HOW TO BUILD A SPACESHIP

From rough sketch to fi­nal model, here’s how Fron­tier cre­ates the space­ships of Elite Danger­ous.

PC GAMER (US) - - FEATURE -

There are over 30 fly­able ships in Elite, and ev­ery one has its own dis­tinct per­son­al­ity. Th­ese craft are the real stars of the game, and the thing ev­ery com­man­der as­pires to own—whether they’re an ex­plorer, trader, bounty hunter, or pi­rate. But how are they built? It’s some­thing that has al­ways in­trigued me, how an idea makes it from some­one’s mind to a spaceship that can be flown in-game. So I asked how Fron­tier does it, fo­cus­ing on the lat­est ship to be added to its grow­ing space garage: The mighty Chief­tain. “The Thar­goids have re­turned,” says San­dro Sam­marco, lead de­signer of Elite Danger­ous, re­fer­ring to the mys­te­ri­ous aliens that have been tor­ment­ing pi­lots across the gal­axy. “And their ar­rival has in­spired the Al­liance to build a war fleet, in­clud­ing a new ship called the Chief­tain.” This com­bat-fo­cused ship is man­u­fac­tured by Lakon, most fa­mous for its Type-9 freighter. It shares some de­sign el­e­ments with that ship, but is a very dif­fer­ent, and dead­lier, beast. The idea be­hind the sim­i­lar­i­ties is that the ship has been cre­ated quickly, on the fly, as a re­sponse to the loom­ing Thar­goid threat.

“The Em­pire, Fed­er­a­tion, and Al­liance are cur­rently the three big su­per­pow­ers in the game, and they con­trol huge swathes of space,” Sam­marco con­tin­ues. “They don’t gen­er­ally like each other very much, and have been close to war. And with the ar­rival of the Thar­goids, the Al­liance de­cided it had to pro­tect it­self and its peo­ple. So they com­mis­sioned Lakon to build them a range of new war-ready ships, in­clud­ing an ex­per­i­men­tal craft, the Chief­tain, de­signed to bat­tle Thar­goids.”

And so, al­though this isn’t the case with ev­ery ship in Elite, the Chief­tain was born from a story ne­ces­sity; a way for the Al­liance to fight back against the alien in­vaders. “Play­ers have been clam­or­ing for Al­liance ships for a long time,” says Sam­marco. “So we re­ally wanted to make that hap­pen any­way, and the ar­rival of the Thar­goids was the perfect op­por­tu­nity. This is the right time to in­tro­duce more ships, es­pe­cially if they’re built for com­bat.”

Know­ing that the Chief­tain is an alien hunter gives Fron­tier’s de­sign­ers a start­ing point. “When we create a

“When we create a ship, we like to give it a broad role”

ship, we like to give it a broad role. There is a cross­over some­times, be­cause we have ships that are good at sev­eral things, but in this in­stance we wanted to lean into one role at the ex­pense of oth­ers. The Chief­tain is all about space su­pe­ri­or­ity, about out­ma­neu­ver­ing your op­po­nent. It’s sim­i­lar to the Vul­ture, one of our heavy fight­ers, in that re­spect. But that ship is more ex­pen­sive, so it’s nice to have a more af­ford­able ver­sion with those ca­pa­bil­i­ties.”

The ship back­bone

Fron­tier has some­thing it calls the ‘ship back­bone’; a de­sign chart plot­ting ev­ery ship in the game and the niche it fills. “It roughly il­lus­trates things like value and ef­fec­tive­ness. At the bot­tom you have Sidewinders and Ad­ders, and at the top there are mon­sters like the Ana­conda. It’s only an ap­prox­i­ma­tion, but it gives us an idea of where a ship fits. In the Chief­tain’s case, it sits some­where in the up­per-mid range. This is where ships are still fun to fly and ma­neu­ver­able, but are start­ing to show some real teeth in com­bat.”

This is an im­por­tant step when it comes to de­sign­ing a new ship: Fig­ur­ing out where it sits in the hi­er­ar­chy, mak­ing sure it doesn’t fill a role an­other ship al­ready does well, or be so over­pow­ered that it throws the whole game into tur­moil. “For balanc­ing we think about the load­out. How many guns is the Chief­tain go­ing to have? It’s a war­ship, so it’ll have a stack of them, of course. But it doesn’t have to beat other ships in its class in terms of the size of its guns, be­cause it’s go­ing to be be­hind them, dodg­ing their fire.”

The back­bone helps Fron­tier weigh new ships up against oth­ers in its class, to make sure it doesn’t mas­sively out­class them. “With the Chief­tain we looked at the base­line of other ships in its range and worked from there. This speeds the cre­ation process up, es­pe­cially com­pared to the early days of Elite Danger­ous when there were no prece­dents, no back­bone, and ev­ery­thing had to be cre­ated from scratch. We’re get­ting bet­ter at balanc­ing new ships, and we’re happy with where the Chief­tain is sit­ting on the chart.”

Cre­at­ing a ship is a col­lab­o­ra­tive process. The 3D and con­cept artists will work closely with the de­sign­ers and writ­ers to make sure a new ship works in all ar­eas: From aes­thet­ics, to func­tion, to pur­pose. “Some­times what’s hap­pen­ing in the game will drive us to­wards de­sign­ing a par­tic­u­lar kind of ship. The lore, the pro­gres­sion of the story. And in those cases it’s not just about where the ship fits on the back­bone, but how it serves the nar­ra­tive.”

