Interview: Homeworld’s Rob Cunningham on defining Homeworld and inspirations

Homeworld is a name that needs little introduction to fans of real-time strategy. But, like the films of Hitchcock or the music of Led Zeppelin, Homeworld was more than a genre milestone; it was a defining point in video games with an influence that can still be felt nearly two decades after it’s original release.

As the Art Director for Homeworld and Homeworld 2, and now the CEO of Blackbird Interactive – the studio behind Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak – few people are as intimately familiar with the series as Rob Cunningham.

Tell us about the inspirations behind your work and some of the design elements that define the series. In short, what would Homeworld never be Homeworld without?

Rob Cunningham: Homeworld was the first ‘truly’ 3D RTS, so Aaron Kambeitz and I wanted to make the most of the innovative orbital/zoom camera design and create a world where the ships and environment really felt real and very huge. For the ships themselves, articulating a believable scale was a big objective and a huge challenge given the technical limitations of the time. So, the art of the series was heavily inspired by the incredible sci-fi artwork of Peter Elson, Chris Foss, John Harris and others.

“We were drawn to the simple forms and bold colour schemes […] the logic-driven design of the ships, right down to the heavy use of painted decals and tight industrial functional details, it made them feel so real and well scaled to each other…”

We were drawn to the simple forms and bold colour schemes these artists were playing with. The logic-driven design of the ships, right down to the heavy use of painted decals and tight industrial functional details, it made them feel so real and well scaled to each other as the player zoomed out to the large capital ships.

The art of the Star Wars movies and Masamune Shirow’s comics were big influences as well. Again, characterized by fine detailing that did not simply repeat over and over down the hulls. The idea that the ships were the ‘characters’ of the game was a reoccurring theme for us as we went about designing the fleets. Also, since the game was set in 3D space, we had to make sure that each ship had an easily identifiable silhouette from every angle for clarity of gameplay.

We were also very sensitive to the problem of a player becoming disorientated in 3D space, so we took every precaution we could to help prevent that. For example: the two primary Motherships were these giant things visible almost all the time, so we designed them as basically a giant tall tower and a huge flat slab to always show the player “this is up/down and this is flat” at a glance.

“The idea that the ships were the ‘characters’ of the game was a reoccurring theme for us…”

The backgrounds were also designed to support this. Inspired by my interest in astronomy, I thought if we are going back to our Homeworld across space, what could be a better road trip than a trans-galactic one? In addition to being a great ‘sky backdrop’ of beautiful colours and forms, the cross-sectional edge-on view of the spiral structure of the galaxy provides and excellent horizontal orientation function for the player, especially at the beginning of the campaign when the newbie player is on the outskirts of the galaxy and the ‘milky way’ horizontal shape is the strongest and most familiar. It also has the bonus of being an excellent ‘space landmark’ device, since each hyperspace jump will parallax the position of interstellar dust clouds to create the visual impression that you are physically moving through this big flat disc of a galaxy.

Creating Deserts of Kharak as a ground-based prequel seemed like a rather daring move. Why did you feel that was the right direction? What was most important, and most difficult, in keeping Deserts of Kharak true to Homeworld?

“Shipbreakers was like a spiritual successor to Homeworld, […] turning Shipbreakers into Deserts of Kharak was very seamless and felt right.”

We were already working on a sci-fi, ground-based RTS called ‘Shipbreakers’ that was set on a desert planet when Gearbox bought the Homeworld franchise. For us, Shipbreakers was like a spiritual successor to Homeworld and was very similar in style and tone. Conceptually, turning Shipbreakers into Deserts of Kharak was very seamless and felt right. In fact, it helped in many ways since the Homeworld universe already had so much backstory and lore we could work with. From a business perspective, it was less of a daring move than a stroke of good luck and excellent timing since, at the time, we were looking for more funding to complete the project anyway!

To make it an authentic Homeworld game we felt the most important thing was to get the tone and feel right. Not just the art or the look of the units, but the whole experience. Set on the ground, one of the biggest issues was how we would get the terrain to work in both the 3D game mode and the sensors manager. Like Homeworld, it had to feel endless and epic, and it had to work well with the gameplay and vehicles or the spell would be broken.

“…we felt the most important thing was to get the tone and feel right […] Like Homeworld, it had to feel endless and epic…”

Also, the Homeworld feeling was heavily tied to storytelling and the immersive mood of the environments. The lighting and of course the sound design, speech and music, which was a huge part of bringing it together. Homeworld’s original composer and audio director Paul Ruskay made sure that part was well taken care of, and he did an absolutely superb job as usual.

Homeworld 2 Concept Art by Rob Cunningham

You also worked on Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War and Company of Heroes. What is it that draws you to the RTS genre?

I feel an RTS engages the player’s mind in a way that a first- or third-person game can’t. For me, it is less about the resourcing or combat conventions of the genre than it is about the spatial dimension of the environment itself, with the distribution of various units doing different things across an interesting backdrop is what interests me.
Each game I’ve worked on has focused on a different idea or twist on a design concept, but they’re all just variations on

“[The genre] lends itself so well to spectacle and fantastic proportions. That’s just fun to make. You feel like a kid!”

the common theme of a large world with multiple layers of strategic thinking required, set against an immersive story. The narrative opportunity with real-time strategy seems unique in that it lends itself so well to spectacle and fantastic proportions. That’s just fun to make. You feel like a kid!

Where would you like to see RTS games go from here?

I think there will always be an audience for traditional RTS games. The toy-soldier fantasy just works so well and is easy for people to connect with. For me, dissolving the edges of the screen is what matters most regardless of the genre. Allowing the player to immerse fully into a game and feel a part of it. This only happens with the right combination of well-tuned elements in a design and there are so many ways to get there.

“There’s a creative drive in people that is so fulfilling. If RTS games can explore that more and give people a way to connect with their own urge to make things, I think that would be very interesting.”

For RTS games, it would be interesting to see a path forward that expands the physical edges of the world and deepens a player’s attachment to the things in it to forge a stronger emotional connection there. The vehicles, characters, whatever the game is about. There’s a creative drive in people that is so fulfilling. If RTS games can explore that more and give people a way to connect with their own urge to make things, I think that would be very interesting.

On a more personal note, what about your work makes you the most happy and proud? For extra credit, what’s the meanest thing anyone has ever said about your work?

The games we all make are huge endeavors that require big teams of people with lots of different skills and temperaments. The best thing about the work for me is when “one plus one equals four.” When the result of collaboration is greater than the sum of the parts and not merely an expression of unsatisfying compromise. When it happens, a magical energy is released and everyone gets really excited, and you know the player will feel it too.

“The best thing about the work for me is when “one plus one equals four.” When the result of collaboration is greater than the sum of the parts […] When it happens, a magical energy is released and everyone gets really excited, and you know the player will feel it too.”

To be honest, I can’t put my finger on the actual meanest thing ever said about my work. When I read a bad review and someone is really mad or disappointed about something, I can’t recall a single time when I thought, “That person is on crack.” Every negative comment is almost always based on something valid and its usually something I already knew about, but for whatever reason we couldn’t fix. So, most of time I’m like, “I hear you and I’m sorry it ruined your experience. Next time we will try to do better!” Obviously, you can’t please everyone.

Finally, what are you up to these days? Are there exciting new projects, personal or otherwise, that you can talk about?

I can’t mention specifics but Blackbird is growing nicely and we have a full team in production, so we have our hands full with that. We’re also working on a smaller internal experimental project we hope to release next year that is a lot of fun and is something very different. It will be interesting to see what happens with that. Personally I’m looking forward to doing some travel soon and the prosthesis project is always exciting to see take shape!