By popular request, I'll be sitting down with established and new creative forces in the community to talk a little about their past work and what's up next. I'm looking at Axem, MjnMixael, bigchunk, Rheyah, Black Wolf, Droid, and more - but first up, it's SPOON!
One man completed perhaps the most sprawlingly ambitious total-conversion mod since The Babylon Project, and the first FSO total conversion set in an original universe. Peppy, kinetic, and lighthearted, Wings of Dawn is a collision of anime tropes and Star Control. You might hate anime, you might hate fun - but odds are you'll still enjoy Wings of Dawn, which sports a clever armor/damage-type gameplay model, a dizzying array of new and creative weapons and ships, and missions that will leave your jaw on the floor with their sheer bravado. A lengthy, big-picture space opera.
Every interview starts with that same ****ing boring question about how you got into FreeSpace. Spoon, how did you grow the balls it took to ram a container ship full of radically original content through HLP's front wall? What made you sit down and say: nobody else has ever done this, so it's going to take me? Tell me the story of how WoD came to be.
A container ship full of Taco's sound a lot more delicious though.
I found Freespace being offered FOR FREE on the interwebs with the launcher we had back then. It installed a bunch of mods and all that shizzle. Played through the FS1 port, silent threat and then FS2 and like everyone who ever opened up FRED for the first time. I put down a whole bunch of big ships and watched them go PEW PEW PEW BEAM while I giggled like a little girl. Back then I was doing this really really badly organized game design education that introduced me to the basics of 3D max and the like. So I started reading all the modding tutorials and began importing my own ships into Freespace. T'was a time of exploration and jubilation. I had to travel by train a lot during that time so I had a lot of time in which I did nothing but write random ideas and inspiration (from games&anime) that came up in my mind down on paper. All of these ideas just randomly started forming WoD.
Wings of Dawn takes clear inspiration from Star Control and anime - the setup of the Hertak hierarchy echoes the Ur-Quan, and a lot of the LSF ships resemble Gundam designs . Give me five things I could put in a blender to make artificial Wings of Dawn flavor.
You already named two, Gundam and Star Control. If you add cute anime girls, Macross and Freespace you'll come pretty close to a WoD smoothie (I dont know if this is accurate, I've never had a smoothie in my life)
The Wings of Dawn design ethos puts a huge premium on player agency. I think this is one of the most remarkable parts of the design - the missions and the ships empower players and give them a huge range of tools to tackle an equally diverse range of enemy behaviors. How much formal design work did you do? Any on-paper planning before you cracked the tables? Did you have any self-imposed rules about forced-fail missions?
Formal design work? Pretty much nothing.
On-paper planning before I cracked the tables? I WISH I HAD! But I'm in the progress of correcting that mistake now a days. Spreadsheet commander is a pretty cool game to play.
To elaborate on that, back during the development days of WoD I pretty much balanced things around the Ray III, every weapon, every enemy and then altered things as mission required it. Looking back at it, it was truly a terrible idea. But I was having fun so whatever right?
Well nowadays I have spend a whole lot of time to get this big design/spreadsheet document ready in which I have listed everything. And holy **** does that make my life easier. It’s time and effort well spend. Now when I feel a weapon feels a little too weak or too energy hungry I look it up in the table, compare it to equivalent weapons and apply very precise and calculated changes instead of “Well 5 energy a shot might be too much, I guess I’ll make it… 3.5! yeah that seems like a nice number!”
Forced-fail missions was just something that didn't really came up in my mind during the mission/story creation. There was the occasional mission in which the mission ended in a retreat because of story related things but that was after each mission objective had been completed.
I know I’ve given BP criticism that some missions felt like they were ‘pointless’ because no matter if do well and ‘win’ the mission, it still ends up as a failure because of the plot. But this was purely from a player perspective and not a elaborate well thought out designer one. If I had a story idea back then that would have required it, I probably would have done it similar to how BP did it.
I think the first real 'oh, wow' moment in Wings of Dawn comes when you hit the first (self-aware) BoE mission. And it's just a masterwork: the player has a clear, defined goal in the midst of all this beautiful chaos. Can you tell me a little about how you designed these missions? Do you build them in isolated components? How do you catch and direct player attention to important (or awesome) things they need to see?
I did a lot of reading on the forum and wiki about BoE type missions and resolved myself not to make the common mistakes. Amusingly, when you break that mission down, its actually an escort mission. Since you gotta stick with a Skirmisher class and try to keep it safe. The rest of what happens in the mission is basically window dressing.
Back then I didn't had incredibly advance mission planning, that was basically the fourth/fifth real mission I made. I just tried to apply common sense and play test it over and over again.
Directing the player's attention is kind of a tricky thing in Freespace, situation awareness is sort of limited (after playing Warthunder for a while, I keep wanting to hold the C key to look around without controlling my ship itself). What I always tried to do is have the player's senses only be assaulted by one thing at the time. If they are fighting, they are fighting. If they are reading messages, then they are only reading messages etc.
Cutscenes (with proper) use are one of the greatest tools we Fredders have to show players things we want them to see. (Axem turns them into a complete art though) I wub cutscenes.
You're trapped on a desert island with Axem, a cargo container full of tacos, a mah-jong set, and a single item from DARK SOULS. Explain how you end up with a majority shareholder position in Namco Bandai.
Holy ****, Axem is going to eat all the Taco's and I'll starve. I'll beat him in mahjong though, that'll be my victory. I'm so tempted to say the Estus flask but I don't think I'm hollow/undead yet so I'm not sure how effective drinking Estus will be. Sooo, I'm gonna go with a white soapstone so I can leave a “HALP, IM STRANDED PLEASE SAVE ME” message.
