Doubletime with the designers of
Starships Unlimited and Master of Orion III
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.
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. Its a boardgame
that was a big inspiration for MOO3, as well as the boardgames
Sword and the Stars and Imperium.
Hoseley: Id 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, theres 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. Theres
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. Theres
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
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
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, Im 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
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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