Monday 6 May 2024

Franchise Familiariser: Homeworld

This week sees the release of Homeworld 3, the latest in the venerable 3D real-time strategy video game series. There's never been a better time to jump on board the franchise, which has now expanded to tabletop games, mobile games and other entry-points to the series.

But what if you want to know more? Whose homeworld? Time for a Franchise Familiariser!

The original box art from Homeworld, released in 1999.

The Basics

Homeworld is a space opera saga spanning thousands of years in the history of the Hiigaran people. It tells the story of the exile of the Hiigarans to the desolate desert world of Kharak, their desperate battle for survival, the discovery of the great Hyperspace Core in the wreck of the ship that brought them to the planet, and their resulting battle to reclaim their original homeworld from the tyrannical Taiidan Empire. Subsequent entries in the series have expanded on the Hiigarans' return to galactic prominence and their survival in the face of new threats.

Almost all Homeworld video games are real-time strategy games set in a full 3D universe, allowing vertical movement and attacks to come from any direction. Each game features a series of missions, through which a narrative unfolds, as well as various multiplayer options. Many of the games are accompanied by manuals, PDFs and websites that further expand the franchise's background lore and storyline.

The video games have been developed by several companies, although the same core team including Rob Cunningham has made four of the five "main" games in the series, Homeworld (1999), Homeworld 2 (2003), Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (2016) and Homeworld 3 (2024), the first two at Relic Entertainment and the latter two at Blackbird Interactive. The remaining core game, Homeworld Cataclysm (2000), renamed Homeworld: Emergence in 2017, was made by Barking Dog Studios in consultation with Relic. The IP was originally owned by publishers Sierra (aka Vivendi), then sold to THQ and currently reside with Gearbox Software.

Both mobile and VR side-games have been developed, and Modiphius Entertainment have released a series of tabletop games based on the franchise.

Curiously, despite the franchise's age and well-developed lore, no comic books or novels have been written or set in the Homeworld universe.

The title card from my venerable History of Homeworld series.

The Canon

The Homeworld canon consists of seven video games, a remaster of two of those games, and a series of tabletop games.

The core canon consists of:
  • Homeworld (1999)
  • Homeworld: Cataclysm (2000), renamed Homeworld: Emergence in 2017
  • Homeworld 2 (2003)
  • Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (2016)
  • Homeworld 3 (2024)
In 2015, Homeworld and Homeworld 2 were re-released as Homeworld Remastered, a thorough remake of the first two games with updating for compatibility with modern systems.

The spin-off games consist of:
  • Homeworld Mobile (2022)
  • Homeworld: Vast Reaches (2024)
The spin-off tabletop games consist of:
  • Homeworld: Revelations (2022)
  • Homeworld: Fleet Command (2023)

Homeworld tells the story of the Kushan people as they leave their desert planet of Kharak and journey across the galaxy to locate their long-lost homeworld, Hiigara.

Homeworld: Cataclysm, set fifteen years later, tells the story of the conflict between the Hiigarans and the mysterious organism known only as "the Beast."

Homeworld 2, set one hundred years after Cataclysm, tells of the battle between the Hiigarans and the Vaygr warlord Makaan.

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is set 106 years before the events of Homeworld and tells of the desert expedition sent to find the long-lost First City of Kharak. The game is notable for being the only one in the series set on a planetary surface rather than in deep space.

Homeworld 3 is set one century after Homeworld 2 and revolves around the arrival of the Anomaly, a mysterious force threatening the galaxy. Karan S'jet, a key protagonist of the first two games, vanishes whilst investigating the Anomaly, sparking the commissioning of a new mothership to track her down.

Homeworld Mobile is a game designed for mobile phones. Set fifteen years after Homeworld 2, it tells of a Hiigaran expedition beyond the Eye of Aarran, into the mysterious Nimbus Galaxy where new threats await.

Homeworld: Vast Reaches is a VR game set shortly after Homeworld, telling of the conflict between the Hiigarans and the treacherous Radaa.

