An Interview with Membraine Studios

Earlier in the week I wrote about a band of Ozzies going by the name of Membraine Studios who are developing Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire, a tabletop wargame on your PC. On top of this they have flung open their project to the community in the form of a Indigogo campaign which I talked a little about here.

Aside from looking awesome, doing a straight port from table to PC was an interesting idea. So much so I decided to fire some questions their way…

TSC: Membraine Studios is currently developing, essentially, a virtual tabletop wargame. How did the project come about? Was it a eureka moment or something that’s evolved over time?

MARK SHEPPARD: Definitely something that evolved. I guess the idea for Fractured Empire started back in 2009, mainly from a desire to get to play more tabletop wargames, really. I have three young kids and not a lot of spare time, so I was finding it increasingly difficult to make time for my wargaming hobby—and that was just plain unacceptable.

The idea was to make a computer game that would capture, as much as possible, those things I loved most about miniature wargames: collecting minis, developing that “killer” army list, and playing a tactically challenging game. Most importantly, the game would need to capture the tactile nature of tabletop gaming, with minis to pick up and move around. This game would eschew the traditional computer-based strategy game conceits of the grid or the hex, and instead allow freedom of movement, like you experience on the tabletop. In short, it would be what I thought of as a “true tabletop game” on your computer.

Fast-forward a few months to the period in time where Josh, Glenn and I were coming together for the first time to talk about making games. My miniature wargame concept came up and we bounced it around, but it was ultimately decided that it was “too niche” and too complex for our first game, and we moved on. We released “Orbital Defence” for the iPhone a few months after that, so in retrospect that was probably a good call.

Following the release of “Orbital Defence”, which received great reviews from players and press alike, we all took a break for several months to regroup.  After that break, though, we returned to making games with a vengeance. We went through a process of rapid prototyping that saw us create more than 20 prototypes, each of which was scrutinised and brutally assessed for its suitability for our next project…before each was summarily relegated to the shelf as “not quite right”.

That process went on for more than a year. It was really only about six months ago that we finally hit gold and found what we were looking for—when, upon review of old ideas, we finally managed to rework my old miniature wargame design into something that worked.

Yes, it took three years and more than 20 prototypes to get there, but get there we did.

Being armed with a game design that we believed in energised us as a team, but we recognised the hard truth of it—that this was still a ridiculously niche design. So what could we do to broaden the game’s appeal?

Luckily, it didn’t take us too long to decide that that was a FAIL approach, and we decided to instead embrace the niche-ness and pitch the game directly to the wargaming community.

TSC: Trying to write a wargame is real challenge. Trying to write a wargame that’s also a video game must be doubly so. What were some of your considerations through early development?

JOSH ANDERSON: When we decided to make a representation of the tabletop, we realised that there were some key things we absolutely must have: army lists, deployment, customisation and flexible multi-player. As a theorycrafter, I love building lists. As an armchair general, Mark really loves getting an edge during deployment… and Glenn, well he’s an artist, so he has to have the prettiest models on the table.

And the icing on the cake is our multiplayer – start a game on your home PC, choose your list and deploy your forces. Head to the park with your kids and while they are playing, whip out your iPad and take your first couple of turns.

The next day, at work, log in via your browser and squeeze a couple more turns in over lunch, finishing the game off on your Macbook at home. How cool is that?!

TSC: Tell us about your wargaming backgrounds and from where your draw your inspirations from.

GLENN OSMOND-MCLEOD: I have been modelling and painting figs since I was about 14. I remember my first fig came out pink after I tried to add highlights to the red amour. Painting and terrain has always been a massive passion for me. Shortly after painting my first few models I turned my hand to creating tables and terrain and have made more terrain pieces than I can possibly remember. I have always preferred engaging with the spectacle of wargaming. I get the most satisfaction sitting back looking at a huge table of wargaming terrain and two armies deployed opposing each other ready to have it out.

JOSH: I have played 40k off and on since I was a kid, but I loved Necromunda and Mordheim. I played Warmachine competitively for a while but I’m really into Epic 40k, the Exodus Wars 6mm Ruleset (yet to be released) and Flames of War now.

I probably spend 80% of my time building and theorizing lists, 15% of my timing painting and modelling and 5% of my time actually playing. Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire will allow me to bring that play ratio up, WAY UP and that’s what excites me about it.

MARK: I’m the old man here. I started with the 1st Edition of Warhammer 40,000, Rogue Trader, I think, 1987. With ALIENS having been released pretty soon before that and having only recently read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, the imagery of the Space Marines really gelled with me and drew me into the strange new world of miniature wargames.

Since then, I’ve played a lot of different games, and my tastes as a gamer matured, so these days I gravitate much more to 6mm wargames like Exodus Wars, of course, but also Blitzkrieg Commander and Epic.

I’ve always been more of a gamer than a hobbyist, though; I have great respect for the art works some guys can create with their minis, but I don’t have that talent…sadly.

