Purpose and Function - Designing the Sights and Sounds of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak17 Feb 2016 2
Vehicle fantasy. The words of Blackbird Interactive's CEO Rob Cunningham stuck in my head when ogling the pre-release developer diary video of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak. Vehicle fantasy. Who wouldn't want one of those? For all the apprehension surrounding the revered series being plucked from the stars and placed on the ground, not to mention over a decade on from the last strategy game, Deserts of Kharak was captivating and, moreover, undeniably a Homeworld game. The pace, the scale, the sheer artistry that everyone recognises, but few can emulate.
As many know, Deserts of Kharak was not always Homeworld. Starting life in the post-Relic wilderness under the name Hardware: Shipbreakers, Blackbird Interactive originally envisioned a massive F2P online strategy game; an enthusiastic science-fiction gold rush concept where adventurous clans sought foundered starships for profit and glory. A clutch of promo videos were released, hinting at what would eventually become Deserts of Kharak. In 2013, when Brian Martel and Gearbox retrieved the license from its post-THQ liquidation limbo, the Homeworld name was offered up to Blackbird Interactive in an admirable show of respect for a franchise that deserved to live on beyond faint spiritual succession. Hardware: Shipbreakers became Homeworld: Shipbreakers, then finally, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak.
Looking back at the promo footage for Hardware, it would be reasonable to think most of the aesthetic was established prior to the return of the Homeworld name. However, as lead artist Karl Gryc explained, that was not entirely the case.
"We generally understood the aesthetic in the Hardware days, as it was inspired by Homeworld, but a lot of the original designs came in once we moved to Deserts of Kharak. Many key vehicles were introduced once we became an official Homeworld title - such as the carrier which is essential to create that massive scale differential which defines Homeworld's beauty."
That base inspiration, predating even the original games, is crucial to understanding what makes Homeworld, be it interstellar or ground-bound, so arresting.
That massive scale differential
"The key inspirations," Gryc said, "lie in the hard science-fiction of artists like Chris Foss and Peter Elson." He explained the running design concept that governed the Homeworld games over ten years ago remained the same; crafting ships with purpose and function and not just interesting visual design. Recalling the vertical docks on the original's support frigates, or the articulated mining booms on the resource collectors in the 2003 sequel, Homeworld's superstructural conservatism has been derived from a sense of practicality. The starships of the series never felt ornate or embellished, yet maintained a sense of pragmatic, awe-inspiring majesty.
The Elson-Foss heredity continued not only in functional design, but in the heraldry of vehicle paintwork; goliath vessels adorned in two-tone mattes of defined flats and bands. When recollecting on the original games, images flood of the Kushan or Hiigaran Mothership in her celestial blue, or the implicit martial schemes of the Taiidan and Vaygr. In Deserts of Kharak, the carry-over was imperative, particularly to convey the subtle techno-tribalism of the Kharak Kiithid. "As though they were clad in a medieval coat-of-arms," Gryc explained. "We wanted to capture all of the pageantry."
But the pageantry is distinct from the old starships. In place of Terran Trade Authority radiance, the Coalition fleet in Deserts of Kharak bear a distinctly utilitarian colour scheme. "For the colour palette we drew an inspiration from Caterpillar colours. We wanted to conjure imagery of giant industrial vehicles at work," Gryc said. "There were a few times that we debated changing the Coalition colours so that their vehicles and their silhouettes 'read' better against the desert, but doing so we lost a key emotion and feel that the color palette conjured."
Given the setting of Deserts of Kharak, the challenge was to create environments that shucked what the Blackbird Interactive team dubbed 'Brown World'. To offset the visual predominance of endless sand, Gryc and the team developed a number of different strategies, starting with the colour key, or 'mood board'. "It showed the lighting conditions across the campaign and allowed us at a high level to insure it didn't become repetitive. We also adopted several materials that brought in color, still believable in the desert, but some of the rich reds and greens that you get from interesting rock formations. We further broke this up with environmental effects such as storms, tornadoes, etc which insured the player didn't grow fatigued looking at Kharak."
Beyond the environment, Deserts of Kharak proves that thoughtful mechanical design, design that never halted on mere superfluity, is invaluable. Gryc cited some of the references the team used in building the Coalition fleet, explaining how the Baserunner and other utility vehicles were heavily inspired by the Caterpillar 797F, one of the world's largest mining trucks. "The NASA crawler was a tremendous inspiration for our Coalition Cruiser vehicles. The US Navy's railgun video, we must have watched a few hundred times. The USS Nimitz was often referenced when we designed the Command Carrier Kapisi. I also recommend checking out The Big Wind, largely responsible for influencing the Coalition salvager."
For those unaware, The Big Wind is a unique Hungarian amalgam of Soviet tank and MiG jet turbines, used creatively to douse oil well fires. Its profile would not be out of place on the sands of Coalition territory.
The enigmatic antagonists of Deserts of Kharak are a different design story altogether.
Kiith Gaalsien were once depicted as a sort of wild tribe, a Mad Max proxy of junker warmachines dredged from the foundered dune wrecks. "Ultimately the design that spoke the most to us," Gryc recounted, "was a tribe advanced by the technologies hidden in the Great Banded Desert, presenting a greater technological threat. Not a lesser scavenger force." The decision to turn these nomadic tribesfolk from post-apocalyptic punks into techno-enigmas of the deep desert was the right choice.
