Blackbird's Epic Road Trip

Developer Story

By Yossarian King

Following the Baserunner to the Deserts of Kharak

By Yossarian King, 31 Jan 2016

The development of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak took a long and winding road. The massive six-wheeled Baserunner was there for the entire journey.

The long and winding road.

In 1999, Relic released Homeworld, a space-based real-time strategy game with an epic storyline. Rob Cunningham was a Relic cofounder and Art Director of Homeworld.

Where it all began.

In 2007, Rob founded Blackbird Interactive, and in the spirit of the SR-71 stealth jet after which he named the company, began work on an ambitious new project.

I met Rob over coffee in late 2009. HARD|WARE was to be a visually compelling game with a great story that would blow the socks off the farming and mob games that dominated the huge new Facebook gaming market. Massive trucks would engage in perilous expeditions across the desert, fighting the elements and each other to extract the booty from wrecked starships scattered across the planet. From day one, the Baserunner was the star of the show.

Game concept

Rob needed a technical lead to assemble a programming team and build the game. After fifteen years working on sports games and art tools at Electronic Arts, I was ready for a change. Rob described the project as art-heavy and tech-light, basically an interactive 2D map, a bunch of HUD overlays, and lots of gorgeous pop-up videos. Simple, right? I was sold.

All we programmers had to do was build a map viewer and show off the beautiful stuff the art team would create -- like this shot of the Baserunner thundering across the dunes in the first HARD|WARE pitch video.

Baserunner, dune shredder.

Blackbird got friends-and-family funding and five of us set up shop in Rob's garage in October 2010. I reviewed a number of engines and chose Unity for its ability to display gorgeous graphics on the web, and because it supported mobile and other platforms we might be interested in later. Being free didn't hurt either.

Our first playable demo was ready by November 2010 -- it had a zoomable map, units that accepted move orders, and the first pitch video to demonstrate what we could do with pop-ups. (The free version of Unity 2.6 couldn't play videos, so we ripped our videos into a sequence of images and displayed them one by one in time with the audio.)

First playable

A few months later, in March of 2011, the heads-up-display HUD overlays were coming together. Think Google Mars meets Command & Conquer. Rob insisted that vehicle tracks wiggle through the sand to tell the story of the expedition so far, so we built an efficient custom line renderer.Map HUD, tracks in the sand.

By August of 2011 we realized just how many pop-up videos it would take to adequately represent all the states of all the vehicles in the game. We decided instead to use live 3D in a picture-in-picture window in the corner of the screen. The shadows in the screenshot indicate we had upgraded to Unity Pro by this time. The main reason for the upgrade was to enable meta files so we could use revision control for our growing team of programmers, artists and designers. Prior to this we hung labelled washers on hooks by the door of the garage -- if you were working on the "master.unity" scene file, you better have the corresponding washer on your desk!

3D picture-in-picture.

All of the Blackbird staff chipped in to get Rob his very own Baserunner. Carved out of mahogany, this beauty was built in the Philippines by Factory Direct Models, who specialize in desktop models of corporate jets. Agents from Long March Industries (aka friends in costume) delivered the crate, which Rob unboxed with delighted amazement. BR-01 still graces Blackbird's reception area.

Baserunner unboxed.

Throughout this time we were looking for investors and publishers to keep the studio afloat and help bring the game to the world. We continued to build demos, make pitches, and refine the gameplay. Here's an awesome concept piece of a Baserunner rolling out of a massive air lifter.

Lifter unloading Baserunner concept piece.

By mid-2012 we realized that the picture-in-picture 3D window wasn't selling the vehicle fantasy, and it was distracting to look back and forth from the map to the 3D view. We decided to allow full zoom from planetary map all the way down to ground level. We couldn't build an entire 3D planet (I calculated the world artists would each need to produce about 1,000 square kilometers of terrain per day for two years), so we created a "treadmill" system, in which each tile of the planet was selected from a library of available tiles -- flat sand, dunes, rock, sand blending to rock, uphill, downhill, etc. Tile chunks were stored on an Amazon S3 server and streamed to the web browser, with local caching. Since the game fantasy was that you were viewing the world via satellite, if tile data wasn't available we would show the low-res map texture instead with an effect like a satellite signal breaking up.

Undocking from the Baserunner.

We rigged and animated the vehicles and started to implement the "nesting doll" concept that the wide range of scales of our vehicles allowed. Here a light attack vehicle is undocking from a Baserunner.

By October 2012 we had put a lot of effort into the economy model of the game, determining how players would collect resources from starship debris fields placed strategically around the map. Here's a Baserunner overseeing a group of salvagers.

Harvesting operation.

At this point we were still on Facebook, but perhaps the Baserunner never wanted to be there in the first place.

Baserunner Facebook flip-out.

Rob's garage was a great place to work in the spring and summer, but rather chilly in mid-winter, and by December 2012, with 14 people stuffed into the space, it was time to move. Studio One -- where we still are today -- is a huge warehouse in what used to be Finning International's Vancouver headquarters. Our desks and meeting spaces are in a giant room where they used to build massive caterpillar tractors and big trucks. A giant gantry crane hangs overhead. It feels right.

Next door to the studio is the Center for Digital Media. Students do project-based internships for local companies, and in the fall of 2012 a group of students build the Long March Vehicle Catalog, a slick Unity app showing vehicle facts and figures.

Long March Industries vehicle catalog.

