Q&A: Keith Newton, I-Novae Studios
I tend to get a bit carried away by space MMOGs. It happened when I first saw Star Wars Galaxies back at E3 2001 (well, the X-Wingy space bits), when I honestly believed it was the most important game then in development. It happened again a couple of years later when I became intimate with Eve Online. Then I completely lost all sense of perspective in 2006 when space combat fans started starting whispering about a game called Infinity.
Infinity, for those that have been living in a hollowed-out asteroid for the past half decade, is a space MMOG currently in development that aims to offer all the features that space fans have been clamouring for: A vast realistically-modelled universe with more star systems than can ever hope be visited, interstellar flight that transitions seamlessly from orbit to planetary atmospheres, direct control of ships from fighters all the way to battleships, and the usual spread of back-of-the-box features; intense combat, missions among the stars, factions, mining ores and trading stellar fortunes.
The problem of course is that it’s been six years since the promise of Infinity: The Quest For Earth was teased and it seems as if the game is no closer to completion than it was half of a decade ago. Aside from a handful of blogs and engine footage, there seems barely a hint that any kind of game exists at all.
Which is why we requested an audience with its creators. Keith Newton, the Founder and CEO of I-Novae Studios (who also helps out on engineering duties alongside technical wizard Flavien Brebion), was kind enough to respond. Far from being secretive, it would seem that the duo and their small team of volunteers are keen to come out from the shadows, embrace the potential of crowd-sourced funding and work with fans to bring to a conclusion one of the most ambitious and lengthy development projects in space gaming history.
PSF: Infinity has been in development a while – winning awards in 2006 – but there haven’t been many updates of late. Why is that? Why are you guys so quiet about the game?
Keith Newton: Over the last year and a half we’ve been focusing primarily on the technology rather than the game itself. Allowing seamless travel across extremely large distances with the level of detail we want to provide in Infinity is a huge technical challenge – particularly when you consider the range of hardware capabilities that consumers have today. When I first started working with Flavien in the spring of 2010 it became evident as we discussed our technical roadmap that we were going to have to put some more time into the engine to get it fully production ready and provide the best possible experience for our consumers.
PSF: What state stage is Infinity in right now?
Keith Newton: When you look at the full scope of what we want to do with Infinity it’s unfortunately still at a fairly early stage. Ultimately this is primarily due to a lack of funding. Many members of our community have suggested using Kickstarter which we are actively evaluating. The primary problem with something like Kickstarter is that we don’t think we’ll be able to raise enough money to finish Infinity. One intermediate possibility we are considering is to remake the Infinity Combat Prototype (ICP) into a finished product using Kickstarter and leveraging the profits from that as a stepping stone to finishing the full Infinity.
PSF: Are you on target to deliver the technical features that so many are expecting, such as the vast (200 billion stars) dynamically-generated universe, atmospheric flight etc?
Keith Newton: Absolutely! If you look at our April 2010 tech demo you already see all of these capabilities in full working form. An updated/improved version of that demo is what I was showing to potential investors/partners at GDC & E3 2011. Since then we’ve been working on some new stuff we hope to show off later this year.
PSF: What are the technical challenges at this stage of production?
Keith Newton: The largest challenges can all be linked to financing. We’ve solved all of the hard technical R&D problems required to bring such an innovative technology platform to market. Unfortunately we still lack the resources to hire enough programmers to finish the game within a more ideal time frame. The cost of the talent we need can easily approach $300k+ paying fair market prices for a single year of development so it’s a non-trivial amount. There are ways to offer incentives, such as equity, for people to work for less salary than they are worth but it’s more difficult to find people willing to make those sacrifices – particularly within games instead of say web/mobile which has a much different startup culture.
PSF: Much of the content is being sourced from the community, such as ship designs, music, etc. Is it proving difficult managing such a process?
Keith Newton: Yes. Unfortunately the largest problem with sourcing art assets from the community has not been coordinating the effort but instead legal hurdles. When someone produces a piece of artwork they own the copyright to that work. This becomes a huge problem for a company when you have X different non-contracted people creating artwork with another Y non-contracted people creating derivative artwork and we as a company have to figure out who owns the rights to what. Using such ambiguously owned art assets in a revenue generating product could open us up to a huge amount of liability and if we were to get sued into oblivion because all of the sudden everybody wants to get paid that would obviously be as bad for our players as it would be for us.
PSF: The MMOG landscape has changed a great deal in the last couple of years. Does it concern you the subscriber model has fallen to the might of “free to play” gaming?
Keith Newton: No I think it’s a natural evolution for the industry to find new and better ways to deliver their content to consumers. Ultimately, as a game developer, you just want to make cool games that (ideally) other people enjoy playing but of course you have to get compensated for that effort or else you go hungry. Historically there has been some contention between consumers and publishers over what constitutes a fair price for a game and anything that allows people more flexibility and additional incentive to pay what they consider a fair market price I believe is a win for both parties. The problem with the freemium model from a development standpoint, say in the case of Infinity, is that you have to have enough money to build the game in the first place. This can be a big hurdle for smaller studios.
PSF: Would you agree that ambition is the biggest hurdle that you have to overcome before release? If not, what is?
Keith Newton: Ambition has definitely been a hurdle haha. We’re constantly evaluating what we’re doing and at what junctures we should consider reducing the scope of our ambition. That being said if people never tried to accomplish the impossible the world would be worse off for it.
PSF: Finally, what can you say to reassure fans and followers that Infinity isn’t vaporware – as detractors keep asserting?
Keith Newton: Startups are hard, making games is hard, but despite that we’re still alive and kicking doing the best we can with what resources we have available to us. Working on a project like this is full of hills and valleys but If Duke Nukem Forever can ship then so can Infinity and it will be because of our dedicated and loyal fan base – thank you to those who continue supporting us!