When I saw the first trailer for Habitat, I was captivated by the unique qualities and focus on frenetic fun. Through my colleagues, I managed to get my hands on the GDC demo of the game, and was immediately impressed with the ideas on show. The moment I finished playing, I contacted Charles Cox, founder of 4gency and mastermind behind Habitat and asked for an interview.
The following is a shortened version of that conversation. The interview can be listened to in its entirety by following this link.
What is Habitat?
Habitat is a strategy game set in low-earth orbit and it’s about building space stations out of space junk.
What sort of personal goal do you want to achieve with Habitat?
my goal for building habitat is twofold. Number one, I’ve always wanted to play a game like this. It’s been a dream of mine since the early days of Buzz Aldrin’s Race Into Space for the PC that I’ve always wanted to get creative with orbital construction. In many ways, Habitat is a game I am building because it’s a game I wish were available for me to play.
Number two, I want to tell a story and give creative power and this kind of enjoyment to other people. I feel that Habitat is a game that is going to be better the more people play it, the more people create things and the more they share them with each other. There was a great opportunity to take this crazy dream I had, and go all in and build not just a game, but a creative platform, so that other people could enjoy and surprise everyone with the things they create. To me that was a thousand times more awesome than just playing the game myself. I knew I had to make this game.
What sort of challenges did you face while developing Habitat?
There have been quite a few. Habitat’s initial concept came to me in february of 2013, I was actually at the air and space museum in washington DC. At the time, the biggest challenge was that all I had were the words and pictures in my head. I saw how the game would play, but communicating that to others caused people to remain skeptical. I had to go very deliberately through each of the phases of explaining out this concept. There was concept art I commissioned from old buddies in the industry, and I made old powerpoint slide decks of how the game would play and what you were supposed to do; there was a lot of programmer art. People were impressed, but despite all that, there was never that sense of full on ignition, like “let’s go make this, this is incredible”
So eventually, I think it was probably July or August of 2013, I had gotten enough people together who were willing to donate their time to build a prototype of this game. It was fantastic, and it totally fell apart! Everybody wanted different things out of the prototype, and there were too many unanswered questions. Furthermore, my own job that I had at Microsoft was taking away so much of my time, that I couldn’t have a very active hand in leading this effort.
This team of like 6 or 7 people scattered, they did what they thought was right but it never gelled, so I was left with this prototype that didn’t make any sense, they scattered to the winds, and I called a halt. It was a really difficult time. I thought this was going to be my shot for sure, so I had to reset. After that, I finally realized this was only going to happen, I was only going to make the game I really want to make, if I gave every second to making this happen. That said, the only thing left to do was to quit my full time job and try this full time. Ultimately that’s what happened. I left Microsoft in September 2013 and the result is what you see in the GDC demo. It does have a purpose, direction and you and others can see what this is going to become. I know that we’ve got something special.
In the Kickstarter campaign video I noticed mention of your passion for space and the space camp that you attended. Did that influence or help the design of Habitat in any way?
What was great about space camp is that it was a taste of everything. We were there for 7-10 days or so, you lived in dorms, you had teams you were on, and you were doing all these different kinds of challenges. Building moon space stations and doing simulations like being a shuttle pilot. I think there wasn’t really a single experience in space camp that turned directly into “Construct orbital space stations and smash them together!” They certainly didn’t teach us to do that!
You’re someone who knows, thinks, and believes in games, and I know that, and a lot of times there’s a desire to take your experiences and have more fun with them than you did. That’s not to say space camp wasn’t fun because it was, but there was always this sense of “I really want to see if I can crash the simulator” You can look at that as sad in one way, but in another way, it’s how we kind of remix game ideas and it comes from a very primal place. To answer your question, there were a lot of experiences, not just space camp. The Museum of Flight was a popular destination for my mom and dad and me to go to together in Seattle. My father became the captain at American Airlines so I got to go to the simulators they ran down in texas.
What made you decide to create a Kickstarter for Habitat?
