Interview: Phantom’s Xu Hua

NerdQ explores projects from around the world, and Phantom by phantomisreal creates a barren landscape in which human consciousness must survive by robotic means, gathering and creating from the wreckage of failed civilization. With a live Kickstarter marching ahead, Xu Hua (the studio founder and head honcho) chatted with NerdQ’s Erik Meyer.

EM: Phantom evokes a wasteland in which biological humans are long dead but stored their souls (memories, consciousness thoughts, etc.) in artificial ‘Soul Stones’; describe the wasteland that robotic ‘New Humans’ find themselves in. How does this apocalyptic landscape differ from the landscapes of other games? What kinds of locations provide highlights to seek out?

XH: The landscape in the first release will be only 8 km by 8 km, but we are working on a 20 km by 20 km map; the larger map will be a free DLC release soon after game launch. I don’t know why, but I’m the player who loves empty maps. Nowadays, every game is filled with content, like No Man’s Sky or other sandbox games, making you buzzy, but with Phantom, we want players to experience the vastness of space. The player can feel hopeless when viewing nothing but desert, and the gameplay and the feeling of the game will be very different. I think the emptiness in the game is critical, much as the desert in real life is also empty, and we want players to feel it.

EM: The building system looks amazing, and instead of doing what biological organisms do (eating, sleeping, etc.), players must fuel themselves with electricity to keep moving. What other implementations, features, and in-game mechanics will provide challenges? What else can you do?

XH: Players have to find resources and garbage and blueprints,and there are a lot of AI bots that will try to kill you, so you have to manage and transfer your things to stay alive. It has been a joy watching everything come together.

All you need is electricity, but everything depends on it, as well. For example, if you see something far away, you have to travel from A to B, but in between A and B, there’s nothing, so you need a plan; you have to find a lot of garbage to equip on your body (each piece of scrap has its own positives and negatives). Find add-ons to make you walk faster or make you have more electrical storage, etc. Or, you can dismantle garbage to make resources and build a car or an aircraft.  Everything requires resources. Sometimes you need to mine, and sometimes your project needs more than one mine, and you have to transfer your resources from one place to another. Even with a simple energy dependency, you need to do so many things to make it happen, and the game is very hard. 🙂

EM: You mention a strong connection to story, so let us in on that facet of the game. What drives the player? Are there settlements of robots in the desert? Do we attempt to recapture aspects of human society? Who are the ‘bad guys’, or what do we chafe against?

XH: Yes, there will be settlements of robots, but in the first release of the game, the story will get less of our time, because we are small team and have to focus on gameplay. In the future, we will add story. Actually, we all love RPG games, and in the future, Phantom will evolve to include diverse roll playing elements.

Tell you the truth, we want make a game that evokes Witcher 3 or GTA 5 but taking place on a very large planet, where the player can change the world. We already have a screenplay for the game. But this part requires a crazy amount of money, and we want the movie to have the quality of a AAA game, so for now we can just add story here and there throughout the map that players can find and read.

EM: The over-the-shoulder POV in the trailer gives Phantom a unique perspective, and the trailer includes careful panning shots of the environment. Let us in on your attention to detail in providing a cinematic feel. How does how we view the terrain impact our gaming experience?

XH: In the future, Phantom will feature a planet system, which means the game will happen on a large scale, not just a grid map. We are working on this part now and want to encompass a very large terrain so that players have to make travel and base choices carefully to survive.

We love film! We want our game look great. I used to be a director in China, and I will want to make sure the game works visually and carries emotion.

EM: You’ve had Phantom go through the Steam Greenlight process, and you currently have a Kickstarter in progress. Describe the process of putting your work out there. What responses have surprised you, and what have been the biggest challenges?

XH: The Kickstarter may not succeed; we don’t have any connections in the industry, and we are somewhat new to marketing, but we will learn from this and go on making Phantom.

EM: How do creative decisions (including assets, cutting content, designing maps) get made by the Phantomisreal team? Every developer has a different way of working; by what process do ideas become final products?

XH: We are a small team and currently have 6 people. For most of us, this is our first big project, and we’re learning as we go along. I’m a huge gamer and mostly prefer sandbox games; I really want make a “perfect” game to help define the genre. Our management is chaotic, and we are trying new things all the time. We experiment a lot, unlike the larger companies. We play this game project as a game.

EM: You mention as part of your Kickstarter campaign that you’re fortunate to be developing in China, so flesh out this idea for the global audience. What aspects of Chinese dev culture do you bring to your project, and how do your roots impact the game’s flavor?

XH: In China, only free-to-play games exist, which sucks! No Chinese game companies are trying to make great games. All they want is to make money. I’d really like to change that (if we don’t die). I think we are the first game company in China to make a game in the wasteland with robots. Current Chinese games present a fake Chinese culture, and we want to change that. We want make a game that not just Chinese people love, but a game for people everywhere. In China, the aspects are in the details, and the most import Chinese aspects come from wisdom, not just in something looking Chinese. The emptiness of the game serves as an example of this.

EM: Plans for the game include eventual exploration on a global scale, even space travel. Describe your roadmap for the future and the kinds of content that will come with a large geographical expansion.

XH: At this point on our journey, we are planning to first make Phantom a multiplayer game. Then, we will deploy the large planet system within a year, hopefully. We want players to be able to create great things within Phantom.

We want player players to find themselves in the game. In the future, players can create planets and whole maps; we want players to even write some of the plot. We just want the players to be GOD and share their creations. 🙂


Here’s the trailer, if you missed it:

Author: Erik Meyer

Erik edits content, writes articles, conducts interviews, and draws silly things for The NerdQ. He also produces Planning Session, a comic showcasing dev discussions.

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