Gaming War — Picking Membraine Studios on Digital Miniatures

Fractured Empire

Here’s a tasty treat for those who handled enough miniature lead in the past to initiate a class-action lawsuit. Fresh-faced Australian developer Membraine Studios are bringing to the table — or away from it, depending on what awful shade of contextual punning you’re comfortable with — a digital version of Steel Crown Productions’ Exodus Wars miniature wargame. It’s early days for the title, designated Fractured Empire, but the small team are dedicated to bringing that same level of physicality and satisfaction found pushing models across the flock to the digital sphere. I managed to join Josh, Mark and Glenn of Membraine at the front for a hefty and detailed look at Fractured Empire and the transition from tabletop to PC, Linux, Mac and eventually tablet.

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Let me start by saying congratulations on the project and what I suspect will be a rather coveted piece of software upon final release. Is Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire the debut project for Membraine Studios?

Josh: Thank you. Membraine Studios was formed in 2009 and on day one we all agreed that we wanted to make a turn-based strategy wargame. Before nailing our first “casual” game concept (which was Orbital Defence for iPhone), we brainstormed ideas for a turn-based game, which was very tabletop-like from the outset. Without a doubt, Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire is the result of that work, so while Fractured Empire isn’t our first released project, it was definitely the first project we designed as a team.

Fractured Empire

In developing a miniature property into a video game, what are some of the key aspects you need to consider? Is it as straightforward as importing virtual units and applying the same rule sets as the game’s physical counterpart, or is there more to it than that?

Josh: That was the plan, but it became clear immediately that there are abstractions that don’t translate to PC gaming — and indeed vice-versa. From an art standpoint, proportions are exaggerated to be recognizable at a 6mm scale, so most of the units look a bit strange at “true scale” (such as rivets on tanks that are 50cm across). However, it should not be understated just how vital having solid reference material to work from is — we get to utilize the work that Steel Crown Productions have done to date, and that accelerates our asset pipeline immensely.

For the rules and user interface, we’re trying our best to follow the rules; however, we will likely diverge (hopefully only slightly) where a change would drastically improve usability, communication or gameplay in the PC game context. We really do not want players of Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire on PC to feel that they have to read a rulebook to play. The challenge there is one of communication, and we’ll be tweaking, changing and even overhauling parts of our game and UI to make sure it “feels right”.

One of the great gains from our new “Minecraftian” sales model is that we can obtain user feedback today and improve our game every week. The response so far has been fantastic, and our job now is to improve the game, make it more appealing (that is, give players more to do), and attract even more players and obtain more feedback. It’s going to be a long, hard road, but if you have to work hard…it may as well be on a on something you love working on.

Glenn: Scale is critical and we gain a lot of freedom in the digital space to grow the game, which is impractical in a tabletop environment. We are also able to speed up the gameplay as moving units is incredibly user friendly and intuitive, whereas moving models on the table can be clumsy and time consuming. Having freedom of scale in a digital medium is really exciting, but we also need to ensure that this growth doesn’t break the core game rules.

As Josh mentioned, we utilise the Exodus Wars models as a base, but we are creating a game that looks good at true scale, or at least a heroic version of true scale. We gain some advantages from being able to take the details of the 6mm digital sculpts, and the design work done by Steel Crown Productions gives us an amazing base of races, armies and unit designs to draw from. Unfortunately, though, being model designs means we need to do a lot of work to bring assets into the game. Things like infantry, for example just don’t work; the table top models are 6mm high and their proportions are extremely exaggerated for casting and also to be recognizable and distinct at such a small size. Basically, we need to create totally new assets suitable for real scale that reflect the design intentions of the 6mm models.

Also, the battlefields provide us with much greater freedom and scale than the tabletop, and generally act as the main character for a game, so we are quite excited about the possibilities for the game universe within the digital space.

Mark: We’ve been heavily engaged in the Exodus Wars gameplay testing process for the tabletop game, so we really know the tabletop game very well. Added to this is the fact we’ve all been massive tabletop wargaming fans since we were kids — I personally started wargaming playing PanzerBlitz with my dad in the early ’80s, and later moved into sci-fi and miniatures wargaming with the first edition of Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader in the late ’80s — so we’re not only really into the detail of the Exodus Wars universe and its rules, but we’re also highly conversant with many of the tabletop systems that have influenced Exodus Wars’ development, like Warmaster, Blitzkrieg Commander and Epic 40,000. The result is that we have, or at least we think we have, a really good feel for what elements make for an exciting, fun and accessible yet challenging wargame — and Exodus Wars has everything we look for and very, very little that we don’t.

