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'Beyond Protocol' Developer Q&A

by Rainier on June 19, 2008 @ 2:33 a.m. PDT

Beyond Protocol is an MMORTS game that places you in a time where billions of Earth's exiles seek out the leadership of a few. You are placed in control of a group of colonists who believe that you can bring them the happiness their ancestors had on Earth. Your actions, leadership, and desire will bring forth changes sought by all who decide to step Beyond Protocol.

Q: What can you tell me about DSE’s members and roots?

JC: The core members of DSE have been designing/creating games since the early 1990’s, first starting with board games and table tops, then branching off into computer games, so, we’ve had close ties for a long time now. As any independent company should be, DSE functions a lot like a family business.

Q: Is there a meaning behind the name Dark Sky Entertainment?

JC: Actually, it is pretty easy. Most people play computer games at night. Before we landed on our current company splash, the idea was to show a nighttime neighborhood scene with the glow of a computer monitor showing out the bedroom window.

Q: Is DSE an independent game developer?

JC: By most definitions, yes, Dark Sky is an independent developer.

Q: Is there something about an independent gaming company that makes the products they offer different or more unique?

JC: Well, as an indie company, DSE is not so concerned with what’s worked in the past. We don’t have some guy in accounting telling us, we’ve never done it that way before, so, we feel that gives us the opportunity to push the envelope and try for more ambitious goals. In addition, in terms of customer support, we haven’t outsourced that overseas, so, when a customer has a problem, they are put in touch with someone who knows A LOT about the game. We also plan on keeping a close ear to the public, hearing their concerns and desires. Part of this is evident in our inclusion of a Senate inside the game where players can propose and vote on changes to the game that go directly to the developers.

Q: When did BP first come into DSE’s focus?

JC: BP was first conceived as a board game in 1991. That game was pretty cool and had the technology builders in a primitive form. After 6 hours of play and only two turns in, it became clear to us we needed to turn it into a computer game. About 2 years later the first code was actually written for the game. Back then, the planets revolved around their stars and the graphics were more like windows icons than game. Over the years, our team developed the skills necessary to pull this off. Over that same time, we watched the industry carefully to make sure that no one was close to what this game would become.

Q: MMORTS has been a difficult genre to sell, what makes you think DSE can pull this off?

JC: First and foremost, our development team. They are some of the most dedicated gamers I know. They’ve been waiting for this game as long as anyone else that has been following MMORTS, so they, just as much as our fans, don’t want to see this project fail. The galactic senate is a feature created almost solely to this end. We knew that no game will suit everyone but by including a democracy of sorts, as the means to balancing and advancing the game, we can at least make it suitable for the majority of players. Another aspect that I personally feel will lead to BP’s success is the inclusion of so many different things to do. A typical RTS has several facets, war, research, diplomacy, and trade, but often one overshadows the rest making the game interesting to only one fan base. In BP we’ve worked hard to make each of these aspects an entire game unto itself. Of course they can be played together or in combination, but there is enough content and balance that a player can focus on one aspect without feeling inferior to the other player types.

Q: Does DSE have other products in mind if BP is successful?

JC: Of course. But like BP, we will keep that a secret until we are ready to show the world our ideas.

Q: BP has been advertised in PCGamer Magazine, considered by some to be the most reputable gaming magazine available. Does seeing your product there have any sort of affect on you?

JC: Well, it shouldn’t surprise you to know that we paid for the ad, but to see the project I’ve given so much time and effort to, advertised to a large portion of our target audience, in print across the country, sure, it excites me! I’m most concerned with letting the gamers around the world know that we think this is the RTS everyone has imagined in their mind at one time or another and these ads are the perfect opportunity.

Q: How has the team weathered through the development process?

JC: Well, like any project, we’ve had our ups and downs, our set backs and drama classes, but all in all the team is dedicated to moving forward so that’s where we’re going. It has been a very exciting experience to talk to so many people in the industry who are cheering us on because they want to see the independent company succeed.

Q: Were there high and low points during the development process that had a significant effect on the project?

JC: I’m guessing like a lot of you, I have a mental trigger when we see a breakthrough…To me, I immediately jump in my mind to the scene where the shield generators have been blown and they can commence attack on the space station… gold group, green group, all units, fall in on me! We have waited 16 years for those shield generators to go down! As you can imagine, the low points were plentiful as so many of our ideas just couldn’t be done, as is often the case with such complex projects, and we just kept getting attacked by technology and know-how shortcomings. In the end, we’re here, and just about ready to show the world what we’ve done.

Q: Can you give us an idea of the blood, sweat and tears devoted to BP?

