It’s only been available for a few weeks, but Rockfish Games’ Everspace 2 is already setting sky-high expectations.
Released through Steam as a to-be-finished “early access” game on Jan. 18, the sequel to the 2017 space shooter that’s equal parts Wing Commander and FTL takes a different approach, and people are feeling it. Everspace 2 has already drawn comparisons to industry behemoths like The Witcher and Destiny. And it’s not even hyperbole.
Everspace 2 sets players loose in an open and freely explorable collection of star systems. There are planets and orbital stations to visit, pirate squadrons to repel, randomly occurring celestial weather events, derelict ships…you name it. As you flit from system to system, taking on an assortment of baddies and solving a surprising variety of puzzles along the way, you amass an inventory of tradable resources and loot that’s color-coded by rarity.
You level up. You attract companions who unlock all sorts of passive abilities and boosts. You can even charge up a devastating ultimate ability that, once unleashed, bestows a feeling of power not unlike the Supers of Destiny.
Everspace, the first one, fit the profile of a roguelike, a genre defined by its steep challenge and focus on repetition as you take on the same challenging gauntlet over and over again, discovering ways to make progress easier as you go. Everspace 2, on the other hand, is a full-blown role-playing game. There’s a story driving you forward and a whole system of character progression built around letting you tailor your power climb in whichever way you prefer.
Image: rockfish games
Image: rockfish games
“So while the first game was a success…one of the complaints was, if you die, you have to start basically from scratch,” Rockfish co-founder Michael Schade said during a recent interview with Mashable. “There are certain things that carry over. But if you gathered any resources or special weapons, if you die, they’re gone.”
The shape of the original Everspace was dictated in large part by budget constraints. Rockfish was a young studio, and although there were aspirations on the team to do something more along the lines of what the sequel looks like now, the budget wasn’t there. It took the first game’s success to create that budget.
That success only came after Schade and his longtime business partner Christian Lohr had paid a heavy cost, however. In 2004, the two co-founded Fishlabs, a Germany-based studio that went on to create the popular Galaxy on Fire series of mobile games. Much like Everspace, this earlier series’ heady mix of dazzling visuals and instantly satisfying gameplay thrilled the people who played, making it one of the more popular franchises during the formative years of mobile gaming.
“Coming out of our previous studio with no computers, no IP, no tech, no team, no money — we had to start all over.”
It wouldn’t last for Schade and his team, however. The mobile games market quickly carved out a space for free-to-play games, but building that kind of experience, which includes other income-generating mechanisms to replace the up-front cost, ran counter to what the founding members of Fishlabs wanted.
By the end of 2013, Schade and Lohr were on their way out at the company they had built. But they moved quickly, swinging open the doors to Rockfish the next year and setting out to get back on the track of building a more “premium” gaming experience for consoles and PC. They wanted to do a full-blown action-RPG, but the time wasn’t right. And so Everspace was born as a roguelike out of necessity.
“We couldn’t do the full-blown open world action-RPG experience in space because it takes an eight-digit budget to develop that, even as an indie,” Schade said. “So obviously, coming out of our previous studio [with] no computers, no IP, no tech, no team, no money — we really had to start all over.”
All of this is still years before Everspace 2 was fully conceived, but the building blocks here are important. Elements from the first game, including loot-derived ship upgrades, crafting mechanics, and the thrill of discovering little surprises in the depths of space, formed the bedrock of Rockfish’s thinking around Everspace 2. But with the exception of the flying, which felt great and easily translated from one game to the next, everything had to be rebuilt for the sequel’s new framework.
Chasing any kind of big idea in game development is a challenging prospect always, but Rockfish also happened to be doing it inside a sub-genre of gaming — space flight and space combat — that is generally regarded as niche. For Schade, however, it was the only option.
“I’ve played video games since I was 14 on my [Commodore 64],” Schade said. He was quick to reference classics like Defender, Space Invaders, and Asteroids as some of his all-time faves. Lohr didn’t have the same kind of relationship with games when the two met at university, but they found the common ground that eventually led them to Rockfish in their shared course of study: machine engineering.
“This is where we connect. Everything with technology, vehicles, and space — we are nerds, through and through,” said Schade. In the course of their work together, which included running a CGI studio back in their early days, they both observed the ongoing evolution of computer graphics.
Image: rockfish games
“When I saw the crappy 3D graphics on the first Sony Ericsson, it was like PlayStation 1 quality. And I was like, hang on a second. I’ve seen this before. We know what’s gonna happen in the next 10 years: It’s gonna look awesome, be better, but [also] it’s going to be in a billion hands,” he noted. “That’s why we started our first studio, because we kind of foresaw the early revolution in 3D gaming on mobile devices.”
Now with Rockfish, the same sort of thing is happening again. Where once Schade looked ahead and saw a coming explosion in the mobile space, setting up the new studio came with an awareness of just how important it was to have a dedicated audience.
Everspace is one of the more noteworthy crowdfunding success stories, with its 2015 campaign raising almost double the initial $250,000 ask. More importantly, the crowd funding campaign served to sell a dedicated group of fans on the idea of Everspace and the enthusiasm of the team behind it. It’s a lesson Schade and Rockfish carried into the subsequent Everspace 2 campaign in 2019, and more importantly, the still-ongoing development that continues now that the early access release is out.
“Since Kickstarter, every Friday we have a two-hour livestream of the most recent [development] build so everybody can see where production is at, and so once the game is out they can make an educated purchase decision,” Schade explained.
“We fought so hard. We failed so many times. We got up again. And this feels awesome!”
“We started with maybe 30 people watching and now, every Friday, we have more than 300 people watching, concurrent viewers,” he added. “And then 3,000 people see the VOD afterwards. So for an indie game, that’s pretty good.”
It helps that Schade is present and available during every one of these streams. Rockfish has a U.S.-based community manager running the actual stream and showing off the game, but Schade spends those two-hour sessions monitoring chat and tackling the questions that come up. On the fan side, players get to see the studio’s CEO getting personally involved in the process and offering up one-on-one time to make a case for the game.
In case it’s not clear: Schade is having a blast. The whole team is, and they’re working to translate that enthusiasm, along with a willingness to listen and engage, into the sort of space combat and exploration game that can please as wide an audience as possible.
This is already evident in the early access version of Everspace 2, which delivers a solid 20-or-so hours of stuff to do, not including the random events that pop up along the way. It’s a game that, even in an unfinished state, already feels fantastic to play, and also one that futzes with the genre in original ways. Puzzles that ask you to redirect beams of light or work out how to clear blocked passages often involve weaving your little space fighter through the cramped confines of a derelict capital ship or abandoned mine.
For a genre that typically puts the bulk of a given game’s focus on flying and shooting, the bits of Everspace 2 that raise comparisons to games like Breath of the Wild or (by way of the loot-based RPG) Destiny stand out. They distinguish the game in a space that isn’t necessarily crowded, but which is dominated by unrivaled giants.
“This is the best time of our life,” Schade said, his joy clearly radiating out over our audio-only Skype call. “We fought so hard. We failed so many times. We got up again. And this feels awesome! I think the level of fulfillment and happiness you feel depends on where you were before and where you are now.”
Everspace 2 is available now on Steam in early access, with roughly 18 months still to go (as of late January 2021) before Rockfish is ready to call it finished.