Rodina interview: exploration, combat and modding in an indie space adventure

Phil Savage

When Notch announced that he was no longer working on 0x10c , the burgeoning space genre lost a promising mix of exploration and user generated content. But his wasn't the only project to marry the vastness of space with the infinite potential of community creativity. Rodina , by Elliptic Games, is hoping to fill that gap. It's been largely created by one man, Brendan Anthony, a former programmer at Bethesda. I got in touch with Brendan, and he told me about the game's eye-catching tech, ambitious development roadmap, and how it has as much in common with Daggerfall as it does with Freespace.

One of the most striking things about Rodina's early videos is the way ships can seamlessly travel from the vast void of space, through a planet's atmosphere and down to the surface. There are no loading screens or canned animations. Even in combat, rival ships will tail you from ground to orbit and back again. Achieving this was essential for Brendan's vision of the game. "When I was a kid, I played NES games like Zelda and Final Fantasy," he says, "and didn't think of them as being 'games' so much as being fantasy worlds . I loved the freedom, and I never got as much into games - like Super Mario Bros - that didn't provide that experience."

Brendan's aim is to carry that sense of place into this vastly bigger setting. "The space genre is one that has just been aching for someone to remove the invisible walls. If I am in orbit around a planet, I want to be able to fly down to it, and explore the whole thing. No loading screens, no single restrictive landing location. Anything less than complete freedom isn't good enough."

It's not just Nintendo classics that are inspiring Brendan - although Star Fox also gets a namecheck on his website's intro. More complex, denser games also make up the foundations that Rodina is built on, including Freelancer and, puzzlingly, The Elder Scrolls series. "I really like immersive first-person RPGs in general," Brendan explains, "and I'd like Rodina to be the kind of game where players feel a lot of ownership over their experience, their ship, and their character. The Elder Scrolls series excels at this kind of game.

"It may seem to have a lot more in common with the Elder Scrolls than with Star Fox."

"Additionally, in the very long run I'd like to develop Rodina to the point where there are cities, NPCs, factions and quests; make it like an RPG that just happens to let you fly spaceships. At that point, it may seem to have a lot more in common with the Elder Scrolls than with Star Fox."

Brendan's love of The Elder Scrolls goes beyond his time at Bethesda, where he worked as a programmer on Oblivion and Fallout 3. Rodina is primarily being influenced by a much earlier game in the series. "Daggerfall, with its massive world and procedural content, was a big inspiration. Daggerfall was really a game before it's time and I think it was a really interesting bridge between a hand crafted story and a completely procedural experience."

These RPG elements won't be present at launch, however. The initial version of Rodina will be focused on exploration, combat, survival and progression through the main story. Brendan plans to expand from there, with the game's scope increasing as its community grows.

"Initially the game is about exploring the solar system, the planets and their landscapes, searching for resources, and fighting any aliens that get in your way," Brendan says. "We also have a bunch of text content: stories in the form of emails, personal notes, and books, that give insight into the Rodina Universe and the wider story. The player also has the opportunity to get creative and customize the interior of their ship."

"All of the computers in the game ... the player can hack and recode at will."

Customisation is another of Rodina's big idea, and it goes far beyond just the insides of a player's ship. Brendan plans to add programmable in-ship computers in a later update. "When hacking is unveiled in a future update, all of the computers in the game will be actual virtual machines running Lua code - just like the rest of the game - and which the player can hack and recode at will. So, for example, there is a Navigation Computer which defines how the player's controls affects ship movement. If the player so chooses, they can hack this computer and change the ship controls to something preferable. They might choose to program an auto-targeting module, or even add something like autopilot. If they create something cool, then naturally they will be able to share that creation with others.

"I imagine that it will get more and more interesting as the game gets more simulation and RPG elements," Brendan continues. "I see this as a feature that is sort of an experiment right now and will come into its own over time."

It's not just the computers that are open to modification. As Brendan explains, players will be able to tinker with the game's own Lua code. He's also planning to release a Blender plugin, which would allow the community to edit Rodina's art. "It should be easy for players to create new content," he says, "and ambitious users could even add new functionality to the game. I wouldn't be surprised to see some total conversions, or even brand-new games, if Rodina ends up being popular."

Brendan isn't short for other ideas that will eventually make it into Rodina, but there inclusion will largely depend on the game's initial success. But while the game's long-term future has yet to be decided, the first post-launch updates are already being planned. "Right now the game doesn't have things like life support systems, fires that could break out, cooling systems, electricity, hacking, etc," he says. "I want to simulate all that stuff so that the player can experience cool dynamic situations like fire in the engine room or emergency coolant leaks."

"The core experience of being in a world is totally there."

Beyond that, Brendan plans to involve the community, giving them a list of potential features, and letting them vote on their most desired. Even then, he has his own wishlist should things go well. "The most important future feature-set for me is boarding enemy ships In order to do this, I'll need new art, procedural interior maps, character animation and AI. It's a big job but it'll be a huge moment when it goes in."

While there's a long way to go before Rodina becomes the game it could be, Brendan's hoping that what's already there will be enough to captivate players. "Walking around the landscape, taking in the scale and grandeur of it (which is much easier on foot), jumping your way up a mountain in traditional RPG fashion, seeing the light change and realizing the sun is going down, and then returning to your ship just in time to see an amazing sunset... it's just really immersive. Frankly, the game has a long way to go before it has all the gameplay I'm dreaming of, but the core experience of being in a world is totally there."

Brendan plans to announce Rodina's release date soon. We'll let you know when he does.

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