Jumpgate Evolution: Battle Station Interview with Hermann Peterscheck at GDC '08

By Cody “Micajah” Bye, Managing Editor
By Cody “Micajah” Bye, Managing Editor

When Star Wars was released on May 25, 1977, no one could have imagined the impact the movie would have on the future of popular entertainment. However, it wasn’t just the films that made the idea of space combat exciting. Rather, it was the parallel emergence of video and arcade games that would forever cement the idea of space flight and combat into the minds of our world’s impressionable youth.

The creation of battle stations and capital ships are of utmost importance to NetDevil.

Video game players often found themselves piloting the controls of a virtual X-Wing, careening down the Death Star trench while looking for that elusive exhaust port. Or, if they picked up the Lucasarts game, X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter, they might have manuevered their incredibly slow Y-Wing into position to start a bombing run on an Imperial Star Destroyer. Immense battle stations are a staple in any space combat fans diet, and it’s also one of those elements that cannot be ignored by any serious developer of a space combat game.

While the list of recent space simulators is fairly short, the crew at NetDevil wanted to insure that their community was aware of the team's most recent additions to their upcoming MMORPG, Jumpgate Evolution. While the Ten Ton Hammer staff was attending GDC ’08, we made sure to check in with the Colorado-based crew to see how their upcoming space MMORPG was progressing. As always, we weren’t disappointed.

After chatting with Jumpgate producer Hermann Peterscheck, we were pleased to find out that battle stations – along with capital ships – were some of the most important features being currently implemented into the game. Loading up the client on his laptop (which looked like your average Dell computer), Hermann explained that the game simply didn’t feel complete without the bigger weapon platforms. “Our whole philosophy with Jumpgate is really to test, retest, and change things when necessary,” Hermann said. “A few months ago, we were talking about the game and there was this feeling that going around and fighting ships was fun, but it’s not really enough. There was this big hole, this need to fight large ships that just wasn’t being expressed through our current gameplay. Therefore, we decided to put them in, and our first iteration on that is the battle station.”

Commencing our launch sequence, Hermann gave a brief tour of the surrounding area, which was full of asteroids and a huge enemy base that comprised the interior of one of the larger asteroids. To make sure players knew who the base belonged to, a large insignia was emblazoned on the outside of the base. As we watched, fighter were launched out of the ship to intercept us. After a bit of fancy flying, Hermann directed us away from the base and to a nearby area that held the battle station. As we flew close, it was really apparent just how big the base was right off the bat. This was some small piece of space junk – the battle station was huge. Each of the five turrets was easily as big as or bigger than the small ship Hermann was piloting, and he felt the heat from the guns rather quickly.

Flying out of harm’s way, Hermann began pointing out items on the battle station and explaining some of their functionality. “There’s a whole bunch of technical stuff with implementing these battle stations,” Hermann said. “I mean developing the AI of a turret isn’t easy. You have to determine how accurate you want them to be, how they track the player, and all sorts of other issues.” So while creating individual NPC ships wasn’t easy, battle stations were many times more difficult to construct.

Battles stations will have different stages that need to be defeated before they will ultimately explode.

Despite the pounding Hermann took from the guns, he was eventually able to breach some of the battle station’s defenses. When he did so, the strategy to take down the battle station seemed to change, and Hermann eagerly explained how battle station combat may proceed once it’s in the live game. “What we ended up with was something like your traditional console boss experience,” Hermann continued. “In reality, the more you attack something, the weaker it gets. However, you really want these opponents to get tougher as you go to make the experience more engaging. First you might have to destroy three or four turrets, then you blow up the shield generator, which finally opens up the core area that has tougher guns than anything else you’d faced previously. You take out the core then fly away to watch the huge explosion.”

And the explosion was tremendous! As Hermann took out the core of the station, he immediately hit the reverse thrusters and pushed himself as far away from the ship as he possibly could. As he backed away, you could see the detonation then the consequential bloom of energy as he flew away.

Of course, there must be some sort of loot that players can pick up at the end. Unlike most games, however, Hermann doesn’t seem to be stingy about having the enemies drop loot. “I prefer the term ‘loot fountain’,” he said. “If you kill a big tough base, you expect a really big reward. I don’t understand why some designers don’t want players to feel rewarded.” Much like taking down a higher-end monster in a standard MMORPG, players don’t want to feel like they came away from the entire encounter with nothing to show from it.

Since we were on that line of thinking, Hermann immediately answered the next unvoiced question, which revolved around the idea of using the bigger ships and stations as end game type content. Hermann was eager to point out that it was something his team had already discussed and was musing over. “There’s a lot of potential in this system,” Hermann said. “Especially so in the higher end content. There might be a station that spawns out tons of ships as you’re trying to take it out, or one that is covered in turrets that players have to destroy. The possibilities are really wide open.”

At this point, Hermann leaned back from the computer and turned to me, a flash of mischief in his eye. It was apparent that Hermann was really passionate about his next statement. “The dream – to sort of expose this a little bit – is to really integrate some of these big battles into player versus player combat,” Hermann said. “The best scenario – in my opinion – would be the two capital ships flying directly towards each other while blasting volleys from their laser cannons as they pass. The players would escort these two capital ships and attempt to destroy the enemy before they destroy you.”

Jumpgate Evolution hopes to capture the entire space combat genre.

These would be the sort of epic battles that science fiction fans are familiar with. For a frame of reference, pull out a copy of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi and watch the final space combat scene where star fighters are jetting around the giant capital ships, blowing up shield generators or blasting other fighters into thousands of space particles. Those are the sort of battles that NetDevil wants to eventually create.

However, there are still some limitations on what the developers can do. Even with the game being incredibly well-developed, not all of the functionality may be readily available at launch. “Of course, the next thing the people ask is, ‘Can I fly the capital ship?’ Then you get into a whole new realm of complexity,” Hermann stated. “If one player is gunning and the other is flying, what happens when one of the players encounters some lag? It’s a very cool idea, and I’m sure we’ll figure out a way to do it at some point. However, it’s just somewhere in the future.”

And the future – at least in this reporter’s eyes – seems bright for the upcoming game. From what I’ve seen and experienced, sitting alongside Hermann through event after event, Jumpgate Evolution can only be described as something of a miraculous achievement. With an incredibly small team and a large heaping of ambition, the developers behind Jumpgate Evolution are creating a game that will really resonate with the common fan and space combat gamers alike. Space is a wide open frontier, and Jumpgate Evolution is hoping to fill it.

What do you think of Hermann's explanation of battle station combat? Does it ring true with you? Let us know on the forums!

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