“I just wanted to make a game that I always wanted to play, and I knew would never happen otherwise,” says Rob Hesketh, the solo developer behind Executive Assault 2. What that means, in a nutshell, is a strategy game where you control an army, but also can take over the individual units involved. But not in the manner you can in, say, Starcraft: where it’s a matter of top-down fine control. Here you’re looking over a vast galactic battlefield one moment then, instantaneously, are looking across a ship’s bridge in firstperson.
I don’t want to over-egg Executive Assault 2. This is a game made almost entirely by one guy (his brother helps out with the music) and elements of it won’t be giving the big publishers any sleepless nights: if you come into this expecting the first-person shooter element to compare to Call of Duty, you’re both daft and destined for disappointment.
Caveats aside, there’s something about the sheer scope of this that, in the same context of a solo dev, is pretty breathtaking. It’s half RTS, half FPS, and you can play the whole thing through with a mate or face off against other players in multiplayer. You gather resources, build ships and technologies, and at any time can switch between macro and micro strategy.
I ask Hesketh to summarise the game he always wanted to play. “If you have ever played Command and Conquer or Starcraft and you see the little forces all running around on the battlefield and you’re thinking ‘I’d really like to be in there with them…’ then this is the game for you [...] if you’ve ever played Star Trek Armada, you’d see all the spaceships there but now you’re in them and joining in with the fighter combat too.”
The game is obviously a sequel, and the original had many of the same ideas though not quite the same scale: it’s set on a planetary surface, and sees you raising robot armies to kill the opposing army’s CEO. The title’s something of a pun because, although this moves everything into space, that goal remains constant: to win against another empire you need to board their capital ship, hunt down their ‘executive’, and take them out.
It was also Hesketh’s first big project as a game developer (he began his career in the movie industry before switching tracks). It’s easy enough to say stuff like this with hindsight but, as we discuss his experiences with the first game, it’s clear it was something of an apprenticeship in the less glamorous aspects of the industry: bug fixes, community management, and generally just trying to get anyone to pay attention.
The first Executive Assault had a Kickstarter that quietly failed to hit the target, an early lesson in visibility and first impressions. “After using it I would actually rename Kickstarter to ‘Continuum’,” laughs Hesketh, “because I find the products that tend to do best there are the ones that are practically finished, fully fleshed out, graphically beautiful.
“When I first put my game on Kickstarter, the graphics were horrendous, but that’s what you’d expect at that level of wanting money – it didn’t look very good. I tried to make a snazzy video with lots of effects and things like that, but the games that seem to succeed on there are the ones that are already beautiful looking. You come away thinking “Why do you need any money for that thing? Because you’ve already had a lot of money to produce it to that state, so…” – that’s where I see Kickstarter at the moment.”
Instead Hesketh knuckled down and targeted Steam Early Access, with the intention being to get the game available quickly and update it regularly. One of the unexpected bonuses of this was that Executive Assault suddenly had a small but engaged playerbase that was doubling up as a QA department.
“I wasn’t suddenly inundated with thousands of bug requests either,” recalls Hesketh. “It trickled through people over the months and years, it was helping me a lot with fixing things along the route. I think people on Steam can actually be quite forgiving if you’re honest and tell them when things are going to happen and what’s going to happen, and if you show constant development rather than abandoning it once it’s in early access, they can be quite forgiving actually. Just look at No Man’s Sky!”
That post-launch story also has an element of toxic fandom, however, and while we’re talking about grand space epics that inspire unusual fervour there are plenty of other examples. Perhaps it’s the very scale that leads to this sort of thing: when you’re one voice in a sea of millions, it’s easy to find like-minded perspectives, and reinforcement can lead to more extreme positions. With something like Executive Assault there’s a smaller playerbase, and Hesketh’s experience seems mostly positive.
“Just be honest with them,” says Hesketh. “Absolute honesty and good, quick feedback. Just tell them if it’s in the works, if it’s not in the works. People come up with crazy ideas and I’d say ‘That’s really interesting but I can’t do that…’ A lot of people ask for mod support, and it’s a big thing, but I won’t be doing mod support because it’s not as easy as clicking a button, you have to really plan it in there, and I don’t think I’ll be implementing that so…. yeah, and don’t get angry. Deal with trolls as you would any other trolls – don’t feed them for starters.”
The game hit Early Access last week, containing both singleplayer and multiplayer, and feels like a great foundation mostly because the concept just works. Perhaps it’s the little boy in me but there’s something just thrilling about hopping in and out of a space empire, switching from the CEO’s room to check the mining operation, watching your ships materialise in the docks, hopping into a troop transport just as it lands and adding a few precision shots to get this invasion off to a flier…
Executive Assault 2 costs £19.99 at this stage, a price tag that helps keep the initial numbers manageable. “A little bit yeah, I don’t want to be inundated with hundreds and thousands of bug reports straight away so it definitely works out. I certainly won’t be doing like Planetary Annihilation Early Access which was £89 or something like that. That’s just a bit too much.”
I’ve got to ask: is he looking forward to Star Citizen?
“I’ve no comment,” Hesketh laughs. “When it comes out, come back.”
Got to give him that one: Executive Assault 2 is certainly out. The game as it stands is not the finished article, but impressive even so. One of the reasons I say that is the understandable but unfortunate situation whereby it currently doesn’t have a tutorial: there is a manual that explains stuff, which is fine as a stopgap, but the bigger problem is just familiarising yourself with the menus and the range of options available. There’s a lot to do in Executive Assault 2, and several menus nested away in counter-intuitive places.
Basically, go in with the attitude that you’ll be confused and get stomped for the first game or two, then everything starts to make sense.
And that sense of awe at such a cool trick never really goes. It’s hard not to think about how many games come and go, the big promises that we’re almost inured to, and how… samey a lot of the big genres can end up. Executive Assault 2 probably isn’t going to change the world in that respect. But it’s a reminder that, out there, plenty of smaller developers are still looking to the stars.