Gameranx Interviews: Stevan Dukic (Hellion)

Newly forged independent studio Zero Gravity Games isn’t afraid of taking risks, even on a grand scale. Their debut project is Hellion, a survival MMO set in a futuristic space colony, and nothing about it is just casually strung together; From its AAA quality graphics, to its enigmatic narrative and hyper-realistic space physics, Hellion is shaping up to be the ultimate fan service to anyone fond of science fiction. Gameranx spoke to Zero Gravity Games’ Stevan Dukic about Hellion, the challenges of creating an immersive experience, and the age old debate of which is better: Star Wars or Star Trek. 

Gameranx: Tell us a bit about how you came to work in the games industry, and your role on Hellion.

Stevan Dukic: I’m Stevan Dukic, Co-Founder, COO and game designer at Zero Gravity. It all happened by accident, 2 years ago. My friend Branislav Trajkovic (Co-Founder and ZG CEO) called me one day and said he and 3 other guys (Marko, Nenad and Nemanja) have an idea to make a space game. They knew each other from playing Day Z together. Branislav and I played EVE Online for 5 years together and that’s how we actually met in real life, many years ago. That fusion explains a lot. I’ve had no chance and just jumped in. We made the Zero Gravity company one and a half years ago and that was it. The rest is a space opera.

Gameranx: In your own words, how would you describe Hellion?

Dukic: It’s a realistic survival sci-fi space simulation game with a very realistic environment model, physics model and complex systems. The look and feel is unique and almost claustrophobic at some points. It will remind many people of their favorite sci-fi movies and series.

Gameranx: What are the inspirations for Hellion? What gave you the final push to grow an idea into a full fledged multiplayer survival game?

Dukic: Sci-fi movies, books and series. Games too. We were always looking for that perfect space game that never came out. Surprisingly, we ended up making one. I’m not saying Hellion is a perfect space game but I hope one day it will be. I want to believe so. We are all nerds and hard-core sci-fi fans here, so lacking inspiration was never a problem. Too much inspiration…well, that’s a completely different thing.

Gameranx: As a competitor to No Man’s Sky and Star Citizen, what makes Hellion different? Why does it stand out?

Dukic: We don’t see them as competitors regardless of being in the same sci-fi space genre with them. While No Man’s Sky is visually and conceptually very different from Hellion, Star Citizen has some similar feats, look and feel. It is a nice feeling when people are comparing our game with SC but it also hurts when some assume we are just a SC copycat, which we are not. Hellion is a completely different thing and players will realize that in time.

Hellion is a unique game and in its own niche. We are aiming for the most accurate realism and exceptions are made only in cases when 100% realism has bad impact on the gameplay. In most cases, we try to use realism as basic mechanics and the generator of fun and immersive gameplay. The level of detail and complexity regarding environment, subsystems, equipment, orbital mechanics, research and crafting is another big difference and this will be obvious immediately at the launch. It is something that will immensely improve during the course of early access and this is our major development branch. Also, we have ambitious plan to redefine what a real survival game, especially in sci-fi world, should be.

Gameranx: What does ‘Hellion‘ refer to? Does it have a specific meaning?

Dukic: As many others before us, we also went through a painful process of naming our game. Hellion came out suddenly, by one of our concept artists, and successfully ended our misery. It was love at first sight. Hellion sounds cool, it has an interesting meaning in English and it is reminiscent of the word ‘hell’, which is a great personification for the dystopian environment players will try to thrive and survive in. Personally, it reminds me of Helios (Sun – Titan of Sun) which is also super cool.

Gameranx: Hellion is a very ambitious, grand project reminiscent of Destiny. You’ve packed in combat, crafting, piloting and survival to name a few features – how will you ensure game loops are strong and keep players interested?

Dukic: The idea is to support different gameplay styles. People will be able to thrive and survive doing stuff they like, if they are good at it and want to specialize. Where they are lacking, they will be able to team up, combine resources and skills, support each other and benefit from it. Everyone will be in constant struggle to survive, improve and prosper and that will generate a perpetual gameplay and a lot of fun, I hope.

Gameranx: You’ve created a setting with authentic space physics and realistic scale size. Why was this important to you? Do you think the extra layer of realism will help overall immersion?

Dukic: The idea was to create something different – a game that does not exist right now. Realism and immersion, indeed, were our top priorities. We wanted to a create hard-core sci-fi game we were dreaming to play all our life but nobody made it for us. So we’ve set the parameters and jumped into a warp bubble. Players will probably notice the great attention to detail in our design.

