Category: Stars Beyond Reach

Congrats to our #loveindies giveaway winners!

The drawing for the #loveindies Giveaway is now complete, and we have our 20 winners.  Thanks to everyone who entered!  In particular thanks to folks who left us encouraging comments on the form, that really brightened our day.  I wasn’t sure why I put that field there, but it was a pleasant surprise on the results. :)

Winners of a Copy of AI War 2:

Ahmet Tombik
Andy Lamb
Christopher Bort

Winners of a Copy of Stars Beyond Reach:

Ali Berk

All names used with permission.  Everyone on both lists should have an email from Chris at this point with their Steam key.  If you don’t have an email from us, please check your spam and then contact arcengames at gmail and we’ll sort you out.

About Stars Beyond Reach

Just to clear up any potential confusion on this title, here’s the note I included on the email to all the winners:

This gives you access to a variety of alpha/beta versions that you can access via the Steam properties tab, and then click into the betas tab. It has a dropdown with various entries from during the development history of the game.

At the moment we still don’t have any concrete plans to restart development on this game, but in the event that we do, this is a key that will continue to have access to the full release version and beyond. Fingers crossed that we can come back to it someday, but in the meantime we hope you enjoy the alpha and beta versions that are up at the moment.

About Reviewing Indie Games In General

Holy smokes do we need this — it makes a material difference to us.  Whether or not you entered the contest, if you don’t mind leaving a Steam review for some/any of our games that is always super appreciated.  It doesn’t have to be much more detailed than a thumbs up, but if you like a game we made and want more people to find it, that’s how you make it happen.  It’s the difference between other potential customers finding us and not finding us, which is… important to us, as you might imagine.

Please note that you didn’t have to leave a review in order to enter the giveaway; and you shouldn’t leave a good review if you don’t think good things. Reviews didn’t help your chances in the giveaway, blah blah blah let’s just clearly keep things ethical.

Thanks Again!

You’ll hear from us soon with yet more AI War 2 patch note updates. :)



Arcen #loveindies Giveaway!

We’re taking part in #loveindies week!

If you’ve enjoyed any of our games and want to give a brief impression, or even just a thumbs up, that’s a really big deal to us. If you feel the burning need to go in there and warn folks off of one of our titles, that’s of course perfectly acceptable as well. ;) Our catalog is here.

As part of this celebration, we’re giving away ten (10) copies each of AI War 2 and Stars Beyond Reach (20 overall winners). To enter, all you have to do is fill out this form — you don’t have to actually leave any reviews.

We’ll be running this contest through the end of Friday, July 20th, and picking winners on Monday, July 23rd. Thank you so much for your support!

Starward Rogue Update 1.011-1012: 4 New Enemies, Performance Fixes

Another two updates!  These one have four enemies, three of which are community-created.  This also fixes the performance-eating aspects of our own recently-added Demesne enemy.  And there was a performance regression in 1.010 in general that is now fixed.  Sorry about all the hitching that was causing — it was worst on linux, but happening on all three OSes.

This new version also brings us to… Unity 5!  Overall that doesn’t change a whole lot in your user experience, however it does let us lock the cursor to the window, which I know a lot of folks were really wanting (me too).  I know I made some flubs with firing during recording some videos thanks to my mouse cursor going out of the window before.

Aside from that, we spent a huge amount of time — almost all of our working hours allocated for Starward Rogue on Saturday through today — on smoother diagonal wall collisions.  That has been a big problem unfortunately, because in version 1.011 it was causing some woes with getting stuck in certain walls and being unable to pick up certain items, which was very frustrating.  Right now we’ve simply disabled that again, and I’m not sure of any other way around that.  For now we will spend our time working on other unrelated things off the list of things you guys have been asking for tweaks with.

More to come soon!  Because of the recent layoffs we are in a slower development phase now, so the updates won’t be daily.  But there will be one or two a week at the very least, and likely more than that (particularly thanks to community contributions and our awesome volunteers).

We’ve also resumed working on Stars Beyond Reach, and are now working on our other next project as well (Keith on the one and Blue and I on the other, respectively), so we have a plan for moving forward as a smaller company now.

Official forum thread on this post.



Great work on Starward Rogue, team! Now you’re all laid off…?

Doomsday Victory 4

Well @#$#@%$.  The TLDR is that almost all the Arcen staff are going to lose their jobs, effective Monday.

The Good

Starward Rogue is out now, and it’s getting glowing steam reviews (76, all positive, as of this writing) as well as a lot of positive youtube and twitch coverage.  Mostly from smaller channels with a few exceptions at the moment, but still.  People are playing it and they are really loving it!  As in, more than anything else we’ve done since AI War — really??  That’s awesome news!

