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[NARRATOR] This is "Unity - Behind the Game," where we talk to the talent creating some of your favorite games made with Unity.
[MIKE] Hello, everyone. I am Mike Geig, and welcome to "Unity - Behind the Game." Today, we are talking about "Hardspace: Shipbreaker", and here with me is Richard Harrison and Trey Smith from Blackbird Interactive. How are you guys doing?
[RICHARD] Doing fantastic.
[TREY] Yeah, man. Happy to be here. How are you doing? [LAUGHTER]
[MIKE] Living the dream. Got no complaints. Always good. [LAUGHTER] So Blackbird Interactive, you guys have this game. I'll mention it again because it's about the game, "Hardspace: Shipbreaker", it's coming out here. So I got a chance to try it. It's fun, it's challenging, it's fun. But before we start talking about that, why don't you tell us a little bit about the studio? You know, how you guys started, how you got to where you're at, things like that.
[TREY] Yeah, sure. What are we at, seven years, Richard? Seven-ish years?
[RICHARD] For the life of the studio? Yeah, something like that, maybe even longer.
[TREY] Yeah, so we're up in Vancouver, British Columbia, it's beautiful up here if no one has ever visited, and been around sevenish years. The studio was founded by founders of Relic Entertainment, a couple of key members from that original "Homeworld" team, as well as some veteran folks from Electronic Arts. And yeah, we're up to about 200 people, which is crazy. We've had some pretty rapid growth in the studio, which has been fantastic. I think we've got five games in development? Let's see, we started with "Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak," that was the first game coming out of the studio. Then we had a really cool collaborative project with NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab, Project Eagle, which is like this educational Mars colonization simulation thing. It's available free on Steam if you guys wanna check that out. And what else do we have to announce? "Homeworld 3," so we are currently working on that. We've got a team that's dedicated to pushing that out. We are doing support on "Minecraft Earth," which is an exciting project for us as a studio. And then we've got "Hardspace: Shipbreaker", which we're really excited about sharing with the world 'cause it's been in the works for a long time, right, Richard?
[RICHARD] It sure has been. Yeah, I think April marks my fourth year on this project.
[MIKE] Oh, wow. Nice. So tell us a little bit about the game for those who may not have seen it.
[TREY] Sure. Wanna go for it, Rich?
[RICHARD] Sure, yeah. So it's a first-person zero gravity spaceship salvaging game. Basically, you're working for this company that's in the business of acquiring derelict spaceships or decommissioned spaceships, and you're the person that gets to jump into the yard and chop 'em up and get as much value out of it as you possibly can.
[RICHARD] I mean, a lot of times these ships will come in, and it's still active, or they're still pressurized on the inside. And you got your cutting torch, and you get to jump in and take it apart as safely as you can, but also as valuably as you can too.
[MIKE] Nice. Yeah, I learned about the pressurization the hard way. The first time it popped like a balloon on me, [LAUGHTER] which actually leads into my next question here. Obviously, I've played this, it's fun, very challenging. What was the inspiration for this idea? It's a very unique game. I can't say I've played a game like it, so where did that come from?
[RICHARD] So about four years ago, the studio kind of did a pseudo shutdown after we launched "Deserts of Kharak." But not shutdown in the sense that we sent everybody home. It was shutdown in the sense that we stopped, took a breath, and ran an internal game jam. So the entire studio, everybody that was still present at the studio, worked on, I think it was four different projects, and what has now become "Hardspace: Shipbreaker" was one of those four projects at the time.
[TREY] Is that five days? Is that what it was, Richard?
[RICHARD] Yeah, it was one business week, and then we were all super passionate about it, so we came in that weekend too, to do as much as we could, and it was a very limited period that we could work on this thing. But it kind of sparked out of this idea that a lot of us wanted to make a game that felt like you were a person in the movie "Gravity" and that it was almost the helplessness of being in space, but also the adeptness of being a person who should be familiar with this environment. And yet, things can still go wrong, and things do go wrong, and how do you respond to that when everything is quite literally spiraling out of control and you're looking for a surface to grab onto, or something. And that's really where it started. It was navigational and almost cerebral, trying to figure out how you're gonna navigate these surfaces. And it was about traversal more than it was about decommissioning ships or something. But it was still this idea that you were diving into the depths of space, sort of woefully unprepared, even though you felt like you were prepared.
[TREY] Even though it was years later that we ended up landing on "Hardspace," even in the beginning, there was this concept that life in space is hard. You can't take anything for granted, and it's a struggle. And even just existing, like living and working in space is difficult. And we didn't wanna shoot aliens. We wanted to really focus on something that we could relate to, something that we as the studio felt was, like you said, unique. That was super important to us, and it was also important for us to develop our own internal IP. I think every studio would love to continue to develop their own internal IP. That's always been a goal for us and continues to be a goal for us. And out of that game jam with Richard and our design lead and associate creative director on the project, Elliot Hudson, was also part of that original game jam team. So we got two of the original team members that have made it all the way through and leading into our Early Access thing. So yeah, it's been a fun journey, for sure.
[MIKE] I think you know you've got something fun when you have a game jam for a whole week, and you're tired 'cause you've been doing this for a whole week, and you still say, "You know what, I'm gonna keep working on the weekend 'cause this is really cool."
[RICHARD] Totally. Yeah, it felt like something really inspirational at the time, and I'm glad that it became something that turned into something.
[TREY] It's been a thread with this team throughout the development, that there's a passion behind what we're making, and it's really hard to let go, even on the weekends and at nights, and Richard's nodding his head.
