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Universal Combat Interview
Manveer 'Eidolon' Heir :: 03:00 AM @ October 3rd, 2003 :: In-House: Interview
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Today we've got a lengthy interview with the one and only Derek Smart.

GG: For our readers who don't know, can you tell us what Universal Combat is all about?

Derek Smart: UC used to be Battlecruiser Generations; the fifth title in the long running industry recognized Battlecruiser series. So the question really is for those who had no idea what BCG was about. Where exactly have they been anyway? And is there really a PC gamer left on this planet who doesn't know of or heard about the Battlecruiser series?

Nevertheless, UC takes place in a massive game world in which the player can roam, explore, combat in space, on planets - and with a vast variety of assets including massive space crafts, vehicles, naval units as well as in first person with a variety of weaponry.

Noted as space flight sims, the Battlecruiser series have always catered to a hardcore gaming audience who were looking for more than a point and shoot approach to that gaming genre. UC continues the trend - in part - but has some specific aspects which have been retooled in order to attract gamers who found the series too hardcore for their liking.
GG: The change in Battlecruiser Generations to Universal Combat seems to be more involved that just a title change. Universal Combat is more action-oriented and open to gamers who may not have played the series before. We all know why the publisher wanted it this way (money), but why did you agree to allow the changes? Is this something you've wanted to do for a while?
DS: First of all, the game is not "more action-oriented". The series always had plenty of action (to the extent that some gamers even complained about being shot at much too frequently). Second, I don't think that the publisher primarily did it for money. Even if they did, I really don't care much because if they make money, I make money. Their job is to maximize the product's exposure and its sales. This translates to money, not food stamps.

When I was approached with the idea, money being the motive was never discussed. It was about rebranding and refocusing the title in order to alleviate the stigma associated with and the hardcore nature of the Battlecruiser series. Sure, expanding a product and maximizing sales, can translate to more money, but is that a bad thing? The flipside is that if the title does not live up to the rebranding, you end up losing money, instead of making it.

The publisher felt that we clearly had a product which had breached the boundaries of the traditional Battlecruiser series and that now was the time to take advantage of that. I agreed. Previously I was too busy wrapped up in the whole "Battlecruiser thing" to even remotely consider anything such as they were suggesting.

This was evidenced by the fact that they weren't even planning on me making any revisions to the game. They were just as happy rebranding BCG to UC and shipping the same game with a different name. I knew the pitfalls of this and - being the sole owner of the IP - took upon myself to do some retooling in order to - at the very least - make some revisions which were supportive and indicative of the rebranding. Whether this approach works or not, we'll have to wait and see - but I don't think Dreamcatcher envisioned a situation where I would have to do additional work because that would mean delaying the game - and we all know how publishers feel about that.

Sure, if UC does not sell more units that is traditional for the series, someone is going to be very unhappy - pissed even; but I am content with it selling enough for me to recoup my costs, the publisher's own expenditures, turn a tidy profit etc so that I can move on with the next item on my agenda. So far, none of my games have ever lost money. Not one. Even the BC3K 2.0x title released by Interplay back in 1998 was one of the very few industry titles which actually sold a "higher than expected" number of units and made a profit for everyone. BCM which was an EB exclusive in 2001, continued the trend and I have yet to receive the figures for BCM Gold release in March 2003. So, its not like I'm expecting to be in anyone's accounting books as a "loss leader". Never have been. Hope that I never will be.

As we've already seen recently, this particular risky excercise of rebranding/refocusing a game in order to target a wider audience, didn't help others in the space flight series (e.g. IWar 2, Freelancer etc), but hey, what do I know? I'm not doing it because of action gamers (they're not, never have been and never will be my target demographic). I'm doing it because (a) it was suggested to me (b) the series stopped being about a space flight sim and a Battlecruiser, back in 2001 when Battlecruiser Millennium was released and (c) mostly because hopefully even the hardcore BC gamers will welcome some of the changes that this new game brings - regardless of what we end up calling it.

