Gearbox and the upcoming Homeworld patch

FoH visits the team at Gearbox HQ to find out what's in store for Homeworld: Remastered


Behind the Scenes on Homeworld

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Being the hardcore fans of Homeworld that we are here at Fists of Heaven, when Dave Eaton and Joe King over at Gearbox invited the FoH team to the office for an in-person tour and get together with the team behind Homeworld Remastered, I was stoked!  Dave was able to pull together senior producer Brian Burleson, 3D modeler Jonathan Fawcett and programmer Patrick Dupree.  After a lunch listening to some of the team’s past projects (Patrick, Dave, and Brian had apparently worked on an old school Aliens game for Sega that Merritt had played as a kid!), we all went back to the office where Dave showed off what’s become practically mythical at this point from a fan perspective: the next patch for Homeworld Remastered.

Homeworld fans have been impatiently awaiting an update to Gearbox’s remastering of Homeworld for a few reasons, the big ones being that ship formations don’t work very well, and the single player has several known bugs in certain missions.  These issues, combined with the fact that fans were told they would receive regular updates but were instead treated to 6+ months of virtual silence has led to a lot of frustration amongst the community, with some vocal fans decreeing that Gearbox has abandoned Homeworld.

Where are all the updates?

“We’ve been heads down on this patch for 6 month which can make us look like we haven’t been paying attention, but we have…” – Dave

Call me a fanboy, but I’d like you, dear reader, to take a moment to ponder the fact that an AAA studio has 5+ people working full time for 6+ months….on a patch.  That’s thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent so far on updating a self-published IP that may or may not pay off from a financial perspective.  However, “it’s the right thing to do for Homeworld”, Brian Burleson said, and he went on to explain that when Brian Martel spearheaded the IP’s acquisition, he wanted to do right by the game – and that’s exactly what the team is determined to do.

Homeworld fans have been impatiently awaiting an update to Gearbox’s remastering of Homeworld for a few reasons, the big ones being that ship formations don’t work very well, and the single player has several known bugs in certain missions.  These issues, combined with the fact that fans were told they would receive regular updates but were instead treated to 6+ months of virtual silence has led to a lot of frustration amongst the community, with some vocal fans decreeing that Gearbox has abandoned Homeworld.

I’d like to emphasize that Gearbox has not been ignoring Homeworld – in fact, they’ve gone far above and beyond the call of duty, which I’ll be diving into in this article.  However, I completely understand why fans of the series might feel that Homeworld has been ignored by Gearbox, because the fans themselves have been somewhat ignored.  Yet, there is an explanation: Gearbox is a gaming studio – a large and successful studio, yes, but still a studio in the traditional sense.  They mainly rely on a publisher to perform their marketing, PR, and community management.  Homeworld, however, is being self-published by Gearbox, which means the marketing and community management support that, say, their Battleborn or Borderlands IP’s receive simply doesn’t exist.  Gearbox has one, count it, one community manager, Joe King, and he’s stretched across every IP that they own.  He does a fantastic job and he’s an even more fantastic guy, but at the end of the day, he’s one person, which means that there’s only so much time he can spend on Homeworld.  None of the current Homeworld team members are primarily community/fan facing, they work almost exclusively on the backend and usually must obtain approval before they can release anything to the community.  Combine this with the fact that the patch has turned out to be a massive project, and you have the explanation as to why we’ve all been kept in the dark for so long.

The Homeworld team understands everyone’s frustration.  As the Dave stressed repeatedly during the interview “we didn’t want or expect the patch to take this long”, but they have a vision for Homeworld Remastered that they want to see realized, no matter how long it takes.  So far they’ve have poured six months (!) into this patch to make their vision a reality, and from what I’ve seen so far, it’s just about there.

“Homeworld 1 & 2 only ever had very minor patches [but this one] is major”
– Patrick

So What’s Being Patched?

Way more than any of us thought.  Here’s an overview of most of the major changes:

Formations

Formations are getting a complete rework.  Rather than simply fixing the formations that we’re familiar with from the original games, the Homeworld team have taken things several steps further. First, ships are all being treated by the game engine as one unit, so, for instance, Hiigaran strike craft won’t always be locked into the squadrons they’re produced in and instead and can enter larger formations with the same class of ship (but will reform into their original squadrons if removed from the formation).  

