Universal Combat Q&A

Battlecruiser, er, Universal Combat designer Derek Smart speaks at length about the changes made to his upcoming DreamCatcher-published space sim.

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Derek Smart has never been at a loss for words when the topic is gaming. Earlier today, Smart's publisher, DreamCatcher Interactive, announced that Battlecruiser Generations was not only getting a name change, but was getting a modification to its gameplay as well.

GameSpot spoke with Smart about the new title and about how it feels to leave the Battlecrusier name behind.

GameSpot: Why the name change? Any concerns about dropping Battlecruiser from the title?

Derek Smart: I have some concerns about dropping Battlecruiser, but nothing that years of therapy can't fix. Seriously though, I did at first, but then it occurred to me that it probably wasn't such a bad thing. And when you think about it, this franchise has only remained true to its name. The game direction and focus changed back when Battlecruiser Millennium was released in 2001. At that time, I not only added first-person action to the game, I also put in the ability for the player to control a vast variety of assets. In the previous two games (Battlecruiser 3000, 1996 and Battlecruiser 3000 v2.0, 1998), you only had access to a primary Battlecruiser and its support craft complement. The differences between the 2001 Battlecruiser Millennium and Interplay's 1998 Battlecruiser 3000 v2.0 are so vast that the games are only similar in mythos, world, and background.

BCM was a major departure from what was old; hence the reason I probably couldn't find a publishing deal I liked and instead went with the EB exclusive. Couple that with the fact that I had always said that Battlecruiser Generations was the last game in the series, and you'll see how it all made sense in the end. I felt that in order to keep the franchise alive, I had to take it into the MMOG realm--but not as a money-making scheme, but rather a way to keep this one franchise that got me this far, alive and kicking in the years to come.

To be honest, the Universal Combat name change came straight from DreamCatcher, and it took me quite by surprise actually. But surprisingly, when I found out, I wasn't overly pissed or anything. I just chalked it up to just one of the many interesting things that publishers do.

Sure, the avid Battlecruiser fan won't care what we called it, as long as it was in a box and playable. But as a gamer, I wasn't prepared to have any of it. I had visions of 1996 all over again and so I held my ground and convinced them that we really needed to do this or we were all going to be in a world of hurt.

The idea made a lot of sense, but the execution of just renaming the game would probably have sparked even more controversy, but it wasn't like they were trying to do something underhanded, dishonest, or anything (or I won't be writing about it in interviews) like that. It's just that publishers do this all the time.

A game's name can change at any time. However, this wasn't any game we were talking about. And so considering the controversies which surround the franchise--and indeed yours truly--I felt that this was just going to be suicidal and that everyone was going to get burned regardless of how the game sold. In the end, it's all worked out.

GS: The name change seems to indicate a change in scope from the Battlecruiser series. Can you explain or elaborate on the new approach?

DS: You know what's funny about all this? The game name should have been changed back when I developed the previous title in 2001. The thought never crossed my mind at all. As much as the previous game was vastly different from its predecessor, much so is this incarnation. The scope of the Battlecruiser games has always been their biggest draw. There is nothing simple about a Battlecruiser game, and that's why it stands alone as its own genre-bending enigma. Going from the original hardcore BCG design to the UC action focus boils down to ease of use, accessibility, and less drudgery. The technological aspects remain as is, even though some engine revisions were done in order to cater more closely to this new focus. So, even though there are remnants of a Battlecruiser title underneath, it is the top-level aspects (gameplay, ease of use, etc.) which define what UC truly is, compared to what BCG was. At the end of the day, one can think of UC as "Battlecruiser Powered." Whether that's a good or bad thing is irrelevant. As long as it is fun to play and is cutting-edge enough to compete, it's all good.

GS: What lessons learned during the development of previous Battlecruiser games have found direct application while building Universal Combat?

DS: None really. At least none that I hadn't already learned. Game design is not an exact science; but still, there are those who are good at designing one type of game (e.g., a shooter) and others who are good at designing another type of game (e.g., a sim). You can't just switch at will without having the necessary experience, resources, and wherewithal.

In my case, I find myself blessed because the Battlecruiser games have always merged several genres. As such, it was just a matter of paying close attention to what it is I wanted to achieve in any one aspect. In the case of UC, I had to set aside my "hardcore" mind-set and convince myself that it was probably time to say good-bye to a small niche audience and enter the realm of the wanton abuse that is the action game genre. The larger a fan base becomes, the more fans and detractors you attract along the way. And it's not like I don't already have my own personal entourage of stalkers waiting to concoct something new at the drop of a keystroke. So if anything, I have learned from my experiences with the Battlecruiser franchise that, at the very least, you can't win them all--no matter how hard you try and what game you develop.

GS: What ambitions for the Battlecruiser franchise has Universal Combat been able to meet?

DS: I would probably say its accessibility, but then we won't know for sure until the jury comes back. I expect that the upcoming demo will give us some insight as to whether or not we've done the right thing and succeeded in achieving this.

GS: To what extent are you leaving Battlecruiser, the franchise, and the franchise's gamers behind?

DS: Well, for one thing, I am truly tired of these highly complex and very, very risky games. It has taken too much from me, and I'm not sure that I can muster much more of it. Sure, any game can take upwards of two years to develop, but the type of games I've developed have taken this amount of time, though they would have benefited from more time, funding, etc. So, it is always a risk when I embark on yet another Battlecruiser title.

In retrospect, I think I'm burned out to a certain extent, hence the reason I decided to try something new and started working on the action-based XBox title (which will hopefully debut at E3 next year) as a way to try something else and refresh my senses. BCG was to be the very last Battlecruiser title, and the MMOG version was to keep that dream alive as long as those who wanted it were willing to pay to play it. I wanted to keep it alive (in the form of Battlecruiser Online) in much the same way you have a lot of age-old MUDs and MMOG titles which you don't hear a lot about but which are very profitable and have a dedicated fan base who sustain it. That would be my Battlecruiser legacy, the one I leave behind.

At this point, I have no intentions of doing another Battlecruiser title. If UC takes off--as I suspect that it will--I will obviously grow it into a franchise. If UC becomes another franchise, each iteration will see more and more of the Battlecruiser mythos stripped, while retaining the fun elements we did right in the original debut. One can only hope.

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