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KIXEYE Australia Launches VEGA Conflict, a new browser-based MMORTS

Back in 2012, San Francisco-based strategy developer Kixeye opted to open up a studio in Australia. The people they chose to head up the endeavor - all former employees of 3 Blokes Studios, which was abandoned in April 2011 by RockYou - brought with them a rather impressive portfolio, with years of experience in the strategy market. At the time, the new team was described as "a marriage made in heaven."

That marriage has finally borne fruit, in the form of the recently released MMORTS Vega Conflict. On Wednesday, I got the chance to sit down with Kixeye Australia's George Fidler and Prasant Moorthy to discuss both the game and the organization. 

First things first, let's find out a little about you guys. Who are you? What first got you into game development? What got you started with KIXEYE?

"Eventually, the opportunity came up for us to work with Kixeye creating strategy games, and we jumped on it.' - George"Eventually, the opportunity came up for us to work with Kixeye creating strategy games, and we jumped on it.' - George

George: For me it was quite a long time ago. I'm the general manager of the studio, which means I basically keep things running. Pras is the senior product manager; he's responsible for this project.

I started in games back in 1989 - a very long time ago - with Electronic Arts. For the next ten or twelve years, that's where I stayed. After EA, I moved to a company called The Creative Assembly. There, we made strategy games; one of our best-known series was Total War. Over the past three years, we started to see the demise of the traditional games industry, and the emergence of a new space - the massively multiplayer online space. Eventually, the opportunity came up for us to work with Kixeye creating strategy games, and we jumped on it.  

The demise of the industry?

"In this new development space, the launch of a product isn't the end of a journey, it's the beginning." - George"In this new development space, the launch of a product isn't the end of a journey, it's the beginning." - George

George:  Project costs had been escalating for the last ten years. In our experience, at least, these costs were outstripping the market growth, and the industry in general was suffering a significant amount of downsizing. Amongst all this downsizing, one of the main growth areas seemed to be 'games-as-a-service.' Here, we saw a number of large online multiplayer games emerging that were free to play. Customers could try them for nothing; then pay to accelerate their experience. That was interesting to us for a whole stack of different reasons outside of growth.

As game developers, it presented us with the opportunity to have a really direct relationship with our customers. Previously, there were many layers between us and the end user. The immediacy of being able to have a direct dialogue and to have customers tell you directly whether they liked your last build directly has been invaluable. If nothing else, it certainly keeps us all honest, and all working and our customers are all extremely honest, as well. If someone doesn't like something, we'll definitely hear about it. 

Because of this new model, we have a lot of data coming to us. It's up to us to interpret that data. Some of that is hard numbers, some of that is direct communication.

Prasant:  You can correlate information, but you've got to sift through a lot of stuff, too. Previously, when we were doing Total War, we'd have forums where people could tell us what they thought about the game. In an environment like that, you tend to receive a lot of random statements that have no bearing on the truth; a lot of bile. Even the toxic players are fairly happy with the game, since they're still playing it. A lot of people don't tell you anything, they just don't play. When they simply stop playing the game, there's simply something wrong there. If they don't comment on it, there's really no way to tell what went wrong.

George: I think the other thing that excited us about our move to this industry was the fact that we didn't need wait three years to get a product to market. In this new development space, the launch of a product isn't the end of a journey, it's the beginning. We end up getting our product to market much quicker; then we work to develop and enhance that product as a direct response to the needs of our audience. Exciting, but still a huge shift in thinking for us. 

Moving forward to VEGA Conflict, tell us a little about the game.

"VEGA Conflict is really just about dominating space. It's about 'conquering the void'" - Prasant"VEGA Conflict is really just about dominating space. It's about 'conquering the void'" - Prasant

Prasant: VEGA Conflict is an MMORTS game. The idea, as far as the storyline goes, is that you've been pushed into this new sector of space, and an organization known as the VEGA Corporation has allowed you to effectively mine the area at your leisure. The catch is that they haven't really given you much support - they've left you to your own devices. They expect their cut of the profits, but that's pretty much the bulk of your interaction with them.

The problem is that there's also a bunch of other people there, and you're fighting over that same minute cache of resources. Each player will start with a single structure that will serve as their base of operations from which they'll launch their fleets. Their job will be to build that base up, research tech, mine resources, and construct defenses to better fend off attacks from other players. Research will give you access to a whole bunch of new stuff; new weaponry, ships, defenses, tech, et-cetera. We've got a whole bunch of planned content and stuff coming out.

There's also a big, overarching narrative, but we can't really talk much about that yet. Players will see that as it comes out. 

So, yeah...VEGA Conflict is really just about dominating space. It's about "conquering the void," becoming the number one player in the area, taking charge of your little corner of the universe. We've added a lot of social features here as well, so players can form alliance with each other; planets and sectors can then go to war with one another in massive fleet battles. 