I think that a few things kind of came together. The first was that kickstarter has a history of not only being successful for projects of all kinds, but being especially successful for games, and even more so for PC games. At the time I was looking at Habitat, I was thinking about funding, and I thought “Okay how am I going to pay for this? How am I going to get on Steam?”. In Seattle there’s a lot of different options, but economic climate is pretty tough for game studios, especially indies.
There’s no small business loans going around any more. Angel investors in the area don’t see games as a legitimate risk, they’re into biotechnology, medical marijuana, and other things. There’s very definitive categories where investors are interested. More than that, in the games business I think there’s an unfortunate, and I hope temporary emphasis on ‘free to play’. I don’t particularly find myself designing good free to play games, and I don’t feel comfortable with it.
The question kind of ended up being “What’s the right way to fund a game that plays like Habitat does, and has this sandbox feel with a dedicated community who wants to give feedback?”. To me kickstarter is really like that holy grail moment, because it’s so perfectly aligned to the story of independent sandbox pc game development. It’s the best possible risk I could take because when I get my idea out in front of the audience, the players are going to tell me whether this is worth it or not.
Could you share any details about the campaign mode?
We have two big ideas for the way we want to do the campaign. The first is a traditional three act narrative structure. It will take you through a part creative, part narrative three act campaign, wherein you are racing against time to escape the earth.The earth is being eaten by nanomachines, and those nanomachines are starting to actually exit the atmosphere and contaminate low-earth orbit.
You as the player have to get further and further away from this place that humanity has called home forever, and get out into these very strange fields of space junk. Act 1 you learn to build, the junk is very pedestrian, a lot of school busses and space capsules and booster rockets and so on. In Act 2 you get further out and learn how to fight. That’s where you’re going to find weird weapons such as grappling hooks and particle accelerators, and that’s where you learn there is another habitat that you will have to fight. In Act 3, without revealing too much, it is kind of like going through the looking glass. Once you break out into this very stranger high earth graveyard orbit, it’s like an alien scrapyard. The weirdest stuff you can imagine, such as playing with physics and time. In that graveyard is where you find the means to save humanity and escape from the nanomachines.
The second idea for the campaign is where the term ‘Thousand Generation’s In Orbit’ comes from. This is a mode that is much more like a ‘rogue legacy’ way of building. Rather than holding onto a single habitat or timeline through a three act narrative, what you’re actually doing is you are building a space station, trying to complete smaller missions, but blowing yourself up in the process.
By failing, you’re actually rewarded with research points, and the way we string that narrative together is that if you blow up your habitat there’s a pause, and all of a sudden you’re looking at video of what you did wrong. The next generation of astronauts are reviewing your footage going “hmm, now that’s what happened the last time, so we’re not going to let this happen again, this time we have…” and they unveil the new research they’ve unlocked, which you get to choose through your tech tree. Using the new research you go up and try it again.
We will be listening to feedback from PAX East to build the campaign that fans want, but I don’t think that it’s the right thing to do to combine the two ideas. I think that would kind of give you a halfway experience both ways, so what I think we’d like to do is we’d like to build one of those campaigns in and then offer the second version as something that people can get after launch.
You briefly mentioned the tech tree, could you share any details on what kinds of things you’ll be able to unlock and how that will affect gameplay?
There aren’t a lot of details I can nail down just yet, but what we know is that through the gameplay that we’ve been exploring, there are certain paths of upgrades that we want to tackle. For instance, how your habitat manages its own resources and boosting production upgrades. These will essentially allow you to build larger habitats for less cost, so thats one path.
There is another path which you can go down which is your more war-like path. Having auto-sealing or auto-destruct connections so that you can jettison entire sections of your habitat quickly when in combat. That’s not as much about building and making bigger cities, but rather, staying agile, being able to react to changes and challenges, things like that.
The third path of research will have to do with your engineers. Right now, having multiple engineers is a consequence of having a certain number of citizens on board your habitat, and I think that there are things we’re going to want to empower engineers beyond just welding and repairing.
I want to look at tech tree upgrades the same way I look at achievements only in reverse. Achievements are about what you have done, and tech trees are about what you can do. In both circumstances, I personally like tech tree upgrades that allow you to do certain things you couldn’t do before, rather than get some numerical bonus to something you’ve done. I think a great tech tree is all about letting you do new things rather than saying “5% bonus!”. That’s not a bonus.
