Case Study: Stellar Tactics – ShiVa Engine

Case Study: Stellar Tactics

For years, Stellar Tactics has been on the radar of everyone in the ShiVa community as an exceptional project in terms of depth, visual fidelity, gameplay and scope. Game design veteran and Maverick Games founder Don Wilkins took the time to sit down with us and answer our question about his latest creation, his workflow, and the publishing process.

Hello Don Wilkins, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. First of all, congratulations on your game Stellar Tactics, which we think looks fantastic and has some really interesting gameplay to offer. In case there are still people in the ShiVa community who have not yet heard about Stellar Tactics, could you please tell us what this game is all about?

Greetings all! Stellar Tactics is a Sci-Fi RPG Sandbox. The game is a single player Space Opera, in some ways homage to the golden years of gaming – Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday, Sentinel Worlds, Fallout and others. I really enjoy Sci-Fi and RPGs and always felt that there weren’t enough games in the genre available. What I really wanted was a massive open world Sci-Fi RPG that incorporated turned-based ground combat, space exploration, a game that gave me the freedom to develop a crew and explore. Stellar Tactics has all of that. It is unique in that it has no end. You could spend your entire life exploring the universe and never visit every star system. The combination of Diablo-like loot, classless progression, crafting, trading, mining, drones and space combat all work together to create a world that you can live in, where you decide where to go, what to do and how to play the game. In my opinion, there is no other game like Stellar Tactics. But don’t just take my word for it, try it out yourself on Steam!

Stellar Tactics features gameplay and level design which is quite different from the average shooter or adventure game. How does your workflow look like?

Over the years, I’ve streamlined my workflow significantly. I’ve developed a number of process documents for level design workflow, character and animation pipelines to avoid the usual workflow errors. For example, when importing level geometry for environments, I usually chop the geometry into sub-meshes of around 20,000 polygons to improve baked lighting performance. I typically bake all light maps with shadows and then combine that with real time lights and shadows. I use a number of tools, like Maya, Reallusion, Ultimate Unwrap Pro (great tool!), and Audacity for audio. I do use asset stores for some items like level sets and general objects, however, I also outsource a lot of modelling, some animation, design and illustration when needed. I just can’t do everything.

How did you design the framework to support such a large large game world, and how did you solve the problems you encountered along the way?

The universe itself is based on a PRNG (Pseudo Random Number Generator). At the beginning of each game, the player types in an 8 digit seed. From that seed, I generate a universe database that contains all of the systems, system positions and star map data. Beyond that, the names of systems, procedural content including factions, character names, orbiting stations – pretty much everything is reliably recreated based on the universe position using the PRNG seed. All of this was written from scratch using the ShiVa API. I do rely on a number of DLLs for handling IO and various other non-API functions. One of the key benefits of using Shiva is the ease of use of the content pipeline and fast coding via Lua. I save a lot of time integrating assets. Initially however, the learning curve was intense. Fortunately, most of the API is documented, so I think the majority of the learning curve is just a matter of time spent coding and working with the various functions of the overall system. One of the most interesting things about working with Shiva is that 98% of everything I’ve needed from a coding standpoint is available in the API right now. I have yet to find an issue that I cannot work around and the support is excellent. I must have asked hundreds of questions over the years and the ShiVa team has always been there to answer! Thank you!

It is no secret that you are a veteran game developer. Which places and games have had the strongest influence on you, and how did your past games and experiences influence Stellar Tactics?

Working at Sir-Tech, Sierra and 3DO were some of the best times I had making games. If I had to pick a few games that really inspired Stellar Tactics, I would say the original Elite, Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday, Sentinel Worlds, the older UFO and XCom games, Fallout 1 and 2, and a bit of Jagged Alliance thrown into the mix.

I can imagine that the game development workflow has changed quite a bit from the beginning of your career until today. How is working with ShiVa compared to the decades that came before?

Overall, the tools are much better and significantly more powerful than what we had in the early days. In fact, many of the tools had to be built from scratch. Development team size was much smaller – 4 to 20 people working for a few years depending on the scope of the game. Many indie studios are very lean when it comes to staffing because the cost of salaries can completely de-rail development budgets. When I was looking for an engine, I needed a tool that had a powerful 3D SDK, built-in navigation and rapid asset pipeline. I was also looking at targeting multiple platforms and needed a powerful editor. Shiva had it all. With Shiva, the asset import pipeline is very easy to use. Once a model or asset is ready for import, it’s just a few clicks to get the content into the editor.

My biggest complaint related to Shiva is the lack of available debugging info for hard crashes. Packaging debug distribution EXEs and PDB files would likely be very helpful. If there is a hard crash in the core engine, it is very difficult to identify the cause – especially in a large project like Stellar Tactics. [ed. note: This interview was conducted before ShiVa offered debug engine binaries. We have since provided Don Wilkins with the requested files, and significantly improved game stability.]

Your title is the first ShiVa game to be released on Steam and GOG simultaneously. How do these two distribution platforms compare to each other, and which one would you recommend to new developers?

I self-publish Stellar Tactics. I find both platforms easy to work with. Steam gives me many more options as far as setting up my store page, updating store assets and materials. As a store front, they provide full self-service with access to all the features you would expect for self-publishing. Steam is the primary platform if you want exposure for your game. Overall, it accounts for 80-90% of all my sales. I think a lot of this is just a matter of how entrenched they are in the PC market and player mindset. If you play PC games, you have heard of Steam. They also do a very good job of putting games in front of players through search algorithms. I highly recommend Steam.

I really like GOG. I will say that they are rapidly gaining traction and they tend to attract more of a core gamer audience including those who are interested in older game styles and depth of game-play.

Steam and GOG are PC-first distribution platforms. Your game is currently Windows-only, but ShiVa supports a large number of target platforms. Would you ever consider porting Stellar Tactics to other systems like mobiles?

I’m planning to release a Linux version at or just after the game is completed. As far as mobile, no plans at this time. I think the game would need a major UI and input overhaul to make everything work well. I may also need to scrap some features and certainly scale down the scope of the universe.

Thank you very much for the interview! We wish you all the best with Stellar Tactics as well as your future endeavours! Please remind us again where everyone can get the game and when it’s out of Early Access?

You can find Stellar Tactics at the following links:
Steam – https://store.steampowered.com/app/465490/Stellar_Tactics/
GOG – https://www.gog.com/game/stellar_tactics
The game is also available on Humble Bundle and Green Man Gaming

Thank you everyone – back to work!

About Maverick Games

Maverick Games is a solo indie game studio located in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Don Wilkins started the Studio six years ago with the intent to do what he loves most – making games. He had been working on a design for Stellar Tactics a few hours a week for years and realized that the scope was massive. It was more of a challenge in the beginning, and the game eventually turned into a passion project and his full-time job thanks to the support of thousands of players around the world.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/StellarTactics
Twitter: https://twitter.com/StellarTactics
Website: https://www.stellartactics.com


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