Month: February 2015

Re: Incident on the previous Thursday

From: Skylaxian Diplomatic Corps HQ, Betamax
To: Skylaxian Embassy, Burlustia
Subject: Re: Incident on the previous Thursday

Under no circumstances whatsoever should any of our personnel ever walk in to a Burlustian bar again.

P.S. surveillance indicates that all of their buildings are actually bars.

Stars Beyond Reach: What we’re working on, plus spotlight on the Zenith aliens.


Apologies again for my slowness regarding Stars Beyond Reach updates at the moment.  I’ve been active in the forums since this project answering questions here and there if you haven’t been there.  But carving out the time for organized posts sometimes is a bit tricky.

The last week or so has seen Keith working like crazy on implementing the Market Items that you can create in the game, as well as the resource-usage buildings that provide buffs to adjacent buildings.  He’s now working on actually implementing the first pass of the diplomacy screen that I showed a mockup of last time.


I’ve mostly been consumed by the actual diplomatic interactions between you and the other aliens, which involves a lot of writing as well as a lot of design.  As part of that, I’ve also finished the design for spies, diplomats, thieves, and intelligence reports in general.

One of the fun things with intelligence reports (and consequently spies and diplomats) is that the game is not giving you the all-encompassing sort of knowledge that you have in The Last Federation.  I have found it’s more fun to be a little blind, because then I don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis so much — I’m able to fully see my OWN empire, but as with a game of cards I have to infer what is going on in my opponents’ hands by their actions and mannerisms.  This is part of why the diplomatic screen lets you jot down notes to yourself.


One thing that is fun is that since each race has 3 different possible racial leaders, that’s 42 leaders in all.  They all have their own goals and personalities and strengths and weaknesses even within their faction, and so the faction might act and perform very differently under leader A versus leader B.  Also, which factions get along well is determined heavily by the many (many, many) defined attributes of the leaders.  A lot of these personality-specific attributes specifically play into letting the AI leaders interact with one another (and react to you) based on procedural means rather than hard-coded rules.


It’s pretty cool, because manipulating spreadsheets thus lets the behaviors of the AI really change quite a bit.  Anyway, but the core point here is that each leader makes the faction act pretty darn differently — and they may be bent on something nice as their goal, or something quite homicidal.  This is… useful to know, to put it mildly. ;)  But you don’t know!  These guys play it close to the chest.

Well, that’s where the spies come in.  You can infer some things based on talking to the AIs (if you can understand them) and seeing what they say back to you.  If you’re aggressive and they like it, that’s… maybe not a good sign (hi Burlusts).  Then again, maybe they were just intimidated (hi Peltians).  Part of the problem is that the identity of the leader is actually a secret at first, so even if you use a cheat sheet and look at the spreadsheet or a source online, you’re not going to just know immediately what is up.


Time to send in the spies, if you care enough!  Of course, that does take some time and money, and when spies are caught that erodes trust somewhat between you and the race you’re spying on.  They won’t like you any less (or more), but they will trust you less.  Anyway, as your spies (and diplomats, to a lesser degree) gather data on both the leader’s attributes and the goings-on in the empire you’re looking at, eventually you get a full picture of who the leader is and what they want — and then their identity is revealed.

I think of this kind of like “informational fog of war.”  Exploring the map is one thing, but also getting to know your potential adversaries and allies is another.

Speaking of getting to know your neighbors, Cath and I were talking about the Zenith this morning.  The first buildings from their faction are only now being painted (were sculpted a while back), and so she’s trying to get a sense for their race and how to represent them.  We’ve had their terrain done for months, but the terrain is a different beast than the actual direct place where a race lives — related, but not the same.


She was going through information about the Zenith on the forums and the wiki, but not finding out enough about them from the sources that were AI War focused.  AI War never really delved into their backstory as much.  At the time, I preferred to leave them as more mysterious.  And they were long-dead in that part of the galaxy, anyway.  The Zenith that you meet in Stars Beyond Reach are a different pocket of the race that are only cousins to the dead relics that you find in AI War.

