Following the studio announcement last month, the folks at startup Impeller Studios are finally ready to lift the curtain on their first project together. Starfighter Inc. is a space fighter simulator brought to you by the talent behind blockbusters like X-Wing, Crysis, Homefront and Frontlines: Fuel of War.
For Jack Mamais (Far Cry, Crysis) and David Wessman (X-Wing) the opportunity to work together was too good to pass up.
"This seemed like a perfect opportunity for me because I've always been a huge fan of the space sim genre. My first real PC game was X-Wing," Mamais, creative director at Impeller, remarked to GamesIndustry.biz. "I bought my first computer just to play it, so I've always wanted to work on the definitive space fighter simulator. Dave and I worked on a few previous projects together and always talked about doing a space sim together so it all worked out!"
Wessman (pictured, left), lead designer at Impeller, was pulled into the project not only by his friendship with Mamais but his desire to build an amazing VR experience.
"I am incredibly excited about where things are going. After experiencing the latest hardware, I can't imagine making a space combat game that didn't support [VR]! In case anyone is concerned that VR will be required, let me assure you that this will be a great game even if you don't have a VR rig," he said.
"The chance to work with Jack is also a big factor. He and I worked together briefly over 10 years ago at a studio that was doomed to close 6 weeks after I started, but we hit it off really well and have stayed in touch ever since. In fact, I helped Jack get started when he went into academia. I love teaching, but I also love working with professionals to ship something that brings joy to millions of people," Wessman continued.
"We knew that if we tried to go head-to-head with Star Citizen, you can't right? We need to find our own niche. We need to be different or die"
While VR won't be required, there's no doubting the appeal that the new technology brings. VR is the biggest buzz word in the industry at the moment, and Impeller is hoping that Starfighter Inc. - built with the brand-new Stingray engine from Autodesk - is able to capitalize on VR right when it catches fire with the mainstream audience.
"This game is tailor made for VR. It's the perfect VR game. One of the big control challenges for cockpit-based shooters...is you're controlling your ship with your primary WASD and mouse controls, but then how do you do camera look? But when you go to VR, now you have complete situational awareness," Impeller writer and executive producer Coray Seifert commented. "You can look all over the place. And you have your primary keys simply bound to your ship controls. So it's a huge win. It actually makes our job a lot easier in terms of providing that really tight control system, and then for the type of game we're trying to make, something super immersive, super realistic, that immersion that you get with VR is unprecedented. It's impossible to get that sense of presence without a really high quality consumer VR headset. For us, we're not making a play where you fly for an hour and then maybe discover a planet. It's going to be short, intense, hyper-immersive sessions and VR is perfect for that."
Seifert added that Impeller's approach will be more along the lines of realism than space fantasy. "We want to create something that's a little bit more like the movie Gravity, where it's really grounded in reality. It's really immersive in a way that you feel like you're in a space ship. It's halfway between X-wing and flying a space shuttle," he said. "You're hearing your heartbeat, your breath, your cabin rattling a lot... We knew that if we tried to go head-to-head with Star Citizen, you can't right? We need to find our own niche. We need to be different or die."
Being different is certainly the key for Mamais and Wessman. There have been no shortage of space games over the years, but Wessman isn't worried about rehashing the same space fighting tropes.
"We're boldly going where no one has gone before! The vast majority of space combat games have been based on 'World War 2 in space.' This is because both Wing Commander and X-Wing were based on Larry Holland's World War 2-era flight combat engine, and that established the template that nearly everyone has followed ever since," he asserted.
"We are making a game that respects the science, but doesn't compromise on the fun. By focusing on realistic physics, and real world technology, we believe we will increase player immersion. This also forces changes in gameplay, combat tactics, etc. That said, there are some ideas and tropes that are inextricably linked to the core concept, but hopefully we'll handle those in ways the feel fresh and interesting."
Mamais added, "It does seem that space sims are becoming the new World War 2 shooter, doesn't it? However, we looked at the upcoming games coming out and it seems most of them are built around a single player premise while we are focusing on team-based multiplayer from the ground up. Spending our time creating incredible ships, weapons systems, squads and other team-based features - basically, focusing on what makes online play exciting instead of focusing on a single player experience, we can truly create something compelling and original.
"You sometimes have to take that feedback with a huge grain of salt. People often ask for things with very little appreciation for what it would take to implement, or how it would affect other parts of the game"
"Something else that's really important to us is access for all the space sim fans out there. While we aren't ready to announce details, we're big fans of the model Valve and others have been doing so well - so you can make some assumptions where we are headed there."
While it's still incredibly early for Impeller, the studio has some investor support and interest from publishers. The first step, however, will be a Kickstarter campaign. The aforementioned Star Citizen has been a huge influence for the team, and they recognize that listening to fan feedback will be critical to Starfighter Inc.'s success.
"The fans are our bosses, so based on what our bosses tell us to do, then we'll go execute. What's nice is that we have open conversations with all the publishers and we're right down the street from Kickstarter and they love us, so we have lots of options. It's sort of just which route we want to take," Seifert noted. "I think the sort of risk mitigation for us is we want to get the answers from the consumers before we start really working on the game, and then that'll really inform us as to what's going to be successful when we get to market."
Mamais is looking forward to building a project with fan involvement - it's certainly a different approach than how a big AAA game like Crysis was built. "Community involvement is crucial and it will come at the earliest point possible. It is important that we involve our fans from the ground up and use their input to refine and improve gameplay and mechanics... This is a complicated process and will be a big challenge during production, but we have a schedule that will involve our fans very early on while still giving us as much time to tweak systems before release."
While feedback is incredibly valuable, developers do have to be careful not to take every single suggestion or criticism to heart. Wessman cautioned, "You definitely have to be careful in how you manage expectations and you need to ensure that people feel they are being heard. At the same time, you sometimes have to take that feedback with a huge grain of salt. People often ask for things with very little appreciation for what it would take to implement, or how it would affect other parts of the game.
"I actually enjoy educating people about those things though, so I'm looking forward to having a deeper engagement with our fans."