Nov 26, 2012

Posted in Features

Star Trek: Excalibur

Star Trek: Excalibur

By CAPT Michael D. Garcia & LT Joshua Benner, USS Gygax

For those not in the know, Star Trek: Excalibur is an ongoing project by the Excalibur team in an attempt to bring a former Bridge Commander mod into a whole new game; engine and all.  Using their custom-coded “Evolved” engine, the project members have been in development on this independent game for nearly four years.  The buzz on this upcoming release has lathered up a number of BC fans into a nail-biting frenzy as screenshots, reports, and other bits of news hit Twitter in order to stir the anticipation to an all-time high.

Mark Ward, the Creative Leader for Excalibur, agreed to answer a few questions for us.

Subspace Communicator Online: What is this project’s relationship to Activision’s Bridge Commander?

Mark Ward: We started out planning Excalibur as a total conversion for Bridge Commander but quickly realised that it couldn’t support the features we needed and started developing our own engine. Things like animations, advanced graphical effects and unrestricted space travel were all impossible to do, so we started working on Excalibur as a stand-alone title in late 2008.

SCO:  Is CBS raising any concerns with copyright or use of trademarked material?

Ward: We haven’t heard anything from CBS but they have a history of supporting the fan community and are very generous in terms of what they allow us to put together. We have always been very careful to make clear that what we are doing has absolutely no financial element to it at all; in fact we don’t even accept donations from fans! I am quite curious as to whether they have seen what we are doing and what they might think of it, but mainly I hope they take our efforts as a tribute to Star Trek.

The Steamrunner-class as rendered within Star Trek: Excalibur (Courtesy of Mark Ward, ST: Excalibur).

SCO:  How coupled is the engine’s mechanics to the Trek universe?  Could scripting/modding be used to implement other sci-fi backdrops/themes?

Ward: Our game engine is called “Evolved” and it makes use of several third-party modules like Bullet Physics and Awesomium. It is a very modular, flexible engine and we have designed it to handle different developer requirements, game genres and mechanics as easily as possible. Most of the actual game logic is written with Iron Python which makes it possible to change the game’s behaviour with nothing more than a plain text editor like Notepad++.

SCO:  How many programmers, artists, etc are involved?

Ward: The team is always growing, but in terms of active members we generally have around 30 to 40 at any one time. The project is only made possible by the free time which is given by skilled Star Trek fans who want to make the game happen.

Star Trek: Excalibur’s ship editor (Courtesy of Mark Ward, ST: Excalibur).

SCO: What’s been the hardest part of building this game?

Ward: So far the hardest part has been building a tool kit which is powerful but simple for developers to use. We have made a lot of progress with the tools we will use make our ships functional over the last few weeks and when I compare those to what we were working with on Bridge Commander it really proud of what the team has achieved.

A good example would be ship registries which have always been badly handled in Star Trek games. Bridge Commander relied on cutting huge chunks out of the hull and swapping the textures on them while Legacy relied on adding extra polygons hovering just above the hull which transparent maps could be added to. Our system allows people to literally drag and drop ship registries and decals onto the ship’s hull and to move, rotate or scale them at the click and drag of a mouse.

We are also having a lot of fun modifying how fast the ships can go, how quickly they can accelerate and how easy they are to turn at the moment. Again, whilst in Bridge Commander we had to make a tweak and load the entire game to try something out. By comparison on Excalibur we can pause the game at any time and drop into the toolkit to start tweaking engine values, in fact we can change anything on a ship in this way!

Combat within Star Trek: Excalibur will be as realistic as possible (Courtesy of Mark Ward, ST: Excalibur).

SCO:  What are some of the game play plots you have in mind for the game?

Ward: The plot of the game is a single story which follows the USS Excalibur and her crew on their first mission. You can read this post for more information. I would add that while that story is the end goal for our project it isn’t the most important goal. Our main aim here is to build a game which will allow talented Star Trek fans to create their own content and experiences as part of an enduring community.

SCO:  How easy would it be for the average user to write and implement a plot?

Ward: When the game reaches completion we will have a sand-boxed mission editor which, similar to the hardpoint editor we have been working on this year, will allow you to construct missions and stories which can be played through and tweaked within the game. The challenge with putting together good missions will always be coming up with original and enjoyable concepts for the story and of course putting together high quality voice acting etc, but beyond that we will make the process of setting up a mission as simple as possible.

The Danube-class runabout, as rendered within the Evolved engine for Star Trek: Excalibur (Courtesy of Mark Ward, ST: Excalibur).

SCO:  What level of “full immersion” are you reaching for?

Ward: The game play we are aiming for is a very natural one and that means that the player should be interacting with the game universe as they would with the real world. In Bridge Commander for example, the game relied on audio cues and UI feedback to tell you when your warp engines were about to be damaged, but this very often went unnoticed and you ended up unable to escape combat because your warp engines had already been damaged. In Excalibur we can control the illumination from different parts of the ship meaning that if a warp engine is about to go offline we can have it start flickering as a visual warning. This is very natural but it is also totally unmissable!  In a similar way we try to avoid gameplay functionality which takes you away from the game. Where as in Star Trek Legacy you can jump from one ship to another as if controlling the ships through telekinesis, in Excalibur you will have to take time to transport across to another ship and transfer command which makes it something you cannot do quickly whilst in combat.

SCO: As you mentioned earlier, you pursued Excalibur as a standalone game in late 2008; what would you say is a fair ballpark estimate of completion/release?

Ward: We don’t give estimates of completion because every member of the team is working in their own free time. How much we can complete in a six month period depends entirely upon how well we have anticipated the amount of work that needs to be done and whether a team member can actually give the required time to get something finished. We get a lot of negative comments from people when they hear that we can’t give a target date for completion, but when you consider that in the last year we have had team members dealing with anything from being made redundant at work, being evicted from their homes through to losing family members, it isn’t hard to understand why we can’t give a reliable date.

A Nova-class frigate is approaching standard orbit of a dead planet (Courtesy of Mark Ward, ST: Excalibur).

SCO:  Will you be opening up the game for beta testing?  How would someone apply for that?

Ward: There won’t be any beta testing. That said, and remembering that our main goal is to put together an empowered Star Trek modding community, it is safe to say that we won’t be waiting until every element of the game is in place before releasing something that can be played with and modded. If you were to ask ‘When will the game be finished?’ I’m afraid none of us know! But if you asked ‘when will we be able to play the game?’, that is something we are working towards right now.  (grins)

SCO:  Are you looking for people to join the team?  If so, what are you most needed positions right now?

Ward: We are always in need of talented individuals, if you are reading this and want to support our efforts please get in touch via contactus [at] stexcalibur [dot] com and let us know how you might be able to help. In particular we would be keen to hear from .net programmers, AI scripters, character artists and animators, ship texturers and Foley (sfx) artists.


We would like to thank Mark Ward and his team for providing us with exclusive screenshots of the upcoming game.  For more information on Excalibur, you can visit their website at http://stexcalibur.com.