You might recall that Blackbird Interactive's Hardspace: Shipbreaker dropped right as the COVID-19 pandemic started. As developers and players found themselves trapped indoors, the Vancouver-based team found themselves tooling away on a new kind of fantasy: a space simulator about grinding, physical, dangerous work.
Two tumultuous years later, the vibes of Hardspace: Shipbreaker have never felt more relevant. Workers in different industries are demanding better working conditions. Bosses sent workers into unsafe conditions to grind out an extra buck. And Blackbird itself faced challenges in its own workplace, eventually revealing that it was switching to a four-day workweek to manage the stress of working on an Early Access title.
What has Blackbird Interactive learned in two years of making Hardspace: Shipbreaker? Lead producer Jessica Klyne and game director Elliot Hudson shared some key takeaways—and explained how their player community guided them through such a challenging time period.
The production to player feedback loop
First things first. If you're a developer jumping into Early Access, Klyne has this advice for you: "Whatever you think your velocity is going to be—or the percentage of buffer you need to be in Early Access, double it," she explained. "Because the overhead of an Early Access game is quite high."
Hudson and Klyne referred to the process as being a series of "many releases," where instead of having a typical break and wind-down after hitting a shipping goal, the team at Blackbird Interactive would immediately burn hard to reach the next update. And with such a systems-heavy game where every new feature deeply interacts with features built months ago, it created an interconnectivity that did not let the pressure off on any individual part of the team.
That "sprinting" from release to release really makes Klyne think that there's a strong business case for doubling the scheduling buffer that Blackbird set for itself, if it were to find itself in this position with another game.
It wouldn't be until late 2021 that the team would choose to experiment with a four-day workweek, and company leadership began to uncover one of the driving forces behind burnout on the team. Klyne called it "secret overtime." "People don't want to cut quality to fit something in a timeline that's set for them," she explained. "People just work extra without other teammates knowing in order to submit the asset they're most happy with."
Klyne said that staff members working from home made it extra tricky to combat that secret overtime, since leaders like her couldn't physically see someone working if they were in the office. Adding a recovery day, and giving team members flexible work hours, "was night and day" for the team, she said.
One interesting challenge of adapting a four-day workweek while working on an Early Access game is that while developers are only working four days a week, players are engaging with the community all seven days a week. Hudson explained that this wasn't an issue. Blackbird had done a good job restricting the number of employees who needed to talk directly with the community, meaning a huge absence wouldn't be felt on that extra day off.
The other reason that it wasn't a huge issue, according to Hudson, was that the Hardspace: Shipbreaker player community has been really supportive of the change, especially since what the changes would mean in terms of feedback sharing were clearly communicated. He said that sometimes key stakeholders will check in on Friday in 15-20 minute sessions to make sure there are no emergencies, but community management has not apparently suffered for the shorter workweeks.
Klyne and Hudson said they'd learned a lot about working with their player community in this process, the core of which was formed at PAX East 2020, the last in-person video game event to be held before the COVID-19 pandemic truly hit. The key group of players who checked out the game at PAX, then signed up to be part of the Discord channel were "so intensely loyal," Klyne said. "I think that helped set the stage for the types of people that would join, and set up the self-moderation that happens in an early community."
PAX stood out in their minds because that was the only shot Hardspace: Shipbreaker would get at doing any in-person marketing. "We were supposed to go to Gamescom," Klyne recalled. This did give the team free time to work on the game, since they didn't have to leave the studio and attend conferences, but they still "lost a lot of exposure," she noted. "We lost a lot of intense community creation...but I think we did okay, because we focused on building our online community while we were stuck at home."
Hudson said that while a few players would dip out as the game's development became slightly more focused on the narrative campaign than a fully open-ended simulator, he said that players ultimately responded well to the narrative elements. "What we learned about most of our players is they they liked the narrative elements," he explained. "They liked having these other shipbreakers talking to them while they were working because it felt more like an immersive worksite."
The Early Access process meant way more players got their hands on the unique gameplay of Hardspace: Shipbreaker before it launched than if the development team had toiled away independently on their own. And according to Hudson, one thing the team learned quick was that zero-gravity motion did not come naturally to most players, even ones familiar with first-person games. "There's not a lot of pre-existing stuff for them to draw on in terms of knowing what to do at any given time," he explained.
One of the first updates the team had to make the game was an extra-simplified tutorial to introduce individual gameplay elements at a time. "We found that we had to go even further and strip things down," than just starting players on a small ship, Hudson said. "When you play now, the first thing you work on isn't a ship, it's just pieces of metal flooring."
Hudson said that the team also learned about what kinds of challenges players like, especially when they interfered with core interactions in Hardspace: Shipbreaker. At one point, Blackbird Interactive experimented with "cut guards." These would be shielding that covered up cut points on ships. Normally, when a player discovers a cut point, it's one of the basic components they can slice in order to separate different pieces of these metal behemoths.
The cut guards were meant to be an extra challenge—something to be smashed in a satisfying way before slicing up the routine cut points. Players hated it.
"It was so poorly received," said Hudson. "That's a great example of the community clearly saying 'this is not working for us.'"
He emphasized that Blackbird didn't react "too quickly" to that feedback, saying it was important to not be "super reactive." The team allowed the feature to stay for a few updates, and finally removed the feature in an act of catharsis after feedback never picked up.
Hudson's favorite cut feature (pun not intended) from Hardspace: Shipbreaker was a meta-progression system where players would recover parts from ships in order to repair the space station they're working on. They'd get to hire other shipbreaker NPCs to work with them, and fill out that space with characters. "I thought that would be very cool," Hudson recalled. "But it was way too out of scope for us." (A version of this system would live on in bite-sized form, as players can now gather parts to repair a personal spacecraft that's their ticket to a better life).
Also out of scope: A tool for re-pressurizing chambers to allow oxygen to flow again and a foam tool for patching holes. Features get cut from every game of course, but these were the ones Hudson would have pushed for if they'd had more resources.
More Hardspace to come
Since announcing the game, the Hardspace: Shipbreaker developers have been fairly open about their ambitions to make other titles set in the game's grounded sci-fi universe. Klyne said that the broader scope of the setting "changed and evolved" during development, and that the team needed to be comfortable with that evolution.
Hudson said that one lesson the team learned building this sci-fi setting was that players responded well to a science fiction game that makes little mention of the military. There's no space marines or alien invasion, just workers living out in the void of the Milky Way. "There were some people who said 'hey, I really want to break military ships,'" he recalled. "It was always a constant choice of ours not to do that."
Positive feedback from other players greatly outweighed the digital warmongers, and now he and Klyne think the game's setting has settled into a "comfortable niche."
Wherever Blackbird Interactive takes the Hardspace series next, it's worth pausing for a moment and taking in a game whose mechanics map so closely to the work that created them. This is a game about labor; players are tasked with looking at a gargantuan project and learning to prioritize what needs immediate attention, and what's not worth the effort. In the context of the fiction, it's hard work that can take a physical toll, and characters talk about what cost it can have on their lives.
Hudson, Klyne, and their colleagues have been remarkably transparent about how making this game took a toll on them as well. Game development can lead to strain injuries, physical fatigue, and isolate workers from their outside lives. Their journey through Early Access—and hopefully to a better working process with their four day work week—has lessons for other game developers looking to make meaningful, exciting experiences.