The Bad

Oh, but the sales suck.  We’re lost in a sea of other titles.  About 9,000 people on Steam have wishlisted the title, which is awesome — next time this goes on discount, hopefully they’ll pick it up (but I mean, it’s only $11.99 USD and it’s 10% off already!).  By contrast, about 2,100 people have bought the game across Steam and Humble.


Deja Vu?

I’ll save you the trouble of pointing out that this has happened to us before.  Back in 2010 we had a lot of trouble, and then promptly were pulled out of it by an outpouring of support.  I still had to lay off about half the team that worked on Tidalis, but the company itself continued on and eventually grew larger than ever before.

We had some more woes in early 2014, right before The Last Federation came out.  These were not particularly public, but we lost a bunch of staff then again.  By making a lot of personal financial investments and by making the staff cuts, I managed to get us to the finish line on that game without us having to cry for help again.  It wasn’t something I ever wanted to do again — particularly after in 2010, that became part of our reputation.  This isn’t exactly something you want to be known for.

Anyway, TLF then became our fastest-selling title to date (though it’s total sales have not matched AI War), and we wound up with a large cash buffer.  I brought back on some of the staff I had had to lay off previously, albeit more carefully in terms of how many people and how many hours.  I didn’t want this to happen again.

Escape to space victory5

Stars Beyond Reach

Wait, I thought we were talking about Starward Rogue?  Yeah, but my chief screw-up this time happened in relation to Stars Beyond Reach.  You may recall that in early October we decided to push that game back until Q2 2016, citing burn-out on the game and being creatively stagnant, etc.  That was after pushing the game back repeatedly, first from May to July, and then to late September.

When we started on Stars Beyond Reach, we were relatively cash-rich.  We had over $200k in the bank, solid monthly income, and I was feeling my oats.  It was time for that big awesome 4X game I’d always been wanting to make.  What better time, right?  People had been asking us to do a true 4X for years, too, and now we were finally ready.

What happened next is complicated, and the details are somewhat up for debate.  However you look at it, though, it’s my fault.  Basically I overreached with the design, is the simplest way to put it.  We spent a TON of time in R&D mode, and then went to beta, and found out how much the early versions kinda sucked.  So we did more.  And more.  And more.  And it got better with every iteration.  The game was becoming fun, inch by inch.

However, all this time spent in extra development more than doubled the cost of making the game, and in the meantime our steady stream of income from our 2014-and-before titles started to dry up.  The Steam store changed a lot, and periodic discount sales — as well as the larger store-wide sales — were no longer the huge windfalls they once had been.  Our non-discount-period sales were up because of the new changes, so that was good.  But the promotional income was gutted, and that was our main source of income.  So we started bleeding money.


The Money Bleed

IncomeChartThe image to the left shows a pretty good approximation of what happened month by month.  You’ll notice that nowhere in there does it include paying me back for the money that I had to put into the company in order to finish The Last Federation (that was around $40k).  It does include the company line of credit, which I had put to about a balance of $50k right as TLF was coming out.

In other words, yeah, we ran ourselves down to our last dime making TLF.  I say we — I mean me.  I mean, there again, it was my fault for being overly ambitious, and then really going through a lot of combat models trying to get things fun, etc.  (I thought I had learned my lesson after the TLF project was such a close call, but clearly not.)

Anyway, yeah, first thing to do was pay off the LOC so that we were not being hit with $400 or more in interest payments each month on that.  But at any rate, the company was really flying high in 2014.  Our income actually has grown every year except for 2015, but in 2014 it jumped a huge amount from our previous high of about $400k gross income (in a company financial sense — not in the sense of gross sales at distributors sites — from that standpoint the $400k was our net income after distributor fees and taxes).  Overall our gross income for 2014 was about $700k, which was huge for us.

That meant the gross sales prior to the distributor cuts was well over $1m.  Coool!  Incidentally, our total gross sales prior to distributor cuts for all our games in the last 6.5 years has now passed over $3.5 million, give or take a bit.  Yay us!

I didn’t get paid at all in 2012, and had put at least half my income back into the company in 2013 and 2014 to keep it going, but our overall library of games — and thus pool of long-term income — was growing.  When I say it like that, it sounds kind of stupid, but basically it boils down to the fact that I had enough to live on for my needs, enough to pay staff, and enough to keep making games.

