Interview: Egosoft on how X Rebirth is rebooting the space genre

xrebirth99334

X Rebirth has finally warped into release; here’s our X Rebirth review.

X Rebirth launches on Friday. Egosoft’s space simulator has torn down everything the decades old series has built, stood proudly atop the debris and vowed to create something beautiful from its remains: an open universe, cosmos exploration game in which you’re free to pursue a career in piracy, trading, or barreling through hyper-dense space stations making pew pew pew sounds.

I spoke to Bernd Lehahn, founder and manager of Egosoft, about the challenge of rebooting the long-running X series, the expectations of fans and the mechanics of accurately modelled interstellar capitalism. Here’s what he told me.

PCGamesN: Maybe we can start by talking about how long X Rebirth has been in development. Why is this game taking so long compared to previous titles like Albion Prelude and Terran Conflict?

Bernd Lehahn: That’s a good question! X Rebirth is a complete redesign and restart. Terran Conflict and Albion Prelude were more or less expansions to X3: Reunion. They were sold as standalone games, but they were based on the same engine, and that’s also why they were just considered “Act 3”.

But when we released X3: Reunion in 2005, we already knew that we had to really change some things, because the game was getting complicated and increasingly more difficult to get into for new players. The fans love the fact that we add features on top of features to the game and listen to what they want, and that’s a good way of working because you always have something to build up on.

But the problem is that this also means that new players will unintentionally have a much, much harder time of getting into the game, because of the user interface but also just simply because you have so many features available right from the start of the game, and the designers never took that into account. The game design was created in 1999, basically, when X Beyond the Frontier was done, and since then we’ve just been adding features.

And now there are some features that just don’t work so well together, and some are even silly when you look at them. The ability to fly a capital ship from a cockpit view is always one of the examples that I pick out, we added that because the fans requested it.

it is definitely a cool feature and I can understand why everybody wants to have it, and it is a bit controversial that we took that out for X Rebirth, but it was a pretty easy decision for me to remove it. It just doesn’t work the with usual input, because if you have a joystick and you have this large capital ship and you steer in any direction; these ships have to turn slowly. This is just something that simply doesn’t make sense from a cockpit perspective. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be able to control capital ships, but not from a cockpit perspective, yeah?

PCGamesN: The addition of the highways means that you’ve gotten rid of time acceleration, right? How does this affect the rest of the game, in particular traders who would time accelerate to amass cash?

Bernd Lehahn: Yeah, that is just an ugly hack that isn’t possible anymore. Time acceleration was always an ugly hack – I never liked it, it’s just necessary because of the slowness that I described, and we tried to fix that slowness at the root with time acceleration. Accelerating time is not a good way of playing this game, and that’s not possible anymore, yeah.

I consider that cheating if, like you mentioned, you just leave the game running. We always try to fight it. Also, with the past games we did do things to basically punish the player when they did leave the game running by having a higher chance of enemies attacking your stations while you’re not watching.

Like I said, there are things that we are changing, and some people won’t be happy about it. That’s also the reason why X Rebirth isn’t called X4 – it is a different game. We are not trying to make everybody happy, we’re trying to make as many people as possible happy, and that means sometimes some of the hardcore fans will have to face a couple of things they don’t like. But I think overall we are pretty sure that the majority of people will love it, because there are so many cool new things and we are doing these things for a reason, and the overall goal is always to make the game more fun and better overall.

The trading aspect that you mentioned is a good example – it’s much more believable and authentic now… amassing money happens through just having larger and bigger operations. In the past you were able to trade an unrealistically large amount with unrealistically small ships, that is not possible anymore.

Now you transport the goods in large capital ships that work for you, and those ships need time to be loaded and unloaded, this shows the epicness of large transporter ships docking and undocking, and we were able to decouple that from your normal gameplay, because you don’t have to babysit the ship all the time. Instead you can give it commands to land, to buy wares and sell them somewhere else and in the meantime you can do something completely different.

If you focus on trading, you can still do that manually but you can also fly around and look for new offers, you fly around to collect and discover discounts. But whenever you look at your automated trading ships, you can see that it’s all really happening and that these ships are loaded with lots of little transporter drones and all of that is presented in a much more realistic and authentic way.

PCGN: One of the biggest changes that I’ve noticed fans react to, and I’m sure you probably feel quite defensive towards this question now because you’ve had to explain it so many times, is just having a single player ship. How do you think that changes the feel of the game, if at all?

Bernd Lehahn:As I said in the beginning; not everybody will be happy with every decision. I know that people would like to have more ships to fly. It is, though, going back to our roots, because that’s also what we had in X: Beyond the Frontier.

