Friday, April 18, 2014

PAX East 2014 - Habitat


Next-gen consoles haven't forgotten about the indies. Both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are actively looking to make sure indies feel welcome on the new powerhouses. Microsoft is starting their ID@Xbox initiative, which courts indies and has an initial list of 25 games. One of those games is Habitat from 4gency and it tackles a somewhat forgotten aspect of interstellar space travel: junk. The publisher was on hand at PAX East 2014 with Habitat playable for Xbox One and we spent some time with Charles Cox, CEO and Founder of 4gency, who ultimately wants to ensure that gamers feel empowered.


Habitat is a strange game. Not in a bad way, but in a non-traditional, never really been seen before way. It's set in the distant future, where Earth has fallen prey to nanomachines who are devouring the planet and forcing its inhabitants into the stars. In a last ditch effort, humanity launches all manner of junk into space so engineers can build space stations. Players control the engineers as they build habitats for the citizens, both from the junk available and flotsam and jetsam from previously built habitats. The ultimate goal is to create environments with enough food, oxygen and electricity to make the refugees feel at home among the stars, all the while racing to build an FTL drive to escape the solar system.

"Habitat is a game about building space stations out of space junk," said Cox. "It takes place in the lower orbit way in the future. Nanomachines are eating the entire Earth so we take everything we can, strap booster rockets on it and shoot it into space. You start out with a small city. Your engineers are your worker bees who do whatever you need them to do and mostly that entails grabbing junk from the surrounding environment and welding it on. As it grows, you have to manage oxygen, food and electricity, ultimately trying to create a place for more Earth citizens to come up and live. For me the trick is determinism. The trick is we want to make sure that players feel that their actions are yielding a good result; that they're not at the whim of a random physic god. I feel that we're striking the right balance, but it's up to the community to let us know."

The demo on display at PAX East was basically a sandbox mode. When the game is launched, there's expected to be both that mode and a career mode, both of which present randomly generated worlds for the gamer to partake in. Both modes revolve around the concept that you want to gain as many people as possible in your habitat. Increasing the number of habitants also increases your number of engineers, which you'll likely need, as your habitants are prone to making silly decisions. For instance, some of them will accidentally start fires, while others will confuse the airlock for a toilet flusher. The career mode does focus more on an end game (the aforementioned FTL drive), but both modes will provide the same level of space junk building insanity.


Part of the reason the game works so well is because of the physics at its core. Habitat is based on the Unity engine, which affords both the developer and the player plenty of options for moving their habitat around and attaching objects to it. There was quite a bit of loose materials floating around and the engineers were tasked with grabbing it, bringing it back and adding it to the space station. The creative part really comes in based on where you attach the pieces. For instance, attaching a rocket on one end of the space station will propel the station accordingly (most of the time in a circle). To counteract that effect of force, you have to attach a rocket on the opposite side to create the balance you need to go forward; otherwise, you're spinning rather comically through space towards your destination. Some of the objects have end points where you can't add anything else on, while others can expand the size of your habitat if positioned correctly.

"Each piece of junk can be used for different things," said Cox. "The gas tanks for instance can be used to make electrical generators, but you can't live in them or grow food in them. Eventually, you're going to run out of junk in your immediate area and will have to start flying around. Activate rockets, throttle them up and down and move your entire city around. It's not your traditional steer left/right; where you place your rockets and how you manage your physics and thrust is how you're going to get this city on the move."


And these objects definitely run the gamut of useful and cultural. You'll find all manner of asteroid fragments, rockets and habitable spaces. Likewise, you'll also find remnants of the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower and other seemingly nonsensical objects that may or may not ultimately improve your habitat. There's some cheekiness in the objects, proving that in space, no one can hear you scream about attaching a national monument when what you really need is a rocket. There are also some items that can be used as weapons for when you don't want to make your entire habitat a space battering ram. These weapons--when added--will make certain aspects of the game work better. Such as when your habitat is threatened by something else, such as another habitat.

While there's currently no multiplayer aspect to the game, 4gency hasn't completely ruled it out, whether it be co-op or versus. In the meantime, you'll still need to contend with other problems. In those cases, the habitat you've created becomes something of a living weapon. Grappling onto another habitat is entirely possible, as is welding an asteroid to one end, firing up a rocket on the other end to get into position and then using the newfound asteroid as a battering ram. And when you start working on multiple habitats, it becomes a juggling act. Focus too much time on one habitat and any others you have may start to fall apart, either through threats within the station or from outside. Of course, there is the option to link together all of your habitats into one giant habitat that essentially becomes a goliath plodding through space (which can then be broken down into smaller habitats if desired).

"You're going to find other things that will be a problem for you; asteroid strikes and other habitats," said Cox. "You'll have to start using the habitats you build as physical and kinetic weapons, throwing pieces of your habitat for instance. The trick is for us to create a user interface that lets players know what habitats are at risk for instance. That's the challenge we're working on solving right now. The player will expand to the level that they're comfortable with. If they think they can support half a dozen habitats, they're welcome to go for it. Or if they want to turtle into an uber because that's what they're going to do, we're not going to punish them for that."

Habitat is a game that definitely stands in a class of its own, which is a good thing. It trades on the physics dynamics, giving the player a different approach when it comes to playing a game in space. Being able to choose from upwards of 100 different items to mix and match really gives the game a fresh feel every time you play. There's a Kickstarter running for the game right now with a couple of weeks left. The game will definitely be worth checking out when it hits Steam and Xbox One holiday 2014 and at the very least you know that 4gency is passionated about their project.

"I've always been a huge space nut," said Cox. "I come from an aerospace family and I think space themes have always been a particular favorite of mine. It wasn't until I was at the Air and Space Museum in 2013 that I saw the orbiter and I had this crazy idea. My wife has all the patience in the world. We were at a Pizzeria Uno's afterwards and I was stealing all these napkins to write down ideas. We went through three different models of how to make this work and threw them all away. It was September 2013 when I decided to make this my full-time job. I left my career in the games industry of eleven years, got a small team together, cashed out the retirement and said we're going for this thing. This is the one."

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