StarWraith Games is the one-man studio behind the long-running Evochron series of space sims, the latest titles in a lineage of space games that date all the way back to 1989. Although technology has grown more sophisticated over the decades, the premise of these indie games has remained largely consistent: players are strapped into a highly functional spaceship cockpit where it feels like they’re truly operating a spaceship rather than simply playing a game about spaceships.
In an interview with Game Rant, Shawn of StarWraith Games spoke about his long history of creating space games, including how his experience with real-world aviation helped inspire his approach to various design elements. He also spoke about “getting to the point” by skipping repetitive or unnecessary sequences, and he offered some advice to newcomers who might be intimidated by the notoriously steep learning curve of space sims. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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Q: What are some of your “design pillars” for Evochron Legacy and your other space sims? Are there certain features or mechanics you believe are very important to include? Are there elements that you deliberately avoid?
Shawn: A few design pillars come from goals and preferences I was interested in and worked on back in the 80’s and 90’s. The blue HUD and display systems as well as some of the control and rotation behaviors are such examples. Other objectives were developed and established later on as I worked on new avenues of gameplay within flight, combat, weapon, tracking, menu/console, and navigation systems. Such elements included things like full six degrees of freedom control with Newtonian-style physics (along with support for input devices that can utilize those capabilities), ‘any-point’ open space navigation, distinct weapon types with unique limitations and benefits, and a relatively seamless space environment with varying conditions that can affect a ship’s performance and systems.
Ultimately, my overall interest and focus is space flight with various options, systems, and capabilities related to that theme. I spent much of my life in real-world aircraft and the idea of what it would be like to fly in space with some of the similar concepts and systems that I’d experienced in aviation was always a fascinating prospect to me. My interest in fighter aircraft influenced my interest in what combat might be like in such an environment, so that also became a major focus for me, and is why the game includes some fairly advanced targeting and weapon systems.
For some specific examples, the ability to change the course of missiles in flight to acquire a new target, particle-based weapons that auto-aim within a specific optical gunsight angle, 3D and 2D radar modes, type and threat level tracking of multiple targets simultaneously on the HUD, target pathway indicators, and weapon enhancement equipment items. As a result, when it comes to features and mechanics, I set out to design systems and options around modern-day aviation systems and concepts, but with a futuristic theoretical approach for the realm of space flight (obviously simplified for a game).
How, what, and where information is displayed is another key aspect of that objective. Just like modern jet fighters, displaying data to the pilot in an efficient and accessible means is a priority. This is why important information such as the state of the ship being flown (directional velocities, shield array levels, and alerts), certain environmental conditions, and weapon system status are displayed around the gunsight so that the pilot doesn’t have to look away at a different display or corner of the screen to retrieve such important details. Likewise, the state of a current target is also displayed directly on its indicator since the pilot is already looking at it in battle. A helmet-mounted display system is also incorporated to keep certain details in view anytime the pilot has to look away from the forward direction. Comprehensive instrumentation is combined with a particular display indication and placement design approach to help maximize information gathering in the midst of combat. Those combined elements are my priorities in the space combat flight simulations I create.
Elements that I tend to avoid generally include anything that gets in the way of those goals. That is, requirements or conditions that cause the player to not be flying a spaceship or managing its systems. Examples can include menus or gameplay modes that would detach the player from their ship in some way. Such elements are either omitted or limited.
Q: Could you elaborate on your experience with real-world aviation?
Shawn: My experience with aviation started at a very young age. My father, after serving in the US Air Force, flew a variety of general aviation aircraft of which I spent many hours in while growing up. His career continued for many decades (and he still flies today), so I shared a lot of flying experiences with him as I would ride along in everything from a Stinson to a Pilatus PC-12, take the yoke myself from time to time, and learned how the various controls and systems worked. I came very close to applying to the Air Force Academy with aspirations to become a fighter pilot (flying the F-16 ‘Viper’ specifically), but for a variety of reasons, I remained where I was and started college locally instead. With interests in aviation, space, and computer programming, I continually combined elements in each of those fields as I worked on PC games with a focus on flight set in the environment of space.
Q: You’re well-regarded for being highly active with the game’s community and responding to feature requests. Do any requested features from players come to mind as having significantly affected Evochron Legacy?