[TREY] I think we all recognized early on how unique and how special this project was for us, not just as a team but as a studio. There's so many games out there where you have a hard deadline or you have a hard budget that you're restricted to, but all along at Blackbird, we identified this project as something that was very special and very important to our future. And it really allowed us to iterate on what we were building. And it just kept getting better and better with each revision, as we started adding new things and pulling other things out. And then at some point, we'd bring something back that was a year-and-a-half ago we had set off to the side. And I think we've all had experiences in game development where it's that time to iterate that truly allows you to find those special things and to create something unique because you don't have to fall back on what's already out there because of a time constraint. You have the time to explore and turn over some rocks and see what's underneath it. This is a passionate, very, very dedicated team, and that's one of the reasons why we're in the position that we're in right now.
[MIKE] One of the things you had mentioned, we chatted previously, and I wanted to bring back up, you talked about how PAX was such a big... 'cause I was playing the PAX build of the game and how PAX was just so monumental for you guys. I wanted to see if you could talk a little bit about that.
[RICHARD] Yeah. I mean, it was a week prior to going out to Boston. It was when we actually announced the project. So we'd been, again, about four years in the making up until that point, suddenly we announced, "People, see what it is that we're working on." And then a week later, we're in front of 150,000 people who were getting their hands on the game. It was such a wild change of pace, and suddenly seeing that this thing that you're pouring over day in, day out, and analyzing critically under the microscope every day, and suddenly people come in just like, "Oh, man, this is really cool." And just fussing around with the controls and really resonating with them. I think that was the biggest turning point where suddenly it was a reminder that it wasn't somebody coming in and patting your back and saying, "This is really good." It was genuine responses. And kind of riding that from then until now, and through until completion.
[TREY] Yeah. And that fan base of PAX, it's so lovely. We're fortunate enough to be two-and-a-half hours north of PAX Prime. That what they call it?
[MIKE AND RICHARD] No, PAX West.
[TREY] Pardon me, I said the PP word.
[TREY] PAX West. And I think many of us have attended, both as just fans, but also worked the shows. And the crowds that you get at PAX are really, really fun and gamers at heart. And just based on dates and where we were at in the dev cycle and where we wanted to come out, PAX East kind of landed up perfectly, and we were very excited. I don't think any of us had ever been out to PAX East but knew that there was this almost indie angle for a lot of games that were announced out there. So that seemed to line up. It's so fun. I think we probably had a max of like 100 people, Richard, outside of the studio that even caught a glimpse of the game before PAX?
[RICHARD] If that, yeah. I mean, it was some tight lockdown. Really it was, and not necessarily because we were trying to be super secretive about it. It's just like Trey was saying before, it went through so many iterations that it almost felt like we weren't sure when the right time to share it was. We went through so many different times. It was like, "Oh, maybe we should do external playtest now." "Oh, but maybe we should wait until this next thing." And then that would happen, and then it would open this entire new trajectory of where we wanted to take things. We're like, "Okay, we'll hold off for a little while."
[TREY] For sure. This game has never struggled for a lack of great ideas on how to make it better. One of the biggest challenges for us has really been what ideas work best for what we have to work with as a team, as a budget, as a schedule, and all those kinds of things. There were a couple of times where we opened up the doors for some internal focus group feedback and those quick check-ins along the way with people gave us enough confidence to like, "Okay, we're onto something, we know there's still some stuff we need to iron out, but what's there is truly resonating with some people, and we think we got something." And that was enough info for us to go, "Okay, let's keep going with this. Take these learnings, make it better, and then bring it out." But PAX was opening up the doors for us. It was exciting and nerve-racking. But to be there on the floor and watch people's faces and hear them talk to their friends and to be able to meet people, it was fantastic. Yeah. It was great. It was also Blackbird's first trade show. So it was an opportunity for us to come out as a studio and show the world this is the stuff that...
[MIKE] This is what you do.
[TREY] Yeah. So it was a big thing. And throughout the dev cycle, you get those bursts of winds that kind of fill the sails and propel you forward...
[MIKE] Remind you why you're doing it.
[TREY] ...yeah, to that next step. And I think it was perfect timing for us knowing that we had an Early Access release coming up. And I think the team needed to see that and feel that energy that the fans were starting to bring. And now that we're starting to build online communities and people are starting to really resonate with the stuff that we're putting out there, it's been awesome. But PAX was a big one for us, as a team and as a studio. I think we took nine people out there. We needed every single person.
[RICHARD] We couldn't have done it with any less than we had, honestly. We were so... I hesitate to say overwhelmed because I think it was actually handled in a really well-organized manner. But we were also overwhelmed.
[MIKE] Yeah, for sure.
[MIKE] So if you had to... obviously, a lot of folks at PAX are checking this out, if you had to narrow in on who your target gamer was, the one persona, the one type of person, we'll call him Jeff, for all the Jeffs listening, how would you describe Jeff?
[TREY] We kind of broke it down into three main gamer types and fans that we felt would dig what we were building. The first one is sci-fi fans. So clearly sci-fi and spaceships are so embedded into our DNA at BBI, not just because of our history, but because of our present. I mean, we all watched the SpaceX launches together, and we're very passionate about that kind of stuff. I think another one is just innovative first-person experiences. I think that was something else. It's not a shooter, you don't have a gun. But there's still an immersive quality to having a first-person perspective that we felt was important and that we were bringing something new to the table. And then the third one, and this is I think we're all big fans of this, is just innovative indies. Just games that are trying to do something different because that's what we're here to create. We wanna take people to places where they've never been. And that kind of innovative experience where I think, I know Richard and I, anything that comes along the way that's a little bit different, we're gonna check it out just because it's pushing what we do forward.
