IGM Interviews – Charles Cox (4Gency) Part 2

Welcome back to IGM Interviews. This week we’re chatting with the founder of 4Gency, Charles Cox. But whoa there cowboy, before getting any further into this interview, allow me to point out that this is actually Part 2 of a two-part segment. If you didn’t read the first part yet, I highly encourage you to go ahead and do so right here. (Don’t worry, we’ll leave the light on for you.) Whereas the first part of our chat got into the gameplay mechanics and nitty gritty design of Habitat, this segment will look to the future, offering a peek behind the curtain that hides additional features and post-launch content. I don’t want to spoil any surprises but… DINOSAURS IN SPACE. I’m sorry, I tried, but I couldn’t keep that one a secret. You’ll just have to read on for details.

IGM: A game like Habitat feels like more of a single-player game by design, where players can explore on their own time and craft the habitat of their choice. How will multiplayer affect the experience?

Charles: I think one of the things that we’ve done in our thinking about multiplayer is, we’ve asked players – you know, folks at PAX East and GDC who played the demo – what kind of multiplayer experience would you want? And it’s split: There are those who want the full sandbox and campaign mode to be multiplayer driven so that you’re building with seven other people, and you all get sectors, and you build. You’d do the kind of long form thing that you might do with other mutiplayers. I look at that as almost a more of a Minecraft style where there are these persistent worlds, and we know all too well how expensive and difficult that will be for a small team to do, and it’s one of the reasons the larger multiplayer goals have really been at the higher levels of funding.

But there are also people who said, “You know what would be a lot of fun? If just, really quickly, you know you’ve got five minutes and everybody starts in one corner of the map, and it’s a very small map, and you go! Then everyone just builds fast and they try to blow each other up. So we came up with the idea for Habitat Rocket Arena which is, sort of a single seat experience, so if you have controllers and gamepads it works really well. It’s kind of a party mode.

That felt like the most obtainable multiplayer goal, especially because multiplayer physics can be very difficult. There are a lot of issues around determinism and, essentially speed of light issues around interpolation. Those things are tricky, and we know we have to bear the cost of all that experimentation, and we prefer to do it in a realm where destruction and chaos is more expected, and not so much where people are building something precious and they don’t want it hurt, and it would be very bad if it did get blown up. We don’t want bad network code or unfinished systems to really hurt our players, and that’s why we need to stage the risk with a simpler multiplayer first. I hope that makes sense, and isn’t too boring. We’re breaking new ground here, and we have to be responsible in the way we treat our player’s creations that they make, so we’re keeping that in the front of our mind.


IGM: I haven’t noticed anything, from the shots I’ve seen, about a map or guidance system. Is there a map system that leads to specific points of interest like survivors or exceptionally useful debris?

Charles: There are a couple of systems that we want to put into the game. You can’t see them yet, but you probably noticed in the bottom-left hand side of the screen some space that’s devoid of any UI, and that is probably where we’re going to put our mapping system. The thing is, to get done for our demos, to show off what we really wanted to show off, we just didn’t have time, so we had to scrap global navigation. But we certainly have plans to do it.

One of the things that’s fascinating about global nav is that the entire gamplay surface is actually navigable right now. Like with the movement, WASD on the keyboard and the rotation axis, you can actually go all the way around the Earth; the entire place is navigable. And doing global UI for that might be an interesting challenge that I’m not sure anyone has really done before.

The things we want to highlight are your habitats, because you can have as many as you want, and they can be spread out across the entire surface of the game, so we need a way for you to quickly check the status of your network of habitats. We do want to indicate interesting things, evil things like enemies, those are very important. We want to make sure that the vectors of attack are well known, so if an asteroid is about to collide with one of your habitats, showing the red arrow to indicate where it’s coming from and how long it’s going to take to get there, which is also very valuable. As well as those, “hey, here’s an opportunity to check out something interesting.”

One thing we’re experimenting with, and we really want to play around with this in the Xbox One version, and we hope that there’s a sufficient mechanism with the PC edition to do this as well, is a shortcut where you can filter your global nav and what you’re seeing. So you can say, “show me just the stuff that can be used for oxygen,” that you can say in a very short code so that the habitat finds the oxygen. And you’ll get a view where the particular kinds of junk you need to get oxygen are going to show up; they’re going to show up brighter and everything else will show up dimmer, and you can find your way that way, so you can filter by utility. That’s another thing we want to do with global nav.

We’re resting a lot on its shoulders, but ever since the days of the early mini-maps, we know how useful they are. So we’re going to built it right, it’s just going to take a little time.


IGM: The next thing I want to talk about are stretch goals. I know you have one in particular for engineer and citizen upgrades. Would that be an additional resource cost, or how would you use those upgrades?