“We wanted to a create hard-core sci-fi game we were dreaming to play all our life, but nobody made it for us”

We plan to implement much more in the near future but, of course, there is that never-ending struggle with time and deadlines. Our goal is to have a bunch of hardware buttons, levers and monitors for subsystems control and maintenance, hatches to access parts and machines.

We want to create a rich, complex and challenging gameplay experience where players have to think hard about the best options and tactics for their survival. Should I press that button or not? Of course, I will press it at the end but my survival will depend on it. The same goes for realism in space orbital mechanics and Newtonian physics. This additional layer of complexity, in our opinion, brings much to the table. Players will not just fly and run around shooting other people on sight. They will have to carefully plan and execute basically every move in space, because the hard vacuum does not forgive mistakes.

Gameranx: What has been the most enjoyable part about working on Hellion?

Dukic: For me personally, designing game features, imagining how it should work and how it would be like to play it. Also, playing the game starting from the first build. It was a privilege and every gamer’s dream come true. The most satisfying thing, and I think this is something everyone can relate to in Zero Gravity team, is positive feedback we are getting from the Hellion community.

We are a small, unknown indie studio and this is our first project. Reaction, when someone sees and tries Hellion for the first time is priceless. People generally do not expect much from it and it comes both to them and to us as a surprise. We had the privilege to share our game and get the feedback on few major international game shows so far and it was an awesome experience.

Gameranx: What have you learned along the way?

Dukic: Great ideas can be and will be materialized. You just have to believe, plan well, be focused and make one step at a time. Hard times come and go but eventually it will be done, no matter how complex or impossible it may seem at the beginning. Don’t get me wrong – we are still noobs and we are still learning.

Gameranx: One hundred years of cryosleep sounds very futuristic – like Sleeping Beauty levelled up. Can you shed some more light on the story, what happened before the hibernation and hint at some of the secrets lurking around the first interstellar space colony?

Dukic: It does sound rather futuristic we agree, then again Hellion is a hard sci-fi setting, or so we want to think. We wanted players to get a feeling for the scope of the “Expedition project” and what it would take to make a journey to Hellion with the level of technology that is based on modern theories. The journey took decades to prepare and required all of mankind to work together for over 70 years. Prior to even thinking about interstellar colonization, humanity had to unite and colonize the Solar system. By the year 2292, when the Expedition fleet finally left Sol on its 80 years long journey to Hellion, mankind was no longer a terrestrial civilization but a space faring one.

Over a million colonists were suspended in cryogenic hibernation for the duration of the journey and many of them would not wake until Hellion’s infrastructure was fully deployed, so they had to remain in cryosleep even after the fleet made its way to Hellion. When a small number of them (the layers) finally start waking up, they realize that they were in cryo far longer than necessary and that Hellion is in ruins. There are many unanswered questions. Why did they sleep for so long? What happened to the engineers and scientists that came before them? Why is Hellion’s orbital infrastructure in ruins? Why are they the only ones waking up? But one question stands out among the others, one that has no explanation. How is it that instead of dying every one of them simply wakes up in a different body?

Gameranx: We’ve seen a rise in the amount of space-centric media released in recent years; Destiny, Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, COD Infinite Warfare. What are your thoughts on the future of the space ‘genre’ for games?

Dukic: The future for space games and sci-fi genre in general is great. Just check around what studios are making today and compare it to 10 years ago. We are creating features not so long ago believed to be impractical or impossible. Just imagine what people will make 10 years from now. Soon, we will hit an  of absolute photo realism and near perfect simulation. The only boundary will be our imagination.

Also, as in real life, the future is always escaping you, so it is and will always be an interesting topic that brings lots of potential and material to try to predict or simply to dream about. Even if everything in real life goes downhill, we will still have nice dystopian real life future, so whatever happens in the future, the future in sci-fi and space games has to be glorious.

Gameranx: Anything specific you’d like to leave our readers with?

Dukic: If you are a sci-fi and space (simulation) fan try out Hellion cause it delivers the realistic look and feel, atmosphere and experience. Give it a chance, especially in the long run, because we have some really awesome and unique features in our road map.

Gameranx: Bonus question – Star Trek, or Star Wars, and why?

Dukic: You hit hard with the last one. This is a really tough one. I love them both. Star Trek for quasi science and realism, trying hard to predict the future, Star Wars for epicness, force and lightsabers. If I have to choose, I will go for Star Wars, but only because I’m force sensitive.

* * *

Gameranx thanks Stevan Dukic and Zero Gravity Games for their time and expertise in making this interview possible. Interested players can try out Hellion today via Steam early access for $24.99/£18.99/€22.99. May the force be with you.