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Studio behind Stealth Bastard tries its hand at open development Exclusive

November 11, 2014 | By Mike Rose




British developer/publisher Curve Digital has got a new game in the works -- it's first "fresh" project since 2011's Stealth Bastard -- and it's already looking rather fine.

White Space is a procedurally generated sci-fi action game with roguelike elements, and with this new title, Curve is trying out an approach it hasn't before tackled -- open development.

Inspired by plenty of other indie studios that are developing games out in the open, Curve plans to document every part of White Space's development via video and text, showing potential players how the game is made, and the decisions that go into each design choice.

I spoke with Curve's design director Jonathan Biddle about why his studio has taken this different approach for White Space's design.

How did the idea for the game come about? It seems very different from what we've seen from Curve so far.

Jonathan Biddle: The idea was originally conceived around two years ago as part of a series of concepts I created when we were thinking about doing another round of pitching. Iad had a run of 2D platform games - namely Explodemon, Fluidity, Stealth Bastard, Fluidity: Spin Cycle, Stealth Bastard Deluxe and then the PlayStation ports of Stealth Inc i and I was frankly sick to the back teeth of making them.

A lot of those games were also product of circumstance rather than planning, especially the games that spawned from my Game Maker hobby. Stealth Bastard in particular was something that, while I am intensely proud of what we've achieved with it, I'd never really planned to take beyond the free version. Yet, it perpetuated through a deluxe Steam version, console ports, and later the full blown sequel on Wii U.

What was intended to be a short throwaway games design experiment ended up taking over my life for around five years. I'd therefore built up a few years' worth of creative frustration and so went in a totally different direction with my ideas. I decided if I was going to make something new then it would be something Iad be happier to spend many years on, something that was more planned, something bigger and more involved. And 3D this time too, of course.

I'd been seeing the evolution towards procedural content in games such as Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac, and was curious about how to combine that with 3D. One of the biggest cost for us when making our games is the specifically designed and art-ed content that goes to make up our levels.

We've spent years honing our craft in 2D level design, but it's very expensive to make games that are built in this way. I (and obviously many others) saw procedural generation as a way to cut down on this cost and also make something with a much longer playing time to boot. I previously had this low poly Starglider-like game idea which was effectively Elite (flying a spaceshipI) combined with GTA (Iaround a city doing missions). The idea had potential, but there was no way we could build that city cost-effectively, and so I decided to look to procedural techniques instead.

So that's where the concept came from. I removed the city and went for planet surfaces, drawing inspiration from the games I played on the Spectrum as child; Tau Ceti, Mercenary, Driller, Starglider. These games held this weird power over me when I was young, and this sense of isolation and exploration that they instilled in me was something I felt I could explore anew with modern technology and games design. Once I started learning Unity, the hobbyist in me took over and the game just kind of developed from there.

You mentioned you're taking an open development approach with this game. What's the reasoning behind that? What do you think the benefits will be?

Biddle: This is the first time for many years that we've had time to plan how we'd like to approach the reveal and development of a game. The last game that we made that was totally fresh was Stealth Bastard in 2011, which had a kind of open beta by way of the free version. The aim for that was to test the concept and see if it people were going to like it. It definitely helped with awareness of the game and its subsequent versions over the last few years (I still see some people go "Oh! It's Stealth Bastard 2" when they see Stealth Inc 2). I think we're really just doing the same thing with White Space.

We want to build solid grass roots awareness of the game, ensure that itas something that people are interested in, and build up a community of interested people who become invested in its development along the way. We don't want to reveal it out of the blue in 12 months' time and then have to start building awareness from scratch. I donat think that that is really a viable route to successful marketing of your game in the current climate. We want the people who are going to like it to know about it, and that kind of dissemination into the public consciousness takes time. Why not start now?

Overall it seems like the development of White Space is branching out into lots of different areas that Curve perhaps hasn't explored in much depth before - why is it this game in particular that has made you decide to experiment? Is this Curve reacting to movements within the industry, as developers are exploring different ways to get the word out about upcoming games?

Biddle: I think open development has become standard for a lot of developers now, with early access on Steam being the extreme example. Vlambeer have opened up entirely by livestreaming their development sessions once a week, Tom Francis has had great success talking up his games with his developer diaries. This is really just our first chance to do the same thing.

I guess this may seem like a change to some because Curve is unlike most other companies in that we have a publishing team alongside our creative team. Because our publishing output over the past two years has been so prolific and frequent, our public profile has focused more on that work and we've become more strongly associated with it. Original games take longer to develop and so thereas a much greater span of time between the last time we did this (2011) and today, but otherwise I donat see it as a big change in direction when all of our ten year history is considered.

How do you plan to stand out from all the other similar sorts of space exploration games that are currently in-dev and doing the rounds? Are there particular design elements that you're planning to push hard that you think will set the game apart?

Biddle: I think our game is going to be a lot more focused than, say Star Citizen or No Man's Sky. The game will be strictly bound to the surfaces of planets for a start, and will concentrate on making that part as enjoyable as it can be. Iam not interested in trading, or exploration for explorationas sake. Iave always made games that revel in the moment-to-moment, and White Space will be no different. Iam interested in creating an organic combat game that ebbs and flows, has depth and complexity, and rewards lengthy play. Itas going to be more Halo meets Starglider rather than Elite meets Proteus.

However, the combat will be a part of a series of systems that will interact; it wonat simply be a shooting game. Cities, outposts and other civilisations will be on the surface of the planet and youall interact with them in different ways, including infiltrating them or using them to combat each other. Attacking an outpost should always be a strategic endeavour too, so choosing how to approach something will be key.

I guess it's similar to how Far Cry 2 was structured in a way? Explore around, execute a mission, get it wrong and have to replan on the fly. This is to say nothing about the hacking mechanic which should create a wealth of more in-depth interactions, or the upgrade path that will be open to the player across the course of the game.


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