When a ship slots neatly into the back­bone, Fron­tier starts think­ing about what makes the ship de­sir­able. “I call it the shtick,” says Sam­marco. “I can say it’s a com­bat ship, but there are other com­bat ships. What makes me, as a player, want this one? There are in­stant wins in the fact it’s an Al­liance ship, and a Lakon ship, which gives it a dis­tinc­tive styling and lore. A car man­u­fac­turer will ask, ‘What do our cus­tomers want? What will sell this car?’ It’s the same when it comes to de­sign­ing ships for Elite.”

Chart Att ack

One of the big­gest sell­ing points of the Chief­tain is the po­si­tion of its hard­points. “A ship like the Im­pe­rial Clip­per has trou­ble in com­bat be­cause the hard­points are fixed to the wings and spread far apart. This makes hit­ting

things that are close to you dif­fi­cult. But with the Chief­tain, there are two mounts on ei­ther side of the cockpit, very close to its cen­ter­point. They’re like a preda­tor’s eyes look­ing for­ward. And the other guns are on two lines across its back, dead cen­ter. It’s ba­si­cally perfect for dog­fight­ing.”

The Chief­tain has the most con­cen­trated set of cen­ter­line weapons in the game, which solves the prob­lem of mak­ing it de­sir­able to the player­base—es­pe­cially for pi­lots who love com­bat. But it doesn’t have the big­gest guns, so there’s a trade-off for that ac­cu­racy. It has less in­ter­nal space than other ships in its class, which is a prob­lem for traders. And its jump range is rel­a­tively limited. The de­sign­ers have to make sure any new ship they in­tro­duce is bal­anced against the oth­ers, which is where that back­bone graph proves in­valu­able. So while the Chief­tain is def­i­nitely a for­mi­da­ble, pow­er­ful ves­sel, it has its share of weak­nesses too. It’s only fair.

“The ships in Elite Danger­ous are more than the sum of their parts,” ex­plains Sam­marco. “The ac­tual ex­pe­ri­ence of fly­ing them is more than just the num­bers that de­fine their flight model. We’ll tweak its ma­neu­vre­abil­ity, maybe take its shields down a bit. It looks tough, so we make sure it has rea­son­ably strong ar­mor and quite a lot of health. A nice, ro­bust ship, but with weaker shields than sim­i­lar craft. We build th­ese trade-offs in, be­cause it keeps things in­ter­est­ing.”

Be­fore a ship is rolled off the pro­duc­tion line, it’s pro­to­typed and ex­ten­sively playtested. “It’s at this stage where we catch some of the most ob­vi­ous flaws,” says Sam­marco. “It could be too quick, too pow­er­ful, or spin out too eas­ily. So we’ll tweak its per­for­mance based on that data.” Af­ter that, Fron­tier will usu­ally test a new ship out in a closed beta, let­ting real play­ers—the harsh­est crit­ics—get

their hands on it. “We had a great re­sponse to the Chief­tain in the beta. Our play­ers know more than us. They’re playing Elite Danger­ous all the time, and we love tap­ping into that knowl­edge.”

CHANGE UP

Based on beta feed­back, some changes were made to the ma­neu­ver­abil­ity of the Chief­tain. “Peo­ple com­plained that it was too slidey and not par­tic­u­larly con­trol­lable. So we tight­ened its thrusters up, and it’s far more re­spon­sive now, go­ing where you want it to go be­fore it starts slid­ing all over the place.” Fron­tier puts great trust in its com­mu­nity, but they will tweak ships af­ter launch if

“Our play­ers know more than us. They’re playing Elite all the time”

nec­es­sary. “For all the test­ing we do, and the com­mu­nity does, this is a com­pli­cated game with a lot of mov­ing parts. So we’ll look at the data and make changes.”

This, Sam­marco says, is a fact of life when it comes to de­vel­op­ing an ever-ex­pand­ing, con­stantly evolv­ing game like Elite. “When I started in the in­dus­try, which was a long time ago, you’d beaver away for a year, maybe two, then it would go out. And bar­ring any patches to make sure the game works, that was it. It was done, and you would move on. But Elite is a live game, and we’re still adding new con­tent three years later. It’s bril­liant and ter­ri­fy­ing, and there’s a real in­er­tia to any­thing we add. We have to make sure ev­ery­thing doesn’t top­ple over when we in­tro­duce a new el­e­ment.”

The Chief­tain was fi­nally re­leased into Elite Danger­ous on Fe­bru­ary 27, as part of the first chap­ter of the free Beyond ex­pan­sion. Al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter it was made avail­able, it gen­er­ated some heated de­bate within the game’s com­mu­nity. Some com­man­ders are crit­i­cal of its weak shields, but oth­ers find it to be a hardy fighter that’s well suited to ven­tur­ing into Re­source Ex­trac­tion Sites—ar­eas of space where wanted crim­i­nals can be found and their boun­ties claimed. You can’t please ev­ery­one, and al­most ev­ery ship in­tro­duced into the game splits the com­mu­nity. But that’s the beauty of Fron­tier’s di­verse hangar of ships: There’s one for ev­ery kind of pi­lot.

BOT­TOM: The ‘face’ of the ship is an im­por­tant part of its de­sign. Fron­tier wanted the Chief­tain to look in­tim­i­dat­ing.

TOP LEFT: Through­out the many de­sign it­er­a­tions of the Chief­tain ship, the four en­gines were al­ways there.

Now that multi-crew ships are a thing, de­sign­ers have to con­sider where other play­ers will sit.

TOP: The early 3D block­outs get in­creas­ingly com­plex as the de­sign is it­er­ated on.

BELOW: The Scarab buggy in this im­age gives you an idea of just how big the Chief­tain re­ally is.

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