Next year, Blue Manchu’s latest game Void Bastards will be making its way onto shelves for PC and Xbox One. The project was officially announced at X018 in Mexico City last month and caught our attention quite quickly. The game’s comicbook-inspired art direction combined with the strategic gameplay is a sight to behold when in action. Last week, DualShockers sat down with Jonathan Chey – the former Co-Founder of BioShock developer Irrational Games and the new Lead Programmer and Designer for Blue Manchu.
Jonathan Chey talked to DualShockers about lessons learned from his previous projects, the gameplay mechanics that make Void Bastards the unique experience it is, how announcing the game at Microsoft’s X018 event in Mexico City came about, and much more.
Ben Walker: From the first glance Void Bastards’ aesthetic and visuals really pop. While the comic book/pop art inspired design is obvious, did you take any inspiration from other material when working on the art style of the game?
Jonathan Chey: Unusually, there was little influence from cinema or other media on the art in this game. Most of it goes back to our Art Director Ben Lee’s unique vision regarding the style and design. This was always comics. More than any other title, the British mag 2000ad (1980’s vintage) had a big influence on not only the look, but also the feel during the writing process.
We always wanted the comic metaphor to be more than just a gimmick though, so Ben really used it as the cohesive structure to everything you see and interact with in the game. From an art point of view the approach was always “How would this look on a comic page?” instead of “How does this look in real life?”.
BW: As Void Bastards features vibrant colors, are there any plans to implement any accessibility or colorblind features and modes into the game?
JC: Good question, we’ve definitely thought about this although it’s probably not something we’ve solved perfectly yet.
Interesting anecdote: new characters in the game get a random selection of traits that make each one play differently. One of those traits is “colorblind”, which turns the world into shades of grey. It’s been quite eye-opening to see the world that way (no pun intended).
When playing with this trait, we realized how hard it is to tell which doors are locked and which are not since we use green door panels to show openable doors and red to show locked ones. That’s not something we necessarily would have noticed without this trait.
BW: How do you balance between the first-person shooting gameplay and the more menu-based strategy gameplay to keep it interesting?
JC: Void Bastards is a very tense game. Because you have to be constantly thinking as well as running and gunning, each expedition into a ship really demands a lot from you. As you sprint for the airlock, you’re usually thinking: “I could really use a break after this”. So the strategy layer is designed to not only provide a context to all your actions but also to provide a different kind of gameplay experience – more cerebral and less stressful.
There are still decisions to be made: what upgrade do I want to build next – what junk should I break down into materials – where should I head through the nebula next – but those decisions can be made at your leisure rather than while a gunpoint is spraying bullets at you. We tuned the amount of decision making and information that you get in this strategy section to make sure that you get a decent break before you get back into the action – and that you have a chance to make a number of interesting decisions, all of which will play out in the subsequent on ship combat and exploration.
BW: Even with a procedurally generated environment, how integral is pre-level planning to the Void Bastards experience?
JC: Early in development we talked extensively about what we wanted out of the ships and we decided that logical layouts with patterns players could learn made the most sense for the game. While each ship is different, different classes of ships will have similar basic layouts. For example, a Xonnox ambulance will always have a medical theatre which is, of course, a great place to go get healing. On the other hand, you don’t know if that theatre module is going to be blocked off due to radiation, a catastrophic structural collapse or just full of hostiles. So, there’s a certain amount of planning you can do but you also need to be ready to react to unexpected events.
BW: Will Void Bastards allow stealth, or is the focus mainly on fast-paced action?
JC: While stealth is an element in your toolkit but I wouldn’t describe the game as a stealth game. It’s a game where you try to find the most efficient way of dealing with threats and sometimes stealth can be that way. Enemies wander around and will come to investigate noises or other disturbances. Sound propagates through the level and takes account of closed doors, broken windows and so on. So, with a bit of thought, you can minimize the amount of combat you’re in – but you’re unlikely to be able to sneak through a level without ever fighting. It is possible though and probably we should add some achievements that reward players who want to try that kind of strategy!
Perhaps more important than pure stealth is managing where enemies are. They can be locked into rooms and left there. Or you can lock them in and then toss a clusterflack in to clean them up. Much easier than a fair fight!