Gaalsien hardware has a menacing through-line; constructs of beveled plate, rounded chasses and protruding generator bulbs. Gryc explained they countered the bulky, edged Coalition vision with a contrast of curves, making the Gaalsi seem extremely advanced and almost alien in origin. He mentioned a driving inspiration was Kow Yokoyama's unique model line, Maschinen Krieger ZbV 3000. A military super-science franchise, Yokoyama's kit-bashed creations melded diving suits and industrial lasers, anti-gravity rigs and shaped armour. The Gaalsien feature that similar blend. If the Coalition are an offworld mining operation, the Gaalsien are the equivalent of an experimental fleet of attack submarines. Where Coalition fleets are diesel and clawing caterpillar track, the Gaalsien craft are entirely zero-point and suspensor.
Both factions, however, share a staple of the series; the classic Homeworld sense of scale. "This is a unique element of Homeworld that was essential for us to preserve," explained Deserts of Kharak lead designer Rory McGuire.
Small ships small, big ships huge
Scale is an interesting, often unwieldy and abstracted element in strategy games. In a genre rife with infantry at least half the size of the barracks they spawned from, Homeworld's gulf between its smallest, its largest and their interactions therein is meticulously curated. For a game where depiction of distance was the core experience, size matters.
"It's everything." McGuire said, "There's literally dozens of variables you have to deal with when designing units and scales. The challenges between the original Homeworld and Deserts of Kharak begin and end with scale between units. Making small ships feel truly small, while large ships feel huge."
That's not to say Homeworld was effortlessly drawn to the ground. Unlike the rich skybox fishbowls of the previous games, the units of Deserts of Kharak are subsequently measured against the terrain, no longer in the frictionless depth of space.
"This created several massive problems that we had to solve," McGuire continued. "For example, Homeworld uses a system called NLIPS, or Non-inverse linear perspective scaling; which as you move further from a ship the more it scales. This works for Homeworld because the skies are dozens, if not hundreds of lightyears away. In Deserts of Kharak, however, units are sitting right on top of terrain, thus we could only go so far with NLIPS to help readability."
Striking a balance of speed and scale was key. McGuire recounted when, during production, the maps were a lot larger and the command carriers were much slower in an effort to effectively communicate the vastness of Kharak. "This created an immense sense of scale, but it was also very boring. Ultimately, we kept the scale we decided on for both maps and moved unit speeds up to the point where they were on the edge of crazy but their overall feel was great."
Unlike a lot of games in the genre, the team obfuscated perceived unit speed irregularities by paying close attention to how treads, tracks and hover units navigated the undulating terrain. Where prior Homeworlds offered the aesthetic zen of languid contrails, the vehicles of the Coalition and Gaalsien have distinct but equally intimate interplay with the ground.
The team sought to model realistic interaction; heavy sand tires slough over dune and flat, with anti-gravity machines pulsing and flitting across the same terrain. Seeing the shock absorbers and suspension bars of Coalition trucks bend and flex with every jolt sells the environment as much as it sells these assets as something tangible. Thick bands of tire-churned dust are the plasma trail proxies of Deserts of Kharak, and the languid arcs of cruiser and Baserunner evocative approximations of future capital starships.
Another element crucial to the established formula was capturing a similar aural experience; from the bass synth thrum when switching between strategic and tactical views to the restrained unit barks, Homeworld very much has a sound.
Don't notice it but can't miss it
Dave Renn is an audio designer with Blackbird Interactive and worked on both maintaining the series' distinct audio experience while conceiving new yet cohesive sounds for the prequel.
"We started with real-world and cinematic reference," Renn said, "Giant mining vehicles, military vehicles, real alternate engines like electrical engines. Influences from gritty sci-fi sound design like Aliens and Battlestar Galactica. Then we went about designing all of the component sounds and layers to give them as much character and life we can within the tool set. After that, we iterated on the overall mix and made sure the elements that we wanted to hear pop off of the soundscape."
Renn mentioned a 'calm sense of rightness' when talking about unit-specific sound design. In essence, when you don't notice it, but also can't miss it. Being able to parse the sounds of combat on an individual level not just via spoken updates, but discrete and well-balanced theater audio. He calls it the audio equivalent of the uncanny valley; the creation or simulation of a 'real environment'. In the case of Deserts of Kharak, a vast science-fiction world of dust and debris.
Defining a faction by its sound is as important as visual and mechanical demarcation. Not only the bark, but proximal audio like locomotive rumble or idle effects. Subtle, yet key in illustrating the unit or faction's presence in the world.
"There are functional benefits that we get just from a variety of the soundscape, but it also helps to depict the character and purpose of a faction by the sounds they make, they music they have, the sound of their weapons," said Renn. "The challenge lies in working out how they sound and creating content for it. The Coalition were easier in that they had a real world counterpart, whereas the Gaalsien were much more open to interpretation and thus easier to get wrong."
"Having a well-defined universe is key," Renn concluded. "The more information and inspiration we can draw on for the sound design then the more the sound will emerge as cohesive. Even really disparate elements will share a common root if the universe they exist in is known well and defined."
Few could suggest Homeworld's universe, Deserts of Kharak included, was anything but.
Thanks to Rory McGuire, Karl Gryc and Dave Renn for their time. You can read our review of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak here.