With Everspace 2 coming to console this month, Richie Shoemaker talks to Rockfish co-founder Michael Schade about the studio’s successful space shooter series, leaving mobile gaming behind, ditching crowdfunding and why Game Pass is the place to be.
Hamburg’s Rockfish Games has been one of two German studios to have made any kind of impact on a genre that’s been in the shadow of Elite for far longer than the earthbound shooter was ever beholden to Doom. While compatriot Egosoft has been building on it’s X series of space sims for nigh on 25 years, Rockfish has taken just ten to establish Everspace in the space gaming firmament; the first game debuting in 2017 before it received a vibrant and expansive sequel earlier this year – selling 300,000 copies in its first few weeks, despite being available through PC Game Pass for the best part of 18 months.
Far from being the plucky newcomer, however, Rockfish does have a considerable history in the genre, one that stretches back to the dawn of mobile gaming, when Rockfish co-founder and CEO Michael Schade was the co-founder and CEO of Fishlabs, and it’s game Galaxy on Fire 2 was as well known on the emerging iPhone as Doodle Jump and Cut the Rope.
At the game’s height, says Schade, as many as 40 million people had installed the Wing Commander-inspired title on their phones. This was however after the base game was given away free – rather reluctantly it turned out, with Fishlabs eager to get out of free-to-play just as everyone else was piling aboard the bandwagon. “I had a lot of discussions with Apple,” Schade recalls. “Actually, I was one of the few telling [them] ‘You’re making a big mistake. You’re completely missing how premium games work’.” Schade argued against allowing developers and publishers the ability to set their own daily prices, believing it would be catastrophic for premium games like the-then $10 space game. It was inevitable, he says, that “everybody was going to sell their games for 99 cents” and a “race to the bottom” would ensue. “I was like ‘This is the end’”, he says.
For its next game in the series, Fishlabs reluctantly dabbled with a free-to-play model, but there was no passion for the project from within the team, which didn’t endear it towards potential investors and the studio filed for bankruptcy. It was a dark time.
“We really wanted to do PC and console. We did console style games on mobile, just because there was a chance to be first in there and it was always the dream that at some point we could do the ‘real’ games on PC and console. Mobile helped us to get there, so I have no regrets about ten years being in mobile.”
UPPING THE ANTI
With a resurrected Fishlabs embracing free-to-play as part of Koch Media, Schade was free to establish its successor Rockfish Games in 2014. The studio spent nine months prototyping a co-op space shooter in Unreal Engine 4 and on the same day the contract was signed to move into full production, the publisher got skittish.
“We think it was because of No Man’s Sky,” he says, “but back in the day Star Citizen, Elite Dangerous and then No Man’s Sky really sucked out all the air of the room for space games. So then we had to reinvent ourselves again.”
The result was Everspace, a game that PCGamesN later called ‘the anti-space sim’ on account of it being a roguelike arcade shooter, and the fact players could plough through a series of thrilling dogfights quicker than most Star Citizen backers could get to their ships. Eschewing publisher backing, Schade went to Kickstarter in 2015 and secured an impressive €420,000 in pledges. Everspace then appeared in early access in 2016 “… and then Microsoft came along saying, ‘Hey, we know you! You guys make these accessible space shooters. How about you bring this to Xbox?’“
PLEDGE OF TOMORROW
From Everspace joining ID@Xbox and becoming first game to support Game Preview on PC and Xbox with Play Anywhere, all the way through to the sequel being among the first early access games on both Steam and Game Pass, Schade is naturally keen to extol the virtues of signing up to the Xbox ecosystem, calling Game Pass “The best deal in the world [and] one of the best approvals you can have”. As well as receiving “substantial” monetary and marketing support, Schade says the potential sales risks of being on Game Pass simultaneous to launching on other platforms is easily offset by the visibility that the initial availability on Game Pass affords, though he admits that being in early access on Steam six months before appearing on Game Pass might have helped there.
Wherever Rockfish goes next with the Everspace series, it seems that the studio is done with crowdfunding, at least for now. “Strategy wise, Kickstarter is super hard. I lost so many years to Kickstarter, like, ‘No more. I’m done!’ I also think the momentum is much slower now. It’s much harder to be successful.”
COURSE LAID IN
We’re told that the foundations of Everspace 2 cost €15 million to assemble, which has resulted in gameplay and visuals comparable to a AAA release. Rather than blow an estimated €20 million or more on storyline presentation to match, Rockfish kept it to just €1 million. On the one hand, it shows, but far from being the game’s weakest aspect, the hand-drawn storyline visuals help ground expectations and have undoubtedly helped the game become successful far earlier than it might have done. Without ruling it out completely, Schade is dismissive of ever adding mocap, going down a live service route or adding multiplayer functionality for future releases, preferring to keep things what he calls “old school”:
“We conquered a niche and we’re very comfortable in this niche,” he says. “We’re really living the dream. Nobody’s telling us what we should do. The team owns the vision. We know what we’re doing. We know what we’re good at. So this is what we’re gonna deliver on – and yeah, I’m very excited for what’s coming. It’s good!”