For fans of space shooters, the start of the 21st century marked the beginning of a long, dark decade. The 1990s had been a boon for PC gaming of all kinds, and the advent of faster processors and enhanced control interfaces like rudders and flight sticks made it an especially exciting time to be a space sim junkie. Flying around in space ships, blowing things up – in space! – had never looked, sounded or felt as good. The possibilities seemed limitless.
Then the bottom fell all the way out.
High-profile titles that had been poised to trumpet a new era for the space sim genre, instead turned out to be its swan song. Tachyon: The Fringe. Starlancer. Freelancer. FreeSpace 2. Games considered to be the pinnacle of the genre failed to make money, lost audience to other types of games and withered on the vine. The game, for space sim junkies, was over.
Ten trips around the sun later, a burgeoning indie development scene and the resurgence of sci-fi in other forms of entertainment has led many gamers to wonder: When will there be another great space game? Turns out one group of veterans has been asking that very same question.
Better still, they’ve been making one.
Seamless Entertainment was founded in 2008, in Austin, Texas. Basically, your run of the mill indie developer; five guys, former employees of major studios, looking to make it big on their own games.
One of those guys just happened to be space sim veteran Chris Stockman.
“In my view it was better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond,” says Stockman, Creative Director of Seamles.
Stockman cut his teeth as a developer working on the space shooter Tachyon: The Fringe for Nova Logic, one of the last great space shooters.
Tachyon, released in 2000, featured popular character actor Bruce Campbell, star of the Evil Dead films, and the television series The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. Stockman says he doesn't know how much the actor was paid for his voice work on the game, but that even his talents weren’t enough to save it.
“I think at that point the genre was pretty much doomed and nothing could have helped it,” he says. “I can say that from my vantage point I don't think [Campberll] hurt [the game] any, but by then the genre was pretty much on it's death bed.”
“Honestly I just tried to recreate Battlestar Galactica as a game.”
Stockman left Nova Logic after Tachyon: The Fringe and moved to Ritual Entertainment, where he worked on Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force 2. Then, after that, to Volition, the makers of FreeSpace 2.
“I worked with a lot of the old guys who worked on FreeSpace 2,” he says. “There were a lot of people there that really still loved the genre and still would like to make space games.”
When Volition shipped the original Saint’s Row, Stockman and a team of colleagues were assigned to develop a new IP for the company, and their thoughts immediately turned to space.
“One of the things we came up with,” he says, “was a spiritual successor to FreeSpace 2, with high production values and that sort of thing. That gained a lot of traction, at least from the rank and file there. But not so much from management.
“[They] basically said, ‘Sci-fi doesn't sell and we're not going to make space games. We're done with that. We're doing open world now.’”
Cue: The exodus of Stockman.
For nearly two years after its founding, Seamless subsisted on a diet of high-quality, but low-impact licensed projects for publishers like Activision, Tecmo and Warner Brothers. In 2010, Seamless turned their attention to making their own, original IP.
Enter: Dan Magaha.
Dan Magaha has been building up to this moment for years. After getting his start at Sid Meier’s legendary Firaxis Games in 1999, Magaha, in his own words, “had a hand in nearly every project the studio shipped after Alpha Centauri.”
This includes Sid Meier’s Pirates!. This includes Railroads and Sim Golf. And this includes Civilizations III and IV and all of their attendant sub-releases.
Essentially, almost everything you know about Firaxis is on Dan Magaha’s resume.
“I've never worked so hard to convince people to buy a $10 game.”
Magaha’s tenure at the studio that Sid built ended in 2007. After which he spent two years developing experimental MMOs — first for NCSoft and then for 2K, which he convinced to create a studio in Austin, Texas and let him run it. Then, after a few brief stints as a consultant and conference organizer, Magaha got to talking with Chris Stockman about joining Seamless.
“They brought me in because they really wanted to do original stuff and we started the process of saying ‘Well how do we do that?’” says Magaha.
Magaha told Seamless that with a six person team and an indie budget, it would be unrealistic to think they could take on a triple-A FPS like Call of Duty. But something in another genre might allow them to set themselves apart from the herd and sneak in a hit where other studios aren’t looking.
Stockman had just the game.
Stockman pitched Magaha on his space shooter idea, and Magaha thought it was “brilliant.”
“I just said: ‘It's so crazy, it might just work,’” says Magaha.
A year later, they released Sol: Exodus.
