Interview with Charles Cox, Developer of Habitat
Space- the final frontier. As of late, there has been a wonderful explosion of space related games; besides my favorites, Kerbal Space Program and FTL: Faster Than Light, others have arisen that stretch the bounds of existing genres, such as Extrasolar breaking the mold of an ordinary browser game, Star Citizen breathing new life into a forgotten genre, or Habitat defying my expectations for a junkyard spaceship construction RTS.
Having tried out a pre-alpha demo of the game, I can honestly say that it’s going somewhere interesting- though it’s currently unfinished, Habitat is, in its current state, a very impressive proof-of-concept. The idea doesn’t “just work”- in its current form, it’s fun to play, and rather addictive. I had the opportunity to probe (no pun intended) the mind of Charles Cox, founder of 4gency and lead developer of Habitat, and I learned some very interesting things about the game and what inspired it.
Jourdan Cameron: Today, I’m chatting with Charles Cox, who’s working on the fantastic upcoming game Habitat. Charlie, can you tell us about your game?
Charles Cox: You bet! Habitat is an orbital strategy game about building space stations out of space junk. We’re just about at the finish of our Kickstarter campaign for the game, and we’ll be bringing it to PC, Mac, Linux, and Xbox One.
JC: Fantastic, how has the Kickstarter been going?
CC: The response has been great. We’ve gotten so many notes from excited fans of the game that want to learn more and play as soon as possible. Our initial target is $50,000. We are up to over $62,000 and headed for our first stretch goal at $70,000. We’ve got about 20 hours left!
JC: Might I ask what happens if you hit $70K?
CC: Well, Habitat will have a full technology tree you can unlock with research in the game, to upgrade your habitat internals, discover new powers and so on. If we hit $70K we will add extra tech trees that are specific to your citizens and engineers, like a genetic upgrade tree, so you can get even more powers that are specific to your denizens and astronauts!
JC: Well, I certainly hope you guys can achieve that goal. So, what’s your role on the team?
CC: I’m the founder of 4gency, the indie game studio that’s making Habitat. We’re 5 people strong at the moment. I started the company on my own in late 2011, and in 2013 I had the idea for Habitat. Later that year I left my full-time job to focus just on 4gency and making Habitat, and that’s when I recruited my team!
JC: Very nice- now I have to know, what inspired Habitat? The first thing I thought of when I saw it was Planetes.
CC: I believe Planetes is a manga, right? I’ve heard from others that Habitat reminds them very much of that. Myself, I never read Planetes so my inspiration came from other places – quite a few disparate pieces all came together, really…
Been a huge space game fan ever since getting into computer games as a kid. Space and strategy, so games like Alpha Centauri, Outpost, some real oldies in there. And recently there’s been such a surge of awesome space experiences like Kerbal Space Program and FTL, it feels like after something of a hiatus gamers and culture at large are waking up to space again!
JC: Interesting- so Habitat is the reification of itself? The culmination of years of space ideas falling together? It’s as if the gameplay follows the creative process.
CC: We’ve had that same conversation here at 4gency – basically it’s almost the story of 4gency as a company, just putting things together with whatever you can, surviving in a hostile environment but holding onto that passion for creativity.
JC: And being careful not to crash into large, unyielding objects.
CC: And THEY ARE OUT THERE, believe me.
One of the things that happened in the years 2011-2012 before Habitat was we tried our hand at making mobile and tablet games, and that was NOT a place we found very friendly to a small shop like ours.
JC: Might I ask what you tried to create?
CC: We made two games – one was an action-puzzle game called Node.Hack that was sort of a Pac-Man meets hacking game, and then we made Armored Drive, an endless spy-car racing game. They’re available on iOS. Node.Hack is on more than that, it’s on iOS and Android. But we fell prey to such a massive market full of titles, it was impossible to stand out and be noticed.
And I think one thing that I said to myself when coming up with Habitat was: We’ve got to be brave, we’ve got to think big and do something crazy.
JC: Well congratulations, you have! What has thus far been the hardest part of developing Habitat?
CC: We had some real trouble finding the sticky bit of gameplay. The part that makes people sit up and take notice. In fact, in autumn of 2013 I had to scrap the first prototype we built. We had a pretty big team that believed in the vision but the first prototype we put together just didn’t have the fun, it didn’t have the spark that, when you feel it, you know you have something incredible. We worked for a couple of months and knew we could create a very serviceable space strategy game, but it didn’t have the spark.
JC: The fun was missing from the function, then?
CC: Precisely. The hardest thing I’ve had to do so far was stop development – everyone could have kept going, but I had to say no. The team disbanded, and I was in a funk for a few months after that. When I started again, I was committed to finding out WHY this dream of mine wouldn’t leave me alone – there was something inside my vision for Habitat that would capture people; I just had to prove it. And then I did something really reckless – I signed up to show Habitat at GDC Play. Didn’t even have a game yet. But I had to do something to motivate and scare the crap out of myself so I’d build my vision and not hesitate.
JC: Wow. That sounds terrifying. How did it turn out?
CC: It WAS terrifying, especially because I’d quit my full-time job at that point. Cashed out my meager savings and was just burning cash every second with no income coming in the door.
But it worked. When I went to GDC, I had a team of three others, a demo we’d put together in Unity in about 12 weeks, and we were flooded with people at the booth. We’d made some crazy calls in developing the prototype. We focused on rocket physics, we went down to a 2D plane instead of six degrees of freedom, and we added a bunch of crazy stuff like the Statue of Liberty’s head and the Eiffel tower, which are still in the game and playable.
