Blackstar exclusive interview

We've spoken previously about the unique-looking space-combat MMO Blackstar, being developed by Spacetime Studios -- how previous publisher NCsoft had chosen to cancel their connection with the title, and how Spacetime recently regained the IP, to continue development on their own. From the look and sound of everything that's been shown to the public so far, this game has the potential to be NCsoft's "one that got away".

Intrigued by the goings-on with the studio, we contacted Spacetime's President and Executive Producer Gary Gattis to see if he could give us a peek behind the curtains -- or photon displacement cascade, as the case may be -- at how development on Blackstar is progressing. Mr. Gattis not only graciously consented to the interview request, but also gave us 4 pieces of concept art to share with our readers; art that has only made us long even more for the game's eventual release. Read the full interview after the jump!


How did Spacetime Studios get involved in this project? Was it your idea in the first place? For how long has this been in development?

My partners (Anthony Sommers, Jake Rodgers, Cinco Barnes) and I have worked together for a long, long time, and we have always loved space-combat games. We've shipped several of them. We had a vision of the next iteration of space combat that we pitched to NCsoft in 2005. They knew us from previous relationships, and shared our beliefs in the team and the product, but Blackstar has been our baby since the beginning.

What is your title and function?

As Executive Producer, my job is to ensure the company is healthy, a universal vision is kept, scope and tasks are clearly defined, and everything is running smoothly across all disciplines. And to buy the breakfast tacos. Mmmmmm ... breakfast tacos ...

Can you talk about what led to NCsoft canceling development on Blackstar?

Their portfolio strategy changed, it was just business. We still like those guys a lot and wish them great success.

Will Spacetime be looking for a publisher, or do you have plans to seek investors and self-publish?

External money is available, especially now that so much risk has been mitigated, but we would prefer to find a publishing partner again. Developers can make great games, but publishers can make games actually do great in the marketplace. We are looking for the right partnership with a shared vision and drive to produce a powerhouse product. We are on to something that feels so unique and fun that with the right guidance and support something very special could happen.

Is there a narrative behind Blackstar?

We are pretty formal about our development processes; one aspect is a literary approach towards design. There is an extreme amount of fiction written for this title already ... perhaps a quarter of a million words. Narratives and storytelling are a key part of our asset development process. We don't just point to a design doc or crank out a rough two sentence description of an item or wearable or character, we do deep story-oriented development that inspires the concepting process. So the idea of "narrative" permeates our design and development cycle much more intimately than most development studios. This is key to conveying our vision of the IP, and I think it shows. This means that every character, ship, environment, effect ... you name it ... fits in to the overall vision of the IP.

The story begins like this:

"Something stirred within us, so long ago; when we looked upon the star filled sky innocent and unaware of the threats that lay beyond. The stars spoke our destiny.

"We colonized those distant worlds with abandon. Through our mastery of art and science, and our undeniable will to overcome adversity, we built a society founded on hope and promise. We discovered and studied the remains of civilizations that came before; we learned from their triumphs and their mistakes. We used our technology to build servants, who became something more. We found that during our endless journey, we had become something more as well. Our future was assured: the rising star of a society on the cusp of apotheosis.

"Then came the Scorn, and their Prophecy, and their War; a Black Star rising to eclipse our own.

"So many colonies destroyed, so many friends and lovers dead. We have paid in blood to learn the true nature of the galaxy. We have seen horror and have felt despair, but we are not yet beaten."

How would you define Blackstar's gameplay, and how is it different from other titles currently available?

Take the best of Wing Commander and Descent. Add some kick-ass ground combat. Play a lot of PvP to polish the hell out of it until it hits the right balance of easy to play/difficult to master. We are unconstrained by the existing fiction of a licensed product and free to attempt the artistic purity that can truly define a franchise. There's nothing like it and we don't see anything on the horizon.

How much of the concept art that's been released is actually for in-game visuals?

I would say almost all of it. We first try to see the game through the artist's eye, and then match that vision on-screen. One of the first things David Levy (our Visual Director) did when he came on board was produce a style-guide for the game. This included characters, hardware, architecture, colors, textures, effects ... basically everything needed to visually define the IP. The next thing he did was build an amazing group of fine artists. The concept art you see is almost exclusively production-driven, and over the last two years the art production team has built this stuff (in-house and out) so that it perfectly reflects the conceptual vision.

Now that consoles are fairly powerful and have hard drives, will we see more MMOs expanding out to consoles? What about Blackstar?

I believe the fundamental gameplay for a successful console MMO has to be geared towards console players, and that is somewhat of a shift away from traditional MMO development. There are some well-respected publishers with console MMOs coming down the pipe, and everyone is watching this very carefully. Our team was built with some of the best MMO developers in the world, as well as some of the best space-combat developers in the world, so I am very confident we could adapt in that direction.

Now that you own the IP, will you be making any changes to the game that NCsoft had previously shot down?

Oh yeah! NC's product was a straight subscription-based PC MMO, scoped to be hundreds of hours of content. As the game came into its own, we found that the core gameplay ... you know, the part where you usually are grinding ... the core gameplay was an absolute blast! It was intense and visceral and all heart-pounding goodness. And this type of gameplay generally lends itself more to the console. So while we were negotiating with NCsoft to get the IP back, the programmers and designers hooked up some console controllers. It is not an exaggeration to say that we were immediately blown away by how well the product worked with a couple of joysticks! So at the very least you could say we are headed in that direction. As far as other scope or product changes go, we'd like to work out those with our next partner before announcing anything else.

Gary, thank you for your time and consideration; we look forward to hearing more about Blackstar!