Today we are going to talk about our roadmap and progress update as well as the state of the project. Our aim is to shed more light on exactly where we are in development. We also have a new developer video which you can find at the bottom of this update.
When the Kickstarter campaign was successfully concluded last year we took a break for a few days and then started to plan our production roadmap in more detail. Our timeframe as outlined before we launched our Kickstarter placed Alpha in December 2014 with Beta to follow in Q1 2015.
We discussed each major feature and classified according to the high risk, high value matrix that we also shared with you as part of our Kickstarter update for January. During this planning stage we identified several issues that we were not aware of before the Kickstarter campaign was launched and which have had an impact on our production schedule and timeline.
The first issue was staffing-related as three of the senior programmers that we wanted to bring onboard full-time were prevented from joining the project due to pre-existing contracts. Despite our best efforts to terminate their previous contracts earlier in the end we had to wait until 1st of April before they could join us.
Secondly, our initial timeline (which was announced when the Kickstarter began) does not take into account the fact that we added stretch goals like planetary missions and starbase assaults. These features require additional time to develop on top of the ship boarding operations that we had already planned. For example planetary missions require a different approach to pathfinding for units that move around in an open space instead of down corridors [as would be the case with boarding operations]. To prevent further loss of time we looked at different solutions including three different ones from 3rd parties until we finally found one that satisfied our updated requirements.
Planetary missions also require unique artwork to distinguish them from boarding operations and would have required a lot of manual work to design and build planet surfaces. We decided to investigate how to procedurally generate planetary mission maps to allow us to create varied landscapes. In the long run this will save development time and ensure you do not visit the same planet layout twice (unless specifically created for story missions). This work has yielded some very promising results but required research and development. Above you can see four different “biome” types as we call them. We have a crystal planet, a lava planet, a desert planet and a moon. The walkable area is the same in all four cases, however, the lava planet has the walkable terrain raised compared to the other three. All four types are running off of the same level layout that the game designer created. We also have additional biomes in development but these four should suffice to demonstrate the versatility of our solution.
Thirdly, we announced already back in February that we were planning for “mod support” since we were not that far away from reaching this stretch goal. It is important to note that first of all this decision is irreversible and it also has major architectural implications. As you may know we are using Unity as our game engine and Unity generally has static scenes (or levels if you will) which are not easily modified after a game has been compiled, shipped and launched. This is not a problem if you are building a traditional RPG with predefined locations.
In The Mandate (both for ship interiors and planetary mission planets) we will not have static levels but rather dynamic ones that are generated at run-time. Unity does not natively support this. We wanted something robust and powerful, more similar to the MMO engines we have worked with in the past where the program code and the content data are decoupled. This allows designers to add and modify content data (npcs, ships, quests, items etc) by using a set of content design tools. The changes can be saved and exported without involving programmers and without modifying the game executables. Our plan is to allow modders to use these same tools after launch as well. These requirements, however, demanded a custom object model to be created.
For The Mandate, we are using a custom object model (entity/component model). Entities are not linked directly in the static Unity scenes but instead they can be serialized on-the-fly so we can have an open world sandbox with dynamic streaming. Entities can migrate seamlessly between boarding and space combat simulation, or communicate in both domains. The advanced serialization supports multiplayer replication and optimizes the data traffic by automatically recalculating the diffs in synchronized data.
For the game design and level design toolchain, the object mode enables advanced editor features like: custom nested prefabs, full undo support, data definition/reflection and MVC approach to separate data and entity logic from visual components.
At runtime, as we are using the actor model, entities can be updated independently and in parallel. This approach scales naturally in multi threaded environment with several CPUs.
Mandate will have seamless transition between worlds and to stream the data/assets in the background, we are using Unity asset bundles. Black box modules can also contain the precompiled code which interfaces with existing game framework, as it is used for the dynamic loading in MOD support. This way, some assets and modules don't need to be statically determined when the game is released, but can be added, overwritten or updated later. By replacing these asset bundles, we can dynamically update the content of the game.
The custom object model is now complete and we are now building the various content tools which use this model. It is important to stress that the content tools themselves will be very powerful and allow designers to rapidly create and modify new abilities, items, npcs, ship sections and ships. Due to data consistency checking it should minimize the introduction of bugs into the system and we have automated processes that can verify the integrity of the data.
The challenges presented above meant that The Mandate would require more time and effort to complete without having to sacrifice or cut features from the game concept. The systemic approach to how we wanted to make The Mandate has several major upsides such as providing content creation tools that allow us (and modders) to quickly develop additional content for the game once it has been launched. Conversely, it requires more development time to do it right. We believe this is the right thing to do and we hope that you agree with our approach.