TSC: For those that don’t know the Exodus Wars universe, can you fill us in on some of the details, and what made you choose it as a setting for the game?

GLENN: The Exodus Wars universe is amazing. When I first got into the background, I was astounded at the depth of the backstory. It’s not a black and white, good versus evil story that is war and destruction all the way; it’s more layered and intertwined. Humanity has split into two distinct factions and the tension between these factions is where our initial conflicts take place. Neither side is particularly evil, they just have significant differences of opinion on the future direction of humanity.

The Guild is a capitalist organisation formed by the people with the means and motivation to escape a society taxing itself into destruction. The Royal Empire of Man is made up of those who remained after the Exodus, presumably due to lacking means to escape their situation. This creates a contrast of the well equipped Guild with its well-trained and motivated troops—the best money can buy—while the Royal Empire of Man and its 12 remaining kingdoms vary in motivation and also struggle for power within the Empire.

Then there are the alien races—but bringing them into the fold at this stage is dependant on the success of the campaign. I can’t wait to bring the Khazari to life on the battlefield. Those guys are fast and crazy, but that’s probably for a later update at this stage.

TSC: The trailers for Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire look impressive but essentially a virtual tabletop wargame. What will you bring to the table to take advantage of the medium as players won’t be restricted by their purse string or their ability make terrain?

JOSH: The number one thing is the ability to play with friends that are interstate, overseas or just plain busy. Or test your skill against the top talent around the world. Our plan is to allow players to opt-in to social media integration, allowing them to challenge their mates and brag about their victories.

Our aim is to be as true to the tabletop as possible, but turning it into a PC game gives us some pretty cool options. How good would a game of Epic 40k be with Fog of War!? What about a ridiculous 10,000 point game over a 10’x10’ table? How about being able to play in multiple campaigns, one turn at a time over the course of a week? The sky is the limit here and it’s a bloody big sky!

These are things that are logistical nightmares in person, but the ease of use of a PC (and hopefully tablet) make this possible.

GLENN: We are creating a game that aims to bring the depth of tabletop wargaming to life. Tabletop wargaming brings with it a number of restrictions. Our hobby requires significant commitment of time, money and patience. I personally have a wife and kid that makes sure my time is full of family and all that comes with it.

Before resigning to go full-time on Membraine Studios, I had a full time job for The Man that took upwards of 60 hours a week plus travel away for me. Finding 3 hours or so for a wargame on the weekend is, sadly becoming more and more difficult for me. Most of my friends are in similar positions. Having a game like this that I can play without needing a good 3 hours of time is a big plus. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE table top wargaming, and have sunk many hours into armies and tabletops, but as time gets more scarce I still want to experience it in a way that I can fit into my life. It’s not the same, and it’s not better, it’s just an alternative way to play a game with mates.

Wargaming also requires a significant financial investment, especially if you want to own all units in an army or even multiple armies. Within Fractured Empire you get access to a huge variety of units right away that may have taken forever to collect and paint in reality. Maybe not as cool as the real thing, but certainly a good deal of fun for 10 bucks. (Plus they blow up and move with the click of a mouse.)

We are also not limited by table size. We can propose MASSIVE battles and we have every intention of doing so. We can go beyond the limits of a wargaming table both in battlefield size and also the landscape and terrain we feature. We will hopefully be showing off some of the larger battle field features planned for the game soon. I still want to capture that image you get when your forces are deployed and you look back at the table top and see two armies facing off against each other, but we can really go to town with the sheer size of battles available.

I can’t wait to breathe life into the miniatures we play with. With enough community interest we hope to be able to really bring the battles to life. I want to see the mechs march across the battlefield and actually see the effects of their barrage of fire.

I spent most of my time as a kid gaming against the same 5 or so guys, (you know who you are) and it was not until I started playing tournaments that I got good at wargaming. I started to think differently about how I approached each game. Playing a game like this online will open up doors to a variety of tactical possibilities. Facing a range of different situations on a regular basis is quite hard to achieve playing against the same mates or even regularly at torneys.

I have mates scattered across the globe. This wasn’t always the case, but sadly it is now. Being able to catch up with them, be it virtually, for a quick wargame is something I am really looking forward to. It’s not the same as sharing a beer and pushing around models, but it will capture the same tense moments and excitement of a war game (with explosions) and this is something I can’t wait to enjoy.

TSC: What can you tell us about Exodus Wars: FE’s army builder elements and will there be a campaign?

JOSH: The Exodus Wars 6mm rule set has army list building that most wargamers would be familiar with. Battles have a total points cost per side agreed up-front, units cost a set amount of points. There are some force restrictions to ensure people take balanced lists, but otherwise you build it to your heart’s content.

In terms of a single-player campaign, that depends on how well our crowdfunding campaign goes. I’ve done some work on infrastructure for a campaign mode, but it may be released in a cut-down form in order to get the game out in time (e.g. a few scenarios that form an in-depth tutorial).

And release will not be the end of development for Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire – if we don’t get the funds we need now, we’ll use money from post-release sales to fund the next stages of development – a single-player campaign would be pretty high on the priority list.

