After 20 years, get ready for Homeworld 3’s massive sci-fi fleet battles

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Fans have been waiting for Homeworld 3 for two decades, and game director Lance Mueller finally gets to talk about it after 3.5 years as game director.

Blackbird Interactive is making the game, and Gearbox Publishing is publishing it in the first half of 2023. The game is all about staging massive spaceship fleet battles like the kind we saw in Star Wars movies.

But this game, which was unveiled at Opening Night Live at Gamescom in Germany, will feature a lot of storytelling and easier navigation of 3D space.

I saw the announcement, played a live demo and interviewed Mueller afterward at Gamescom. While it’s still complicated to send your fleet through three-dimensional space, the devs found ways to navigate more easily by allowing you to click on a 3D object — like a big space wreck — and navigate your ships to the target. That could vastly simplify the staging of giant fleet battles in Homeworld 3.

I’m hoping that will make the game a lot more fun than its predecessors. Mueller said the game will also have a strong storytelling element too.

I played a battle that takes place at the site of an ancient hyperspace gate network. A new threat to the galaxy known as The Anomaly has started to spread its darkness and has begun to swallow gates and planets alike. Now Imogen S’Jet, Karan’s successor, is the only one who holds the key to solving the mystery threatening the galaxy’s future.

In addition to the campaign, Homeworld 3 will also have multiplayer and a separate mobile version of the game as well, dubbed Homeworld Mobile.

Blackbird Interactive was founded in 2010 by former members of the Relic Entertainment Homeworld team, including Art Director Rob Cunningham and Lead artist Aaron Kambeitz. After its founding, Blackbird began working on a game the team considered the spiritual successor to Homeworld, and then partnered with Gearbox (the now IP holder and game publisher) to release Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Lance Mueller and Sarah Tam of Blackbird Interactive.

GamesBeat: How long have you been at work now? Has it been more than four years?

Lance Mueller: About three and a half years now since we started.

GamesBeat: What was the inspiration or charter when you first got going?

Mueller: Homeworld 3 has been a dream since the beginning of Homeworld 2’s development. A lot of the ideas and vision for Homeworld 2 were massive and expansive. A lot of the things we ended up doing in Homeworld 2 were really good, but we wanted to do more. Now the technology has caught up with the expansive vision of Homeworld 2 and now Homeworld 3. We can do three-dimensional terrain, cover, hiding in tunnels. All of these things were very difficult 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago.

GamesBeat: How massive is the space now? How many ships are operating in the space?

Mueller: We want to be comparable, as much as possible, to previous titles. We’re still working on performance and things like that to make sure we get to the best numbers we can get. As far as specific numbers we’re not really saying right now, but we hope to have more information in the future.

Fans have waited about 20 years for Homeworld 3.

GamesBeat: Is that just a matter of computing power, or are there other considerations?

Mueller: There are definitely design considerations. More is not always better. We’re trying to make sure we find the right balance to get to an amount of ships that people can understand and work with, compared to creating an epic, cinematic experience for players.

GamesBeat: How do you help gamers play in a way that maybe isn’t how they naturally think, in this 3D space?

Mueller: We’ve been trying to figure out the best way to help bring the controls to a more intuitive format. In the game itself, you saw that if I want to go somewhere, I click on the object I want to go to. It makes it a lot easier to spatially understand something when I can see it. Just going to a point in open space is something nebulous. It’s all about simplifying the cognitive load for the player while we’re improving the intuitive nature of what they want to do, making sure the game always does what they want it to do.

The game is designed around using terrain. Most of the objectives that you’re asked to tackle are built around the terrain. If there’s nothing there, you could go there, but more of the gameplay will be focused around the elements we want you to interact with. It’s the difference between going to an open field versus climbing a mountain or venturing into a forest. It’s a lot easier to understand, when you’re inside a forest, where you want to be. If you see a rock ahead of you, you understand that you can go to that rock. If you’re in an empty field, if I tell you, “Go over there,” how do you know where to go?

GamesBeat: I wasn’t quite sure how to instruct the spaceships to go down into a tunnel.

Mueller: We’re improving a lot of the pathfinding systems to intuitively know, a little bit better, what the player is trying to do. In this build it’s a little difficult to get into the tunnels. In the final game we’ll have more systems that read, “Aha, you’re close to a tunnel,” and so they pipe you through the tunnel. Or if you go above the tunnel, the system knows you want to stay outside. We’ll be improving some of that.

GamesBeat: That circular plane appears, the movement disc, and then you can click on it. Is that almost a 2D substitute?

Mueller: It’s a holdover from the previous Homeworlds, using a 2D plane. That plane is adjustable using left click and hold. You can go up and down. That’s more of a classic controls methodology for the Homeworld franchise. We want to make sure we don’t alienate the existing fanbase that already knows how to use those controls, that has preconceptions. But the main thing for us is simplifying controls by having terrain in the world. That allows you to play the game more like a classic RTS. In other games you click a terrain feature and that’s where you want to go. Similarly, for us, you see a rock, you want to go to a rock, you just click the rock. You don’t have to try to find a space in between.

