There was once a time when the far reaches of outer space were the ultimate setting for PC gaming. That time seems to have peaked somewhat, as there just aren't that many development teams pumping out high-quality space-simulation titles anymore. However, to the faithful, there is hope: a small but passionate crew of coders, writers, and artists have banded together in Vancouver, Canada, to form Kerberos Productions. Their mission is simple: breathe new life into the 4X (eXpand, eXplore, eXploit, eXterminate) genre. Their flagship title has been christened Sword of the Stars, and it promises to be the answer to many fans' fervent prayers.
Martin Cirulis, CEO of Kerberos, is a longtime friend and associate of mine. Abusing the spirit of nepotistic opportunism, I stole some time out of his daily schedule for a short Q&A session where we wax intellectual on many things, including his forthcoming interstellar brainchild.
Q: Let's begin by getting to know a little bit about you as an individual. So as to frame your position more clearly, please give the readers some background regarding your involvement in the PC gaming industry.
MC: As a gamer, my involvement goes back to the birth of PC gaming, but as a professional, the point of entry was writing for Computer Gaming World in the first half of the '90s. From there, I went on to write for a few sites such as C-Net and OGR during the glory days of the pre-internet bust era and had a somewhat infamous column, first in CGW and then on OGR. From there, an old editor friend who had gone over to Sierra as a producer asked me if I would like to do some story work on Homeworld. After another couple of consulting gigs on games like Ground Control and HW:Cataclysm, I joined Barking Dog Studios full time as a designer. Eventually, Barking Dog was bought up by RockStar, and after some time working with them, myself and some of the core team from the Cataclysm days decided to go off on our own, and Kerberos Productions was born.
Q: With your experience in mind, do you have any insight to offer regarding the current state of "shock" game development, in particular, the negative-reinforcement lesson of "controversy sells?" Do you think the current state of McCarthy-ism will reach a high watermark and roll back, or will these witch hunts continue to escalate until our industry is stuck with its very own version of the Comics Code Authority?
MC: Between some of my column subjects in the old days and from my recent stint with RockStar, I do indeed have a few thoughts. Whether anyone is interested is another matter. ;) Anyone who has read my old reviews can attest to the fact that blatant shock content always triggers my "crap gameplay" sense. Now occasionally, that is not true, as in the case of the GTA series that is very over-the-top but also has rock-solid gameplay. Most often, I find controversial content is just makeup over a bad game like Narc or Manhunt, and to be honest, it usually works like a charm, and getting a senator to scream about your game is worth 50K sales every time.
While I don't really think the "violent games=violent kids" fascists have a leg to stand on, neither do I think you can tweak their noses forever with impunity. Your mention of the Comics Code Authority is a good one, and I wish more people in the industry would realize it's just never a good idea to become the EC comics of your industry during a political climate shifting heavily to the right. How will it end up? Who knows? All I know is that you can never go wrong betting panicky people will find something to blame other than themselves.
Q: Some of my earliest multiplayer experiences were on your home LAN, so I can personally attest to your enthusiasm for gaming. What do you find yourself filling your off-hours with these days? Any upcoming releases you're looking forward to in particular?
MC: Doing business as Kerberos CEO AND still being a full time lead designer on Sword of the Stars doesn't leave much time for playing, but these days, I try and put in a few hours of City of Heroes, Battlefield 2 and Trackmania Sunrise. Just finished up playing Rome:Total War to death. Really looking forward to the Barbarian Expansion from those guys.
Q: Let's move on to the burgeoning empire you've founded, Kerberos Productions. This team was formed with the laudable goal of "by gamers, for gamers." What kinds of trials have you found so far being an independent? Any regrets, or do you find the experience analogous to "that which does not kill me?"
MC: Well, the usual trials of starting up a new company to be sure. No regrets at all, and I wouldn't say it is a bad experience as much as like running a triathlon: exhilarating, but you would not object if the next race were a little bit easier. We are all about the game. It's not just product. We don't leaf through the sales numbers, trying to figure out what's hot or what publishers will want because it suits the current trend. Even when we were with Barking Dog and had no control over its assignments, we still made each game into something we would want to play ourselves.
Q: Sword of the Stars carries with it a certain sense of epic scope and scale, reminiscent of classic sci-fi space opera. One thinks of works by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, or even Dan Simmons Hyperion series. Were there any specific authors that served as a more focused influence on the development of this game, or just the collective effect of studied classics?
MC: There is no doubt that SOTS is pure space opera, and yes, it is influenced by the works you mentioned but probably even more so by things like Babylon 5 and Brin's Uplift War books. Both had great and very visual takes on large starships in battle. We wanted to move a bit away from the space fighter dogfight motif that is more traditional these days in 3-D space combat.
