As gamers, we often get to watch a game progress from the time it hits Early Access or when it reveals its intentions through Kickstarter. For the space simulator, In The Black, the journey has been well worth the wait. At its inception, In The Black was originally known as Starfighter Inc. Veteran developers, writers, and designers are making what could be the next Star Wars: X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter (considering the lead on that game, David Wessman, is the Producer here). The Director, Jack Mamais, has credits that include Crysis, FarCry, and the MechWarrior series. MMOGames had a chance to sit down with Jack to talk about the game, from the original space sim idea to the successful Kickstarter campaign to what comes next for the starry-eyed game.
Alright, so the first question is easy: What is In The Black?
In The Black is an intense online space combat simulator with a laser focus on combat. Everything in the game is researched and designed in consultation with aerospace engineers and space scientists in order to put players in the most lethal machines ever devised. The core gameplay experience is an evolution of the classic cockpit shooters of the 1990s. You pilot a nuclear-powered spacecraft and engage other players in highly tactical battles using a variety of futuristic weapons such as railguns, missiles, and lasers.
In The Black is also our dream game. It’s a true passion project for all of us! We started development about six years ago, but the concept really goes back to the 1990s when we were thinking about where the genre should go next. We loved the space combat games of that era, but wondered “what would this be like if it was real?” As in realistic spacecraft and weapons and a strong respect for the science in our science fiction. Our goal is to give players an experience like no other and to use the idea of realistic spaceflight physics as a core design pillar. We’re really happy with how well we’ve realized that vision (at least as much as today’s computers let us). The journey so far has been amazing, and we’re hoping that as more people learn about us, they’ll want to join in.
The original name was Starfighter Inc. Why did the name change and what does it mean?
Starfighter Inc. was really always our working title, but it is also the name of a private military company (PMC) that appears in the game. Pilots will log into the Starfighter Inc. ‘portal’ and be able to select contracts as well as stay tuned into the PMC news of the day. They frown on being called “mercenaries” (at least by outsiders!) Our final name In The Black not only signifies spending all of the game in the void of space, (i.e. the Black), but also having to be a successful private military contractor. They must always make a profit to stay in business (i.e. the bottom line has to be kept in the black).
This game started as a Kickstarter a couple years ago. How has it changed since the original Alpha builds that went public?
We actually had two Kickstarter campaigns. We reached 90% of our goal with the first one, learned from our mistakes, and succeeded with the second one. Since our alpha was released to backers last year, we’ve been listening closely to their feedback and working hard to integrate that into what we will ultimately release. For instance, many players wanted more immediate combat scenarios with killer action so we created an “arena combat” mode called “BloodSport” in which pilots can compete against others to build their skills and in-game bank accounts. Among many other improvements, we’ve also worked very hard to optimize the way the ships work so we can get more players in a match.
Comparing to old Star Wars games, what sets this apart from other space faring games like Elite Dangerous, Eve Online, and other space games?
Quite frankly, many of those other games (especially post 2010) are mostly exploration and trade type games. While that is fantastic and we are fans of them, we wanted our game to be purely about tactical space combat. Our pilots will only spend their time modifying their ships for battle and in white hot combat itself rather than doing expeditions to strange planets or mining asteroids for ore. Also, some of those games have major violations of known science which tips them more toward fantasy than science fiction.
What’s the story and lore in the game? Who do you play as?
You play a private military contractor hiring yourself out to various corporations for a variety of services that require armed spacecraft and skilled pilots. The initial setting is the Saturn system 200 years from now. There’s a lot going on as various megacorporations vie for advantage and engage in limited covert wars against each other. No one wants an all out war – it would be catastrophically destructive and everyone would lose. But sometimes marketing muscle and legal maneuvers aren’t quite enough…
We’re focusing more on worldbuilding than traditional storytelling. There are two reasons for this. First, we believe it is more important to flesh out the world and how it works. What are the big drivers of conflict? One of those drivers is the gradual shift from primarily fission-based nuclear power (dominated by megacorps in the inner system) to fusion-based (dominated by megacorps in the outer system). So, who are these megacorps, and what do they do? Naturally, as a combat pilot, you’re especially interested in the companies that make the gear you use. Our first priority in narrative then is making the world of the game feel like a real place.
Second, we have an ambitious goal to create a narrative that evolves based on what players do. We’re developing extensive backstories on each of the corporations and the people who run them. We have a lot of scenarios planned that will define the story based on the statistically dominant outcomes of those battles. Those outcomes will determine which way the story goes from there.