Charles: The way that we look at citizen and engineer upgrades is, they’re a separate tech tree from the global tech tree. This is almost more like a genetic upgrade tree. What we have to decide, is whether we want that to be individualized based on the individual, as in, you click on a citizen and you buff them, or whether it applies to all your citizens and engineers. I personally think that the right call there is buffing individuals, so you can essentially have hero characters.

So if you’re really fond of a particular engineer – I know in the Twitch broadcast with Elegy of Games he ended up naming one of his engineers Phil. Basically, the one who kept getting into trouble. Let’s say you want to buff Phil, if we had the specific citizen and engineer tech trees, you’d click Phil and buff him by spending resource cost. The resource cost would be some fraction of what it would be to unlock a global upgrade, but only Phil gets the buff, so you’d see a little star – it’s almost like upgrading his rank, but basically you’re upgrading his genetic structure – and he gets particular upgrades and utilities. But you’re going to have to keep him alive, because he’s incredibly valuable at this point. So it’s a bonus, and that’s great, but the tradeoff is not everybody gets it, and now, you have to be very careful about how you use Phil. You don’t want to send him into the jaws of the Reavers and all that stuff, unless that’s what you’ve buffed him out for.

IGM: I know this is one you’ve been hoping to talk about: Tell me a little bit about the Habitat Automation stretch goal. What does in-game Habitat AI programming actually entail? Is it just for issuing commands to each habitat?

Charles: We know that players, as they build a network of habitats, they’re going to have to time slice. “Which one do I look at? How quickly do I switch between my habitat? Oh, this one is fine.” Even without the stretch goal, I’m sure we’ll have some basic form of automation where you can tell the habitat, “Defend yourself” or “Alert me” or what have you. That’s not the extent I’m thinking of for the stretch goal.

The stretch goal is actually, you build into the habitat sort of a core logic program, and there are a couple games that have done this. MindRover: The Europa Project from years ago, done by Ken Quirk and CogniToy, is the game I really think of, but there’s also a PSOne game called Carnage Heart where you did kind of the same thing where you basically have a little board of logic flow chips and you put chips in there and they make “if/then” calls. So: Look around for enemies. If enemies turn towards [your habitat], fire rockets. And you could activate that sub-routine, and the habitat will do what you programmed it to do. You can actually program if/then flow using sort of a UI editor. And we take our inspiration from MindRover and Carnage Heart for that kind of thing.

IGM: The Kickstarter makes mention of utilizing structures and vehicles from different eras in human history, is that correct?

Charles: We are exploring that I think for DLC. The stretch goals were really about the additional tech trees, and the AI, and some multiplayer modes. Modding support is one of our stretch goals, I’m really excited for that one, but it’s going to take a pretty significant rearchitecture, that’s why it’s at the level it’s at [The $115,000 stretch tier].

But the DLC we’re talking about, we’re talking about doing some content that is kind of themed, so that there’s more junk with special properties and more opportunities to do interesting things. But we’d like it to have a particular look to it. One of the things we’re exploring is, what if there was a 1960’s alternate Space Race history between the U.S. and the USSR, and what would that look like? I’d probably been playing way too much Command and Conquer: Red Alert in my childhood, but I love that narrative, I think it’s a lot of fun. So that may be a potential theme that we do for our DLC. I don’t know if it would be a total conversion or not, because that’s a whole lot of content, but we certainly want to make sure that any DLC that we did felt that it was cohesive and had a very fun theme, and that’s kind of one of the ones we’re thinking of.

We’re also thinking about Dinosaurs in space, not to give too much away, but Dino DLC could be a lot of fun too.

IGM: Very cool… Very. Cool.

Charles: We’re still not sure how it would work, but it would be really cool if it could, so just stay tuned on that one.

IGM: Are there any social sharing features being implemented to help players share their creations with others?

Charles: We have thought about ways to share. One of the things we know though, about the PC community, is that sharing at the most basic level for games like this, is really just a question of Twitch or Fraps, and we encourage that completely. For the Xbox One version, of course you’ve got the “Xbox, record that” for the last thirty seconds which really plays into the emergent and “Oh my god, I can’t believe that happened”-style of Habitat gameplay. So that’s basically in the bag already. What we know is that PC gamers who really want to record and share stuff don’t need us to expose anything in particular for them. We’ve played around with the idea of a Habitat video studio so you can pause or rewind, and take action from different camera angles and it was interesting, and we may need it for debug purposes, but we also know that gamers will use Fraps and Twitch no matter what.

