Interview: “Terra Invicta” Developer Johnny Lumpkin
Somewhere – I like to believe – there is a fan-made Game Developer Top Trumps deck…
Among the legends, the greedy and the fallen – players hail “Ocean Software!” and “Fireforge!”. I believe that this fabled deck holds a high-level developer that takes on giant, grand strategy universes, and builds teams of war-hardened developers that hammer out powerful mods, and masses of beautiful code with nothing but their vice-like grip on vintage sci-fi, signed copies of “I am Spock“, and poetic scrawls of advanced mathematics. Jaws drop as the card is drawn from the deck; the demi-God of grand strategy game development clutched aloft in the victor’s hand…
Editor’s note: You show me a better intro than that, and I’ll give you $20.
That overpowered, behemoth of a game developer would no doubt be Johnny Lumpkin – or johnnylump to the rest of us. His modding prowess bringing forth the self proclaimed “Long Warriors” the famous Long War mod for Firaxis‘ XCOM game.
Johnny went on to build further mods alongside Firaxis, and always with the help of an incredible, dedicated team of developers alongside him.
We were very fortunate to have a quick sit down with Johnny Lumpkin, amid the global chaos around us, and in the final throes of the Terra Invicta Kickstarter… Pavonis Interactive‘s latest charge.
Thanks for joining us, Johnny, as we enter the final days of your Kickstarter… which has rocketed its way past your $20,000 goal on day one and is well on its way to $170,000 with over 3000 backers! Awesome stuff. It looks like you got the majority of backers early on; no doubt from your huge Long War following?
Thank you! Typically Kickstarters show the biggest growth in the first days and the last ones. The final surge comes when Kickstarter sends out reminder emails at the 48-hour mark to people who have expressed interest in the project. We’re eager to find out where we end up.
We do think Long Warriors are definitely part of our core audience, although we also jumped genres a bit in that we left turn-based tactics for grand strategy, so we think we’re gaining a following from 4X and grand strategy players. Hopefully lots of people are like me and their tastes span both types of games.
You have said in the past that you started out by modding games, but was XCOM where you cut your teeth… or had you dabbled with other games before?
In the 1980s I remade the entire storyline of “Aliens” as a game with Adventure Construction Set on my Apple IIc. I programmed here and there for fun and worked on a space game in Pascal for my friends in college. Made and posted a module for Neverwinter Nights in 2006, but Long War was on another scale entirely, with a big team handling all kinds of tasks.
Were Firaxis helpful during Long Wars mod development?
For Long War, in addition to taking notice and talking about us, they reached out when they heard we were expanding our voice acting to pass on some unused voice files for a popular character in-game, and gave us some additional info on how to process original voiceover work from our volunteers so it fit with the default VOs (voice overs) that came with the game.
Long War 2, meanwhile, was done in close collaboration with Firaxis. We frequently chatted with their technical lead about issues we were running into or additional functionality that would support mods. They were great to work with every step of the way.
What changed for you (and the team you were working with) when you got the call from 2K / Firaxis to partner up and make mods for XCOM 2?
Personally, I was wrapping up a PhD and wondering what I was going to do next, so when they contacted us about paying work, I jumped at it. Then began the steps of going from hobbyists to pros by forming a proper company and formalizing how we worked.
What was the most difficult – but most rewarding – mod you pulled off?
Long War 2, by a mile. Riffing off the XCOM 2 guerrilla war storyline with a bunch of new mechanics involved some significant code changes, but we felt we successfully did for XCOM 2 what Long War did for XCOM — honor the main gameplay and narrative while widening the scope and challenges for players who wanted an epic experience.
Does the game’s community play an important role in the modding process, or do you start out with an internal plan that you try to stick with?
For the first Long War, we didn’t have a plan at all, because we didn’t know what was technically possible. Our technical lead figured out new tricks to mod in new features to XCOM, and we’d then design around them. Feedback came in and we incorporated it into our overall thinking.
As bad a rap as Internet comment feeds receive, the Long War community was great. They’d post long essays, offer evidence from their play, and have actual discourse on strategy and balance. Their posts were a delight to read and participate in, and they directly influenced our developing of the game.
Long War 2 was a little different, because we had to do most of the work before it was announced. We had a small team composed primarily of people from the original Long War days, including some of the people who didn’t participate in developing code or art, but were some of our favorite playtesters. We did implement feedback from the wider set of players after it was released, but it was much more of a traditional development process.
Your work has been praised by the likes of – to name a few – Wired, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and PC Gamer. Even Jake Solomon was quoted saying XCOM was “a 20-hour tutorial for Long War”. With so much positivity around your work, what has truly been your proudest moment in your professional journey so far?
That’s tough to say. The support of Jake and the Firaxis team is definitely a highlight — it really taught me that game developers really like to see one another succeed and don’t regard games as a … zero-sum game, I guess. Beyond that, all the feedback we’re getting on Terra Invicta is amazing.
People are putting up real money because the story we’re telling is capturing their imaginations. That’s thrilling and also daunting; we do feel an incredible responsibility toward them to make sure we get them the experience they have signed up for.
On to Terra Invicta, which looks to become an incredible success. What unique aspects can players expect that they might not see in other similar grand strategy games?
