SpaceQube: How an ex-God of War artist and an AMD programmer used voxels to build a sandbox from home

At the end of March, sometime around GDC, the two man team at Qubit Games plans to release their first app, SpaceQube, a hybrid concoction unlike anything I've ever seen.

Half sidescrolling shooter, half 3D modeler, SpaceQube harnesses an astounding amount of depth in a straightforward, playful package. It's easy to understand the game within seconds, as you tilt your iPad to strafe and tap to shoot. Its voxel-based modeler is only slightly more complex, but never complicated to the point of confusion.

Inside of my first half hour poking at its boxes, I understood the potential in both. I understood why its developers were inspired with the confidence to walk away from careers designing for the God of War series and programming a next-gen engine at AMD and move halfway around the world to devote their lives to SpaceQube. I should have been sleeping, but I couldn't stop playing.

The first thing I built after I opened SpaceQube was a Recognizer from Tron.

Like its creators and their company name, SpaceQube is something of a double entendre. In the game, you play a cube-based character shooting things in space. But the name also refers to voxels, a reference to character modeling.

The word voxel is a portmanteau of volume plus element with an x tossed in the middle for pronounceability. Think of a voxel as a 3D pixel. And think of SpaceQube as a voxel sandbox.

I had Tron on the brain when I launched the beta version of SpaceQube, jumped straight into the modeler, called Workshop, and started building the iconic vehicle. A few minutes later, I had a thin, duck-footed model that looked like I'd created it with Duplo blocks tapped out on the 16 x 16 grid. It was a Recognizer only in the academic sense.

I knew I could do better. I created a new model in the Workshop's 32 x 32 grid. Things looked better immediately, and not just because I'd turned the Recognizer's feet inward. After making the initial outline, I added 3D layers to beef up the menace. I bumped the first layer back to add some front-facing protrusions. I used the painting palette to cover the model in a matte black and coated the outlines in dark red. This was a recognizable Recognizer.

When I was satisfied with my Q-model, I uploaded it to the SpaceQube website where you can view a gallery of player creations. From within the app, I shot an email to a friend containing an isometric render. Then I launched my Recognizer into space, replacing the game's default spaceship model with mine to fight waves of alien adversaries.

SpaceQube's straightforward shooter uses the iOS device's gyroscope to great effect, moving the ship left and right as I tilted my iPad. Holding my finger on the screen fired, as I dodged the advancing alien hordes, picking up weapons and defensive boosts along the way.

Soon, I was back in the Workshop, creating voxel versions of the Polygon logo, a coffee cup and the Happy Mac icon from the days when the Apple computers I used had grayscale displays.

The total package was, in many respects, unlike anything I'd ever played before. And it all happened because Owen Wu had to leave his wife and child on the other side of the world.

It was work, first at ATI then AMD, that brought Wu to Toronto. Necessary as that was, it was tough to be separated from his wife and young son.

"At the time, I was living in Toronto alone, and my wife and son [were] living in Taiwan," Wu told Polygon in a recent interview. "So [I could] only see my son when I traveled to Asia."

Those trips weren't as often as he might've liked. So Wu, who had been developing a game engine he called Lynx Engine and noodling with iOS prototypes in his spare time — none of which rose to the level of something he was satisfied with — bridged the seven thousand mile gap by doing what few dads can do. Owen Wu built his son an app.

"My son loves playing [with] Lego blocks ... but I could not play with him," he said. "I thought it would be great if I could make a digital Lego app so that I could play with my son via the internet."

That app, inspired by his son and Lego building blocks, was a simple voxel-based modeler. With the app, he and his son could produce models on an iPad or iPhone using the Lego-inspired spacial building techniques. He worked it up, another in a long line of iOS prototypes built in his spare time. The first model he built was Thomas the Tank. His son responded with creations of his own.

"I thought it would be great if I could make a digital Lego app so that I could play with my son via the internet."

As father and son traded models across continents, fellow Taiwanese native Louis Lu was in California working as a lead character artist on the God of War series. Lu and Wu had been friends for nearly a decade.

Lu had been with the series at SCE Santa Monica Studio for years, designing characters like Kratos, Icarus, and Colossus but had grown weary of designing for big companies.

"There are visions in the big companies, and you kind of hate that [eventually], because they want to be a leader or they want to create cool stuff so they can be a leader or something like that," Lu said. "And I've been through [that] so many times in the industry, so it [was] kind of like, I wanted to quit now from this. I want to think out of the box, do my thing."

Wu continued to refine his voxel editor and swap models with his son. At a certain point, he realized that he'd finally created something that could be more than another entry in a seemingly endless series of prototypes. And if that were true — if he'd created something that he could sell — then he might be able to come home permanently.

But before that could happen, he needed help. That's why he called his old friend Louis Lu. He showed Lu his simple editor, and Lu began making changes to the interface. The duo researched other iOS voxel editors, most of which made them unhappy. So they paved their own way.

Excited about the progress they'd made and the prospect of going independent, both quit their jobs and moved back to Taiwan. The collaboration produced their first game, SpaceQube, and began development in earnest.

In the Workshop, perhaps Lu's most significant design insight was his decision to use a 2D perspective to create 3D models. With a few taps on a 2D grid and the option to add 3D layers of voxel blocks to bulk up your models, the 3D modeler is easy and fun to use. As create your model, a live 3D preview to the left of the grid — which you can think of as an unformed Rubik's Cube where you you tap away to add your blocky building blocks — shows your creation come to life. And modeling contains it own incentive, as I discovered with my Recognizer: Modelers can use their creations as stand-ins for the game's default spaceship.

"We need to do something different."

Many of the social features the app offers grew out of Wu's previous collaboration with his son. Players can upload and download Q-models from the app, view and rate them via the SpaceQube website, or share them with Facebook and email.

With SpaceQube, Owen Wu and Louis Lu cut the corporate cord, moved home and made the game they wanted to play, which they hope to release in March around GDC.The SpaceQube package, they hope, is just the beginning of their potential. They've got plans for the game's first set of models, a rough DLC roadmap and plans for other apps based on voxels.

"We need to do something different," Lu said of the project that has already changed their lives. Based on the time we've spent with SpaceQube, they have.

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