We get to put our own spin on Exodus Wars, too, most notably in terms of the computer version’s user interface, which the Alpha feedback received so far indicates is highly intuitive. We’ve had some QA testers come to Fractured Empire without ever having played an interleaving-style, activation-based, orders-oriented TBS game, and they’re telling us that, even without a tutorial of any kind, they were able to get the gist of the system pretty quickly and have a fun game. We reckon that’s a pretty major achievement for a wargame of this type so, if nothing else, we’re chuffed that we get to blow our trumpets about our “super-intuitive” UI.

Fractured Empire

Tell me more about the technology behind Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire. What engine are you using? What’re some of the interesting versatilities you’re building into the game – given the wide variety of release platforms you’re aiming for.

Josh: I’ll try to be brief because I love talking software architecture and could go on for days.

We’re using the Unity3D Engine which supports PC, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS and Flash Player, and even Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii if you have the finances to develop for those platforms. I consider our Unity3D project as the “front end” of Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire.

We’re implementing the ruleset and other “core” or “logic” features in C# and C++ in an effort to make them as portable as possible. By decoupling the game logic from the front-end (as much as we can — they are pretty closely entwined), we can promote a few things, such as more effective testing, re-usability and, potentially down the line, support for modding to various degrees.

The final piece of the puzzle is our online back-end — the user account system, statistics tracking, and so on. Although it does split our time considerably, we’re hoping to create a social hub for Fractured Empire where you can share army lists, discuss strategies, commentate replays and challenge friends, all from FracturedEmpire.net.

Again, this is all looking into the future stuff and the timeframe is dependent on a range of factors, but it’s fair to say we have HUGE plans for Fractured Empire.

What’s been the reaction and feedback you’ve received thus far on Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire?

Glenn: The feedback has been amazing. Now we have a playable build and we have shown we can make this game, people are really getting excited. It’s amazing the things people are picking up and reporting to us. I am constantly surprised and inspired to add content and push the visuals because I know there is already an enthusiastic group of people who are really keen to see what we do next. That is just unbelievable — it gets you out of bed in the morning, that’s for sure!

Mark: Yeah, absolutely. Like Glenn says, the response has been beyond fantastic — we could not have asked for more. The game’s only at Alpha now and has only been available for a few weeks, so there are of course bugs being reported, but every bit as important as the bugs are the suggestions we’ve seen for how the game might be improved. We’ve been staying as responsive as possible when we receive feedback and implementing the best ideas as quickly as we can, and this has helped our Alpha QA team (which is anyone who pre-orders the game) to remain engaged and continue to provide great feedback.

Fractured Empire gets better and better every day as a result, and we’re incredibly grateful for that.

The feedback has gone beyond the computer game on occasion, too. One example that springs to mind was a request for the inclusion of a representation of “tank shock” within the game. The Exodus Wars rules did not, at that time, actually have rules to represent tank shock, but the idea resonated strongly with us, so we raised it with Tom Webb at Steel Crown Productions. He was likewise enthused by the concept, and together we devised Tank Shock rules that are now present in the 6mm tabletop game.

Fractured Empire

Traditional wargaming hasn’t changed much in its transition to the digital game sphere. We still see the hexes and the chits. Miniature gaming, however, seems to not have had such a populous shift to the PC or consoles. We’ve seen the popular Warhammer 40K franchise exist as a thematically-true yet mechanically-antithetical real-time tactical game, amongst other genre interpretations. Membraine Studios are pretty much creating a classic miniature game in digital format. Is it an untapped market? Business incentives to separate consumers aside, why do you think we’ve not seen as much transition towards video games for miniature and tabletop franchises?

Josh: Ultimately, Mark, Glenn and I all want to play tabletop wargames, but due to a lack of time or excessive distance, family commitments or what have you, it’s often just not possible. The original discussion that became Fractured Empire was along the lines of “What if we could play this online? In real-time or even passing turns in a play-by-email style?”

Once we had the prototype up and running, we realised something else — the game works really well as a PC game. The Alpha is rough, the interface is undesigned and the mechanics are dense…but man is it fun! We have this critical mass of features that need to go in before people can really enjoy it, but can you imagine how cool it will be when you can design your army, deploy it on the battlefield and dominate your opponents in multiplayer?

And that’s not the end of it! How about multiplayer online campaigns? How about tournaments, online trophy cases and grudge matches? We have so many amazing ideas…we just need the community’s support to get there. So tell your friends and get them to pre-order!

