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Hellion - Space for Survival?

How a small team from Belgrade is trying to carve its own niche in the void

Space is big, and not just in the 'terrifyingly endless void' sense. Space games have had a huge resurgence in the last few years, bringing together refurbished classics like Elite, the crowd-funded vastness of Star Citizen and prodigal experiments like No Man's Sky, extra-planetary larks are having a huge impact on the market.

Zero Gravity, a 28 person studio in Belgrade, Serbia, is trying a different approach. Whilst many space games focus on the sheer size of their universes, Zero Gravity's Hellion is a game restricted, if that is the word, to a single star system. Trapped on an damaged expeditionary ship after a mysterious explosion, players of this multiplayer survival title will be tasked with patching up leaking hulls and salvaging what they can from abandoned stations, choosing either to fight or collaborate with their fellow castaways and eke out an existence in the bleak vacuum.

As well as the base building elements and ability to horribly mutiny on your fellow cosmonauts at any moment, Hellion features full accurate orbital physics, as your shuttle and the attendant space furniture you're digging through zip around the system. That means that everything is moving very quickly, and that docking at a station will involve matching velocities very carefully unless you want to smear yourself like a bug on the windscreen.

In the short demo I play, I have to use my EVA suit to scoot over to an abandoned station and power it up by unfurling the solar panels before heading in through the airlock to pillage. Although the sense of weightlessness is very convincing (and precludes the possibility of VR support for now, I'm told) it's a pretty comfortable game to navigate, and really conveys the creeping horror of being so close to the yawning emptiness of space. It also handily gets rid of the tedious slog between resources which dominates so many survival games.

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It's an interesting looking mix of a lot of popular genres, and the small team is working fast, having produced a commendable playable demo in Unity between August 2015 and May this year, when I played it at Reboot Develop in Croatia. The swathe of influences is clear - CEO Branislav Trajkovic, COO Stevan Dukic and Creative Director Marko Smiljanic met through a common love of EVE and Day Z. Once they became friends and starting hanging out IRL, they began watching the incredible progress of Star Citizen's crowdfunding campaign with interest, and soon the concept for Hellion came together.

"We rented the apartment, made the studio and bought all the equipment," Trajkovic tells me. "Marko and I were funding everything - me from my original business and him from freelancing. That lasted 18 months. In the meantime a lot of our friends gradually joined us - they were coming to the studio after they finished their jobs, working for food so that they could be part of the team.

"We were also having parties every month, inviting people and telling them that, when we had enough money, we wanted them to work for us. One of the guys to come along was Stevan, who I knew from playing Eve - he brought along the guy who is now our investor. Three months later we had the agreement on forming the new company. We were also lucky enough to be able to take on a complete development team who'd already been working together on a Unity game.

"So now we're just working our asses off to get the alpha finished by the end of this year. But we're never going to put it out until we're happy with it. The feedback we've had so far has been very satisfying - we're on the right path. It's on Greenlight - where there are over 3000 games. After five days we were in the top 100, after less than ten more we were in the top ten. So it's exploded. Our idea of early access isn't just getting money, it's about reinvestment. We need more people. A lot more people. It's a big project. We also want that feedback, for balancing, to make it a game we all want to play.

Now, with a dedicated sub-Reddit on the Star Citizen page, the comparisons between Hellion and Chris Robert's groaning leviathan are commonplace, but the team isn't put off my the parallels which fans are drawing.

"If you want to compare us with Elite, or Pulsar or Star Citizen...I don't think anyone has what we're doing," the CEO continues. "We're focusing on the survival aspect. As soon as you wake up, you're in desperate need. Of course, we're playing all of those games, following their development."

"We were never going to do anything small, it was always all or nothing," adds Smiljanic. "But we're also not looking to be the same scale as Star Citizen or Elite. The survival aspect is there so we don't have thousands of people on each server. We just want good gameplay, things we can manage with the resources that we have.

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"When we started out, there really weren't many space games around...But if we started again now, I think we'd maybe try something else. But there's always something specific about our game when you compare it to others. I think we have enough to differentiate us. We can get it working first, without going crazy adding content. Take the rifles in the game, for example. We don't need that many, to begin with. We just need a few that work, so we can establish the gameplay, then we can add more later."

"The first thing is that the community which is forming is already comparing us with other games, which is a good thing," counters Trajkovic. "People are already playing those games and enjoying them, so that means they should at least try ours. But you have to understand that we are making the game we want to play. We're aiming at quite a specific market, not in the hundreds of millions. I think if we market it well and explain what we're doing, we'll have enough players."

That marketing plan is a crucial aspect of the campaign. Hitting a niche might be easier than blanket advertising, but will Zero Gravity be taking advantage of the new options empowered by YouTube?

"The first thing we're going to do is to help people understand the game, that we're looking at that intersection between survival and sci-fi pop culture," explains biz dev Miroslav Micevic. "So we're going to be showing them the content which shows them where we're going. We're not going to tell them lies - our relationship is based on mutual trust, that's part of the Early Access business model. All of our marketing efforts have to be about making them trust us.

"The channels we're going to use are going to be focused on press, we're all aware of the problems that come with that, we'll try to achieve it by producing quality content. Some Youtubers have already been in touch after our short gameplay video. We're definitely putting the accent on word of mouth, on influencers. Organic reach through genuine passion is something we'd love...but the thing is that the present situation is that they're already getting money for positive reviews, something which I don't think is fair, but in an emergency, that might be something we have to do."

Zero Gravity is in the business area at Gamescom with Hellion this week.

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