IGM Interviews – Charles Cox (4gency) Part 1

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I’m admittedly not very artistically inclined. I can’t draw, at all, and my 3D-modeling skills leave a lot to be desired. Even so, as a child I would try to build with all kinds of LEGOs, Mega Bloks, Magnetix, whatever “junk” I could get my hands on (according to my parents, anyway). So it seems fitting I would gravitate towards Habitat, a recent Kickstarter success from 4Gency that tasks players with rocketing off into space in search of junk, or space debris, with which to build an ever-expanding, sustainable habitat. Charles Cox, founder of 4Gency, took the time to sit down with me and chat at great length about the team’s plans for the game, and how they’re engaging with the community to craft an experience that everyone can enjoy. In fact, the interview is so massive I’ve decided to break it up into two parts. In this first segment, we take a look at the gameplay mechanics and break down Habitat into the nitty gritty bits of programming code. (I mentioned this was an in depth chat, right?)

IGM: So for those who watch the brief Kickstarter trailer and think “so, is this like Katamari in Space?” how would you describe Habitat to give people a better understanding of the gameplay?

Charles Cox: I think the way that I like to describe it is, ‘it’s like SimCity in space, if the cities could crash into each other and explode.’

You’ve got elements of management there, there’s a sense that you’re really trying to work to create a livable station. And everything is physics-based, and you can fly around and blow up.

IGM: Looking at some of the screenshots, there’s an obvious resource management component to the game. How do players go about acquiring additional oxygen, food, and electricity?

Charles: The way it works is that there’s a whole set of space junk – or ‘orbital debris’ is the correct technical term – all laying up there for the player to pick up and use. Each piece, each type of orbital debris, is going to have powers associated with it. Some have immediate effects like rockets or laser cannons, which is some of the more obvious junk.

Some of the stuff is bit more pedestrian though, like a gas tank or Conex containers, things like that. The power they have is the ability to be upgraded and turned into what we call ‘producers’ – which I’m sure we’ll have a better name later. So for instance, a gas tank; once you attach it to your habitat, you can tell your engineers, ‘please go upgrade that and turn that into a power generator, or an electricity generator.’ By doing that, you’re going to start driving electricity or oxygen into your habitat.

You can do the same thing for living space and food production, but you’ll need to find specific pieces of junk that can support that. A gas tank’s not good for living space or growing food in, but you could use shipping containers for living space, so as you look around you’ll find different junk used for different stuff.,

IGM: Now when you tell an engineer to upgrade something, is there a specific skill tree for that? Are there different options for each type of debris?

Charles: If you have a piece of debris that hasn’t been upgraded before at all, you’ve just plucked it off from orbit and put it on your habitat, you can choose what you want to do with it. Some of them can become two or three different things, but you’ll have to choose one. Once you’ve done that, and upgraded it to level one, then we’ll be building in a system where you can kind of walk the tree upwards, ‘you know, I want a more powerful electric generator’, or so on, and you can upgrade it. You can always pare it back down and change it back to one of the base types , but you lose all of the upgrades that you have, so if you need to take that route you have to pay a little bit of a price.

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IGM: Is there a resource cost to upgrade? What do players have to pay in order to be able to upgrade the different debris types?

Charles: The way we’re planning to do cost, in terms of resources, is ‘research points.’ It’s not obvious from some of the game clips we’ve posted so far, but as you build up living space, you’ll get more and more citizens aboard. These are different than engineers; engineers are your guys in yellow suits who fly around and get tethered to things and build stuff.

Inside the habitats you’ll sometimes see, if you click the habitat itself that gives you an x-ray view, citizens. These are actually the number of people you’re trying to save overall; you’re trying to get as many of these people as possible. The more you have, the more research points you’ll get over time, and you can use those to upgrade your onboard systems, or you can access the tech tree – which is kind of like a game-wide, global research tree and unlock things on that – so it’s your call; you can either get specific about stuff on your habitat, or you can unlock global upgrades, but you do it with research points that you get from your citizens.

IGM: And citizens are acquired? Or as you habitat grows, there are just most of them in it?

Charles: The goal of the game is to save people from Earth, so that’s where they’re going to be coming from. We need to decide whether or not we’re going to use a timed system, or some kind of milestone-based system; but the colonists – or citizens – will come up from Earth in AI-controlled shuttles, and they’ll be docking with your habitats and dislodging their colonists onboard. You’ll need to build enough living space, and I’m talking about livable living space; not food, not electricity, not oxygen, but enough space to take on the additional load of colonists.

