One of those games that you’ll need to keep your ear to the ground for those fans of SciFi, Interstellar Rift, has been steadily gaining popularity on Steam for the past couple of years that it has been in Early Access. First starting out the game was very basic and simple, likely too simple and basic to garner a full crowd of fans to truly elevate it to the top charts in Steam. However, over the years, the developers of this title has truly shown what responsible Early Access development is all about, and likely one of the few developers out there that I can say restores my faith in Early Access titles.
Split-Polygon, the producer of Interstellar Rift, remains a very untold company that keeps much of its information tight to the chest. In fact, most players may know some of the developers, but most don’t know who they are beyond a screen name or their roles. As we sit down with Hurles, one of the developers, I hope to ensure that we all have a better perspective of how this company operates and the man behind “Hurles”.
I chose Hurles for this interview because while he may be the most widely known developer, often seen playing around on the Official Test Server or other player-owned servers, shooting the breeze with the players, he is also the most elusive as far as what he does and his role within Split-Polygon. But all of the developers have something strange in common that you just don’t see with other companies — they play their own game, join servers, converse with the players, and even engage.
Chip: Can you give us some backstory on you, your role at Split Polygon, and your history with the company?
Joost (Hurles): My name is Joost Meulenkamp and I am 27 years old, I am from The Netherlands, and I have studied Game Architecture and Design at the NHTV in Breda. During this course, I made some friends, and after a couple of game jams and school projects, we decided we wanted to make a game. This was about 4 years ago. We tried a couple of other games first with a couple of different people, among which a platformer, which didn’t really work out. Eventually, we came up with the idea of a space simulator because most of us are sci-fi fans. At this time there were five people in the team and we started work on Interstellar Rift. After it started to really look like a game, we decided to turn it into a company, and Split Polygon was born.
Joost (Hurles): Today, I am the main UI artist/programmer at Split polygon, but I have some other duties as well. I am responsible for all of the UI, on the in-game screens and places like the main menu, ship editor, and other things. Additionally, I have made some models, and written some shaders, and created most of the particle effects.
Chip: How is Split Polygon run? Who owns it and who are the other influencers of the company? How does it operate?
Joost (Hurles): Split Polygon has 5 owners, including myself, and we are all equal partners. We currently have one extra employee and usually two to three interns. We design our games step by step with the whole team involved, and we look at the experience we want to have.
Chip: How do you decide what features are added and what features are trashed?
Joost (Hurles): We have a long list of planned features we want to add into the game and in which order, some of which are suggested by the community. Every two weeks, after releasing a patch, we sit down together and decide what our priorities are. Some features obviously do not fit in that two-week schedule, so we are usually split up to work on long term and short term goals. We also revise a lot of features, and bit by bit we go through everything that’s already there. We often add to existing features or even replace entire systems. There is also always the issue of keeping the game “the game”. So we might have features that are going to change things up a lot, and we try to dissect these and work our way towards them in smaller steps. As the game is still in early access this can cause issues with balance and might create certain gaps in the game where a feature is needed but not yet implemented.
Chip: What are the company’s ambitions?
Joost (Hurles): We are hopefully just at the dawn of Split Polygon, we want to explore different genres and build games that have a lasting playability. But most of all we want to build something we are happy to play. Interstellar Rift has come from us playing other games and seeing things that we would like to be able to do that those games could not. We are an indie developer so we can afford to be players first and foremost.
Chip: Do you plan on developing other games in the future or do you plan to focus exclusively on Interstellar Rift?
Joost (Hurles): We do plan on creating additional games which will probably enter early development while we finish up Interstellar Rift. But for the time being, we are still focusing on Interstellar Rift, which has still a lot of stuff in the pipeline waiting to be added.
Chip: What gave you guys the inspiration to use lockstepping as a networking and physics step method?
