Late last year I did a retrospective on some
of my favorite
Star Trek games, and did some speculating about what the future held for Trek gaming. It turns out that one of the most exciting developments isn’t even happening in the established game industry; rather, a group of intrepid fans are hard at work making the ultimate Star Trek video game: Star Trek Excalibur.
With recent fan community successes like Black Mesa Source, and the steadily growing list of games created through Kickstarter and other kinds of crowd funding, it’s not hard to imagine DIY development becoming a major source for innovative new games. That said, Excalibur is something special and the professionalism of the project is impressive. I got in touch with Excalibur’s technical director, Mark Ward, and he generously answered a few questions about the project and where it’s heading.
Thanks again for taking the time to talk with us. To start, could you please explain your position on the team and what you do on Excalibur?
My name is Mark Ward and I am the Creative Director for Excalibur. I work alongside the Technical Director, John Hardy, to give the project direction and guide the team towards meeting our ultimate goals.
Since my role has a particular focus on the creative disciplines I have to try to keep the artistic work within the project running smoothly, and that means I oversee anything from ship modelling through to script writing or SFX production.
From what I’ve read, Excalibur began as an ambitious mod for Star Trek Bridge Commander, and then evolved into something much bigger. Could you tell us the origins of the project, how the team first came together and how the project took shape?
Star Trek Bridge Commander (BC) was released over a decade ago in 2002 to mixed reception. One of its best features was that it was built to be quite open and, once the SDK was released, that made it possible to develop it far beyond the scope of the original product.
At the same time I think BC was quite adventurous in the gameplay and story options it introduced; even to this day there aren’t many games that offer the player an option to command a large space vessel from both first person and third person perspectives. The developers clearly had intended to push this concept much further but unfortunately ran out of time.
In the years before Excalibur kicked off there were a couple of projects which aimed to rewrite massive swathes of Bridge Commander’s code and vastly improve the game; many of our current team members were involved in those efforts.
Excalibur is running on its own built-from-scratch engine and renderer. Could you tell us a little about that?
As open as BC was for third party content, we were always going to be limited to a DirectX 8 renderer and some very basic functionality within the engine which ruled out features like ship animations and extensive interiors.
So Excalibur has been built on a custom engine called “Evolved” and also utilises the “NanoFX” renderer which was another BC spin-off project. The engine allows us a huge amount of flexibility and has some highly original features, like the Game-Object-Model, which make it much easier to develop on.
What kind of gameplay objectives are you working toward? Obviously Excalibur is an evolved form of the Bridge Commander starship combat we all know and love, but eventually you’ll be implementing first person shooter elements as well, right?
Right now we are working to get the third-person space combat polished up and ready for release as this will give the community something to start playing with and developing for and that is something every team member really wants to see.
After that our attention will turn to other functionality like the mission/scenario system, cutscenes, Interiors and decks, FPS combat and much more. Each of these milestones will come with their own editors and toolkits which will open them up to third party developers, machima producers and the like.
Eventually we are aiming to have a well rounded simulation of what’s going on both inside and outside of a ship. However, unlike Bridge Commander where the player really had no reason to engage with the interior mode, we want to build much of the gameplay into the interior mode so that the player will want to explore the interior of the ship.
We wouldn’t want you to spoil too much, but could you give us a general idea of Excalibur’s story and how it fits into the greater Star Trek canon?
The story takes place about half a year after the events in Star Trek: Nemesis. It's largely inspired by the tumultuous events surrounding the end of the Dominion war which saw the Cardassian Union and the Breen Confederacy brought to their knees, and the Alpha quadrant Alliance reeling from huge losses. The story also deals with the collapse of the Romulan political system as seen in Star Trek: Nemesis which saw the deaths of the entire senate and the praetor.
The USS Excalibur is beginning her shakedown cruise when Starfleet Command sends an emergency assignment. The story follows the ship and her crew as they investigate the fate of the USS Titan which went missing in the Romulan Neutral Zone as it returned to Federation space from its mission at Romulus.
You play as the Captain of the USS Excalibur as he learns to deal with his new ship and crew whilst also struggling to come to terms with his actions during the Dominion War.
What’s the situation with voice acting? Will the development team be doing the voice work, or will you hold auditions for volunteers from the fan community?
We want to use professional or studying voice actors wherever possible and have already got some good contacts for groups which would be willing to help us with that. The biggest obstacle is actually around casting and directing for the recording sessions since those involved with the story are all in very different parts of the world. Just one more interesting obstacle for us to overcome!
I read that you have a composer scoring the game’s music. Is the score completely original, or inspired by a particular Trek movie or show?
Obviously we want to stay within the established “feel” for Star Trek in order to keep things authentic, so clearly we are listening to previous soundtracks and taking inspiration from them all, but the music is being written and produced from scratch for Excalibur.
I recently saw your demo of the Galaxy Class Enterprise D model. That’s very impressive, she’s a beautiful ship. Did you want to touch on the process of modeling and skinning the various ships and interiors?
Thanks very much, the Galaxy class was one of the more difficult ships to get right since the original studio model was so beautifully detailed! This means we have to spend many hours looking at photographs and screenshots of a model in order to get as many details correct as possible.
For the exterior of the ship the process basically involves modelling the mesh and producing the correct shape, then unwrapping that shape so it we can apply a flat texture to it and finally we produce those textures. Once the ship ship has been made it is then a case of hardpointing the ship to give it engines, weapons and sensors etc.
The interiors of a ship will be, by necessity, a very separate process from the exterior since the two may not actually match up with each other. Interiors are built up of decks, which are in turn made up from modular deck pieces.
Interiors were prohibitively difficult to produce for Bridge Commander; to this day only a handful of people have completed the full process. Our plans for Excalibur’s deck editor are to make it possible to drop and drag these modules into place so that interiors can be very quickly constructed with a minimum amount of technical knowledge.
How many ships and interiors would you say are completed, and after wrapping up a legendary ship like the 1701-D, what ships are you working on next?
MW: So as I mentioned above, interiors aren't really a focus at the moment. We have a few prototype parts built for ships like the Intrepid class and Ambassador class but nothing worth getting excited about.
We have a list of around 100 ships we want to have in the game and so far we have about 60 of those finished. Of course they still need hardpointing and balancing so I wouldn’t really call them “finished” yet.
Just as a rough estimate, do you have a timeframe for Excalibur’s first playable alpha and beta releases?
One thing I can say is that we won't be doing alphas or betas; if the game needs technical testing of that kind it isn’t ready for release. We announced our intention to release something playable the public by the end of 2013, so we are pretty confident that you will all be able to try out the first elements of Excalibur before New Years Eve 2014!
What’s the next big milestone or aspect of the project you are tackling?
Our main focus at the moment is populating the universe with star systems and getting the whole game scaled up so that the player can travel between those places seemlessly.
Was there anything else you’re excited about on Excalibur that you’d like to share with us?
Yes, too many things! But thanks for your interest and support :D
Once again, thank you for your time. We’re all looking forward to Star Trek Excalibur.