Q&A: Starmageddon

We talk with project director Adrian Chmielarz about Lemon Interactive's upcoming 3D real-time space strategy game. New screens inside.

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GameSpot recently spoke with Lemon Interactive's Adrian Chmielarz, the project director for the company's upcoming 3D real-time strategy game, Starmageddon. In the interview, Chmielarz discusses a variety of topics, including the game's storyline, its 3D engine, and some of its unique features. The company also sent us some new screenshots from the game showing the latest version of the game interface as well as the first look at the engine trails that will appear in the game.

GameSpot: First, tell us a little about the history of Starmageddon. When did development begin at Coda, and how did the game begin development at Lemon Interactive?

Adrian Chmielarz: After I left Metropolis, I also left developing for about a year. Meanwhile, I noticed a shooter called Genocide and was surprised it turned out to be made by a few guys (who called themselves We Open Eyes) from my very own country. I suggested that they were wasting their potential, because it didn't matter that their 3D space shooter had excellent code and amazing visuals--it represented a genre long dead on PC. Luckily, they agreed and decided to do 3D RTS. Of course, they had to throw away most of the game, but some things could be recycled--like ships or general 3D engine code.

Another year has passed and I got back into development at Coda, now Lemon Interactive. I contacted them to see what's happening with the project, but, you know, I was thinking: "It's not gonna work, they apparently don't know much about the games market, and it's their first game." Deep inside, I suspected they started work on RTS, because they were en vogue on PC. But I was very wrong. What I saw was well thought out and created with love. Those guys really understand what makes a good RTS and what makes a bad RTS. The rest is simple: Lemon got excited and we signed a deal. I try to do my best there, codesigning (for example, writing the storyline) and producing. But it really must be noted that Starmageddon is a team effort.

GS: How many people are on the development team, and what are some of the other projects they have worked on?

AC: We have four programmers, three graphic artists, a musician, a special effects engineer, and a designer, so the core team is 10 people. There are also some people helping out on the project, but not directly involved in everyday work (like someone who does sound mastering, actors, etc).

For most people, it's the first commercial game project, although everyone is experienced and skilled; for example, We Open Eyes released a couple of impressive tech demos and worked on nongame commercial stuff. I guess I have to mention myself, because I've already been designing and producing games for nine years. The biggest hit I designed and coproduced was Odium (released in US by Monolith/Interplay; in Europe, it was known as Gorky 17).

GS: Starmageddon has been described as "Homeworld meets Red Alert 2." What are some of the challenges involved in making a 3D strategy game as easy to play as a 2D game? How have the game designers accomplished this?

AC: There are two really great challenges. The first one is that people generally easily get lost in 3D. Nowadays, everyone runs in Quake or Unreal like it's their second skin, but the beginnings were hard. So the first problem to solve is to assure that the player never, I repeat, never gets lost in space. He always has to know where he is, and if he wants to fly somewhere, he executes it without thinking. In other words, the user interface has to be transparent. And I think we have something like this, and I really expect it to be copied in other games.

The second challenge is that, well, space is empty. Imagine a Red Alert map with no obstacles. Just you in one corner and the enemy in another. That would obviously be incredibly boring. That's why our space is alive. Not just the asteroid fields, but also warpgates linking up to three battle planes, force fields, and such. Also, the unit design is slightly different than in 2D RTS. It's not soldier, bigger soldier, even bigger soldier, etc., but soldier with this specialty, soldier with a different one, etc. So when you create a group, it's wise to choose a couple of different units, which complement each other in various ways.

GS: What is the background story for the game? How will this story be used in the gameplay?

AC: The story is as important to us as the gameplay. We throw a lot of surprises at the player, but never confuse him. So for example, before each mission, the player thinks he knows what's going on and proceeds, and then after the mission, the new data becomes available, and his point of view may change. Until the next mission... I always compare our storyline to a space-opera book, where the whole epic plot is full of spectacular, surprising events. Everyone who read Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination knows what I talking about. The idea is to keep the player on the edge of the seat, so he is always hungry for the good old "I wonder what will happen next?!?"

As for the story itself, it focuses on people called Sundivers. Such people have amazing mental powers that are used for commanding the motherships. Earth managed to colonize only one planet, where humans can not just survive, but also lead a life just like on their home planet. Further research discovered a third "Earth" near Aldebaran, one of the Taurus constellation's stars. Mankind prepares the fleet that is supposed to colonize the new planet, and this fleet is lead by David, the most talented Sundiver to come around in a long time. But when the fleet is ready to go, a strange comet appears out of nowhere, heading to Earth. When David sends a recon group, they are "greeted" by alien warships hiding in the comet's tail. That's where the game begins.

GS: The game features three races: humans and two alien races. Can you tell us a little about the main differences between these races?

AC: Humans are called UEF, United Earth Forces, and the first aliens we meet are called Daemons. I would say that Daemons are like dwarves in fantasy books: resource-oriented and with big firepower, but lacking in the technology. Humans may not have the biggest guns, but their technology is more advanced and the units are more sophisticated. If I tell you more about the races, I would give away the storyline, and that could ruin the gameplay, but I can hint that Daemons are called Daemons for a reason.

The third race, which we call Vitechy, is incomparable to either humans or Daemons. It's the race that exists as a form of energy; for example, their harvesters do not care about the asteroid fields, but they work like parasites, leeching the energy from their opponents' ship engines. To keep things simple, I'd say Vitechy units are very strange and unpredictable; that's why this race is for single-player only. But they do have a very prominent role in the plot.

GS: Starmageddon's game engine supports a number of advanced features. Can you talk about the engine's capabilities?

AC: Everything we do in the engine serves a purpose. First, we think how to have better visuals or how to improve the gameplay, and then we enhance the engine. Take a look at Max Payne. They have amazing particles that they use for breath, steam, cigarette smoke, etc. In other words, they had great technology that was used to enhance the gameplay (because you believed more in the world around). We use a similar particle system, but this time we use it for the ships engine trails, explosions, etc. So I could throw a lot of mumbo jumbo at you, like splines, vertex color, etc.--we do have all the latest bells and whistles--but ultimately, what's more important is to make sure the game plays great and looks great.

If technology gets in the way, we simply either tweak it or remove it completely. For example, if we wanted to realistically simulate how the ships move in space, the game would be almost unplayable. That's why most of our smaller units can turn back in place without doing large circles. So we have really impressive physics, but sometimes we have to dumb it down in order to keep the game fun.

GS: What is the development team working on right now?

AC: We have just finished all units and are now working on AI and docking routines.

GS: When is the game going to be released in North America? Have you found a publisher yet?

AC: I believe it'll be the end of 2001 or beginning of 2002. We have just signed a deal with Octagon, and they represent us in the US, Asia, Australia, and Brazil. This is very good news for us, because Octagon always makes a deal, as they simply choose only the best titles. The search for a US publisher just started, but of course, as soon as we know more, we'll let the world know.

GS: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

AC: I guess I'd like to tell the PC players that what we're trying to do is to make 3D RTS that brings as much fun as your first tank rush in Command & Conquer. We're not making a space sim--our motto is that games should be fun, not another school. We simply hope the game will find its place in hearts of PC players, and we're doing our best to bring you a game you'll have a lot of joy playing.

GS: Thanks for your time, Adrian.

Starmageddon is in development at Lemon Interactive, and it is scheduled for release in late 2001 or early 2002. For more information, take a look at our previous coverage of the game.

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