JC: It’s almost two decades worth. That should give you some indication. But seriously, we have had a staying power that has become almost a legacy that makes it hard for us to bring in others. We look for people who have that kind of dedication to something even when it is tough, harmful, or otherwise undesirable. That’s who we are, and that’s what it’s taken to get to this point.

Q: What type of game is BP?

JC: Beyond Protocol is an MMORTS. This means you have control of an empire in a persistent, real time environment. There are no turns between moves and the possibilities for empire creation are astronomic.

Q: For those who typically play RPG games, is there any sort of leveling, level capping or grinding?

JC: This may take a while to explain, so bare with me.

If we’re talking about individual units in the game, there are ten unit levels; they range from Green to Elite. With each level the unit gains added statistics like damage, maneuverability and a decreased need for Command Points (CP). CP is what determines how many units can be in the same environment. The player starts the game with 300 CP, and EVERY unit starts out using 10 CP at the Green level, and can be brought to 1 at the Elite level. CP is also not a hard limit, you can exceed it, but there are exponential financial consequences along with other havoc. So, as you increase the level of each unit, you can effectively have more units in the same environment without taking additional losses. Unit leveling is done through combat, like most RPG’s, so it could be considered grinding, but it is more a natural process in BP.

When talking about player leveling, capping and grinding, things are completely different. Each player has a set of Special Technologies that allow/improve various things. Several examples are: increased CP per environment, larger explosion radius for projectile weapons or even cloaking technology. These technologies are gained by completing previous technologies, not by gaining experience points or anything like that and require time and money to complete. Researching ships and components requires actual data comparison and trial-and-error research to match the game’s many natural resources with the aspect of the design being attempted. This could be considered grinding because it can be repetitive, but it can also be ignored if the player chooses. Instead of creating your own technologic marvels, you can simply buy them from the market. Component design is also based on a cost effectiveness model, so caps are much softer than in most other games. You can create a weapon capable of destroying an entire enemy fleet with one shot, but it may very well take a month or two to research and a week to produce, not to mention the resources of an entire star system.

So, in conclusion to your question, these aspects may be present, but they are radically different from their RPG counterparts.

Q: What sets BP apart from any other game?

JC: This is another topic that I could talk for an hour about, but I’ll try and make it brief. Basically Beyond Protocol gives you the ability to manipulate everyone around you in the method you choose and create. Affecting other people in most games is limited to PvP in certain areas and guild management, other than that, your choices tend to be few. In BP you can use PvP with ships, technologies and strategies you developed. You can bribe those in contact with you to do your dirty work for you by supplying them with the components they need to secure their own empire, knowing that they’ll need to come to you in order to continue utilizing your designs. You can use a spy network that you assembled, made up of NPC characters with skills and statistics AND live players with their own specialties and agendas, to learn about, aid, distract or destroy your neighbors as you see fit. You can also use the trade system to gain financial security for your group or use it to deny your opponents the supplies they need to pose a threat to you. With every empire path, countless strategies abound and that is what I love about this game. In addition to the choices available, the scope of the game is huge. There are thousands of planets, around hundreds of stars, in a great number of constellations, with varying planet types, star combinations, and astral bodies to investigate. If that isn’t enough, there are 105 different minerals in the game which can each be mixed with an infinite number of others in a complex alloy system, making the resource system more extensible than I have ever seen in any other game.

Q: There seem to be many options available to the player, but is there any structure?

JC: There is structure, because it’s necessary. As I mentioned before Special Technologies add and increase the ability to research components. Once deep into the research system it is very possible, because of these limitations, to be the only one capable of making a certain type of ship or component. This gives uniqueness to the players and we feel this is very important. The travel system is another one. While there may be thousands of planets to see spread across the BP Universe, getting to some of these locations can be difficult. There is a wormhole system that allows ships to move quickly, but these need to be discovered, researched, and properly networked to allow fast travel. It is likewise possible to blockade or monitor the traffic through them. Travel between systems the conventional way, by thrusters, is possible as well circumventing choke points, but it takes a great deal of time as a result. Finally, the guild system allows players to create their own structure. They can develop their own governing system with weighted ranks, vote within the group on politics or group actions, elect leaders and pool resources. So, in essence we’ve added in structure, inherent and player creatable to allow for better strategy.

Q: Do you think the scope of the BP universe will intimidate or encourage players?

JC: Well, we know the size of this game will be a change for most players, and we certainly know the learning curve is steep, but it is our hope that the size will also create places for factions to take power and compete. The learning curve will hopefully encourage specialization where one player is a wealth of knowledge on one subject and another on a different subject, making player interdependence and teamwork essential. Of course, we’re hoping to attract the explorers and entrepreneurs with this scope as well, which we feel have been neglected in most titles until now. There is nothing more rewarding to an explorer than to identify and sell to players the locations of wormholes and trade routes. These will, by no means, be handed to every player, so the explorer really has a purpose in this game.