Shawn: Evochron Legacy‘s existence itself came about due to requests and feedback I had received during the course of Evochron Mercenary‘s development from 2008 through around 2011. There were enough additions and changes that would not fit within Mercenary‘s design, development framework, and/or basic ruleset that a new game in the series became the most practical option. What would fit and work well in Mercenary was eventually implemented in the expansion for that game launched in late 2012. Everything else that I wanted to work on along with certain requests which I thought might be a good fit were carried over to the new project that eventually became Legacy.
Some requested features that had a significant effect on Legacy include the modular and destroyable build system, two faction affiliation and territory control system (and later, the independent faction affiliation option), and more effective missiles as well as other new secondary weapon options such as rail cannons and rockets.
Q: You’ve been solo developing these games for many years with some occasional help. Do you ever consider establishing a larger team? Why or why not?
Shawn: I have considered it, but usually budget and/or the niche nature of the games I’ve wanted to make have reduced the feasibility of such a prospect. Over the last 20 years or so, I’ve also had some negative experiences in efforts to team up that have taught me some valuable lessons and caused me to redirect my focus and development approach over time. I have also come to appreciate the creative freedom being a lone developer has provided. I may have to occasionally use a lot of ‘programmer art’ and spend a lot more time on some things that might otherwise not apply, but the end result has been worth it to me. Whether working with a small team on occasion or mostly on my own, I’ve managed to achieve the objectives I’ve wanted to, however limited or slow progress might be at times.
Q: Evochron Legacy focuses on a “get to the point” gameplay style by not requiring players to walk around stations to pick up missions or to undergo lengthy travel times and docking sequences, though some might argue those elements can be “immersive.” How do you approach the balance between no-nonsense sim gameplay and “immersion”?
Shawn: It’s a subjective thing and I’m sure my approach is far less mainstream and popular than most. For your first example with something like ‘walking’, for me, it’s more ‘immersive’ to fly an aircraft or a spacecraft while sitting in a chair using an array of variable controls that fit pretty well with the ‘flight simulation’ concept compared to something like remote controlling a walking character with four keys and a mouse or a gamepad. I certainly appreciate and enjoy FPS games myself, I do play a number of them as a gamer. However, in the realm of my projects and what I want to develop and work on, I’m generally only interested in flying spaceships and not much else. As such, I tend to prefer being able to access available gameplay options (especially things like inventories, trade, combat, and contracts) directly from the cockpit.
For something like lengthy travel or docking in your other example, it’s more just a question of time efficiency. For me, an elaborate travel mechanism or docking sequence can be fun the first few times, but after a while, it tends to become a repetitive delay that I find myself waiting to finish more than something I’m really engaged with or immersed by. However, it could be that I’m just too impatient.
That said, I do still get the occasional comment about docking, planetary descending, or travel being too slow in my ‘get to the point’ game. In any space game, it’s probably always going to be a moving target that depends on each person.
Q: Through the game’s development, were there any systems or features that you tried to implement but ultimately decided against including?
Shawn: Yes, there have been several. One recent example that comes to mind involved some changes to rendering techniques which I’d initially thought might enhance scene appearance, but unexpected color saturation/behaviors and unwanted effects on lighting caused me to leave out the changes. Another older example involved a different way of generating terrain data. There was a benefit in variety, but a major drawback involved much longer processing delays likely requiring long pauses or even loading phases. In the effort to keep the game more seamless, I stuck with the faster and more efficient system.
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Q: You’ve been working on space games since the 1980s, seemingly trying to create the perfect space game for your tastes. What does that look like for you? What makes you view one space game favorably and another not so much?
Shawn: As mentioned earlier, when it comes to space games, I tend to be primarily interested in flying spaceships. Just as when I’m playing DCS, X-Plane, or MSFS and want to fly aircraft, the same is true when I fire up a space game with ships to fly. I’m not opposed to other themes being blended in, but it’s just not what I’m mostly after when I play such games. My preferred focus of gameplay in a space game that involves spaceships is flight, so games that start by placing me in the cockpit and in control are what I generally prefer. I guess the main reason is because I can’t fly spaceships in real life, which is what I really want to do, so it’s an excellent option for the next best thing.
That said though, I certainly play and enjoy many different space games, even if they don’t have the particular gameplay focus I might prefer. I appreciate the uniqueness and gameplay variety each developer has incorporated into their game. The wide variety we have in the genre today is fantastic. I am a fan more so than I am solely a developer and certainly also enjoy games that take an approach to gameplay and options that are different from mine.