This paves the way for ‘intelligent’ formations: when you bandbox select a group of ships and punch in a formation, the ships arrange based on classes and weaponry.  Dave showed me an example of a multi-class formation with strike craft, frigates, and Vaygr destroyers, and pointed out that if the destroyers were Kushan instead of Vaygr, the formation would be different due the firing arcs (Vaygr destroyers fire missiles and the Kushan counterparts use ion cannons; thus they require line-of-site whereas the Vaygr do not).  Formations will also have a cap on the number of units that can enter a given formation; but ships will automatically form multiple formations iif the number selected is greater than the number that can enter into one formation. Another new feature, formations can (and will) differ based on race: for instance, Vagr will soon have unique formations that aren’t used by any of the other races, and modders will have the ability to specify formations for different races, ship classes, or even tactics.

Homeworld Remastered Patch Formation Animation - Fists of Heaven

Last (but still not the end of the large list of formation changes, we’ll have the wait for the patch to see the rest!) some formations like Delta have had their shape altered to improve the firing arc, which leads me to…

Ballistics


Projectile weapons now have true ballistic behavior!  Rather than an RNG’d percent chance to hit being generated at the time of fire and missed rounds blinking out of existence as soon as they reach their target, we’ll get to watch true ballistic behavior from most ships with projectile weaponry.  Missed rounds will continue past targets (and can potentially strike other enemy or friendly ships when they do), and rounds will have a chance to misfire, causing the slug to veer wildly off course or not to fire at all.  I can’t say that lack of true ballistics was something that I noticed previously, but after seeing it in action, I definitely notice it now!  This change will also alter how ships take damage, because ship motion and attack vectors now play a very real role in how difficult they are to hit with a ballistic projectile.

Homeworld Remastered Patch Formation Ballistics Animation - Fists of Heaven

Above: ballistic weaponry in action. Below: capital phalanx

Ship Behavior

Targeting behavior has been completely reworked, and ships now prioritize targets much more intelligently than before.  Stationary ships will be more appealing targets, and ships that dramatically affect the battle (such as gravwell generators) will become high priority targets when activated, causing ships in the vicinity to break off of previous targets to face the new threat.  This also means a ship won’t break off from a hostile target that’s returning fire to instead fire upon a resource collector that’s wandered into the fray.  Also, thanks partly to improved targeting behavior and partly to the new true ballistic weaponry, if a ship (such as strike craft) approaches a ship that would normally have difficulty targeting it (such as a destroyer) in a head-on approach, the strike craft will be ripped apart as they are very easy targets due to their approach vectors.

It’s not only targeting behavior that’s changed: flight speed and maneuvers have received a complete rework.  For example, the more ships are present in a formation, the slower the formation will move.  It won’t be dramatically different, but it is noticeable in comparison: Dave showed me a claw formation of five lance fighters flying side-by-side with a claw formation containing ten of the same unit, and after moving approximately 50km there were several ship lengths separating the two groups.  Formation size also affects the turn rate of the formation.  As more ships are added the further the ships on the trailing edge must travel when a formation rotates; thus reducing the mobility. 

Because ships no longer move at a static speed, their behavior in combat is also altered.  “These new flight maneuver abilities allow for more intuitive behavior”  Stephen Cole (one of the core team members who’s working mostly on balance) said to me in a later email, “for instance it is now possible for fighters to slow down during their attack run to maximize time on target and speed up when coming back around”.  While having strike craft fly slower to maximize damage sounds appealing, with the implementation of the new ballistics system that means they’re also more susceptible to enemy fire: “ships caught going slower during a strafing run are easier to hit”, said Cole.  Waypoint behavior has also been modified as Cole informed me: “waypoints can now be closed, creating a patrol loop, and ships can leave their patrol to attack enemy units encountered while on patrol and return to the patrol, or ignore enemies altogether”.  I think this will be really useful for setting up offset patrols of single scouts as an early warning system, or to find enemy resource ops without having to micro as much.  There are a lot of synergies between the various changes which, when seen in action, are a dramatic improvement over the current version.