The story was worked on by the legendary Rusel DeMaria. How much of the story was written by him and how has it changed since he finished?
While he was active on the project, Rusel was our lead writer, and he was always working closely with David Wessman, Zach El Hajj, and myself. It’s proven to be a dynamic combination because Rusel is very prolific and likes to think big in terms of theme and meaningful characters. David and Zach are more detail-oriented and focus on what’s realistic. I, generally, have a great instinct regarding what is truly exciting and actually engages people. Other members of the team also contribute ideas, so it’s really an organic beast that keeps evolving as it develops and we’re constantly learning new things that inspire us.
What other games have you or your team worked on?
Among several other successful games like Blood Wake and Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, Saints Row, David was the lead writer and a mission designer for the entire X-Wing series of Star Wars space combat simulators. Our executive producer, Edmar Mendizabal, was a producer on THQ’s Frontlines: Fuel of War and Homefront, as well as the indie multiplayer title, Ravaged (all multiplayer-focused games based on the Unreal Engine, which is also the game engine for In The Black). I had the pleasure to act as Director on Mechwarrior 2: Ghost Bear’s Legacy and Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries, among other Activision Titles. I was also Lead Designer on the PC Games Far Cry and Crysis.
Knowing this is an indie title, how big is the team working on this game? Did that affect production time much?
The team size varies from 12-20 people depending on what our devs are needed for or involved with outside the game. Most of the team have day jobs, so this has always been a slow burn project. We move as fast as needed to get the job done. We’ve chosen not to have publishers pushing us for arbitrary deadlines (even though we always have internal milestones) so we can make the game that our player’s deserve.
Does the game have a single player mode? What’s the multiplayer like? How many ways can I play this game? Is there more coming?
Initially, the single player mode was primarily intended for training and tutorials, but we are developing more single player content in response to backer feedback. In fact, we are showing off two cool new single player experiences at the upcoming Gamescom 2019 show in Europe. One portrays a typical “debris sweep” mission to protect a high value asset from a swarm of debris, and the other features the interior tunnel system of an asteroid mining facility and portrays a cyber strike using information warfare to take over the facility.
Our multiplayer features multiple battlespaces (maps) and many of them have unique game modes that keep it from being just a team deathmatch game. For instance, one mission may have your team escorting a freighter through a hostile area of space (while your opponents are tasked with taking it down) while another may have a team trying to disable or destroy a capital ship closing in on an opposing corporation’s space logistics station. We give our scenario designers enormous freedom when it comes to coming up with cool game mode ideas.
How in-depth is the customization within the game? Is it individual mods for the ships or just paint jobs?
Our customization is very deep. On the cosmetic side, our lead artist, Remco van den Berg, set up a customization feature that gives players tremendous options to express their creativity. Each ship will have a collection of schemas which determine where colors and/or material types go on the ships. They are divided into primary, secondary, tertiary and metallic layers. The player can choose colors, metals and patterns from a library of options to deck out their ship and make some awesome looking combinations. Truthfully, it’s so fun we’ve spent hours just making up cool new designs from my ships. My favorite looks like it has the paint scheme of the 1966 Batmobile! Depending on the ship there are also customization options for light colors and glass colors. As we roll out more updates we are planning for additional features like decal placement, pilot customization, and hangar customizations.
Beside the cosmetic customization, players can also customize their ship’s loadout. Determined by the ship’s type, amount of hardpoints, and hardpoint size they can choose what kind and how many weapons they equip on their ships. You want to focus all your on-board energy to overheat enemy ships? Deck out your ship with just lasers and fire away. You want to take a more defensive approach, add EMP turrets to take out any incoming smart missiles and temporarily disable enemy ships to play the team game and make them sitting ducks for your teammates. And, of course, almost every component and weapon can be upgraded.
The website mentions it’s “free to play”. Do those that backed the Kickstarter get any bonuses or special items for being long-term fans?
Absolutely! As we discussed on our Kickstarter, one big reason for being free-to-play is that it’s a multiplayer focused game and it’s important to have as many players as possible for the best experience. We also want this game to be as accessible as possible, even to players that may not be able to afford the typical cost of a retail game.
Regarding backers, they have had a huge influence in the direction of our game. We are listening closely to their comments and working hard to put out a game that they will be very happy with. Most Kickstarter rewards are specific to backers, including the game package that backers receive, which is why we refer to it as the “Founders Edition”. We’ll be showing off some of these items prior to launch, including Founder’s Edition schemas and badges. Depending on the reward tier and whether they backed our first Kickstarter campaign, they will receive even more bonuses such as the “First Responders” schema and badge.