Glenn: I think it’s hard with miniatures, to be honest. I think with things like Dawn of War, for example, it’s easier to see that great Games Workshop IP applied to an established formula that has already been proven successful in the industry, such as Relic did when they based Dawn of War 2 on Company of Heroes. I think that is fairly easy for people to get their wallets out for that, so it’s more of a safe bet. It’s harder with a less well known IP, proposing a PC game that is totally different to anything they have seen before. I think it’s harder to convince people to part with their cash for something they will need to take some time to understand. To mitigate that, our aim is to make the gameplay intuitive and easy to understand so people can focus on mastering the tactical warfare we all love.

Do you think there’s much overlap between miniature gamers and those who play video games, especially when it comes to games such as the one you’re creating? Is convenience a big factor?

Josh: I think it’s a generational thing. If you’re in your 30s, you probably grew up in a time where tabletop games (including board and card games) offered a comparable or even superior experience to video games.

For myself, aged 27, I was really in the transitional period. I played Battletech with mates on weekends and Mechwarrior 2 by myself on weeknights. I played Warhammer 40k at tournaments and also competed on the Starcraft ladder. I just love gaming, whether it’s slaughtering knaves in Chivalry: Medieval Warfare or drafting a sweet curve in Magic: The Gathering.

In the last five to ten years, video gaming has become more social, closing the gap with tabletop games on that front while also offering something increasingly important — convenience, which you mentioned.

So where does Fractured Empire fit in? Our dream is that it becomes a gateway for people — tabletop gamers get to experience large-scale online gaming that feels familiar and PC gamers get to experience the amazing tactical nature of a well-engineered tabletop game. Or a gateway to rekindle friendships from long ago with gamers that have moved away. We also think that, once army building and online modes are available, it will trigger nostalgia for anyone who spent hours and hours tweaking army lists to take to a tournament or just to demolish their friends.

Mark: Yeah, I agree. I would say gamers tend to be gamers, so people who enjoy tabletop wargames most likely enjoy computer games as well. The larger market for us, though, is computer wargamers who we think will enjoy the challenge Fractured Empire brings — and who would probably enjoy tabletop wargaming if they had the opportunity to give it a go. Whichever way you look at it, though, convenience is a huge factor. Everyone is busy and it feels like we’re all getting a lot busier every day. I have three kids, so I tend to get zero time for things like gaming until after 8pm, and by that time you and your would-be local opponents tend not to be in the mood for wargaming.

For me personally, then, one of the biggest motivators for wanting to make Fractured Empire has been that it will ultimately enable me to get my tabletop wargaming fix against anyone in the world, at any time that suits me, and without having to pack my armies and terrain and rule books. I’ll still play actual tabletop games whenever I can because of all the great things tabletop gaming offers (collecting, modelling and painting, not to mention the personal contact, beers and pretzels), but it will be fantastic to know that I can get much of what I love about tabletop wargaming on my PC, any time I want it (and my wife will let me have it).

Fractured Empire

Glenn: I think there is some overlap, and definitely ease of play has a lot to do with it, but, for me personally, I will play any kind of game that I find engaging, easy to understand and challenging, so, for me, I don’t really think it matters to PC games that the game is based on tabletop rules, what matters I think is that the core experience is challenging and fun.

You only need to look at the explosion of iOS boardgames to see there’s a big opportunity rising to expand markets. How important has the rise of the tablet and particular iOS gaming been to miniature gaming? Are we yet to see a similar acceleration?

Mark: I think miniatures gaming could benefit from the kind of surge other genres have seen as touch interfaces have taken off, but — as it stands right now — I would guess tabletop wargaming will continue to be ignored. Maybe that will change if Fractured Empire goes on to become a huge success and suddenly we’re not the only ones noticing this gap, but right now it seems no one’s looking at it.

While we have not yet formally announced our plans for Fractured Empire on iOS and Android tablets, we know the demand is there — because they write to us and let us know they want tablet support — so it is quite literally only a matter of time until you see Fractured Empire on tablets.

Josh: Fractured Empire is a game we want to play. Being a small team with very small overheads and, ultimately, acceptable levels of risk, we have the ability to make a play for this space.

Finally, what’s the next big step in development for Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire?

Glenn: Online real-time multiplayer!

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I’ll be providing a preview of Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire soon, but until then, you can find more information at the official site. Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire is currently in alpha-purchase for $10 for PC, Mac and Linux. You can also follow Membraine Studios on Twitter and Facebook.

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