Any game needs good design, and this week Head of Design, Stephen Hewitt, chats about what attracted him to the original Distant Star, and why the re-imagining of this title is something far greater.
“I like the simplicity of the original game – the fact it was something you could just pick up and play – and a lot of the feedback said that was an aspect players liked. I’ve always got that in mind.
“In terms of the remodelling, we needed to create a bigger game that required a larger, dedicated team. But we’re trying to do it sympathetically to the 4x genre.”
Steve noted, “Looking at other strategy games out there, a lot of them seem to have lost the core of this type of experience. They’ve dropped a lot of complicated, meaningless stuff on top of something that used to be simple and elegant. So Distant Star is embracing the original concept of 4x space strategy games, and trying to get back to something much more straightforward.
“That’s a far cry from simplistic, though. I’m not saying there can’t be complexity – we’re aiming for plenty of emergent strategy – but I want the game to be approachable and fun.”
Another element that Steve wanted in Distant Star was meaningful decisions. That, and agency: the fact individual units would actually mean something to the player.
“We’ve limited numbers in the game. That’s a concept close to my heart. We’re trying to make numbers much more useful, creating meaningful decisions for the player.
“If you can build a shipyard on every single planet, you’re not going to care about a particular shipyard and neither will your opponent. They may have destroyed one, but they know there’s another 50 spread across your other planets, and that you’ll just build another. You might not even bother to defend it…“
“In many of today’s 4x strategy games, you might be able to build build 599 of a particular unit, or 589. Or building a shipyard might require 765 minerals, while building a starport might take 654. What’s the difference? You don’t really care. You just want to know if it takes a lot or a little.
“A lot of the numbers are essentially meaningless – not things that are easy to strategically reason about. For numbers to be meaningful, you have to be mindful of the relative amounts they’re supposed to represent. For instance, in terms of scale, most people might consider ‘small, medium, large’. Or at a push, ‘very small, small, medium, large, very large.’ Beyond that what’s the one between medium and large?
“The numbers you have to be aware of in a lot of games, become very woolly and muddy within the gameplay. What you’re doing? Why you’re doing it? Why build another? Are you doing the sensible thing? What are the trade-offs? Why do you even care?
“Now imagine you have only four shipyards, and that’s it. Now it becomes much more interesting about which planets you build them on, how connected those planets are. Do you invest your similarly limited resources in this particular unit, or should you be using them to build something else, instead? If your opponent wants to attack one of your shipyards, then suddenly everyone can calculate the impact of success or failure. The shipyards matter. The decisions are suddenly meaningful and interesting.
“Fewer, more important units, should also give us the opportunity to make each one more characterful, and a place we can introduce background story. So instead of ‘anonymous shipyard number 346’ I’d rather give that shipyard a name.
“Named units can also be more specialised. Over time, we can release other types of shipyards that produce new things in new ways. These might level up in unique ways, to gain you extra functions while increasing your sense of investment in them.”
Story is obviously a valuable aspect of the game and we felt it was relevant to ask about the intellectual property for Distant Star and how Blazing Griffin would use it.
“Blazing Griffin wants to develop ongoing intellectual properties, building different projects which sit within the same fiction. That could be games, comics, films.
“Having a good background takes you away from just doing standard fare. We wanted to create a different universe for Distant Star – one that has influenced the game itself.
“If we’d approached the game by starting off with just game mechanics, it’s very easy to go down the same path as everyone else. You’d have the same spaceships and sort of characters, the same planets, and nothing much would change from other games. But if you try to come up with an interesting backstory to it all, those words can push the gameplay in exciting new directions.
“We’ll be integrating the story on a few different levels. We’ll have artwork and an audio style that uniquely represent our different branches of humanity (those surviving empires you can play in the game).
“The branches themselves have been designed and written to be quite different to each other. That will affect your gameplay choices and unit types, so each empire will avoid exactly equivalent units, and each will play differently, creating a wider selection of strategies and replay value. For instance, using political intrigue in the game might be something one faction is more likely to use than another, creating variation in what that empire can do.”
“We’re not trying to whack the players over the head with the story. In some games you’ll innocently click on something on the screen and get twelve pages of text to read. It’s like a narrative land mine – it’s shockingly bad. In Distant Star, you’ll get a couple of characterful lines and, if you want to read more, you can follow it up later online. It’s optional. You don’t have to read it. It’s hidden away behind levels of redirection.
“Story needs to be handled sensibly – not necessarily as something people need to read or interact with, but as something they’ll feel in the background of what’s going on. Much like Tolkien’s Silmarillion which forms a lot of the texture beneath the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit”
But what can we expect from the gameplay itself? All departments are currently bubbling along nicely as we mentioned last week.
“There are two main parts to the game: the strategic and the tactical. The strategic level is the galaxy map which ties the whole environment together. That is where you build stuff and move fleets around – it’s much more like the strategic maps you would have in the middle of a military command centre. You’re moving your resources around and you get a view over the entire field of battle, which in our case is an entire galaxy.”
“The tactical level is ship-to-ship combat. When you go into a particular system you can see the environments around you and you can move ships around. You can attack each other and see things happening.
“Because we’re doing things in space we don’t want things to be open and empty, so part of the challenge is making sure that space combat has some of the things you would relate to a classic battlefield: the equivalents of hills or boggy ground – asteroids, gravity areas and nebula clouds that have specific effects; things to give the environments more structure and depth, and might also relate to the background history.”
“The advantage of Blazing Griffin is that the team are open and interested in doing new things. If you go to someone with an idea, they’re excited and want to find ways to make it work rather than jumping on every flaw they can find. We work out the wrinkles as we go. We don’t often say, ‘that’d be a horrible scheduling nightmare, let’s not make that’. We’re sensible with our investigations and proactive with our up-front prioritisation, though.”
With development of Distant Star going so well, we’re going to talk to Peter van der Watt next week, about his hopes for Blazing Griffin and some ideas and projects that might be in the pipelines.
See you in seven.