By 2013 we had a lot of cool tech and a good-looking game, but it was hard to tell if we had captured the essence of a fun and compelling free-to-play experience. We were growing short on time, and short on funds. We reduced the planetary scale of the maps and built a smaller tower-defence experience - Hardware: Shipbreakers - hoping it would generate enough money to fund the game we really wanted to make. We dropped the free to play idea and shifted from Facebook to Steam for distribution.

A herd of colourful Baserunners.

In May 2013 we released a promotional video to drum up interest in the game, Baserunner - The Legend.

Baserunner - The Legend.

At this point things went sideways. We found "interested" publishers, but no one ready to fund the game to completion. Money exhausted and out of time, we had to lay off all our staff in summer of 2013.

During this period, publisher THQ went bankrupt. This is relevant because they owned Relic, who made Homeworld and still held the rights. As THQ was dismantled, Gearbox scooped up the Homeworld license, largely on the strength of a personal love for the franchise among senior Gearbox leadership.

Gearbox intended to release a remastered edition of the first Homeworld games, and they came looking for the original developers to find old assets and expertise. They approached Rob, one thing led to another, and Gearbox agreed to fund development of our game as a Homeworld prequel. The Homeworld IP had always cast a long shadow over Hardware, often referred to as a "spiritual successor" to Homeworld, and the story had been crafted to fit the Homeworld universe, so it wasn't a huge stretch.

We rehired most of our staff and got back to work.

The new Homeworld: Shipbreakers would be a traditional head-to-head RTS game with a full campaign, competitive multiplayer, many 3D maps, lots of units, and at least two factions. The Hardware story and content might fit, but our tech was not ready for this! First and foremost we needed a deterministic simulation to run identically on all systems (as pioneered in Age of Empires), so multiplayer clients could share lightweight commands instead of bandwidth-gobbling game state. This meant the heart of the game could not depend on Unity, could not use Unity physics, and in fact should probably avoid floating point numbers entirely. Basically we had to burn our existing codebase to the ground and rebuild.

Enter ravid, the Rapid Ai VIsual Debugger, a standalone .NET testbed we built on a re-architected game simulation layer. Here a group of units moves in formation along a series of waypoints. The inset shows the Baserunner's movement attributes.

ravid testbed.

Meanwhile, the design and art team kept using our "old line" codebase to prototype new features. Here is a game in progress with a bunch of units working a resource field, as seen from sensors mode. During this period our milestone deliveries to Gearbox included two radically different builds of the game -- the ravid-based rewrite and the old line prototype work. It's a testimonial to Gearbox's faith in the project and their background as developers that they didn't shake their heads in disbelief and run away!

By March of 2014 we had merged the old line art and design prototype with the ravid game simulation into our "beautiful corner" milestone. The game simulation is fundamentally 2D, but we were able to overlay Unity physics as a purely visual treatment to lend mass and scale to the vehicle fantasy. The art team was also getting really good at sculpting sand dunes, and our visual effects were looking better all the time.

Baserunner surveys the beautiful dunes.

In September 2014 we had a full vertical slice of the game, including diverse units, varied abilities, massive land carriers to take the place of traditional RTS base-building, and ever-improving lighting and effects.

Vertical slice desert fleet.

Scope grew as the game progressed, and we added features and mechanics that had not been part of the original plan, but felt necessary in order to deliver a full RTS experience and live up to the Homeworld legacy. Ship-breaking remained a core part of the game, but scattered debris was not enough, so we created fully animated models of starships buried in the sand. Of course the Baserunner (seen here in a cloud of dust) remained central to the salvaging operation.

Baserunner assesses the wreckage.

Another exciting development was the upgrade to Unity 5. Unsure if we should risk such a substantial engine upgrade so late in the project we decided to go for it. The 64-bit Unity Editor was a godsend -- by this time there was so much content in the game that the 32-bit Editor crashed routinely as it ran out of usable memory. Unity 5 solved the Editor crashes, improved game performance, and included a number of visual goodies to make the game look even better.

By August of 2015 the campaign was fully playable. Lead scientist Rachel S'Jet was the heroine of the story. Of course she drives a Baserunner, silver and sleek.

Rachel's silver Baserunner.

Homeworld is renowned for its storytelling, and we had to do it justice. The campaign is all about story, and unfolds across the desert as Rachel leads the expedition to the downed Khar-Toba starship, seeking to unlock the mysteries of her Kharakian people, and assure their survival.

The art team pushed the animatic technique of the original Homeworld games to new heights, in full colour and to amazing effect. To complement the pre-rendered animatics we developed cinematic camera control techniques that allowed non-interactive cut scenes to make full use of the simulation engine and blend seamlessly between animatics and gameplay.

January 20, 2016. Launch day. We nervously refreshed web pages as fans finally got to play the game, as reviewers shared their thoughts, as our metacritic score went up and down. We were especially gratified to see the very positive response from fans. Thank you.

Rachel leads the expedition and the story comes full circle.

This in-engine shot of Rachel's Baserunner cresting a dune brings the story full-circle back to the Khar-Toba expedition in the original Homeworld.

It's been a long and winding road to reach this day. Rob Cunningham as visionary leader and all the talented Blackbird staff did an amazing job. Unity was there the whole way, taking us from web-based free-to-play to AAA PC standalone game. We also used a number of plugins from the Unity Asset Store, including Amplify mega-texturing for earlier versions of the terrain system, Cinema Director for NIS sequencing, Fabric for audio, NGUI for UI, the Path-o-logical object Pool Manager, Playmaker to manage front-end transitions, uScript for campaign scripting, and various others. We intend to bring some of our internally developed technology to the Asset Store.

We're happy to be Made With Unity.

  
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