Interview: Nova Squadron, Lead Developer Clara Gale
Updated: May 8
Post-Steam Next Fest 2023 discussion about development details, early beginnings and future plans
Nova Squadron is a still in development arcade flight rougelite that debuted its alpha demo just before Steam Next Fest 2023. On January 26th, 2023, the public was able to get hands on with the core functions of the game so far. After watching this games development over the past two or so years, I was pleasantly surprised to have the positive experience I did with this game. I mean, I was even pleased with how smooth and stylish the user interface was. After writing a first impression about the earliest version of the public alpha demo, I reached out to Clara Gale, the developer of Nova Squadron, for a post-Next Fest interview.
Hello and thanks for this interview!
Thanks for having me! I’m Clara Gale, I’m the lead developer of Nova Squadron and have spent the last 3 years or so designing, making assets for, and programming the game in my spare time - with plenty of help and support from friends and family, without which the game likely wouldn’t exist! By day I’m a software engineer, so I’m most at home with the programming aspect of things and still learning a lot of the art and audio parts of game development.
How did your interest in gaming and game development start?
Since I was a child, I’ve always been interested in how video games work and always wanted to make people feel happy - so making my own games seemed like a natural continuation of that. The first time I ever flew a plane in a game was when Ace Combat 04 came out; I was very young at the time, and it took me months just to get past the second mission! When one of my university semesters required me to make a plane that moved in 3D, I ended up using my previous experience with arcade flight games to design the project. Then, a couple of years later, I decided to go back and revisit that project and “do it properly this time” - and that eventually became Nova Squadron!
On May 8th, 2020 the first tweet about Nova Squadron was posted. It mentioned being a "new project". Have you worked on other games before this one?
This is the first solo game I’ve worked on that’s made it this far, that’s for sure. I’ve worked on projects before at university and in my spare time, but those were on a much smaller scale and were usually finished after a couple of months. There are a lot of things you don’t really learn how to do in game dev until you’ve tried them at least once though, and most of the experience I picked up from those projects has gone into Nova Squadron!
Earlier in development, Nova Squadron was revealed to be on... planet Jupiter! An unexpected setting. Could you elaborate more on why this setting was picked?
In the early stages of development, the game was actually going to be set on Earth and Mars! But as time went on, I started to have more and more technical issues with large-scale terrain and maps that were tens of thousands of square kilometres, especially when adding in procedural bases and tunnels. The main thing I wanted to do was have large enemy bases that you could fly around and through, and at a certain point I found myself thinking “Well, why not set the game on a gas giant? Then all of the bases can float in midair, and the player can destroy targets both above and below them.”
I think that's the first time I have heard of this solution to a problem flight game developers often struggle with. What types of bases or other floating structures will players be seeing in the full game?
I want to add more background structures to the game to make it feel more alive and less barren - floating spires, space elevators, slow-moving supertankers, and so on. I’m working on some gameplay-relevant structures as well; at the moment I’m designing attack and defence missions for “cityships”: an entire city on both the upper and lower sides of a giant disc, held in midair by several large turbines! You’ll be able to fly between skyscrapers on the outside of the ship and, of course, destroy tanks, AA guns and key infrastructure on their exteriors. These should feel a lot more like the ground-attack missions from terrain-based flight games, except that you’ll be destroying targets on the underside of the city as well.
I would think that Jupiter not having any physical terrain would be something to avoid.
How complicated has it been developing a game that doesn't have solid terrain?
The main challenge is making sure players have a good grasp of where they are in 3D space without any proper ground beneath them. This is definitely something I still need to improve upon, but currently there’s a thick layer of clouds at zero altitude, which serves as a barrier that prevents things from flying downwards out of the combat zone and also makes it easier for the player to get a sense of their altitude and orientation. I’m planning to add a few more ambient floating structures near the cloud layer to serve as the landmarks you’d normally have when flying over solid terrain.
That said, making those clouds in the first place wasn’t easy. Computers are incredibly good at rendering solid objects with clearly defined shapes… clouds aren’t these things! Early footage of the game used an incredibly powerful plugin called Simul trueSKY, which has some very impressive credentials on their website including Arma 3 and Ace Combat 7. Unfortunately I quickly began to run into issues with trueSKY due to the game’s setting and requirements, along with worries about adding new features later - mainly cross-platform support and the ability to run the game with multiple viewports for local split-screen co-op. (The game runs natively on Mac and should be available on it soon; I can’t confirm any plans for split-screen at the moment but I’m hopeful!) This led to me building my own volumetric cloud renderer from scratch over several months! I’ve lost a lot of visual fidelity, which I’m slowly working to raise back up, but full control over how the clouds are rendered is what’s allowed me to create that fast-moving, stormy layer of clouds at the bottom of the combat zone.