Another change which I like very much is exploding ships now deal much more damage than they did previously – from what I saw in the patch, a capital ship exploding will easily destroy any frigate class ship or below in the vicinity.  However, since ships are much ‘smarter’ now, whenever a ship starts to go down you’ll see all nearby vessels work frantically to clear the blast radius.  Dave illustrated this by scuttling a Battlecruiser, and watching all of the frigates desperately alter course was like watching WWII naval footage – eerily accurate. This was a change I’ve always wished for, and it was too cool seeing it realized.  This update also impacts…

Homeworld Remastered Patch - Sphere Guard Formation

Sphere formation

Homeworld Remastered Patch - Ship Tornado

A bug during early implementation of Sphere formation

Tactics

Tactics now have a dramatic effect on damage, ship formation, and behavior.  A formation of strike craft set to Hostile will bunch together in a tighter formation and thus fire more accurately, doing more damage.  However, they’ll also take more damage, both because there’s less of a chance for ballistic weaponry to miss a ship in the formation, but also because if a ship gets destroyed, it’s likely to take at least one or two other ships out with it in the subsequent explosion.  A Neutral tactics setting causes the formation to spread apart significantly, creating more space between each strike craft.  Evasive tactics sees the formation break apart altogether as ships begin juking, approaching from unpredictable angles, and creating large amounts of distance from each other and the target.  It becomes immediately apparent what tactic a given group of ships are set to as soon as you see them, because the difference in behaviour is that obvious!

Bugfixing

Dave: “Yep, we fixed plenty of bugs” *laughs* Patrick: “we found so many old pieces of code still in the engine that I was thinking ‘how does this code even work?’”  The team has taken another comprehensive look at the code base and removed many extraneous lines of code, in addition to fixing known bugs.  

“We found so many old pieces still in the engine that I was thinking ‘how does this code even work?’”
– Patrick

Graphics

Yes, even the graphics are getting an update.  While I won’t go into much detail on these improvements, they will be relatively minor but noticeable.  For instance, nebulas and gas clouds will make an appearance in the maps, rather than just as a backdrop.  You’ll be able to fly ships through them, and they’ll be somewhat obscured, based on the nebula’s density.  There are also new field of view options, so players with widescreen setups or multi-monitor setups will be able to take full advantage of their hardware!  

FoV settings causing ‘fishbowling’ in this screenshot – click for full size

Homeworld Remastered Patch - Field of View Effect - Fists of Heaven

Above: new FoV video options in action! Below: a multiclass formation

Balance

There’s a large emphasis on balance changes in the upcoming patch, both in single and multiplayer.  For example “the new sphere formation behaves nothing like the ‘battle ball’ of old” Dave commented – “it was just completely ridiculously broken…players become accustomed to [these tactics], but it breaks multiplayer, and then multiplayer is no good for anyone.”  “Yep” added Brian, “you could create a giant ‘battle ball’ of fighters and beat the entire campaign with it…but you’re not really playing the game”.  Dave: “that does not work at all anymore…there’s a reason to do the things you do now [with formations and tactics]”  I mentioned one of the changes I noticed playing the current version of HW:RW where, unlike in the original game versions, a player is not able to assign an unlimited amount of repair units to a single target. “Yeah, that’s completely broken” Dave responded, “Frankly, I wish we had also made it to where the player couldn’t salvage past a certain unit cap”.  

“The balance is much different now” – Dave

Balancing the game apparently didn’t go as planned.  Dave: “the idea was that we would put a mod up on the steam workshop which was an officially sanctioned balance patch, and do our development inside of it – and we had said this openly, that that was the plan.  But what happened very shortly after we began that process was that we realized we’d have to write new tools in the engine, and of course now it’s back to code, it’s back to a patch that has a much longer process involved, and it’s made staying inside the workshop much harder.”

Because balance is such a large part of the upcoming patch, the Homeworld team felt that they needed help.  Dave elaborated on the team’s process:  “In fact, before we even started our balance patch the community had released multiple re-balance patches for themselves.  We actually contacted those people and asked if they wanted private access to what we were doing, if they wanted to help us make our balance [changes].  And to their credit, quite a few of them did, and we formed a community beta tester group, and they actively did things:  we would do a build one day with a spreadsheet showing what numbers we had adjusted, and the very next day on the beta forums the guys would chime in…and [they helped] drive the balance.  The balance changes aren’t something that we did just invented for no reason, it was an active consensus of the most active and successful balance people in the community.  That also probably explains why some of the balance mods in the community haven’t been updated recently, because they sort of work for us now *laughs*.”  

