Thursday, September 16, 2004

Interview with Jay Barnson of Rampant Games

Recently, I chatted with Jay Barnson from Rampant Games, developer of Void War. I want to thank Jay for the great answers and the quick turnaround. He also sent two screenshots (1, 2). Enough preface. On with the interview.


You’ve mentioned previously that development began on Void War in December 2002 but that it didn’t become the serious, day-to-day obsession in your life until Summer 2003. How long had you been thinking of developing a space combat title? Has the state of the genre and any of the genre’s recent releases altered your concepts? How have your concepts for the game changed over time?

I’ve been wanting to do a first-person, in-cockpit space combat game since I first discovered video games. One that I think of that really blew me away as a kid was a sit-down arcade game called Starfire—by Exidy, I think. They had speakers right behind you that rumbled the whole cockpit when you shot down the enemy ships (which as I recall looked close enough to a certain movie property’s enemy ships that they were lucky George Lucas didn’t pay them much attention). When I taught myself computer programming as a twelve-year-old, it was to make games, and doing a 3D space combat game was always high on the list of things to do. Many years later, when I first played Wing Commander and X-Wing, the idea was re-invigorated. In fact, that was the point at which I decided to make a go of making games professionally. When I finished college, that’s just what I did.

Void War’s design was inspired by disappointment and frustrations with other multiplayer space combat games. I had some buddies who enjoyed LAN games of combat flight sims and the few multiplayer space combat sims. We’d have such a great time with the missions and dogfights of the flight sims, but the space combat sims just left us feeling flat. One point of contention was the lack of physics. In flight sims, managing your “E” or energy—speed and altitude, rate and radius of turn, etc.—is EVERYTHING in a dogfight. That’s what made it fun and exciting against other players. But in space combat sims, you just kinda point at the enemy and shoot. We thought that just adding some degree of Newtonian physics to the games would solve everything.

We were wrong, as a point of fact. But it was a good starting point.

I also rebelled against the trend of increasing complexity. As the genre has evolved, so has the task-overload for players. It seemed that the games kept giving players more and more things he had to control, rather than giving him more things he could do with what he already controlled. Does that make sense? Kind of a breadth-versus-depth issue. My concern is that the increasing complexity and difficulty of controls were scaring off potential new players—which meant the genre could only shrink. So with Void War, we tried hard to keep the number and difficulty of controls to a minimum. And wherever possible, we tried to prevent the player from making mistakes due to ignorance.

An example of this was the missiles. A missile guides in on a locked target. So what happens if you fire without having a lock? Originally, the missile just fired straight ahead. A lot of players, new to the genre, didn’t understand about locking a target, and wondered why their missiles never hit anything. My first response was to say, “Hey, learn to lock a target before you fire a missile.” But then I thought about it, and said, “The player’s rushed and new. Why shouldn’t the game—or the ship—automatically figure out what he’s trying to do and just DO it?” So launching a missile automatically locks the target most directly in front of you, and new players don’t get frustrated anymore.

There are six ships available in Void War. Can you list the ships and give some specs? Is there any particular influence you can cite regarding ship design?

Well, the specs are currently in flux, as we’re constantly tweaking them for balance. The ships differ in a lot of ways. You have thrust and turn “power” relative to their mass. You also have what I jokingly refer to as “space drag”—your ships do slow down in Void War’s version of space. Not realistic, but more fun. Then you have hull strength and shield strength—when your shield goes down, your hull takes damage, and when your hull goes away you explode. Shield regeneration rate. You have a maximum speed for each ship—another concession to gameplay over realism, but it works. Blaster configuration is actually pretty significant in the game—whether your weapons cycle one at a time (giving you a rapid rate of fire) or fire all at once (bigger punch) and how they are spread. The firebolt, for example, has more of a “shotgun” configuration—four blasters positioned far apart which all fire at once. It’s very easy to hit, but you can only fire slowly, and it’s hard to hit with all four shots at once. But if you do, your opponent will be hurting.

Each ship also has special abilities, which really make them unique. The Renown has a “vampire” attack, which drains power from a nearby enemy ship to augment its own. The Nighthawk has a “hyperspace” ability, which is kind of a “panic button” borrowed from several classic arcade games (not to mention the original videogame, SpaceWar!). It teleports the ship to a random location. My favorite trick in multiplayer is to fly directly towards a pick-up in the Nighthawk which is right in front of a dangerous obstacle. I hit hyperspace right before I collide—if my timing is right and the connection isn’t too laggy, I’ll hyperspace out to safety and leave whoever was chasing me to deal with smashing into the side of an asteroid.