Homeworld 3 will have huge space battles.

GamesBeat: Is there a way to watch those cinematic moments from a different perspective? If you’re pursuing a ship, say, and you want to watch it blow up, you might not have an easy time trying to maneuver that into happening.

Mueller: Totally, totally. The focus camera feature that we have in the game is one of the best way to do that. We also have a focus band box. If you hold down ALT and band box a group of units, the camera will center itself based on what you have selected and allow you to frame that much better. Right now we’re looking at potential features for taking pictures, things like that, but we’ll see for the launch.

GamesBeat: What kind of challenges presented themselves that meant it took so long to build the game, beyond just waiting for the technology to get to where you wanted?

Mueller: Three-dimensional pathfinding is a newer technology that’s only been pushed in the last few years. When we started it was becoming more and more mainstream. Before that, it was actually a military technology. You’ll see this in a lot of military drone technology. They were using a lot of new developments to map three-dimensional spaces and pathfind for drones and things like that. With more of that technology being built and us being able to implement that in video games, it’s allowed us to be able to get a lot more physical objects in the world and still handle that pathfinding. For a traditional RTS with only one plane, that’s a much more solved problem. But with the newer solution there are many more layers that you have to deal with.

GamesBeat: We’ve seen space combat games from the Star Trek franchise and others that are more 2D. What’s the difference that you get from going into 3D?

Mueller: For us, being three-dimensional allows you to find different avenues to engage someone. Coming from underneath, using the terrain from underneath, they might not see you coming. Being able to use the terrain itself to block incoming fire and see the different methodologies, a higher terrain piece versus a lower terrain piece, or attacking from multiple directions at once. It’s not just left or right. We now have up or down, left or right, or tilted a bit in many ways. It gives the player more strategic options.

Homeworld 3 looks beautiful close up.

GamesBeat: How close do you want to zoom in to the ships to be able to see them, versus coming in too close and missing something?

Mueller: For myself, I really enjoy zooming in and looking at the detail on the ships. We’ve spent so much time and effort on making sure the ships all look absolutely gorgeous, as close as possible. For those who want to look at them–it’s like playing a miniatures game. You want to look at them and see the detail. But you can also pull back and get a very distant view. That helps you strategically plan what you want to do, execute, and then watch it happen. A lot of games are about constant execution. Homeworld is more about lower APM, actions per minute, but with a greater impact cinematically.

GamesBeat: Having the woman’s face there, does that help with particular emotions you want to convey?

Mueller: Exactly. We talked a bit before about the emotional heft of Homeworld. The narrative and storytelling and world-building are important to us with all the games we do, but Homeworld is one of those where tone and atmosphere are extremely important. All of the characters help convey different aspects of the storytelling that we’re trying to present here, and she’s a very important part of that.

GamesBeat: It feels like we’re seeing RTS make a bit of a comeback here. There were a lot of years where there was a belief that the market was inevitably smaller because you couldn’t make console versions. You were confined to the PC. But we’re seeing it make a comeback now.

Mueller: Totally. There’s been a resurgence, and we’re super excited to be a part of that. We think RTS is awesome, and we’re stoked to be able to bring this to RTS fans. We just hope everybody loves it and everybody keeps enjoying RTS as much as we do.

GamesBeat: Do you think this one would still be pretty hard to bring to a console, though?

Mueller: Potentially. We’ve been really focused on the PC game. There’s potential there, but we’ll have to see one day.

GamesBeat: When you watch an expert play this game, what do you notice that’s different? I’m guessing that they have a bunch of groups all set up and laid out.

Mueller: Oh yeah. That’s something where–we wanted to make sure we accommodated both new players and Homeworld fans that really know what’s going on. It’s a difficult challenge. We feel like we’ve found a good balance to be able to create an engaging experience for both sides. We’re iterating on the control scheme, and we’ve made sure we have difficulty settings, both for those who want to have more of a challenge, and for those who want to enjoy the story, having an experience that’s good for them as well.

GamesBeat: If you wanted to have, say, 90 percent of your ships attack something as cannon fodder so the last 10 percent could get in and reach the objective, could you execute that kind of plan?

Mueller: You might have seen something like that in the trailer. Command sends one group over the top, and then you have some other folks sneak around behind. It’s definitely about your strategy and how you want to build your fleet. We have the same persistent fleet from the previous games. It’s really about how you want to build your fleet. Terrain creates a soft counter for the hard counters in the game, too. Before, if you were in open space, fighters couldn’t get close to a ship when there was nothing to block the way. But now, like when you watch the fighters engage the missile frigate in this demo, you can use the terrain to get closer than you would have been able to in open space. That allows those strategies to play out in different ways.

GamesBeat: Did you consider building some of the story through cutscenes, using pre-rendered CG to convey the story, or did you feel like your fanbase wanted to always have the focus on their ships?

Mueller: We definitely have some cinematics that have elements blending–we’ll have our classic looks as well. Deserts of Kharak, our previous game, really set the bar for what we want to do. We’ll be doing a lot of that in Homeworld 3 as well. We’ll be blending in-game cinematics as well as pre-rendered.

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