When I last saw Jumpgate: Evolution (JGE), it was at Penny Arcade Expo in August of 08. Then, attendees were treated to a slice of the game; hands-on play of a newbie mission. I was impressed then, although I had never played a space combat game at any length, not because I didn't want to, I could not because the games gave me vertigo. Wing Commander, X-Wing, Freelancer, Privateer... you name it. They all gave me vertigo, so I've been following JGE closely. I want to pilot a space craft! Since then, our correspondent Sean "Pasanda" Cullinan has had the chance to write a hands-on Preview of the game, and Scott Brown, President of Netdevil was in attendance at the 2009 LOGIN Conference with Game Manager Grace Wong, but without his trusty side-kick Hermann Peterscheck, Producer of JGE. So amid jokes of not letting Hermann out until the game is ready, Scott gave me a status update on where they were on development.
"We are feature complete at this time," he said. That is to say, all the systems are in place. The back end is connected; all the parts of the game that needs to be there are there, but for completing the planned content.
"We're in friends and family beta right now," he continued. "As a game, we're there, but as a commercial title, we're not there yet. We're still working through iterations and polishing, polishing and more polishing."
Scott talked about the issues they were working on, and one is the presentation of missions or quests. "You've seen the way most quests are presented. It's the general WoW model. You get your quest screen, your menus... all very static. Great for a mission journal maybe, but rather lacking when you are trying to create an immersive experience." Yes, we are all familiar with Farmer Brown sending us to take a sack of grain to Farmer Smith, who sends us back to Farmer Brown with thanks, gain XP and gold. Then Farmer Brown has another quest for you. What Netdevil is after is making the missions more that that. Perhaps when Farmer Brown sends us to Farmer Smith, along the way, we find a wolf stealing his chickens. Is that part of the quest?
"Things happen," said Scott. "Don't just expect to deliver a shipment of widgets from one sector to another in a mindless FedEx delivery. Stranded in a multipart mission? You may think so."
Manufacturing is the other system that Netdevil is working through at this time. Manufacturing facilities can be found throughout space. Some of them are known, some others you discover via missions and through exploration. Some are of alien technology and many are abandoned and in contested space, so getting to them might be a bit of a challenge. You never know what you might get either. "You can fail, you can crit," said Scott, "there's some anticipation since there is some randomness in the outcome."
There are also recycling centers in space. Much like the manufacturing facilities, they are found in different sectors and they reduce the junk you put in them into basic raw materials. Maybe they will be useful to you and maybe you might hit the jackpot with what you stick in there. No doubt, all the possible returns will be found in a Jumpgate Wiki somewhere two months after launch, I joked, but that segued nicely into their idea of exposing their data. "Most data will be out there in XML for fan sites to grab and use," said Scott. "There's no need to recreate the world or mine through code to populate item databases."
That, in turn, segued into their mining system. JGE is skill based. Thusly, you acquire licenses to do most things, such as pilot licenses for various classes of ships and licenses to mine various ores. Use that skill often to earn XP and graduate to more advanced licenses. Moving up the skill tree and specializing will provide you bonuses in that particular skill. Mining will require a mining license and a ship that can equip a mining laser. Then it's looking for an ore node and using the laser to dig the ore out of the asteroid.
Currently, I found out as Scott flew this way and that in order to find a Recycling Center to demonstrate how it worked, there's no way of marking where manufacturing facilities and recycling centers are in a sector of space. One would think that the coordinates could be programmed into your ship's computer and you would get a vector and directional beacon to it, no? "I'm taking notes!" said Scott.
Players won't be able to track mining nodes the same way. They are instant and random spawn within a sector. That is to say, the moment you mine one, another pops up immediately somewhere else. Independent of player population, if there are 20 nodes in the sector there will always be 20 nodes in the sector. Players who are mining at the time just have to find them, and that currently is a visual exercise.
Scott went on to show the Capital Ships and toured around the galaxy. "The smart player," he said, "will probably use a combination of damped flight and undamped. Particularly in combat, flying under Newtonian Physics will give a skilled player the advantage as that allows you to be travelling in one direction and yet have the nose of your ship pointed in another to rake other ships with fire."
Scott also spoke proudly of their AI systems, systems which have received much kudos from players who have been lucky enough to test them. "Our AI systems scales to player population and we have advanced AI against AI involvement. It's all interconnected. When you jump into a sector and find yourself in a fire fight, their reaction to you depends on your involvement and your relative faction with them."
"There are several alien factions that hate everyone else in the universe, and yes, you can definitely be damaged in cross-fire," said Scott. In-game death means only opening your wallet and paying the repair mechanic at your last station or the sector grave yard. Of course if you have another ship at the station, you can jump right back into the game with that one if you're a bit short.
The game looks fabulous with its intense, highly saturated graphics. Space isn't a black void in JGE's universe. It's filled with asteroids, ships and structures, and the high contrast of lights against dark areas. All these also help keep the player oriented in space as most structures have a recognizable "this-way-is-up" look. Unlike the USS Enterprise which was accidentally hung upside down in the very first Star Trek pilot, large ships have a deep hull before rows of light emitting windows begin and have vertical structures above that.
Still on the subject of graphics, Netdevil has also crafted very different designs for various ships and each faction will have their own unique theme and variation in their ships. Since this is a ship combat game, player avatars are simply 2-D representations at this time. You will not be able to get out and walk around in the game at launch although Scott said that avatars are undergoing a revamp at this time. This is not to say that you won't be able to get out of your ship and walk around in a limited social space in the future.
The high-contrast, deeply saturated graphics are also Netdevil's way of addressing the question of gamers with relatively low-end systems. "It's about getting the most out of so little. We designed for low, low, low minimum specs," said Scott, "as we are designing for a game that won't look dated six months after it launches."
We looked at the clean, uncluttered UI that overlays the screen and guessed at what the icons represented, and got most of them, which pleased Scott. What about the cockpit view, I asked.
"You know, not one day passes when at least six team members [don't] ask after a play test when we are going to put that in. Don't worry. It will be in. Just like vehicular games must have the 3 views - first person, third person and cockpit with the steering wheel and dash visible; Jumpgate: Evolution will have three views. First person, third person and cockpit with the cockpit demarcation lines, even if going by other space games or movies... cockpits may not have the glass demarcation lines."
Of course the cockpit view from a small nimble fighter may be quite different from a large lumbering heavy tank, but the cockpit view will still be there! Speaking of ships, we were shown a Battle for Space scenario. These scenarios are the space equivalent of DAoC's three-faction RvR system. Each faction is building a battle station in space and the others are taking them down.
"There are any number of missions that will involve squad combat," said Scott as we toured one which took us deep into the caverns of an Asteroid. "The fast nimble ships will be required to take out the defense turrets, the larger to back them up with fire power and protect the main tank which is required to take out the heart of the installation."
We looked at the size comparisons of a Capital ship which could be 2km long compared to a little fighter no larger than your Honda. Think of the WWII movies you've watched. You've got the one man Corsairs, the two man Dive Bombers and then you had the B-29 Super Fortress, up against an Aircraft Carrier.
In closing, I asked "What did you do to craft a game that doesn't give susceptible gamers like me, vertigo?"
"Well, Hermann suffers from it too," was the response, "but it mainly has to do with frame rate. We tested on Grace too, who suffers worse from it." Grace rolled her eyes as she remembered the many sessions where she had to rest with her head on a desk after a playtest, but agreed. "I think it's the frame rate. They found the optimal frame rate that prevents vertigo."
"We want to ship a game that looks good and is fun to play," said Scott with a smile and a wink, "And I'll let Herman out when it's ready to ship."