Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Interview: Digitum Software, developer of Absolute Territory
Updated: Oct 9, 2022
Absolute Territory: The Space Combat Simulator debuted a publicly available demo during Steam Game Festival: Summer Edition 2020. At first glance, Absolute Territory's promotional material invokes a nostalgic feeling from space sims of days past. After hours of playing the demo, I was intrigued by how "right" maneuvering in space felt. The experience was further enhanced when I was able to use more advanced flight equipment, that I would not expect a demo to recognize. The experience of managing energy levels in combat and sliding through space with relative ease left a lasting impression on me after the festival.
With questions on my mind, I reached out to the developer, Digitum Software, for information about this game's development and their game festival experience.
Hello, thanks for this interview. It's nice to meet you. Can I ask you to introduce yourself?
Hello, thank you for having me. My name is Dan I.B. Woods. I am an indie developer currently hiding behind the guise of Digitum Software. I love Sci-fi in film, TV, video games, especially space combat action/simulation set in futuristic settings. I also enjoy programming. Combining these elements, I decided to develop my space combat simulator Absolute Territory.
Watching the promotional and test footage of Absolute Territory gives off a nostalgic feeling. What was your inspiration for making this game?
Nostalgia is what has driven me to make Absolute Territory. When development first began, there was no more interest (outside of an indie setting) for space combat simulation games. Rather than wait for someone else to make one, I decided to make my own.
I have a love of Sci-fi. Watching the original 70's Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Buck Rogers, Star Trek, Babylon 5 in my youth enflamed a passion within.
I spent many hours playing Wing Commander on my Amiga 500. As time went on, I found that I enjoyed playing this genre, somewhere in between arcade and realistic simulation, which the Wing Commander series hovered around (with the one exception).
TL;DR: A love of sci-fi and video games and the drought in the genre (at the time!).
Before starting game development, Digitum Software created VUME. What type of software is it?
Video Uploading Made Easy (VUME) for YouTube Content Creators. It's a companion app for YouTube, on Windows PC, designed to simplify uploading and publishing videos.
I used to make videos for my gaming channel and found YouTube's service to be lacking in some areas, especially for those who upload content regularly.
VUME's main feature is multiple upload defaults, a feature the competition offers as part of a recurring paid subscription. You can define many defaults for the title, description, tags, etc. for say different topics, or if you are a gamer, video games.
VUME takes this a step further with variables, which you can pass via the video filename to auto-select the template and auto-populate metadata, making each upload specific to the video content. You can say goodbye to copying pasting text and manual edits. VUME includes other features, like auto-posting to Twitter and Tag analytics.
Are there plans to continue software development alongside game development?
The plan is for a Tick-Tock cycle. Tick, let's make an application. Tock, let's make a video game. After Absolute Territory releases, I will re-review that original plan. Currently, I expect to be making further updates and improvements to Absolute Territory after release for some time. You have reminded me I have a bug fix update I need to test and publish for VUME.
On Absolute Territory: one thing that is clear from the promotional material but can also be felt immediately through gameplay is how the ships maneuver. It feels the way I would imagine a more simulator style space game should handle.
I suppose that stems from Wing Commander 1/2 and the I-War series. I loved using the Shelton slide in WC1/2. Hit your afterburner to reach full speed, then turn and pepper your target with hot laser bolts as you slide past them! Fun stuff!
I-War took the physics more seriously and probably provides a more realistic idea of how corvette sized space ships would handle. Slow and sluggish!
After a lot of hard work, I ultimately used Physics to apply forces for rotation and velocity (speed) changes, for example, to correct your forward velocity based on your facing direction. I found attempting realism wasn't fitting for smaller space fighters (imagine dogfighting in the NASA Space Shuttle). Unrealistic force numbers are applied to tighten up the controls, without making it feel too much like flying a fighter jet in an atmosphere.
If I pulled the veil on the force numbers, you would see that the rotation forces are almost as high as the main engines to propel you forward!
The Shelton slide! There's a name I have not heard in a long time. This video demonstrates a unique (and daring) level of maneuverability. How is this possible? What are some of the advantages of flying like this?
Physics! To expand on above, all ships in Absolute Territory have a Reaction Control System (RCS) controlling velocity and rotation based on the pilot's input, to compensate for zero drag with no atmosphere. The RCS's only goal is to keep the ship flying in the direction pointed. The RCS manages lateral (vertical/horizontal) thrusters and engines applying forward/reverse thrust. Making turns at speed creates a sliding effect as the RCS works to correct your direction to keep you heading where the ship is pointing.
One advantage is the manual override of lateral thrusters, where you can 'jink and juke' to avoid incoming weapons fire. You can also perform a Shelton slide either as I described earlier with WC1/2, or use a manual override to disable the RCS and keep your nose pointed at your target while momentum keeps you going as you where.