Some gamers are an ungrateful and finicky bunch. You will end up catering to them for an entire career span and they'd still be unhappy and find something to bitch about, despite your best efforts. So, if anyone thinks that this rebranding - at least from where I'm sitting - has anything to do with new found love for near braindead "action" games, then they need to go back to their history books and read up on Derek Smart and his works. I don't play that.
GG: Could you go into brief detail on some of the changes that make Universal Combat more "action-oriented"?
DS: There's nothing "brief" about the changes really. Several interface, physics, dynamics, AI and gameplay revisions were made to several kernels. Most of these were designed to either suppress, simplify or remove the more hardcore "sim" aspects of the game; while improving accessibility. Other areas, e.g. the interface, were re-designed in order to breed familiarity for new gamers to the series. Most all the revisions are internal and may barely be obvious to the BC gamers but address the accessibility issues for new gamers who had previously avoided the series for whatever reasons.

And, once again, the re-branding has nothing to do with being "action-oriented". :)
GG: Will we ever see another game in the Battlecruiser series, or is it officially done?
DS: If all goes as planned, this UC game, with its underlying Battlecruiser architecture, gameplay etc, will probably be the last game in the Battlecruiser series as we know it. After this one, I'm taking a break to finish up my XBox game and then focus my attention on Battlecruiser Online, the title which will carry on the torch of the series and which would keep the series around for as long as there was someone paying to play it. They stop paying, I pull the plug and go find something else to do. Simple really.

The fact is, I'm done doing the types of games that I'm used to. There's nothing challenging about it any more and the payback is not enough evidence that I need to keep doing them. Back when I was much younger, it was easier to be macho about that and a lot of things. But as middle age creeps up on you, one tends to start taking stock of where they are and where they want to be in their careers somewhere down the line. BCG was to be that wakeup call and I don't want to wake up one morning and fire myself for running in place, while the industry plows along in a different direction. Besides, if you had any idea what it costs me to make these games - over the two year period of each one - you'd declare me insan.....oh wait, nevermind.
GG: This change to Universal Combat took place pretty late in the development process. How are you making sure that it doesn't become a rush job, with broken parts and unbalanced gameplay?
DS: It is a rush job of sorts; as if that wasn't evident enough; but not in the context that you are thinking. The revisions made did not impact anything that would otherwise lose the focus that it needs. I mean, how many ways can you botch an interface revision? If anything, the project got slightly sidetracked as a result of this change but that was my call to make and Dreamcatcher didn't have a choice if they wanted to rebrand the game. So, when I made that call, I did that knowing that I could pull it off or I would not have done it. What were they going to do if I had said no, I can't or won't do it? Cancel a game that was in late Beta?. Not likely. The only problem I'm faced with is wrapping up the revisions and flowing back into the primary work that I was previously doing. We're already delayed by a month (the game was supposed to go Gold the end of September) and the pressure is on to make the holiday season. We're working very hard on it.
GG: The previous Battlecruiser games have been very grand in scope - in fact, that is probably the main selling point of the series. Will Universal Combat have the same massive scope, even if it is simplified somewhat, or are you going with a lesser scope to broaden market appeal?
DS: UC is "Battlecruiser Powered". As such, the very notion indicates that the scope is still intact and has not been compromised in any shape or form. How we ease the new gamers into the new game and expose them to the scope, is what will define the outcome of this excercise. If the game is accessible, the scope will be irrelevant. There are many games which are massive in scope, but which are easy on the gamers playing them. So don't confuse "limited scope" with "accessibility". The latter is my ultimate goal. The goal of the publisher is to promote the title and sell as many copies as possible.
GG: When is Universal Combat currently set for release? Are there any plans for an open beta test or demo?
DS: We are shooting for the Thanksgiving holiday period and if I even think, breath, say or hallucinate anything that even indicates otherwise, I'm probably going to end up like Hoffa. As for an open Beta test, no, there won't be one. The game is constantly being internally tested, given the scope and all. A demo will be released prior to the game going Gold. That will - hopefully - be sometime in October.
GG: What is next for Derek Smart and 3000ad after Universal Combat? I've heard rumors of an Xbox title - can you give us any information on it?
DS: For the past few months, we (another team I set up) have been working on an XBox title primarily powered by the RenderWare engine. No, I can't tell you anything about it. So once UC is in the bag, that title will become my primary focus and I hope to release it in the Fall of 2004 if at all possible. From that point on, I will focus primarily on the MMOG title and nothing else going forward.
For more information on Universal Combat be sure to check out the official website.

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