With the announcement of an upcoming release in one of PC gaming’s most loved franchises, we go back to the start to find out what it is that makes Homeworld so magical.
In PC games, what we identify as a classic can be ephemeral. There are many elements that go into the design and production of a game, and many subjective factors that can influence our view of the experience playing it. We don’t just watch games, we participate in them; and that participation should allow us to shape what happens. The best games make us feel like we have affected their outcome and connect with the circumstances and role we’ve taken on in the game’s fictional premise.
“The Mothership is standing by…”
Homeworld, produced by Relic Entertainment, first appeared in 1999. At that point, the real-time strategy (RTS) genre, with its resource management, manufacturing, and large-scale battles, had been around since 1992, with the first release of Dune. Warcraft: Orc versus Humans, Dune II, and then Command and Conquer in 1995 refined the formula. Age of Empires, released in 1997, took the same base building mechanics into a quasi historical/fantasy setting, and Total Annihilation (also in 1997) introduced self-replicating robots and a science fiction setting. It was only logical that another games company would make a similar leap and set a game in space itself.
“He seems incapable of three-dimensional thinking…”
At first glance, the change of setting is the most notable alteration, and magazine reviews at the time focused on the ‘space opera’ visuals and fleet-management qualities of the experience. In this first incarnation, the Mothership — the iconic image of the franchise box art — was one of two options for the player, but in both versions acted as a mobile production centre, which was a change from the traditional fixed camp requirement of the RTS genre. Another innovation was the three-dimensional area of deployment, a marked departure from the two-dimensional terrestrial theatres of war players were used to. Judging by the reviews, it seemed clear with hindsight that certain scenario snippets had been all that eager reviewers had been able to experience. However, they didn’t tell the whole story of the game that was to come.
“Kharak is burning…”
What made Homeworld memorable was the emphasis on story and cinematic visuals. Relic co-founder Alex Garden had been looking to emulate the cinematic space opera qualities of Star Wars, centered around a Battlestar Galactica-like story premise. The tragic beginning, with the Mothership fleeing a destroyed world carrying its last cryogenically frozen survivors in its cargo hold, was set up with a series of cut scenes and tutorial scenarios that blended seamlessly into the beginning of the story. The choice of Samuel Barber’s bittersweet Adagio for Strings as the soundtrack for these moments, along with the initial activation of the Mothership beforehand, perfectly set up a complex series of epic narrative escalations. The Kushan people had launched their first hyperspace-capable colonial ship and successfully tested its new engines. Yet, at the very moment of triumph, their planet had been destroyed.
The player is intrinsically involved in this tragedy. The Mothership is called away whilst the attack happens, and returns just in time to save the colonist survivors. The series of missions are carefully structured to increase in difficulty, putting the player in a dangerous, unstable position and cutting away the initial equilibrium of the game’s premise. This helps on two fronts. In terms of the narrative, it plays close to the Battlestar Galactica theme: the journey of a rag-tag fleet. In terms of game reward, it lowers expectations. Survival becomes the achievement, rather than victory and spoils.
One aspect of play in the first Homeworld game that was initially underestimated was the use of salvage corvettes to capture enemy ships. The game contains an array of different neutral and enemy craft as well as the developing Kushan fleet, unlocked with research and development. The salvage options helped a player gain new ships before some of that research became available and, with the variety of designs, gave their fleet more of a motley appearance.
Gradually the Kushan exiles follow the path laid out for them and discover their original homeworld, Hiigara, lost for generations after a galactic war. The scenarios escalate into a riotous space battle, full of resource management and glorious visuals.
Homeworld drew an eager audience of gamers from a variety of different places. The ‘4X’ (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) genre tended to be turn-based, unlike Homeworld, but there were a lot of science fiction games which had similar visual aesthetics. RTS players found a home with most of the familiar gameplay mechanics and as more casual gamers discovered it and saw its beautiful graphics they took it to their hearts as well.
I bought my first proper PC as a university student in 1996. I missed out on Dune, but caught up with Command and Conquer and Age of Empires. When Homeworld came along, I was in my graduate year and played it ceaselessly. The slower resource acquisition elements were a familiar experience, and I loved zooming in and out on my spaceships. At the time, the visuals were some of the best you could find, and resonated with the science fiction novels I was reading at the time. I’d go to bed imagining the lives of the people on board the Mothership, desperately fighting to survive in a hostile galaxy.
Any child of the eighties who read Eagle comics and knows the work of Ian Kennedy can see something of his work in the artistic design of Homeworld; the elegant lines mixed with utilitarian details are something both visions share, and something Hello Games must have drawn a little inspiration from when they began developing No Man’s Sky (2016).
