Flat Earth Games puts you at the helm in Objects in Space

The passion project from Flat Earth Games is a space-trading simulator that does a heck of a lot more than it says on the tin.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
4 min read
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The Objects in Space booth set up at PAX Australia 2015.

Flat Earth Games

It's accepted wisdom in indie game development to start small. Don't start out with your passion project, because your first game will be a massive learning experience.

For sister and brother team Elissa and Leigh Harris of Flat Earth Games, the real passion project is the studio's fourth. Called Objects in Space, it's a single-player game that sees you sitting at the command module of a real hunk o' space junk, a trader, trying to stay operational while evading pirates.

"In a broad sense, I've been thinking about this game since I was about 17, so the first concepts were probably more from 'Alien' and the original 'Star Trek' movies, although once we began to plan out the game, more modern depictions of space travel like 'Firefly' and the 'Battlestar Galactica' reboot were huge influences," Elissa explained in an email to CNET.

"What had always struck me was that every space game I'd played treated large spacecraft as if they were little fighter planes, instead of the monstrous feats of engineering they're shown as in classic sci-fi films. I've never been great at flying things with a joystick either, so between that and the lack of, I suppose, 'capital ship games,' I had begun to plan out just how I would make a game which gave you that sense of commanding a large vessel rather than a little fighter."

The wisdom about waiting until embarking on a passion project proved valuable here. The team had already developed three games: Towncraft, which is a little like Don't Starve without the death parts; Metrocide, a top-down single-player stealth game; and Super Death Fortress, a 2D artillery shooter in the vein of 1981's Sabotage.

"After TownCraft was completed, we'd come to realise our strengths and weaknesses as developers. Art was definitely one of our biggest weaknesses, so we wanted to make our next game something which might require heavy time from programming and design, but less in the way of art," Leigh said. "Elissa's idea of a submarine game in space grabbed me right away from that pragmatic point of view, and I was sold on it when I realised that it could be done with our relatively small team -- until then I never would've thought a space trading game was a possibility for us."

Most of the action in Objects in Space takes place on the bridge of your freighter from a first-person perspective. You have five screens, giving you information about your ship and the space around you. In the demo I played at PAX Australia 2015, I had a hostile encounter with another ship. This involved entering stealth mode, powering down the reactor to move through space undetected. However, powering down the reactor meant that it is no longer generated power for your battery, so you have only a finite amount of time before the battery ran out.

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The command console on the bridge of your freighter.

Flat Earth Games

The other challenge with the combat was firing the missile to make contact with the enemy vessel. You have to look at its trajectory and calculate where it will be by the time your missile can reach it, since it takes long moments to for the missile to travel across the distances involved. It's a space game that takes the "space" part seriously.

Between this and the graphics, it really does feel like you're flying a bucket of bolts, but what really drove the point home was the custom hardware. The Harris siblings built Arduino compatibility into the game so that players can build their own physical buttons and switches to work with the command console interface. Flipping up the safety latch and hitting "fire" on the demo hardware was a deeply satisfying experience.

"I imagined it being a physical installation -- like a theme park -- where you'd book a slot, go in with your friends, and play however many hours commanding your own freighter. At the end of the day you'd 'dock' back at the space station, go have a drink at the cafe/bar area, and then 'leave the world' via some kind of fake shuttlecraft, returning to you the carpark or wherever," Elissa explained.

"It was only when I began playing with electronics again about a year ago that I realised how far off-the-shelf tech had progressed, and that it might be possible to do something resembling my original idea, albeit on a much smaller scale."

These finished switch modules are not going to be offered for sale, but what the Harris siblings plan is arguably better.

"We're not in the hardware business, so our plan was always to release full schematics, layouts, protocol information and all the Arduino source code so people can build their own," Elissa said.

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While running the demo, Leigh navigated to a display that showed a bunch of news stories. There's a deep world and backstory to Objects in Space, and it's only going to get deeper. The siblings are aiming for an August 2016 release, and there's a lot that can be added in the intervening time until then.

The basic back story is that of a group of humans have left Earth to make a new life, but their attempts don't prove fruitful. However, there is no one central plot. The game is a very well crafted sandbox.

"For almost two years, I was spending all my free time constructing a wiki which would be the basis of the game world -- a complete history of several nations, each with their own cultures, politics, media and prejudices. I really sunk my teeth into that one, making a wiki which now has thousands of pages in it," Leigh said.

"That is the resource our writers (a team of seven people working part-time, not including Elissa and I) are using to tell stories in Objects in Space. Not main stories, mind, but myriad news articles, messages, characters, journal entries and more for the player to discover. It's by far the richest world we've ever created."

Watch this: Objects in Space at PAX Aus 2015