I’ll hold myself to that standard as much as I can, and I think that Habitat will allow us to do a lot of unique things in the interplay of all of these crazy elements, but there will of course, be a few 10%-20% bonuses to upgrades because it rounds out the tech tree and gives people some sort of direction.
While I was playing the demo, I noticed that you were left to your own devices to figure out aspects of the game and how they function. One could credit that to the fact that this is an early build, but is that a design aspect that you’d like to keep in the final product, or do you intend on having a more traditional tutorial?
I think that there’s value there. We heard from our players that they like not having their hand held, however, we’ve also heard other players saying “what the hell am I supposed to do?” and that’s a tough thing to reconcile. What I believe the correct answer is, is what I call an open tutorial.
Imagine the difference between a tutorial that pauses your game and throws up a dialogue box that says “do this thing and you’ll be rewarded with the ability to see another dialogue box”. The difference between that and something that looks a little bit more like an objective that says “hey, try flying over here” with some hints that say “do this, this and this”. It sits there, doesn’t bug you, but when you get there it says “Nice! By the way, did you notice this or this or the other thing? Now let’s do something else” but you don’t actually have to do that mission. You aren’t being forced, the game isn’t paused, and you have no annoying crap on your screen.
I do want you to know that a lot of the lack of hand holding is due to the early build and is not a deliberate philosophy to stay out of your way. I want to stay out of your way, but don’t want to leave players feeling clueless. If in the first 30 seconds you aren’t sure you have a purpose in this life, you have a strong impulse to throw this thing at the wall.
Will you ever encounter more than one habitat or faction?
Right now in the three act campaign, we have a notion of three major enemies. One is space junk in general. From explosives to asteroids, they’re not particularly intelligent in that they only float around. That said, they hurt you if you hit them, therefore I consider them enemies.
The second enemy is a group named Foundation.They’re humans that don’t believe in what you’re being tasked to do, not that they hate you personally. They’re constructing space stations just like you are, but what they don’t like is whoever is choosing who gets to go up on the shuttles and live in space, versus being eaten slowly by nanomachines on Earth.
Foundation does sympathize with humans, but unfortunately, you’re both fighting for the same resources. That gas tank you want powers their habitat as well, so the fight becomes a fight for survival between your habitats and theirs, and that’s a key aspect of Habitat. There is not just one city that you will own, you can make as many as you want. Foundation will do the same.
The third enemy is the nanomachines themselves. They’re less defined at this point but know that in addition to eating up earth and causing trouble down there, they will at times try to infect you as well. They’ll try to throw up infectious material that will eat at your habitat, and they’ll try to pose or clone themselves to look like your people. As a mass of machines that can take any form, I can totally see them playing the cloak card.
Ultimately, I don’t want the narrative to be a complete tragedy. I’m a romantic when it comes to space. I believe we’ll live no matter where we are, but you are fighting the people who think you’re the bad guy. With that said, you both need to realize that the worst thing is the nanomachines, so there’s this great hate/love triangle that you’ve got going on.
You mention the three-way conflict. Would there be any sort of diplomatic aspects where you could call truces, build alliances, declare wars?
One of the comments we received on Kickstarter that said “Neat concept, but you really needed diplomacy options” and I agree. For me the question is “do we put it in now or do we put it in later?” I can’t say for sure when it’s going to arrive, and at this point I don’t know. I don’t want to make this like “Total War”, but on the other hand, I want to exercise the possibility and show the action, and then we can add the nuance and art of this concept and refine it as we go.
Do you have any plans for potential cooperative or competitive multiplayer features, or will this be a single-player, narrative-driven adventure?
People are very interested in multiplayer. We see multiplayer in a couple of different ways. One is what a lot of people think of as internet multiplayer, where you play with people you don’t know, or people you do know but not in the same room. The other potential is a simpler, almost rocket-arena single-screen experience, kind of like on the Xbox, you have four people each in a corner, and they all have to create something and try to blow each other up.