[RICHARD] Totally. This game, if anything, has actually encouraged me to check out more weird stuff. And I've always been into that anyways, but I had a very narrow purview of the type of innovative stuff. It was like innovative in the same realm that I had played previously, whereas now somebody throws something my way, and it's a lot of times, you question, "Is this even a game or is it an interactive experience of some kind?"
[MIKE] Crosses the line.
[RICHARD] Yeah, and I kind of don't care anymore. Not that I ever necessarily cared. But especially having worked on this project, if it's an enjoyable experience, then it's a game, and it doesn't really matter.
[TREY] One of the quirky games that came out while we were working on this, it was "Papers, Please". And there's definitely some inspiration on some of their kind of humor and some of the stuff that we're playing with that we took inspiration from that. I think a lot of people would have saw that and just said that's not a game. But it sure is. It's something that's there.
[MIKE] Anything with a goal that facilitates play is a game by definition.
[RICHARD] I also think that it's okay to instill feelings that are not necessarily joy or happiness in a game too. Obviously, like horror games are a thing, right? And "Papers, Please" is enjoyable for your completion, as to say, but it's also kinda depressing in some ways. And so it's okay for a game like that to talk about something unconventional.
[MIKE] Yeah. something interesting you had said is that you don't have a gun, you're not shooting aliens. And when we had talked previously, you had said it was very important for this to be nonviolent. You're kind of this everyman just trying to make it. But I went back after we chatted previously, and I was playing it again, and I almost feel like, in a way, there are parts of this game that are more violent. In that I mean I'll be like floating in space, it's quiet, I'm just chilling, I'm doing my thing. And I make one wrong cut, and all of a sudden, just, "Oh!" It was a visceral reaction where I'm just like, "Oh, what has happened? Oh, no, I'm about to die." And I'm like, "That feels way more violent." The violence of just situation more than just the classical. Yeah, it was very cool.
[RICHARD] I think it's violence, not for the sake of violence. You don't seek out violence, it's just a dangerous job.
[TREY] It's an inherent... space is hard.
[MIKE] Now break these ships!
[TREY] That was another key takeaway that we caught glimpses of when we put it in people's hands before PAX. But I think it was a big one for PAX that people wanted different things out of this experience. Some people really connected with the kind of chill, zen-like experience with it. And then other people really liked the quick escalation of danger and something that went on. So that was actually feedback that we took back, and we were creating three different difficulties for the campaign mode, based on the style of play that people want to go for. And that was something we had talked about before we went out there. But after we came back, we were just like, "You know what, who are we to force somebody down a path that we view is the golden path for this experience?" It was important for us to open up the door, as much as we could, to allow people to play the way that they wanted to play and get what they wanted out of the game.
[MIKE] So I would like to talk a little bit more about the development process and all of this. Obviously, this game is made with Unity. What were some of the reasons you picked Unity as an engine versus internal tech or just anything else you could've gone with?
[RICHARD] Part of it comes down to sheer years of experience within the studio. I mean, "Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak" was a Unity project. When we ramped off of that and we started a game jam, our gut was being like, "What do we do that we're all familiar with?" But even leaning into the game jam aspect of it, Unity was just so easy to pick up and just whip something together super quickly. And in many ways, the lifecycle of this project almost mirrors that of the lifecycle of where Unity has gone in the last four to six years. It really catered to indie developers, smaller developers, people who wanted to get something off the ground, reach that proof of concept really quickly. And it's evolved in so many different ways to be this double, triple A engine that produces high-quality graphics, high-quality processing with the DOTS underlying systems, and HDRP for rendering. We kind of grew as a team and as a studio almost alongside Unity, in that respect. Why we chose it in the first place, it's almost irrelevant to why we use it now. [LAUGHTER]
[MIKE] Fair enough. For those listening, DOTS is the Data-Oriented Technology Stack, and HDRP is the High Definition Render Pipeline. Last one of these I did, and someone was like, "It took you too long to say what it was." So you know what, I'm saying it right now, right away.
[RICHARD] It's there.
[MIKE] So that's awesome to hear. Talking a little bit like the graphics and design of the game, one of the things that, and as you had mentioned, just really stands out is the atmosphere. You're floating and just the visuals, the sound, I mean, it's just so well done. What were some of the things, maybe design decisions you had made or artist choices you had made to really just nail the aesthetic, to make the game what it is?
[TREY] Yeah, it was really one of those things where I think, in many cases, we designed by constraints, which has always been kind of exciting. It's always been a small development team. I think we were ten and under for the first two years or so of development and change. So we had to make some pretty tough choices early on, things like not having other player characters in the world or NPCs just because we didn't have the bandwidth to create other player characters, and rigs and models and animations, and all that kind of stuff. So that choice, in particular, really steered us into a direction where we felt like we could handle something that was pushing it to the limit and that was on the audio front. So the audio side of the game is very, very important to us and something we invested heavily. And you guys mentioned HDRP, the visuals for us, I think, we're all kind of blown away at the visual quality that the art team and all the technical art support that we've had on the team to provide those visuals and the atmospheric stuff, like the particle effects and the lighting and the shader work. All of that stuff that Unity has helped us really put forward, I think that's helped too. And again, it's just every single member of the team is a rock star in their own field. And it's just putting everybody together and having these really ambitious goals and setting that as a target and, in most cases, we've blown through what those initial targets were and sometimes two or three times over by the time we got to where we're at today. So I'm glad that that's working for you.
[MIKE] Nice. Speaking of audio and this, again, is something I mentioned maybe last time, we talked about too much last time we talked.
