Halcyon 6, the indie game by Massive Damage, Inc., attempts a bold experiment that few games manage to get right. It's a mashup of strategy game, RPG, and space opera. It tries to juggle elements from many different genres and sources of inspiration, and manages to balance its disparate systems without diluting any of them. And all the while, it maintains a sense of urgency and momentum that’s difficult enough to pull off in a standard strategy title.
Players manage the clearing out and rebuilding of a massive space station while fending off alien threats in turn-based combat (both hidden within the station and out amongst the stars in the form of hostile alien fleets), and complete missions in the quest to ensure humanity’s survival. The various phases of the game all manage to feel essential, one never taking obvious precedence over the others.
According to Ken Seto, Massive Damage’s co-founder and CEO, the original inspiration for Halcyon 6’s ambitious approach came from an enduring love for 90s space adventure games that also blended genres. “I noticed a distinct shortage of space games like the ones I used to play growing up, series like Starflight and Star Control," he says. "They had RPG elements, planet exploration, arcade style combat, choose-your-own-adventure sequences, and dialog systems. Most of the current breed of space games are either super-dense 4X style hardcore strategy games or some kind of first-person shooter/simulation/RPG hybrid. There was a gap that wasn't being filled.”
Halcyon 6's retro art meshes well with its homage to 90s space adventure titles like Starflight and Star Control
Massive Damage began life as a mobile game studio and found success with their 2011 zombie apocalypse title, Please Stay Calm, but Seto says the team longed to create the kind of games they loved as kids. “Our development process was much more iterative with Halcyon,” Seto says.
The game went through a successful Kickstart and an Early Access period before its full release in September. But Seto says that getting the mix of disparate elements just right proved to be a daunting challenge. “We were building a game that wasn’t easily tied down to any one genre," he says. "While we were using some established models for the individual systems (XCOM-like base building and JRPG-style combat, for example) mashing them together in a cohesive design was much harder than anticipated... and we anticipated it would be quite hard.”
Halcyon 6 is a game defined by meshing together a lot of complicated moving parts. “We had to tackle each system one at a time,” Seto says. “The first and longest to nail down was combat. I think we went through about 5 to 6 different combat systems, everything ranging from MMO-style real-time to hybrid turn-based to full turn-based as you see it in the final product. It took us almost a year of prototyping and playtesting to ‘find the fun’ and lock down the combat system.”
Seto and his team used combat as the anchor around which to build out their other systems. “The next major system was the mission system, and it became a central driver of how we created the content for the game. We had to rewrite that one a couple of times as our game evolved."
The same went for the star map and navigation system. “The star map’s navigation and mission system took about 9 months," he says. "The starbase construction was about 6 months and the remaining 3 months were spread to the supporting screens."
The massive amount of work involved eventually meant assigning systems to individual members of the team. "We had 3 separate developers, each working on one a major system at a time.”
Even the way the team incorporated RPG elements was a hybrid of varied approaches. “We started from a mashup of XCOM and Jagged Alliance’s way of treating player characters. We wanted really cool backgrounds for each of our officers but we also wanted players to infuse them with their own personalities.”
The team at Massive Damage is now hard at work on expansions, and filling in planned features that fell by the wayside during development. “Cutting features and streamlining happens during every game’s development," he says. "This is not necessarily a bad thing on its own. If you do it right, you end up making the game better. One of the things that were cut due to lack of time and money before launch was the majority of the Kickstarter stretch goals content. We’re currently working away at those right now.”
Seto says all the Kickstarter stretch goal content will be free to download, and that the team has plans for a paid DLC pack that will let players switch roles and experience life as a villainous space pirate. Future plans also include the inclusion of mod tools so the community can build its own content.
But Seto and the team take pride in assembling a veritable Frankenstein’s monster of genres and influences into a satisfying whole. “It was a risky bet, and definitely slowed down our development to manage so many different systems, but we’re lucky and relieved that it paid off.”