An Interview with Rory McGuire

Lead Game Designer, Blackbird Interactive

Meet Rory McGuire of Blackbird Interactive

One of the many things that impressed me a lot about Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak was the fact that, despite taking place in the desert rather than space, it still felt like Homeworld.  Being the fanboi that I am, I had no doubt the team at BBI would capture the Homeworld feel, but I remained impressed nonetheless as I played through it.  So, I reached out to Rory, lead game designer at BBI and for Deserts of Kharak to find out more about his role and how he and the team designed a ground-based RTS that feels like the predecessor to a space opera!

Mike MaddoxSo Rory, I see you’re the lead designer for the recently released prequel to the Homeworld franchise, Deserts of Kharak.  Can you tell us about your role and responsibilities as a designer?

rory mcguire - blackbird interactiveDesign differs a lot from studio to studio and even game project to game project.  The kind of high level perspective is that designers are advocates for the player.  That means we help sculpt and tune gameplay as our first job, but it also means working with artists, programmers, producers, QA and just about every department to insure it all comes together.  Designers don’t set art direction and don’t write code, but set the initial intent and help sculpt it along the way.

Mike MaddoxHow did you get your start in the gaming industry, and how did you end up at Blackbird?

rory mcguire - blackbird interactiveI got started in modding, like many designers of my generation (and the current one too!)  I built a portfolio of mod maps for a number of Quake 3 games, Starcraft 1, basically any editor I could get my hands on.  I spent a good 10+ years in the industry before coming across Blackbird.  Like most fans I read the news about Gearbox and Blackbird beginning a new Homeworld project and without knowing anyone on the team I just made it my goal to work on the company, to work on Homeworld!  2 years later, here we are!

Deserts of Kharak - Screenshot - Carrier Armada Skirmish - BBI

Mike MaddoxI always like to ask “why Homeworld”?  For me, the Homeworld franchise has an emotional connection that has always kept it a favorite for me, even when I (and all of us hardcore fans) thought the franchise would never return.  What was it that compelled you to want to work in the Homeworld universe?

rory mcguire - blackbird interactiveI have distinct memories of Homeworld being the first game to ever emotionally move me as a player.  There was so much gravitas, intention and energy in everything in the game.  And the story, for almost never seeing a human character, was one of the most human stories ever told in games at that time.  I always wanted to work on a Homeworld game – glad I got the chance!

Baserunning Headlights - Deserts of Kharak - Concept Art

Mike MaddoxWhat’s it like working for Blackbird?  Can you give us a brief ‘day in the life’ overview?

rory mcguire - blackbird interactiveIt depends entirely on where we are on the project.  In pre-production the design team was putting together paper designs for mechanics, working with artists on designing units and much more.  This period we often call “Blue sky” as you aren’t as limited by constraints of technology and time.

Production heralds a change where the scope that we have laid out starts to get built and you get all kinds of interesting revelations.  Things that you thought would work don’t, things that you thought would take two days may come back as five.  During this period designers are constantly tuning the game, but also working with the team to adjust scope and expectations to deliver the best game we can.

The finaling stage involves mostly bug fixing with light gameplay tuning and the occasional small feature (like a UI element, or small feature, nothing large.)  At this stage you’re basically taking all of the pieces that you’ve made and assembling them together, mixing the audio, polishing the visual direction, iterating on gameplay, difficulty… This stage is the hardest emotionally but it’s also the most rewarding.

Homeworld Remastered - Screenshot - Torpedo Frigate in Battle - Gearbox
From Space...

Mike MaddoxAlthough all of the previous Homeworld games have been set in space with X, Y and Z planes of ship movement, Deserts of Kharak takes place planetside;  yet it unequivocally feels like Homeworld.  The story, cutscenes, music, gameplay, audio…it’s definitely still Homeworld!  Was making a ground-based game ‘feel’ like Homeworld something that was a challenge?

rory mcguire - blackbird interactiveThis was our biggest challenge.  When I interviewed for my position at Blackbird the first question I asked was “How will you bring Homeworld to the ground?” after getting hired I did several key hires and literally every single interview I got asked the same question!  It’s a tough problem, but one that we just kept attacking and attacking until the game felt great.  This was a massive effort from art, audio, programming and game design to make this feel right.  Information about how we brought this to life specifically on the design side can be found here

Deserts of Kharak - Screenshot - Base
To Ground

Mike MaddoxI’m not a modder, but I am interested to know if the modding community was kept in mind during game design, and how ‘mod friendly’ DoK was made?

rory mcguire - blackbird interactiveWe’re working with the mod community now to try and outfit them as best we can.  Several of our pipelines were tough even for our internal developers so we’re hoping to get this in a spot that our modders can really run with the game!

Mike MaddoxHave a favorite gameplay strategy?

rory mcguire - blackbird interactiveOpen with LAV harassment, into Armored Assault, then focus on a lot of railguns, or push up into cruisers.  You’ve got to bend like a reed in terms of what your opponent does!

Facebook Header - Deserts of Kharak - Concept Art

Thanks very much Roy – we’re big on interviews here at Fists of Heaven, and I appreciate your time!  If you haven’t played Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak yet, you absolutely need to.  You can pick it up on Steam, and don’t forget to grab the Homeworld: Remastered Collection if you haven’t played the other games in the franchise!

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Michael Maddox is Editor-in-Chief at Fists of Heaven, and can be reached at mike [at]

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