Interview with Tom Hancocks

Tom Hancocks, who is developing the new game engine for Cosmic Frontier, has been putting a huge amount of work into that lately, and this on top of campaign promotion activities (not to mention his regular job!), but he found some time to answer some questions about himself for this update.

Before we go on, please check out, if you haven’t already, our previous interview with Nolan Markey, the composer of the new Override theme.

Now, on to the interview: —

What was your first experience with the Escape Velocity games?

Tom: I was first introduced to the series through EV Nova when I was about 14. I remember finding it on one of the magazine discs, though I can’t for the life of me recall which. I started playing it and pretty much fell in love with the game immediately. I dedicated so much time to that game, playing through each of the storylines, exploring the galaxy, conquering worlds and creating plugins for myself.

I didn’t learn of the existence of the other games until a few years after that, and by that point there wasn’t really any way for me to play EV Classic or Override.

I’ve played all the games now, but I’m ashamed to say I still have never actually done full playthroughs of EV Classic or Override.

What other games do you think had a formative impact on you?

That’s a tricky one. I played a fair number of games, but in terms of ones that had a lasting impact? The Pokémon games for certain, and probably the Jedi Knight games. Particularly with the latter, I absolutely used to love making maps and mods for those games.

Tell us about your background in software development.

I started programming when I was about 8 or 9. I found a copy of REALbasic on a disc (though I can’t for the life of me remember what disc it was). It came with a single 10-page tutorial for making a text editor. I taught myself to program using REALbasic for the next 5 or 6 years before eventually moving to Objective-C and Cocoa.

When I was 16, I started developing a program called TuneBar. It was an iTunes Controller, allowing you to control iTunes using a mixture of hotkeys and a controller that slid out from beneath the menu bar, and get notifications of the currently playing song. I developed and maintained it for probably 3 or 4 years, before Apple began to include some of the same features into iTunes itself.

I did some freelance contract work with macOS and iOS development before going to Cardiff University and studying Computer Science. After I completed my degree I became a fulltime iOS developer. I’ve worked on a variety of projects, ranging from low-level hardware interaction to e-commerce systems to financing apps to media platforms.

What prompted you to start a project to create a modernised EV engine?

This is one of the difficult-to-answer questions, as there were so many factors in this, and I stopped and started the project so many times due to other things in life taking over.

The biggest contributing factors were, in somewhat chronological order, the desire to create a Cocoa-based plugin editor for EV Nova, the release of Mac OS X Snow Leopard (start of the 64-bit transition), Ambrosia Software’s April Fool jokes about EV Nova coming to iPad and the transition away from HFS+.

All of these had various contributions towards my desire to create a modernised EV engine.

I should also mention that I kept looking for equivalents online, but none of them really stuck out to me as something I’d want to play, but I don’t know much that really contributed.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in developing an engine that has to interpret so many old and disused file types for a range of modern systems?

Obsolescence of technology is always difficult to deal with. Apple in particular is very difficult. Whenever they deprecate anything they gradually make its documentation increasingly difficult to access. When they consider it fully obsolete they practically expunge any trace of it from their documentation and website.

The file formats and types themselves are not really that much of an issue, once you can work out the structure of them, but some of the resource formats such as PICT, rlëD and cicn have been nightmares to get working. There are so many different edge cases to consider. The problem is over the era that these formats were used, computer graphics and memory were improving at breakneck speeds, and thus these formats cater for a wide range of graphical capabilities.

We understand that getting involved in this Kickstarter project has been just one of the major changes to your life over the past year …

Yes, last June my daughter was born, and in January my wife and I got married. Any one of these things is a major undertaking… maybe I’m a little insane for biting off more than is probably reasonable.

It’s been a great year though. Experiencing the world with my daughter as she learns and discovers new things is absolutely incredible.

Your goals for the Kestrel engine create lots of potential for modders and developers in the future. What aspects of this potential are most exciting for you, and which do you think will attract the most interest from the audience?

The Kestrel Engine is the platform that provides the facilities of reading and writing resources, rendering sprites, as well as offering a Lua Scripting environment to control all of it. Cosmic Frontier itself is being written in Lua, and those scripts are stored in resources just like any other bit of data that the game uses, such as ships, sprites or missions.

This means that modders will have access to all of the same tools for creating mods, as we’ve had for building the game. There is no reason that ambitious modders shouldn’t be able to introduce new functionality into the game to support and bring their ideas to life.

One idea for a mod that I have, which should give an indication as to what should be possible is introducing the ability for hyper jumps to fail, causing your ship to become stranded in interstellar space. You’d have to wait for fuel to replenish, repairs to complete or maybe you get attacked by pirates?

Quite possibly the most exciting thing for me is knowing that modders will be able to take the Kestrel Engine and build their own games using exactly the same tools as they would when creating a mod. It kind of brings a new meaning to the term Total Conversion.

Interview with Nolan Markey

An interview with the man behind the Cosmic Frontier theme music, as first published on our Kickstarter page

One of the biggest contributions made to this project so far has been its new theme music, which you can hear on our trailer video. Its composer is Nolan Markey, who has agreed to answer some questions for us about the music, his career and his love of EV.

What impact did the original Escape Velocity games make on you?

Nolan: The original games had a huge influence on me. EV: Override was actually the first video game I ever played. My family didn’t have a computer at the time, so when I went over to a friend’s house and he showed the game to me it absolutely blew my mind. When Nova came out it became my new favorite, and I must have played through all of the mission strings at least a dozen times. Escape Velocity sparked a massive interest in science fiction.  Once I discovered Star Trek and Dune, I was all in.

