With the new expansion for X: Rebirth on the horizon, we sat down and had a little chat with the managing director of Egosoft – Bernd Lehahn himself!
NG: For starters, on behalf of the Nutty Gamer community I thank you for agreeing to this interview. To start things off, tell us something about Egosoft and yourself.
Bernd: Hi, thanks for having me.
My name is Bernd Lehahn, managing director of Egosoft. I founded the company with a friend, basically right after school in 1990, and after a lot of experiments on the Commodore Amiga and a couple of games that were only sold in Germany, we released X: Beyond the Frontier in 1999. Since then, we have grown and specialised more and more in this area of space simulation games, made the X games into a series of now 7 games plus many expansions and hosted a community of dedicated space game enthusiasts on egosoft.com.
NG: The company has a long running history in space-related games… Where do you usually draw your inspiration from?
Bernd: For the original game, X: Beyond the Frontier, the inspiration came, as is very often the case, from a large amount of different influences. Many of them are of course the usual suspects in this area of popular Sci-Fi. A lesser known game however was a BBS, text based game we played in the early 90s: Tradewars. Tradewars still exists to this day and can now be played over the internet. Then there were other space games, like the undeniably influential original Elite but also movies, books and music. Not sure how many people in today’s audience still know Bladerunner but that and 2001: A Space Odyssey were the movies that influenced me the most personally.
NG: Can you tell us what the general philosophy behind the X series is?
Bernd: In one word: Freedom.
We provide a universe, and you can do what you want inside of it. Some play it mostly as a trading game, many like to build stations, many like to invest more time in battles and wars. All is possible and we do not want to dictate what role you play.
NG: How long were you in the process of creating the X universe before the actual game coding? The size of the universe, the races, the huge amount of ships, game lore… That must’ve taken quite some time to bring together.
Bernd: There was no point at which we sat down and decided to make this space game. It mostly started with experimenting with technology, even on the Amiga. This was mostly about vector graphics and what type of universe simulation we could come up with, but for the longest time it was all fruitless and no product came out. Then with the advent of 3D accelerators for Windows machines, we saw a chance to bring that technology into an actual game and we slowly turned a tech demo into a real game with this background fiction. But it was all gradual and incremental.
NG: How many people do you have actively working on your projects? Developers, voice actors… And how would you compare the whole process to a regular office job?
Bernd: The core team working on X Rebirth Home of Light and now a new game after that is made up of about 20 people, most of whom work here at our office in Aachen. This is already MANY more than when we started with XBTF in the 90s (3 people basically). However, there are a LOT more people involved in the making of every product. Voice actors, recording studios, external artists who support us and much more. Altogether I am sure every game had at least 50 or more people working on them and nowadays is much closer to 100 if you really count everybody involved.
NG: And speaking of office jobs – are you guys primarily working for Egosoft alone or do you have “normal” jobs as well?
Bernd: Those 20 “core team” members are all full time employees. External studios work on a for-hire basis when needed.
NG: There is one very well known fact about you guys, and that’s how you keep working on and patching your games way after their initial release. For example, X3: Albion prelude kept getting patched years after the initial release, got a few major “expansion-like” patches and everything was done for free! That’s something we barely ever see nowadays. How do you keep financing all the extra work? Love alone? 🙂
Bernd: No. In a time with fewer “free to play” games, that used to work fine; every new free update also got us a lot of new customers. So we grew our fan base and made new money and at the same time kept people happy. Of course this is only possible on the smaller scale. Especially when updates are very content-heavy (and I mean especially graphical assets here), then we had to sell the “new stuff”. That was the case with X3: Albion Prelude for example. It started off as an update for Terran Conflict but became bigger and better (also with help from external modders) and eventually turned into a fully flagged product.
NG: Your older titles were very often quoted as “hard-core”, or a type of game with a very steep learning curve. Was that the main reason you wanted a fresh approach for your latest addition to the X universe – X: Rebirth?
Bernd: Yes. Well the X3 games are great, but I believe that there are some aspects in them that can be made differently so that these space games can be more accessible for a different type of audience. It turned out that it is just extremely hard and time consuming and even harder to also keep the X3 fans happy with that new “line” at the same time. While this is still our goal, we also therefore made it very clear from the start that X Rebirth was NOT X4. It was intended to be very different from gameplay perspective.
