No Multiplayer For Stars Beyond Reach.

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Some things that I’ve been thinking about regarding Stars Beyond Reach, adapted from an email I originally sent to Keith.

In my testing at the moment, despite all the early-alpha things that either Keith or I need to fix up before we bring in more players (ETA still hopefully the start of March), I’m finding that quite fun as it is. The turns are a lot more granular than I expected, which is going to be a big problem for multiplayer, though. That’s really the biggest issue I’ve seen. But the early game is always that way even with Civ, and once diplomacy is integrated (we’re working on that now), I think that will change a lot. That will take some substantial balance work, but it’s all a numbers game at that point.

It’s not remotely ready for other players yet, but it’s come a long way since the last time I was testing seriously, and even since last night the fun factor jumped up a ton. It’s quite a fun game, really, and I’m itching to play more of it. The diplomacy stuff, too — that’s not just throwing a certain segment of the playerbase a bone. It’s actually something that I legitimately enjoy.

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One thing that is really telling, though, is that I’m not looking forward to playing multiplayer at all. It’s really fun by myself, but I moderately dread playing with my dad or my wife. I feel that way with Civ as well, frankly, which is why we stopped playing those together. I’d wind up literally reading a book during a lot of turns while I was waiting for others to finish their turns. Something that had a huge “one more turn” grip on me in single player instead felt frustrating and slow in multiplayer. I remember when I was first learning how to drive stick shift on a car, and I kept stalling it out in traffic on the highway. I love stick shifts now, so that analogy only goes so far, but playing multiplayer Civ with people who play at a different speed than me is like being back out there trying to learn stick shift in a traffic jam. Urgh.

This game avoids the problem of too much going on with the units being moved around, which was one of the big problems with Civ. But this game has a whole new problem that is possibly worse: the SimCity style of “leave things still for a while in order to plan, then make a bunch of decisions, then speed through the next while.” I wind up with a random turn taking me a long time, and then literally clicking through several more turns with a second or two pause on each one, max. It feels very SimCity-like, and that’s how it should feel. It’s extremely appropriate…

Except in multiplayer. I’m not sure what to do about that. :/

The recent-SimCity approach to multiplayer is pretty fun in a lot of respects, and could work. Neighboring cities and all that. This game could easily sustain having individual game worlds share resources or whatever but not share turn times (just like neighboring cities in SimCity don’t share time flow — it’s 1910 in one and 2005 in another and paused in 2056 in another).

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But then we’re back to that whole alone together idea. It could be fun, but it would definitely be strange. A lot of people would chafe at that, and likely call us out for “not having REAL multiplayer” despite “advertising” it. And actually having real multiplayer isn’t a problem, per se — we’ve been designing it with that in mind from the get-go. We could do Civ-style multiplayer without issue. Except that I don’t think it would be fun.

I’m also not keen on the amount of time that’s likely to suck Keith away from programming work on the main game while I’m piling up bugs and other code requests for him. That’s going to create tension in the schedule and probably hurt the overall game quality. That’s my biggest schedule concern.

It may be that multiplayer simply needs to be cut, and possibly released separately as an update or something. Kind of like what Don’t Starve Together (which is incredibly fun) has done for Don’t Starve. I don’t know.

Or multiplayer may just be something that has to be tossed out for the foreseeable future, possibly forever. It’ the only real rat-hole that has me concerned at the moment. This is a really fun game, but if people come to it in multiplayer I can’t imagine them finding it nearly so much so. AI War is enhanced by having multiple players, as none of the others hold you back at all. It’s sooo much fun in multiplayer. But the multiplayer experience here makes the game WORSE, not better, which I think is also true of Civ. It’s kind of a “we know you want to play together, so here’s the best we can do because the concept of this genre simply isn’t built around that.”

This is really frustrating for me, because it goes against my core beliefs about co-op.

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That said, I wear a lot of hats at Arcen, and it’s my responsibility to think with all of them. So let’s:

Business Owner Hat: “You mean there’s one feature that might suck up tons of time and money, and possibly delay things? It also might give players frustration when they try to use that feature, rather than pleasure? That’s an obvious thing to cut.”

Project Manager Hat: “This needs to keep on schedule while keeping an eye toward quality. The biggest threat to quality is embarking on ‘vision quest’ features that simply are out of scope. Right now the only feature that fits that description is this one.”