There is also a disadvantage where if you turn too sharply, you can end up making yourself a sitting duck as the ship has to slow to adjust for your new direction. Absolute Territory does not fly like most other space combat action games or like the ships in Star Wars, or the Freespace series, where you always go forward without any implied 'drag' simulated or otherwise from steering.
While playing the demo, I was intrigued at how the simple addition of energy management within the ship's engine, shield, and weapons systems could change gameplay in a meaningful way. What are your thoughts on the energy management system? Will it be more complex in the future?
As I playtested, I felt Absolute Territory was missing something to help the player get out of sticky situations or take advantage. Energy management has been used in many previous space games to good effect, some taking it much more seriously than others. I wanted the player to be able to manipulate energy management with a minimum of effort and concentration, not take away focus, or too complicated it got ignored.
I like the idea of how Rebel Galaxy Outlaw allows you to dump energy from your gun energy into your shields and vice-versa. I can see that feature making its way into Absolute Territory.
I'll also be open to suggestions and feedback from players.
The mission editor of Absolute Territory sounds like it will be quite advanced. Is it true that the editor is so detailed, the single-player campaign was built using the same editor players will have access to?
It is true. The Absolute Territory mission editor was 100% used to create each mission for the campaign. The mission editor is embedded, allowing players to test ideas as they create.
You could recreate the campaign missions yourself with the mission editor if you were inclined to do so.
Players will be able to share their creations, with the minimum of effort, to the Steam Workshop for others to play.
It sounds like the editor is designed for long term use. That is to say, no need for hacking or code work to remain in operation.
I have spent a lot of considerable effort on creating the mission editor as I wanted players to be able to continue playing Absolute Territory by sharing and experiencing new adventures with the community.
The crux of the mission editor uses Conditional Actions. These respond to and drive events in the game world, using conditions (i.e. when the player reaches a waypoint) to drive actions (i.e. spawn in some enemies).
I have designed the mission editor to minimize the amount of coding required to add additional conditions and actions in the future. If more can add depth to Absolute Territory and I will look towards adding any in future updates, I'll also consider requests from players and creators.
The mission editor sounds rather robust. Are there any limits at all that players will run into while using it?
The only specific limit is the size of the nav point area. You can think of a nav point being a stage in a mission. There is no limit on the number of nav points to place. I do not expect the size limit to be an issue. Its set at 100,000m diameter and used to limit the placing of game objects in the world using the mission editor. This is a design decision rather than a technical limitation.
You'll find that most of the missions in the Absolute Territory campaign are broken down into nav points. In the campaign, each nav point is designed to be within 10,000m diameter for pacing reasons. However, if you prefer to create missions in a single nav point, like Freespace 2, there is nothing to stop you.
When it comes to using Conditional Actions, described elsewhere, you are limited to the Conditions and Actions made available. More can be added, but that will require additional coding and testing by myself. I am open to suggestions on what any additions could be in a future update.
I feel the need to mention modding possibilities. While you can share your individual missions using Steam Workshop, you are currently limited to Absolute Territory's existing assets. I recognize that providing modding support in the mission editor would open up more new possibilities and experiences for creators and players. I will be looking at the feasibility of adding mod support, to at least be able to add new ships and weapons, after Absolute Territory's initial release.
The screenshots and video of the asteroid field are exciting and look challenging. Was it difficult to design the asteroid field?
The theory on the asteroid field design (or what I call hazards, as there are also minefields), is relatively simple. They are identified using spheres in the game world and then only appear to the player when nearby, helping to improve performance. However, when you are dealing with thousands of asteroids, there is going to be a performance hit.
Thankfully, Unity has been working on a Data Orientated Technology Stack (DOTS) to manage thousands of game objects in large game worlds. It's still early days for DOTS. The current hazard implementation took a lot of head-scratching and debugging.
For those who don't know, Unity is a 3D development platform and is my development tool of choice for Absolute Territory. It's majorly used for game development for indie developers, like me, with a free to use version (there are alternatives). It has taken some flak over the last several years due to low effort releases by various indie developers, using so-called asset flips. Though, the results of using a tool are only as serviceable as the individual who wields it and the effort put in. Anyone seriously interested in video game development should check it out.
I know I'll do this eventually, so I'll ask directly. If I direct all energy to the spacecraft's shields, is it possible to survive running into an asteroid?
That will entirely depend on the velocity of impact and the ship you are flying. Each ship has its maximum shield strength. Directing energy to shields will help decrease your mortality chances. More power increases the recharge rate, and more importantly, the maximum shield strength, at the expense in performance within the other systems. I shall look forward to adding you as a statistic, all in the name of science.
This next question might be a bit too early to ask, but: will there be allied units? Potentially some large scale fleet vs. fleet battles?