With respect to development time we decided to delay staffing up the design team (including writers) and also the art team. This meant that both teams would spend more time in pre-production to iterate on designs and art, respectively. In parallel the programming team has been staffed to full strength and has been working on the issues outlined above.
On the art side the extra time has allowed us to iterate on the design language for each of the factions. Whenever you encounter ships or starbases from another faction you will recognize which faction they belong to due to their unique art direction when it comes to colour, silhouette and design language. Last update we showed the Grand Fleet heavy cruiser MK II and we also gave a sneak peek at a Black Eagle heavy cruiser in drydock. Today we are following up and sharing with you the ship styles for the Romanov, Osmani, Arkwright and Europan heavy cruiser designs.
For tech art we have also used the time to investigate and deal with issues ahead of time. We have built systematic approaches for each of the art-scale challenges we will face during the production so that we can tackle each area in the most efficient way possible. For example you may remember our presentation of the character system which we discussed a few updates ago. Another example would be the addition of physically based shaders and integration with Substance Designer procedural textures which required recently developed third party tools to reach maturity. A third example is the biome generation for planetary missions as seen earlier in this update that will help us generate a huge amount of variety of missions from the same amount of game designer input. These are all powerful, flexible solutions that are also scalable depending on hardware requirements.
Another side of development which has benefited from a longer development time is the audio. More specifically, our soundtrack. When we started development we were not sure how much funds we would be able to allocate to the soundtrack. We therefore asked our composer to plan for both a 60, 90 and 120 minute soundtrack. Based on what we will discuss later in this update, we can now confirm that The Mandate will get a full 120 minute soundtrack. Also, whereas the Kickstarter Mandate theme was recorded with around 30 musicians; we will use a 75-man orchestra for the full soundtrack. Our composer already has roughly 60 minutes of faction-specific music ready and is now starting on the second half of the soundtrack; the battle music and ambient music.
Due to copyright and intellectual property rights we cannot share the music yet and besides, it will only sound right once it has been recorded with the full orchestra. That being said the faction music goes very well with the art direction for the various ship styles that we showed earlier in this update. Since we got a lot of good feedback on the Mandate theme our composer decided to record four versions of the original Mandate track on piano for your enjoyment. Enjoy!
Oh, and there is one more thing we are exploring with respect to the soundtrack. Actually, technically it is the vocals or chorus. It is a bit early to talk about but if all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, this will be the icing on the cake. It is said that a picture is worth more than a thousand words...
While these efforts have required additional time in the development schedule we ultimately believe this will result in a more interesting and enjoyable experience. The high level design work on both design and art will save us time down the road, ensure a more tightly integrated experience since the different game modes are more strongly connected, and the technological solutions we have gone for, will help both with the production of expansion packs, sequels and mod support.
We saw three alternative approaches that could help us meet our funding requirements and avoid having to compromise on our game concept: We could seek additional crowdfunding, prepare a Steam Early Access version or we could find an investment partner. Each approach has strengths and weaknesses (or risks if you will).
We did not feel that it was right to ask for a second wave of crowdfunding. Also - while important progress has been made, it is not progress that is easy to present into sexy marketing material so there would be no guarantee of obtaining more funds this way.
As for using Early Access first of all it would require us to change our development roadmap to deliver something that would entice people to donate and secondly we would have no guarantee for the result. The Early Access could get us more money than we ever needed - or - it could fall on its face and then what? We have seen many projects take this road and we much prefer to not be in a permanent state of pre-alpha early access, something that can be infuriating to players who are essentially treated as unpaid QA staff.
Bearing this in mind we decided to look for an investment partner as our plan A with Early Access as plan B. One clear benefit for us is that we can focus our communication and talk to somebody who has experience evaluating projects at different stages of development. We met with several different publishers both small, medium and large at Gamescom in August and pitched our game concept.
For the last four months we have been exclusively discussing with one potential partner. After signing mutual NDAs with them we shared all relevant project information. On their side they conducted a thorough due diligence of The Mandate. They brought with them an external industry veteran who reviewed our production budget, the state of our codebase and also our design documents. Current and proposed future members of the development team were both evaluated and interviewed to get a clear understanding of the major production risks and whether we had the necessary experience to tackle them. The feedback was very professional and constructive and we immediately implemented several production changes (since the feedback was given with no strings attached). Next we embarked on a relatively lengthy contract negotiation process which ended up taking longer than expected. We did not feel comfortable announcing anything until a deal was signed and everything set in stone (and besides the NDA restricted what we could discuss).