Sales Hat: “It’s true that a lot of people like multiplayer in games, but based on data that we have on hand, not a lot of people actually use it in our games. And from what we can tell, in strategy games as a whole, based on data we have from other sources. There are certainly huge online communities around multiplayer in some strategy games, but even with them that’s a fraction of the total sales for those games — there’s a huge majority of solo players in every case. The games with the largest online communities have even higher sales numbers of total units sold but who never go online. So this isn’t something that is going to hamstring us sales-wise, even though it’s likely to frustrate some customers. Seems like a safe thing to cut, particularly if a botched implementation of this could hurt public sentiment toward the game in general.”

Game Designer Hat: “I really can’t see any good way around this problem. Either I’m having to sacrifice things that make the solo experience very fun, or multiplayer is going to have a lot of frustrations in any situation where all the players don’t play at approximately the same speed at all times. If all players make decisions at the same rate, and that’s a very fast rate, then we have no problems here — the actual game design will support that brilliantly. The sole problem here is the awful, awful waiting when someone takes time to look at data and mull, or talk to an alien for a bit to find out stuff or negotiate a deal or whatever. It’s not fun being the one having to wait, and it’s also not fun being the one who feels pressured into rushing because the other one is waiting.”

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Programmer Hat: “There are actually some things that we’re having to avoid doing in order to be multiplayer-safe. Some of those are optimizations that would actually speed up the late-game between-turns work IF there are AIs doing a lot of attacks out of your viewport but in explored area. In multiplayer we can’t really shortcircuit that, but in purely-solo we could. There are also some visual things that we could also probably do slightly better without multiplayer, and a few other things as well.”

Artist Hat: “Makes no difference to me.”

Sound Designer Hat: “Me either.”

Writer Hat: “Ditto here.”

Support Hat: “For the most part, ditto here. Though people having constant problems with port forwarding and whatnot is something that is always nice to avoid, it’s not exactly new territory.”

Keith Pops By: “Multiplayer is always a rat hole ;)”

Back To Me: “This really, really stinks guys.  I just adore co-op, and at one point I was super looking forward to playing this with both my wife and dad.  But that’s self-indulgent on my part, no longer super relevant, and in general gets in the way of the greater good of the game.  You know, that whole kill your darlings bit of advice.  It seems unfortunately clear that that’s what we need to do here.”

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So… that’s what we’re going to do.  Frack it.

I’m unhappy about this decision that I’ve had to make, but at least you can see the rationale behind it above.  If the game does well and there is a solution that presents itself, then we might explore making that a post-release addition.  But I’m definitely not in a position to promise that, and this is a problem I’ve noodled on for various games for several years now, in various forms.  I have yet to find a solution, and I’m not aware of any other games that have solved it in a way that I find all that fun either.

But on a brighter note!  I’m having loads of fun with the game, and it’s coming along really well.  I can’t wait to start sharing more of it with you.

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16 Responses to “No Multiplayer For Stars Beyond Reach.”

  1. DevildogFF says:

    No worries, it wasn’t even something I cared about, to be honest. A great single player game > a decent single player game with decent multiplayer.

    Plus, I need this. Like a baby needs milk.

  2. Really, only the game designer hat is relevant here.

    And that’s only relevant because you can’t come up with an idea to step outside the way that the genre has been approached in the past. All the rest of the architecture of fantasy/sci-fi 4X games you don’t find sacred, but this is something you’re unwilling or unready to get past? That doesn’t feel out of place to you?

    You love co-op. You believe the co-op enhances games. Go with that. Accept it. Embrace it. If the idea of turn taking in multiplayer is what’s being a problem, maybe the idea of turn taking in single player is actually a problem that you’ve just gotten used to dealing with. Maybe this is a more core issue to the game design and might need to be re-examined in light of what you would really like to do as regards co-op.

    One of the things I like about The Last Federation is the way that turns are not “turns.” Things take a specific amount of time to execute, and during that time while you can interrupt and events can interrupt you, time generally just jumps ahead really quickly. It has always struck me that combining that sort of expected interface loop with multiplayer and borrowing a little bit from the RTS genre in the form of being able to queue up events to go off in the future would help diminish the situation in which you have multiple players with different playing speeds playing together. The discrepancy in the way that people play is one of the reasons that we play with other people. Getting to see that is one of the appeals.

