tl;dr: Developers, revoke the Steam keys you supplied to Indie Game Stand!
I'm the developer of a game called Airships: Conquer the Skies. It can be bought through a bunch of platforms, including Steam, and, until it shut down earlier this year, Indie Game Stand.
This post was originally published in 2013, on the previous incarnation of this website.
I just read a pretty neat article that argues for more interesting forms of magic in computer games. One idea I really like (because I'm horrible) is having to pay a permanent price for each spell cast. (The spells, in exchange, being very powerful and useful.)
I've been thinking about the different kinds of grids of tiles and blocks used in games, which come in a variety of scales and shapes.
I just bought and played Voyageur, a science fiction story game for mobile. It's one of the games supported through Failbetter's Fundbetter programme, and since I'm mildly obsessed with Sunless Sea, I thought I'd give it a try. I was largely disappointed, though.
I won't bore you with explaining how my own unreleased SF story game would be totally superior. You've read it here before, and comparing a real and finished game with a set of ideas is hardly fair. Instead, let's dig into what makes Voyageur unsatisfying.
I've been ill over the last few days, probably as an inevitable consequence of doing so many events in January. So I've been playing a fair amount of Sunless Sea, a great game if you're ill, because it's quite soothing in a "dark sea filled with monsters" kind of way.
And as always when I play Sunless Sea, my thoughts turn back to Space Exploration: Serpens Sector, my old game project that got backburnered hard when Airships: Conquer the Skies took off. The two games are in the same "go from port to port in your ship and do stuff" genre, after all.
The last few years have seen a number of games attempting to reinvigorate the Space 4X game. They have all been disappointments. The trouble is that Master of Orion II still looms large. New games not only have to compete against it on their own merits. They have to be both better than MoO2 and at the same time deliver the exact same happy experience as remembered through a decades-old haze of nostalgia.
Space 4X games are stuck in a rut. Much as what used to be the case with Tolkien and Fantasy, or D&D and roleplaying, a single work looms large, and all other works have to define themselves in relation to it, either subverting or surpassing it, but always remaining deeply constrained by their genre.
Short version: For one day, on Thursday, 23. June, I will buy and play every single game released on Steam that day. I will stream myself playing. I will play each game for twenty minutes, and at the end of that time, I will render one of two verdicts: "keep" or "refund".
There are so many games being released every day that it's become pretty much impossible to keep track of them all. On the iOS app store, there's now something like 500 new games every day. Almost all of those will sink without a trace, unnoticed and unplayed.
On PC, things are not (yet?) that extreme. About 20 new games appear on Steam every day. But it's still too many for any one person to keep track of, enough so that perfectly good games might get lost because of chance.
I just came across the Kickstarter for Potions: A Curious Tale, a fantasy game with an emphasis on creative problem solving and experimenting with potion crafting. So pretty much this concept I wrote about nearly three years ago.
My point here is not that I think they "stole my idea". It is twofold: Potions: A Curious Tale looks like a cool game you might want to back and this is a great example of just how little a raw idea means in game development.
A while ago I listened to a podcast interview with one of the developers of Don't Starve. They were discussing the design of the Science Machine, the building that lets you discover new crafting recipes.
If you've been following me for a long time, you know that before Airships, I was working on another project called Space Exploration: Serpens Sector. It was a space RPG that started out as a clone of the original Strange Adventures in Infinite Space, and ended up being something like Sunless Sea in space with less florid writing and a bigger focus on crew management.
Be warned, this is a tasteless idea, but still kind of entertaining, which is why I wrote it up. Diablo in reverse: an action-RPG where you take on heaven, working your way through orphanages and monasteries, smashing through the pearly gates to take on the angelic host... and kill god.
At The Gates is an under-development 4X game by Jon Shafer, a game designer formerly of Firaxis Games. In the game, you play as a barbarian tribe in the twilight days of the Roman empire. It got kickstarted back in early 2013 and has been making its way through the tortuous process of development ever since. I actually found out about it too late to join the Kickstarter, but I've been following its development nevertheless.
In his most recent update, Shafer sets out a roadmap for completing development of the game.
I'm not sure where I first saw Reveal the Deep. I thought it was on JGO, but I can't find any trace of it now. So I was vaguely aware of it when it popped up on the Steam new releases page, with a price of $1, launch-discounted down to 64 cents. And I was worried that the developers had so little faith in their game to release it for next to no money. Then I bought it because it looked vaguely interesting.