[MIKE] But there is one point which I was floating around in space, and the music came on, and it was this sort of twangy, a little Westernish space cowboy, and I thought, "I feel like Malcolm Reynolds right now." I feel like the captain of Serenity, for those folks who've seen Firefly. And yes, it just felt really cool. Just all the audio effects. I mentioned before, I'd be cutting a panel, and I'd nick something behind, and I couldn't see that, but then I'd hear something and be like, "Whoa, wait, I shouldn't be hearing that. What's going on?" How did you weave in the audio? I mean, it was more than just play this sound right now. There's more to it than that 'cause it's very atmospheric.
[RICHARD] Yeah. Oh, sorry, go ahead.
[TREY] I mean, Richard can talk to the execution on it, but the whole vision for it was it's a blue-collar game in space. And of course, there's Firefly, there's a bunch of, all of a sudden, this kind of Western in space kind of theme. But for us, it was more of like an industrial sci-fi music and sound. And we kinda worked with Ben McCullough, our audio director, Elliot and I. We were really working on what's that unique sound that kind of takes you to the place. And now it's wrapped into the lore too. And I'd love to tell you why it's there, but it's kind of one of the things. But it's work music, it's peace-of-mind music, it's zen music, and there's a reason why it's there. But that was a huge goal for us was to have a unique sound that was uniquely what we wanted to create. And we've got a bunch of tracks that our audio director helped compose with some local talent and some other talent. And then he also plays the synth on top of it. So it's this kind of blend of a bunch of stuff. But it's a dynamic soundscape, and that's something I think Richard can talk to from that side.
[RICHARD] Totally. I mean, like you said, it's very obviously not just a bunch of audio cues that are firing here and there. It's tied to every aspect of the game. It's your suit vitals, is your helmet cracked, your proximity to danger, even so much as like are you in a pressurized space or not in a pressurized space. And what room you're in in the ship too. If you're in the reactor room, you're gonna get this really dangerous vibe.
[MIKE] Almost like a hum.
[RICHARD] Yeah. And we actually spent a lot of time working on a system that, internally, we call it the touch transfer system. And it's kind of more than just touch transfer, but it's literally the systemic replication of feeling the vibrations of audio through surfaces. 'Cause in the vacuum of space, there is no sound and, obviously, you hear things in the game as it is and we have this sort of suit synthesis. And I don't wanna get too much into that, that's sort of like Ben's territory for people to discover, but we piggyback off of that. And also this physical connection that if you're touching the side of the ship, you feel this reverb and this hum, and it comes out in the audio, the music, the tone. And it's just so woven into everything that you do.
[MIKE] Yeah, it is super cool. And you're right, the whole idea, when you're in the pressurized space, you can know without really knowing. It's very well done. So congratulations to Ben. [LAUGHTER] It's super fun. What were some of the hardest things to get right graphically? To get it to like, "Oh, that's it, that's the one."
[RICHARD] That's a great question.
[MIKE] Thank you.
[RICHARD] I think, honestly, part of the biggest challenge was the fact that our ships are so dynamic, and everything is pieced together in runtime and then torn apart in runtime. And what you start with is not at all what you end with. And so we couldn't rely on a lot of conventional ways of statically baking lightmaps and high-quality meshes and a lot of stuff that you can crank the visuals up to 11 in classic ways. So Trey mentioned a little while ago that a lot of it was born out of constraints, and so we did a lot of... I say we, the art team really, but kind of in Collab when we decided to layer and things like HDRP, the High Definition Render Pipeline, we wanted to make sure that we were able to leverage our situation in the best way that we possibly could. And so we look at a lot of reference games where their style is specifically low quality. And this cool painted look that is less about the nitty-gritty detail of surface texture and more about this painted stroke across the surface of a panel, or the ship itself, or something like that. So diving into what we could accomplish and really nailing that.
[TREY] Yeah, we started out as a handcrafted linear game. And you've got less limitations when you're not pumping this stuff in real-time.
[MIKE] You have full control.
[TREY] And we made that decision after that first vertical slice that we had built that was handcrafted that we felt like we had the pieces to create a super compelling - with escalation and emotional investment - experience through that. But then when we looked at the roadmap of what we had in front of us, it was like a three, four-hour game and that wasn't what we wanted to do. So we made this pretty hard pivot to how do we create more content, but at the same time, still deliver those wow moments that we were able to do when we baked things off. So that's where we came up with the content pipeline for this game was it's this combination of handcrafted elements of the game along with these modular and procedural elements, and meshing those things together to create this variety of content that the systemic design behind the elemental systems within the ships. But we talked about the pressurization and the rooms and what's populating those rooms and how the ships are. All of these pieces all came together, and Richard and the rest of the leads of the team put so much time and work and effort into coming up with a pipeline and a workflow to create this content. That was one of the biggest battles for us all the way through, was finding the right way to do that, that on the other side, we would still get the quality of content that we wanted and have the ability to create those moments that we wanted. And the audio was wrapped into that too.
[RICHARD] Yeah, we had this interesting, almost internal milestone goal. When we decided to make that pivot from 100% handcrafted to how were we going to generate these things at runtime, our goal was take the last handcrafted ship that we made, and how do we make something that is to that same quality, not just visually but the whole experience. How do we get the game flow, the audio quality, the beats, the paint job on the exterior of the ship, how do we do that on a runtime-generated spaceship? I honestly think that it's taken us until the last maybe six months to really, truly come back full circle where we all had a sit-down moment, and we're looking at these ships, and we're like, "Guys, we did it." It took us... what was it? ...two years of that pipeline development almost, to really do it, and it's still an evolutionary process.