Each base is set up on a planet. There, players may choose to ally with one another based either on the planet or the system they're in (they might also choose to war with one another). Most players will likely start out raiding VEGA cargo ships, but will quickly figure out that it's much more lucrative to attack other players. Because of the social systems, we've actually seen a lot of player-created governments and alliances pop up; players have entire sectors where they won't attack one another, and if you attack a single person from that sector, everyone else will band together and destroy you.

There are other sectors that are the opposite, where it's entirely "dog eat dog."  

How does progression work?

The way VEGA Conflict is set up allows for considerable customization.The way VEGA Conflict is set up allows for considerable customization.

Prasant: All new items and upgrades must first be researched. As far as units are concerned, you can have up to ten fleets of six ships each. The most basic element of each ship is the hull. As you research new hulls, you'll unlock new ways to customize your fleet - some hulls turn more quickly, some move faster, some give weapon bonuses, some can take more damage. Each hull is equipped with a certain number of slots on it - special tech, weapons, defenses, et-cetera. This allows for a great deal of customization in a player's fleet. 

For example, you can put together a fast fleet with a lot of firepower, and hope to employ a 'hit and run' strategy, or you could build a tanky fleet with shields, armor, and close-range weapons, then hope you can survive until you're in range. There's a huge amount of strategy in setting up how you go into battle, but that's only one half of what it takes to achieve victory. 

In battle, fleets can flank the enemy and maneuver around to dodge fire. Some people will actually use that mechanic by employing several fleets specifically designed to dodge weapons fire and distract the opponent. That's just one strategy - but suffice it to say, against higher-tier players, charging blindly in doesn't tend to work that well no matter how well-equipped your fleet is. 

We designed the game with progression in mind. We regularly release new equipment and tweaks to the game. Last week, for example, we increased how much damage shields can take. At the same time, we also released a weapon specifically designed to destroy shields - but virtually useless against non-shielded ships. In another update, we released an upgrade that increased the spread of rockets, making them much more effective at dispatching multiple groups of ships. 

We've also noticed an interesting metagame start to come into play. Everybody's trying to come up with the 'perfect build,' and occasionally, a few players will devise one. It never lasts very long, though - once someone comes up with such a build, all the other players will band together in an attempt to work out a counter to it. 

What inspirations did you draw on during the development process?

"When we signed onto this project, VEGA Conflict already had a very similar design to Total War" - Prasant"When we signed onto this project, VEGA Conflict already had a very similar design to Total War" - Prasant

Prasant: As far as my background goes, I started working with George on Total War about seven or eight years ago. One of the things that made that series very different from other RTS titles is that it split off the strategy map and the tactical map. In titles like Starcraft, you construct buildings, train your units, and use them in the fight. Total War had a very different model: you had a building layer where you built stuff, and you couldn't build units during combat - it wasn't very realistic. 

When we signed onto this project, VEGA Conflict already had a very similar design to Total War. The basic structure was very familiar to us, and felt similar to what we'd already done. The main difference, of course, was that it was an MMO. Although Total War had a hotseat multiplayer mode, it didn't support that many players. With the KIXEYE model, you're playing with thousands of people simultaneously.

Mechanics-wise, we looked at all the classic strategy games, and went through the strategy pedigree as it appeared over the course of the last fifteen years. 

As far as the game's atmosphere is concerned, we have a fairly tight design team, and we've been watching a whole lot of science fiction for a very long time. The one that inspired us most recently was the Battlestar Galactica remake; the bleak openness of it, and the sheer scale. The series was massive, especially when you looked at how large the Battlestar was compared to the other ships. We tried to carry some of that feel over into VEGA Conflict, where the smallest ships you have are still massive by today's standards.

One last question before we wrap things up: what are your future plans for VEGA Conflict? For KIXEYE? 

" The potential here is just enormous, and we want to do everything we can to tap into that." - George" The potential here is just enormous, and we want to do everything we can to tap into that." - George

George: From our point of view, we've literally just launched this product. It's exciting for us - this is a game created in the new industry, drawing on our experience in the old industry. Back then, if you launched a product, you wouldn't be surprised to see it vanish into obscurity in three months or so. Today, you launch a product and it's continually evolving, progressing, and changing. 

We're just going to focus on this project, and on guiding how it evolves for the next several years. Right now, we're located in Brisbane, Australia, and we've got a team of 35 people here, with a massive backlog of ideas and concepts for further enhancements for the game. Ultimately, our focus - both for KIXEYE Australia and for VEGA Conflict - is to focus on refining and building the game while building up our audience. The potential here is just enormous, and we want to do everything we can to tap into that. 

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Nicholas Greene
Nick's Games Haven
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