13th Jul 2006 | 13:05
Outerlight's The Ship was originally conceived as a Half-Life mod, but with the arrival of Valve Software's Source engine the developer was infected with upgrade-itis and decided to bring its project bang up to date with the latest technology. Its efforts eventually resulted in a commercial release for The Ship over Steam - which occurred this week - and the game will also make a full retail splashdown later in the year.
Although featuring a single-player mode, The Ship is really an online, multiplayer-focussed experience. In the game, players on-board ocean liners enter into a game of hunt and murder. You're given the name of another player, and you then have to hunt that person down with any weapon you can find and bump them off without being seen by security or fellow passengers.
With The Ship just launching - pun fully intended - we thought it an ideal time pin down Outerlight managing director Chris Peck and grill him both on the project and what the future holds for the development studio...
Firstly, can you give us a bit of background on Outerlight - how it came into being, number of staff members, previous projects worked on etc?
Chris Peck: The company was founded in March 2003 by the Managing Director, Chris Peck, along with the Director of Operations, Ailsa Bates, and the Technical Director, Ed Wilson. Using money from friends & family, we raised more private investment and co-investment, recruited the team, and developed The Ship. The highly talented team is 19 strong, and is a mix of experienced and junior staff. Some of the titles worked on for other companies include State of Emergency, Crash Bandicoot and Evil Dead - Fistful of Boomstick.
Where did the idea for The Ship come from?
Chris Peck: It was one of those late night conversations. We had a short list of about five titles we were considering when we founded the company. The Ship was chosen for its uniqueness, originality, and most of all its potential.
What types of material have you used for inspiration?
Chris Peck: The Art Deco art style was a strong influence on the art style for both the environments and the characters. When we chose the ship we knew it had to be set on a luxurious cruise liner, and the 1930's period, or thereabouts is the heyday of the great ocean liners. We wanted it to look a little like Titanic in it's opulence. We felt it would make a great change from the traditional grey corridors that a lot of FPSs seem to use. In terms of game play there are elements of The Sims, RPG and FPS. We also drew on Cluedo and Agatha Christie.
So, what is The Ship?
Chris Peck: The Ship is primarily an online hunting game. Players are given the name of another player, and they have to hunt that person down with any weapon they can find on board, and kill them without being seen by security or passengers, or they will be busted and spend time in the brig. Successful kills are awarded money by the enigmatic Mr. X, the more he likes them, the more money he gives. While having someone else to kill, they also have needs to take care of, they have to eat, drink, socialise and play, if they fail to do so they will suffer unfortunate side effects. While the player is hunting for their target, someone else has them as a target, so they must keep an eye over their shoulder at all times! Putting all the game play elements together creates a unique experience. The needs create kill opportunities, the security is hazard to killers, the quarry is an elusive human and there is the ever present danger of the other hunters.
Originally The Ship was a Half-Life mod. What new features has moving over to the Source technology allowed you to introduce - how has it impacted the gameplay?
Chris Peck: I think almost every aspect of the game has improved. Taking the characters for example, they are now all our own, and have eight way move cycles, blended animations, attachments in the form of hair, hats and glasses, changeable clothes, eye and head tracking, body & head tilting, as well as facial blend shapes which can be used for either facial animations such as smiles, or lip synching for dialogue. In the mod when the player changed costume they effectively did a total body swap, so a player could go from being an elderly white man, to a young woman when they changed outfit. Now players have an inventory so they can carry spare costumes, glasses, and hats, and can go to the shops to buy more items and their character is consistent.
The AI are also much improved on the mod, from their ability to path find and get out of the way of the player, to their imitation of players, and their use of the needs system, which means they take care of their needs just like players. Our hunter AI also find weapons and hunt down their quarry, just like a player.
What can we expect from each of the play modes you're including?
Chris Peck: So far we have added Hunt, Elimination, Deathmatch, Duel, Arcade, and Story Mode, the latter two being single player options.