As I’ve been designing their leaders and their race in general, a solid picture of them has been emerging, so it was a quick thing I wrote up to help provide some inspiration for the painting she was doing.  I figured I’d share that with you as well — why not have more info out there in public about them, after all. :)


So here’s way more background on the Zenith than you probably ever wanted to know:

1. Each giant shell is a creature in and of itself, so each building is a living being.

2. The beings themselves are practically immortal, and are often billions of years old.

3. However, they are neither the Old Wise Man sort of trope, nor do they look down on other races. They’re just… at peace. They’re pretty calm and easygoing.

4. Their main quest is for knowledge, and they spend a lot of their time engaged in philosophy.

5. They do die, just not from natural causes. So that’s one of the things that they do contemplate, because it’s not an inevitability for them.

6. All the shells and so forth littered around their landscape are kind of sheddings from their body, OR from the lower life forms that serve them.

7. The Zenith themselves have some smaller animals that resemble them in many ways, but which have a shorter lifespan. But it’s not a master-slave relationship, or even a servant-master relationship. Think of your relationship to the bacteria in your gut, or the microbes on your skin. You’re not on similar mental planes at all, and you don’t really think about them, even though they are vital to your survival. You are also vital to theirs, though they don’t have any concept of “thinking” about you that we would consider meaningful. Still, you are literally the world to them, as they exist on you as we do on the earth.

8. The Zenith are very powerful thanks to simply having been around a long time. However, they don’t actively cultivate the art of war (unlike, say, the Spire or the Thoraxians or similar), so they aren’t as powerful as they could have been. The Spire a much more Type A personality that is very engaged and active, whereas the Zenith are more laid-back. They aren’t sloth-like or idle, they just take time to smell the roses — partly because time doesn’t really have the same meaning to them as it does to you or I. After all, death is not an inevitability for them.

9. Their technology is all 100% organic. Even the things that are iron plating or whatnot have been manufactured by their own bodies. They don’t use machines as we think of them. However, they have been able to use organic means to augment their bodies. It’s theoretically possible to create computers out of organic matter, and in fact they have done so. Similarly, it’s possible (and seen in nature) to do things like make welds or generate extreme heat or whatnot using just organic means. Even generate electricity (heck, WE do that bit). The Zenith have basically mastered all of these biological processes, and they exist as a form of “high technology” society that doesn’t actually have anything that we would consider technology normally.

10. When it comes to their environment, for the most part the terrain around them is just the organic byproducts of their existence. That said, in their direct vicinity things would be kept a bit more neat and orderly by the simple fact of the smaller organisms that live on and around them, helping them exist. I imagine that these smaller organisms would leave a variety of trails like deer paths in the woods, but those are paths made by repetition, not design. Deer aren’t out in the woods laying down roads, and we don’t spend time making roads for deer, either. Whatever paths they have are simply made by repeated passage of deer. Same with these smaller organisms.


That’s it for now!  I hope you’ve enjoyed the test screenshots here as well.  Sorry that some of them were just cruddy screengrabs from explorer or excel.


Click here to view the official forum thread on this post.



No Multiplayer For Stars Beyond Reach.


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.


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).


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.


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.”


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.”


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.




Click here to view the official forum thread on this post.



Hey, the Arcen wiki is now open for all to edit!

poweredby_mediawiki_88x31 Well hello!  I’ll have more information on Stars Beyond Reach later in the week.  But for the moment, I wanted to give a quick important announcement about our wiki.  Previously it was invite-only, and mainly edited by staff.  Consequently it was often out of date.

Now it’s open to anyone to edit, although you do still have to create an account (to hopefully keep spambots out).  There are certain pages — mainly release notes — that are protected from editing by anyone except admins.  Believe it or not, I didn’t know how to set any of that up previously, hence us never really having this open before.

Thanks to Dominus Arbitrationis for setting all this up, and getting things upgraded and kicked off at all.  And teaching me a thing or two in the process, as well.  You can PM him through the forums or contact him through the Special:EmailUser page on the wiki.  He wanted me to emphasize that this is a work in progress at the moment, so some aspects of it are still being set up right now.

There’s also some sort of slowdown on the wiki itself performance-wise right now, which I think is probably database-related.  I’m working with Rackspace on getting that figured out.

But if you’ve been wanting to update stats on AI War ships, or write a tutorial for TLF or AI War or whatever, or provide strategy advice on whatever game — now you’re more than welcome to!  A good wiki is the lifeblood of a lot of other similar games, so I’m really glad that we finally have something properly set up here.


Official forum post on this thread.