Right now in the shot that you see there [gif included below], you’ll see inhabitants on the right-hand side; it’s two numbers separated by a slash. The idea there is that you build up enough reservoir so you can take on more people than you have, and the game will send more people, and one number will go up to match the other number. So that’s how you get people on board; you have to keep building more space, and they’re going to keep sending these shuttles, and you’re going to have to take on extra colonists. There’s a little bit of pressure on the player there to think, ‘gee, these people keep coming up.’

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IGM: So it seems like the player can choose an object, and the game will direct them towards a number of potential docking positions for each piece of debris. Will the game optimize placement of debris on its own?

Charles: Well, we’ve put in several systems and the one that felt not just comfortable, but intuitive to us, was to identify safe places for a ‘weld’ to happen. I think the idea came to us when, you know, I was playing a lot of the Galaxy Trucker board game, which is a great condensing of a whole bunch of space game tropes into a very understandable, very playable game where you build your own spaceship. In that game you have certain points where you can weld stuff to, and you have to be conscientious about not running out, and it kind of constrains the way you have to build a little bit, and in that framework you could be creative.

We felt, by this weld point system, that people could build something new and interesting without, basically, getting themselves painted into a corner too badly. Building in any which way can be really confusing, so we wanted to make sure it was understandable how the player could build, so that’s what we came up with. The idea with the [weld] points is that the different junk that you find has its own set of weld points; so you can count the number of points that each piece of junk has and decide where to put it to expose yet more weld points, because some of them have three, some of them have two. Some pieces of junk don’t have any extra points, so that will end whatever sort of line you have, and you‘ll have to think hard about that.

But you can always jettison pieces of your habitat and reattach them somewhere else, so you can continuously build and rebuild and rearrange your city.

IGM: Can you talk a little more about the campaign mode and what it entails? I imagine the majority of the game is sandbox, but is the story progression linear?

Charles: There is a linear narrative that kind of keeps upping the stakes. The way that I envision doing this, I’m sure you’re familiar with the 2012 reboot of XCOM that was done by Firaxis. They had a really good way of doing a campaign while giving the player a lot of freedom; so what we’re doing in Habitat is going to be a little similar. Think of the Habitat campaign as sort of a 3-act narrative structure, but those acts are large in scope, and getting to the next act is a significant action that you can do at your own pace. So, in the first Act, it’s the very beginning of the game, you’re coming up from Earth with just one shuttle and two engineers and a big field of debris.
In this Act, it’s really all about learning and mastering the basic moves: Grabbing junk, putting it together, getting it ready for life, taking on citizens, dealing with crisis, and upgrading to a certain level. But there are things that you haven’t done yet, there’s no combat yet, there’s really no super advanced technology, and that’s saved for the next Act; so you can build for a long time and not have to do anything. Eventually though, you’re going to find that outside of your immediate area you’re bound by a large asteroid ring. And if you can punch through that – which you’re encouraged to do by the voice narration and so on, to explore further – if you punch through that, you’re into Act 2.

We move the story ahead at that point for you, and once you’re into that second ring, you’re going to find a lot more combative style junk. You’re going to find weaponry, you’re going to find a lot of rockets, you’re going to find things that are of a different nature that, again, up the stakes, and that’s when we begin to introduce habitat-to-habitat combat.

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IGM: What sorts of opposition and hazards will players find in space? Will they have to worry about pirates or rival factions?

Charles: There are classes of opposition. The first is just the destructive nature of orbit itself. So there’s going to be asteroid pieces, debris, and flying shrapnel that are going to come around at times. We need to make sure we strike the right balance, we don’t want to be like your traditional Call of Duty where you walk out the front door in multiplayer and get sniped in the head, we don’t want to be that random. But we do want it to be a hazard and something you have to take care of, so there’s always that.

The second thing is, the campaign focuses on Earth being eaten by nanomachines, and those nanomachines are a threat in and of themselves. As the campaign goes on, the nanomachines will actually attempt to exit into orbit and get your station infected. We’re playing around with how they might do that; one might be just in their basic discus kind of form, which is like the silver goo from Terminator 2. The other thing that we’re thinking about is they might clone themselves into something useful, and if you pick it up, you’re infected and you have to deal with it. So the nanomachines will be sort of an interesting and evolving threat.