NG: Rebirth had a very rough start. What are your general thoughts on the initial release of X: Rebirth? Were you lacking the time for the final polish or was it something completely different?
Bernd: Yes, that was definitely a part of it. That was unfortunately always the case with every single X game and the bigger the projects get the worse this problem gets. Another major problem was the misunderstanding that I talked about in the previous question: X3 fans who wanted X4, something we just could not deliver in that timeframe.
NG: In the recent few years, the gaming industry saw a big increase in popularity when it comes to space sims… What I personally love about X games is that they feel like MMOs, yet – I have the whole living, breathing universe for myself to exploit in a single player game. Most of the things you do are long-term goals and no other game of this type gives you that feeling while playing. Being (obviously) big space fans yourselves – what other similar games do you play?
Bernd: I do not play very similar games very intensively. Of course we observe these games closely, some guys at the office more than me, but I do not want to play these games and then copy their features. In the recent year I played a lot of Minecraft, because my kids are now in that phase and I enjoy playing with them (but it is also an excellent open world game too). When I play space games most intensively, I am personally a trader and builder (hence my mention of Tradewars above ;))
NG: Any thoughts on the current state of PC gaming?
Bernd: I think it is doing great. People always create these console versus PC gaming conflicts (and I must admit I occasionally like the jokes of the “PC Masterrace” subreddit ;-), but IMO the platform is really not that important. The games are what matters. With the whole VR scene development recently, and other new cutting edge features, however I can only see the PC gaming grow even more.
NG: What is your opinion on crowd-funded games, day one DLCs and micro transactions? Unfortunately, it almost became a frequent thing to get more and more half-baked games that turn out nothing like what developers promised, or we get content that is locked behind even more paywalls…
Bernd: I dont think these things are necessarily related. Each of the three trends you list there has advantages and each can be(and is being) abused. It always depends on the developer (and sometimes on the publisher) and what they make out of it. When at its best, crowd funding can help bring otherwise impossible-to.finance projects into reality. DLCs should of course not be released on day one, but selling a DLC to extend the lifetime of a game is a very valid possibility to grow a game and continue to do what we did with the free updates in the past while still making a living. Micro transactions are complicated and can very easily be abused to sacrifice gameplay for monetisation, but even that can also be used in a good way.
NG: What are your future plans for X: Rebirth? There are still several factions / races that are not present in the game. Any chance of multiple future DLCs similar to Teladi Outpost?
Bernd: Well that is the reason why I delayed answering this interview 😉 X: Rebirth Home of Light is now announced and coming out in February. This is a very big expansion of game mechanics as well as size and content of the universe. Again we have put a lot of features into a free update for existing customers (the 4.0 update) while at the same time making a living by selling the new content as an expansion.
NG: Recently you published a video mentioning you started working on a brand new game in the X series. Is there any information you can share with us?
Bernd: Not yet, sorry. The only reason why I did talk about this so early was to explain the different approaches we have to take. We are working on many different cool new ideas. Many of these fit into updates and expansions for X Rebirth and that’s what you will now get in February. But what I wanted people to understand was that there are also gameplay changes that can only be made in a completely new game. The best example for that is of course the No#1 feature request, to be able to fly more than one ship, but there are also many other things we are trying out for that new game. Stay tuned.
NG: Any chance you’ll be venturing into multiplayer waters? If not a full-blown MMO, maybe an X game with co-op mode?
Bernd: There is always a chance, but right now we are very busy with what we already have on our plates 😉
NG: And to wrap it up – what would you say the biggest selling point of the X games is?
Bernd: The living and breathing universe. I very much enjoy just watching the NPCs do their stuff. It is quite different between the different X games. In X2 / X3, you would mostly see the transporters and had to look into menus to see that they were REALLY transporting these goods that a factory REALLY produced and another one REALLY consumed. In X Rebirth we tried to expose that more graphically by showing the manufacturing process, but in the end this really is the one big combining factor of all X games.
NG: Once again Bernd, thnx for your time and we wish you all the best with future projects!
If you wish to know more about Egosoft’s project or just become the part of the ever-growing X community, hop over to their official website.