You will come across allied units in the campaign. These will be fighters, transports, and destroyers. Allied fighters will assist you in combat, therefore make sure to look after them. Transports and destroyers are generally used in escort/protection, or assaults/strike missions. While they do have anti-fighter weaponry, we won't be seeing any fleet engagements, i.e destroyer vs. destroyer, during the Absolute Territory campaign.
I can say for certain as I have just recently finished creating the 21 missions that make up the campaign. It would be something I'd love to include in the future.
The main game loop is around combating against several enemy fighters as you progress through stages, to keep the gameplay and progression flowing. It's a mechanic I remember the developers of Halo talking about, as not to bore or overwhelm the player with a constant stream of enemies. I think the most enemies you will encounter are around a dozen at once, with several allied units to back you up. I do not fancy my chances in those odds on my own.
Absolute Territory is mostly about making tactical combat decisions when facing 3-4 opponents at each stage, sometimes with allied help.
The control style of Absolute Territory certainly "feels right" when I think of a space simulator/game. Thank you for the detailed explanation as to why that is. Will the missions only take place in deep space, or will there be combat near moons or in the atmosphere of planets?
Missions take place where you get to appreciate the vast emptiness of space interspersed by asteroids and minefields. Adding planets in Absolute Territory as a decoration is on my wishlist. I have already purchased the relevant assets. It will be a case of being able to embed them into the mission editor as an update after release. I have an extensive list of wishlists and ideas. I'll avoid saying anything more, as I do not want to fall into making promises or suggesting features that have not been decided.
With the focus being on smaller engagements, is there a possibility that players may run into an 'Ace' - a single or maybe a small group of highly skilled adversaries?
The focus on smaller engagements is for players to learn their and opponents' fighter strengths and weaknesses, then exploiting them to be the victor. I could have added an enemy Ace with increased health, speed, and more weapons. Going up against faster and tanky opponents, of the standard fighter, is not the experience I'm looking to create.
Each difficulty level in Absolute Territory alters the AI behavior and damage dealt/received. Rather than having individual pilot skill levels, the focus is on skills based on the selected difficulty.
Since the game festival demo release, significant effort has gone to improving AI combat behaviors. AI should appear less predictable, and more accurate, providing a rewarding and enjoyable combat experience overall. All enemy fighters you encounter will be similarly experienced as each other based on the selected difficulty level. Most recent improvements made to the AI steering behavior means all fighters and missile are much more accurate and deadlier than before.
How was the game festival? Has any of the feedback changed Absolute Territory's development?
The Game Festival was great, it certainly helped to make more gamers aware of Absolute Territory. I ended up with more wishlists in that weekend than I did in the previous 90 days. I highly recommend any game developer to take part in the future with similar events.
The inclusion of the demo, a requirement for the festival, helped. In retrospect, it highlights my need to promote and get the word out about Absolute Territory.
The demo released to coincide with the festival was as good as an experience I had hoped to present to gamers, based on closed beta feedback and meeting deadlines. I am actively seeking feedback to improve the player experience.
For example, the current mouse flight implementation felt twitchy for several players. They also had problems of losing the mouse cursor and found it demanding to keep track of that when fighting more than one opponent.
Based on that feedback: I've reduced the baseline sensitivity, increasing its maximum, for mouse flight; Players have a more choice in finding that sweet spot; You can always see where the flight cursor is, identified by breadcrumbs leading to it; The maximum pitch and yaw are now recognized by confining the cursor to a boundary; The gun reticule is no longer obscured when the cursor is near.
With these improvements, flying your space ship feels much smoother, less twitchy, and overall, more natural using a mouse.
I was able to use a HOTAS, rudder pedals, and a multi-function display with no problem. Was the use of more advanced equipment considered during game development from the beginning?
That's fantastic news! I've been waiting for feedback from flight sim enthusiasts. In the beginning, I only had a Joystick (with throttle and hat). Setting up Unity with the default implementation was an absolute pain and problems with axis lag only ever-present in Unity games for Saitek joysticks. Unfortunately, it wasn't even considered a Unity issue, and very few reports at the time. I used my Xbox controller to get around this, eventually adding mouse support. Yet, I didn't want to be releasing a game where players would not be able to use their choice controller. Supporting a wide range of devices, with the default implementation, would mean significant development time and testing many different controls making this unfeasible.
Thankfully, there are options. One of those, Rewired. This is a fantastic asset I purchased from the Unity Asset Store and allows developers to support a wide range of controllers and devices. I always intend Absolute Territory to be used with either Joystick / HOTAS controllers. The fact you can also use more peripherals is a massive benefit and should please fans of flight simulation.
Thank you for this interview and your efforts in creating this game.
Thank you very much for your interest. A demo for Absolute Territory is available for you to try from Steam. Go ahead and wishlist and follow to be notified when Absolute Territory is released.
About the Interviewer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza