The scale in Homeworld 3 is tremendous – it’s a space RTS for the James Webb era

Eurogamer: I was watching a big interview series Ars Technica did with you a while back, and in it you were talking about the old days and the foundation of Relic, and Homeworld 1. It must seem like so long ago now – it was 25 years ago!

Rob Cunningham: Yeah, absolutely! Those are the old days for sure.

You working above a nightclub-

Rob Cunningham: Yeah. And the line-up outside the nightclub released all sorts of fabulous odours that wafted up into the office [and] no doubt found its way into the game! And a great deal of cologne and perfume as well.

I can imagine! So I’ll start with the recent-ish delay. So it was announced in June that you were missing Q4 2022 and moving to “first-half 2023”. But when did you make the call and what was the call you had to make?

Rob Cunningham: Well like a lot of games, Homeworld 3 you want to be as good as it possibly can be. And like any creative endeavour, you do your absolute best to estimate how long something’s going to take, and then there’s, like they say, ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy’ [he laughs at this]. So the extension was: Gearbox and Blackbird mutually agreed that we could use a bit more time to polish this thing and give the fans the absolute best possible game that they want.

It feels like the game has been a long time coming. There was the announcement in 2019 with the Fig crowdfunding drive, then silence. Then there was the Q4 2022 date and everyone was like oh my god. Is there anything in particular that’s been kind of causing the hold-up?

Rob Cunningham: Not really, it’s basically situation-normal game development. When you hear radio silence, that’s not a strategic move on anyone’s part, that’s just people knuckling down and getting the work done. There’s a lot of work to do making a game, as you know. It’s really situation-normal.

And it’s been pushed to the first half of 2023 so it could go up to June?

Rob Cunningham: Yeah, I mean, I won’t comment on any specific release date plans – that obviously is TBD. But we’re going to make the absolute best possible game we can and I think given that timeframe, we absolutely will, based on where we are today.

Three small fighter craft approach a distant mothership and huge storage facility in an asteroid field in space.
Can you see the mothership in the distance there – above that storage facility? The mothership is big so that facility is massive. It actually tractor-beams up a part you need to attach to the mothership.

With that out of the way, this is it – this is the big return to Homeworld. And I’m not sidelining Deserts of Kharak here but this is the big banana-

Rob Cunningham: It’s the big banana – that’s right!

And I wonder how long you’ve wanted to do this game. Because Blackbird has seemed to always be beating around the bush of actually returning to Homeworld. Has that been the case – did you start the studio and think ‘Homeworld 3, but we’ve got to do some other stuff first’?

Rob Cunningham: No. It was… When I started Blackbird we weren’t thinking about Homeworld 3 at all. In those days… When you go back in time you have to take into consideration the information you had at that time, right? When I started Blackbird it was 2010 – the Homeworld franchise belonged to THQ. Relic was their development studio in Vancouver. So the whole Homeworld story was, in my mind, it was done – nothing was gonna happen there.

And when we made the deal with Gearbox in 2013 to make Deserts of Kharak… The game we were making before that was Hardware, which was very much inspired by the Homeworld look and feel but had absolutely nothing to do with Homeworld. It was more of a spiritual sort of cousin, I guess you could say – a land-based game. It wasn’t even a strategy game. But then when we met up with Gearbox, it became obvious to everyone concerned that this would be a perfect prequel to Homeworld 1. They had just acquired the IP from the THQ bankruptcy proceedings, and now Gearbox owned Homeworld. It was like, ‘Let’s do this!’

The pivot from Hardware to Deserts of Kharak was a no-brainer, and we all loved the idea of doing an authentic prequel – the lore was so rich and the landscape of Kharak would be so awesome for a strategy game. So we thought let’s make Deserts of Kharak. So the Homeworld thing came later. Doing Homeworld 3 was a sparkle in Gearbox’s eye, and having made Deserts of Kharak, the conversation around Homeworld 3 was the obvious one and ongoing.

What was the conversation? Do you remember the moment it became real, that the spark ignited?

Rob Cunningham: Well, yeah. We had a pitch for Homeworld 3 back in those days, and Gearbox were intrigued, but for whatever reason, it wasn’t the right time for both studios to pursue Homeworld 3. But the kernel of the – I guess you could say the spark of Homeworld 3 – was seeded somewhere around 2017. After Deserts of Kharak. All we’re talking about here is a year or two between spark and … embryo I guess? This is getting uncomfortable with the metaphor here but you know what I mean!

And then when the stars aligned at both studios it became obvious, like, ‘Okay let’s talk turkey about Homeworld 3.’ So we dug up our pitch documents and refreshed them, and had a proper think about what it should be, and then Gearbox were on board and we made the deal, and here we’re making Homeworld 3.

I mean, the longer answer to your question involves creative ideas that went all the way back to 2000, but that’s not really relevant to signing any deal for Homeworld 3.