Congratulations on creating your own system. That's very forward-thinking and ambitious. Were there any other unexpected hurdles? Any solutions you're proud of?
Thanks! There are two main unexpected issues that come to mind, the first being the UI menu system: when building the main menu, I wanted to make sure that it would eventually be able to support and swap between keyboard/mouse, controller and flight sticks. However, the Unity engine’s built-in UI doesn’t have great support for flight sticks, and various other small teething problems resulted in me building custom systems for a lot of UI functionality. I think in the long term this has been really beneficial, as it’s forced me away from the basic Unity UI elements and led to Nova Squadron’s UI featuring a lot of animations and visual effects on its custom elements.
The second problem is deceptively simple: missiles. The way both the player’s and enemies’ missiles behave is probably one of the most important things for how a flight game like this feels, and I originally assumed this would just be a case of telling the missiles to fly on an interception path towards whatever they’re targeting. But it turned out to be a lot more complicated to get them to feel “right” - after trying them flying directly towards the target, or flying to the target’s destination to intercept them, I ended up settling on a target point partway between these two positions. And all tracking systems in the game, whether they’re AA guns or missiles, can now be “shaken off” by fast turning, accelerating or braking - the more erratic the target’s movement, the weaker the target lock the missile has, until eventually it spirals off in completely the wrong direction!
Will all of Nova Squadron happen on Jupiter, or are other planets possible?
Although I’m not planning for the player to visit any other planets, orbital stations are definitely within the realms of possibility. One plan for some of the later levels may see the player flying inside a large, hollow ring-shaped space station, which could lead to some really weird and interesting missions where you can go from one side of a war-torn city to the other by flying directly upwards!
The Phoenix is the primary aircraft players will use from the start of their first run. For the record, are there plans to add other aircraft in the future?
Absolutely! I’m currently in the design phase on the second player plane, the Valkyrie (which combines aspects of the A-10 and Tornado into a VTOL ground-attacker), that will be added into the alpha demo later this year. There are then multiple new aircraft planned for future updates, including a variant of the Gorgon (the Mission 4 enemy ace squadron’s aircraft). Of these, the Seraphim multi-role and Archangel heavy bomber will also be coming to the alpha demo!
Let's talk flight model. I feel like it wouldn't be fair to pass judgement on the flight model thus far, especially with the inclusion of rogue lite progression. In the demo, players won't be able to bring out the full potential of the Phoenix. Could you tell us more about how the Phoenix handles at higher level/mid-game gameplay?
The Phoenix is intended as a high-speed dogfighter, and as with all the playable aircraft in Nova Squadron, you’ll be able to upgrade it from the low-end starting plane it is when you start the game, up to a much more agile fighter similar in stats to the end-game planes in other flight games. The main place the full game will differ is that with 12 levels in each run instead of 4, you’ll be able to afford a lot more upgrades, so the Phoenix can easily end up with more than double the turning speed it starts out with. There’ll also be some new and powerful parts - conditional upgrades that provide bonuses when you perform a certain action - that you can take advantage of; for example, in the demo you can unlock a part that increases your turning speed while air braking! All of the player planes’ stats are subject to change, as well - as more aircraft are added in, I’m expecting that the Phoenix’s mobility will be increased to balance it with the slower planes like the Valkyrie while also making sure they all feel good to fly.
The level of customization in the demo so far is pretty great. Even the other members of Nova Squadron that fly with the player get the same treatment. Are there adjustments or updates to the squadron mates planned?
It’s great to hear that the current customisation system is working well! Anything that the player gains access to in upcoming updates, your squadron will too - when the second flyable plane is added, you’ll be able to pick between the Phoenix and the Valkyrie for each pilot, so you can adjust how much anti-air and anti-ground support you want to take into missions. I’ll be using player feedback on that to help decide which AI options to add in - this might involve choosing your squadron mates’ flight styles in the hangar before a mission starts, or adding mid-mission commands to change what your allies are focusing on. Something that’s definitely being added to the game is the ability for you to make fire support requests, marking a cluster of targets in front of you. The nearest available allies will respond to the request, firing missiles and lasers at everything marked - in many cases your wingmen will be attacking the marked targets, but in others you could receive fire support from railgun battleships or even orbital cannon!