Homeworld: Revelations is a tabletop roleplaying game published by Modiphius, using their 2d20 rules system. Players create characters and take part in narratives set during any part of the Homeworld timeline.

Homeworld: Fleet Command is a tabletop wargame/board game using large numbers of model spaceships, where players can re-enact battles from the video games or take part in new campaigns. 

The planet Kharak during the events of Deserts of Kharak.

The Backstory

For a more detailed summary, check out my History of Homeworld series.

Prequel game Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak sets the initial scene. The desert planet of Kharak is home to the Kushan, a humanoid species divided into several large, distinct family-clan structures, the kiithid. Most of the clans are united in the Coalition of the Northern Kiithid. Some years before the start of the game, it was discovered that the planet Kharak is dying. The small seas are drying up, the amount of fertile land is dropping dangerously and the planet will not be able to support life for more than another three centuries or so. The Kushan have launched satellites and even people into orbit, but are a long way from being able to evacuate the planet, and there is nowhere to evacuate to.

A malfunctioning satellite uncovers an unidentified but incredibly powerful energy signal coming from deep within the Great Banded Desert, a vast, borderline uninhabitable region on the equator. The Coalition launches an expedition to find the source of the signal, but they are attacked by the Gaalsien, an exiled kiith who inhabit the deep desert and have gained access to advanced technology from an unknown source. The Gaalsien are religious fanatics, believing that the pursuit of high technology and space travel will bring about a prophecy that will destroy the Kushan people. The Coalition desert carrier Kapisi breaks through the Gaalsien lines and discovers that there are myriad wrecked starships across the desert, some having apparently materialised in solid rock. The Gaalsien have ransacked these ships to gain access to new technology. The Kapisi refits with some of this new tech itself. Eventually it defeats the Gaalsien flagship and finds the source of the signal: a wrecked spacecraft known as the Khar-Toba. According to legend, Khar-Toba was the First City of Kharak, and the explorers find a vast city buried under the sands, centred on the ship.

In the succeeding decades, Khar-Toba is thoroughly explored and excavated. Two objects of immense interest are found. The first is a technological object generating the energy signature, apparently a quantum waveform generator capable of faster-than-light travel: the Hyperspace Core. The second is a map, made of stone that is not native of Kharak: the Guidestone. The Guidestone's three-dimensional coordinates pinpoint the location of a spot near the Galactic Core known only as Hiigara, the ancient word for "Home." This confirms the xenogenesis theory, that the Kushan are not native to Kharak, as they share no DNA or other genetic similarities with the planet's few native animal species. The Kushan instead came to Kharak some three thousand years ago, fell into a dark age of primitive barbarism, and then climbed back out to a level of technological development.

With the impending extinction of all life on Kharak, the Kushan agree to band together as never before and build an immense starship. This vessel and a support fleet will travel to Hiigara and reconnoitre the situation before returning to begin a mass evacuation. The vessel - known only as "the Mothership" when a more aesthetically pleasing name cannot be decided upon by all the parties involved - and its support structures take almost sixty years to build. More than 600,000 people are chosen to accompany the vessel and its crew of 50,000 in tightly-packed cryosleep chambers. Karan S'jet was chosen to undergo the dangerous neurosurgery required to merge with the Mothership's central processor to become Fleet Command.

Unfortunately, when the Mothership launches and tests the Hyperspace Core, the hyperspace interdiction field it was generating around the Kharakian system - causing interloper ships to materialise in solid rock or crash instead - vanished. A sensor network monitoring the field reported this development to its superiors. By the time the Mothership returned from its hyperspace test flight, it found Kharak burning in space, having been hit by multiple weapons of mass destruction. More than 300 million people had been killed. The Mothership returned in time to capture one of the attacking ships. Interrogating its crew, the Kushan learned that they came from the Taiidan Empire, a vast space confederation spanning much of the galaxy. The Kushan people, known to the Taiidan as "The Exiles," had been banished to Kharak more than three millennia ago with the agreement to never develop hyperspace technology or leave Kharak. Breaking that agreement - which the Kushan had no knowledge of - led to the destruction of Kharak.

