Ascent – The Space Game: Interview With James Hicks

louie2I’ve been going gaga over Ascent lately,  so I am super excited to have had the chance to fire a few questions at James Hicks, Galactic Overlord. He is the Lead Programmer and Lead Designer of Fluffy Kitten Studios, so is more than qualified to interpret for Louie, the fluffy  kitten himself. A sandbox space game designed around the actual Milky Way, Ascent allows players to take to the stars and explore, colonize and exploit the resources of the galaxy.

After speaking with him, I have the urge to run out, buy a Unicorn and paint my ship hot pink. So if you see a hot pink Unicorn zipping around this weekend, feel free to say hello!


LH: My cat, Sinbad, adores Ascent. So let’s get the most important question out of the way first. How would Louie describe Ascent – The Space Game? 

JH: I think a few months ago he would describe it by sprinting away and pooping on the bed, but now he is more helpful… standing on my chest while I’m trying to code on so forth. I think the improved graphics play well with cats, and he’s been keen to add his voice to every video I record as well which I take as a vote of feline support :)

LH: And for the humans involved – how would you describe Ascent to someone who has never heard of it?

JH: If you’ve played EVE Online, it’s like that but without PVP and with 270 billion star systems, lots of Sci Fi and colonization.

Otherwise it’s a bit of a challenge to describe… it’s multiplayer in space with spaceships and warp drives and hyperdrives and jump gates and we’ve simulated the entire Milky Way galaxy and humanity’s collapsed down to these nine star systems and you have to work with other players to help the human race recover and begin colonizing other star systems… and then by this point either their eyes have glazed over or I launch into a feature list.

LH: One of the first things I noticed when playing was how absolutely amazing the player community is. Has there been anything the community has done that’s surprised you? Anything in particular that you’ve loved seeing unfold as the universe is explored?

JH: The community blow me away on a daily basis. We have been so blessed! I think the first time they surprised me was when they began forming guilds during a very early development phase. There is still nothing in game that supports guilds but the players still self organize into groups and work together. The second time I think was how they pulled together to create the first player built jump gates. Those are mega projects, and the materials requirements start huge and get bigger exponentially with the distance you’re bridging so they can become really vast projects, but the players had the first one going in a couple of weeks. That was awesome.

 LH: Is there anything you’d like to say to your players?

JH: Thanks for coming on board, don’t forget to leave feedback, it’s what built the game, and don’t play too long! Sometimes I see people pull 12-18 hours at once and it was designed so you can turn it off, walk away and come back later and everything is where you left it… don’t burn out!

LH: And now let’s dive into the game itself. I’ve not gotten very far into it yet, but I can already see that there’s a lot of depth and things to do. I’m actually a bit overwhelmed trying to come up with specific things to ask! Do you have any advice for a new player who might be feeling a little lost?

JH: I think the thing to do is take a deep breath, follow the tutorial quests when you feel like it, and branch out with anything that takes your fancy. I see players advance really quickly by working hard at mining or lucrative trade routes, but I would definitely say relax, don’t push yourself, it’s not a race, it’s a game and it’s there for fun – so explore and enjoy it. Do what you feel like doing, not what everyone else says is the fastest way to make money… unless you feel like doing that.

LH: Let’s talk about ship customization. It looks like there’s a robust painting system, how much variation is possible? Will every Unicorn fighter look the same or can I make mine really stand out?

JH: At the moment you can quite literally have a matte pink unicorn with glossy and reflective blue polka dots, or a solid black one that drinks all light, or a bright white one that shines like a mirror, or a green one with blue tiger stripes. The possibilities are not endless, but I’m pretty sure the level of visual customization we have goes beyond anything I’ve seen before.

We always wanted to go crazy with ship visual customization. The first version we implemented worked reasonably well but was a total pain to get working on lots of different ships. The second version we used worked like a charm and was beautiful but made the game crash. And crash, and crash, and nothing we ever did made it stable (there was a problem with the library we were using so nothing I could fix directly) and this last one… throws the rulebook away and does everything we want and is perfectly stable. It’s actually like a piece of terrain engine wrapped around your ship, code-wise, but it looks like paint and I’m really happy with it.

LH: How many types of ships are there? Will more be added?

JH: There are currently fifteen ships in twelve classes, ranging from 8 tons cargo space with a default fitout to over 60,000 tons. The largest ships in the game are a light cruiser and a small freighter. My planning spread sheet goes up to class 19 which would have about 1.3 million tons cargo space with a default fitout, however the systems are all actually open ended. There is no real reason to stop adding ships. Given that colonies can become really vast (50,000 structures and counting), that player made jump gates can get bigger and bigger, and that we’ll be adding terraforming entire planets as a mega project (and our rocky planets can be the size of Earth), there will be in the future great need of ships with over a million tons cargo space.