“It all happened so quickly that people were like: ‘Yeah, I didn't realize that you guys were actually launching,’” Magaha says. “It's pretty wild. It's been some pretty wild days.”
The shelf moment
The death of the space sim genre was not an overnight thing. It did not die in its sleep. Its death was long and agonizing, and even after it had finally perished, it’s lingering decline left many wondering just who or what had killed it.
The post mortem is ongoing. One theory: The first person shooter did it. In the living room, with a game pad.
“The genre never truly evolved to appeal to the mass market,” says Stockman. “I played FreeSpace 2, and that's widely considered to be the very best that the genre has to offer, and by modern day standards it's more complex than an RTS. It uses almost every key on the keyboard in some capacity and it requires an intense amount of memorization. I think that sort of killed it, essentially.”
Stockman says that the failure of the last of the great high-profile space sims to make money essentially doomed the genre for the next 10 years. Developers like Volition decided to put their money into genres that appeared to have a brighter future. FPSs. Open-world games. MMOs. Basically anything not set in the cockpit of a space ship.
“Fans of the genre sort of either grew up, stopped playing games or they shifted to games that were far more successful for them,” Stockman says. “In terms of complexity and so forth, the genre itself has also gotten bigger in the sense that it's become less about story, less about action and more about traveling from system to system and training.
“FreeSpace 2 was like that, but the problem with FreeSpace was that it is a very complex game wrapped around this action story. Sheep's clothing so to speak. So it looks awesome and it plays really awesome but then it requires you to use the entire keyboard. There are some commands in there that you have to ‘alt’ this and ‘alt’ that to perform basic functions — the reality is that people just don't have the time to embrace that sort of complexity.”
WHO KILLED THE SPACE SHOOTER? THE FIRST PERSON SHOOTER DID IT. IN THE LIVING ROOM, WITH A GAME PAD.
Magaha calls this “The Shelf Moment.” The point at which, as a player, you decide that a game is asking too much from you.
“In the commodore 64 days,” Magaha says, “having to type ‘load *, a,1' — that's a shelf moment right there. Waiting 15 minutes for the game to load is a shelf moment.”
Magaha believes that shelf moments are what separates those with “two kids and [not] a lot of time” from the hardcore, who don’t have those restrictions on their time. The goal for Sol Exodus, therefore, was to avoid shelf moments. To appeal to less hardcore gamers who just wanted to climb into the cockpit and blow things up.
Seamless made the call: Sol: Exodus would be playable with a game pad.
“You have to be able to play with the game pad,” says Stockman. ”Everybody should be on a level playing ground. There are a few things that you can do with a mouse and keyboard that you cannot do with a controller ... but it's not required to beat the game. It’s more about having a good time than learning Newtonian physics and sub-targeting systems.”
Says Magaha: “Having a story play itself out and you get to be the hero — we wanted that to be really accessible. We wanted it to be something that people could just fire up and jump right in without having this huge learning curve and this huge commitment as a player.”
“IF THE ICE CREAM TASTERS REALLY LOVE A CERTAIN FLAVOR OF ICE CREAM, DON'T JUDGE, JUST MAKE MORE OF THAT.”
Six guys, one year
“We’re a very small team. We didn't have a whole lot of money. We didn't have a whole lot of time.”
For the veteran game designers at Seamless, reviving the space shooter genre wasn’t the only challenge. They also wanted to do it sanely.
“There were no situations of living in the office,” says Stockman. “That's something that we said from the very beginning that we weren't going to have. That we were going to maintain our quality of life and we did that.”
One of the ways they set out to maintain the six-person team’s sanity was to institute a four day week of 10 hours per day. Magaha says it actually worked so well for them that he’s afraid other studios will start copying it.
“It was amazingly productive for us because there's a real incentive that you're where your supposed to be [with the game] so that there isn't the need to go in on Friday,” Magaha says. “And ... you get to have those 3 days to recharge and it just — it really helped because Mondays were really productive for us, which is not usually the case.”
Aside from working long days and short weeks, Magaha believes the team’s realistic approach to setting reasonable goals and achieving them helped keep the Sol development cycle from spiraling out of control.
“We have very realistic limitations,” Magaha says. “We're a very small team. We didn't have a whole lot of money. We didn't have a whole lot of time. We had to focus."
“Our approach was: We know we can't do everything, and if we try to do everything it's not going to be great, so lets try to do less. Lets have less bullet points and lets focus on the core experience that we want to have and lets do that really well.”
Another zombie game didn't do well so now you can't do your zombie game.
