One of the more impressive games released last year was Beyond the Red Line. This action-spacecraft sim is based on the modern-day incarnation of the TV series Battlestar Galactica. Beyond the Red Line puts the player right into the cockpit of a Viper, the show’s signature starfighter, and into a dynamic storyline that expands upon the Galactica universe.

The game looks and sounds top-notch, like a AAA release. But it’s actually a mod built upon the FreeSpace 2 engine. It was created by fans of the show, and remains in continual development.

Beyond the Red Line is not officially sanctioned by the producers, studio or anybody else connected with the series. It is a testament to what a community of determined gamers can do: create as well as play together.

In January 2005, after the first season of Battlestar Galactica ended, Napoleon Nicdao rallied fans of the show within the FreeSpace 2 modding community, Hard Light Productions, to create a “simple” mod, which over time evolved into the standalone Beyond the Red Line. A 3-D graphics model artist, Nicdao used his talents to recreate the spacecraft seen throughout the show for the fan game.

The Escapist: What is it about the action-spacecraft sim genre that you and the members of your team find appealing? Besides the television series upon which it is based, were there other games that inspired the design and game play of Beyond the Red Line?

Napoleon Nicdao: Many of us grew up during the golden age of that genre, playing classics like Wing Commander and the X-Wing series in the early ’90s. Their fast-paced gameplay, freedom of movement and immersive sci-fi storylines made for visceral gaming experiences. FreeSpace 2, many of us still feel, is the last classic of the dwindling genre.

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Over the years, as the computer gaming technology and the genre evolved, the core of its appeal remained the same. These games influenced and definitely inspired Beyond the Red Line‘s design and gameplay.

TE: What’s the biggest challenge you guys had to deal with when developing Beyond the Red Line?

NN: The biggest, without a doubt, is managing a team of volunteers. We all either have jobs or are in school. Beyond the Red Line relies on the time and dedication of its members, but, most importantly, the love for both Battlestar Galactica and gaming.

TE: What technology and gameplay elements in the game are you most proud of?

NN: Thanks to the many skilled coders behind the FreeSpace 2: Source Code Project, there are many features that we are proud of. From graphics improvements that rival today’s games to the use of alternative interfaces, like head tracking, Beyond the Red Line is always pushing the software and technology to enhance the experience. The gameplay at its core is still a space sim, but recent developments now allow us to expand further beyond that.

TE: Why do you think gamers today don’t like the action-spacecraft sim genre?

NN: I think there are many factors that attribute to the genre’s small presence in the industry today, such as the dominance and over-saturation of first-person shooters and the sci-fi genre’s current minority [presence] in mainstream media. We intend to carry the torch [for] other fans of the genre.

TE: To the layperson, it might appear that action-spacecraft sims aren’t as graphically challenging for a game developer to create, compared to a game set on Earth or another planet environment. Outer space is essentially blackness, punctuated with stars and planets, and, therefore, maybe gamers today don’t find this setting visually appealing. What are your thoughts about this observation? Is there more to the technology that goes behind an action spacecraft-sim than simply rendering stars, planetary bodies and starships?

NN: There is much more to game design than just the backdrop where it’s set. It’s how it’s used and what it’s populated with that makes it engaging. The space arena allows us to put more emphasis on the foreground elements that populate it, and we have not ruled out the possibility of expanding that arena planet side. There is also much more freedom with the interaction of these elements within a zero-G environment. Graphics and technology is important to us, as you can see in our attention to Beyond the Red Line‘s quality, but story and game play variety is even more important to us.

TE: There seems to be a recent issue in this genre with depicting the gameplay from a third-person point of view. The original Wing Commander titles used a first-person (cockpit) point of view, but the recent revival of the series – Wing Commander Arena for Xbox Live – goes for a third-person perspective of the player’s ship. Do you have any thoughts about this: why there appears to be a preference to go for a third-person perspective, if an action-spacecraft sim even gets developed at all?

NN: Beyond the Red Line allows first- and third-person points of view of the action, each having its own benefits in aesthetics and practicality.

I can only speculate that the third-person point of view preference used in that Wing Commander title was chosen to best suit its gameplay, which is not one of a space sim. I think there is also a stigma of over-complexity that the first-person point of view space sim genre conveys, and many gamers today avoid the steep learning curve, which Beyond the Red Line does not have.

TE: What are your ideas for how the traditional action-spacecraft sim genre could be revived for gaming audiences today?

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NN: I believe the genre can be revived if game design puts the focus back to the core elements that made it successful in the past by presenting an immersive and dynamic story executed with diverse gameplay. Many games today put too much stock in graphics and technology with a gameplay experience that suffers from mediocrity. The balance between the two must weigh more heavily on game design than graphics presentation.

TE: Let’s say I’m one of those gamers that don’t play action-spacecraft sims, nor am I a fan of Battlestar Galactica. Why should I play Beyond the Red Line?

NN: The Beyond the Red Line team feels that the space sim genre suits the subject matter best. Considering that this is a profit-free product, we have nothing to prove to the industry or to the masses, for we are doing this for ourselves.

Howard Wen fondly recalls the time when “Starbuck” was a dude and had nothing to do with coffee.

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