X Rebirth Q&A with Egosoft Director Bernd Lehahn7 Nov 2013
It’s a fascinating time to be a fan of the PC space sim. Star Citizen is off in the corner, counting its piles of cash, Eve continues to wave a lonely flag for truly player-driven narrative in MMOs, and Elite: Dangerous wields the name that arguably started the entire genre.
Meanwhile, Egosoft is preparing to launch the latest in its long-running X series. X Rebirth will launch in mid-November, promising even more intricate interactions between player and AI, vast space cities, a fully functioning space economy and a whole bunch of other mechanics that make the scope of most other games seem paltry in comparison.
IncGamers: As someone with a lot of experience in this area of game development, what, for you, are the crucial ingredients of a truly classic open-ended space game?
Bernd Lehahn: For me, the core of an open sandbox game is the freedom to do what you want. That always means that as a game designer, you are in for a tough job providing potentially a lot more features than any single player needs. While each player makes a choice on how to play, and which features to experience, you have to provide them all.
IG: X Rebirth is said to be set in the “distant future.” Is this in order to make a clean break from previous X titles, or does Rebirth retain some of the back-story, races and so on from earlier games? How much will veterans of the series recognise in terms of references to past events?
BL: Actually, X Rebirth shares the same back-story as the prior X games. When we originally began development for X Rebirth, it was not our intention for the game to share the same fictional universe. However, we were very quick to conclude that the back-story that had developed through the prior X games was too great an asset to just give up.
As any developer will tell you, creating a fictional world, let alone a universe, is a difficult task requiring a lot of time and imagination.
Veterans of the X games will find X Rebirth a continuation of the timeline within the X Universe. To elaborate, X Rebirth is set in a time when the entire alien jumpgate network has shut down. The impact of this event has been extensive political and economic dislocation. For virtually all the races, the universe has become a much smaller place. The Community of Planets, and the cultural, political, and economic ties it represented is no more. The Argon Federation has fragmented and its various systems have been forced to adjust, oftentimes suffering incalculable hardship and injustice. X Rebirth is focused on Argon systems, but as veterans of the X games know, members of the other races have settled in Argon territory, and these will be present.
IG: The name itself, X Rebirth, obviously refers to the fact that this title will be something of a reinvention of the series. What are the main changes people familiar with other X titles will be seeing in Rebirth?
BL: Perhaps the most significant change people will find is the speed of travel. With any space simulation you are faced with the problem of the vastness of space and getting to where the activity is. In X Rebirth this issue is handled with the widespread deployment of “Space Highways” which connect clusters, sectors and systems. The highways allow for easy exploration, and actually make for a much bigger universe while achieving faster gameplay and a denser atmosphere of structures and ships.
Another change are space cities with thousands of interaction points. The structures in X Rebirth are no longer monolithic structures, but can be comprised of hundreds of modules. Each of these can be individually scanned or targeted. This change extends to ships as well. For example, to capture a capital ship, which could have scores of discrete surface elements, the player will want to disable its jumpdrive and engines first. If the ship has a formidable weapons systems, destroying turrets to minimize damage received will be needed.
A third change I would like to highlight is the use of people to more intuitively deal with complex gameplay. For example, when a player lands on a platform he will find and hire managers for player owned stations, pilots for ships in his squad, architects to build a new stations, engineers to manage repairs, etc.
IG: Older X games have often drawn criticism for allowing great freedom, but in a universe that eventually feels kind of unresponsive or even stale. The economy may have been ‘living’ to some extent, but lacked a human element. How will Rebirth address this criticism?
BL: It is our hope that many of the changes in X Rebirth will address these criticisms.
For example, like I mentioned above, the inclusion of NPCs that the player will interact with on platforms, and that the player will want hire to manage their ships and stations is a much more animated and realistic way to manage gameplay without having to wade through a complicated menu system
The use of space highways, and the faster gameplay this allows, can also be seen as an answer to this criticism. To elaborate, a paradox that all space simulation games have is reconciling the vastness of space and making the universe feel alive. In prior X games, players would use SETA, or a time accelerator to deal with the time it takes to get from A to B. In X Rebirth, an extensive network of “Space Highways,” or more accurately, transorbital accelerators, permit the player to get to where the action is. Of course, like prior games, larger ships do have jumpdrives as well, and I don’t want to give anything away, but there will be some surprises regarding the jumpgate network.
IG: The player will clearly have a lot of freedom, but what capabilities will the AI/NPCs have with regards to making the universe seem active and functioning? In previous videos you’ve mentioned that each ship you see is on some sort of ‘mission,’ but what does that actually entail in game terms?
BL: The NPCs, be they on stations, or in ships, are all integrated in X Rebirth. Players will find a number of different factions in X Rebirth, and the NPCs will either be aligned to one of these factions, or sometimes, be a neutral. Managing your relationships with the NPCs you encounter will impact the player’s experience. If the player’s reputation with a powerful faction deteriorates far enough, military ships of that faction will begin to shoot on sight. Additionally, developing a good reputation with NPCs will provide the player with a number of benefits, including trade deals and useful information.
Overall, the AI in X Rebirth is much more advanced that what’s been seen in the prior X games. The way in which the AI directs production and trade will relate directly to what the player sees. Having ships spawn randomly, and which are not tied to the supply and demand within the gameplay environment, is not something you’ll see in X Rebirth. For example, a station that is refining ore will rely on trade ships to bring in ore and transport finished product. This is all accounted for in the simulated economy. The player can impact that station’s economy by destroying these ships, and/or the station itself. Of course the game AI will react to any of these player actions.
IG: Almost every time a news piece or article about X Rebirth goes up, somebody will note that you can only fly one ship in this title (as opposed to a range in previous X games.) I believe it’s possible to fly others, but only by remote control. Can you explain the thought process behind this change?
BL: This aspect of X Rebirth was something that was hotly discussed within Egosoft as well. This was not a decision we took lightly, but I would say a big factor in this decision was the reality that most ships are inherently not very interesting to fly. For instance, piloting a huge capital ship might seem exciting in theory, but the actual act of flying a capital ship is slow and ponderous. Unless we were willing to make the movement of such a ship unrealistic, turning and accelerating a capital ship is an experience that gets old really fast.
With this said, at launch, the player will only be able to fly one ship. But like we’ve seen in past X games, we will listen to our community’s feedback. Also, we are fortunate in having an extremely active modding community which we would not be surprised to see address this topic.
I would add that one of the new features in X Rebirth is an extensive variety of drones, many of which the player can remote pilot. The use of drones can be seen, to borrow from military terminology, as force multipliers. The player will be able to carry a wide range of drones that he/she will want to deploy in a variety of different gameplay situations. For instance, the player may well decide to launch a full complement of offensive and defensive drones when facing a formidable enemy. At times, to increase the effectiveness of a drone, the player will want to remote control that drone.
Finally, while the player can’t fly other ships, he can, like in the prior X games, direct ships in his squad in either trade, combat, or to build a station. While the player will only “fly” one ship, they will sit atop a command hierarchy of a fleet of ships and stations managed by NPCs that the player has recruited.