Homeworld Cataclysm and Homeworld 2
The popularity of the franchise saw a clamour for sequels. Homeworld: Cataclysm came out in 2000: a spin-off sequel focusing on the adventures of Kith Somtaaw, one of the clans that had survived the journey to Hiigara. The spacecraft roster didn’t include the iconic Mothership, but did introduce some new gameplay features, such as a game speed toggle and an innovative enemy in the shape of The Beast, who infected ships and became a fascinating player choice in the multi-player game.
Homeworld 2 followed in 2003, with a return to the main story. Hiigara is attacked by a new threat, forcing a temporary evacuation and the reactivation of the Mothership. The gameplay of the sequel is probably the best and most complete, but the story doesn’t have the same resonance as the original. In any story, it is difficult to play the same trick twice; and whilst the single-player campaign has its strengths, Homeworld 2 was certainly a game I played more as a multiplayer treat with my relatives and friends than for its story.
In 2004, Relic Entertainment was bought by THQ. The new owner immediately turned their attention to Dawn of War — a licensed series of RTS games that made use of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 fictional universe. The Homeworld franchise remained largely neglected with some confusion over who, between Sierra Entertainment and Relic, owned the rights to the brand.
In April 2013 THQ filed for bankruptcy and the Homeworld rights were sold to Gearbox Software. Immediately, in partnership with a company of former Homeworld designers called Blackbird Interactive, Gearbox announced their intention to publish a package of the two titles Homeworld and Homeworld 2, with upgraded graphics, sound, and a complete engine overhaul. It was released as the Homeworld: Remastered Collection.
In many ways, this update was a triumph for the underlying gameplay design of the original games. Both stood up well against modern RTS games but lacked the ability to take advantage of modern graphics cards, so the visual aesthetic of the past had become a nostalgic disappointment to faithful fans of the franchise. A remastered game was the ultimate tribute to the players who had kept the faith, hoping that the series would not be consigned into oblivion.
Homeworld: Remastered Collection was released in 2015, closely followed by a prequel. 2016’s Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak returned the franchise to its inspirational roots, set as a modern ground-based RTS more reminiscent of Dune.
Deserts of Kharak was perhaps the most exciting expansion of the Homeworld mythos since the original game. The decision to focus on the society of Kharak, in decay owing to the changing climate, allowed for a focus on the conflict between the ‘kiith’ (or clans) of the Kushian civilisation. The mysterious backstory of the first game was greatly enriched by the plot of the new game, setting up a variety of possible continuing narratives.
In fact, back in 2016, this writer was in direct negotiations with Gearbox software to write a novel set in Kharak society. The premise was to follow up from the end of Deserts of Kharak and move the story forward towards the starting point of Homeworld (1999) with the mysterious attack that wiped out the planet. Could there have been a betrayal of the Kushians by some of their own people? I still have hopes to work on this franchise one day, as the lore is so rich and interesting.
In August 2019, Gearbox Software and Blackbird Interactive announced that they have started work on Homeworld 3, planned for release in 2022. As part of this development they have launched an unusual crowdfunding campaign on Fig. Apparently, the game is already fully funded; the crowdfunding campaign is in fact an opportunity for fans of the franchise to invest in the game. Fig has a system of investment and return which sees backers choose a monetary profit for their initial stake (minimum $500 in this case) rather than a series of rewards, and it is this option that Gearbox and Blackbird appear to be focusing on (although there are a series of reward tiers for people who prefer to simply back the game). The usual set of social media adverts have also begun to appear, appealing particularly to fans of the franchise.
The trailer for Homeworld 3 picks up the story at the end of Homeworld 2. The hyperspace gates have opened, and now is the time to explore. The visuals are reminiscent of the past games, with enough of a rework to get the best out of modern computers. The music score invokes much of the recent Deserts of Kharak, with a slight twist towards a Blade Runner aesthetic.
With a twenty-year legacy, the Homeworld franchise has outlasted many of the other fictions it drew inspiration from. Battlestar Galactica came and went in the time Homeworld was locked away in licensing hell; Dune will be returning to the cinemas in 2020. Warcraft evolved into an MMO and Command and Conquer has become a mobile platform game (although Electronic Arts has indicated it will revisit the older games sometime in the near future). Total Annihilation was reborn as Supreme Commander in 2007, with a highly-regarded standalone expansion shortly afterwards, but has gone dark since then. The only other iconic game of the RTS period, Age of Empires, has recently followed a similar route to Homeworld, with a definitive remastered edition of the old games released in 2018.
Of course, Star Wars remains out there; and, through a multitude of games and films, continues to feed adults and children their special diet of Spitfires in space. This is where Homeworld stands: a little to the left and behind the vast Disney brand, but always ready and waiting to cater to the imaginations of eager science fiction fans and gamers who want to command a space fleet on a lonely journey — out there, into the black.