[MIKE] For sure.
[TREY] We're such a visually driven studio, with our founders being the original art director of "Homeworld 1" and "2", Rob Cunningham, and Aaron Kambeitz was like the concept artist, and he's our studio concept artist. And then we've got their protege Brennan Massicotte, he's kind of our visual director on the game. And then we've got Chris Williams, our art director, he's there orchestrating and moving all the pieces and making sure we deliver upon that concept, that visual language that we at BBI love. Painterly. It's almost like you're playing in an art piece. That was really important for us that we hit that level. But on the flipside, gameplay is king. It's that balance of design and gameplay and visuals, and audio's there too. But something really compelling that you can play for hours and hours and hours. And then there's a physical skill that you develop as the game, outside of the progression that you take within the game where you're upgrading your equipment and unlocking new perks and those kinds of things. But it's just that amalgamation of just bringing all those things together, higher and higher and higher. And we're going into early access, we're at a really good spot now. But there's still some room for us to grow, and that's kind of the plan is we get out there into Early Access and work with the community, get some ideas and some feedback. And we'll see where we take this thing.
[MIKE] Yeah. So one thing that I gotta say that you guys nailed and it's one of my biggest pet peeves in sci-fi movies, games, whatever, you always go into an enemy ship or enemy homeworld or enemy base, whatever, and you think, "Where's the stuff?" Like, there's rooms and hallways and the cockpit, but where's the stuff? Their entire base, there's not a bed, there's no litter. There's just nothing. And you go into this ship and granted it's the one for just the build for PAX, but you go in and there's stuff, medkits and oxygen, and there's an audio cassette with someone talking about their cat, and there's stuff. And it's all in reasonably placed places, and I'm just like, "Awesome, there's all these things in here I can mess around with and stuff." That felt good 'cause I always complain. For years, I'm always just like, "Yeah, that room was dumb. Where was all the stuff? Do they own nothing? Do they need nothing?"
[RICHARD] That was a big thing for us is making the ships believable. And not only are they dynamically generated but also that you go in, and it feels like a ship because you're taking these things apart and you don't wanna cut into a wall and just be like, "Why is that compartment there? Why is that room there? That doesn't make any sense." They're structurally accurate, I say, with air quotes, but accurate to the context of a game. They make sense, they're believable and you don't question why there's a chair there or a pack of chips floating around, 'cause it makes it feel like somebody actually not only lived in this ship or used it for their day job, but that somebody before them built that ship. And that it feels like it belongs in the world.
[TREY] Yeah. And in most games, it's just scenery. It's just something you blast through. You see it once, and then you never see it again. You're not interacting with it. And I think that speaks to every piece of content that we create is part of that pipeline for creating more ships. So you're interacting, you can chop them in half, and you can look inside them. Some of them have elemental properties attached to them and can explode or shoot out cryo freezing stuff that you can use to manipulate the scene. And I think we'll continue to add more content as we go. But it was important for us that I think Elliot, our design lead, had a pillar early on that was ships fully realized, both inside and out. They had to feel lived in. And I think the further we go and as we continue to layer in pieces, it'll feel even more lived in. But we're glad we got through to you Mike, with what we've got there so far. So, I feel good about that.
[MIKE] No, it was great. So you guys had mentioned a few times, things like shaders and particles and the elemental effects, I'm gonna take your word for it that you can manipulate things with cryo. All I've been able to manipulate is my health bar with cryo. But what were some of the artist tools that helped with shader, like did you guys use shader graph? How did you do the shaders or the particles? 'Cause that part can often be so elusive. How do you make the electricity look like electricity? It can be challenging. I'm curious.
[RICHARD] Yeah, I think the first step to that is have an absolute wizard of a visual effects artist. And that's our VFX guy, David. He is a master of his art and it surprises me every day what he's able to do. He used the Legacy particle system when we started the project. And then one of the big pushes for why we wanted to move to HDRP was to take full advantage of the visual effects graph and this next generation of visual effects tooling that is not only easier to use but allows him to produce just this crazy broad strokes content. Everything from those little, tiny electrical zaps, all the way up to reactor meltdown explosions. And it's wild what he's able to pull off with that kind of stuff. So to answer your previous question, shader graph, we do some places with that. A lot of our actual core shader technology is handwritten by Karl, our tech artist. Part of it for customizability and part of it just for, like that's the roots that he comes from.
[MIKE] Sure. Nice.
[TREY] And it's been difficult, Richard can speak to the specifics, but all these really beautiful visual moments, but driving those things is a very crazy physics system that Richard pioneered underneath that. That is a core piece of the game too. So the fact that these ships can split into 100,000 different pieces in real-time and still support that visual fidelity, and hit that performance and that believability. Because immersion is so important to us that the performance has to be there.
[MIKE] Absolutely. You basically segued into my next question perfectly 'cause you guys talk about it's all runtime, you can't do the baking. Obviously, optimization is really, really important to hit that performance goal. So what were some of the things you guys did to optimize graphically? Because I saw there's the scanner views and all these different types of views, and that's basically loading all new shaders and whatnot to look at these things, or maybe I'm assuming that's how it works for you guys. So how did you analyze, optimize, get that stuff to run so fast?