This changes today as we just signed a contract with Eurovideo Medien GmbH of Germany. The guys are cool and consist of former D&D players who are also fans of games like X-Com, Pirates, Mount & Blade, Elite, FTL and many more. If you want to check out which games they distributed in the past years, have a look at their website. Actually, their offices are located next to the movie set for the movie classic “Das Boot”.
What is also important is that the guys understand both the type of game experience we are aiming for and also what we are NOT aiming for, e.g. on-the-rails free-2-play shooter with micro-transactions. Eurovideo sees the potential in The Mandate and wants to help us realize the game’s full potential. So what are the implications of this deal?
- Eurovideo will invest to ensure the development of The Mandate
- Perihelion Interactive will have full creative control. Full stop. We will execute the original game concept as we presented to you in the Kickstarter and will follow our vision without any intervention from Eurovideo
- Eurovideo will handle all marketing, PR and distribution activities
- Perihelion Interactive will interact with existing & new backers and release regular updates. There will be no changes here
- Perihelion Interactive will retain full control over backer pledges
- Eurovideo will handle all localization in cooperation with Perihelion Interactive
- We can now guarantee that The Mandate will be localized into German, French, Italian, Spanish and Russian (other languages to be discussed)
- Both the English and German versions will be voiced (other languages to be discussed)
- The development team will grow due to this investment and as a result we can pack more content and more hours of fun into the game
The soundtrack will be 120 minutes instead of 60 minutes and the size of the orchestra will double
How does the road ahead look like with the additional funding? First of all we will now start to staff up the development team. At its peak the team will consist of around 30 developers with a combined AAA experience of 100+ years. The additional funding allows us to bring onboard several veteran developers who are both friends and former co-workers. This will reduce risk and ensure that The Mandate is a great game at release.
Furthermore, we will differentiate in our timeline between the feature Alpha, feature Beta and Content Beta. Whereas the first two relate to the specific features of the game the latter is about the content (quests, factions, ships etc) which are made with our tools [remember the discussion above about our tool chain and object actor model].
Feature Alpha: Q3 2015 (early)
Feature Beta: Q3 2015 (late)
Content Beta: Q4 2015
Launch: Q1 2016
All backers at $75 or above will gain access to the Feature Alpha. All backers at $40 or above will gain access to the Feature Beta. All backers from $20 or above will gain access to the Content Beta.
The Content Beta will be updated several times towards Launch. Depending on the feedback from the Feature Alpha and Feature Beta it may be slightly more restricted in scope initially but over time we will release content updates and unlock features so that right before launch the Content Beta will be identical to the launch version of the game (but for example it may miss localization for certain languages which become available at launch).
So what will happen next? Actually over the holidays Garret (Art Director) is reading a book about heraldry which is over a hundred years old but supposedly still relevant for the 36th century. Vegard (Tech Art Director) is playing around with some cool stuff. Could there be a connection to the book that Garret is reading? Time will tell.
Right after the holidays we will start the hiring process to bring onboard additional developers. Specifically we will bring on two veteran writers and two veteran designers as well as additional artists. The next few Kickstarter updates will cover star base design, modular design and what types of customization options will be available to the player. Then in February we plan to discuss the battle drills and formations in more detail and show you how our squad AI adapts to the changing environment and also talk more about how boarding operations work.
As part of developing the boarding combat prototype we also worked in parallel on the art side to define the different room types and investigate scale dimensions. We have put a lot of effort into ensuring that a ship deck will feel like it has depth and mass. As you know a deck will contain many rooms and each room can have several consoles. Each console can be manned by one of your crew and the consoles in turn affect ship performance and dictate whether certain systems are online or offline during space combat. You may recall our previous Kickstarter update which included a video that demonstrated sub-system targeting where you can detect and take out individual consoles and rooms with precision fire. We decided to make a video to showcase the rooms that have been built so far.
Above you can see actual in-game footage where we show off the various rooms completed so far. We plan to make a follow-up video later where we go into more detail about the modularity of these assets as well as what type of customization options will be available (again made possible due to systematic tech art approaches).
We also have quite a few backers who pledged for various design tiers. Some of these design tiers do not yet have templates but now that we are staffing up with writers and designers we expect to finalize the remaining templates during February. Speaking of which we will close down the ability to order design tiers on the 31st of March 2015. This will give all backers who pledge for various design tiers several months to also work on their designs and conduct peer review before we start the official submission process.
With that said it is time to wrap things up. The bottom line is that we are building an even bigger game for you guys. This requires more time and additional investments. We have had some staffing challenges as well as unanticipated technical challenges along the way, but both of these are now solved and our agreement with Eurovideo guarantees that we will not have to compromise the original vision for the game.
Your friends at Perihelion Interactive