The Mothership and its fleet were grossly outnumbered and outgunned but possessed one advantage: the Hyperspace Core they possessed was at least an orders magnitude more powerful than the drives used by the Taiidan. The Mothership and its fleet could jump thousands of light-years at a time, as opposed to the dozens of the Taiidan ship, allowing them to simply outrun the Taiidan border fleets all the way to Hiigara.

The journey of the Mothership from Kharak to Hiigara is covered in the original Homeworld, and sees the Kushan learn that they are the descendants of an ancient interstellar empire which grew too greedy and powerful, and was overthrown by a coalition of other races including the Taiidan and the incredibly powerful Bentusi, an "unbound" species of traders who have merged with their ships to live forever in space. The Bentusi do not hold the descendants responsible for the crimes of their ancestors, especially as the Taiidan Empire itself has become morally corrupt, brutal and tyrannical. The use of forbidden weapons of mass destruction spurs a civil war within the Empire, and censure by the Galactic Council. Eventually, aided by the Bentusi and the Taiidan Republican movement, the Mothership makes it to Hiigara. Its fleet destroys the Taiidan flagship and kills the Taiidan Emperor. The Empire collapses, with warlords and the new Republican government vying for power. The 650,000 survivors of Kharak reoccupy Hiigara, becoming known as the Hiigaran people once more. Karan S'jet survives extraction from the Mothership but with a mysterious side-effect: she no longer ages.

Fifteen years later, as depicted in Homeworld: Cataclysm (aka Homeworld: Emergence) a ship of the mining Kiith Somtaaw becomes embroiled in a secretive conflict. A million-year-old starship from another galaxy is discovered, harbouring a lifeform known as the Beast. Capable of subverting both biological and technological systems, the Beast takes over several Hiigaran and Taiidan fleets and destroys multiple Bentusi vessels (who are very susceptible to its influence), forcing many others to fleet. The Somtaaw make several technological breakthroughs and finally destroy the Beast with their advanced weaponry. The conflict is covered up to prevent mass panic, with the Somtaaw instead honoured for helping defeat an unspecified Taiidan warlord plot against Hiigara.

In the following decades, the Hiigaran people discover that the mysterious and ancient Progenitors, who existed more than ten thousand years ago before vanishing overnight, leaving behind many obscure ruins, built three great hyperspace cores, capable of jumping clear across the galaxy. The Bentusi discovered one, whilst the ancient Hiigarans discovered the second. The third remains missing.

One hundred years later, in Homeworld 2, the Vaygr, an obscure species from the remote eastern reaches of the galaxy, suddenly invaded the rest of civilised space. The Vaygr quickly overran frontier settlements from numerous species, apparently jumping far beyond the abilities of their opponents. Karan S'jet realised that the Vaygr and their charismatic warlord, Makaan, had discovered the third great core. Makaan was now on a crusade to unite the three cores, which according to ancient, garbled history, would open the way to Sajuuk, one of the most famed Progenitors (and a key character in Hiigaran mythology). A new Mothership, the Pride of Hiigara, was constructed in record time.

In the Vaygr War, Hiigara came under siege but the Pride of Hiigara scoured the galaxy for clues on how to defeat Makaan. Eventually, in the ancient starship graveyard at Karos, it discovered a Progenitor Dreadnought. Making use of its power, the Hiigarans were able to destroy several Vaygr fleets. During one battle with Progenitor drones, the Bentusi flagship, the Great Harbour Ship Bentus, self-destructed to destroy the hardy foes. The Pride recovered the Bentusi core and pursued Makaan to Balcora Gate, a great hyperspace entry point to the black hole cluster at the centre of the galaxy. There the Pride finally destroyed Makaan, seized the third core and was able to reactivate Sajuuk, now revealed to be a Progenitor flagship vessel. Karan S'jet took command of the Sajuuk and raced back to Hiigara to destroy the last Vaygr forces threatening the homeworld, including the use of Progenitor planet-killing weaponry uncovered by Makaan.

