Exploring X Rebirth, the space sim with enterprising ambition, with Egosoft's Bernd Lehahn

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Mar 30, 2015, 1:19 PM EDT (Updated)

If you want to get your game on in space, there are many space sims to choose from. But even though all of them are set above and beyond Terra, they each have different styles of gameplay. In our previous space sim article on Chris Roberts' Star Citizen, we learned that the game is actually two games in one. Here we speak with Bernd Lehahn, managing director of Egosoft and lead developer of X Rebirth. X Rebirth is the most recent of seven games in the X series, which began in 1999 with X: Beyond the Frontier.

Lehahn tells us what sets X Rebirth apart from other space sims, as well as what it takes to create a good space-based game.    

What goes into building a good sci-fi universe?

I think what is important is that you convey the size of it. Games that are located on Earth are much smaller, and they feel smaller. When people play space games, they expect size. They want to have freedom and to see these physical dimensions they expect in space.

The other element that comes with space games is fiction. People want to see what the future may look like, and they want to be able to dream.

What are X Rebirth's sci-fi movie/TV influences?

When it comes to [the creators of] the X universe in general, we all were big fans of the movie Blade Runner. When we made the games, we always dreamed of this kind of atmosphere, the coolness, the visual style. Also, many other movies, like the old classics, like 2001. When we worked on X2 and X3, in 2003 and 2005, we all watched the new Battlestar Galactica, and we loved that as well. Not so much the visual style; Battlestar Galactica was more about storytelling and an epic journey.

And of course, everybody in the industry is influenced by Star Wars. We are not exactly the biggest fans of the three new ones, but there is no question that they are visually stunning. The whole company was dressed with Star Wars outfits when we saw it.

How "realistic" is X Rebirth?

We try to be as realistic as possible. But when it comes to the gameplay experience, we have to compromise on realism. For example, in the flight physics of the game, we do not try to simulate perfect Newtonian physics. You have to think too much about maneuvers, and you can't get any interesting dogfights. For two ships to rendezvous requires a lot of energy. As a nerd, I love seeing games that are truly realistic and simulate physics. But I, myself, don't see that as an option for our games, because we want to make a game that is fun and not a scientific simulation.

Tell us about the plot. 

X Rebirth is a story set in the same universe we established with the X games. The player starts with a new, unique spaceship, and you meet a co-pilot. In the beginning solar system, called Albion, you discover that a mining corporation, called Plutarch Mining Corporation, uses a lot of very doubtful activities, like slavery. The player comes into conflict with this corporation.

The other important thing about the universe: There are gates that connect solar systems to other solar systems, but they were shut down several decades ago, and people were isolated for a long period of time. Now, at the beginning of the game, these gates are opening again, and they are reconfigured while the game progresses, connecting other systems new unidentified solar systems. The game grows while you're playing it.

We have an author who wrote seven books in this universe, and the storytelling aspect of it is not necessarily limited to the game itself. We have a believable, interesting, deep universe, but the game plot is only a little part of that. You can still play missions and experience the universe and the story behind it without following a linear plot.

What about the game will entice sci-fi fans who aren't gamers?

When I show the game to non-gamers, it's usually the beautiful graphics and the epic scale that [grab] people. I think the science fiction atmosphere ... appeals to a lot of people, not just gamers. Science fiction appeals to many players, but it's what you do in the game, the gameplay, that makes a difference.

What about the game will entice other space sim gamers?

[Another space sim] Elite: Dangerous is a great game, but its economy is limited to trading; you buy wares and you sell them. Our game goes a step further: You can build stations yourself and produce goods. You build factories. You have an influence on the economy on a much bigger scale than Elite: Dangerous.

You don't just trade with one ship, you soon trade with many ships. You set up entire fleets of capital ships that can trade for you, and you build stations yourself. You build factories that produce goods, and you can command the fleet to bring the goods from one station to another. You can destroy other space stations that may be in competition with your station, you can sabotage them, and you can steal their goods.

This is something we can do because we're just a single-player game. In a multiplayer game, the single player cannot have such a huge impact on the economy because they have to work together with thousands of people.

Where do you see space sims going in the future?

I don't think I can answer for everybody, but for us, it is important that people can choose themselves what they can do in the game. You can play X Rebirth as a more strategic game about battle and war, and others play it like an economic simulation, for those who want to live in peace but want to build large stations.

We provide the universe, and we try to make that universe as rich and as exciting as possible, with as many activities in that universe as possible, so every player for themselves can decide how to play it.

There's no getting around it: The original launch was famously buggy. How have you improved X Rebirth since its relaunch?

We didn't just fix things, we added a lot, like a DLC called "Teladi Outpost" that was free for everybody who bought the game before. We release an update every month. 

We always said X Rebirth will be different from the X games. But the fans of the old games who were unhappy about X Rebirth, even though we told them very clearly that it isn't [the followup to the previous game X3: Albion Prelude] X4. We deliberately called this game X Rebirth because it was better in some aspects but also more limited in others aspects, and we tried to communicate that. It still backfired on us.

Controversially, players can only fly one ship, as opposed to X2 and X3, where you could fly every ship in the game. Why did you scale back that feature?

X Rebirth was, in a way, a step back because you have only one very specific ship you can fly yourself.

There were two reasons [we made that decision]: The main reason is simply we couldn't do it otherwise. The scale of this game is so much bigger, we knew from the start we had to limit it. In X Rebirth you can see how ore is melted and how the iron is taken out of the ore, and you see solar panels and the electricity in stored in energy cells.

It was an entirely new and different graphic engine. There were things we wanted to do differently and better, but it also meant we had to cut some areas. The limitation was an easy choice for us because it saved us a lot of work.

Also, it is natural in the X series because in X: Beyond the Frontier, the very first game, players had only one ship as well.

So are you working on X4?

We are always working on new X games. We don't know exactly how we will release or if they'll be another DLC for X Rebirth. There will certainly be updates [for X Rebirth], but we are also working new products.

Does that mean you are working on X4?

We are definitely working in the direction of an X4. You can say that.