Homeworld 3 is easily one of my most anticipated titles, and my hands-on time with it only served to deepen that. Today we have what looks to be the biggest update we’ve seen from developer Blackbird Interactive, this time focused on how they are pushing the audio and visual fidelity farther than ever before. The update is co-authored by Technical Art Director Demetrius Apostolopoulos, Audio Director Dave Renn, and Art Director Karl Gryc, showcasing the work they’ve done with Unreal Engine 4, including bringing global illumination and shadows together with realtime surface reflections to create dynamic lighting. In addition, we’ve also got some new insights into the game, along with some brand new videos to share. Let’s get to it!
It’s surreal to be working again on a game that has been foundational for so many folks at Blackbird — whether they were part of the team that created the original Homeworld two decades ago (and went on to found our studio), or just grew up playing it. Like you, we know that sense of awe as armadas clash amid the glow of a distant nebula. We know the rush of getting a fleet of bombers behind the enemy frigate line. Or the chills of hearing Adagio For Strings in orbit above Kharak for the very first time.
We love Homeworld. It’s in our DNA. And it is an enormous privilege to be creating the next installment in this legendary series. A privilege we take seriously. That’s why we made the difficult decision to delay Homeworld 3 to February 2024 so we can make a game worthy of that legacy.
But, we get it, being patient sucks. So today, we’d like to give you one of our biggest Development Updates yet. Instead of just honing in on one specific topic, we’ll be exploring how Homeworld 3 is raising the bar in terms of visual fidelity and graphics, an immersive audio experience, and giving you a sneak peek at the fully 3D cinematics that’ll push the story forward. And stay tuned, as we’ll have lots more to share later this summer.
A New Frontier Of Storytelling
When you go back to play the original Homeworld games, it’s kind of amazing that so much evocative worldbuilding and storytelling could come from such simple cutscenes and animatics. Extraordinary music and voice acting carried scenes that were often just ships staring each other down in empty space.
In Deserts of Kharak, we broke new ground with lusciously detailed animatics that heavily focused on the characters at the heart of the conflict, like Rachel S’Jet. But, with Homeworld 3, we knew we could go even further.Homeworld 3 - Showcasing the New Cutscenes
In the video above, you will see a very tiny sneak peek of the cinematics that’ll thread together Homeworld 3’s story, along with non-interactive in-game cutscenes. We can’t stress enough that this is still very early work-in-progress footage that will look even better for release. But we were just too excited to not show you. And, don’t worry, there’s no spoilers here.
Cutscenes are now fully pre-rendered and — for the very first time — will feature fully 3D modeled characters complete with English language lipsyncing. What’s so exciting about this level of cinematic fidelity is how it’ll bring the Homeworld universe to life like never before. You’re going to get closely acquainted with key characters, like Imogen, but also get a much better sense of people aboard the Khar-Kushan and the enemies threatening your very existence. This, in turn, will add a new dimension of humanity to the battles that unfold between each cinematic.
One of Blackbird Interactive’s unique strengths is boasting an in-house cinematics team filled with some of the brightest, most visionary artists from film, television, and games. And from the outset we wanted to leverage their talent to tell a Homeworld story with a human intimacy never seen in the series before. We can’t wait for you to experience the full story next year.
No One Can Hear You Scream
Audio design has always been a vital part of what makes the Homeworld franchise special, and for Homeworld 3 we are honoring the past while going deeper than ever before. One way we’re doing that is using our innovative speech systems to create unique and unparalleled audio experiences in Homeworld 3.
Of the four audio design pillars we have for Homeworld 3, the one that has driven ship pilot speech the most is: “Humanize the fleet.” If you’ve played a lot of real-time strategy games, then you’re all-too-familiar with the ‘barks’ that units give as you order them around. Y’know, “Zug, zug” and all that.
A lot has changed since that golden era of real-time strategy, though. While we could’ve stuck to tradition, we chose to innovate and create a speech system that’ll bring your fleets to life and immerse you in their moment-to-moment interactives and battles.