We’ve broken the ships into three categories—beginner, intermediate, and expert. The beginner ships are the Firebolt and Intrepid. These two ships are slow, experience lots of “space drag” so beginners won’t have to fight inertia so much. Knowing how beginners tend to play, these ships are also geared more towards offense and getting into ‘slugfests’—they have powerful hull armor and very straightforward offensive special abilities.

The “Advanced” ships are very fast and nimble, slide a lot due to inertia, are a little more fragile (though the Tempest regenerates shields at an incredible rate), and have special abilities that are a little more subtle. But they can fly circles around the less advanced ships—though you’ll need a great deal of skill to be able to fly them effectively.

The “Intermediate” ships include the Nighthawk and the Renown. They fall in-between the two extremes.

Guns will be primary weapons and from my understanding, must be used to complete any kill. What other sorts of weapons are available? Are there any counter-measures?

Guns are the main attack in Void War, by design. We wanted it to be a game about gunnery, not lobbing missiles at long range from behind space stations. But guided missiles are fun, so we didn’t want to get rid of them entirely. The solution was to make missiles that have a debilitating effect, rather than a lethal one.

Easier said than done. We brainstormed as a group to come up with different effects missiles could have that would be powerful but not overwhelming. Except for the explosive missile, they all have temporary effects—the duration based upon how crippling the effect is (the most crippling missile—the EMP—has the shortest duration of only about five seconds). In the end, we settled on five types of standard missiles:

EMP Missile: Completely wipes out a ship’s controls and sends it spinning
Warp-Web Missile: Slows a ship’s acceleration and turn ability
Ion Disruptor Missile: Wipes out all stores and regeneration of a ship’s special ability
Leech Missile: Prevents a ship from regenerating energy levels (for shields, engines, and blasters)
Explosive Missile: Standard damage-dealing missile

We were worried about introducing a new control for countermeasures, and so instead the main defense is simply to dodge the missile (or dive behind cover). Since we already had controls to roll the ship, we also added a chance for missiles to lose tracking of you if you confuse them in a violent roll. This added another layer of depth to the game, as only skilled players can really control their ship in a roll like that.

There are pick-ups in maps. What types of pick-ups? Will these pick-ups be available only in multiplayer or in single-player as well?

The pick-ups are in all modes. There are pick-ups for each type of missile. There are also two defensive pick-ups. One is a “hardened shield” pickup which cuts all damage to your ship in half and also prevents any of the debilitating effects from working against you while it is active. The other is the “Stealth” pickup, which takes you off everyone’s radar and makes you impossible for missiles to track.

There are two “healing” pick-ups, for lack of another term. One recharges all of your ship’s systems (GREAT when you are still under the influence of a leech missile), the other repairs damage to your hull (the only way your hull ever gets repaired).

There is one other type of pick-up that only appears late in the campaign game.

The pick-ups were a hard design choice. My dev team and testers kept suggesting ideas for pick-up items in the game. This drove me up the wall! “This isn’t a first-person shooter,” I protested, “It’s a space combat “sim” with a taste of realistic Newtonian physics! Nobody’s going to take it seriously if it has pick-ups!”

After fuming over it for a few months, I realized they were right. Did I want Void War to be taken seriously or did I want it to be FUN? Fun had to win out. Once I added pick-ups, they COMPLETELY changed the game. The pseudo-Newtonian physics combined with small objects you WANTED to collide with added a whole dimension to gameplay! It was amazing. And of course it started a lot of complaints about it being too hard to grab the pick-ups, especially in the advanced, twitchier ships. BINGO!

Tell us about the campaign. How many missions are included? Are there any branching points in the campaign?

I want to say around twenty-three missions in the campaign… I don’t have the game in front of me right now to double-check. It’s not branching…that would be something for a larger game (one I sure wouldn’t mind doing in the future…) We had a lot of fun with the storyline. Originally we were going to do something serious and conventional. I played with a lot of ideas, but needed to keep it very simple. I had trouble creating something short and simple that wasn’t also hackneyed and cliché. In the end, I just said, “Ah, screw it. Let’s have FUN with clichés.” So we have a somewhat tongue-in-cheek plot. Maybe not laugh-out-loud comedy, but definitely erring on the side of fun.

In single-player, will the player ever have wingmen, or will the player fulfill the role of one mad pilot against the universe?

Mostly one mad player against the universe. He does have an ally towards the end of the game, but she’s got her own problems to deal with, so the player won’t get much help from her.

Did you have any gameplay goals in mind for the campaign that would make Void War different from other space combat titles?

