Jumpgate Evolution Interview (P1)

24 Nov 2008  by   Paul Younger
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The last time I spoke to Hermann Peterscheck I was in Birmingham at the Codemasters Connect event where hundreds of flight sticks (primarily Saitek) were hooked up to as many machines running a visually stunning space simulation game. I had no idea how early in the build it was or how ambitious the project would be, but gladly spent hours flying around a beatifully crafted environment. So when I was discussing the little bugs and issues with Peterscheck, having spent hours playing it, he assured me that all the bugs wouldn’t be there and instead there would be a gaming experience that would be unrivaled in the MMO space.The last time we met was back at the Codemaster Connect event in Birmingham all those months ago. I presume you’ve come a long way since then.

It feels like ten years in development time.

A good thing no doubt! Let’s start from the beginning. How will Jumpgate: Evolution differ to the original Jumpgate?

HP: When we first started this project we did a lot of blind play testing with the original game to try and get a sense of what people liked and what they didn’t like. From our own opinions we’d driven the early decisions of the new project, but we knew there were some obvious things that we needed to address. We needed a new graphics engine and there was no way around that. So we decided we were going to build our own and make it do exactly what we wanted it to do, the way we needed to do it.

When Jumpgate first came out it ran really well on most machines, so we wanted to keep that and keep the audience as broad as possible.

The other thing we wanted to make sure was that the game felt full. Space games tend to be empty voids and you fly around not really seeing much. We saw that as a potential negative. We decided to make an easily changeable AI system so we could make all kinds of things from spawn points to traditional MMO stuff, but also we wanted a living universe feel wherever you went.

The other half of that was to make space look interesting and we decided we wanted to make sure that different parts space looked completely different.

Well, yes, space is huge. So how are you going to populate it and how will you make different parts of it look different?

You use the advantage that games have which is that you can make up whatever you want. Now as long as you make it compelling to some degree, people will want to believe that. And that’s what we did. Jumpgate allows you to jump from one point of interest to another very quickly without being bored and having to fly through blackness.

There’s always something interesting to look at and it’s like a Hollywood backdrop. And this is something movies do really well, giving you the illusion that things are grander than they are, and that’s the beauty of fiction.

By making space colourful and bright and diverse-looking, you’re giving people that illusion, but focusing on the key areas around that. By doing that you’re allowing your audience to fill in the gaps which makes it personal to them.

The question a developer has to ask is not “what is space like,” but rather “what do I want space to be like”, and you take it from there.

With that in mind then, lets talk about art style. Some MMOs use art style to hide the upgrades so that no matter what machine you’re playing on, it will look the same. This presumably is a technique to stop having to patch for ever-changing technology. Is this something you have thought about? You mentioned that you’d built a custom graphics engine, so basically, are people going to need to upgrade the machine constantly or will the game run on most technology?

It’s hard to know what the “average” computer specs are, but we’ve done this long enough now to have a basic idea. So we aim at that range and a little bit lower. So for example, right now, the game runs without a pixel shader, but five years from now, there won’t be a machine without pixel shading hardware, so we have to keep moving with the technology curb. It’s an ongoing strategy, but we support for machines three or four years back.

So as far as this game is concerned, we wanted two things from it graphically. One that is was visceral and visually compelling, and the other was that it would work on a reasonably powered machine. Those two directives lead you into certain styles of art. Of course one of the first things you do is look at what other games do, what other science fiction films, browsing pictures of space and things like nebulas online and what you discover is that the way that space actually looks is incredibly boring. The way you get excitement out of it is by all the filtering technology, like the pictures from Hubble. Those were all interpretations of what was happening in space to one degree or another. We decided the best way of doing this was by going over the top, out of the boundaries of normal experience. The truth is that the real world is predictable, so when you want to be entertained in a fictional setting you don’t want predictability.

Are you basing it then on a specific galaxy or solar system, or is it an interpretation of a galaxy or solar system as you mentioned before?

It’s not real, so we have a made up world and it’s a galaxy, so there are different systems which you can go and explore and see loads of different stuff. We’ve also got a lot of background fiction to try to force consistency in that sense because that adds to the believability. By pulling up the map you can see the different locations and zoom on different places and click on them and it tells you about them. There is a feeling that there is a world out there.

Space is incredibly large, and your maps will certainly help, but the real question is how big is the actual gaming space if that’s a valid question to ask? I know it’s hard, especially in space, but how is it measured, how long will it take to travel from one end of the galaxy to the other if you chose to do that?

I don’t actually know, which may sound dumb, but I hear that question a lot. It’s like asking me how long is a piece of string, but if I say to you the universe is 84 parsecs it doesn’t convey to you the length, depth or meaning of the game. Equally, if I say that space is 500 square kilometers, that equally doesn’t tell you because it’s all based on the scale of your experience. I’ve been trying to think how to answer these questions well, and I reckon the best way to put it is like this: You can make a game big, but have huge expanses of nothingness in between locations and say “hey, look how big our game is”, but then you’re walking on a desert for 20 minutes.

Our goal is to make it big enough for you to sense that it’s big, and when you jump from one area to another, you won’t expect to see what you see when you get to the location. So for example, there are areas that look like abandoned areas of ship graveyards, and there are these are husks of ships just floating around with pirates in there who you can go fight. The next sector you jump into could be a broken, flaming planet world where all the pirates hang-out, and the next area might be these huge ice crystals over an ice planet. So within three jumps you could see that much diversity and we want to extend that as far as we can, and the way to make a game big is to make it rich. By creating variety, we can give the game a bigger feel, but as far as actual size, well I don’t know how to answer your how-big-is-space question.

So can you ever reach the end of space then if you continue in a straight line, or are you limited to the areas and sectors that you’ve created?

The game is broken up into sectors, and each sector is broken up into logical chunks. You can fly from one sector to another, and space is a giant cube with edges, each sector is like that. The jumpgates are there to create a quick way of moving from one sector to another. If you want to fly all the way through, well, we could’ve done it that way, but it creates all kinds of weird tech and design problems. You can do it if you want, it will take you hours to do, but if you want to see every sector and you knew where you were going, yeah, you could. But when you hit jump, it’s a seamless transitions. There aren’t loading screens, and I don’t like loading screens, but it’s pretty seamless experience and is logically broken, and that helps with lots of things, such as transitions.

In space you can’t just block areas off and stop people from going somewhere which is a unique problem to this game, I mean you’re in space, so you need to make obstacles which are rational. Of course we’ll continue to add content, and that’s the great thing about this game versus a ground-based game, people can’t get stuck in terrain, or AI not being able to find a path around an obstacle. Those problems go away in a 3D environment. This means we can create things that we want to do rather than spend time removing bugs, which I think is much more rewarding.
The next part of this interview will be up tomorrow and Peterscheck talks solo campaigns, mission variety and how the evolution happened.

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