Most of our games have made money (well, actually about half of them have earned more than they cost), and out of those some made VASTLY more than they cost to make (AI War in particular, but TLF also did very well on that front).  So it’s not completely moronic to say “we’ll worry about that back income later, and right now the important thing is to come out with another game that is awesome and which hopefully has a solid reception like the other games of ours which made money.”  All it would take is one more game like TLF and all of that back history would be wiped away, PLUS we’d have a handy war chest as buffer for during future games.

What happened, instead, was our back catalog except for AI War and TLF all pretty much stopped earning any money around mid-2015 when some of the Steam store changes happened.  And our ability to gain substantial income from periodic promotions disappeared, so we stopped having “on months and off months” and pretty much just shifted to “off months.”


The First Crossroads

In April of 2015, I knew we wouldn’t be able to finish Stars Beyond Reach in time for a launch in May.  So at that point we could either push back the date on that and try to finish the game by July, or we could set it aside and work on some other game.  I was getting really excited by the idea that turned into Starward Rogue about that time, so it was suuuper attractive to want to just jump over and work on Starward and give up on SBR for the time being.  SBR really wasn’t going all that well at that time, although there were a lot of things that were headed in the right direction.

I am well aware of the sunk cost fallacy, and I considered that a lot when making my decision.  I’m also very aware of the “grass is always greener” effect.  A project that is in the ideation stage is always more exciting than one in the late slog period of development.  After looking at finances and talking to staff and my wife and my parents and looking at various circumstances, I decided to keep going on SBR.  Going for early July would actually give us loads of extra time to finish it up really well.


And Then Down From There

Obviously “we’re almost done” kept not being true, because Stars Beyond Reach just kept not being good enough.  I have over 160 hours playing the game, and it is a fun and intriguing game in quite a lot of ways.  But it is just missing… something.  Some of the mechanics just don’t quite work.  Enough things are just out of place that the whole isn’t the pleasing masterpiece that I had hoped to create.  Not even close.  How does it stack up to other strategy games?  That’s impossible for me to state objectively.  But the game was not (and still is not) at a state it needs to be for me to feel good about trying to sell it to you.


The Biggest Crossroads

October rolled around, and we were basically hitting a point where my projected income put us running out of funds just prior to the end of December.  IF things went really smoothly with SBR, which seemed unlikely, then we might be able to release it into the maelstrom that is the November release schedule.  That would have been suicidal, and so that would mean releasing SBR in the new year.

But that would be really putting ALL our eggs in that one basket, and if we couldn’t release anything until January anyhow… well, that might just be enough time to make the game that went on to become Starward Rogue.  Going for that, and taking on some debt to accelerate the project and thus get it out faster, seemed to make more sense.  Even my fiscally conservative mother agreed.  Having one project in a semi-finished state and another project finished in that timeframe just made so much more sense.

And I still stand by that!  That was the right call, and actually everything went according to plan from then on.


Starward Rogue As A Project

The first thing I did was get Misery from our forums on board, because he’s a whiz at the sort of enemy designs that make up the game.  I also got up with my friend Zack, who is excellent as a level designer, to help work on room designs.  I wound up pulling in over a dozen other people from November through January to work on a contract basis on aspects of the game.  Actually it was probably the best work I’ve ever done as a project manager / producer.  Man it was a hellish rush toward the end, and I was sleeping about 3-4 hours per night and then working the rest of the day for the last week or so toward release, but things all came together.

Oh, but one thing.  Just a tiny thing.  Because of this insane schedule, and the fact that the game was going to be coming hot off the presses right as release happened, there wasn’t going to be time for advanced marketing, PR, awareness, etc.  No launch reviews.  Ugh!  But to combat that, we did a really big promotion with a Bionic Dues giveaway with Humble Store in exchange for a lot of promotional awareness about Starward Rogue.

We knew starting in October that the marketing/PR side of this was going to be a nightmare and likely would harm our launch.  But out of a number of bad options that I had in October (based on my own mistakes from earlier in that year), that was the least-bad.  And then Erik came up with the idea for the Bionic Dues giveaway, and that was a really huge coup in terms of our ability to get launch-day press and so forth.  It was a gamble, sure, but we stacked things in our favor as much as possible given the corner I painted us into with SBR.


And Here We Are

Welp, Starward Rogue is out now.  I couldn’t be more proud of it.  It’s such a cool game!  It’s possibly our best yet, and certainly better than anything other than AI War.  Players seem to agree.  Our beta testers had started out iffy in late November, and had really helped us shape this into something they were all hopping around excited about.  Threads were popping up all over our forums about “I love this game!”  and “Where did this come from?” and so on.