The oblong mothership in Homeworld 3, a floating factory that ships fly out of.
The mothership itself. Your own individual fighters look tiny next to it. And it in turn looks tiny next to everything around it. You can change its orientation so it flies upright, and the little ships you create come flying out of it. It’s your floating base.

Ah! So it’s an idea that hasn’t left you?

Rob Cunningham: Absolutely, yeah. When we made Homeworld 1, the big deal to us at the time […] was this thing was in 3D and it was in empty space. And when we were going from Homeworld 1 to Homeworld 2 – and I remind you that the year now is 1999, 2000 – we thought, ‘It’s awesome that we’ve got this space combat and it’s 3D and high-fives all round, but like, what sucks about it? And what would make it awesome?’

And we thought, ‘Well, the one thing missing in empty space is a terrain to make strategic decision making more interesting,’ so we got all excited about that. And we’re like, ‘Okay, well, what would space terrain be like – both contextually, in terms of the narrative, but also physically? How big can we make it? What are the gameplay implications to having geometry floating in space?’

So we started getting all into that and it became really clear, immediately, that it was impossible – no computer could handle the level of geometry. Because you don’t want it to suck, right? You don’t just want giant cubes or spheres: it’s got to be cool-looking geometry that agrees to the level of detail of the ships. So that was just absolutely impossible and we made a Homeworld 2 that actually was possible, which was essentially an upgrade of Homeworld 1.

And then two decades go by, [he laughs], with all sorts of technical improvements and engine upgrades and so on – more powerful computers and everything. So now the vision we had for the strategic game we had in mind is now possible, and we’re building that now.

A lot of the vibe I’m getting is that you’re going back to Homeworld 1 with this. But so much time has passed since then. Has your idea of what Homeworld is changed? Have there been other games since that have changed your mind?

Rob Cunningham: Yes and no. The “no” is that the look and feel, and vibe and tone, the setting, the story, the feeling you get – none of that has changed. The basic pillars of the game, involving the stacked fleet with strategic fleet battles: none of that’s changed. But what has changed is sensibilities in the marketplace: what matters to people. Because we’re making entertainment here, and entertainment is a constantly changing and growing and expanding thing in the world. So you always have to be aware of that and incorporate what you’re doing into that.

But it is a sequel in a franchise beloved by many fans, so we don’t want to make something new. We want to take something old and make it new. So there’s that decision of what’s new and what’s old? If you made it all new, it just wouldn’t be Homeworld 3.

Yeah. So in the Ars Technica interview you said you were originally given a million dollars and a year to make Homeworld 1, but that eventually became $3m and three years. That original budget, it’s similar to what you raised on Fig for Homeworld 3 ($1.5m) – but I’m assuming that’s only a fraction of what it has cost?

Rob Cunningham: Yeah, I mean I won’t comment on the game’s budget, obviously, but the Fig campaign: we were already fully funded prior to the Fig campaign. The Fig campaign was primarily an effort to include the fans in the creative dialogue, because the timing there worked out beautifully. We were just in pre-production, we were hungry for input and feedback from people – what are they looking for, what do they want? That was extremely valuable to us. But yeah, it didn’t change the budget picture at all.

Small fighter spaceships with glowing blue exhaust trails fly and fight amongst giant wreckage debris.
Fighters amongst the wreckage, zoomed right in. When you zoom right out, you can’t even see them, which can be problematic but there are various helpers for finding them.

How many people are Blackbird now, how big is it as a studio? I read it was in your garage at some point!

Rob Cunningham: Yeah, it started in my garage. We’re now over 300 people – I think 330-something people. We’ve got six projects on the go, some of which are our own IP, some of which are with partners. So we’re a very different studio than we were back then.

Wow. So how big is the team, roughly, that’s making Homeworld 3?

Rob Cunningham: Depends how you measure but we’re talking 40-odd.

Wow so you’ve got quite a lot of other stuff. Do you have projects of the size of Homeworld 3 that you’re working on as well?

Rob Cunningham: Yeah – bigger and smaller. [One of them is Hardspace: Shipbreaker, the outer space salvage game set in the same universe as Homeworld. And it was announced the other day that it’s coming to PS5 and Xbox Series S/X 20th September. It’s already out on PC]

That’s exciting. So I haven’t played the demo yet [I have now, obviously – my impressions are at the top] – I’m seeing that tomorrow. But I wondered what you hoped to see people take from it. What do you hope that people take away from the demo?

Rob Cunningham: It’s a teaser of what’s to come. The intent there is to show people that this is Homeworld 3 – this is what it looks like, this is what it feels like and here are some of the key gameplay innovations and features. So, utilising terrain as a gameplay element, so we’re talking about taking cover behind objects, we’re talking about manoeuvring inside structures and cavities to defeat enemy sensors – stuff like that. While also showing the old-school ballistics of the original.

So if people can watch the demo and see the trailer, and then come away thinking, ‘Okay, this thing is the old thing…’ Basically, it’s the proof of the pudding of what I said a second ago in your last question. ‘It’s got all the things I wanted that are old and I love, and it’s got this new stuff that’s super awesome, I can’t wait to get my teeth into [it].’