[RICHARD] Yeah, it's a lot of traditional methods for analysis. You pop open the Profiler and see what's got the biggest, thickest bar on there, and you start diving into that. But some of it's not quite so simple too because you figure out that something is costing a lot of render time or a lot of CPU time. And then you say, "Okay, hey, somebody else, go check this out," and they'll pop it open and be like, "Okay, I'm not seeing the same thing." It's like, "Oh, right, all of our ships are randomly generated, you're not going to be seeing the same thing." So we build a lot of tools on the ground level that allow us to make sure that our ship spawning is deterministic. So you can provide any particular seed, like a sequence of numbers and given that same seed, the next guy over is gonna get the exact same ship. And that's good for level design, as well, for consistency, but it's also huge for bug fixing and performance analysis. Beyond that, it's almost hard to begin. We couldn't do a lot of things like traditional baking, occlusion culling even. Anything that has the word bake in it probably doesn't exist in this game. Which means that if the ship is on screen, every single piece in that ship is active at any given time, and it's hard to know when we can trigger our levels of detail because everything is dynamic. So we do a lot of clever tricks with distance and whether or not something is inside the ship and in a room in that ship that we run a couple checks to be like, "Is it even possible that the person could be able to see this right now?" And if it's not, then we do our best to basically make sure that that is not costing us rendering time at all right now.
[MIKE] Like a custom occlusion almost.
[RICHARD] Yeah, it's a very game-specific occlusion, and we mulled over that for a really long time. And, honestly, it's still a work in progress too, as a lot of these things will be. But it's gotten us a lot of mileage to be able to dive in and say, almost from a gameplay standpoint, you set a series of rules of when can I see these things, when can I not, and when do I care if I can see these things? And when can we take liberties of turning them off or rendering them in lower resolution, or something?
[TREY] And really thinking of those edge case scenarios too. And is there a way that we can design around this limitation? Is there some way that we can rethink how this thing works? A lot of our good stuff has come out of the game by us just pivoting to something else, based on us smacking our head against the ceiling with one approach and then going into the other on multiple fronts. But it's still a constant thing for us. I think we've been pretty good about not just holding everything off and pushing off the performance monsters until the very end, which many of us who've been on projects have done that. There's a lot of experience on this team, and Richard and his team, in particular, have really stayed on top of that and policed that along the way. And if there was a build that came in that was roughed up, then we stopped the presses and addressed that stuff and get the train back on the track. Nobody wants to go dark for a week or two when things happen. Sometimes you do, just because of major updates or something. But I think a good strong team is thinking about those things along the way and not just going, "La, la, la, we're gonna be fine."
[MIKE] Pushing it off 'til tomorrow. Yeah, exactly. So I wanna transition a bit and talk a little bit about the mechanics in gameplay. First question I have for you, why do I die so much? Because I'm beginning to suspect that corporation-led dystopian futures are not for me. I'm just curious. What're your thoughts on that?
[TREY] There's the gameplay side of it, and there's the lore side of it, and we talked about the difficulty before too. So the build that you played, we intentionally wanted it to be challenging. We intentionally wanted it to show off the variety. We had an early pillar in the game, which was a thousand ways to die. And I think we're at 900, and we'll keep trying to add to that. But we put some kind of funhouse moments into that ship because we wanted people to see the variety we had in store with people. But lore-wise, when you sign a contract to escape earth for this opportunity to work in space, part of the fine prints of that contract was that you are essentially signing over ownership of your DNA to the corporation and that they could clone you indefinitely because it's cheaper for them to clone you than it is to hire somebody or recruit somebody, then bring them up and then train them. So there's some lore stuff that goes behind that but from a gameplay perspective, it's a tricky ship. It's probably five, six, seven hours into the game is when you start to hit that difficulty that is in that ship. So you'd probably have some more time to hone your skills. It's a complicated game.
[MIKE] Yeah, it is impressive the number of ways that you can just screw up.
[MIKE] The first way I died is I didn't realize the ship was pressurized, and I cut into it and blew myself up. I played maybe 20 minutes before our call, and I'm like, "Okay." And to your point about skill mastery, I got a lot better, and I'm like, "Okay, I've got a plan now. I'm gonna do this." I depressurize, I go in, I hit another hatch, not realizing that that would repressurize the ship with me in it. So then I cut into the hull, and I was inside the balloon at that point, and I popped it and it blew me up again. I was like, "Oh, man. I thought I had it." [LAUGHTER]
[RICHARD] I think that there's something really amazing about the knowledge growth that you have, and it's not ticking a bunch of boxes and leveling up your character. You actually start to build your own internal language of how the ships are built, what the buttons do. When I say buttons, I mean the buttons in the ship. What do they do and how are they going to make it more or less dangerous for me to navigate?
[MIKE] Yeah. It's really, really neat. So with the mechanics, the feeling of weightlessness is, obviously, very important 'cause you're in space. And you guys do just a great job with inertia, you do a great job with orientation in space. We were joking around about down is south, or whatever. What were some of the things you found challenging to get the feeling of being weightless in space right?
[RICHARD] Yeah, a lot of it does come down to that mass distribution mentality of if I'm heavier than the thing I'm moving around, it's gonna come with me, and if that thing's heavier than I am, I'm gonna go with it. And so that was actually a super, super early development that has evolved many, many times. But this concept of I grapple onto something, and I retract... what happens, how does that resolve. And if it's about the same mass as I am, then we're both coming to each other like a swinging bola or something. And it created this almost physics playground where you could just have a scattershot of a bunch of different debris pieces, and you can just use your grappling hook and move around the environment and also grapple a bunch of stuff and throw it around. And there's something, I always say this and people laugh, but there's something really intuitive to humans about how physics works. You may not be able to understand the equations of it, but when you throw a ball, you can see where that ball is going to land before it gets there. It's just something that is built into our DNA, I guess you could say. And so trying to replicate that in a zero-g environment had challenges, but a lot of it was just finding what felt natural. When I throw this object, where do I expect it's going to go?