In the past when we have done a launch, generally we wind up on the Steam top sellers list in the top 40 at around the low side, and peak somewhere in the top 10.  We’ve reached the #6 spot a couple of times, briefly, and if memory serves we might have very very briefly been #2 at one point.  Usually we hang out in the teens for a few days and then drop off.

That’s where we make our money.  Other things, like positive reviews from some sites or youtube channels, cause a brief spike, but that’s about it.  Things taper off and we then have a low-grade income from the game for a while after that.  Then the next income pops are pretty much discount promotions — although that started not being the case in 2015 for us, so now that was questionable as well.

However, unfortunately, Starward Rogue has seen financially the worst launch for us except for Tidalis and Shattered Haven.  Those two did worse (much worse), but we were not as large at that point.  The Tidalis flop is what precipitated the 2010 money woes that were public, though.  Shattered Haven was fortunately not really more than a disappointing blip in 2013, financially speaking (there are honestly people in our fanbase for whom that is their favorite Arcen title — I know the steam reviews are “mostly negative” and I get that most people don’t like the game, but it wasn’t something that nobody could enjoy).

Anyway, Starward: we have mostly hung out in the 200s instead of in the teens, and mostly in the 250s at that, top-seller-chart-wise.  We peaked, briefly, at #98.  That lasted under 3 hours.  Our clickthrough rate on our marketing run was over double the store-wide average, but it still ended early compared to what happened with TLF.  I’m not sure why that was, but we were still getting other kinds of featuring, so there were some solid hits coming in.


What Didn’t Happen

This was supposed to be a month of high earnings to recoup recent past losses, and to provide a nest egg that would support us as we finish up Stars Beyond Reach in a manner that we feel we actually want to release (there are some very heavy revisions that we have planned on that front).  Instead, it looks like the company will be taking another loss for the month — this one about $6k, give or take a little (final numbers are not in).

To put it another way: owwwww.

I look at the reviews and the player comments and so forth and I get so happy.  I look at the sales numbers and… yeah.  This is literally unprecedented for us.  We’ve had rocky response and reasonable or poor sales.  We’ve had good response and good sales.  We’ve had poor response and poor sales, and mixed response and poor sales.  What we’ve never had is awesome response and poor sales.


What Happens Now (Assuming Nothing Changes)

I’ll have to pull another $30k or so out of my personal money, taking a hit on stock sales since the market is down.  The LOC is pretty well maxed out.  I’m not going to default on any debts (good lord I would never put myself in a position to do that), but I don’t have any extra money to spend.

Based on the current income level, we will only be able to maintain a fulltime staff of two — Keith and myself — but I’ll stretch it to three in order to keep our artist Blue on as well.  We need an artist on staff.   Everyone else, including Pablo, our awesome composer who has been with me from the start, gets laid off.  If things don’t improve, then after another month or three Blue also gets laid off.

Some of the contractors on Starward Rogue were originally fans and have now offered to donate some of their time to helping maintain the game post-launch and continue curating player content and creating some more content of their own, etc.

In the last two months we have had six people fulltime, four more with > 10 hours per week, and another seven with regularly-recurring work generally paid by the piece.  That’s the team it took in order to make Starward Rogue in such a short amount of time — and it doesn’t count voice actors or some one-off contract artists, etc.  Most of that team was just on for some limited contracting in the first place, but seven of those have had a work relationship with us for at least a year (if not three or six years).

To some of them it’s just a disappointment.  To others it’s the loss of a dream job.  For two of them, this disruption comes at a time when they have new babies on the way.  For Pablo, he’s a new dad as of less than two months ago (his paternity leave is why there isn’t more music in the Starward Rogue track list, but he is adding more since returning to work).  On the flip side, and what I have to remind myself: nobody is dying, and most of them have spouses that either can or do work; and/or they have other job prospects beyond just Arcen.

But still.  These people are my friends, my colleagues, and people whose livelihoods are my responsibility.  I have made all the choices I have in good faith, and usually in lengthy consultation with the rest of them.  But there’s been a lot of trust that they put in me that I knew what the hell I was doing.

It just so happens that I may not know what the hell I am doing.  Either I never understood the market as well as I thought I did, or the market changed while we had our heads in the sand developing SBR, or both.  Whatever the case, it’s something I deeply regret.  The fact that they are all being so nice and understanding with me makes it all the worse, honestly.


Why Am I Telling You?

I don’t know.  I kinda thought that Starward Rogue was good enough that this would be a new chance to live life properly and not run around with my hair on fire all the time.  Instead we have this gut punch.