Tell me about the science used for the game. How realistic is it?
Our Newtonian physics model follows the laws of real-life physics in space. For example, the center of gravity of the ship designs and placement of RCS (reaction control system) thrusters throughout the ship determine the stability of the ship itself. Our Heat model simulates the dissipation of heat generated throughout the ship, which is a big problem of operating vessels in space. Damage caused by lasers also has a big impact on a ship’s heat output, which some ships will manage better than others.
Our lead science advisor, Zach El Hajj, is a treasure. He is currently getting his PhD in physics at the University of Notre Dame and he reviews or helps design everything we put in the game. In fact, he designed most of the ships and retrofitted the science into the ships that were designed before he joined us. He’s the one that actually knows the math behind everything. For example, he calculates the performance attributes of all the ships and their weapons systems using a physics model that incorporates accurate Newtonian mechanics and thermodynamics, as well as the sometimes exotic materials that the ships are made of and the propellants they use. At the end of the process, everything has to be able to work as if it were something being built in the real world.
Tell us more about how the science was checked and double checked!
David Wessman is also involved with keeping us ‘honest’ regarding the science, but his expertise also includes a surprising variety of topics including military and intelligence operations, politics, economics, technical and industrial development, as well as being a major nerd when it comes to anything military or space related. He has this wonderful ability to quickly find amazingly relevant references that help us project what the future might actually look like in a few hundred years.
We also have to give a shout out to Atomic Rockets and ToughSF. These are unparalleled resources for anyone who cares about getting the science right. And NASA. Those guys have been pretty helpful.
That being said, at the end of the day this is an entertainment project and it must be fun. And while we are doing our best to model all of these complex systems and dynamics accurately, we sometimes have to model things in a more simplified or even abstract way. Even so, we have been pretty faithful to the science so far and we’re confident that most people will be happy. However, if Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory (or his real life equivalent) decides to pull out a slide rule and find mistakes, he’s sure to find a few.
How difficult is the game to play? With that much realism, is it hard to control? Can someone use a controller or does it have to be mouse and keyboard?
There is a learning curve to flying a real spaceship in space but we have designed tutorials to ease players into the game. Generally, people are flying pretty well within about 10 minutes, so it’s not bad at all, and amazingly fun when you start to get the hang of it. Ironically, as aerospace systems become more advanced, they become easier to learn and operate than they were in the past. This is thanks to the increasing sophistication of in-flight controls and pilot vehicle interfaces that automate much of the tasks that used to require a lot of the pilot’s attention (and a lot of training). Now, pilots are increasingly focused simply on the mission, and not monitoring a hundred status indicators!
We are designing for many input devices and will eventually get to most of them but right now we are focusing on mouse and keyboard, joysticks, HOTAS, and gamepads. All of those will work great by the time we launch.
When are we expecting a full game to ship and what platforms/stores will we find it on?
We are a PC game first, with no current plans for consoles. We have not made any announcements on which stores we will be launching on but as a multiplayer-focused title, our goal is to get it to as many players as possible. As far as our commercial launch, right now we are focused on the Founder’s Edition for our backers and will be following up the Alpha (which was released in May 2018), with our Beta – which will have more features than we originally promised and will be released in the next few months. Pending backer feedback and any needed changes, a commercial “early access” release will follow not too long after.
Once the game is fully out, what are the plans for future content in it? Is it going to be an evolving world?
Our goal is to continuously update the game and add new content. We’re inspired by the success of games like Warframe and Subnautica, so we’re confident we’ll be extending and improving the game for some time to come. We have dozens of ship concepts, weapon systems, and scenario ideas in the early concept stages, not to mention new features and game modes, and an entire solar system to place new battlespaces in.
Can we expect the game to work in VR? Will that affect the controller capabilities?
We have supported an alpha VR mode since launch because it’s such a natural and obvious fit. We are still working out the logistics of devoting the necessary resources to creating an optimized and polished VR version, so it becomes remains to be seen how quickly we’ll be able to do that.
What would you recommend for a newcomer to the game? Any tips?
Play the tutorials and get very good at controlling your ship. Study all your weapons and component types and configure them to fit the style of pilot you are looking to be. We feel pilots that specialize will be the most successful.
Check out more details about the upcoming space sim, In The Black, and Impeller Studios on their official website!
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