Q: Evochron Legacy SE‘s galaxy is quite explorable and affords players a lot of freedom. Have you been surprised by certain things players have discovered or accomplished in your game?
Shawn: Yes. Things that seem pretty well hidden or obscured always seem to be found (and faster than I might expect, haha). The quantity and strategic placement of building station modules some players have accomplished have been particularly impressive to me.
Q: One of your aims has been to “keep the space-sim theme alive” over the years. How do you feel about the state of the genre today? Do you think mainstream “arcade-like” games like Starfield and No Man’s Sky might be bringing some renewed interest to space sims?
Shawn: I think the state of the genre today is excellent. Space game fans ranging from players interested in a wide array of gameplay and concepts to more selective/picky players can usually find one or more games they really enjoy. There is quite a range of gameplay, control/physics, and style approaches available. I think there is plenty of room for space games from arcade-like to very complex simulation and the wider the variety, the greater the interest in the genre overall.
Q: Though your space games tend to share a similar premise, how do you feel they’ve evolved most from game to game? Does Evochron Legacy SE have any features that, 20 years ago, you might only have dreamt of?
Shawn: They’ve probably evolved most in terms of technology and capabilities. I still try to keep my projects linked to styles and control systems established in my earlier work while integrating some newer techniques and options as enhancements to those older original ideas, rather than as complete replacements or displacements. The way planetary descents work in Legacy would have certainly been something I could only dream of 20 years ago. Other capabilities, such as dynamic environment mapping and some of the more advanced lighting techniques I use now would have also been pretty remarkable to me back then.
Q: Space sims can be difficult to approach for newcomers to the genre. What would you say to someone to get them to give these games a try?
Shawn: First, I’d suggest they might want to initially look for space games that best fit their style of play. If they want more immediate action, try one of the more arcade-style space games that place the player into the action faster and with more easily accessible/simplified controls. If they’re willing to invest more time into learning more advanced control systems/options and find that approach more to their liking, then perhaps give one of the games with a more simulation-type format a try. From there, it would probably be helpful to further narrow the choice by aligning what a game offers in terms of gameplay with what their interests are.
Q: What were some of your early inspirations that got you into creating space games back in the 80s?
Shawn: There were several. One of the first, if not the first, was the game Star Raiders which I played on the Atari 2600 back in the early 80’s. I probably spent too much time with that game in my youth. Other early inspirations include the 1985 game Rescue on Fractalus, the 1987 game Echelon (especially in terms of cockpit detail/layout), and the 1984 movie The Last Starfighter. Still hoping there might be a solid sequel for that last one someday.
Q: Similarly, is there anything you look to now for inspiration as you continue working on your games?
Shawn: These days, most inspiration tends to come from the constructive feedback from others as well as my own critique all in the effort to explore for ways to try and improve. This might result in me spending hours going over one element in the HUD, trying out different layouts, colors, symbols, etc to determine what might work and/or look better across the range of target screen resolutions, settings, and in-game environments. Playing other space games certainly has an inspirational effect from time to time. I also occasionally catch a glimpse of a heads-up display or futuristic screen in a sci-fi or action movie that sparks some inspiration to try and redesign or otherwise change something in a game.
Q: Evochron Legacy SE is nearing the end of its “finishing touches” updates. What’s next for you? Do you have ideas for your next game? Are there any features, systems, or technologies that you’re interested in applying next time around?
Shawn: I do have a new game concept that I’m currently exploring ideas for. If it pans out, it may include a heavily revised version of the planet terrain engine I developed for Legacy, perhaps repurposed for a more specific role. My primary objective will be to explore a different approach to ‘space combat’ than what I’ve done in my previous work. In some ways, simplified, in others more diverse and nuanced. It may be loosely set in the same universe as the Arvoch and Evochron series but at a much different point in time.
Q: Any final thoughts you’d like to share with fans or our readers?
Shawn: I would just like to express my thanks to those who have supported my work over the years. It’s been rewarding to have developed some space games that others found fun and I appreciate the patience, criticism, and encouragement I received over the years from all who have been part of this journey. It’s been an amazing 20 years working on Evochron and Arvoch. I am grateful to have been given the opportunity. Thank you!
Evochron Legacy SE is available on PC.
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