Hunt is fast paced, and good for new players online. In Hunt everyone gets a quarry, and whenever someone successfully kills their quarry, the remaining hunters have a 90 second countdown in which to kill their quarry, before the round is over. There is a slight pause between rounds, and then a new round begins. In Hunt mode the action is pretty much constant, players won't find themselves out of the game for long. The winner is the player who reaches the target bank balance or who has the most money in the bank when the timer runs out.
Elimination is like a last man standing version of the Hunt. Again, all the players are assigned a quarry, except, whenever someone successfully kills their quarry, their victim is knocked out of the loop (becoming a passenger, rather than a spectator), and the successful killer inherits their victim's old quarry. The game goes on with an ever shrinking loop of killers until there is one player left, the Eliminator. The advantage of Elimination is that if you are good, you don't have any quarry changes, or time pressure, it's all about survival, and eventual victory. The disadvantage is that if you are out first, you may have some time to wait for the next round, however, as a passenger you can still pick up weapons, explore, and so on, so you aren't totally out of the game. Elimination can also be played to the death or for money like the hunt.
Deathmatch is pretty much what you would expect, all the players can kill any of the other players, except we gave it the Ship Twist. As configurable options, security remains on, and the money for kills table (which determines how much cash you get for killing with each weapon) remains active. This means players must still avoid being spotted by cameras and guards, and still have to find new weapons if they want the best score. We added Deathmatch for a bit of fun, and maybe to cater for some people who are finding it hard to let go of twitch response gaming.
The Duel mode is designed to allow 2 players to decide who is the better hunter, without the interference of other players. We will be tweaking this to allow players to challenge each other to duels.
The Arcade Mode is a single player mode which uses the AI for killers, and allows players to play Hunt or Elimination against the AI. It is designed to be a way for players to practice, so they don't have to go online and get their butts kicked as their first experience.
The Story Mode is the first instalment in a story and mission based mode, again, Single Player.
How have you ensured that the single-player game is as much fun as The Ship in multiplayer?
Chris Peck: I think inevitably, with a game like the Ship, the best fun is to be had online, killing other people. I think this is true of lots of games, beating an AI is never as much fun as beating friends, or indeed strangers. A human is always a more worthy opponent. However, the single player does have its place. The Arcade Mode is a great place to practice, and the Story Mode offers things that the online gameplay doesn't, and allows us to tell a story and develop the characters, as well as to use some of the technology, with lip-synching and facial expressions.
What's you're favourite murder weapon and best murder moment?
Chris Peck: Can I have four, or maybe you pick? :) Injecting my quarry with poison, and watching them vomit to death as they tried to get their revenge. Tossing an exploding purse bomb two decks down to my distant quarry, detonating it out of sight, and seeing their name come up as killed. Getting into a lift with my quarry as the doors closed, pulling out a weapon, and thinking about their face falling as they realised they were in deep, deep, trouble. Waking up my sleeping quarry with a baseball bat to the face!
Now The Ship's released over Steam, do you plan to release content updates? If so, what can we expect to see?
Chris Peck: Very much so. We plan to add more modes, levels, more weapons, more game features, such as letting the player join as a passenger or guard, as well as killer.
We're sure you get asked this a lot, but what advice would you give to 'bedroom' mod authors and level designers who are looking to make a career in videogame development?
Chris Peck: Go for it. The best way to get into games is to make a mod or a level which will impress or inspire people, and will show your passion and talent. Then, be prepared to do anything to get your foot in the door, and once you are in, show them what you have got. If they are a halfway decent company your talent will help you rise to the top. It certainly isn't all glamour in games, but it is great fun, and very rewarding.
What's next for Outerlight?
Chris Peck: Good times I hope! Our first million units sold? :)
We will be continuing development on The Ship, looking into doing an Xbox360 version, as well as a Vista version, and then looking into The Ship 2, as well as prototyping some other game ideas we have. Hopefully we can find a nice publisher out there to work with on our next title! :)
Many thanks for your time Chris!