Turns out I wasn't the only one. A week ago, the developers posted a short postmortem on r/gamedev. The game made it into the "popular new releases" list for two days, and according to Steam Spy, has been bought about 36000 times! (The the devs confirm this is a roughly accurate number.)
Now I don't know how much you get to keep from a $0.64 Steam game. I'd guess it's somewhere between 50 and 70 percent, which means that the game netted somewhere between $11000 and $16000. Not a bad haul for what is a fairly simple, if well-executed game.
The question that arises from this for me as a game dev: Are small, cheap games viable on Steam?
I never finish role-playing games. A few hours in, I reach a point where I get overwhelmed by side-quests and options. My suspension of disbelief breaks down as it becomes clear just how much the world revolves around me: I can start a quest, wander off for three months, and when I'm back, everyone involved is still in the same place, patiently waiting for me to pick things back up. The main plot often claims to be urgent, and that is simply a lie: I can take all the time I like. The more I do, the more fake everything feels.
I've been thinking about the Civilization series of games again. It's weird that after so many iterations, their fundamental problem is still not fixed: the end-game is painfully slow. As the number of entities (cities, units) you control rises, and the number of options you have for each rises as well, turns take longer and longer. At the start of the game, a turn is a few seconds. By the end, a turn can be twenty minutes of mind-numbing individual decisions.
I've previously written about how to tackle rising end-game complexity by reducing the per-entity complexity over time. This time, let's drill down to the core of this problem: In Civilization, more cities means more resources, and more resources means winning.
I once read wonderful blog post which imagines an alternate universe where instead of D&D, Gygax and Arneson made a game about people's feelings. Feelings, it said, are easy, just some variables describing emotional states. Combat is hard: all that detail, all that complexity. No one does games about combat in this alternate universe.
But let's look at D&D, and especially the dungeon-crawl computer games that evolved from it. It's fashionable within neo-old-school circles to take old RPG rules and read and interpret them almost like religious texts, attempting to recapture lost subtleties.
It's occurred to me that all three dungeon crawler games I currently play have something in common: positioning matters a lot.
Recently, when ideas for major new features for Airships have cropped up, I've taken to saying "that's a good idea for an expansion". Understandably, this has got some people concerned that the game's going to down the route of endless DLC.
I want to address those concerns here and describe what I mean by expansions as opposed to DLC.
Two major events have happened in the world of indie game distribution this past week: Steam announced their new refund policy, and Bad Juju Games, operators of Desura, have declared bankruptcy. What do these shifts in the landscape mean for Airships, and for other indie games?
So it's pretty well documented by now that there are more women playing computer games than men. This goes against gut feel because "real" games are still defined as a specific subset where men still are in the majority: PC and console rather than mobile, "hardcore" rather than "casual".
Typical explanations include that women prefer these games because they're simpler, or less violent, etc. My hypothesis is that it's almost entirely because they're shorter, and womens' time is more fragmented.
I used to devour "Making Magic", the game design column written by Mark Rosewater, then lead designer of Magic: The Gathering. I never got into playing Magic itself, but I found the inside view of game design and balancing interesting nevertheless. Probably the most famous column is Timmy, Johnny and Spike, where he introduces three archetypal player profiles that the game caters to.
Airships isn't much like M:tG in its details, but there are certain similarities: it's a 1v1 game that is played in two distinct stages of preparation and combat. In Magic, the preparation is the deck building, whereas in Airships it's the ship design. Victory is secured by some combination of good preparation and being able to use your assets effectively. With that in mind, I think that Timmy, Johnny and Spike are applicable to my game. I'm going to first explain what each of these player types is about, and then how I'm working to accommodate the interests of each of them.
I previously wrote a post about a game jam format where you refine your game by re-making it repeatedly, halving the time allotted each time. People rightly pointed out that this would probably be horribly stressful. So here's an improved version, more of a prototyping technique than a jam format this time.
I've previously written about the problem of rising complexity in strategy games. You manage a number of units (team members, cities, spaceships, etc.) that have some degree of complexity. As the game goes on, you need to acquire more units to succeed. But since the complexity of managing each of them stays the same, the game eventually slows down to a crawl. At the start, each detailed decision on each unit makes a meaningful difference, but by the endgame, only the aggregate of your decisions matters. So you have to either play suboptimally or spend a lot of time on boring micromanagement.