Interested in hearing how industry veterans approach pre-production after a successful Kickstarter campaign? Perihelion Interactive recently sent out a newsletter with updates on their recently funded game, The Mandate, which is currently in pre-production. The newsletter provides great educational material for both designers and producers. Their team has to be commended for sharing light and answering forum questions with such detailed responses. Some questions remain unanswered, but in most cases they acknowledge that these particular problems are still being addressed. The condensed status update includes:
- More programmers have been added but the rest of the team have not been finalized due to legal obstacles and holding out for potential key players
- Their character artist broke his Wacom tablet and is focusing on creating concept art for NPC units and other side tasks until his replacement arrives
- Funding has reached $725,000, and the project is still scheduled for release in early 2015
The more interesting revelations from the newsletter include producer-level insight into adding mod support, their depiction of features in a two-by-two matrix of risk versus value, and how development is being staged during preproduction for both art and gameplay elements.
The stretch goal for mod support has not been reached yet, but additional backers on BackerKit have added $25,000 since the Kickstarter campaign ended. Perihelion intends to honour all Kickstarter funding tiers reached before the end of March this year. With just $75,000 more to go until the mod support funding tier has been met, they are planning ahead now, during pre-production, to accommodate it during development. Mod support affects many other things including the software architecture that the game will be based on, what middleware solutions are acceptable, and what data structures can be used to provide the flexibility that is needed. All of these technical design decisions are being made during pre-production, which is one of the major reasons they chose to expand their programming team before the other teams.
This matrix represents the major features that are being discussed for The Mandate. In their own words, when trying to put a value on each feature: “Our first source is our game vision document. Secondly we had internal discussion on the developer team and we also looked at feedback from backers on both Kickstarter comments and the official forums [sic].” They intend to start designing with high value, high risk features in mind; then include other high value features; adding low value, low risk features before finally attempting the low value, high risk features. One of their clever ideas is to promote mod support as a way to allow the modding community to create the low value, high risk features that are out of scope for the official release. Personally, I believe the dynamic storyline and dynamic crew relationships are much higher risk than shown on the diagram. Their Kickstarter campaign made a lot of promises that depend heavily on dynamic crew relationships and it seems like the novelty of what they proposed would merit its inclusion in the high risk category.
These concepts show initial merchant NPC concepts. Discussions are ongoing as to whether or not the women with dresses are within scope because “they will require custom rigging or run-time calculation of the cloth pieces to look natural.” At this point in pre-production, merchant children have been cut because their goal is to have one rig to fit all these NPC characters. Performance is the key determining factor in these decisions, although they impact the artist more than anyone, because the gameplay must support large scale battles with individual crew members from one ship boarding another, getting sucked out into space, etc. In fact, the primary focus of the design team is to get these separate space combat and boarding combat elements to the point of being feature complete quickly so that playtesting can begin. Other features including role-playing game mechanics, exploration (adventure mode), and unit/technology trees (starbase mode) ware being developed concurrently, but with less emphasis. These features will be based on references, designs from previous experience, and outlines in the game vision document. Their philosophy is to emphasize strategy over tactics in the creation of this game, and their design decisions focus on reducing micro-management. However, they also state unique crew members can be controlled in real-time instead of being left to follow AI patterns which may promote a micro-management playstyle for some players.
I agree with their philosophy, but I do not see how it will culminate in a game quite yet. There are several discrepancies including their desire to make the crew members appear to be unique individuals and add life to the game experience, while the player’s interaction with them may be limited by the grand scale of their combat. Furthermore, they suggest Jagged Alliance and Men of War as inspirations for their combat design but these games both focus on tactics and micro-management which is contrary to their stated intentions. That is the main concern I have for this game. To sum it up, how will they reduce micro-management in real-time strategy combat? Another discrepancy is the absence of details in their discussion of protocols for community content creation, how their workflow can accommodate this feature, and what is being done to prepare for implementation of backer’s character, ship, and starbase designs. The design team admits spending a lot of effort creating examples and written instructions “to help you [backers] create better designs that work effortlessly with our existing lore.” Why is community generated content not listed as a feature on the risk table? My views towards this project remain entirely optimistic, but I would still like to get more feedback from them on what makes them so confident that their untested ideas will work. Pre-production for The Mandate ends in May, and by then I hope to hear more from them through more backer newsletters as well as hopefully getting some answers to my forum questions. Until then, good luck to Perihelion Interactive and all of you who are working on your final projects!
Jim Dodge is a graduate of the VFS Game Design program