    Believe me, as a fervid boardgames player, I know the personal pain of take-your-damn-turn–itis. There are some people who can make even the most exciting and pleasant game a real nightmare to play because they are simply unable to play in a way that is entertaining. Designing the game or making significant concessions in what you would like to accomplish, curtailing your ambitions in the game design, just because of those people is essentially letting them dictate what kind of fun everyone else can have with it. I’m pretty inherently against that.

    From a different perspective, when playing games which are turn-based (many, many of which are board-game derived or are boardgames themselves), what are some of the elements that keep people engaged at the table even when turns are long? Easy and convenient communication with the other people playing is certainly one aspect. Being able to see what the other people are doing as they make their decisions, even if you as another player don’t have complete or perfect information, gives you something to see and react to during play. And, in the case of many boardgames and card games, being able to play multiple games at once, perhaps one by yourself and one multiplayer (increased to arbitrary numbers of either, if you’re so inclined), I can give being much faster player something else to do and allow people of vastly different play styles as well as play skills to play together without frustration.

    Once you start heading down the way of that latter mode, you start looking at game designs based on the WE GO method of turn resolution used by games like Combat Mission where moves are composed simultaneously in and submitted to a central system which does the resolution and spits back the results, but the game itself can be played by players asynchronously with turns effectively being submitted via email. If you’re waiting for someone with take-your-damn-turn–itis, it’s a lot easier to do if you can go off and do your own thing in between turns.

    There are a lot of solutions which don’t fall into the traditional niche of Civ-like 4X games. There’s a lot of space for doing something different, for doing something new, and for playing with the challenges available. Arcen Games is fairly well established for being willing to explore those spaces. It would be a shame if this was an opportunity to do so that wasn’t taken up.

    • Chris Park says:

      Whew, lots of text. General notes:

      1. We already had a WeGo setup worked out. That’s what I was discussing as being so unsatisfying in Civ.

      2. Time not being done in fixed units is basically how SimCity works, and it has all the same problems because you have pauseable realtime. That doesn’t actually help.

      3. Table talk is great, and I love boardgames as well. But when it’s a complex game, generally the person trying to do whatever on their turn wants people not to talk to them so that they can think. That’s when everyone else chats, or looks over the rules, or whatever.

      4. Most boardgames are played for vastly smaller amounts of time (especially at a single go) than a computer strategy game. This is very relevant. Even people with a frequent boardgaming session tend to play more than just one games, and it’s every few weeks at most. There are exceptions, sure, but nonetheless.

      5. Saying that only the game designer hat matters assumes an infinite budget. So does taking the time to experiment on a potential feature that is of limited interest to the bulk of the potential playerbase. Which makes it a good candidate for experimenting with AFTER there is a proven interest in the game, not speculatively prior. We’re not in any financial straights for once, but I don’t wish to get back into that sort of area.

      6. Play by mail is interesting for some people, but it doesn’t interest me personally. I tend to have trouble being bothered. I do play Words With Friends sometimes with my family, but a lot of them are more into it than I am. That also has the benefit of being able to be on everyone’s phone, and it only takes a few minutes for a turn, and only a few dozen turns total. SBR might take a second or two for a turn, or several minutes. And there may be hundreds of turns. But at any rate, just having PBEM is something that would really not constitute “having multiplayer” for most of our audience.

      7. There are a sizeable number of people who would see “has co-op” and then hop in and assume that it works the standard way. If I do anything funky and then tick that box, a lot of those people will be up in arms and claiming I misled them, etc. I don’t like it either, but it is the reality of the thing.

      8. Ultimately with this game, having the game itself is the most important thing to me. Being able to play co-op is super important to me, yes. But sometimes there are multiple important things, and a compromise isn’t always going to be possible. In those cases — as with Bionic and TLF — I chose the game itself over the goal of co-op.

  3. Arnos says:

    To throw my two cents in, it looks like you are agonizing over removing something that just isn’t a good fit for the this game. Focus on where you can win ;)

  4. OhHaiMe says:

    This is great news to me. I probably would have never played this as a multiplayer game.So knowing that you are now free to make a game without having to make compromises for how something will work in multiplayer sounds great to me.