The downside of being focused is that you end up leaving good ideas on the floor for the sake of expediency, and the development of Sol was no exception to this rule. Among the ideas left behind during Seamless’ sprint to release were the gravity gun that allowed players to grab debris in the world and propel it at enemy ships, and a scanning ability that allowed you to find the weak spots on capital ships.
Stockman says these ideas were actually fully implemented, but they ended up being kind of boring, and the team just didn’t have time to make them better.
“It ended up being that every time a capital ship came about, you would do the same thing over and over and over again,” he says. “It was very much super repetitive and you always did the same exact thing.
“We could have spun our wheels and come up with a variety of different things, but time was of the essence and we ended up scrapping a lot of that stuff and focusing more on dog fighting. I definitely was like ‘eh that sucks we had to remove it’ but ultimately I think it was much better for the game getting done.”
Some of the ideas left behind may come creeping back in future updates, but the size of the Seamless team definitely puts restrictions on what kinds of challenges they can address.
For Magaha, the limitations come with a silver lining.
“Working with a team this small is great because everybody has a real direct impact on the final product,” he says. “I mean obviously there are also times when you go ‘Man, we could use an extra person here or there,’ but in an overall sense you can take a lot more pride in everything because you know that what you put out there is the result of what everyone in a room decided, as opposed to some marketing test [that] came back and now you're going to change the game, or another zombie game didn't do well so now you can't do your zombie game that you love so much.
“It's much more: ‘What do the people in this room want to do?"
Blowing things up
I wanted a lot of enemies on screen, I wanted them to go down fairly quickly, I wanted it to be very hectic.
Says Magaha: “Obviously when you first start talking about a game you have all sorts of lofty ideas about all the things you're going to accomplish and how easy it's going to be. But one of the things that we talked about very early on was just the core player fantasy and what we are trying to provide.”
The fantasy: Earth’s sun is going to explode, and you, as the hero, are the space fighter jockey who can help fight off the evil Children of Dawn (abbreviated in-game as “COD”) and help lead humanity to safety. You do this, naturally, by blowing things up in space.
“I really didn't want to go with aliens and fantastic powers,” says Stockman. “I wanted to keep things very much grounded in a somewhat plausible reality. Certainly the sun going nova is not going to happen, not in anybody’s lifetime. It's not something that our sun is actually large enough to do, so there's definitely some science fiction in there and you have to stretch your beliefs a little bit and go with the flow, but we did not want to go with aliens that are attacking the earth that you had to fight off.”
Stockman says the doomsday scenario, science fictional though it may be, served as the perfect vehicle for his gritty, Battlestar-type space shooter.
“It's more about saving as many people as you can versus truly saving the day,” he says.
“Ultimately the reason [these] things work is because it's a great fantasy,” says Magaha. “Everybody wants to be Luke Skywalker doing the trench run and that's just something that we were constantly feeling and focusing on: ‘Does this feel like something cool to do?’”
“Everybody wants to be Luke Skywalker doing the trench run.”
According to Magaha, the process of developing Sol: Exodus was one of continuously refining the approach, whittling down the experience and focusing on the core of the excitement of playing the game.
“I can't remember exactly when we had the ‘Yeah, we really need to tighten the focus’ moment,” he says, “but we realized that we were trying to slow down the action in order to make [features] work, and all anybody wanted to do was to fly around and blast things.
“Which sounds a little shallow, but if there's one thing I've learned over all the years I've been doing this it’s: If you get to a situation where people who are working on this day in and day out ... like, if the ice cream tasters really love a certain flavor of ice cream, don't judge, just make more of that.
Stockman’s favorite flavor of ice cream: “We just really love flying around in a ship and blowing things up.”
“Honestly I didn't look at any game for inspiration,” Stockman says. “I really wondered why there wasn't a Battlestar Galactica type of experience that I could play. I can't get the license so I'm going to try to emulate the chaotic nature of the battle scenes as best as I can. And then we just added on to that.”
“Everybody that had been looking at this for months and months and months still really loved doing the core dog fighting element,” says Magaha, “and we were like ‘Why are we trying to fight this so hard? why don't we just focus on what makes this so much fun?’"
Man, this is awesome
If Seamless thought launching a new IP in an underused genre with a six man team in just under a year was hard, then it turns out that actually selling that game is just a little bit harder.
Sol: Exodus was released on Steam in January of 2012. Retail price: $9.99.
