Based in Seattle, Washington, Double Damage Games is made up of Erich Schaefer and Travis Baldree, two of the developers behind the critically acclaimed action-RPGs Torchlight and Torchlight 2. Their new game, Rebel Galaxy, draws on a variety of influences to deliver a unique take on the space genre, different to the myriad of more traditional sci-fi games hitting the market. Combing a blues-rock soundtrack with a strong desperado spirit and kinetic, involved combat, Rebel Galaxy is built to be a swashbuckling adventure rather than a nuts ‘n’ bolts simulator.
The two-man team at Double Damage have a long history of collaboration, working together on many successful projects. Following the release of Torchlight 2, Schaefer and Bladree broke away from Runic Games, a studio they’d helped found, to a create a smaller, more flexible company, where they could make the games that they wanted to.
“I’m a designer and tester, and I just try to help Travis out any way I can,” says Erich Schaefer, president of Double Damage games. “Before this, we were at Runic Games where we made Torchlight and Torchlight 2, we were some of the co-founders, and we’ve split off to do a sort-of micro studio.
“I got started back in 1993, I was just doing some graphic art, weird stuff on the Macintosh, and fell into this group making a game for the Atari Lynx. All this doesn’t make any sense, other than I got into the business by accident. Started up a company called Condor with my friend David Brevick, and my brother Max, which became Blizzard North that made the Diablo games. After that, I quit Blizzard, and started my own company with a bunch of guys called Flagship Studios, we made Hellgate: London. Travis was involved with the Mythos part of that. Then when Flagship Studios crashed down, we started Runic Games.
“My career sort of started by accident, but I love it,” he adds.
“I’m the CEO of Double Damage Games,” says Travis Baldree. “I was the president of Runic Games, we tend to shuffle these around, everybody gets a title. I’m the engineer on this project and I’m the chair of design with Erich and art directive, I guess. I do art when it’s needed. Like Erich said, I was at Runic Games, ran that for about six years or so, and I was the project director on Torchlight and Torchlight 2, and before that, Erich and I worked at Flagship together for a while. I was running the North studio, working on Mythos. And before that, a bunch of Junk that nobody’s ever heard of,” he jokes.
I always wanted to make games since I was little,” Baldree continues. “I had a Commodore 64 and did type-in programmes from the back and tore them apart. When I was in high-school I was making really terrible PC versions of Street Fighter Two and anything else I could think of. I can remember I had a lot of very,very weird ultima variants that I made. So I’ve been making, or attempting to make games for most of my life at this point. The first real game development job I had was at Wild Tangent where I made, for a long time, a lot of advertising games. I did more racing games than I care to remember, and I will probably never do a racing game ever again. The last thing I did there was Fate, an action RPG in the sort of Diablo vein, and that was my entry point to working with the guys at Flagship.”
Despite the high-quality output of Runic Games, the Double Damage team were looking for something different. “There’s only two of us, and there’s never going to be any more,” says Baldree. “That’s probably the biggest difference.”
Schaefer continues: “We started this half as a quality of life operation. We both got sick of managing teams. Travis had to manage the Runic team for a long time, and before that I was managing at HellGate. We just got tired of managing, and wanted to make games. We also had this cool idea for the game we’re talking about today, Rebel Galaxy, which didn’t quite fit our Runic team and we just got tired of looking for buy-in from the team and explaining what we were doing to publishers, we just wanted to do what we wanted to do. And so far, so good.”
Without the confines of larger scale development, the concept for Rebel Galaxy could be better defined, layering original ideas over elements of classic sci-fi. “I think Erich initially pitched a space game,” Baldree says. “I want to say it was kind of a 50s vibe. Classic retro sci-fi vibe. A more traditional space, exploration, combat game.”
“I pitched this as our follow-up to Torchlight 2,” Schaefer interjects.
Baldree continues: “I’d just played Black Flag, and thought ‘why don’t we try and do naval combat with this’. And then I think we decided we would jam in some more Star Control 2isms, like the characters that you talk to. Back when it was something we were still pitching at Runic, there was actually a ground base component to it, because we had a lot of level designers and we wanted to make sure they had stuff to do. And it sort of evolved as we made it, it started out with some really traditional, epic space music and it’s slowly gotten this more unique vibe the longer that we’ve worked on it.
“Having the big character dialogue is really a Star Control 2 throw back. I really loved that part of Star Control, where you talk to the Spathi, and they immediately surrendered, that sort of thing. When we were talking about the characters, my art direction on those was that they should be like Dark Crystal Muppets in space, this kind of hand-crafted, rubber masks, sort of thing.
“The music was accidental, I was listening to The Black Keys one day while I was playing, and I was like, ‘this sounds way better than the generic spacey music we’ve been using, maybe it’d be cool to do sort of a blues rock kind of thing’. I was thinking of motorcycle outlaws and a little bit of a western element. Firefly has kind of the western in space kind of thing, and ours is a little bit more Roadhouse, it’s got more rock to it and less country. Although still plenty of slide guitar, I guess.”
The team’s gaming roots have informed many of the design and mechanical choices in Rebel Galaxy, which owes a lot to the celebrated space exploration games of the 80s and 90s. “Games-wise, I’d add Wing Commander Privateer,” Schaefer says. “It had a sandbox feel, we wanted to capture that. You could just go out, follow a storyline and see what’s going on in the galaxy, but a lot of people like to go out and do what they like to do, whether that’s being a pirate, hunting down bounties or cargo missions, or mining asteroids. We got the sandbox element from those type of space games.”
“I really liked the lonely frontier vibe you got in Privateer too,” says Baldree. “It seemed like there was nobody on any of the space stations, they were in the middle of nowhere and there was just five drunk guys at the bar. It had a kind of specific outsidery vibe that was really cool.
“There’s a lot of Elite in there. I’ve got a copy of Elite actually sitting next to me with my commodore. I really like the new Elite Dangerous that Frontier’s put together. They did a really awesome job.”
In part two on Wednesday, we’ll look more into Rebel Galaxy itself, the story, the gameplay, and the systems Double Damage are implementing to build a living universe.