Nolan at work
Nolan at work

How did you become involved in the film music business, and where else might people have heard your work?

I actually went to college to study composing music for film at CSU Northridge – one of very few schools that offer that as an undergraduate major. My first real music job was as an intern for Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, and a trillion other incredible projects).  Eventually, through circumstance, I started working for Kevin Kiner as an orchestrator for Star Wars: Rebels and The Clone Wars and that’s where things really started to take off! You can actually hear some of my music on the final season of Clone Wars. I was honored to get the chance to write for such a fun show and with such an incredible team of people.

Can you tell us about the process of composing and recording the new Override theme music?

Well, when I saw that Override was going to be rebooted I about jumped out of my seat. The EV games have a history of using licensed music instead of original compositions, and this seems like a great opportunity to help give Override a distinct musical identity. I know it should be big and orchestral and heroic, and that was my starting point. I played around with a few melodic ideas, and finally came up with a main theme, as well as a more sinister motif for the Voinians.The new theme was recorded a while back in Hungary with Budapest Scoring. I’ve been working with them for years, and I knew they’d be able to handle something tough like Override. We actually got the entire theme recorded in less than 30 minutes, and the rest is history! I usually work with them remotely via internet stream, which tends to save a lot on airfare.

Aside from Cosmic Frontier, what future project are you most excited about?

If only I was allowed say! I have a handful of very exciting projects in the works that I can’t announce yet, but they’re all wildly different and run the gamut from games to animation to live action films. Most recently, I was fortunate enough to write a main theme for Beyond the Western Deep, an ongoing fantasy comic written by my good friend Alex Kain.

Thanks again to Nolan, and Budapest Scoring, for contributing such a stunning theme, and good luck with those top secret future projects!

The road so far … and re-scaling

It’s been over six months since I announced on reddit my intention to re-release Override.

A lot’s happened since then. Most important has definitely been making contact with snijj (aka Tom Hancocks), who had already been working for some years on the foundations of a new EV engine. Both of us were at a point where we were keen for a project like this, and we were able to reach an agreement very quickly.

Perhaps less productive, but equally necessary, were a series of attempts to track down and contact and then have various discussions with other involved parties, including Matt Burch (Escape Velocity’s creator), and representatives of Ambrosia Software and ATMOS. In an ideal world, we would have liked to re-release all the Escape Velocity games on the new engine, beginning with the original. Regrettably, we were not able to reach agreements to that end, and even had to drop the ‘EV’ title itself. However, we’ll see what the future brings in this connection: if our initial project is successful, perhaps the rights-holders for the other EV scenarios will reconsider.

All that meant that it wasn’t until the start of 2020 that we finally had a clear picture of what exactly our project was going to be, and were in a position to plan out what we needed to do ahead of a Kickstarter campaign.

The upshot of all this is that most of my time spent on the Cosmic Frontier project so far has amounted to work as a producer — that is, doing whatever needs to be done to make the project happen (or get someone else to do it) — rather than as a developer. Most of what development time there’s been has been turned towards broad foundational thinking about what needs to be changed, what should not change, what may change, or be added, etc. Should the Kickstarter campaign go well, I am looking forward to being able to change focus back towards the nuts and bolts of scenario design.

That being said, I can show you one area in which I’ve done some design work. Something that’s always obvious when replaying any EV game on a modern display, even at less than full resolution, is that the sizes seem off. Even the largest ships seem small, and weapons ranges seem shorter (even if they are the same in pixel terms).

Thanks to my public release of them many years ago, we still have access to all the original ship models. Most likely, and especially if we hit our ‘Graphical Upgrade’ stretch goal, these will not be the final models used for the release version, but it’s extremely valuable to have them. I was able to refamiliarise myself with a lot of old habits while re-rendering them at new scales.

Ships in EV games have never been displayed in direct proportion to their supposed in-universe sizes, since they go from tiny fighters and shuttles up to enormous battleships, any of which might be piloted by a player. But modern displays and resolutions mean that it makes sense to go well beyond the 96×96 pixels that was typical for the largest ships in the original games. Essentially, the smallest ships have remained the same size (one or two have even got smaller), and the larger a ship is the more it has been scaled up: for example, the Arada has only gone from 48×48 to 56×56, while the U.E. Cruiser has gone from 96×96 to 160×160.

Below are some before-and-after screenshots (the same systems, not exactly the same lay-out of ships) to give an idea of the changes.

Sol system, before

Sol system, after

Bakka system, before

Bakka system, after

Mirava system, before

Mirava system, after

I still haven’t decided whether the scaling up has gone far enough! There’s certainly some room to make the larger ships bigger still. However, since we will probably be using new models for the ships in the release version, it doesn’t make sense to try to get to a final state right now.

And the screenshots throw up a bunch of other aesthetic questions that we’ll be looking at. For instance, planets in EV games have always been pretty small relative to ships, but the re-scaling probably puts it over the edge. New, larger planet graphics will certainly be needed. We need to decide what to do with the status bar: if it’s going to be extended down the whole right-hand side of the screen, that’s room for it to have new panels providing more information (but what exactly?). Even something as basic as the starfield could probably afford to look a bit more dynamic than the occasional white dot.

For now though, with the Kickstarter campaign imminent, my focus is on PR: spreading the word and fielding questions about the project as we attempt to drum up interest. Part of the value, and part of the challenge, of a project like this with a small team is that you have to do a lot things that fall outside your comfort zone.

In the future (and assuming a successful Kickstarter campaign), these development blogs will be at least bi-monthly, alternating with Tom’s to provide our backers with continual updates on our progress.