[TREY] Yeah, and you mentioned the difficulty of the game in time. We never want a case where the player dies and blames the game. They have to blame their own, where they came from, the decision they made, or their failure to execute on what they were trying to do. That doesn't work unless the physics works the way that you expect it to work. And it goes to one of our hierarchy things where you've got hard sci-fi and then you've got this floaty Arcadey sci-fi on the other end of the spectrum. And where we lie, we'll never go 100% hard sci-fi because the gameplay experience that we wanted to do, we gotta play around a little bit with the world and the universe, but we definitely wanna lean heavily towards the "Yeah, this could happen," or "This happens." That side of sci-fi was really important to us with where we were coming from with our space universe and the games we currently like to make at Blackbird. But Richard's Physics system, what he and his team have been able to do, with just the predictive nature of what's going on and how you're interacting with the objects, has been huge. And the design team has done a killer job of tuning the masses of all the objects. There were times where something was really big and you could fling it around like it was a peanut. There were other times where you're trying to move the mountain, and it's barely moving at all. And finding that sweet spot where, because you've got equipment upgrades too that kind of allow you to move bigger objects as you progress through the game. And finding that spot, especially the starting spot where you can move stuff, as a beginning player, but you develop the skill of being able to do it better and your equipment gets upgraded. It's that gameplay balancing and tuning bit that's a very delicate dance that designers had to make and the engineers have had to work with too.
[RICHARD] In a lot of ways too, the upgrades are kind of giving the player enough rope to do bad things with.
[RICHARD] But it's like the upgrades give you the opportunity to start moving those giant chunks of the ship. But those giant chunks of the ship are super dangerous, you're gonna crush yourself. Part of it is progression through the game, but part of it is almost like this internal tutorialization of making sure that you can't kill yourself in all 1,000 of those 1,000 ways, right from the get-go.
[MIKE] I'm getting close. The second way I died, speaking of physics, is I grappled something, and I'm like, "I'm just gonna pull it towards me. Why not?" And it didn't occur to me until it was really close to me that, "Wow, it's going really fast right at me." And it cracked my helmet open, and I died. [LAUGHTER] But I was like, "Oh yeah, physics."
[RICHARD] We originally had safeties in there to prevent that from happening. And it's like, "Okay, well, how do we figure how big this object is?" And when it gets right in front of your face and to stop yourself from smacking yourself in the face with that bottle that you picked up, or the crate, or whatever, and we kind of realized that it was better without the safety. It's better just to let you master the tethering and master not smacking yourself in the face. [LAUGHTER]
[TREY] Yeah, it speaks to the depth of gameplay that we're targeting with this thing. I remember playing "Halo" and I'd just hammer on the automatic rifle, and the guy that I was playing with who was way better than me would say, "Dude, just feather it. Feather."
[MIKE] Gotta pulse, man.
[TREY] Totally. And I think it's the same thing here. If you're very meat-fisted, ham-fisted, how you chop up ships and stuff, then you're just asking for it. There is a finesse. You watch Elliot play, our design lead and associate creative director, and he's like a ballet dancer through space. He's just grabbing things and tethering things, and it's just like all of these things are in motion at once, and it's beautiful to watch.
[TREY] Yeah, and there's almost like a self-expression that takes place with how people play. There's very methodical players that put everything over here, and then move it over there, and then go over here. Where Elliot's moving things all over in different directions, and then some people collect every coin or every precise cut. And that was another piece of the game. There's no one way to play. You take apart those ships whatever way you personally feel like at the time, and that was something that was really important to us.
[RICHARD] Yeah, we try to help prioritize those through different aspects of the progression too. We almost nudge you in a direction with the work order and say, "Hey, you know what, these might be some things that you might wanna look out for." But ultimately, the whole ship has a value to it, and the whole ship, you start to understand, "You know what? These exterior panels are super dense, heavy, valuable metal. I don't care about those crates I'm supposed to collect, I care about these because I see them, and I've got experience with them."
[MIKE] It is really impressive, just adding to your point, that you can just, all of the ship is salvageable, like every part of it. And that actually leads to my next thing, I asked about graphic optimization, but code optimization, the fact that you can cut meshes like that? Which can be tricky and very performance-costing. And just all of the parts of the ship are just all salvageable and all have their own data. You had mentioned that the Data-Oriented Technology Stack, how big of a thing is that? How does that help with optimization?
[RICHARD] Totally. I mean, when the project first started, that didn't exist. And as a studio, we had a lot of experience doing things with ECS, like Entity Component System kind of architecture. And that's a lot of what the DOTS system is based off of, is this concept of everything's an entity, everything gets components, and then you have systems that operate on those things. When that became available for us to take advantage of through Unity DOTS, it revolutionized what we were able to do in these ships. We were constantly clawing back performance to try and manage hundreds, if not thousands, of GameObjects in the ship. And now it can come down to something as simple as a system only needs to update when there are relevant components that it needs to update for. And the ECS system allows us to do that. You write a query that says, "Give me everything in this ship that is flammable." And those are the only objects that I need to care about when I'm checking to see if there's something that's burning, that's gonna catch these things on fire. So it streamlines, both from a performance standpoint, but also from a cognitive standpoint, where I can think of, what things do I need to care about if I'm gonna catch something on fire? Well, obviously, only the things that are actually burning. So you can just almost linguistically write a query in the DOTS system to say, "Give me all of this, give me all this. How do they mesh together?"
[MIKE] Nice. So that had to have been a challenging decision to make, to leverage what is effectively or was effectively a preview feature that is not released in an actual production environment where there are risks. What was behind that decision? Hopefully, it paid out, but can you talk a little bit about that?