Speech from your units serves two distinct purposes: information and flavor. The first gives you vital strategic information (“I’m taking damage!”), while the other is an invaluable way to reinforce narrative or worldbuilding concepts. In the traditional way of doing things, each ship has a single voice that must reflect both of these two conflicting categories, with information being naturally prioritized over flavor. But what do you do when worldbuilding is a priority — and the scale of chatter design surpasses anything done before in the franchise?
Throw the traditional way out the window, obviously!
In Homeworld 3 each ship has two voices: The primary voice is that of the ship commander, and is focused on direct responses to player commands, notifications for important events such as coming into contact with enemy ships, and a select few flavor events. This informational layer is clear and (mostly) concise, clearly audible from all distance ranges, and designed to keep the player informed and situationally aware.
The second voice is that of a tactical officer on the ship, and this role is focused on contextual conversational chatter. This contextual flavor layer is full of character, only audible within a certain range from the ship, and designed to breathe life into the vacuum of space.
In both the writing and the design of speech events, an important guiding principle is that ships are not responding to the player. They are responding to each other. From this perspective, certain things become obvious:
Chatter should happen regardless of whether the player is close enough to hear it.
You should be able to stumble into the middle of a conversation between units.
If units are talking to each other, then both sides should be participating.
For example, when ordering a ship to dock with a carrier the conventional approach would be to write a single acknowledgement of the order.
Interceptor Pilot: “Confirmed, initiating docking procedure.”
Notice how the unit is talking to you directly? Now here’s how this plays out in Homeworld 3:
Interceptor Pilot: “DC this is flight lead looking to put down, echo back.”
Carrier Docking Control: “This is Khar-Kushan DC approach vector and bay sent, you are one in line.”
Interceptor Pilot: “Copy that DC, we’re inbound.”
In this example, the first line of the exchange is audible from any range (information layer). The second and third response, however, are triggered only if you’re near the Interceptor (flavor layer). In this way we ensure that the acknowledgment to the player command is always heard, and that the additional flavor lines don’t clutter the soundfield or confuse things.
Similar exchanges play out with even simple commands such as Move and Attack, with the commander delivering the informational response, while the tactical officer follows up with additional contextual flavor. For example, an Attack order:
Bomber Pilot: “Target received and locked.”
Bomber Tactical: “Passives on approach, light ’em up at range plus 5.”
We’ve gone to great lengths to design a call/response chatter system to humanize the fleet. Outside of player commands, there is a rich world of context-specific chatter that ships will engage in, whether the player is around to hear it or not. For each of several situational states that a ship can find itself in, the tactical officer has a selection of 5 to 15 contextual call-outs and 5 to 15 contextual responses.
When a ship triggers a call-out chatter line for a situation, a nearby ship will trigger a response for that same situation. A different call/response pairing will be triggered each time between those two ships for that situation, which adds up to a lot of possible combinations. In fact, given the number of ships available to the player by the end of the game, each designed chatter situation (of which there are several) has the potential for nearly 245,000 unique call/response pairings.
The chatter situations that have been designed largely reflect the amazing work done by our art and design teams. The scale of terrain and gameplay elements in Homeworld 3 are truly awe inspiring, and must be so to the crews of the ships we send into harm’s way. When flying in formation near massive Progenitor structures they might comment on terrain proximity warnings, or even the strange signals coming from these structures. When flying through dense nebulae they might comment on sensor and comms interference, or the fact that if they can hide in the particulate soup so can their enemies…
This speech system is just one element we are employing to achieve an informationally-rich and cinematically engrossing audio experience in Homeworld 3. We can’t wait for you to immerse yourself in the world we are crafting for you.
The Beauty Of The Cosmos
If you’ve been following development so far, you’re already aware of what a massive jump forward we’ve made from previous games in terms of visual fidelity, thanks to what our incredibly talented artists have been able to achieve in Unreal Engine 4. But today, we wanted to spotlight two aspects of Homeworld 3’s visuals that have had a huge impact on how the game looks and, in some missions, plays.