I end up as CEO of Namco Bandai in my last dying starving moments, mere illusions of a dying mind. Cause surely, this will surely be the last thing that crosses my mind as I head toward the light.
You demolished every record getting WoD out the door. What was your finest day of WoD development like? What did you eat? How many buffs did you cast before you started? WHAT'S THE SECRET, SPOON?
I always started the day with a cast of Tenser's transformation and then I got BUSY. Back then I still lived with my parents so I was fed all sorts of good meals, now that I’m living on my own I have shifted more toward a diet of Pizza.
Back then my finest days when I just got out of bed and my mind immediately started thinking of mod related things, I crawled to my pc and while I could barely stand to look directly at the bright light of the monitor with my sleepy eyes, I just started working away.
The secret is: Having a lot of free time and having the motivation and dedication to keep working at it. Even through the parts that are tiresome and not as interesting. (There quite a few tedious things to be had)
You worked as a beta tester on Vassago's Dirge, every recent release of JAD and on War in Heaven Act 3. What was that experience like?
Such a joy to work with. I can go full super asperger lord 2 mode and moan about the smallest of details and it will be listened to, considered and fixed/changed. I must have replayed every BP act 3 mission at least 6-7 times (and some much more) and marveled each time at how incredibly well designed each mission was. Both JAD and BP have some of my favorite missions ever. (I hope nobody expects such levels of quality for WoD cause I’ll never be able to deliver!)
I'm really interested in the way you seemed to produce and manage Wings of Dawn's design elements intuitively. Are you a genius, or an alien? Pick A or B.
I’m both an alien and considered a genius amongst my people. (editor's note: I don't think we're going to get the secret out of him)
The Cordi, Nordera, Zy, Fura'ngle, and Hertak all fit into defined gameplay roles and demand different responses from the player. Did you map out the niches you wanted, and fit a species into each one - or design the species and then map their gameplay roles?
I designed species and then made them into a gameplay thing. That the Nordera fly 99% mechanical ships was actually a super old idea that I thought of as a teenager as I was watching Star trek Voyager. I don't recall in great detail how I came up with each species, it's been too long ago. (I grow old)
You have a huge cast of characters. Tell me about writing them and their relationships. What kind of sense of them did you have when you started? Who surprised you the most? What's the deal with Milkshake, anyway?
I started off with just Misuzu, Crystal and Dawn, then at some point realized “Well, I can't have a fleet and only have three appearing characters... that would seem silly.” which is when I started coming up with the rest of the cast and I wish I had put some more effort into it! Most of these characters were pretty much summed up by two sentences on a piece of paper.
I found Crystal the most challenging to write, I wanted her to be a serious, competent character but not tsundere or so serious that she becomes unlikeable. At the same time I tried to not have her end up as a mary sueish character... which in hindsight I'm not sure if I completely succeeded at that, considering most important events in the campaign are actually done by her. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Luna is definitely the one who surprised me the most, by gaining absurd popularity while being hardly a presence in the whole campaign!
Milkshake's deal? She's just really angry at everything, forever.
You've collaborated very closely with other mod creators, including Axem, Droid803, and me - but you've also done a spectacular amount of work on your own. How do you see the role of collaboration in mod development? If you want to make something as spectacular as Wings of Dawn, how much can others help you, and what do you have to bring to the table yourself?
In the Freespace community I think you gotta count on doing 90% of the work yourself.
I was impressed with how the BP crew put Act 3 together, everyone working on indiviual missions and having the quality be even through out. I think you can only do this if you are on the same wave length and roughly on the same FRED skill level. Overal I think this is a super rarity in the Freespace community though.
I got a lot of help with scripts and models recently, but in the end the lion share of the work is still gonna be done by me.
You recently made the decision to halt development on Wings of Dawn 2, crushing all of us who'd left your trailer on loop for months and months. Can you talk a bit about this decision?
The dev blog thread had my decision explained in quite some detail so I'm gonna be lazy and say “go find that post and read it”
but the tl;dr version is basically: Because WoD1 was designed as just a single campaign with no sequel in mind, I kept running into plot/story related blocks. And because the weapon/ship balance was too much all over the place, I kept running into mission design issues.
Time for some Hard Hitting Journalism. You've had rough relations with your community: the Wings of Dawn forum has been a bear to moderate. How much does this impact your relationship with your work? Is it hard to keep going when your mod sometimes seems to attract a special class of anti-fan?
I find this question unbearable.
Honestly, I try not to think too much about it. It has taught me to steele my mind and keep going.
What moment in the Wings of Dawn story would you most want to see in a gorgeous wall-sized painting?
I think the asteroid run mission would make for a pretty picture!
Dawn was ripped away from everything she knew by the starlance accident that opens the story. So was the mind of the Prometheus Frame. Did you think about this similarity in putting them together?
Yes, there was some planned intend there. (Hey, at least I can claim something was planned!)
The FSO engine has made enormous strides in the time you've worked with it. From the standpoint of a content creator, which development has made your life easier, which one do you still desperately want, and what are you most afraid of happening?
There's a lot of neat things added, I can't really pin one down.
I'm still wanting Multi lock, I've got builds with a early working version but there are still a lot kinks in the cable that need to be worked out and Swifty is a busy man.
I'm super afraid of SCP (*coughGOOBERcough*) breaking things.
If you had one collective wish for the community as a whole regarding Wings of Dawn, what would it be, and how could we fulfill it?
I wish for all of you to play the new WoD when it comes out!
(And JAD XA, its super neat and criminally ignored.)
Thanks for your time!
Wings of Dawn will be making the transition to standalone, rebooted, episodic release in the months or years to come. Remember: always wear a helmet when flying in atmosphere.