In 2007, Rob Cunningham (of Homeworld fame) formed a brand new studio called Blackbird Interactive. By 2009, work had begun on an ambitious new strategy game strongly inspired by Homeworld’s art design and setting. In 2013, everyone working there was laid off.
That 2009 game was called HARD|WARE, and was intended to be a free-to-play Facebook strategy game. Yossarian King, Blackbird’s CTO, describes it on the Unity blog like this:
HARD|WARE was to be a visually compelling game with a great story that would blow the socks off the farming and mob games that dominated the huge new Facebook gaming market. Massive trucks would engage in perilous expeditions across the desert, fighting the elements and each other to extract the booty from wrecked starships scattered across the planet.
It was a sound idea! Facebook games were and still are garbage, so a team making something more substantial, something closer to a traditional RTS title, would have been cool!
Yet the game’s original design, a complicated mix of a strategic map and close-up 3D models, was a nightmare to get running in older versions of Unity. And by 2013, despite having “a lot of cool tech and a good-looking game”, Blackbird’s money was running out.
In an attempt to salvage the game, they stripped everything back into something called Hardware: Shipbreakers, which was designed to be a “smaller tower-defence experience” that Blackbird could release and make some money off in order to fund development of the larger strategy game they still wanted to make.
It didn’t work. By the winter of 2013, Blackbird had run out of cash, and King says “we had to lay off all our staff”. This should have been the end of both Blackbird and Hardware, but as luck would have it events were transpiring in the US that would be about as fortuitous as anyone involved could have hoped for.
Just as Blackbird were winding up, publisher THQ — who owned the rights to the Homeworld series — also went bust. Gearbox bought Homeworld in the THQ fire sale, and having decided to release remastered versions of the first two Homeworld games, approached a number of the series’ original developers for help.
One of those developers was Rob Cunningham.
“They approached Rob, one thing led to another, and Gearbox agreed to fund development of our game as a Homeworld prequel,” King recalls. “The Homeworld IP had always cast a long shadow over Hardware, often referred to as a ‘spiritual successor’ to Homeworld, and the story had been crafted to fit the Homeworld universe, so it wasn’t a huge stretch.”
Almost the entire Blackbird team was rehired, and work began on what we now know as Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak. A game that, for all this turmoil, despair and good fortune, turned out just fine.
The full account of the game’s journey from idea through to Facebook game and then awesome RTS is a great read, whether you’re a fan of Homeworld or just stories about game dev in general. You can read it here.