Spawned from legendary British developer Bullfrog, for the last couple of years Mucky Foot has been hard at work on Startopia, a sci-fi strategy game which puts you in control of a huge toroidal space station full of bizarre alien life forms. With the game nearing release, we caught up with Mucky Foot's Gary Carr to find out more...
Featuring a mix of management sim, god game and real-time strategy elements, not to mention a hefty dose of comedy for good measure, comparisons with the games which several of the brains behind Startopia worked on at Bullfrog are perhaps inevitable. "We were obviously influenced by the games we previously worked on, so in some ways Startopia is an evolution from the Theme series", Gary admitted. "It is however original, that's obvious when you play the game, and it has much more of an RTS feel to it."
One of the game's many innovations is the bio-deck, an entire level of your space station dedicated to cultivating alien plants and animals. A range of different environments from deserts to tundra can be developed by raising and lowering terrain height, water levels, temperature and moisture. Apparently this has also proven to be one of the most popular features with testers. "In fact, it gets described as a game in itself. You can create any environment you can think of, [and] each subtle change you make to the climate and terrain will effect the vegetation that grows there. You can then discover what the vegetation can be used for by harvesting and researching."
Moving up the evolutionary scale, your space station is also home to various sentient alien races, ranging from traditional "greys" to bizarre slug-like creatures and unique characters like a floating DJ. "As I play this game and discover the different strategies that the different creatures bring to the gameplay, my favouritism switches. Currently my favourite creatures are the Zedom Monks because I have discovered a brilliant system of making money through religion - how realistic can you get!"
Meeting the needs of these alien races is what the game is all about. "The station needs to be able to acommodate anything the creatures ask for. You have to discover how to give them what they want."
"They are also culturally different from each other, so you need to understand them and build communities that can live together. For example, Sirens don't get on with Gors (the warrior race) so it wouldn't be sensible to build a rough bar (the favourite watering hole for Gors) next to a disco or love room."
Your aliens are a diverse bunch, and if you provide the right rooms they will indulge in "anything from disco dancing to developing advanced technologies". All of this is lovingly rendered in glorious 3D thanks to an impressive new engine developed by the Mucky Feet, and as Gary told us "after two years of very hard work we have produced the most technically advanced doughnut the world has ever seen!"
Managing this doughnut and the creatures that inhabit it is a full time job, and the game features an open-ended "sand box" mode which lets you just get on with it. "The 'real' game is the sand box", according to Gary. "But we've also included ten missions which have storylines based around the gameplay features such as trade, farming, research, rehabilitation, health, recreation and of course combat."
War And Peace
Combat is likely to be particularly common in the game's online mode, where you can compete against up to three other station managers over the internet or a LAN to perfect your own quarter of the station or expand into theirs.
"You initially play as allies, and the benefits of an alliance are sharing facilities and technologies and trading. But if a player stops being useful it would be wise to declare them a foe. This stops them using your facilities and automatically freezes any trading between you and the opponent. It also allows you to attack your opponent if you want, as well as send spies and saboteurs."
Prospective space-faring moguls should have plenty of choice when it comes to online games as well, with a whole host of options to pick and choose from. "You can design your own game style by adding certain victory criteria and also tweaking the in-game events and features", Gary explained. "Really this allows you to tailor the game around the style of play you and your mates enjoy. It also allows you to play short games if you just fancy a fifteen minute skirmish."
It's been a long time coming, but as Gary answered our questions last week he revealed for the first time that "we have just supplied Eidos with a release candidate", which means that Mucky Foot are very much on the home straight now. As one of the developers commented, "I'm overcome with the notion of sleeping in the near future".
One of the main things which had been holding back the game's release until recently was the AI, but Gary assured us that "all the problems we had with the AI system have been resolved and the computer players now interact with you in a very convincing way". It's perhaps not surprising that the AI was the last hurdle though, as the behaviour of the aliens which inhabit your space station is at the very heart of the game.
"Obviously our intentions are to make the creatures function as realistically as possible - they will pretty much do their own thing. Of course the idea of these games is to look after and develop the little critters, so you can have as much direct control as you can deal with. You can even follow them around during their day to day life in shoulder cam mode."
After two years in development, it looks like we should finally get to snoop on our very own aliens within the next few weeks, with the latest information from Eidos suggesting a June 15th UK release. In fact, a demo version of the game was released at the end of last week to give gamers a taste of what they can expect from Startopia, featuring all five in-game tutorials and one of the ten preset missions. And when you do get the chance to give the game a go, Gary suggested that you "build a viewing gallery and have a look out of the window - you may get to see a surprise or two". We're intrigued...