Interview: Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime
Words: John Robertson
Trying to understand Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime through images and videos alone is next to impossible. It looks so different from almost every other game in existence that there’s not a benchmark on the Xbox One to compare it against. In a bid to understand the concept and execution we sat down with game designers Jamie Tucker and Matt Hammill to allow the duo to explain the upcoming ID@XBOX project in their own words…
How would you describe Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime?
Jamie Tucker: Ahhh, this is the hardest thing to do! I’m usually really terrible at describing my own game to people. I’d say something like, “It’s kind of like a mixture of Asteroids and that scene in Star Wars where Han and Luke have to run to the turrets to fight off the TIE Fighters.” Even through a screenshot I find that the majority of people unfamiliar with the game don’t even know what’s going on. But when people realise what’s actually happening inside the ship, and how the players are interacting, they usually get a big smile on their face.
What’s the appeal of designing a game around a co-op experience?
JT: Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime started at a game jam a couple years ago. We initially planned on making the game co-op because we wanted to make the kind of game that would be fun to watch people play at public events. So we strived to create a situation whereby playing the game would have the people playing talking and yelling at each other.
How much work goes into the testing and balancing?
JT: We’re finding that it is extremely difficult to balance a co-op game because players’ skill levels are kind of multiplicative. Therefore, two players who are good and playing together might find it too easy, while players who aren’t as skilled will find the same task almost impossible. We’ve added different difficulty levels now, though, but it’s something that you can only really test by watching people actually play the game.
To what extent is the ship customisable; how strongly does it impact the game?
JT: We have a few different layouts for the ships which we try to make feel completely different. Then along the way as you’re playing the game you can collect gems that upgrade the ship’s stations with different power-ups. So far we’ve found that everyone has their own favourite upgrades and their least favourite, so when people are playing together we see it as another way they can argue or debate about what the best strategy is. Ultimately, our goal is to have all the power-ups be valid playing options, so players have the freedom to go with what they think is most fun for them.
We’ve heard about these ‘randomised star system layouts’; what are they and how do they affect gameplay for both players?
Matt Hammill: Our goal with the levels is to blend randomness with designed content. The fun of the game is in players working together and adapting to dynamic situations, rather than memorising level layouts. Even in one-player mode it’s more fun when you and your [AI-controlled] dog are always dealing with fresh encounters. But we also want to take players on a journey through an interesting world – flying through a water planet, fleeing an explosion within an asteroid cave – so we’re aiming for a balance with our designed content, too.
Missions are procedurally constructed from hand-made tiles, with randomised enemy and power-up spawning. At the most fundamental level, you progress through the game linearly – you’re journeying through the universe rescuing your cute animal space pals and, as you pass through different galaxies, the level ‘recipes’ have different ingredients.
Even after the final mission there’s still room for replaying levels in different ships, on higher difficulties, or aiming for more collectibles. It will be different each time. It’s not a roguelike, but there are certainly a few elements that we’re borrowing from that genre. One of our other big inspirations is Left 4 Dead, which gave us tons of local co-op fun, so we’re trying to borrow bits and pieces from that game in that it’s really session-based game designed for digestible co-op play. You get a good feeling of progress as you go through a campaign that has an awesome combination of both designed and procedural elements.
What were the inspirations behind the unique aesthetics?
MH: It’s equal parts vintage space illustration, equal parts Powerpuff Girls… with dashes of vector games like Asteroids and some of our favourite indie cartoonists thrown in. The visual direction also dates back to that first game jam prototype. We felt a bit guilty to be making yet another shooty-spaceship game, so we wanted to try to breathe some fresh life into it visually and avoid genre clichés like grim space marines in rusty grey battleships. We wanted to go in the opposite direction. It was also just a new thing for us, as neither Jamie nor I had really done vector-based artwork before this.
What attracted you to the idea of releasing on Xbox One over other platforms?
JT: It was mainly because of the ID@Xbox program. We applied on the first day that Microsoft announced it and we started the process immediately. After that we found out that making the game for console really is a lot more work on the business side of things. Chris Charla [director of ID@Xbox at Microsoft] has been super helpful along the way and has taken the time to make sure everything was clear. He’s a genuine dude.