Q: How will BP face some of the game related difficulties faced by past MMORTS titles?

JC: Well, from what we’ve seen there are five main reasons that “completed” MMORTS titles have failed in the past. Devastating offline attacks, dull unit selection, unbalanced travel time, needed frequency of log on, and bad graphics. We’re confident we’ve dealt with each one.

There is an invulnerability shield that becomes active on a single planet of choice an hour after the player logs off. This causes any player owned entities in that environment to become invulnerable, at the cost of their targeting capabilities. Essentially, they will not attack and can not be attacked but will continue all other assignments. This gives the player the piece of mind that at least their most valuable planet can not be destroyed. However, in more pressing situations, a full and empire wide invulnerability can be issued indefinitely, but results in a halt of all activities. Essentially the empire will not advance, but can not be destroyed either. This feature allows the player to deal with real life events and emergencies while knowing their empire will be there when they return.

We’ve dealt with unit selection by giving the player the ability to manipulate almost every aspect of their unit, color, attack power, defensive strength, speed, maneuverability, accuracy, sight/detection range, cost, and production time. There is also an array of different visual models to choose from. They however, are not customizable in order to limit the amount of computer and connection resources the actual game requires.

Travel time is another. Some games allow instant travel time between environments and some require far too long to go from one to the next. We believe with the wormhole system, and various upgrades/Special Technologies that our system is balanced to achieve strategy without boring the player. In addition, unlike RPG games that require significant travel times, in an MMORTS, there’s always something else the player can be doing while units are in transit.

A result of the persistence of an MMORTS game is the need to log in to deal with attacks, resource depletion, research, and trade matters. We have incorporated a tailor-able email notification AND response system that allows the player to respond to a situation without being at a game capable computer. This could be at work, at a family member’s house, on an email capable phone, or even if you just don’t feel like logging in. In addition, we’ve designed the system to be compatible with SMS devices to extend the reach of this ability.

Finally, we noticed the lack of graphics in previous MMORTS titles. Though they were decent at one time, we believe contemporary eye candy is important. Strategy comes first, but in order to believe the strategy more completely, the visuals are needed. On the planets we’ve included everything from random landscape generation, sunrise/sunset, moving oceans, moving cloud cover with stars peeking through when appropriate, and bump and star colored illumination mapping. In space you get most of that along with the rotation of planets, enormous pockets of space for building, exploring, and fighting, deep star fields, nebulae, and other anomalies, and to top it all off each building and unit is also bump and illumination mapped. We will continue to work on the graphics before, and after release to keep the graphics competitive, our beta testers know that, because they’ve witnessed several graphic additions and heard some more of our plans for the future.

Q: Research seems to be fairly important in this game. Does the current Special Technology system have an expected game life, after which players will be unable to advance?

JC: We don’t plan on ever allowing a player to research everything or reach a certain point where research will no longer be a concern if they want it to be. Eventually, some more advanced players may find that they do not always have a Special Technology to do, but this does not mean they are done. Every day there is the chance that an entirely new branch of research could become available to them. We also hope to make this system live as long as the game does, hopefully many decades to come! This will mainly be taken care of by adding new items to the Special Technology network. Somewhere, I’ve made a statement to the effect that, if it is science fiction related and you have read it in a book, seen it on a TV show, or contemplated it while watching a movie, chances are it is, or will be, a special research. That means we have plenty of content to work on, and will most likely have much more as the sci-fi industry grows.

Q: So, you’ll be including an in game player run democracy? Can you elaborate on what can be voted on, how often voting will occur, who can vote and anything else of interest about the system?

JC: Anything from game mechanics to future additions can be voted on. Legislation can only be proposed by those with the Emperor title. To gain this title, you must have ownership of an entire planetary system. Emperors then need to decide what piece of legislation to propose for review. Each Emperor has a single vote in this process. Getting a bunch of power hungry emperors to agree will be the first challenge in this process. Once legislation has been proposed it is reviewed by the developers for plausibility and time until completion. Once assessed it goes up for vote. Votes at this stage are based off of planet ownership, meaning the majority holder of each planet, regardless of player rank, casts the vote. To make this an exciting element of the game, the votes of the planets are cast at a system level. This means that if a system has 9 planets, then in order to cast 9 votes supporting the legislation, there must be at least 5 supporting planetary votes. The voting process from the time the vote is announced to the time that the vote is tallied is 14 days and is public. Every player can see what each other player has voted on and how. This allows those with the desire to change votes to “persuade” others in some form, like war, trade, espionage, etc. A different piece of legislation can be created on a daily basis, even if it is solely to undo previous legislation.

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