The next most obvious level of sharing is mod support. The cool thing about the PC, Mac, and Linux communities is they’re not afraid to just dive in and get their hands dirty with mod support. My personal feeling is that anything in between, like sharing studios or like a painting studio where you repaint your habitat, I feel like that’s the mediocre middle for the PC crowd. We just know, by talking with others, that you can Fraps now, and that’s great, and it would be super cool if we had mod support, but if we build a whole other infrastructure just to do halfway sharing, it feels like a lot of work for what the community didn’t really want to begin with, which is mod support. So we’re fine putting it out there, saying mod support is going to cost this much if you want to help us, so we’ll build whatever the community feels like. And if it turns out when we get to Early Access that people are like, “Hey, where’s my sharing and painting studio?” Well, whoops, I guess we’ll have to reinvent the game. We’re willing to be surprised, but for now the sharing features feel a lot more mobile and tablet, and Mac, PC, and Linux are already taken care of.

We’re trying to do what the community would like us to do, and be respectful of that.


IGM: Beyond PC, Mac, Linux, and Xbox One, has the team considered following up with a Mobile version of Habitat? The controls and mechanics seem to lend themselves well to Mobile integration. I particularly wouldn’t mind seeing Habitat on PS Vita…

Charles: I’m feeling like mobile tablets, I’ve been really interested in as well. Especially after seeing how elegantly the developers of FTL were able to port to tablet. I just have to shout that out. They dealt with some of those UI problems beautifully, and it really made it an experience on its own. The same with XCOM, I mean it’s clear that good games can come to tablet and break through that wall of “me-too”-ware, which is kind of the problem on mobile and tablet. There’s too many clones of, I don’t know, games where candy falls on top of other candy.

What we would love to do, is to experiment with mobile and tablet versions. What we know is the game, as it stands right now, bears a tremendous physics burden, and that physics burden is very heavy on CPU usage. So with tablets, I think as we scale the game out we’ll run into a wall where tablet CPU will end up getting locked up and we’ll be CPU bound, and it may require [us] to really rethink the game architecture for tablets.

Doing that, as a small team, I don’t think it’s the right move for us to do that all at the same time as we’re trying to ship the PC, Mac, Linux, and Xbox One versions, so what we are going to do is, we’re going to do our best on those versions, and then we’re going to take a look and see, “Can this play on tablets?” If it can’t, can a simplified or a more tablet-intuitive version be created, and what would that game look like? Would it still be Habitat? Would it still be fun? We want to do it very much the same way we’re doing the current version where we ask the community. We say, “What do you think? Would you still like this? Would you play this? Is this still Habitat to you?” And we’ll go from there, but it’s a kind of experimentation that we’ll have to do as we finish out the PC and Xbox One versions. Because it could end up being a whole different game.

IGM: How often will you be sharing status updates with the community?

Charles: We want to be really regular about it. Once we get into Early Access, our feeling is that we want to transition a lot of the in-progress stuff and a lot of the quick updates to the forums, because we’ll have forums set up for more real-time communication. As far as updates to the wider community, I’d love to go for once a week at a minimum, as kind of like a recap of all the things that have been going on. But we’d like to be much faster about it in a real-time scenario, which would be the forums, because those are much more like two-way communication, and all the other ways, like the blog and the Kickstarter updates, those are kind of one-way. [In which case,] we’d like to make sure those are good recaps, weekly.

IGM: I know you guys were at PAX East; when’s the next time folks will get a chance to go hands-on with Habitat?

Charles: The next place is actually going to be at RTX, the Rooster Teeth Expo with the Machinima folks in Austin, Texas, that’s July 4th weekend. We will be there showing off the game, talking to the community, definitely talking about making [Machinima] movies with Habitat, because that’s their thing, a community of people who make game movies, and we definitely want to get involved with that community. We think that Habitat’s got some great opportunities for fun stuff and a lot of humor. So that’ll be the next place where you can hang out, play Habitat, and talk to us on the dev team to see what we’ve got up our sleeve.

4Gency at PAX East (from left to right): Alex Schoner, Elbert Perez, Charles Cox

4Gency at PAX East (from left to right): Alex Schoner, Elbert Perez, Charles Cox

A very special thanks to Charles Cox for not only taking the time to chat, but also for being willing to open the hood and let IGM take a really thorough look at the inner workings of Habitat. We’ll be covering the game as it progresses into Early Access next month on the way to final release in the coming months, so be sure to stay tuned for follow up features. In the meantime, feel free to head on over to the Habitat website, and follow 4Gency on Twitter for up-to-the-minute updates.

Vinny Parisi graduated from the Ramapo College of New Jersey with a degree in Journalism. No stranger to the industry, Vinny first picked up an NES controller at the tender age of two-years-old and hasn't stopped gaming since. RPG and Action-adventure are his genres of choice, but there isn't much he hasn't played. His thoughts and shenanigans are displayed for all the world to see @Vincent_Parisi