While Magaha says the game is selling “pretty well,” it hasn’t quite set the world on fire. Yet. And there have been some criticisms that Seamless fell short of the goal of capturing the spirit of space shooters like FreeSpace 2.
“When you're out there putting something out that’s new, just trying to get people to even know that you exist and then pay attention to it ... it's been hard work,” says Magaha. “I've never worked so hard to try and convince people to buy a $10 game.”
While Magaha admits the criticisms of the game are fair, he hopes that gamers will remember that games like FreeSpace were created by large development teams funded by major publishers, whereas Seamless is just six guys “doing the best we can.”
“We're not trying to use our team size as an excuse.”
“Obviously when you're talking to customers and fans, there's a certain point where perception is reality and everybody's got their own expectations. We're not trying to use our team size as an excuse or shrink from any type of criticism that we've gotten,” Magaha says. “The facts are that we're six people that are trying to do everything we can do to revive this genre and keep it going. We've got a passion for it and we put a year of our lives into it and if people support it and we are able to make a modest amount of profit doing this, we are going to keep doing it.
“I think that ultimately, for our first game, we definitely were ambitious but I don't think we were insanely ambitious” Stockman says. “I think we made the right decisions in regards to what we put out.”
“The vast majority of feedback that we've gotten is that people really dig the core loop of flying around in your space ship and blowing things up,” says Magaha. “They get that, and they appreciate that, so in that regard we definitely succeeded.”
Seamless has released a demo on Steam, which they believe will encourage doubters to give the game a shot. And they’re taking it on the road to try and drum up interest and spread the word.
In late August 2011, 70,000 gamers converged on Seattle for the annual PAX Prime expo; many from a younger generation, raised on Pokemon and Magic cards. The types of gamers who call the original Star Wars film “Episode 4.” The types who had never played a space shooter.
For Seamless, it would be the ultimate test. They unveiled Sol: Exodus and let PAX have its way with it.
They let PAX have its way with it
“We put controllers in [gamers’] hands,” says Magaha, “and we had people come up to us and say ‘Oh man I'm bummed that I'm not going to be able to play this on my PC.’”
The Seamless team would then explain to gamers that what they were playing wasn’t a console game, but rather a PC-based shooter with a gamepad-enabled control scheme. And, in a few months, they could buy it on Steam.
Eyes opened, and a new generation of gamers discovered the joy of blowing things up in space.
"People were just flying around right away and having a great time,” says Magaha. “We just kind of looked at each other and said ‘Man this is awesome, people are getting it and they like it.’”
I love the genre
As of the time of this writing, Seamless has already released four separate updates to address minor issues and correct some elements based on player feedback. Seamless says this has not only improved some players’ opinions of the game, but won the studio fans as well.
“I think initially some of the missions had some pacing issues and we take a lot of that criticism to heart,” says Stockman. “We listen to feedback and we are diligently doing updates and continuing to think about the future and where we're going with this game.
“I love the genre. I really want to see it come back in a meaningful way and we're going to do everything we possibly can to try and make that happen.”
Seamless isn’t ready just yet to discuss a “next game,” but Stockman isn’t shy about what he’d like to see in a Sol sequel, or whatever space shooter comes next.
“I love the genre. I really want to see it come back.”
“Ultimately where I see this genre really expanding is [in] getting out of the ship, letting people explore space stations. letting them explore the inside of a capital ship, letting them expand upon the gameplay,” Stockman says. “I think being in a ship you're restricted to what you can do. The characters are just their heads, and you don't get to see their body and their body movements.
“I think getting out of the ship and being able to see the characters or seeing the people giving you jobs and getting to interact with them in some capacity is where the genre needs to go. And it's not just a job board type thing or a computer telling you what to do, it's much more in your face. To me that's the ultimate.”
First, Sol: Exodus needs to finds its audience, and so far that’s been an uphill battle.
Magaha understands that it isn’t about convincing gamers looking for the next FreeSpace that their expectations are unrealistic, but he hopes that those who might have been disappointed by the scope of Sol: Exodus will judge the game on its own merits.
“It's not really a question of whether somebody's opinion is right or wrong it's just that that's the reality of it,” Magaha says. “We just hope that people who want this type of game know about it, and they know that it's out there and they know that we're supporting and believing in it and we're going to keep doing it as long as we can.
“Hopefully that message reaches the people and they like what they see and they say ‘Hey let's support these guys.’”
“WE JUST HOPE THAT PEOPLE WHO WANT THIS TYPE OF GAME KNOW ABOUT IT.”