One of the biggest benefits of Unreal Engine is using its Physically Based Rendering (PBR) System, which unlike older rendering methods realistically simulates how light interacts with different materials. This is a huge step up from previous Homeworld games, where artists would need to manually tune materials or have global lighting hacks to work with differently lit environments. Fortunately, earlier Homeworld games mostly stuck to levels set in the harsh blackness of space with a planet or nebula in the distance for some visual interest. But it also meant the surface of your ships didn’t actually respond to any kind of light source. They were just flatly lit from all angles, making them feel a bit disconnected from the scene around them.
PBR, however, gives us access to tools like dynamic lighting with realtime surface reflections, shadows, and global illumination to bring our environments to life. It also means we can build ships with hulls that react realistically to an enormous variety of lighting scenarios. The results speak for themselves…
In Homeworld 3, you’ll fight your fair share of battles in cold, dark space. But PBR allows us to create levels each with their own unique visual identity and near-photo realism. You’ll command fleets in low orbit above planets, or explore ancient relics floating just above a churning sea of clouds. And in each of these environments, the materials of your ships will react with the light with a level of realism that, frankly, feels a bit awe-inspiring (yes, we’re a tad biased here).
One area we particularly love to geek out about is how all these different lighting environments react with the hulls of your ship. We spent a long time studying how visual effects are done for Hollywood blockbusters with big ships — like the latest Star Trek movies. It was a big inspiration for how we have paneling look on the units.
We’re obsessed with the small details that make Homeworld 3 come to life. With maps generally spanning 100km in every direction — and filled with megalithic structures you can fly in and around — the sense of scale is immense. But equally important to us is the ability to zoom in on the action and hear the back-and-forth radio chatter or, when talking about PBR, the micro-level of detail in ship materials. The scuffs and impact zones of enemy fire, or the scratches on the surface of a structure.
Before we go, we wanted to also walk through one other element of Homeworld 3’s visual fidelity that we’re very excited about: nebulae. We’ve talked a lot about bringing “terrain” to space combat with megalith structures, but nebulae bring even more strategic opportunities for players who are clever enough to exploit them to their advantage.
These dynamically-generated gas clouds are a key aspect of a few maps because they not only obscure your vision, but also mask sensor data from ships that are traveling within them. We were initially inspired to include them after toying around with Unreal Engine’s ray-marched clouds system, which can create realistic (and gorgeous) fluffy clouds. As pretty as those clouds can be, however, we needed more control to create nebulae that more closely mirrored what you see in those gorgeous NASA photos. So we said what the hell, let’s build our own system!
Ray marching is a powerful, resource-intensive way of simulating objects with varying levels of density, like clouds. A lot of tasks in game development — especially lighting — are accomplished by firing invisible rays and then getting data from the point where it collides with an object. But imagine you’re trying to measure a jar filled with smoke. If you shoot a beam at it and only measure the smoke’s density from the surface of the jar, your results are practically useless. With ray marching, you fire that beam and measure the data at different depths of the gas volume extents. This is done by “marching” that beam forward by a set interval and for each step or march you combine that result with the previous measurement; the accumulation of these measurements gives us the final result for density. Do that enough times, and you start to get an accurate idea of how much smoke is in that jar from a specific view angle and then use this to derive lighting and color based on this result. We then take this result and use it to map different volume density effects, as an example where the density is low, we will blend in more wisp-like shapes with more movement, versus where it is more dense (towards the core) we may use a fractal volume density effect to create interest and shape. And all of this is done for every pixel of nebula visible on your screen at each frame!
The result is clouds of realistically simulated gas that react to different light sources and can hide ships based on its density and the depth of the ship within the cloud.
And that’s everything we wanted to share today. Thanks for taking the time to read this monster of a developer update. We’re so appreciative of the response of players like you with the news that Homeworld 3 was going to launch next year and wanted to take the time to give you one of the biggest development updates yet. We’ll have lots more to share later this summer, so please look forward to that.
Clearly the Blackbird team has taken the time afforded by their move to next year and applying it in an impactful way. The results speak for themselves, and the game looks significantly better for it.
We’ll be keeping our eye on this one, closely, so look for our continued coverage of Homeworld 3 right here at GamingTrend.com
Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming.
Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter.
Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 27 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).