The focus for the whole game was to do a game about DOGFIGHTING—the thrill of one-on-one combat which could be taken to many-versus-many. Flying and fighting. I wanted to pull the focus away from conflicting mission objectives, management of multiple flights, and complex systems. In a sense, we’ve ended up with something that is kind of a hybrid between a first-person shooter and a space combat sim—the best of both worlds. While I think there could be room for a more complex, mission-based Void War game in the future with the really unique space dogfighting “core” that we have, I wanted to concentrate on the basics and really make that shine.

Void War: Crunchy or chewy?

Crunchy. Way crunchy.

You’ve spoken quite a bit about the hybrid flight engine and the reasoning behind using one (namely to force combat to depend upon the person’s skills and not the machine’s skills). What’s been the response from your testers? Is there a learning curve for players who have never had experience with a Newtonian engine and the capabilities of that kind of engine? Is the engine adjustable in single-player (i.e., can the engine be dumbed down)?

The original concept that excited people was to take the physics from the classic arcade game, “Asteroids”—just enough of a realistic “feel” to make it cool and different. When we actually got that going, though, it turned out to be a lot less fun in 3D, when you can’t see the whole battlefield. Even guys who were proponents of the idea admitted that it wasn’t much fun. I toned the physics down a little and made it easier to control.

I added difficulty levels which have a slight effect on the dynamics (mainly, they reduce the damage you take from impact against obstacles when your flying skills aren’t up to snuff). But mainly, we addressed this problem with the three categories of ships. The beginner ships are very forgiving and easy to fly. When you are comfortable flying those, you can move on to the Intermediate-class ships, which have a lot more “slide” to them. The advanced ships are definitely for players who enjoy a challenge, but they compensate for that by having really amazing speed and maneuverability.

The battlespace contains various obstacles, such as gravity wells, which can also be used as potential weapons. What other obstacles will figure into maps? And are these typically included in campaign missions?

We re-use battlefields pretty freely between the campaign and multiplayer maps. We also have little anti-gravity repulsors which are sort of the opposite of hypergravity wells. They push ships back. We have space stations, asteroids, a space “junkyard” of sorts, the scene of an old battle with the wreckage of a capital ship, and some single-player missions with moving, destroyable asteroids. We have a colossal asteroid mining town on the side of an asteroid, with tunnels inside the mine you can fly through. And more—including an obstacle that shoots back…but that should give you an idea of how Void War doesn’t actually have much “void” in it…

I’ve seen nothing regarding modding. Will players be able to create new maps and missions or modify ships and weapons?

We’re going to be releasing mod support in stages. Modding was too important for us to rush. It’s something we want to do with our own game—expand it, grow it, add new campaigns and maps, etc. So we spent a bit of time trying to make Void War easy to “grow” post-release, with an automatic update utility built into the game, version checking, making sure people are playing with the same version and mod, etc. Initially, modding will be limited to adding your own models, music, and (some) ship characteristics. Later we’ll be able to add all-new battlefield and campaigns. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to figure out a way to add new special abilities, missile behaviors, or pick-up types. But we’ll be working on it.

There will be a free-for-all (deathmatch) and team-versus-team modes in multiplayer. Can you describe some of the team modes?

Team-versus-team is really a team-based version of free-for-all.

What is the maximum number of players allowed in the same match?

Thirty-two. It might get a little laggy without a pretty beefy host with a lot of bandwidth, though.

Will joysticks and/or gamepads be supported, or is Void War playable only via a mouse/keyboard combo?

All of the above. I really just play with keyboard and mouse, but I had a big supply of gamepads and joysticks from a previous life… Well, that, and I’m a flight sim fan. And a bunch of people were up in arms at the merest SUGGESTION that I didn’t need to support joystick and gamepad. So I caved under the pressure—and besides, it was the right thing to do.

Is multiplayer peer-to-peer only or does it include a dedicated server mode?

Rampant Games hosts a matchmaking service for all Void War players, but we won’t run an official dedicated server for the game, like a massively multiplayer game. If you want to make your game open to the public, you just set the game to “public” and host a game—anyone else can see your game and join it online. In fact, just last week we added a pure-server mode for anybody who wants to host a dedicated game server themselves.

Greedo shoots first. Hans shoots first. Greedo and Hans shoot, err, first. What do you think Lucas will do next with the infamous Mos Eisley cantina scene?

ARGH! George, you got it right the first time! Just leave it alone!!!!!

Perspective: Are both first- and third-person allowed? Do you have a preferred flying style? Is there any point where a person might be forced to fly in third-person, or is this just included for the more console-y gamer types?

It’s actually pretty handy when you are trying to get your bearings—you can look ahead and behind in third person. There are some levels where that’s really necessary (the asteroid mine comes to mind…)

Mostly I play in first person. It’s too hard to aim in third person.

Let’s talk HUD. Can it be configured? What sort of information will the player find on the HUD?