JC: When I played the demo, I noticed that you guys opted for 2D instead of 6DoF- what exactly made you pick 2D for a space game?
CC: What did it was play testing. The first prototype was 6DoF. I felt that was going to be what made Habitat really shine. But we played it and we just found ourselves confused and lost, and again – no spark. When we created the demo for GDC, we reduced it to 2D (but with 3D objects so we can get great lighting, physics effects, and break-off debris), and all of a sudden the game made sense! It was so much more accessible and playable, people “got it” right away. And the physics still made sense even in that reduced dimensionality. People would watch things spin and fly off and get wacky, and the 2D thing didn’t bother them. To me, that’s proof in the pudding. People play it, they get it, they like it – means we did the right thing.
JC: I see- so the 2D worked better because it helped prevent folks from getting lost on an extra plane?
CC: We believe that’s what it was. We may never know for sure, and there could one day be a full 6DoF version; but since we’ve found the fun part we’re grabbing on with all our strength and making that shine – it’s that feeling that makes games different than any other medium.
JC: So, what has been your favorite part of developing Habitat thus far?
CC: It’s been super rewarding to watch people play it and get their thoughts on what they’d like to do and see next. At GDC, and PAX, and in the live Twitch streams we’ve done with folks from the Twitch community there’s this spark of recognition when players see they can build these crazy creations out of space junk, and another one when they see them get destroyed. You can tell they’re hooked, and their mind is already going a million miles an hour thinking of what they want to try next. It’s intoxicating – that feeling has been one of the greatest accomplishments of my life so far. Probably always will be in my top 10 no matter where I go from here.
JC: I hear that a lot from developers- that they love seeing people playing their games, and watching them get figured out. There’s something special about that- I think it’s a pleasure unique to artists of any sort.
Now, the question I ask everybody: what’s your favorite game of all time?
CC: Oooh. Man.
I’ve got favorites that are never going to die in my mind, like Covert Action and Jagged Alliance 2 from back in the old days… But I need to give respect where it’s due to Firaxis for their re-ignition of XCOM; basically the greatest game ever. It was a tremendous honor to have Habitat called out by Julian Gollop, the original XCOM creator, in the Kickstarter for his new game Chaos Reborn. It was like being starstruck.
JC: That must be an awesome feeling. Are there any other devs you look up to in particular?
CC: It’s no coincidence that I love Firaxis; Sid Meier is basically the game dev I’ve idolized more than any other. Civilization, Covert Action (as I mentioned before), Alpha Centauri, those games influenced my childhood so much. And he did a lot of it himself! Coded it, designed it, sold it – really the Indie Godfather in a lot of ways.
JC: Which is your favorite Civ game?
CC: Heh, I gotta give it up for CivNet. My friends back from the old play-by-email days know it’s still special to me! When I was in high school, I ran a dial-up Bulletin Board with the old door games like Legend of the Red Dragon; when CivNet came out our minds were BLOWN. “You can DO that? Over the INTERNET?”
CC: I was a geek from an early age.
JC: I can tell. How do you feel about the newly announced Civilization: Beyond Earth?
CC: I want to learn more! It’s such an early glimpse, I’m really hoping for a spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri, only with less hive rushing. That needs nerfing really badly.
JC: Now, I’m rather young- can you tell me a little about Alpha Centauri? Was it simply Civ in Space or something more?
CC: Alpha Centauri was a sort of Civ spinoff that answered the question “so what happened after you won the Spacefaring victory in Civ?” Way way in the future, you’re on this totally alien planet with a whole new set of tech, new playable civs, and new enemies like mind worms, which are still terrifying to think about. You’ve still got the 4X formula but there was something so fresh conceptually about the alien environment and the considerations you had to make.
JC: Ah, I can definitely see why you’d want to see something like that in the new Civ. Now, assuming you had unlimited resources, what would you make?
CC: Oh my. Well, I think Habitat has so much potential to go as far as we want it to go – as far as our community will support us, really. If we had the resources we’d be doing space junk construction in persistent worlds with lots of players, linking up habitats to create uber-civilizations, and epic strategy across galaxies. But that definitely approaches infinite cost, so one step at a time, right? …And I’ve said it before to others, I’d probably want to crack off a piece of that infinite resource and go do a remake of Covert Action with Sid Meier. Provided he was down with that. Procedurally-driven CIA spy story? Come on! We need THAT back!
JC: Well, in the worst-case-scenario, I’m sure you could afford to clone Meier and raise him in the 21st century.
CC: Well, he’d have to be down with that, too.
JC: Well, Mr. Cox, it has been a pleasure chatting with you. Any last words for fellow developers?
CC: It’s been great chatting with you too. Really good to share some stories. Yeah, I think I can find an appropriate closer here…
I was giving a talk to some indies a week or two ago and I asked them all to raise their hand if they had an idea, a dream, or a vision for something that wouldn’t leave them alone.
They all raised their hands.
Asked them if it’s kept them awake at night.
All hands stayed up.
Told them: “That’s it. That’s how you know you’re in the right business. And that vision’s going to be all you have sometimes. Don’t let it go.” Think that’s what I hold on to when times are tough, too, and what I hope other developers will do too.
Habitat is currently in development by 4gency and, at the time of publication, is on its way to reaching its stretch goal on Kickstarter. Be sure to follow Mr. Cox on Twitter, @AgentCox,along with his company, @4gency. Need more gaming news, previews, interviews and other views? Follow @Jourdan_Cameron, and stick with us!