Gamers of a certain age will remember that the PC used to be the home of many a classic space combat game. X-Wing, TIE Fighter and Wing Commander were among the most famous (and you’re surely aware by now that the latter’s creator has a new project), and even the X-COM series had a crack with X-COM: Interceptor. Sadly, the genre fell into decline and was almost forgotten, but Guildford-based Born Ready Games aims to change that with Strike Suit Zero, a title that mixes space combat, giant robots and some of the biggest starships you’ve ever seen.
Strike Suit Zero drops the player into the midst of enormous and incandescent space battles. Gargantuan capital ships crawl lazily through the blackness as fighters streak between them, dogfighting or making strafing runs, while the player sits at the controls of a craft powerful enough to tip the balance of the battle. Earth’s future is at stake and its your job to fight off wave after wave of enemy fighters and take apart their capital ships piece by piece.
The titular Strike Suit put at your disposal isn’t simply another bigger and slightly beefier fighter craft, it’s also a vessel capable of transforming into a giant robot at the flick of a switch, a metamorphosis that makes it a very different engine of war with its own separate control method and special abilities. While a fighter craft can bank and yaw, a Giant Space Robot (the correct term, I believe) can sidestep and weave its way through a dogfight in third-person. James Brooksby, CEO of Born Ready, says this was because the team wanted to bring something different to space combat, and not merely echo the classics of the past.
“We were playing some of the old games and, as much as we loved them, they do play similarly and they have restrictions in the way they play,” he says. “With my rose-tinted specs on, I was arguing quite early about how awesome these games were, but they took a while to install, they took a while to get going, then we played them we were both going ‘Maybe it’s not as good as I remembered it.’”
Sacrilege? Perhaps not. “Things have come along, people have new game design conventions, so we wanted to bring some of those new design conventions in,” Brooksby explains. “One of the early things was, okay, we need the ship to have more inertial movement, so we looked at Colony Wars, which allows you to slide around things and make more dynamic movement. The bit that we wanted to avoid, which was more in the non-physics, early space games, was just flying around on each other’s tails. In early Wing Commander, early X-Wing, that happens a lot.”
Adding a new combat craft with a new kind of control scheme wasn’t just about changing the way that dogfights were fought, it was also an opportunity to give players control of something a little bit special that had “the ability to truly take people on” and that Brooksby says is “devastating” in its ability to suddenly transform and flip 180 degrees, sidestep its way out of enemy fire and blast off a volley of missiles.
Born Ready have also created a campaign that they say is, in spite of its linearity, still very much shaped by the player’s successes and failures. Your performance on a mission will affect have repercussions for those that follow, while the metagame tracks just how well you’re defending Earth, leading you to different endgame states. “That metagame not only changes things within missions, giving you different feedback depending on what you did, how well you did,” says Brooksby, “it subtly changes the story background. Also, it affects what happens to Earth itself at the end of the game.”
As we mentioned last week, Strike Suit Zero is enjoying a very healthy Kickstarter campaign, although it didn’t begin life as a crowdfunded project. The game has been in development for well over a year and the Kickstarter funding is only needed to see it through to completion. At the time of writing, the campaign has gained considerable support, already raising $89,000 of its $100,000 target. With over two weeks to go and thousands of dollars arriving each day, it looks like Born Ready will more than match their target and will have an enthusiastic audience when the game is released. Not bad for a game in a largely forgotten genre.
But the relative obscurity of space combat games doesn’t bother the team. Brooksby says that, while publishers claim that space combat games are “niche,” those niches can still be large enough to attract a considerable audience, particularly if publishers aren’t part of the equation and developers turn to digital distribution.
“The space combat market is limited. I think it’s perfectly fair to say these things,” he says. “It’s niche, but it’s big enough for us, as independent game makers, who can reach the customers direct. There are loads of opportunities to reach people directly, so we’re seeing what were niches doing really, really well.” And, he adds, sometimes games break out of those niches, reminding publishers that they shouldn’t draw broad conclusions.
“The one we often quote now is World of Tanks,” he goes on. “World of Tanks was a tank simulator. Now, a tank simulator, to all the boxed publishers? They turned that down, they just went ‘That’s ridiculous, that’s the smallest niche you could possibly imagine.’ Actually, it’s a pretty big niche and that niche is monetizing in such an incredible way that they’re kicking themselves royally and going ‘Hang on a minute, niches can be big.’”
I’m not entirely sure that space combat ever was a niche or a minority interest, but I have to concede that, all those years ago, we somehow left it behind. Regardless of whether that niche ever really existed, or still does, it looks like Strike Suit Zero is well on its way to finding its audience. The game enters beta later this year and is slated for release in early 2013, so you have a few months yet to prepare to save the earth.