We’ve thought about both, but what we know is that either one is going to increase dev cost and dev time. What’s more, trying to do this alongside the development of the single-player could exponentially increase dev time, and so we need to be very cautious about when we do this, and what level of baked features on single player would be the right time to expand it. At this point, with our $50,000 target, we will not be able to do multiplayer right away. However, we have some stretch goals in mind.
That said, we have not revealed our stretch goals yet. This is deliberate. We do not want to pretend we are something other than who we are. We are a team of five individuals who come from the games business and we’re making this crazy dream happen on a community-based game, that we’ll build piece by piece with people who are passionate about it.
Are you considering mod support?
We are considering it, and considering the fact that it hasn’t been announced as part of our $50,000 target, I think it’s an exercise to the reader to figure out when we might be talking about that. There’s considerable work to do to expose it.
We’re well aware that mod support will increase the longevity of the game, give the community another amazing way to add on to it, I’m excited for it, but I also know the architecture it’ll take, and the community support it’s going to take, and the $50,000 target is not quite enough to get us there. If we hit that $50,000, I think you’re going to see something that will make you very happy.
I noticed on the Kickstarter that you have Xbox One as a platform for Habitat. Do you have any unique ideas that would utilize the Xbox One’s features in mind? And do you have future platforms in mind?
Let’s take the second question first. The platforms for launch are PC, Mac, Linux, and Xbox One. No other consoles are currently planned at this time, but that doesn’t mean we might not add more later.
Going back to the first question, there are several things we’re thinking we’d like to do. Number one, on the Xbox One, the “Record That” feature where it records the last 30 seconds of gameplay is on by default, and thank goodness because that’s perfect for Habitat. I also think there’s a great possibility for Kinect voice-support to shortcut to certain things that would otherwise take a little bit longer on a controller, so here’s an example:
You’re building your habitat and your oxygen is running low, you’ve fixed the leaks, but you know you need another oxygen generator and you have about 30 seconds until the next colony ship shows up. Those 6 people are going to suck down even more oxygen, so you are thinking “What am I going to do?” You zoom out using the left trigger to see what you’ve got to work with, and you say “Habitat, find me oxygen” and all of a sudden, you get an interface that pops up and scans the entire playing field for space junk that is oxygen specific. They’ll light up green and you can grab them.
One of the other things I think would be really cool would be implementing Smartglass. It’d be a sort of interactive encyclopedia for Habitat, so you can look through junk types and how they’re used, and, one thing I’d absolutely love, is a place where players can essentially share blueprints for habitat combinations that they found useful. You can then go through and be like “I need something to salvage” “I need something to defend against nanomachines” then there is this community set of blueprints that would pop up that are battle tested, and you’re like “cool, I can build this myself!”
What would be dynamite though, is that you could then click on this blueprint, and it sends a message to your Xbox while you’re playing, and just like the ‘Habitat, find me oxygen’ it’d be a command that shows you all the pieces around you that could be used to build that blueprint.
That’s ambitious! I’m not promising that! But these are the types of things that I think the game will make it interesting and fun.
How’s the Kickstarter going? Are you pleased with the outcome?
I’m very pleased. Within the first 72 hours of the campaign, we’ve hit 40% of our goal. We’ve made $20,000 of that $50,000 target.
Thank you very much. We’re overwhelmed to be upfront and emotional with you. Believers have come out of the woodwork and I’ve seen comments on threads that say stuff like “This is a childhood dream come true, I’ve always wanted this game!” and it’s very gratifying.
That said, Kickstarters current success rate is something like 46.3% so even though we have momentum, we’re keeping the pressure on.
If the first three days are any indication, I think you guys have hit a gold mine of sorts!
We hope so, because this is the game I’ve wanted to build since I was a boy. Being able to bring this to you and all of our fans is the most important thing I can do with the next several years of my life on this earth, so I’m just going to do it.
Excellent! Where can people learn more about Habitat, or follow its development?
The most important link we want to share right now is JoinThe509tha.com/Kickstarter. We have the normal website at Jointhe509th, but all of the latest stuff will be on our Kickstarter, so definitely check that out and help us spread the word. That’s the most important thing!