A couple of features spring to mind: One, you have your councilors, who are something like a party in an RPG and function as your proxies on Earth. They are characters you develop while you send them to manipulate world affairs. So instead of some nameless overlord directly interacting with nations and other game elements, you have people doing that work and putting themselves in harm’s way to do it.
Beyond that, I’d say there aren’t many grand strategy or 4X games that stay exclusively in the Solar System. You jump from Earth-based games like Civilization or Hearts of Iron, straight to interstellar empire games like Stellaris or Master of Orion. In the latter type of games, your homeworld is just a busier version of the colonies you are trying to develop.
Terra Invicta covers the time in between; humanity, under the threat of an alien invasion, will establish a real foothold in space, on Mars and in Asteroid Belt and on the gas giant moons. But what you build in space is not what you are managing on Earth — outposts of a few dozen to a few thousand people can’t compare with what it takes to direct and protect billions on the homeworld. So we have different mechanics and goals that feed into the overall simulation.
The Solar System strategic map can be scaled according to how complex a game the player wants (and can handle with their hardware). How was this mapping developed – and were there any shortcuts… or just long nights at the office?
Wonderful, beautiful math! And publicly available astronomical databases. We use what are called Keplerian orbital elements to build the Solar System. Seven numbers and the current time can locate any space object on an elliptical orbit.
(Purists will note we’re not doing a more perfect n-body simulation, which is far more computationally intensive and probably asking too much of your CPU. But we’re close enough for our needs.)
Habitats – or habs – play a hugely important role in the player’s faction. Which of the hab modules do you think players will consider the most valuable for progression?
One of the goals in the game is for the player to industrialize space. That means transitioning away from reliance on resources hauled up from the bottom of Earth’s gravity well and instead using what you can extract from asteroids and moons. The module that does that combines a mine and an electromagnetic catapult to fling the mined ore into your resource pool.
The R&D in strategy games can be a “make of break” for some players. Has this been one of the most difficult aspects to get right?
We’re trying to actually separate the R from the D to make the decision set a little more interesting than picking one tech at a time and waiting for it to finish. Terra Invicta has global scientific principles that all of humanity researches at once, and you as a player can decide how much effort to contribute to them. Or you can put your efforts into developing private engineering projects that directly benefit your faction, at the expense of the world’s overall technological process slowing and you not having a say in where it goes.
It’s a bit more complex than a traditional tech system, but the projects are really open-ended in what we can do with them.
Some factions in the game will work against human resistance and side with the alien invaders for their own gain. Though the majority of players will be thrilled to play as the resistance, have you had encouraging feedback about playing as the “invader sympathiser”?
Yes. We’re seeing some people already do a bit of lighthearted role-playing, arguing the aliens really are here to help us. It’s great.
As a player – what will you enjoy most about playing Terra Invicta?
Because I know what’s going on underneath the hood, probably the most satisfying moments for me will be when I see things happen that I didn’t directly script or otherwise expect. The game has a bunch of smaller systems interacting with each other; sometimes those systems will generate events I wouldn’t have predicted.
I’m sure this sounds twisted, but I felt a little burst of pride for the AI when it, via North Korea, launched an ICBM at my hometown of Dallas, Texas, during a playtest.
I’m sure there have been huge accomplishments along the way, but what was the biggest high five moment so far… any incidents where you managed to solve a real time vampire of a problem?
I had to look at our code and check with our lead dev to see if I could come up with a good story, and I’m afraid I can’t. It’s a credit to our original architecture that we’ve been able to adapt it to things that have come along.
I guess getting some of our ECS working again through a significant Unity upgrade was a challenge, but that’s not a terribly sexy story, just reading docs and looking up things on Stack Exchange, and being relieved when we got it compiling again.
Has there ever been a moment of doubt where you thought you had all bit off more than you could chew… if so, at what point did this happen?
Oh, self-doubt is always there. It keeps me honest; even though I’m leading the project I’m always aware there are people on the team who are better at their job than I could ever be. So I lay out the vision and help them do their jobs as best I can. And when I’m unsure about things, we talk and work toward a consensus.
For most game creators there was a moment very early on when they became enamoured with a particular genre. For you this seems to be alien invasion/grand strategy. What was the catalyst for this do you think?
I think it’s probably a synthesis of multiple things. My love of science fiction goes back to seeing Star Wars at age four in 1977. Geopolitics and history come from talking with my late grandfather, a World War II fighter pilot turned Texas oilman, as I was growing up. Video games I remember from the 80s include Balance of Power, Strike Fleet and Earth Orbit Stations.
The first grand strategy game I played was the original Victoria; I remember being delighted at the idea you could simulate a period of history in that level of detail. The first alien invasion game I really loved was the original X-Com from the 90s — sort of this mix of the X-Files and Starship Troopers, set in the modern day.
Some game developers admit that their (overactive creative) mind wanders to other game ideas as they get into the process of game development. Has this happened to you, and what was the strangest game idea that popped in there?
Probably the wildest game I thought of would be something like a space pirates game, where the setting is kind of a unscripted 4X empires game played entirely by a bunch of aggressive AIs, and you’re just flying around trying to survive in it. I’m not sure how strange that is, though; it’s probably already on Steam somewhere.
More about Pavonis Interactive & Terra Invicta: Twitter, Facebook, Website, Kickstarter, Steam
|Kickstarter||Ends October 29th 2020|
|Release Date||Summer 2021|
|Genre||Grand Strategy, Space, 4X|