Frontiers – Interview with Lars Simkins
There can never be enough open world games with survival and exploration elements. Frontiers, which already exceeded its funding goal on Kickstarter and is now well into stretch goals territory, falls into this genre; it’s a very interesting game, but his creator is at least as interesting, as you’ll find it below.
First of all, welcome to Worlds Factory. Please, introduce yourself and your game briefly to our readers.
Thanks! I’m Lars Simkins, I’ve been a VFX artist for six years, and I’m taking a running leap into game development with FRONTIERS, which is a first person exploration game inspired by the likes of Daggerfall.
Now, Lars. How did you manage to be both a VFX artist who worked on stuff like Hunger Games, Priest, Breaking Bad, Hawaii Five-0, Lost, Fringe, Flashforward and Revolution (most of which I’ve seen and loved, by the way) AND an indie developer who’s doing a Daggerfall-like game all by himself? You’re some kind of genius!
Ha! Ask my wife if I’m a genius, she’ll laugh. I’ve been a filmmaker all my life so getting into VFX was just a (long) process of teaching myself the skills and slowly building up the connections to get on good projects. After college I was lucky enough to meet an amazing VFX artist named Eric Chauvin. He taught me the bulk of what I know about matte painting and I got some of my first jobs doing overflow work for some of the shows he was working on.
Thankfully his supervisors liked what I was doing, so that led to more jobs. Along the way video games and game development have always been hobbies – most of my friends in college were more into gaming than movies and a lot of them went on to work at some pretty cool game studios. It wouldn’t have taken much to push me onto that career path. So a few years ago when I decided to start working on FRONTIERS alongside my day job it felt pretty natural.
Onto Frontiers. You said that exploration is the main focus of the game, but there’s a big question to be asked here – do you plan to reward it with actual powers, items, skills etc. or do you intend it to be a reward in itself? Because for some that would be enough, while others are always looking to get something out of their invested time, so they probably wouldn’t like to spend a lot of time exploring some land and getting nothing in return.
Rewards are essential. My first thought when I started working on it was the most obvious thought – remove *everything* not directly related to exploration. But I found that this resulted in the most boring game imaginable. There’s the urge to see what’s around the next bend, but that’s not enough on its own – over time I found that exploration has a lot more to do with choices than I originally thought – while walking in the woods I’d pay close attention to what interested me about one direction vs. another, and I found that I was always making calculations.
Can I get back before it’s dark? Will my boots hold up to that mud? That’s when I started introducing survival elements into the game, and the fun started to reappear. The trick is knowing when to stop, and knowing what kinds of choices facilitate exploration vs. stifling it. I think a lot of the choices developers made in the TES series stifled exploration.
Closely tied with exploration is the survival aspect. You stated that survival elements in Frontiers will be “engaging and fun without being oppressive”, but practically speaking, what will happen to those who do not manage to stay fed & warm in the game?
They’ll suffer a bit, and they’ll have to be more careful, but they won’t die unless they’re on hardcore mode. The thing I wanted to avoid was what I call ‘alarm clock’ survival, where everything’s fine until BEEP BEEP you’ve got to feed yourself, and the game stops being fun until you do. I’ve tried to focus on rewards instead of penalties – being smart about food doesn’t just hit snooze on the alarm clock but actually gives you tangible bonuses. I’ve also tried to tie survival mechanics into other mechanics like magic and crafting so that staying fed and warm don’t feel disconnected from the rest of the game.
You repeatedly declared that you don’t want to ruin the player’s immersion. I completely agree that this is a very important part that some games unexplicably forget; however, I’ll add that animations is a significant factor for immersion. Since I don’t see a specific stretch goals about it, I’m wondering if you intend to improve animations with the additional funding before the launch of the game?
Oh yes, that’s a given. The animations in the alpha are terrible, haha! The axe swing is a running joke.
Speaking of the world’s geography, I’ve read on your blog that you got in touch with a geologist who gave you some advice on how to make some improvements there. However, another big immersion breaker for me has always been the lack of coherent transition between different regions – let’s just say that some games have tundras near deserts. Do you plan to make Frontiers a bit more believable in this?
I’m actually working with a geologist I met during the course of the campaign to inject a bit more reality into the world. The world transitions from one ‘biome‘ to another pretty rapidly, because I wanted to include a lot of different kinds of terrain, as opposed to the sort of one-note terrain you see in games like Oblivion.
