This week Blackbird Interactive’s Rory McGuire and Elliot Hudson delivered an interesting GDC Summer talk all about how the studio wound up creating space salvage sim Hardspace: Shipbreaker.
Launched onto Steam’s Early Access platform in June, Shipbreaker has already earned critical acclaim and a significant fan following. To help fellow devs better understand that success, McGuire and Hudson walked through how the studio came up with the novel concept and, after multiple huge pivots and changes, turned it into a fun game.
Hudson began by outlining Blackbird’s goal to, like Psyonix, Gearbox, and Digital Extremes, build up its internal tech and talent by working on projects for others while trying to succeed with its own original games. After Blackbird shipped Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak at the start of 2016, the studio held an internal game jam to give everyone some room to decompress while keeping busy between projects.
Five teams of seven or eight people got to work, and when the studio gathered together afterwards to evaluate the results, one project stood out: a game prototype called Hello, Collector that put the player inside the helmet of an astronaut climbing through a debris field adrift in space, a la the film “Gravity” or ADR1FT.
“The sense in the room was electric, that we had to make Hello, Collector into a game,” said McGuire.”Everyone produced awesome games for the game jam, but I probably had ten people come up to me afterwards that weren’t on the team talking about, are we gonna make this game.”
It was popular enough that McGuire says “it literally took about two days before we had a full green light” to start development; work began within a month. He said the studio was careful not to set specific sales or profitability goals on the project, to avoid influencing the team’s decisions.
“It’s a very human thing that when you set a goal in front of someone, they try to solve it,” said McGuire. To keep the team from being too risk-averse, Blackbird set three general goals for the Shipbreaker team: “We want you to ship...we want you to make an original game that is unusual, and...we want it to be an original IP that is ours.”
Development began with expanding upon everything folks liked about Hello, Collector, starting with the debris field. The team built out a whole space station that was in the middle of collapsing, refined core mechanics, and began honing the tone of the game’s narrative elements.
“We found out we aren’t above gates and milestones”
Work steadily progressed and since it was an internal project, the studio initially decided to enjoy not having to meet any milestones. But within six months or so, the team switched over to a milestone-based production system because it offered convenient, regular opportunities to have people at Blackbird play the game and discuss it together.
“When we first began development...we felt that milestones and gates were...part of the social contract, that business contract, that you get with publishers,” said McGuire. “We realized, actually gates and milestones...let us take a moment to evaluate the game.”
By the end of 2016, the team hit a milestone “confidence check” and the feedback the team got was that Hello, Collector had developed a sort of “cosmic horror” tone with a “dark, slow plodding pace” that didn’t fit with the games Blackbird was making.
So the studio took a month or two to retool it, and by the start of 2017 Hello, Collector began to evolve into Falling Skies, which Hudson simplified as “Fruit Ninja in space” -- an exciting, action-heavy game about grappling between warships falling towards Earth and cutting them apart.
But it proved to be too dramatic a shift.
“We were really excited about this concept of cutting, but overall we weren’t happy with where we ended up tonally,” said McGuire. The team had over-corrected, and some felt Falling Skies became too generic by leaning so heavily into an arcade action game with a super-capable space-grappling, ship-slicing protagonist.
“In trying to address the concerns with Hello, Collector being too slow and too plodding, they felt we had gone and done an over-pivot,” said Hudson. “That we’d lost...that sense of relatability, and this personal touch the game had. It didn’t feel unique anymore.”
The development team agreed, and told Blackbird creative leadership they didn’t want to do the project; to move it forward, they collectively came up with four possible directions the game could go. Whether sabotaging space warships, slicing up starships or battling interstellar leviathans, all were first-person, zero-g games about grappling and cutting into things.
“There was one idea that stood head and shoulders above the rest,” said McGuire. “This concept of tearing apart derelict starships in search of value.”
The team decided to pivot again and try to hone in on this concept of slicing up space hulks, pulling the tone of the narrative back from the heavy action of Falling Skies towards a more blue-collar tone with a working-class hero. By 2017 the game, now Shipbreaker, had three core pillars: a blue-collar fantasy, of tactical ship disassembly, and providing a vehicle fantasy from a human perspective (which turned out to be a bad, confusing pillar carried over from Deserts of Kharak that was changed down the line).
Since pillars are by now common argot in the industry, McGuire clarified that Blackbird has a system of building "game pillars" for each project which influence all aspects of production.
“We kinda inherited this process [from Relic Entertainment],” said McGuire, explaining that Blackbird tries to follow four rules when instituting pillars of a game project. The pillar should reflect an authentic goal rather than a strategic one, it should be specific (no one-word pillars), it should repeat across the game, and it should be refined throughout.
The benefit, according to Hudson, is that when you collaborate with your team on defining these pillars you can often count on individual members to remember those pillar concepts and implement them more often in their daily work.
With pillars in place, by 2018 the team had progressed to the point where they could create a vertical slice of what would become Hardspace: Shipbreaker. The game was given the green light internally to go into full production, but there was a problem: the team was creating all the ships you break in Shipbreaker by hand, and they didn’t think they could make more than a handful of cool ships in a reasonable amount of time.
That was a problem because it meant the game could only be 5-10 hours long, and the team didn’t feel it had the narrative elements in place to make a game of that length feel impactful. The team also wanted to release the game on Early Access, and that didn’t seem like a great place for a short, narrative-heavy game.
So instead, they leaned into systemic game design and tried a "systems as content" approach. They revamped Shipbreaker’s design so that it relied on modular, “pseudo-procedurally generated” ships that players have to carefully disassemble while dealing with elemental effects like electricity and radiation (“heavily inspired by Breath of the Wild’s element system,” Hudson added), as well as health and equipment maintenance.
This proved to be the ideal mix, and by this summer the team had finished enough of the game to launch it into Early Access. Throughout it all, McGuire said the team walked away with some key learnings:
They learned the value of keeping the team size small (never larger than 10-15 people) until the game entered full production, because the smaller team could be more agile about creating prototypes and mechanics.
However, they also learned that it helps to never move people off the team or pause the team’s work, since it takes so much more effort to get the team back on track.
They also recommend that devs consider “timeboxing” things by giving a team a discrete time period, say one week, to evaluate a hard choice or challenge and examine whether they can accomplish it. Often, with time, team members will come up with new approaches to seemingly impossible asks or startling changes in direction.
“It’s really easy as a studio, or from a business perspective, to get panicked about change,” said Hudson. “Changing the game, pivoting, and refining it is super healthy.”
Finally, ask for help! McGuire says Blackbird would have had a much harder time building Hardspace: Shipbreaker without guidance from fellow devs and studios; there’s no shame in asking your colleagues for advice.