Interview: Stardock's Brad Wardell on the return of Star Control

We talk to Stardock founder Brad Wardell about what makes this series special, and how he’s creating a 64-bit reboot for a new generation...

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Interview: Stardock's Brad Wardell on the return of Star Control

Created by Fred Ford and Paul Reiche III, and published by Accolade in 1992, Star Control II is a high watermark in the history of PC gaming. Combining space exploration, gripping starship combat, and first contact with a galaxy full of oddball aliens, it is fondly remembered by a generation of PC gamers. 

The franchise was recently bought by Stardock, and a reboot is in the works. When we recently caught up with Stardock CEO Brad Wardell the first thing he wanted to impress on us was the magnitude of the production. “It’s definitely our biggest project ever.”

His team is currently working on the planetary exploration aspect of the game, where you can send a shuttle down to hunt for resources. As revealed in the recent teaser trailer, what was an abstract, 2D game mode in SC2 is now rendered in full 3D.

“From an engineering point of view it’s an interesting challenge, because this game has many different parts to it, but it has to be seamless. No-one wants to sit there and wait for a planet to load. You need to be able to go to the spherical planet, land on it, do stuff, have interesting adventures, and then be able to leave in one swoop, and it has to work on a reasonably powerful machine.” 

To this end Star Control: Origins is being built with Nitrous, the powerful 64-bit engine from Oxide that made possible the spectacular action in Ashes of the Singularity. “People love Star Control, and people ask: ‘Why hasn’t anyone taken that basic formula?’ Well, it’s because Star Control is actually several games put into one. You have the planet exploration, you have the ship battles, and you have the alien story part, you have the star system exploration... it’s a lot of different what we call ‘graphical scenes.’ 

“Most engines today are designed with one scene, altogether. A typical Unreal game is a single scene. Civilization: a single scene. Even Ashes of the Singularity is only a single scene. So when you’re switching between these very different views, you’re bouncing between lots of hardware resources, because you can almost accomplish anything if you throw enough hardware at it, versus what Nitrous brings to the table.” 

Specifically, a mass amount of multi-threaded support. “For example, if you have at least a four-core machine, we can do all kinds of stuff to all the different scenes simultaneously, while the player’s playing, without it slowing down the main game. That allows you to seamlessly transition to a planet, or back to a battle, or to another completely different scene. From a technical point of view, that’s what makes Nitrous exciting for us.” 

The ship combat in the early Star Control games was a riff on Spacewar – one-on-one battles on a 2D plane with a gravity well. Early in production, Brad’s team decided they wanted to try something a tad more ambitious for Origins. “We wanted to be able to show fleet combat. So your ship was one of several ships in a fleet battling it out almost like a MOBA. Visually, it was very satisfying. But from a gameplay point of view we ended up throwing it out. It might make for a good game; it did not make for a good Star Control game. Because what happened was, in single-player, if the AI was dumb, which it was at the start of this, the player was just super-frustrated, because they could end up losing a battle because their team-mates flying the other ships were stupid.” They persisted with this paradigm for a while, working under the belief that once they got the AI working it would all fall into place. But it didn’t work out that way.  

“What happened was that once the AI got smart, the player ended up being relatively irrelevant to the outcome of the battle [laughs]. Because the AI could just take care of most of the battle for them. So we ultimately have come back to the one-on-one ship design that’s much more like the original Star Control. Except with updated graphics.” This isn’t a bad thing. SC2 wasn’t just a solo space RPG; the stand alone multi-player mode was immensely satisfying, a knife-edge duel. “At the end of the day what makes Super Melee fun is that it is battle of very decisive skill.” 

In SC2 the ships of each race had unique abilities, like fighter squadrons, or space marines that could board enemy ships. The Nitrous engine makes far more exotic weapons possible. “We can have weapons that do interesting things gravitationally, on the fly. Star Control II had gravity wells, but they were pre-canned. But now we can have weapons that can greatly increase the gravitational pull at a particular point, and you can start to set traps and stuff for your opponents.

“Another thing that’s really fun is having weapons that can basically, reproduce. So you’ve got to kill the guy, your opponent, or he will eventually overwhelm you with this junk. We really couldn’t have done that back in ‘92 without the entire simulation coming apart.” 

As for the story, Star Control: Origins will be a complete reboot, with all-new aliens and an all-new adventure. “It would not be realistic to do a sequel 25 years later. Not to mention Star Control II kinda tied things up.” Another factor is that part of the appeal of the franchise is the first contact experience. “If you already know Star Control, and you’re meeting the Ur-Quan, it doesn’t matter what they say. You know they’re the bad guys.” 

When designing these new aliens Brad’s team wanted to stay as far away as possible from your cliché Star Trek-style humanoid aliens, and make them genuinely peculiar beings to interact with. “For example, we have an alien that is purely aquatic. It’s water-based. Because we thought, statistically if there’s intelligent life there’s probably a decent chance it’s aquatic. 

“Then we also have ones that survive off of the energy provided by stars. It’s literally a space creature that lives in space and has evolved through that, over the aeons.” In the space combat mode this race is its own ship, rendered and behaving as an intricate swarm, like a school of space-fish. 

“Then we got some that are a little bit more traditional, that are slug-based. That look like slugs [laughs]. Or other strange types. But we’ve tried not to have humanoids.”

As in SC2, the player’s mothership will be modular, upgradeable, and customisable, but this time it won’t be an exotic Precursor vessel – it will be late 21st Century human tech. “At the beginning of the game you really need to rely on your alien allies and friends that you meet to help because your ship is just so... embarrassing. And by the end your ship is just a butt-kicker.” 

The conversation system is being built with some of the same technology behind the diplomacy in Sid Meier’s Civilization V. “We knew that we were going to end up with a lot of writing, so we decided to make it so that the aliens are procedurally generated, and their mouths will move based on what the voice actor says. Rather than some poor animator having to manipulate the whole thing.” 

Cracked.com writer Chris Bucholz has been working on the story full time for three years now, and Brad can’t even estimate how long it would take to finish every last side-quest. “If someone just wants to beeline through the main thing, that’s probably like 40 hours. But to find everything? No-one actually knows. 

“I can tell you who doesn’t love this game: the people in QA.” 

On top of all that content, Star Control: Origins will also come with an editor that will allow users to create and share their own space oddities on Steamworks. “So if someone wants to make a Star Control 2 or something, I suppose they could [laughs].”

One of the most memorable aspects of SC2 was the music, all of which was created in the MOD file format popular at the time. For Origins, Brad hired the Finnish composer who came up with the distinctive themes for the Thraddash and the Yehat. “We actually are working with Riku Nuottajärvi, who did most of the best-known themes from Star Control back in the day. He was actually just a kid back then. He’s obviously an adult now. He’s handling pretty much all the music in the new Star Control.” 

All the component parts that make Star Control work seem to be in place, but in parting Brad wanted to stress on us that Origins is still quite a ways off. “I don’t want anyone getting their hopes up that this is coming out in a couple months. We’re still targeting probably some time this fall, but we’ll have to see. We’re not in any hurry. I mean, it’s Star Control. It needs to be done right.”

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