But like you point out it can also feel really strange to leave an arctic area and see palm trees out of nowhere. So what I’m trying to do is justify these transitions geologically to a degree. People intuitively understand that a humid swamp gives way to a tropical setting more easily than an arcitc wasteland, and there are rock formations and choices about vegetation that can prepare the player for what’s coming. All that said, the world is still a bit fantastical at the expense of realism, so don’t go in expecting something strictly real-world!
Right now we know very little about the story. Would you tell us a bit more? Also, in the very small excerpt on the campaign frontpage you mentioned a “dark menace claiming victims at night” and “mysterious orbs sighted in the sky”, but on the other hand you said that there won’t be any fantasy races available. Are there fantasy elements in Frontiers, after all?
I don’t want to reveal much more than I have, because finding out is part of the fun! I can tell you that when you start the game, things in this world are bad – economies are breaking down, war is ready to erupt and a strange plague is spreading. On a more personal level your uncle, a famous explorer, has just been declared dead. He tried to cross an impassable barrier called The Rift and hasn’t been seen since, but you’re convinced that he’s still alive. So that’s the backdrop when you start the game, though of course you’re free to ignore all this and simply explore. Overall there are fantastical elements, but they’re limited.
There’s ‘magic’ but it’s more naturalistic than you see in most games like this – it’s more about amplifying willpower than harnessing the supernatural. Apart from the compressed world scale, which is more of a suspension of disbelief thing than a fantasy thing, the world is largely based on the world we live in now. This was a conscious choice, because the survival elements lose a bit of their flavor if you add too much of the supernatural.
Regarding combat, you mentioned how stealth and magic would help those players who’d rather avoid it. Would it be possible to go on in the game and perhaps even complete the main storyline using a non-lethal approach? Also, is there a skillcap or can players just become masters of everything after playing enough hours?
Yes, you can avoid combat altogether if you like. That was key for me, because it was combat above all else that would frustrate me when trying to explore in Elder Scrolls games. I enjoy a good hardcore RPG as much as the next guy but come on I just want to see that waterfall! Similarly there are no skill caps. The more skills you learn and use, the more opportunities you’ll have to explore the world. No limitations.
Players will be able to own structures in Frontiers, which is always a feature I appreciate in games. However, what kind of advantages will these structures yield them? Also, is it possible to lose these structures due to IA attacking them?
Entering any structure gives you a survival boost, and entering a structure you own gives you an even more significant boost. You can also heal and rest faster by sleeping in a bed, which is only available in structures. And then of course there’s storage – you’ll want to stockpile food, and there’s no better or safer place than a basement. Lastly there’s your mantle. It’s a feature shared across all your owned structures where you can display your proudly won artifacts and other objects of personal value. Sadly structures are not invulnerable to attack – as you point out it’s possible to lose them to attacks. But those attacks rare, and you can take steps to prevent them.
Mod support – how extensive will it be? Let’s say that a small team of Star Wars diehard fans wants to create a full conversion of Tattooine, would they be able to (in due time) ? Also, do you plan to support Steam Workshop?
I haven’t implemented it yet, but the goal is to give players every tool I’ve used, which would enable them to create pretty much anything they please. I’m really looking forward to digging into mod support in general it’s going to be a blast. As for Steam Workshop I haven’t made any decisions about that yet but I really like the system. The only reason I’m not declaring support up front is because I want to make 100% sure I can extend the same features to users on all platforms.
Last but not least, co-op multiplayer – how does that work? Will you level up accordingly all enemies/challenges etc.?
It’s basically an extension of single player. I really enjoyed co-op in System Shock 2 and that’s the experience I’m hoping to recreate – basically going through the single player world as a team, sharing resources, helping each other solve puzzles, etc. I haven’t decided how to handle bumping up the difficulty as more players enter the picture (there will be up to four co-op players) but there will definitely have to be some changes to reflect the added manpower! All that will be worked out during playtesting & beta testing.
You’re using Unity. If Frontiers turns out to be a success, will you bring it to PS4/WiiU?
That’s always an option. I’m keeping it on the backburner because I want to make sure the game’s controls work best with my targeted platforms, and if I’m thinking about consoles too early I worry that I’ll end up making compromises too early as well. I’d rather approach that step as a separate problem once all my original goals are met.
Thanks for your time, and best of luck with Frontiers!