Then, I think the most interesting, and certainly the most emergent combat you’ll do is with enemy habitats. There’s another faction out there who’s building their own habitats; they want the same resources you do, and you’re going to have this sort of city-to-city combat with them, which I think is like the biggest opportunity for really interesting interaction, and some pretty crazy combat.

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IGM: Are there any types of secondary objectives while players are exploring?

Charles: I think secondary objectives are definitely something that we’re going to put in the game because they help drive the story as well as giving rewards. In every game that I’ve ever played, side quests are pretty much like 75% of the fun of a campaign. I mean, I don’t know if that’s a global number, but it certainly is for me. So, we’re going to be playing around with what side quests make sense. We’ve considered a couple of things; we’ve considered A/B decision points like “oh we found this crate. Should we open it? Yes/No.”

I’ve shied away from that a little bit as I’ve gone on because I’m worried that too much random number generation isn’t really great gameplay and I think that, I mean, I’m a huge fan of FTL, I think it’s an awesome game, but I also know that there’s a lot of controversy. A lot of players feel like the random number generator of “hey, do you investigate this space station or don’t you” is kind of a lack of determinism. They feel like it’s not fair, and I’m sensitive to that, so I’m trying to figure out what kind of side missions might serve the player a littler better than, you know, “hey we found this crate, do we open it? Woah, it contains rabid weasels, you lost two crew members.” So we’re going to try and do something a little bit different. I think we’ll have more on that as we built out into Early Access.

One thing I want to say too is that our plans to go Early Access are going to help solve some of these questions by really asking and involving the community. You know, what do they want to see? What would be fun for them? We’re going to try a lot of different stuff, and we’re very quickly going to find out whether it’s fun or not fun; we’ll scrap the stuff that’s not fun, and keep the stuff that is. That’s one of the most exciting things about getting this Kickstarter funded, we’re going to get this game out in front of people and they’re going to tell us what they love, and we can give them more of that. So I think, again, that as we build out and engage with the community, you’ll hear a lot more about how side missions will work because we’re going to b asking and experimenting to find out.

IGM: Outside of the campaign, is there a separate sandbox experience where players can just build at their leisure and have access to all the different stages of orbit, or all of the advanced debris?

Charles: Yeah, in sandbox mode, the point is we open up all those layers, and the junk will be more randomized. For instance, in the campaign mode we make sure certain types of junk are behind certain curtains, so you can’t get to the super particle accelerator until you hit level 2, and you’re definitely not going to get the gravity pump until you get to level 3. [Challenge accepted?] But in sandbox mode, we’ll more uniformly distribute the junk so that you’ll have a higher chance of getting that rarer stuff even when close to Earth because, why artificially hold them back unless there’s a story to it? That’s what we intend to do in sandbox mode.

Also, some of the experiences in the campaign, such as fighting and dealing with the nanomachines, we’ve gotten feedback from some of our players that they’re not interested in tearing other habitats apart and going to war, and they’d prefer to just build on their own. So some of those things that are kind of de rigueur in the campaign, there’s just a switch so you can turn them off, and that’s totally fine with us.

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IGM: Alex Brandon is composing the music for Habitat. Is there a particular genre of music that the soundtrack mostly consists of, or does it pull from various styles? How many tracks have been laid down so far?

Charles: We’ve really been focusing on just the main theme and the Kickstarter theme. He’s been doing all the sound effects and VO for the demo as well so he’s actually delivered quite a bit of stuff. As far as other tracks for music, not yet. We’re going to have more to share on that soon, but we really wanted Mr. Brandon to focus on the main theme and that sort of Kickstarter teaser theme, which I think will be an insight into the “oh, you’re in the middle of a building” or “you’re in the middle of combat” kind of thing. Those two music pieces are what we have so far, and we’re just going to keep building on those motifs. But you know, we’ve had very limited time, so I think there’s a lot more around the corner, and as soon as we can share something, we definitely will.

As you know, we’ve offered the original Habitat soundtrack as one of the backer rewards, so we will be delivering great value there. We’ll make sure that it’s definitely worth the money. But we also have to keep our dev schedule in mind and do the right things at the right time, so there will be more to share on that soon, I know it.

That’s it for Part 1. Be sure to tune in tomorrow for Part 2, which looks ahead at the future of Habitat, including stretch goals, post-launch DLC, and bonus content.




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