Starfighter Inc. burst into the public eye just a few weeks ago with a relatively modest Kickstarter ask of $250,000 and a team stacked with industry veterans. One of the creative minds behind the design of the X-Wing series said he wanted to create a game in the style of World of Tanks, but with a dedicated hard science hook. Since then, Impeller Studios' campaign has slowed and, these past few days, stalled around 4,500 backers and $160,000.
Much of the team's messaging since launching the campaign has been on fleshing out its vision for the game. Polygon spoke to creative director Jack Mamais to learn more about how Starfighter Inc. will play when it's finished. Because, Mamais said, it will be finished.
"We’re going to do this game," Mamais said. "Nothing is stopping us right now."
If this were Avatar, Mamais said, he'd be James Cameron. It's not his first time in the director's chair; he previously was the creative director of Mechwarrior 2, and was also a lead designer for both Crysis and Far Cry.
"The whole concept when we went to do this project was that if you could learn to fly our ships, you could theoretically go to the controls of any spaceship and you would be able to fly it," Mamais said.
To accomplish that goal, Starfighter Inc. will rely on hard science. That means that space will be a soundless, frictionless vacuum with a near perfect preservation of momentum and real Newtonian physics. It'll play more like Lunar Lander than Microsoft Flight Simulator, and evoke more of Apollo 13 than Battlestar Galactica.
"I know that I’ve seen Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen say the same thing," Mamais said. "But when I’ve played them, they’re doing things that are telling me 'this is not a realistic game.'"
In Mamais' vision players will have to plan where they want to go, because every input into their spaceship will require the direct opposite input to counteract it.
"Let’s say that I have an asteroid right ahead of me," Mamais said. "If I pull up on the stick, I don’t immediately start moving up. I’m going to move through space for quite a while as I move toward that thing."
But games like Star Citizen and Elite, games that say they allow players to completely turn off systems that would prevent them from smashing into that asteroid, don't do really do it. They don't trust the player enough to truly give them the kind of control real space pilots would have in a real spaceship.
Starfighter Inc. will change all of that, Mamais said. It aims to show players the full potential of space-based movement. And that design choice has wholly influenced how how the game is played.
In Starfighter Inc. team deathmatch doesn't work. Players just end up careening towards one another along shorter and shorter arcs, jousting in space more than creating a "furrball" of dogfighting ships. The solution, Mamais said, has been to design the gameplay modes around objective-based play.
One such scenario that the team already has on the drawing board is a sink-the-Bismark-style engagement.
Imagine a near-future scenario where an elite carrier ship hangs stranded in orbit around Saturn. Repairs are underway, but meanwhile a wing of enemy bombers is vectoring in, followed closely by a handful of heavily armored troop transports. Nukes are inbound, boarding teams are prepping their small arms, and the only thing standing in between the stricken capital ship and total annihilation is a thin line of starfighters.
By spreading this evolving scenario across a sizeable battlespace, Mamais said, he hopes to create multiple points where player-driven action can potentially occur. There's the initial entry of the bombers and troop transports into the system, then later on the deadly cat and mouse game among the floating chunks of rock and ice where the massive capital ship is taking partial cover. Eventually, fighters swarm around the tiny nuclear missiles, trying to bring them down before they strike the carrier. Finally, a brutal slugging match breaks out at close range as the heavily-armored troop transports move in for the kill.
Starfighter Inc. is really a highly tactical strategy game.
But not all of those little vignettes will occur in every match, or over each round. Each side will have to coordinate to pick their strategy for a given round, either in small groups or at a broader level. Do they go for the long, drawn out ship-to-ship fight inside Saturn's rings or do they run the blockade and send every ship they have on a suicidal boarding assault? It's the same kind of higher-level thinking Mamais sees at play in games like World of Tanks and DOTA 2.
Starfighter Inc. might sound like a pay-to-win shooter on paper, but at its core it will be a highly tactical free-to-play strategy game.
"It took me about two years to really learn how to play World of Tanks," Mamais said by way of comparison. "Then, the whole game opened up for me.
"That’s not a casual game, to learn how to play World of Tanks correctly, just like it’s not a casual game to learn something like League of Legends."