But as I also explained many, many times, just because you only have one player ship doesn’t mean you only fly one ship – there are many ways of owning other ships and operating them. Capital ships, as soon as they are in your command group, you do control them. You control them from within your HUD for example. It’s not just that you can communicate with the captain and give him commands, that is similar to how we did it in past games, but you can also more directly give commands by clicking on objects in your HUD.

For example, if you want to mine an asteroid field, you see the things that you want to pick up, but you don’t pick them up personally, you let them be picked up by your capital ships and they send a drone to do it for you, and there’s no big barrier there. Because they are in your group, the AI always knows what you want those ships to do – “this is a mining ship, it is in your group, here is an asteroid field, there are crystals” …as soon as you tick them, the captain just confirms and sends out drones to pick them up.

I think this fits much, much better with large ships and their slowness, and then at the other end of the extreme there are also those little drones that you can personally control from first person with the help of your ship’s virtual reality glasses.

The reason why there is only one player ship is because it allows us to have epic presentation, the ship is much more detailed than anything we’ve ever done in the past – you can move around inside the ship, you have NPCs that you can hire and that work inside that ship, it has a cockpit with all the real instruments in it… yeah. Maybe we will have more ships in later games, but at the moment there is only one.

And it’s going through a lot of changes; this is a very special ship, also historically, and it also helps with the storytelling. This is not just one of many ships, but a very special one. You get it in the plot at the beginning in a very damaged state, and you repair it and it develops – it has its own story and that of course also works much better with only one ship.

PCGN: You were talking about how the space genre seems to be coming back into fashion. David Braben is bringing back Elite, Chris Roberts is working on Star Citizen… where do you think the X Rebirth fits into this new wave of space games?

Bernd Lehahn: Oh I’m very excited to see Star Citizen looking so great, and I’m really looking forward to seeing more of it. For us, it’s pretty simple; we’ve never been away, we’ve always been here and I think it’s definitely a big chance for us as well, because this will bring a new attention to the genre as a whole. I was always confident that space games by themselves don’t have to be a niche market, you can see that the only inherent thing about space games is the science fiction topic, and the science fiction top in itself is not a niche – you can see that in movies: Star Wars is not niche.

If a game like Star Citizen brings in a couple of million new fans into the genre, that is definitely good news for us as well because, while I’m sure that Star Citizen will be a great game, Im also very sure there will be big differences between Star Citizen and our game.

PCGN: And you guys have 25 years of experience under your belt, so would you say that gives you some advantage?

Bernd Lehahn: No, that’s not how I would put it. Mr Roberts has as much experience as we do, and he has more money – I’m sure he’ll have some things he does better than we do, it’s just that our game is huge. It has so many different areas; the building aspect, the economy, the way we do the economy… I think that that’s one of the core values of the X game, that you have this authentic, simulated economy. For example, many games have some kind of trading in them, but most of them do this from a top-down logic, which means it’s based on what the player sees, which is always a little bit fake. You create prices so that you have an interesting economy from the point of view of the player.

Obviously, what we are doing is much more realistic… we really simulate the entire economy of the universe, and look at what’s happening. We have agents that are trading between hundreds of different stations, and each station manufactures something that another station consumes. Everything comes back, basically, to resources which are mined at the bottom of that economy, and everything is transferred through many stages into tech products at the top end of the economy; things like ships, things like weapons and components for ships.

There are many values about the X games that I think set us apart from some competition; that definitely doesn’t mean that these games are not as good, they are just different and there is a lot of room for different games in this genre, especially in a genre that has had so few games in the past.

PCGN: It’s interesting that you mention one of the values of the X series being this economy that doesn’t exist just to benefit the player – is this also one of the reasons why you’ve decided to keep it as a single-player experience? Because that sort of economy couldn’t work in a multiplayer game?

Bernd Lehahn: I wouldn’t say it couldn’t work, it’s just a lot of work to get it working! Yeah, I mean it would actually be well suited for a massive multiplayer game, and there is EVE Online already. Before there was EVE Online, we were dreaming of a massively multiplayer game ourselves. When we were working on X: Beyond the Frontier, we were already dreaming of making an MMO one day, but it’s just too massive a project, so we concentrate on the single player aspect first, and do just smaller steps.

I’m not saying we’ll never go into online gameplay as well in the future, but at the moment we have more than enough new gameplay feature ideas that we will work on once X Rebirth is out and that is what we are really looking forward to; getting back into that mode where we have a game out, listen to what the fans want us to change, and then making little updates, updates, updates to the game – that’s how we’ve worked in the past and that’s also how we will work in the future.