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A Space Fighter Versus the World

Greg Tito | 5 Dec 2011 12:30
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Chris Stockman was the design director at Volition when the developer moved on to other genres with Saints' Row and Red Faction. He said many of the founders of Volition would love to continue developing space combat games, but that funding just doesn't exist because of the commercial failure of Freespace 2.

"My hope is that there is still a market for space games where players can jump in and feel like a badass immediately."

"The last big budget space games, while critically successful, all but flopped at retail," he explains. "Publishers, who are notoriously risk-averse, abandoned the genre." Over the last decade, smaller houses have taken up the joystick, most notably the X series from German developer Egosoft, Tarr Chronicles by Quazar and games crafted by smaller mod teams that utilize the open source Freespace engine released by Volition.
The MMO genre has perhaps seen the most success in space recently. CCP created a near-perfect sandbox in EVE Online that incorporates many space sim elements, but Stockman doesn't feel like EVE is able to appeal to wide audience. "EVE has proven to be very popular with a niche crowd and it's obviously still making money despite being a very hardcore game. Good for CCP!" he says. "My hope is that there is still a market for space games where players can jump in and feel like a badass immediately."

In a move that made his former colleagues at Volition jealous, Stockman abandoned his job at a comfortable publisher-funded studio to go independent. He is now the Creative Director of Seamless Entertainment, and the first project of his six-man team is to create the game he believes has a chance of bringing the space combat sim back to the forefront.

Sol: Exodus abandons some of the high technology conventions of the genre to deliver a gritty action experience on a downloadable budget. The setting for Stockman's game bears more resemblance to the rebooted Battlestar Galactica series than Star Wars, with an emphasis on real-world weapons and human stories.

"Our dogfighting is more up close and personal," he says. "You're engaging these ships at much closer ranges instead of simply sitting back and shooting off missiles. In that sense, we're bringing the genre back to the days of Wing Commander when the Kilrathi were almost always in your face."

You'll still be piloting a small starfighter in Exodus, but the action will change its scale from mission to mission. "We're letting players actually take on and destroy capital ships using their ship's unique abilities. They'll scan an enemy ship to reveal weak points and then use a combination of weapons and their missiles to actually destroy these spots," Stockman says.

"I'm a gigantic fan of the Battlestar Galactica remake and I remember asking myself why we hadn't seen a space game in that vein before," he continues. "Traditional sci-fi means aliens, lasers, and so on and for me, personally, I've just grown tired of that."

Despite the fact that Stockman's Sol: Exodus sounds like a shot in the arm the gaming industry needs, he's had a terrible time securing funding. "The key is convincing people that this [genre] can sell. It's been like pulling fucking teeth," he says. "Most publishers are not innovators. They are followers." In an age where Call of Duty is king of sales, publishers tend to follow the model of Step 1: Make shooter, Step 2: Profit.

To combat publisher disinterest in the genre, Stockman is designing Exodus to work on a smaller budget. Seamless Entertainment doesn't have the resources to create a full $60 off-the-shelf game, so Stockman's strategy is to give the people what they want using the downloadable markets on Steam, Xbox Live and PSN for a lower price point of 15 or 20 bucks. "I want to get [Sol: Exodus] on as many downloadable platforms as possible," Stockman said.

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