TSC: There are those in the community who feel that this is taking the wargaming hobby in the wrong direction as part of the appeal is building and painting an army. What’s your view on this feedback?

MARK SHEPPARD: I do get where those guys are coming from, but I think there’s no real conflict there. Our game aims to enhance tabletop wargaming by offering an additional experience, not a replacement.

The physical hobby offers so much that computer games will never be able to. From being able to hold your minis in your hands and place them in heroic poses, to the model conversion side of things and, of course, painting.

By way of example: as much as people might enjoy playing World of Warcraft and surrounding themselves with their online mates, it’ll never replace hanging out with your mates in the local pub. Playing Wow and hanging out in the pub are both a lot of fun, and—better yet—they’re not mutally exclusive. What’s to stop you from having a couple of pints with the guys after work, say, and then catching up with them again later in WoW?

JOSH: I agree with Mark. We don’t want you to quit wargaming on an actual tabletop—we just want to offer you an awesome way to get your fix in between your face-to-face gaming sessions.

TSC: So multiplayer will be the name of the game. How this work both in terms of game modes and friends being able to interact with each other effectively via online play?

JOSH: While we’re not ready to share the full list of multi-player game modes, we want to offer people as many ways to play this as possible. If your readers have a specific mode they’d like to see, they should contact us via Facebook, Twitter or our website and let us know!

TSC: To date, what’s been your favourite part of the project?

JOSH: The reveal to the community and the positive feedback we’re getting is incredible. The money is nice, but knowing that what we’re doing is making people happy—that feeling just inspires me. All I want to do right now is make Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire even better than people expect.

GLENN: The environments. We have shown two of our environments to date. These are fairly typical of what you might see on a nice wargaming table, but with the freedom afforded to us by working in a digital medium, we are not limited to the real world restrictions of making terrain. We can engage with the background of our universe and create environments that truly reflect the opulent scale of the Guild capitalist society or the Royal empire cities that are dilapidated and in disrepair. Given my background as an architect, my favourite part of the project is investigating what form the cities might take and why they have developed the way they have. Whole cities with a story to tell. I would love to bring some of these environments to life if we exceed our funding target for the basic game.

MARK SHEPPARD: For me, it was seeing the Behemoth animate and fire for the first time. So awesome.

That, and discovering all the background material the guys at Steel Crown Productions are developing for their Exodus Wars universe. It’s pretty cool stuff; it’s well thought out and reasoned, so it feels possible and real—in a way that some other sci-fi universes I’ve played in never have. <cough>

TSC: You currently have a Indiegogo page active to help fund the project. Here’s you soap box, explain to the community why it’s important and why it should get their help and, more to the point, money.

JOSH: I think the crowdfunding concept is perfect for us. We’re not asking people to fund the entire development of Fractured Empire—we are asking the crowd to put the cream on the top so we can add the awesome features we want to make—army customisation, deformable terrain, campaigns, and so on.

MARK SHEPPARD: I think the best thing about what we’re doing is that we’re trying to service a niche market, turn-based strategic tabletop wargamers, who haven’t received a whole lot of love from the games industry in recent years.

We’re trying to make the type of game that the industry largely ignores because it’s so niche. That makes Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire a bit special to my mind, and I think it’s something that deserves to be supported.

If someone else had thought of this and was making a tabletop TBS for PC, I’d be lining up to buy their game. That’s probably the best endorsement I can offer.

TSC: And finally, assuming all goes to plan, when can we expect Exodus Wars to be available?

MARK: <<Looks at Josh>>

GLENN: <<Looks at Josh>>

JOSH: Ha! I love how this one gets thrown to me! Yeah, okay.

I’d say “soon”, but that’s just annoying right?

We want to get our Alpha testers in as soon as possible. These guys are going to help shape the game and make it awesome.

Once we feel the game has enough features, a workable UI and we have our multiplayer infrastructure in place we will be releasing Alpha. We have a rough idea of the date, but until we see how the crowdfunding campaign finishes up, the date could move back 2-3 months.

Ideally we’d release Beta in early 2013, as our currently projected release window is Q1 2013.

We’re planning to be quite transparent, with updates posted to our website, Facebook and Twitter. If you’re keen to see what we’re up to, Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. As soon as we have firmer dates, we’ll be sharing them on there.

TSC: Thanks very much for your time guys. I look forward to seeing further updates and the finished product next year.

Is you’re interested in supporting the guys at Membraine Studios with their Indiegogo campaign, go here. And if you want to know more about the guys at Membraine or Steel Crown click on the logos below.

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2 thoughts on “An Interview with Membraine Studios

  1. Sounds like an interesting project. I enjoy playing wargames on VASSAL. It’s a great way to get your gaming fix when you’re tight for time or opponents are hard to find in your local area. It’ll be interesting to see if this project can still keep the feel of a tabletop game (where you know the rules and determine how it functions) or will it seem more like a computer game (where the game logic is oblique).

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