Horizon Interview (PC)

Before StarDrive even got out the door, Iceberg announced that they had signed on another 4X strategy game to beef up their roster. Horizon is the debut game of a brand-new team, and already it’s showing some promise. We’ve been burned before though, so we’re definitely adopting a ‘wait and see’ attitude. In the meantime, we spoke to the head honcho at the studio – Raffi Parsekhian, to find out more about what Horizon has to offer:

Strategy Informer: Before we talk about Horizon, can you give us a brief background of your company? Where you guys have come from etc...?

Raffi Parsekhian: So L3O was founded about 2 ½ years ago, but we’ve been working on Horizon longer than that. My background personally was: I worked in technology consulting, software development, that sort of thing... for quite a few years, before getting into videogame development. I’ve been a big gamer for as long as I can remember though. I’ve always wanted to make games; it’s always been in the back of my mind. I finally started getting serious about it in college.

In the early part of the development for Horizon we had a couple of people. It was very ‘indie’ – so proper ‘in your basement’ kind of thing, and we had one artist, and he basically was a conceptual artist, and we also had a guy who worked in broadcasting, he did 3D stuff and video editing and some stuff like that.

Strategy Informer: Why did you want to make a space 4x strategy game, specifically?

Raffi Parsekhian: I always wanted to make a game like Master of Orion – it was a big inspiration for me. Along with some of the shows that used to be around at that time for me – Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine etc... I always thought that I could try to do better than Master of Orion did in terms of combat- I always liked the combat in Master of Orion and in 4X games in general, so I wanted to do tactical combat like that. I wanted to do something like that but make it more immersive, more connected to the rest of the game. In MoO you had instanced combat, and I wanted to get rid of that and make it more part of the galaxy, combat can happen anytime, anywhere etc... over multiple turns too, so kind of like RTS, but obviously turn-based.

Strategy Informer: There’s been a lot more space 4x games in the past year or two than I think I’ve ever seen – do you think the genre is making a come-back?

Raffi Parsekhian: So when we started Horizon, there weren’t that many games. We were making the game we’d want to play ourselves, and we thought there would be a lot of people interested in it, since it’s such a hardcore, niche genre. But all of a sudden in the last few years, the tools got easier, so a lot more people were attempting to make 4X games. Which is great – I’m a big fan of the genre so I’m always interested in seeing what other people come up. Still, we feel there’s still something missing, that one game that has really good tactical combat. Most games seem to just do cinematic combat, or something else, but not really proper tactical combat. We still feel Horizon can contribute here.

The other thing we liked was having a story based game. Having a Galaxy that connects with the player a bit more, feeling more alive. I was a big fan of Star Control, for example, and even though that’s an RPG I wanted to take some elements from that. So players can do some missions, but they’re very open missions. You don’t have to do them, if you just want to do full sandbox you can, but if you want to go on these quests you can interact more with the other races, find out what they care about etc... and it really gets you more involved in the game.

Strategy Informer: Has your vision changed much over time? Have you radically changed your design in response to all these new games, or new technology etc... ?

Raffi Parsekhian: We’ve mostly stuck to our original vision, but the main thing is that in the last few years the quality of the games really has... before they were more spread-sheet like, almost, but in the last few years the quality and the graphics have improved, and gamers expect a lot more than they used to. It used to be all about the gameplay, but now it’s also about the interface and how it doesn’t interfere with gameplay, how everything looks, how it all meshes together etc... we have put a lot of energy in to that.

One of our design goals was also to make the game very accessible for players to get into. Even if someone is not a 4X gamer, they should find it pretty simple to jump into. So yeah, I’d say it’s had some effect, but the core design hasn’t changed.

Strategy Informer: Tell us a bit about some of the design choices you made for Horizon – we understand you only get to play as the Humans initially?

Raffi Parsekhian: That’s right. We’ve focused on the human’s initially. We will probably... maybe as an add-on, we could probably allow the player to choose the other races. You start with the humans, because the story is based on the humans, and Horizon is about Humans conquering space. The story itself has real-life events in it, like the NASA-2 Probe. The story starts there, and something happens, which then kicks everything off, and you’re in charge in the human effort of becoming a space-faring race. And from there you meet the other races etc...