Making full use of the Sajuuk's power and the three united cores, Karan S'jet discovered the Eye of Aarran, a vast hyperspace gateway. Unlocking the gate revealed the existence of an entire network of gates floating in the space between stars, linking all of the galactic sectors together with instantaneous travel. A new golden age of interstellar trade and diplomacy began. Or so it appears...

The Homeworld galaxy - what we call M51a - during the events of Homeworld and Homeworld 2.

The Setting

The Homeworld saga takes place in M51a, what we call the Whirlpool Galaxy, located 23.5 million light-years from Earth. Although the Homeworld series mostly revolves around humanoid or human-looking species, it has nothing to do with Earth at all, and Earth does not appear or is even mentioned. Some fan theories suggest that the mysterious Progenitors may be humans from Earth, or our descendants in a distant future, but there is little corroborating evidence.

The following are key factors in the setting:

The Progenitors
A mysterious, ancient civilisation who dominated the galaxy more than ten thousand years ago before vanishing overnight. The vast mega-structures in the Karos Graveyard and the derelict at Tanis are remnants of their civilisation. They had total mastery of hyperspace and built the Three, the great hyperspace cores allowing for Far Jumping. They also built the Great Hyperspace Gate Network. Only one Progenitor name has survived through history, Sajuuk, who built the ship of the same name and the Cores. Sajuuk became a religious figure to the Hiigaran people.

The Bentusi
Oldest of the known races, the Bentusi arose to become a spacefaring civilisation some millennia after the fall of the Progenitors. The Bentusi found the First Core and used it to become dominant in matters of trade. A peaceful species, the Bentusi founded the Galactic Council as a forum for interstellar diplomacy. They later forsook their homeworld and merged with their ships, becoming creatures of space: the "Unbound." The Bentusi were adversely affected by the Beast War, most fleeing the galaxy, leaving behind only their Great Harbour Ship, the Bentus. The Bentus was destroyed during the Vaygr War. The First Core was claimed by the Hiigarans.

The Hiigarans (aka Kushan)
The Hiigarans area a humanoid species who act as the primary protagonists of the Homeworld series. The Hiigarans established a galactic empire some four thousand years ago, but became rivals of the Taiidan, whom they believed had corrupted the Galactic Council into always taking their side. Discovering the Second Core in secret, the Hiigarans used it to launch a military attack on the Taiidan homeworld, crippling their fleets. The Bentusi forced the Hiigarans to surrender, but they (apparently) destroyed the Core rather than surrender it. In secret, the Hiigarans took the Core with them to Kharak, but forgot about it when their high-tech civilisation collapsed. The survivors took three millennia to rebuild a technology base and rediscover the Core, and then used it to return Hiigara. Only 650,000 Hiigarans survived the annihilation of Kharak by the Taiidan to repopulated their homeworld, but by over a century later the population had boomed to the hundreds of millions thanks to a high birth rate, genetic engineering and adopting outcasts from other species.

The Taiidan
A humanoid, space-faring species who established an empire to rival Hiigara some four thousand years ago. After the Hiigarans were exiled to Kharak, the Taiidan Empire became the premiere force in the galaxy. However, over the millennia they came more decadent and corrupt. The Empire's attack on Kharak using banned weapons of mass destruction spurred civil war and rebellion. The Taiidan subsequently splintered into independent warlord kingdoms and a democratic Taiidan Republic, allied to Hiigara. The primary antagonists of Homeworld, and play a supporting role in Homeworld: Cataclysm.

The Turanic Raiders
Pirates of the Outer Rim, employed by the Taiidan Empire as mercenaries. The Turanic Raiders aided the Empire in its attack on Kharak. Minor antagonists in Homeworld and Homeworld: Cataclysm.

The Kadeshi
Inhabitants of the Great Nebula. A splinter-group of Hiigarans/Kushan whose ships did not make it to Kharak, instead foundering inside the Nebula. The Kadeshi are fiercely insular and xenophobic. Minor antagonists in Homeworld.

The Beast
A powerful and hostile biotech organism of unknown origin. The Beast was discovered by extragalactic explorers who endured unusually long exposure to hyperspace on their way to the galaxy. The Beast was discovered and inadvertently released by Hiigarans of Kiith Somtaaw, but with the help of the Bentusi they were able to overcome and defeat the Beast. The primary antagonist of Homeworld: Cataclysm.