This is an ongoing process.  We’ve been busting our asses to get it done, and the results are going to be (I hope) something that everyone’s really happy with!” – Dave

Looking ecstatic, from left to right: developer Patrick Dupree, senior producer Brian Burleson, and developer Dave Eaton. Next image: Patrick and 3D modeler Jonathan Fawcett

“The goal here is that mod authors will be able to do things far better than they could before” – Dave

Modding

The team’s passion and enthusiasm for the Homeworld modding community was boundless, and Dave spoke at length about how much the Homeworld modding community had helped him and the rest of the HW:RM team during the initial stages of Remastering Homeworld – and how helpful they’d been once again as the upcoming patch enters it’s final stages. “The goal here” Dave said, “is for mod authors to be able to do things [in this new patch] far better than they could before.” He views his role as a partnership with the community “it’s a conversation…I live on the forums!”. The team has been true to their view and have been working with a small group of modders to playtest and balance tweak the upcoming patch. They’ve implemented a myriad of new tools and completely changed the way modders ‘talk’ to the in-game units, creating new options and outlets for future mods, many of which did not exist before. For example, “ship turrets are instanced, allowing the base game assets to be easily modded via the new mod patching system that allows base assets to be non-destructively altered” Cole informed me. Dave: “there’s been so many changes I probably won’t even be able to document them all – I’ll just have to wait and see what the modders do!” He continued with “there are so many stupidly talented artists [in the modding community]…Talros, Pouk, Beghins, there’s many many great examples of incredible artists…and we’ve had some of those guys on our beta group for a reason, because we wanted to be able to get feedback from people who were really passionate and skilled about the new [modding] tools, about some of the new systems, about things they wished they could do but weren’t possible until now. You’ll definitely see some interesting stuff coming out of the mod guys after this patch is released because there are a ton of new tools. Design systems alone we’ve doubled in this patch, [allowing for] new things that mod guys have never been able to do before”. “We had a bunch of requests for certain things that have been really tough to do” said Patrick, “and we put a lot of this stuff in because it also became necessary to get some of the balancing changes done. In an effort to get the right build out for the public, it became necessary for us to get some of those tools in.”

“The team has implemented a myriad of new modding tools and capabilities”

With all of the new changes to formations and modding capabilities, some things had to change. “The collision avoidance system in the Homeworld 2 engine is incredibly simplistic” Dave explained, “it thinks about just one thing at a time”. Patrick: “there’s no way for us to make the Homeworld 2 engine work on multiple CPU cores, and the math required to implement a more advanced collision engine would just bog down a single core too much”. That means superstructures, such as those found in the latest REARM mod, won’t be able to exist anymore, but that’s a small price to pay for a giant list of improvements, not to mention new tools and capabilities. Update 6-3-16: the patch will release June 7th, 2016!

There’s something special about Homeworld, something that, I think, instills an awe, perhaps for the game, but definitely for what it says about humanity.  It’s something that’s kept a fanbase alive for almost two decades, and it’s something that continues to inspire the small yet extremely dedicated Homeworld team at Gearbox to go far, far above and beyond the call of duty.  I’ve been referring to this patch internally at FoH as ‘a remaster of the remaster’, because it’s going to bring so much more than just some bug and formation fixes.  I think it will revitalize the game and the community once again, and I’m not alone: “I’d like to see this patch bring more mods, more players, and more people playing multiplayer” Dave told me “because it’s going to be really well balanced after this patch – it really won’t play the same way, it’ll play much, much differently”.  Patrick agreed: “Homeworld 1 & 2 only ever had very minor patches [but this one] is major.”  I think, very shortly, we’ll all be very grateful for the hard work that Dave, Brian, Patrick, Jonathan, Cole, and the rest of the team are putting in on a daily basis to bring us what will be an unprecedented Homeworld update.  I can’t wait!

I can’t thank the Homeworld team enough for their dedication to the game, for taking time out of their Saturday to spend several hours with myself and Merritt Adkins, and for their help with this piece – you guys are the best!  I’d also like to give a shout-out to Joe King and Jeff Skal for being awesome community/brand managers.

“At the end of the day this was a passion project, and this patch is the right thing to do for a lot of reasons”- Dave

It’s the right thing to do for Homeworld” – Brian Burleson

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I'm an ecommerce / digital marketer at Rhino Digital and spend the rest of my time exercising, rock climbing, reading, and writing, usually in the company of awesome people. My favorite game franchises are the Homeworld series and the Descent series. You can reach me at mike [@] fistsofheaven.com

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