Part of the design with Horizon is that we wanted to introduce races of different ‘levels’, unlike other 4X games everyone starts on the same level and expands, but we wanted to make the Galaxy feel more ‘realistic’, like you would have some races that are far more advanced than you, who’ve been exploring the galaxy for much longer. With the story-based game, we wanted to allow you to opt to play that way – so you meet these races who are very powerful, so you have to be careful with how you interact with them, and there’s more strategy involved in how you make yourself relevant in the early stages of the game. You’ll want to use more diplomacy etc… because you’re a bug, they can crush you if they want. But this is optional, you can always choose to play so that everyone is on an equal footing, and the other races will still have their unique features, abilities etc...

Strategy Informer: Where do you stand on the graphics vs gameplay ‘debate’? Some games have gone for visual style, some for pure depth... many others are trying to do a bit of both? Where does Horizon fit?

Raffi Parsekhian: Because this is a project that has gone on for a long time, we’ve always thought that if we could just get the gameplay right, we can always improve the graphics [later]. And that’s been the case here – over time we’ve had to improve the graphics a couple of times.

We haven’t gone into the 3D realm – it’s a 2D game in the same sense StarDrive is, but we do have... the combat is a 3D ‘perspective’, but it’s still 2D – so it’s not a top-down view, more of a profile view. From the start it’s been like that, but it’s not a Homeworld type game or anything.

Strategy Informer: What do you think makes up a space 4x game? What are the key tenants you subscribe too?

Raffi Parsekhian: I think there are two [main] types of 4X games – there’s the Civilization games, which are more strategy than tactical, and the Master of Orion games, which focus more on the tactics. So looking at it from a Sci-fi game, I think having a tactical combat – either turn based or real-time, is very important. Ship design obviously, because players want to try out different technologies that they discover, so you want to have technology that matters to the player, they’re not just stats. I think the story and lore of the galaxy is important, it helps bring out more of an immersive game. In other genres I think it’s become more about the story, so the 4x genre has kind of lagged behind a bit here, but I think it’s starting to happen more now. AI is obviously important too – players want to feel like that it is making decisions that make sense, and that it’s reacting to what you do, but it’s also hard to get it right.

Strategy Informer: As we mentioned before, there’s been a few 4X games recently. Some, like Sword of the Stars II and Legends of Pegasus, possibly tried to do too much all at once, and so failed in their own special ways. Endless Space tried to experiment with different ways of dealing with the combat engine, and some liked it some didn’t... do you think your focus on the one race, initially, means that your game will ultimately be better?

Raffi Parsekhian: I think 4X inherently are, I don’t want to say ‘difficult’, but there are a lot of pieces to a 4X game that you have to balance, and it can be hard for an indie team especially. You need to give the player the full experience from all the angles, because they ALL matter. Different teams will naturally focus on different parts though, and I don’t necessarily think there’s a right or wrong way, it’s just different experiences. But personally I want a game with tactical combat, that’s why I’m making Horizon. I have a lot of respect for previous teams who have made these games, because I know how hard it is to want to put all this different stuff in, but I know you can’t. You have to pick your battles.

Strategy Informer: Now that you’ve signed on with Iceberg, do you think development of the game will accelerate? Do you have a release window in mind?

Raffi Parsekhian: With Iceberg, we think that with their help we can get it out sooner and with a higher quality – that’s why we went with them. We don’t have a release date, but we’re hoping to have it ready by the end of the summer, that’s the goal. But we only want to release it when we feel it’s ready. We’re also working with Iceberg to see if we can get our community to play the game early. We think this would be great.

Thanks to Raffi for taking some time out to talk about their new game. As we’ve mentioned, there’s been quite a few space 4X games out in the past year or two, some of which promised much and delivered little, others which tried to genuinely experiment, with mixed results. On paper, Horizon sounds as good as all the others did pre-release, but perhaps their focus on the human race initially, and their flexible thinking in terms of designing the universe, may mean they come up with a winning strategy. We’ll try and get our hands on some playable code as soon as possible.