BW: While the game features several roguelike elements, it’s a genre term that Blue Manchu isn’t using much while promoting and explaining Void Bastards. Why is that?
JC: The term “roguelike” suggests a few things that aren’t really true of our game, most importantly, the idea that you are going to be replaying the start of the game over and over again. Void Bastards has a very different feel, largely because most of the game progress is persistent (i.e. doesn’t reset when you die).
Every tool and gadget you build is carried over from one client (prisoner) to the next so the game feels a lot more like System Shock 2 or BioShock (both of which had respawning systems that meant you largely didn’t lose progress when you died). It’s also entirely possible to play through Void Bastards without dying at all. In fact, that’s another achievement that we should add to the game!
BW: You announced the game at X018. How did those plans and the overall partnership with Microsoft come to fruition?
JC: We funded and developed the game entirely on our own and then started looking for publishing partners when the game was in an early Alpha state. Microsoft liked it so much that when we showed it to them they suggested that we not only let them put it into the GamePass program but also announce it at their new X018 event. We were pretty excited that they showed the trailer right after PUBG! Pretty good company, now we’re just waiting to sell as many copies as Bluehole did.
BW: Did you always plan to introduce the project through such a large and focused event?
JC: It would be nice to say that we had some sort of clever master plan for announcing the game but, honestly, we’re not that smart. We like to think that we’re good developers but I don’t know that we’re marketing geniuses. So our plan was always to try to hook up with someone else who could help on that front.
There was some debate within the team during development about whether we’d be better off running a more open kind of project where we talked about the game early on and engaged the community in the process. I think there are pros and cons to that approach but ultimately we decided that there was some real value to being able to talk to publishers about a project that wasn’t in the public eye yet and let them decide how to reveal it.
BW: What lessons learned from developer System Shock 2 and BioShock were carried over or used when designing Void Bastards?
JC: Great question, more than I can possibly count. But here are some of them:
If you build enough interesting systems and make sure that they overlap, you will get emergent gameplay that you never thought of. For example, our enemies don’t “cheat” and magically know where the player is. That gives us stealth-like gameplay where you kind hide from them but it also creates all kinds of other emergent stuff – like deliberately making a noise to lure enemies into rooms where you can trap them.
If you respect your world, players are more likely to find it interesting and immersive. Although there’s a good amount of humor in our world (perhaps unlike in System Shock 2 or BioShock), that doesn’t mean that we as developers don’t take it seriously. Where do the crew of all the spaceships live? Where do they eat? What do they do on these ships? It’s all important to forming a game world that doesn’t feel like just another video game level.
Possibly more so in System Shock 2 than BioShock but, if you have limited resources, spend those resources on things that matter. If you don’t have the time to build a complex simulation use RPG-like numerical systems to support player growth. If you don’t have the budget for great character models, use sprites instead.
BW: Outside of those two games, are there any other titles Void Bastards drew major inspiration from?
JC: The XCOM series for its standout blending of a strategic overgame with tactical action. The Total War games on that front too. Rogue Legacy has obviously been influential to a lot of games for the way each new character has interestingly different traits. Return of the Obra Dinn was a key inspiration for the art as were old sprite shooters like Outlaws. Although we’ve seen lots of comments since the release of our trailer along the lines of “looks like XIII”, weirdly, we kind of forgot about that game during development!
BW: As somewhat similar indie games have thrived off it, are there any plans for mod support in Void Bastards?
JC: With this game, we’ve really tried to narrow our focus to produce the best single-player stand-alone campaign experience we can. That has meant not trying to support all other kinds of play modes or extensions that we could like modding, multiplayer, etc. When the game is a huge hit we’ll think about adding all those things.
BW: What mechanics are you most excited about players getting their hands on?
JC: There are so many emergent situations in the game that we keep seeing so it’s going to be great to see a wider community explore them. For example, last week Farbs found a ship with a pupbot on it, which is a little robo pet that has stolen a part and is running around with it. It’s quite hard to track down and catch, but this particular ship also had friendly screws on it. Screws are super tough, so normally you hate to see them on board but on this ship they started chasing the pupbot and took it out on their own. Good times!
Void Bastards releases on PC and Xbox One in 2019. You cannot pre-order the game yet, but Xbox Game Pass owners will also get the game on Day 1 for free.
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