with expectation. But, well, that's something we have to live with."
Eventually it was decided that Rebirth would retain a fictional link to the earlier X games, while everything else was rebuilt from the ground up, starting with the technology. Previously, all of Egosoft's games ran off a single CPU core, and the game Lehahn had in mind was far more technologically demanding. Hence, everything had to be recoded to make use of multi-threading. "You have to design the whole game around the idea of having parallel processes running and doing things in parallel."
Lehahn envisioned a galaxy that was stylistically far busier than what had been explored previously in the X series, inspired by films like the Fifth Element, with vast, bustling stations that were essentially cities floating in space, each visited by hundreds of individual ships. This required an engine capable of rendering a far greater number of objects, and more significantly, a complete rewrite of the game's AI code. "In the past we could never make space stations which were too complicated in their three-dimensional geometry, because this is always a huge problem to find flight-paths for ships around such stations," Lehahn observes. "But with X Rebirth we redesigned this entirely. For example, navigation meshes became necessary so that especially small ships can navigate with meshes."
The massive increase in space-traffic also necessitated a rethinking of how these ships navigated between sectors. And so X Rebirth's highly controversial "space-highways" were born, linking together the majority of X Rebirth's points of interest with a sprawling three-dimensional road network. Lehahn planned Rebirth to show both extremes of a lively interstellar civilisation alongside the vast emptiness of space, but admits that in execution Rebirth pushed too far toward the former. "This is definitely also something that we want to rethink a little bit for the future. But overall I still believe that highways are a very good method of focussing and giving missions that you play a faster pace."
Of all the modification done in X Rebirth, perhaps the most significant revision was to how trading was handled. In the previous X games it was possible to perform trade runs in your own ship, and hop between ships to take manual control. In X Rebirth, players could only control one specific ship, and instead remotely controlled a fleet which performed trades for them. This caused frustration amongst many fans of the series, who felt artificially restricted by the lack of direct control and found that the new trading system required extensive micromanagement.
Lehahn's explanation for this change is twofold. He claims the limit to one player ship came down to a lack of resources as a consequence of rebuilding so much else in the game. "This project was big enough that way already," as he puts it. Moreover, he desired the trading in Rebirth to be more realistic, getting rid of what he saw as "cheats" in previous games such as cargo compression technology enabling players to fit more goods in their ships, and time-acceleration which made the game run faster. He wanted players to be more like businessmen than delivery drivers, flying around, picking up offers and discounts from stations rather than making cargo runs themselves. "The only thing that we did is really cut out the very early part, where you start with a small ship, where you trade the goods yourself... if you focus on that part, we can really make it more realistic, and have actual capital ships fly without cheating."
To me it seems odd to make a game about interstellar spaceships that shoot lasers and fly through space highways more realistic, especially when that added granularity is only going to make an already complicated game even more fiddly. I ask Lehahn if there was any point where it felt like development wasn't going the way he planned. He responds with an exasperated sigh. "You have this so many times with big projects. So many technical problems on the way. Everything you develop which is on that scale, and new which is really new. You always wish you could simply take an engine and just make a game with it."
We move on to the topic of the actual release, and why Rebirth was so infested with crippling bugs on launch day. Lehahn confesses the beta testing they did was insufficient for what Rebirth really needed. "We based everything on previous games as far as our Q&A and testing worked, we usually had this - through our website - organised test team called DEVNET which has about 200, 300 people all in all that were testing the game." As we discuss the ins and outs of these problems, his voice takes on a more sombre tone. "It's a pity that… It's always sad if some customers are unhappy and there definitely were some. We want to improve, and it's definitely sad when the game has bugs when it comes out. That's the biggest grief, unfortunately."
I point out this isn't the first time Egosoft have experienced severe problems with bugs on release either. Very similar issues occurred with X3: Reunion. Lehahn replies that, like Rebirth, X3 was powered by new tech, and at the time they were under pressure to release from their publisher. I ask whether this was the case with Rebirth as well. "I'm not blaming the publishers but yes, of course. You always have. I mean, as I said, the game was in development for seven years, it was a really huge beast for a small company like us."
The sad truth is Egosoft have now earned themselves a reputation for releasing unfinished games. The only silver lining is they are also known for supporting those games extensively after release. For better or worse, with Rebirth the case is no different. The team spent the immediate period after release smoothing out the game's bugs, and since then have focussed on more extensive changes and additions to the game, culminating with the X Rebirth 2.0 release in April.
The list of changes is expansive. Several new game starts have been added, each focussing on a different play-style. These are accompanied by unique cockpit windows, a compromise to address the lack of alternative flyable ships. "This is just a very easy method of showing the player the variety and the possibilities of the game," Lehahn says.
Further alterations include the addition of difficulty levels, and an extended generic mission-system which includes chains of missions more in-line with those seen in X3. The map system has been altered, and a 3D radar has been added to the cockpit which Lehahn is particularly proud of. He also more reluctantly reintroduced a form of autopilot into the game, letting the player select a destination while your AI copilot takes the controls "Autopilot is of course believable," he comments in reference to Rebirth's more "realistic" approach. Lastly, flying through highways has also undergone a redesign. Instead of essentially flying through a nine-lane grid system, you're actually navigating traffic freely.
These changes are all welcome, and Lehahn claims feedback from the community has been very positive, but do they make Rebirth worth playing? On a personal note, these alterations don't affect the clunky script and grating voice acting, which were the main reasons I bounced off Rebirth. They also don't fundamentally alter the kind of game X Rebirth is, and they never will. While Lehahn might be willing to make certain compromises for the community, overall he is committed to the design concept behind Rebirth.
That said, 2.0 still isn't the end. Further changes are on the way, such as the ability to look around your cockpit while flying. At the same time, Egosoft are looking toward new game possibilities. "Whether these are at some point called X4 or X Rebirth 2 or whatever, I cannot talk about now," Lehahn says. "We are making experiments, we are trying out certain things. Depending on the outcome of those experiments, we will decide how our next product will look and how it will be called."