Doubletime with the designers of

Starships Unlimited and Master of Orion III

"Starships Unlimited?" you're probably asking yourself. "What's that?" Glad you asked. It's one of those rare gems you would have missed because you won't find it in a store. If you like sci-fi games enough to have clicked this far, you owe it to yourself to download the demo for Starships Unlimited, a game available only online. It's was single-handedly created by first time developer Andrew Ewanchyna, a fellow from Canada with a background in military flight simulations. That's him on the right. One day he quit his job to write a game and three and a half years later, we have Starships Unlimited. If the price of this game is that a few Canadian pilots don't fly so good, well, no great loss as far as we're concerned. We think this is perhaps the best sci-fi strategy game since SimTex's Master of Orion titles.

Master of Orion III, on the other hand, is Starships Unlimited's polar opposite. MOO3 is a game with a pedigree, a fan base, a big publisher, an experienced developer, and a veteran game writer at the helm. Quicksilver Software is developing this sequel for Infogrames nee Microprose. Former Computer Gaming World editor Alan Emrich (aka the Last Good Strategy Guide Writer) is the designer. That's him on the left.

We thought Ewanchyna and Emrich would provide a good study in constrasts considering the nature of their products. Even the way they responded to our questions is indicative. Emrich passed our interview around among some of the members of his team and returned a group effort; you'll also read responses from MOO3's art director, Rantz Hoseley, and Quicksilver's founder, Bill Fisher. Hoseley's the one with Eeyore on his monitor.

What sources (novels, movies, TV shows, other games, etc.) have served as the strongest inspirations for your game?

Ewanchyna: I've read alot of sci-fi novels. I wanted to put some of what makes them so special into Starships Unlimited, that sense of wonder.

The strongest game influence was an old Apple 2 game called The Warp Factor by Strategic Simulations. It was a phased, turn-based, starship combat game. Oddly, I never actually played the game and all my knowledge of it comes from magazines. There was something about chess-like starship battles that fascinated me. I always felt that starships combats should be fluid and not just about two ships coming within firing range and slugging it out.

The other strong game influences were Civilization, Star Control II, Heroes of Might and Magic II and CyberStorm I. I enjoy games that have a strong exploration side to them. I love the mystery and sense of wonder they provide.

Civilization was the first true, epic strategy game that I'd ever played. Like most, I spend a few all nighters with it. Its strong, rule-based units that constantly improved made you want to research just one more. Star Control II used a simple, yet powerful modular design for starship onstruction that made exploring the storyline so much fun. Like Civilization and its units, you always wanted to get that next cool toy to put aboard your starship. Heroes of Might and Magic used a simple, but fun combat system that I wanted to try to duplicate (I figured the AI would be easy). It took a few simple concepts -- melee, range and flying attacks -- and allowed you to combine them in so many interesting ways. And CyberStorm had a simple user-interface that provided a lot of detail. The game also had good pacing.

Emrich: Every space epic I know is an inspiration for MOO3 regardless of the media it was presented to me in. The sweep of Star Wars, the social/political nature of Dune, the structure of Star Trek. If you really want to see something cool, check out Twilight Imperium 2 from Fantasy Flight. It’s a boardgame that was a big inspiration for MOO3, as well as the boardgames Sword and the Stars and Imperium.

Hoseley: I’d agree totally with Alan on the epic part. Everything from Silent Running to The Matrix and all points in between from a film standpoint. In the realm of books, there’s the fiction stuff such as Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Pratchett, etc. And on the non-fiction side you have authors such as Carl Sagan and Clifford Pickover. There’s been a lot of study also of the history of technology, going back from primitive states to modern times, as well as a lot of reading on various species biology and life patterns. There’s a lot of extrapolation in the creations of the races, their technology, and their societies that are informed by those kinds of things.

What part of the development process takes the most time?

Ewanchyna: To me the AI and balancing go hand in hand and take the most time. In contrast, developing graphics and interface provide immediate feedback. You can always get better graphics or interface by putting in more time, in a very straightforward way.

AI, on the other hand, is a little more touchy-feely. You need to really see the game mechanics before you can properly do the AI. It's a bit of a chicken and egg thing. AI must grow with the game. It has elements of abstraction that are harder to grasp. I think the best approach is to develop it like the layers of an onion. In today's programming paradigm, this would mean creating an object and embedding the intelligence for that object to interact with other objects. You then wrap these objects with other objects until you have the various game elements and ultimately the wrapper object -- the game -- to use them all.

For me writing the AI went hand in hand with playing the game. Designing the game was about defining the game elements and their relationship to one another. I think this very intimate relationship with the game makes designers look for more abstract ways, such as neural nets, to do the thinking for them. As a designer, if you can't get a sense of the proportion of the various game elements, you won't create a very good AI. It's a very time consuming process. I can understand why more experienced developers look to the more abstract ways to handle AI.

Emrich: Well, as a designer, I would naturally say design SHOULD take the most time. Often games get a very short shrift in the design and design development department. Not so on this project. We had a whole year of intense design before they started coding, and we still have four designers working out the details in advance of the AI guys! MOO3 should set a new pinnacle in game design effort, and we think it will really show when you sit down to play it.

Hoseley: Well the two parts of the game that are scheduled for taking the most time are the design and the art, so of course, I’m going to stick up for the art side of things! The sheer scale of the art in this project can be pretty overwhelming at times. By the time MOO3 ships, the art dept will have been working for over two years on it and as Alan said, we think the effort will show. [Hoseley is the art director for MOO3].

Fisher: Just for fun, I'll add that the programming effort for this project is requiring a huge amount of time as well. We've got seven programmers on the project, including three partly or wholly assigned to AI work. One of my goals for this game has been to ensure first-rate computer play. The combination of a very slick "need-based" game structure with some very experienced and talented AI folks is resulting so far in some very impressive progress.

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