We’ll just build up to it steadily as we go. And of course we’ve already begun working on the concept of “difference other than bigger” – Hawks can attach to any other ship, making them a carrier for the Hawk, and the Bowhead is our first ever freighter – it gets extra cargo space but is bad at combat. Some ships have more maneuvering jets in more directions than others, but there are many other possibilities for the future. So going up to or even beyond class 19 doesn’t mean 7 new ships are coming… likely it’s a lot more than that.

LH: It must have been a monumental task to base a game world around the actual Milky Way. What were some of the challenges?

JH: It was one of the maddest things I’ve ever done, but we needed it for the exploration and colonization features. The big challenge was designing a system that didn’t cost millions of dollars a year to operate but could support an open ended number of players building an open ended number of structures across billions of star systems. Once that design was out of the way, it was all about getting the science to be as close to our present understanding of star and planet formation as possible so the galaxy generated would be as realistic, believable and as internally consistent as possible. I read a lot of papers on it and very quickly discovered that… while Astronomers know a lot more than I do about our galaxy, we know a tiny fraction of all there is to know. There is no real agreement on exactly how stars and planets are formed, or even what a star or a planet is (or rather, what is and is not a star or a planet). So to a large extent it was an exercise in picking which theory suited the gameplay best and going with that…

It’s turned out well though – the formation data feeds straight into things like the terrain engine for planets, surface mineral concentrations, soil fertilities, atmosphere and ocean composition etc. All things which have been good for fleshing out the colony game.

 LH: And there’s still lots more to come! Are there any new features close enough to be visible on the horizon?

JH: Yesterday I worked on getting the framework of terraforming to work. Not terraforming as in changing the terrain but actually altering the habitability of a planet – gravity, radiation, atmosphere, magnetosphere, temperature etc. We need this now to fulfill on a KickStarter promise, but it will come in handy in the future when we enable planetary terraforming for everyone – it will be the next megaproject feature I think.

LH: I am particularly interested in the planned AI features. On the steam page, it says, “We are also developing a system which will enable them to engage in actual text chat with players (like old adventure games only we now have access to incredible new parser technology) in order to achieve their aims. ”     Actually chatting with the NPCs? Can you tell us more about that? Is it like old adventure questing, like early EQ where you actually typed to the NPCs hunting for keyword triggers, or something more involved?

JH: I have a working prototype of that, and so far it’s a lot more than just keywords – you can type “wot iz ur job” and it knows that you’re asking its occupation. The technology to make text parsers has grown hugely in the last thirty years. So when we implement this, I expect it will be a lot more natural than the old adventure games (awesome as they were) and a lot more like texting your friends or chatting on Facebook. And that’s important because I want NPCs to have their own needs and goals and to use conversation with players to suit their own ends and vice versa. So if you’re looking for a particular NPC in the future to arrest or kill them or hire them, and the information you need is in another NPC’s head, a conversation is how you’ll get it. It’s all theoretical at this point, and I must admit… when I talk to people about NPCs you can chat to who have goals and make plans and execute those plans in the game… I get the same looks I used to get when I said “I am going to implement the entire Milky Way!”

LH: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to talk about?

JH: We haven’t spoken about combat or PVP and those are questions that often come up. Basically we will implement more combat when the playerbase wants it (which will be soon I think, perhaps in a few months time) but at present PVP is a long way off. At present we’ve got a series of combat missions that takes from tiny scanner drones up to light cruisers and multiple destroyers, and it’s a working prototype of combat for the game, but most of the development to date has gone into trading, exploration, colonisation, research etc because that’s where the players have been more interested.
At some point we will enable pirates to take over abandoned player colonies, and PVP in the Red Zone systems (already designated), but it’s not currently a priority. I think other games have done both combat and PVP well, and at the moment we’ve more found our niche with the exploration, colonization and industrial stuff we’re doing.

Thanks again, James!

If you liked what you read here, go take a peek at the Ascent website! Pick up an early access on Steam! And of course, keep watching because as soon as my lungs cooperate enough for me to finish writing, I’ll have the next part of my first impression up, and you know, actually talk about the game.

About Pherephassa 213 Articles
Pherephassa has been creeping around the etherspace long enough to have remorted so often that not even she can recall her original form. She loves sandboxes, challenges, chain mail bikinis and dungeons so large they take weeks, months or even years to fully explore. Currently seeking an MMO home, she can often be found on the side of the road, begging game designers for death penalties and slow leveling curves.