Joost (Hurles): We envisioned a game where players could build ships with vast amounts of onboard systems, and encounter waves of enemies in a world that would be running in the background. We soon realized that it would be very difficult to build something like this within the confines of a normal server based networking model. One where every system would need to be synced with every player, for every tick. To circumvent this problem we went for a system where the world would be sent to players as they joined a server or a friend’s game. After joining the game would just continue calculating everything locally for every client, with only the actions of the players being synced as they happened. Players themselves are still synced every tick to allow for onboard first person combat. What this allows us to do is have a galaxy which has thousands and thousands of real-time objects floating around and interacting with each other, without any strain on the network.
Chip: I hear there are a lot of Easter Eggs in the game — especially when it comes to you guys making inside jokes at each other. Do you care to explain a few of these?
Joost (Hurles): There’s a health and safety instruction on the back of the vending machine that is no help at all, telling you to basically not operate the device at all. Which is oddly fitting as we also still haven’t implemented its functionality, despite it being one of the oldest models in the game. There are also mentions of Big Paul’s Diner on signs on generated stations, (Paul being one of the programmers), and his name is also on one of the products in the vending machine.
Joost (Hurles): On every terminal in the game are the letters AGOS, which was the working title of the game, “A Game of Space”, although we redefined its meaning to say Adaptive Galactic Operating System, or simply “A Great Operating System.”
Chip: While it remains obvious that many stations and factions in the game represent the owners of Split Polygon, what is the story behind Sentinel’s “Fort Bragg”? I hear that there is more story than most would know.
Joost (Hurles): Haha. Well, you can ask him that one.
Chip: But, this is your interview (smiles).
Joost (Hurles): It’s basically a brag, ‘look at me I’m so big’. Sentinel likes to build enormous things and we tease him about it, so that’s where the name came from.
Chip: What upcoming features can we expect? Any Earth Shakers on the horizon?
Joost (Hurles): Automatization and drones are the big ones coming up, this will probably shape a lot of the game going forward. We will be rebalancing and redesigning a lot of the systems currently in place with regards to galaxy generation. It will be a gradual transition over multiple patches as we want to have a more natural way of supplying stations and players with goods. Drones will be used in a lot of ways, from making sure people behave in the no firing zone, to helping out players who are stranded without fuel, to name a few examples.
Chip: As we are both aware, Early Access has been suffering due to the game quality stigma of games such as StarForge. Is there anything you would like to say to those out there reading this interview and thinking, “That game sounds fun, but I don’t know if I should buy another EA game”.
Joost (Hurles): EA is a presented vision of the game which will hopefully be achieved when it finally launches. We like to be honest about it and tell players that what you buy right now might change in a lot of ways as we work our way forward. We encourage people to try the game, but there can be issues from time to time, and performance might not be what they would expect from a finished title. We like to try things out while we’re still in EA and iterate a lot. So if you are looking for a content complete title, and you want to be sure that your save will not be outdated in a couple of weeks you might want to hold out for the final release.
Joost (Hurles): The main issue which gives early access on occasion a bad name, are games that enter EA but whose development is abandoned after a certain period. Or whose developers made promises that they could never fully deliver on. For us, we think there are two good paths through early access, either one where you offer your game, more or less, as a service, with frequent updates and content patches. Or one where there’s only a very short amount of time spent in early access just to put the final touches on your game, and get good feedback before launch.
Joost (Hurles): The most difficult thing for games that have been in early access for longer periods of time is communicating to the players what the final product will be and what exactly they can expect from it. Players who have grown accustomed to getting constant updates, and who have formed an image of what they want the game to be can end up disillusioned by the end result. So it will be our job as well to give players the right information when the time comes.
Joost (Hurles): Overall though the strength of early access is the input, and connection, with the community that tries these games and is not afraid to give an opinion. Games are designed by the studios that make them, but these days they can be molded by the community, in a cycle of feedback and updates. Which is where early access shines.
Chip: Thank you for your time, Hurles!
In my closing statements and experiences with this title, I can say only this: When a studio places their passion and love for a game above the potential of profit and PR, you get a game that is enjoyable to any fan of the genre. That is exactly what Split-Polygon has done and that is why I believe this game is so unique and worthy of every reward that comes their way.