For a game as intricate as the one being described, is $250,000 enough? Mamais says emphatically yes.
"It’s enough to produce a 15 vs. 15, hard science fiction game," Mamais said. "We already have that all working, it’s just our assets are gray box in a lot of cases. So we need to bring artists on. That’s what we need the $250,000 for.
"We’ve done one fully-realized ship that has everything we need on it, and it’s exactly the art style we want, but that’s the only ship that we’ve created.
"With the $250,000 we’re set up to finish this game pretty quickly," Mamais continued. "It can be six months to nine months. If we don’t get the funding, we’re going to continue doing it ourselves. We’ve got a lot of people working on the project, but most of our artists are more junior than we would like because, well, art is expensive."
So what do some of those other ships look like? Some of them aren't very attractive, at least in the traditional X-Wing and TIE Fighter sense of the word.
In the future, one possible — perhaps probable — way to fight in space would be with tiny, spherical ships that are little more than gimbaled engines with densely shielded, nougaty centers filled with electronics and a pilot. In game terms, these ships would have tiny hitboxes, bad optics and very limited ammunition. But they'd be incredibly hard to kill.
Mamais says they've got designs ready to go for ships just like that but, as it turns out, that's not what gets people excited about funding a Kickstarter.
Hard science fiction is being applied to every aspect of the game.
"Some of our designs look like Soyuz capsules. They’re scientific and sort of old school," Mamais said. "It’s just not a sexy design, right? ‘Here’s a bunch of balls coming through the screen, so can you guys give us money now?’"
But that type of realistic thinking is being applied to every aspect of the game. For instance, the decks on Starfighter's capital ships are perpendicular to the thrust of the engines, not parallel as in just about every other space shooter out there. Why? Because there's no magical antigravity-wand in Mamais' universe. In order to achieve one g-force of gravity, you need one g-force of inertia and he says that's most economically applied with your main drive engine.
"All of our capital ships look like skyscrapers," Mamais said. "The whole time you’re moving through space, you can walk around like you have normal gravity. But you wouldn’t be able to do that if the decks were aligned horizontally.
Similarly, speeding a ship that size up and slowing it down is no simple matter.
"You can’t move at 10 g. People get sick, so you have to accelerate over a long period of time and then come back down. Everything we’re doing we’re putting up against the hard science fiction wall and asking if this is something we can extrapolate from the reality today and push 100, 200 years into the future."
Impeller Studios' same grounded approach to Starfighter Inc.'s science applies equally to its backstory.
"Our story is extrapolated from reality," Mamais said. "So we’re not saying that aliens come to earth or an asteroid impacted here or blah blah blah happens. We’re saying corporations continue to grow in power, and eventually corporations themselves are more powerful than governments. That may already be the case, right?
"We’re going to extrapolate it to the nth degree and say Exxon will set up a government if they need one. We're talking unbridled corporate exploitation of the solar system."
But where Star Citizen's ships are commercial products, marketed and sold online like sports cars and pickup trucks, in Starfighter Inc. ship designs will reflect the cutthroat competition among companies literally at war with each other.
"Corporations are also competing with each other for starship designs," Mamais said. "You have corporation A that makes a ship that looks like a sphere — Practical Corp, LLC. All their ships are very practical, and they’re good. But now you’ve got corperation B, and their ships look like badass attack units. They may be not as practical, but they may have more firepower."
Ship designs will reflect the cutthroat competition among companies literally at war with each other.
Those kinds of differentiations will not just influence how the ships look, but also how they fight, and that tactical variety will also increase the learning curve in different ways.
In the end, Starfighter Inc. wants to tailor itself for a much different audience than other games on the market right now. Mamais wants to build a game that's fast-paced and brutal, like Counter Strike, but with the tactical planning and skill-based flight dynamics of the most challenging simulations. And he wants to do it because that's the game he wants to play.
"These other games aren’t interesting to me because I only want space combat," Mamais said. "I don’t want to go explore 1,000 planets."
The Kickstarter campaign runs through June 6.
"I’ve been working on it for two years," Mamais said, "and I don’t like to work on something and not finish it. So we’re going to finish it. As long as it takes."