A mysterious vehicle is teased in the release trailer and in the demo. Do you have any info you can share? Are there similar unknown enemies lying in wait?
That mysterious silhouette from the release trailer - reporting name “Bifrost” - actually has its own mission update hidden in the alpha demo! Bifrost will launch a surprise attack on allied forces, and you’ll need to avoid its anti-ship laser cannon and escape out of the engagement zone. It’s one of three planned boss enemies along with Sceptre Squadron; in the full game, the 12-mission campaign will have a boss battle every 4 missions. Mission 12 is always an assault on a massive superweapon (and yes, you’ll need to make a tunnel run to take it down!), but Mission 4 will see you ambushed by a random one of the three bosses. Whichever boss you encounter in Mission 4 on that run, you’ll return to fight it again in Mission 8 - this time with a full strike force backing you up!
It has been some time since Steam Next Fest in February 2023. How was your experience during this festival?
Steam Next Fest was an amazing experience and an absolutely massive boost for Nova Squadron’s visibility - having it placed so prominently on Steam where so many people could see it was incredible, and it’s led to far more people playing the game than I’d ever expected! It was also a stressful period though as the deadline came up much sooner than I’d thought, and I had to cut some important features from the initial alpha demo release to make it in on time. This unfortunately included some parts of the tutorial, as well as full support for keyboard and mouse remapping. Bringing these features back in is my highest priority right now along with bug fixes, and I’ve learned a lot from Next Fest that I’m now able to use to improve the design of the existing game and the new features being added!
You've mentioned some features being left out of the demo to make it in time for Next Fest. It seems like the demo will be receiving updates before the game's full release as well. Could you tell us about what you have planned?
Nova Squadron’s full release is still a long way away, and I’m planning to keep the alpha demo updated and available right up until that release - as the full game develops, a lot of the features that go into it will also be added to the demo. This means players will get to regularly try out the new planes, missions and systems, as well as giving me the opportunity to listen to what people think about the changes and use that to help make the next update even better!
What I’m looking to add to the demo in the coming months can largely be split into two types: gameplay improvements, and extra variety. In terms of gameplay improvements, you can expect to see an improved HUD; first-person and cockpit view options; and tweaks to the flight model. Extra variety covers everything from new upgrade parts to new missions - a big part of this is the update planned to add in the cityship ground attack/defence missions. When attacking an enemy-controlled cityship, you’ll have access to the new Valkyrie aircraft, and the Phoenix will be able to replace its secondary weapon with bombs for making attack runs over enemy tank formations. When defending your own bases, you’ll need to help allied AA turrets shoot down waves of aircraft, including the new Serpent multirole - heavier than the Kobold drones, the Serpent is protected by a shield generator and can be equipped for both anti-air and ground-attack operations.
What type of feedback have you gathered from the first public demo? Has any of the feedback encouraged changes to the game so far?
I’ve had two sources of feedback so far - charts on Steam, and comments on Steam, Reddit and Twitter. The main chart I’ve been keeping an eye on is overall playtime, as this helps to inform where players are hitting obstacles and quitting the game due to frustration or boredom; one of these that I knew would cause problems is the tutorial, but I’ve been really pleasantly surprised to see how many people have played my tiny little demo for over an hour! I’ve also been reaching out to people about bugs they’ve faced and critiques they have, and I’ve been using this to work on bug fixes, improved keyboard and mouse support, and quality of life features. I’ve heard a lot of different opinions on the flight model, and I’m making a lot of iterative tweaks to it based on people’s comments on the way the Phoenix feels to them. I’m looking forward to putting out more updates and hearing what the players think as Nova Squadron changes and expands!
Thanks for joining me for this interview. I appreciate it and will be looking forward to seeing the game's development. Good luck!
Thanks again for having me! It’s always great to hear that people have been enjoying playing Nova Squadron, and I sincerely hope that the upcoming updates live up to everyone’s expectations. I can’t wait to show you all of the content I’m working on, and see people playing through the new missions for the first time!
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.