Frontiers Reach has come to its next major milestone in development. With the core elements of the game now in place, it has officially left early access on March 1st, 2023. While exciting, the lead up to big dates like these usually have the developer working harder than ever to polish the product before release to the public. Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza from Skyward Flight Media was fortunate enough to slip in a release day interview with the lead developer from Blind Alien Productions.
I'm sure there's a lot of last-second preparation going on, thanks so much for accepting our interview.
Absolutely! Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about and share the game. As for the introduction, my name is Scarlett Toney, or on the internet, you will likely see me listed as Soliloquis (Soh-lil-oh-kwis). I am the lead developer on Frontiers Reach and am personally responsible for about 80-90% of the game's artwork, code, design, and writing. But even with that kind of contribution from just myself, there have been a LOT of other supporters and contributors to the game over the past two, almost two and half years of development. It's been a wild ride, and despite all the bumps and distractions, I wouldn't trade it for anything. I've met some awesome people. Learned some great new skills. And I've managed to open up more career opportunities for myself and those who have contributed to the project, which is awesome because that was my goal from the get-go.
Frontiers Reach is out of early access! Congratulations. How is the team at Blind Alien Productions feeling about this next major step after roughly two years of development?
We're all pretty excited. The voice actors are keen to hear their performances laid out in their entirety. The composers are eager to hear their music in tandem with the visuals. However, I'm already planning the next steps for the further expansion of Frontiers Reach not just as a game but as a series, and the team is ready to support me where and when I need it.
Is Frontiers Reach the first game the studio or any of its developers have worked on?
I would classify this as our first major title. We've got another, smaller title called 109 up on Steam that is very abstract and an early concept I want to try another go at later down the line. One of the other founders has worked on other projects apart from BAP and even won an award for one of them. I myself have worked on corporate software using Unity for nearly 8 years having, deployed over 30 pieces of software across, I think, maybe 5 different countries. So certainly not my first rodeo.
The story of Frontiers Reach being about escaping war rather than trying to become a war hero sticks out in my mind. How did the concept for this game start?
This actually dives a bit into my family's history here in the United States. In fact, just this past week, I went and looked at the Cherokee Indian Rolls (I've done this once every few years to see if they had been effectively indexed onto the internet) and found both sides of the family have their surnames on 2 of the lists of Cherokee who (as I understand it) have their ancestry in the Trail of Tears. We know for a fact that we have Great Grandparents who were Cherokee and/or Choctaw. At this point, it's just a matter of finding out if we are actually related to anyone on the rolls. It may be the French/English side of my family is just too prominent to warrant a reconnection.
Regardless of the outcome of the efforts I've stated above, the universe of Frontiers Reach is based loosely off the of the time period of the American Frontier both before and after the American Civil War. In some ways, the story of Frontiers Reach is the story of the Cherokee people and those who settled with them. But it's also the story of America as a whole. Because it wasn't just the Cherokee people who were displaced, there were many. There was even a vast number of Europeans who displaced themselves, seeking hopeful new lives on the frontier only to be met with the harsh realities of what that actually meant. Starvation. Isolation. Malnutrition. Disease. War with the Indian Nations out west. The list goes on.
To be a bit more specific though, the story follows a group of people who are the descendants of the earliest days of space colonization. Some feel entitled to the old frontier. And others feel they should pursue another, new frontier. At the core there are questions about getting caught between two super powers. Being a hero not to an entire galaxy but to a small group of people who may only really matter in the context of your experience through the galaxy. And last but not least, giving the player some agency over whether they want to take their fleet into the unknown to start something new, or go headlong into a major conflict alongside a new body of governance that may or may not achieve its goals.
I think this is one reason I've actually had some trouble getting people to work on this. Because for most, the old frontier ways are gone, but for the few I have found who are from the old ways and who have gained tech skills, it has been difficult because of the pain of bringing up old memories.
The flight model this game uses has received some vague criticism in the past. I was surprised to find it more flight simulator-like rather than flight arcade. What are your thoughts on the flight model?
So I was definitely trying to go for something a bit more simulator like. I love popular sci-fi like Star Wars and Star Trek, but Frontiers Reach is based more on my love for aviation and aerospace history than my love of science fiction. I think that might be where people are going to get hung up on it. This is sci-fi according to someone who is an aviation nerd.
The design of the starfighters is undeniably a highlight—especially the cockpits. Instead of being covered in holograms or touch screen panels, I could sometimes swear I was sitting in a forgotten Earth aircraft from the late-1950s. Why was this design choice made?
So yeah. Remember when I said I was an aviation nerd?
So, my mother's side of the family is from southwest Ohio, which is known for a rich heritage in aviation. I even lived about 15 minutes away from where the Wright brothers built the Wright Flyer. Basically, we came out of the woods to move closer to my stepdad's family and were living so close to Wright-Patterson AFB I could walk out my front door, go about 100 meters down the street and see the perimeter fence around the base with planes landing and taking off in the distance.
Additionally, my father's side of the family is from northeast Arkansas, which is rice farming country for as far as the eye can see and requires crop dusters to effectively fertilize in a timely manner.
And when I served in the United States Army I spent my last 4 years in as an Infantry Scout walking, driving, and yes even flying (riding in Chinooks mostly) where ever we needed to go.
So real world aviation has been a staple of my life since I can remember. And simulator aviation too, in some respects. I grew up playing Janes WW2 fighters and dabbled with Fighters Anthology a bit. I also had a copy of Mig Alley, but we rarely had a computer that could run these games effectively and money was always tight, so my experience with these titles was always limited.
Do you have any recommended starfighters players should try out as soon as possible?
Before getting the Condor in this last month, the Hoplite or the Atlatl would have been my recommendation. But right now, the Condor is really feeling nice and the visuals of watching it do its thing while you're flying and fighting are spot on.
Has the development of additional supported controllers and software to augment the game impacted how it has been received so far? (flight sticks, Track IR, etc.)
Not really. Frontiers Reach hasn't really had a big player base from the get go, and I kind of expected that. It's actually one of the reasons why I tried to keep other people's money and emotional investment out of the project as much as I have because it is a very strange combination to have in a game. So simply adding a new controller capability to the game hasn't affected much, but for the people it has brought in, I would hope they are enjoying the game.
I believe this game is much larger than people think it is. With a story mode, optional side missions for the story mode, the WARMAP, recently added instant action, and even seasonal events, it does make me want to ask: is there a set list of content the team is working towards completing?
So the plan was always to have a lengthy story, with side quests that could be completely skipped, and with some kind of dynamic conflict map of some sort that would have story missions sprinkled throughout and the occasional seasonal event mission. Everything would be kept to being around 20 minutes in activity time so that it would keep the workload on the team light, but more importantly, it would be something adults could engage with. We're all adults who like complex games that are challenging, but we don't always have the time to sit down and engage with a piece of content for 4 hours out of the day.
I am still developing with that plan in mind and also have plans to create a mission builder into the game similar to the one in Janes WW2 fighters. With workshop integration.
With a galactic conflict spanning over 40 locations, the WARMAP by itself could be a standalone game. Please discuss the development of this game mode and where it stands today.
It's funny because I've had someone else say the same thing, but when you get under the hood, the reality of the matter is that the WARMAP exists because of all of the work done on the campaign.
I designed a data model early on in the development that allowed for all of the exact same tools used in the first act of the campaign to be leveraged for the WARMAP. In fact, that was the intention the entire time. The missions for Act 2 in fact, are intended to be played out on the WARMAP with the player building a fleet via rescuing vessels in distress. I've still got some work to do on that front, though, so I don't want to dispense with the details too much.
To get the WARMAP up and running though what I had to do was get two AI bots to roll dice over some nodes. Then I piped in my data model that I had been using to give the player access to missions all throughout the story mode. So the WARMAP system is using that exact same data model to control which missions are available based upon who owns what nodes and what the current defense condition for that node is. There are a bunch of calculations going on between the 2 AI bots rolling dice. Things like how many commanders are available. What their connection to the logistics lines looks like. The list goes on.
On release day, the WARMAP will be in a sandbox-like state until Act 2 is ready to go.
Despite the volume of content, the Steam page describes the overall experience as "adult accessible." Could you explain this a bit more?
So when we say "adult accessible" what we mean is that the activities could be played on a lunch break once you get through the learning curve.
I want to touch on what may be a delicate subject. I want to discuss this to highlight something distinctive about the team. In December 2021, significant decisions were made. Development was put on hold, the team was reformed, and the original Kickstarter was canceled. Could you describe what happened?
Yes. I started the project alone in my then studio directors basement after having lost my apartment when my roommates all left to go be with family as the covid lockdowns were going into affect.
During that time, I met a young programmer on reddit and we hit it off in terms of working together. Other people eventually joined the team and I was expecting, and even stated it on multiple times, that everyone was going to self-manage and get their work done. The young programmer was doing this. He even spent 6 to 8 hours on voice chat over Discord with me; teaching me and helping me integrate his work.
As far I understand, he like myself was always kind of on the fence about the Kickstarter (I'll explain my hesitation on this in a moment). But we were both optimistic about the idea of doing it in the future.
The problems started when I had to take a day job to legit avoid becoming homeless and could not effectively manage the team anymore. The quality of the work was never where I wanted it and I couldn't actually focus on the artwork the way that I wanted because I was having to use all of my time off from work to try and manage people who told me they were good to self manage their own work and get things done.
They may hate me for it. But from my perspective, we were missing deadlines internally and quality was suffering immensely. I had no confidence in the team's ability to actually deliver on much of anything and I had no time or energy to effectively manage anyone. So the thing I started as a place to learn and grow as an artist and to serve as a sort of artistic therapy, as I am a veteran of war and do indeed have PTSD, became a consistent point of stress for me. In fact, the reason I get as much work done on Frontiers Reach is because I have PTSD induced insomnia which leaves me awake for 18 to 20 hours a day. But those hours need to be low stress or I start having serious health problems and can't actually get anything done. And if I get stressed out enough, I will completely cut off and isolate entirely. A consequence of being from 2 families who have spent almost 250 years living in relative isolation in the wilderness. When we're wounded /offended/whatever we don't attack the offender so much as we just take what is ours and we go somewhere else. In my case, that was quite literally 90% of the game.
In the end I think a lot of it came down to priorities and differences in goals and life circumstances.
As for the Kickstarter and my aversion to it, I've backed Kickstarter/crowd funded projects before. Star Citizen comes to mind. Not only has the development time been way longer than I expected (and I remember the rumors around Freelancer), but it's just gone in a completely different direction from what I was expecting.
Long story short, I don't want to give someone that experience. I'm sure it's probably already happened though. Just sucks.
Thanks for sharing such a personal aspect. I brought this up because events like these have the power to cancel games before they're out of early access. It's a formidable obstacle for any development team. I believe "tenacity" is a word that describes how your team consistently tackles any hurdle it comes across. Since the shakeup, does Frontiers Reach feels closer to what was initially envisioned?
In some ways it feels very much like the core structure of what I originally laid down in the design document. But the design document was quite vague to begin with. I didn't want to lock myself into a specific set of gameplay features early on so instead, I defined the GDD in vague terms to allow for the freedom to develop in new directions along the way. The core of that document was always "launch from a carrier in a retro cool starfighter to complete story driven missions around the galaxy in a large interstellar conflict".
With the game moving into its next phase of development, are there still tweaks and quality-of-life improvements to be made?
Oh yes. I'm expecting to get a swarm of feedback after the release. I will have to check the number again but if I recall there are a few hundred wishlists that we're on. People literally waiting for us to give them the thumbs up that the story is good to go for them to dive into.
What's the next big step for the team?
Getting much more organized and legitimized. We've scattered and working remotely for some time now. But our goal is to find a house somewhere that is cheap with fiber internet and to build a home studio into. The entirety of the core team is war veterans and we've a habit of sticking together, so getting a good foundation beneath our feet to keep developing games and telling stories is our next big goal.
Is there anything you'd like to express to new players interacting with Frontiers Reach for the first time?
Please have fun! And try to let your mind run wild in something truly different for a change. I've done what I can to bring something of the entire worlds history into a sci-fi experience that isn't going to sugar coat the realities of hard living, but that can also serve as medium to ask some really hard questions about the expansion of civilization and how that affects the people who live on those "frontier lands" in something that resembles a neutral space where personal emotions are less likely to run high.
Thanks so much for the interview! Again, congratulations on the next phase of this game's release, and good luck to the team going forward!
About the Interviewer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. Read Staff Profile.