  5. darkarchon says:

    While I love playing AI War in Co-Op, I don’t think this game would be very interesting in multiplayer. I tried Civ several times with a friend and we weren’t able to play for too long since one of us always got bored. AI War doesn’t have that issue, but it isn’t turn-based either.

    I think you did the right choice here. I’m looking forward to play this game once it’s released, since I think it will be totally up my alley.

    Kudos for this bold decision and transparency of it instead of just hammering multiplayer on top of this game or just scrapping it without explaining anything. Again you confirm to me your status as my favorite self-published developer. Keep up the great work so far, I want more Arcen titles in my library :D

  6. Pedro S says:

    I will agree I think this is the right way foward. If there is a demand for MP after release, that’s always on the table at a later date during work on an expansion or something. Doing it that way is more practical and you’ll have feedback and ideas from the player base on how it could work or how they’d want it to work after playing and thinking about the game.

    It could even be asymetrical co-op. A suped up hard mode for the main player while the other plays as the planet entity to try to help them. Obsessive fans are crazy scary (in a good way… and sometimes bad :P). I’m sure if the game turns out great, ideas will come out, and your crew won’t have the presure of making the base game and working on multiplayer at the same time.

    Just my two cents. I loved AI Wars with the head crushing complexity and smart, clever design. Since I first played it, I’ve always been excited about the idea of an Arcen 4X. Looking foward to this one :]

  7. goodgimp says:

    I’m not posting this to be the stereotypical whining internet guy, I just want to provide you some feedback from a customer so you can file it away as a datapoint or completely ignore at your leisure. :)

    I can understand limitations of budget and I can also understand that sometimes games don’t work well with co-op. My problem is, the reason I became a fan of you guys (Arcen) is because of your dedication to co-op titles. One of my great frustrations for years was that when an interesting strategy game would come out, it would either have no MP whatsoever or just some tacked-on and lacking “skirmish” mode, which I had no interest in. Games like Civ4 where you could play the “full” single player experience with your friends were few and far between. So when Arcen came out as a co-op shop, I was delighted and purchased all your products!

    There’s now been a string of releases without any co-op support. Again, I understand (and I’m not arguing) the reasons for that. I still picked up your SP-only titles because I want to support you guys, even if those games weren’t really for me. I like your experimentation with gameplay and again, I’m a real fan of your dedication to co-op.

    So, after hearing that the next title is once more not going to have MP… well, it’s quite disheartening for this customer. I’ve already stopped checking out the site nearly as much as I used to since the past few titles have lacked co-op and I worry that this is just going to push me further in that direction, which makes me sad! :)

    Anyway, I’m not saying “No, Chris, you make the game for ME!”. Like I said, I’m not trying to be That Internet Guy. Normally I’d just stay silent and walk away but I’ve got a lot of history with you guys and a ton of respect, so I at least want to give you one little data point. Again, feel free to file it away somewhere or disregard. :)

    Good luck with the release of the new game, I hope it goes well for you!

    • Chris Park says:

      Three in a row with no co-op! Wow, you’re right. That does stink.

      The really good news is that the game I have planned for after this one will be brilliant in co-op, so that streak will end at least. It’s not a strategy game though, it’s more of a survival one.

      If Stars does well enough to warrant expansions, and I really hope it will, my intent is to try to crack the co-op issue in some way. Or multiple ways, we’ll see. No promises at the moment, and goodness please nobody buy the game solely in order to encourage that happening, but it is a hope of mine.

  8. Gamer-man says:

    The Civ series itself, by admission of the lead designers, was made as a single player experience, and multiplayer was tossed in as an afterthought (at least the lead designers of civ II, IV, and V all have said that). so really, just make a single player game, at least for now, and you can always launch an expansion if you later come up with a better way to run multiplayer than civ did it, or if the demand is there for you to toss it in later, then you can later. No one will want to play a bad single player game with a bad co-op mechanism in either form, but people will want to play a good single player game either as single player or a handful of people as co-op, so really maximizing the quality of the single player game is key to even make multiplayer worth considering at all. Just my thoughts on the matter.

    • Chris Park says:

      Yep, very much agreed. And I’ve spoken to the lead designer of Civ 5 at length in the past, us both sharing thoughts about various things. Multiplayer was definitely a topic that came up, heh.

  9. Skyswimsky says:

    Wow, I moved into this article being all mad and “Really Arcen, really?” But reading that changed my mind, keep up the good work.

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