Monday, 13 February 2012

Star Trek Excalibur. 103% Interview with directors John Hardy and Mark Ward.

Good morrow readers! 103% Complete has something special for you all today. The Indie Data Base (IndieDB), which is best thought of as IMDb for indie video games, compiles a Top 100 upcoming games list each year (it has included such big names like MineCraft) and in 2011 a certain project called Star Trek Excalibur made this list. Not only that but...

So yeah... how about that?

The game aspires to be an immersive space exploration experience which allows players to command their own ship and crew as well as being able to seamlessly make the transition from space travel to planet exploration (rather than having a "Planet Select" screen like Mass Effect for example) but rather than having myself go on about how exciting this project is I've been lucky enough to interview both the technical director, John Hardy and the creative director, Mark Ward, here's how things went down.

103%: So John and Mark, thanks for this opportunity to interview you both about Star Trek Excalibur. It's a huge project involving a lot of staff to develop and work on it. Where did this all start and how did this project grow to include so many people?

John: Hello!  Thank you for having us.

Excalibur started life as a mod for another game called Star Trek Bridge Commander.  "BC" as we liked to call it.  BC still has one of the largest active mod communities on the internet, with just shy of ten million mods downloaded over its lifetime.  

Our goal for Excalibur was to produce the best quality, furthest reaching total conversion for the game yet.  This would add aspects such as new interiors and first person shooting capabilities.  However, after a while it became apparent that the game engine (from 1999) just wasn't up to the vision for what we had in mind.  This was a vision free of wood-chip haircuts and hand-animated death sequences.  So we took a deep breath and decided to ditch BC and build our own game engine.  Back then, we didn't have the same mature, battle hardened platform choices budding game developers have today; Ogre, Unity and even CryTek!

Since then, our goals have not changed.  We actively recruit volunteers on our website and have an internal development team of around 35 people who contribute everything from music scores to gpu programs.

Excalibur has been developed along side a brand new engine called "Evolved". It shows.

103%:  The subject matter of space travel and the widely loved Star Trek franchise is undeniably a significant part of Excalibur's appeal and following for all those who desperately want to play this game. How have these ideas shaped the creative and technical aspects of the project so far?

John: Mark, would you like to answer this one as I think it's more your area?

I would say this though:  Given our history and our core goals, the idea of flexibility in pursuit of modability has been a massive influence on the software architecture, both in terms of the game engine and the game logic.  Further, because we want to realise the whole Star Trek experience (i.e. inside and outside the ships) - which is not something without its own technical challenges - importantly we needed to design gameplay mechanics where this kind of ability makes sense.

Mark: Star Trek has been a hugely popular franchise for as long as most of us can remember; its fans are faithful, talented and eager to expand the Star Trek universe. The key objective for this project is to create a Star Trek game for Star Trek fans; not just a few hours worth of gaming experience, but a long-lived community driven game with hundreds of third partys developing new content which fans can enjoy for years to come.

Star Trek's lore (or canon) is huge and while it can be a difficult to make it "functional" some times it also gives us a great way to present the galaxy. From complex long range scanning for the technically minded, to low level ship management for the gear heads amongst us, we want the player to have an immersive Star Trek experience whenever they play Excalibur. Star Trek also gives us well established and much-loved species to populate the galaxy with, from the Klingon Empire to the Breen Confederacy.

Meanwhile, working within the space simlation genre more generally gives us a lot of scope for innovation. Space simulation games have always struggled to capture the sheer scale of space, both in terms of the (literally) astronomical distances and the unimaginable amounts of places to explore. To put it into tangible terms let me give you a couple of examples. If you were to jump in your car today and drive towards our nearest star it would take you five thousand milennia to reach Alpha Centauri. That's twenty five times longer than the human race has existed! As for just how much stuff is in the galaxy, the Milky Way is estimated to contain well over 100 billion stars. If each star were a grain of rice, the galaxy would weight in the order of three thousand metric tons, or three million kilograms.

Although it is almost impossible to simulate a whole galaxy with total accuracy, we are still able to push the boundaries of just what can be achieved. Space in Excalibur will be vast and open, there won't be any cutscenes or loading screens as you move from one star system to another, and the galaxy will be packed full of stars, planets, moons, asteroid fields, nebulae, black holes and other spacial anomolies to explore.

Textures, storyline and characters. It all oozes with Star Trek fan service.

103%: Fans of the genre are bound to rejoice at STE's ongoing commitment to immersive space travel but another key attraction of these games certainly comes from the characterisation of some NPC's. How much will the player be able to interact with your simulated Star Trek universe?

Mark: The single-player campaign mode has always been a central element of Excalibur. We are really passionate about creating a story which makes the player feel like they are at the centre of an authentic Star Trek film or TV episode, and a big part of that experience is giving the characters depth and meaning.

To make this happen we have recruited the screenwriting talents of Josh Ford; a science fiction fan for life who has experience writing scripts for TV and Film. Although writing a script for a computer game has been a very different challenge, he has been able to develop our story and our characters as only a writer can do. His insights have been central in developing a character-driven plot which reveals itself through dialogue and cinematic cut-scenes.

When it comes to the missions themselves, we took our initial inspiration from Star Trek Bridge 
Commander which included some rare opportunities for the player to choose different paths through the story. The options were subtle and went completely unnoticed to many players, but they had the power to stack the odds against you as the story went on.

Over the last decade we have seen more serious attempts at open-world games, some very successful and others less so; the challenge is in giving the player freedom whilst also giving them clear guidance on what needs to be done. Our concept is for each mission to begin in the conference room; a location which has been well established through the various TV series. This is where the senior staff will gather and come up with a plan under the guidance of the player. As the commanding officer we will have real freedom to guide these meetings based on how we want to complete the mission, whether that be through stealth, diplomacy, technological trickery, deception or good old fashioned aggression.

103: Thanks to both of you for answering these questions, is there anything else you would like to add?

John: Just to say that one of the best things about this project is that it is a hugely collective effort.  I continue to be astonished about what can be accomplished entirely over the internet by people who share a vision.  Even though we lack a common continent or first language, how far we have come is a real testament to the hard work of everyone involved.  

A team like ours where everyone is so enthusiastic, amazingly talented and dedicated has been absolutely key to achieving the things we are achieving, and it will remain so as we continue to develop.  We are all very proud of the work we do and its nice to believe that in some way, all the effort we put in today is contributing to a legacy that will inspire sci-fi fans and modders of the future.


For more from John and Mark you can check out a further video interview they've given and the STE project has its own Facebook page

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