[RICHARD] Yeah. I can't remember the particular inciting event, but I do wanna say that one of the very first things that drove us to check it out was actually the idea of the job system and multithreading. Internally, we call it multithreading for dummies 'cause it's kind of just like it makes performant code a hell of a lot easier. And we jumped into that for what we call our jointing system and our ships are made up of hundreds and hundreds of pieces. And they're almost glued together by what we call our joints. And that used to be a manual process that the designers had to go in and almost paint this pseudo-double-sided tape on every single object and then stick them together and be like, "Okay, that's a joint. Moving on." And our ships got so complex that that was a process that would take days if not weeks. And then any time that something changed, they had to go back and reiterate on it. So we wrote this automatic jointing tool that would detect faces and figure out if they were supposed to be stuck together. But even that, running that process took, I think on our biggest ship, like 45 minutes, an hour to run. And we're like, "This is unsustainable. How are we going to possibly make this process faster?" And so we jobified it. We made it multithreaded. And then came along the burst compiler, and then we bursted it. And we took that process that originally took 45 minutes, an hour, an hour and 15 minutes, something like that, and it literally takes 100 milliseconds now. And it's so fast that we actually hide it behind a loading screen during our ship spawning. It's not an offline thing anymore. We actually just do it in runtime. So that was like the impetus for getting into it. And we saw how powerful this was, and we were like, "Okay, we understand this is a preview tool, but how can we cautiously take advantage of this in other aspects of the project?" And it's gotten to a point where it's just permeated the whole thing. It's everywhere. We used it for our room system. We used it for our elemental system. Even the salvageable and the objective system is all ECS, all DOTS, all the time. And it's still a hybrid approach for the core game. We still have Monobehaviors and GameObjects and stuff. But we found a good balance and I think the code team also is learning their own internal language of when we are starting to make a new system, we sit down, we say how much of this can exist in pure ECS and something that can be jobified, multithreaded, and burst compiled. And it opens up the possibilities of what is even conceivable to do.
[MIKE] Nice. I'm looking at the clock here. I'd love to talk about this for a while 'cause burst is insane. But I'm curious, a bit of a wrap up here, but what are you guys maybe most proud of with this game?
[RICHARD] Oh, man.
[MIKE] If we need to come back to that one.
[TREY] Since Richard's been talking a lot, I'll let him catch his breath here. The growth of the team is one of the things. For me, it was just any time you set out to do something that's never really been done before, and just seeing everybody really come together as a family, and I use that word like it's true, and that we were able to create something that's truly never been done before and that, honestly, we haven't made any compromises to that core vision of what we set out to make. And thankfully, the stars aligned on the tech side, on the team side, on the studio side, all these different pieces came together, and we were able to make something truly special that we can't wait for the world to play, really, truly, honestly.
[RICHARD] I think for me, it's something similar. It's less about having set out to make something different and more about making something that turned out to be different, that we always made decisions that were in service of the game and never ever did we have a conversation that was, "Well, how did this other game do it?" And that's not to say that we don't look at other games for reference. Everyone does, and I think that it's healthy to do that, to make sure that you're not totally out of touch. But the idea that there's no guns in the game and that we stuck to that from the very beginning, and the game became something unique because we wanted it to be itself.
[TREY] And we never let ego get in the way of the decisions that were made. It was always what was best for the game. That always rose to the top, and we were able to keep that environment going all the way through too.
[MIKE] That's awesome. So in speaking of such, again, games, "Hardspace: Shipbreaker", where, when can people find this?
[TREY] So we are releasing, we just announced this, it's super exciting times, June 16th, we are open for business on Steam Early Access. And then sometime in the future, we'll be making our way to consoles. But right now, the focus is on just delivering a kick-ass day one Early Access experience. And then working with the community to make the game everything that it wants to be.
[MIKE] Nice, so June 16th on Steam. I got that right, June 16th?
[MIKE] Fantastic. I'm just going to say it one more time, June 16th, 'cause it's fun to say June 16th.
[RICHARD] 2020, if anyone's asking.
[TREY] Maybe you could wishlist it now.
[MIKE] There you go. That's true. That's the responsible thing to do so you don't miss June 16. So last question, then we'll wrap up here. So what's next for Blackbird Interactive?
[TREY] That's a really good question.
[MIKE] I love it.
[RICHARD] Good question.
[TREY] Clearly, making our own IP is something that's very important to us but we also have some amazing projects currently in the works with some partners that we're having a blast with. Some big stuff coming down the pipe that we're sure many, many people are going to enjoy. What you got, Richard? What's next?
[RICHARD] I think, coming back from this work-from-home thing is a big ear turn step, which, honestly, the studio has handled amazingly well. But I think for me, it's hard to get my head out of just seeing "Hardspace: Shipbreaker" to completion and what's possible in the "Hardspace" universe coming beyond this game. This game, even possibly, I don't know, this genre, who knows what we can do with this. It's so brand new right now to us and also to the world.
[MIKE] Fantastic. Awesome, guys. Well, Richard, Trey, it's been fantastic, again, here with Blackbird Interactive, talking about "Hardspace: Shipbreaker." Just really, really enjoyed talking to you guys, and I'm gonna hang up here and go dive some more in space.
[MIKE] 'Cause I have an idea in my head, and I'm like, "I think I've got something that's gonna work." So I'm gonna try it out.
[TREY] Use cryo.
[MIKE] But thank you all very much.
[RICHARD] It's been a pleasure.
[MIKE] Have a great day.
[RICHARD] Yeah, you too, man. Thank you very much.
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