Nope. It’s kept VERY simple. You’ll see your ship state: current power levels and hull strength, your quantity and type of missiles, how many special ability uses you have in queue, any special conditions currently active on your ship.

You also have a radar display, score, chat box (in multiplayer), important messages and warnings, a velocity indicator, and a “gravity” indicator (letting you know when you are being pushed around by some external forces).

If you have a target locked, you’ll see some basic target information (shield and hull status) superimposed above his image if he’s on-screen, or an “off-screen indicator” to show you where to turn to find him otherwise.

On some of the screenshots and in the trailer, there is an area in the right side of HUD that appears to be missing data. Is this an area where details about a target would be listed?

The bottom row is for showing your special ability usage. The area above that is a special status indicator. If you get nailed by missiles, you’ll see that area get pretty busy as you get leeched, EMP’ed, and warp-webbed all at once…

Will the player have to engage in any sort of power/energy management?

Yeah. There’s my concession to complexity of controls—though we tried to make it very simple. You have three energy-using systems: Shields, engines, and guns. You can re-prioritize them by the use of three mode keys: “Offensive,” “Defensive,” and “Flight,” corresponding to guns, shield, and engine. That determines your top priority. You swap the second and third priorities by hitting the key again. Testers have found it a very simple system that works really well!

In multiplayer, will players be able to paint their ships or apply skins to stand out?

Not yet, no.

How many multiplayer maps will be included?

Seven, initially.

You created your own engine. What aspect of that engine are you most proud of?

The fact it works.

I’d done some engine development in my past life as a game developer working for major studios, but this was my first time creating the whole thing from scratch. All the cool bits that you think of when you develop an engine can be whipped out pretty quickly—it’s all the work involved in supporting it that is such a pain. Importing file formats, tracking down bugs.

Now that you’re approaching the end of the development cycle, is there anything that you would have liked to have include that didn’t make it into the game?

Plenty. But that’s what free updates, expansions, and sequels are for, right?

We’re treating Void War as a living project. It’s done and finished and cool as it is (and hopefully *knock on wood* relatively bug-free), but we intend to keep enhancing it as long as people keep buying and playing it. When I started working on Void War, it was because it was a game that I WANTED TO PLAY. So I’m my first customer. (Gee, I sound like a Hair Club for Men commercial.) I expect we’ll keep improving it to make it even more of the game that LOTS of people (I hope) want to play.

When do you expect to release a demo? Will it include single-player and multiplayer modes?

Within the next week or so, if all goes well in testing. Which is a little iffy, considering I foolishly added some major last-minute features. But hopefully they’ll be worth the delay. The full version will be released at the same time.

The demo will include an abbreviated single-player campaign, two playable ships, sixty minutes of single-player time, and multiplayer in three battlefields. The multiplayer is limited to five minutes at a time, but doesn’t count towards the sixty total minutes of single-player.

Void War will only be available for purchase online. Has pricing been decided yet?

$24.95, though we are planning on discounting it for early adopters the first month.

Will Void War be available only on Windows machines?

Unfortunately, yes. The engine is all DirectX based. I’d love to port it to Mac—or have someone else port it to Mac—but there’s no plans for that right now.

Your FAQ lists the following as requirements:

800MHz Intel/AMD
GeForce 1 or above
OpenAL-compatible soundcard

Are these still the standing requirements? What about other specs—memory and hard drive space, for example?

It’s hard to call on memory, because the operating system takes up such a widely variable footprint. You’ll probably need about 100 megs over and above whatever your OS uses for best performance.

Hard drive space—I haven’t checked recently. The full version is about 18 megs compressed in the installer. So it’s minimal.

Ramming: Viable option or a waste of time?

What? That’s no way to treat an expensive space vehicle!!!!!!

(Actually, the Tempest is REALLY good at that, since its special shield makes it invulnerable to collision damage while it’s up. But you didn’t hear that from me. I’d NEVER engage in such dishonorable means to win… Really… Well, almost never. Not THAT often, at least.)

Is there anything else you’d like to say about Void War?

It’s just been a really wild experience working on Void War as a small, “indie” developer. None of us work full-time for Rampant, so it’s been almost a hobby project for us, allowing us to take some crazy risks with experimental gameplay. But we got to satisfy some of our own creative demons for this game, rather than the demands of some guy in a suit telling us what his numbers show the market is currently buying. It’s been a great experience for me, and in the end I feel really pleased with the result. Sure, I’d love to throw in more expensive content, dozens more levels, and a lot more features (and hopefully we’ll be able to do some of that), but I think we’ve got a tightly focused game that really succeeds in providing an awesome, satisfying, and unique experience for the player.

And give me more people to shoot at online… :)

Screenshot 1
Screenshot 2


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