I really love the idea of having these megaliths, these impossibly massive spacecraft, splayed out before us like celestial corpses, and our being able to use huge pieces of wreckage to hide squadrons or fleets behind. To use them as cover. But how does that actually work when we’re controlling it? Will they intelligently place themselves or do we have to micro-control them to stop them crashing?

Rob Cunningham: Yeah, so one of the worries we had with introducing massive geometry into a 3D space game was this exact issue. But Lance [Mueller, design lead] and the design team have done an incredible job making that so easy and accessible that… And this isn’t – I’m not being silly here: it literally is easier to move guys around in that megalithic structure than it was in Homeworld 1 without the structure.

In Homeworld you had to hit M to bring up the move-disc and then move your mouse over and then hit Shift to bring up the vertical modifier. It was quite complicated. That’s a turn-off for a lot of people because complication isn’t, it’s not always fun, especially if you want to do it quickly. But the design team for Homeworld 3 have come up with this great way of having a – they created a cursor that can move across the terrain wherever you’re pointing it […] and you can see exactly where the move-order is going to be executed.

So if you’re looking for a bunch of guys to take cover behind an object, you don’t have to faff around with keys trying to bring up GUIs, you can just literally click on the bit and make micro-adjustments in real-time to exactly where you want them to be. Extremely easy – you don’t have to click anything, you’re just moving your mouse around. And then when you’re ready to issue the order, a simple click will send them there and then they automatically path-find and waypoint to the location and will adjust accordingly to maximise the use of cover.

So the idea here is that you’re having actual fun – you know what I mean? It sounds silly to say but it’s true. The fun part of that is you’re under fire, someone’s hosing down the area, and you’re taking cover just like soldiers do. That’s the fun part: when am I in cover, when am I exposed, when is it time to hide, when is it time to attack? Those are the fun decisions. What’s not fun is messing around trying to get to the actual cover and then clicking and miss-clicking, and you have to click again and oh god, that guy is exposed… You know what I mean? Then it’s just annoying and frustrating.

It’s the level of detail right up close that makes it all so nice to zoom into.

So I’m assuming it’s a similar thing for these trench-runs that we do. And whenever I say “trench-run” I’m thinking Star Wars-

Rob Cunningham: It’s got to be Star Wars, yeah!

It’s going to path-find again, we don’t have to-

Rob Cunningham: You don’t have to, yeah. However, if you select your guys and you send them down a trench to do a trench-run, and you’re exploiting the trenches as a cover element or as a stealth element, the guys will automatically obey your orders and stay in cover. But if you want, you can select them, zoom in, and then give them micro adjustments as necessary, so at the exact right time, you can say okay come out of cover and go through that hole, or attack now. Or set up two different squads: one bunch of guys are behind cover while another are sneaking around, and these guys will come out and draw enemy fire while the guys from cover will attack from the flank.

So it becomes a much more interesting and dynamic strategic environment for the game without being – and this is the key point – without being more complicated to actually control. It’s actually easier to control. The whole thing is just point and click. It’s really exciting to see how it came through.

The other thing that jumped out to me was fleet persistence and the idea that your ships will pick up the scars of battles as you adventure. How is this all going to work?

Rob Cunningham: Well I’ll refrain from commenting in too much detail around the persistent fleet, but it’s a pillar of the franchise that your fleet moves with you through the missions in the single-player campaign, and that’s going to be the case in Homeworld 3 as well. But I’ll keep tight-lipped about the exact details around how that works and what are the mechanics around that, if that’s okay? [He chuckles]

There’s a guy who works here [for Digital Foundry] called Will Judd, and he’s a massive fan. He particularly likes Homeworld: Cataclysm and he wonders if any ideas – like asymmetric multiplayer or the Beast virus that infects and takes over ships – could carry over from there?

Rob Cunningham: Well, one thing I can say is that the original writer from Homeworld 1 and Cataclysm is working with us on Homeworld 3, so there’s a whole bunch of stuff that – it’s not going to be directly brought over from Cataclysm but it’s the same guy. Martin Cirulis, who’s a great guy, a fantastic writer. But yeah, I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of direct porting over of ideas from Cataclysm directly into Homeworld 3, but we’ll leave that TBD.

And there was maybe a tiny hint in the trailers of potential atmospheric battles, rather than only outer space. Could they be a thing?

Rob Cunnigham: I guess… You know… I’m going to have to say wait and see on that one.

I also wondered about the co-op Roguelite mode. It sounds like two people can take on scenario after scenario and see how far they can get, but how does it work exactly?

Rob Cunningham: There’ll be more to come on the Roguelite mode that we’re working on. It’s super-cool. It’s basically co-op, multi-commanders in battles over a series of battles, but I’ll pass on making any detailed comments about it. But suffice to say that it’s happening and it’s already pretty awesome.

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