The Radaa
Duplicitous interstellar traders who are instrumental to Hiigara rebuilding its technology base after the reoccupation of the planet, but later turn on the Hiigarans. The primary antagonists of Homeworld: Vast Reaches.

The Vaygr
A species of raiders and warriors from the galactic east, divided into warring factions and groups. United the warleader Makaan after he discovered the Third Core, but defeated by Karan S'jet during the Vaygr War. The primary antagonists of Homeworld 2.

The Keepers
AI-controlled spacecraft and artefacts left behind by the Progenitors, and almost impervious to harm. They seem to be in perfect working order despite the passage of at least ten millennia. Minor antagonists in Homeworld 2, after a brief appearance in Homeworld.

The Nimbus Galaxy
Another galaxy, located an unknown distance from the Whirlpool Galaxy and only accessible via the Eye of Aarran gate network. This galaxy is home to the Tanoch Empire, the Yaot Federation, the Amassari Remain, the Iyatequa Traders and the Cangacian pirates. The main location for Homeworld Mobile.

The Anomaly
An unidentified phenomenon which appears to be destroying the Great Hyperspace Gate Network; its appearance sparks the events of Homeworld 3.

The artwork of British SF artist Chris Foss and his contemporary Peter Elson was a key influence on Homeworld.

Behind the Scenes

Work on Homeworld began in 1997 as the first project at Relic Entertainment, a new video game studio based in Canada. The original idea was to create a video game inspired by the art of pioneering science fiction artists Peter Elson and Chris Foss, and using a similar premise to the 1970s show Battlestar Galactica (a remake of which began airing shortly after the release of Homeworld 2).

Homeworld was released in late 1999 and was an immediate hit. Publishers Sierra (later Vivendi) were keen on a sequel, but Relic were contracted by Microsoft to make a new game for much more money, which became Impossible Creatures. Sierra instead commissioned Barking Dog Studios to make an expansion, Homeworld: Cataclysm, but the expansion ended up becoming a larger and more original game, so they released it as a stand-alone title in late 2000.

Relic released Homeworld 2 in 2003, but the game did disappointingly. Budget limitations meant the original concept, of "Dust Wars" fought amidst vast space derelicts, was dropped in favour of a linear campaign similar to the original game. Shortly after release, Relic were acquired by THQ and put to work on Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, which was released to enormous success in 2004. The company then made the similarly successful World War II historical RTS Company of Heroes (2006).

After the release of Company of Heroes, many of the founder and original team at Relic left to found Blackbird Interactive in 2007. The company began work on Hardspace: Shipbreakers, a "spiritual predecessor" to Homeworld revolving around exploring wrecked spaceships on a desert planet.

Also in 2007, THQ bought the Homeworld IP from Vivendi, leading to speculation that Relic would make a new game, but with the original development team now at Blackbird, there was limited interest in pursuing the project. Relic instead made Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II (2009) and Company of Heroes 2 (2013). In 2013 THQ collapsed and Relic was acquired by Sega; Sega refused to buy the Homeworld IP, which was instead acquired by Gearbox.

Gearbox and Blackbird Interactive entered discussions on a collaboration, which resulted in Hardspace: Shipbreakers becoming an official Homeworld prequel game, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, released to a solid reception in 2016. The two companies also collaborated on Homeworld Remastered (2015), a thorough revamping of the original games.

In 2019 Gearbox and Blackbird used crowdfunding platform Fig to fund early development of Homeworld 3, the first mainline new entry in the series for over twenty years. Increased awareness of the franchise also led to Modiphius Entertainment creating spin-off products, namely the tabletop roleplaying game Homeworld: Revelations and tabletop wargame Homeworld: Fleet Command. Gearbox also expanded the video game franchise with Homeworld Mobile, developed by Stratosphere Games, and Homeworld: Vast Reaches, a VR title from FarBridge.

Homeworld 3 is due for release on 13 May 2024.

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