Q: You began as a writer, moving into development after many successes with the written word. Do you find your background as an author affects your approach to design? Do you feel Kerberos has a stronger balance of art-versus-technology than your contemporaries?
MC: Definitely. I would say the two biggest aspects of my approach to game design are my training as a science fiction writer and, of course, my lifelong fascination with games of any kind. For me, a game has to have a logical flow and narrative to it, even if there are no real story elements at all. A game may not have a deep reality, but it is a reality nonetheless and should be thought out. I don't know how this makes us different than other developers, but I suppose we are more excited by immersive sights and sounds than the latest curved surface technology.
Q: Kerberos has chosen to craft its own in-house graphics engine. Did you know from the outset that a home-brewed engine would be used, or was there a strokey-beard type meeting where the various pros and cons of a licensed engine were weighed? Was it simple economics, or were there no industry-standard offerings that suited what Sword of the Stars requires? Any plans to license that engine to other companies down the line?
MC: We knew from the outset that we would be making our own engine for two reasons. 1) It was something that we had done before and knew all the pitfalls and benefits, and there were plenty of new things we were dying to try out. 2) We also had plenty of experience adapting other people's engines and know that it's not always a shortcut to success. When it came right down to it, there really wasn't another powerful, completely data-driven engine out there. The Mars Engine is extremely adaptable, and its error detection is impeccable. It has allowed us to put together an A-list project with half the team size the industry takes as standard. And yes, the engine itself has been designed to be useful for many kinds of projects, not just space-based ones, and will be available for licensing.
Q: Sword of the Stars sports an impressive list of features right out of the box (dynamic technologies, robust multiplayer, customizable ships, etc.). However, true longevity comes from dedicated fan support. Have you been designing this title from the outset with an interactive community in mind? Will the game ship with mod tools?
MC: You only have to look at the racial descriptions written by Arinn dembo to know that we are big on giving the community a universe to play in. SOTS isn't just a one off project but the beginning of a whole series of different games set against different parts of the Kerberos Universe. If our universe isn't enough for the fans, then the Mars engine will cater to their modding spirits. The release of in-house tools is a publisher decision at this point, but as far as we are concerned, we will give the modders whatever help they need. In fact, some of our early message board traffic was about mod requirements and art file details.
Q: The ultimate goal of all developers to appeal to as broad a range of players as possible; however, Sword of the Stars is somewhat of a niche title. Are you designing your initial offering with the hardcore space-strategy fans in mind, or are you aiming for a wider spectrum of players?
MC: We are aiming at players who want to play games that run deep but are still exciting and enjoyable. SOTS isn't any more of a niche than any other specific computer game. The 4X field has had some of the greatest titles in PC gaming and has a player base a million strong. Just no one has given them anything really new in five years or so. "Hardcore" has become some sort of blanket replacement word for "not fun." We would like to turn the clock back to the days when games like Civilization were not a niche market, and they were incredibly fun. They did so with innovation, but it seems like we are stuck in that same day and age with no innovations or risks being taken. With SOTS, we questioned every aspect of the genre and if it made gameplay deeper and enjoyable, we kept it. If it was just more number crunching and spreadsheets in the name of "detail," then we dropped it or replaced it with something more involving.
It's not exactly a news flash to say SOTS in not going to interest someone who has only sworn to play shooters or racers until their dying breath. On the other hand, if someone has even the slightest interest in exploration and battle but would still like to play a game that looks and plays like it was made in the 21st century, then SOTS is aimed squarely at them.
Q: Your website has the briefest of hints at another title, the North Star project. Can you give us any hints at all regarding what to expect, without spoiling the surprise when it's finally unveiled?
MC: Well if SOTS can be said to be an attempt to shake up the space strategy genre, then the North Star project can be seen as an attempt to do the same to the space trader genre.
Q: Finally, where do you foresee Kerberos Productions in the future? Will you continue to champion the cause of space-strategy, or could you see the company making forays into fantasy-RPGs or even tactical 3D-shooters?
MC: Kerberos will go wherever there is a great game to be made. Today we are working in space because it's a genre we all love and SOTS captured our imaginations. Tomorrow, who knows? There are five years of designs on my desk and more showing up every time we hang around to just shoot the breeze and talk about games. That's why Kerberos is here. Because we like to make games. Great games. Fame, riches and glory are just gravy after that. ;)
The official Kerberos Productions website can be found at http://www.kerberos-productions.com. There you will find two teaser-trailers for Sword of the Stars, as well as a few other downloadable goodies. For those of you wishing to find out more about this title, visit the Kerberos forum. You will find the entire development team represented there, and it's the best way to get information about this game straight from the source.
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