I mean, obviously, I’m hoping that you’ll tell all your friends and family and shout to the high heavens how much the game if you do.  Nobody writes a post like this without hoping for some help, and it would be disingenuous for me to suggest otherwise.  This post is definitely a request for help, if you feel that you want to give it.

It’s very embarrassing for me to come back and do this a second time; that pretty much cements that as part of my identity in your mind, doesn’t it?  I’m now the guy who can’t manage the finances of his company right.  Well… so be it.  There are many worse things to be.  Someone who doesn’t take a last-ditch opportunity to try and salvage his staff is one of them.


How Can You Help?

This is why I said “I don’t know” in answer to the above question.  Our problem seems to be one of exposure for Starward Rogue.  Unless I am very much missing something, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why it shouldn’t be happily finding a smiling audience about now.  If you have a way of helping get the word out about the game along with whatever your opinion of it is (if you think it sucks and want to tell people that, I guess that’s certainly better than them not knowing at all).

Some of your wind up being inclined to start giving us monetary tips through paypal.  And while that is certainly very much appreciated, that’s kind of a “sprinkling water on a heavy blaze” sort of situation.  In order for me to salvage staff at anything close to the levels we had in 2015, let alone what we’ve had recently, we need sustained sales from a wider audience — an audience that I feel like the game would appeal to, if only they knew about it properly and actually bought it instead of wishlisting it.

“Give a man a fish,” and all that.  Not that we don’t appreciate the fish, but if you give us money and then see us still have a massive layoff I imagine that’s going to feel like a gut punch to you.  So I mean… I’m really not wanting charity here.

If the game doesn’t deserve to sell, then it doesn’t deserve to sell, and that’s the way it goes.  In that case, then the appropriate thing that usually happens in a company is a layoff.  Yay capitalism.

The only thing that I’m wanting is for the game to have a chance to actually find its audience, and for them to either support us or not by deciding to purchase the thing we have on offer for them.   That’s why we made this in the first place!  (Aside from the fact we wanted to play it, I mean.)  If that’s simply not meant to be, as was the case with Shattered Haven or Tidalis, then so be it.  But that’s not at all the vibe I’m getting so far.


What About Stars Beyond Reach?

I’ve brought this up several times in this post, so I need to go ahead and address this game’s status.  Yes, we are still planning on releasing this in Q2 of this year.  It will be undergoing a major overhaul of a lot of the low-level mechanics (but not the high-level spirit) under the direction of Keith, while I pretty much step back from the project (we can’t have two head chefs and he’s the one with a really good plan for the game that I’m really excited about).

I and the former-contractors now-volunteers will be maintaining Starward Rogue.  I’ll be doing playtesting and giving feedback on Stars Beyond Reach along with the other 250ish testers we have for that game.  And I’ll be working on another project on my own.  I’m not needed on SBR in a fulltime capacity right now, and so far SR isn’t showing signs that it can support me doing fulltime post-release content for it like I had hoped, so it’s time for me to split my time with something new that will hopefully do a better job of sustaining our new tiny staff if that’s what we shrink to.

In short, if the sole reason you care about the fate of our company is because you want to see Stars Beyond Reach become a reality, then please don’t support us extra at the moment.  That’s a lot of pressure on SBR — what if you don’t like it?  What if, god forbid, we just can’t get it right and scrap it?  None of that will be affected by what goes on with our staff-at-large anyhow at this point.  SBR is in no way a hostage to our current circumstances.


Time To Wrap This Up

I don’t have any rallying cry to close this, or anything like that.  I’m exhausted, the whole team is, and right now we’re feeling this really strange mixture of being very happy and proud and also being… a bit crushed.  You might say “that’s life,” and you’d be right.  You might point out that game companies big and small get shuttered every week, and you’d also be right.  And we’re not being shuttered.

But a lot of people I care about did a lot of hard work to bring to life something that I think you’ll enjoy, and they’re going to be losing their jobs in about half a week because of me.  I figured I ought to at least give you a heads up.

Official forum post on this topic.



Stars Beyond Reach: Release Date Now 2016, and Tales of Woe Part 3 of 3


First up the good news.  You may recall that we were doing  a series of visual shorts set in the world of Stars Beyond Reach.  Well, the final part of that is now here!

Since it’s been a while, here are all three parts of the video in one series:

“Tales of Woe” is a three-part series of humorous video shorts set in the Stars Beyond Reach universe.  The first video focuses on the approach to the planet, and reveals the general backstory.  The second video is a look at a supremely unlucky set of new arrivals on the planet.  And the third video is a look at that civilization as it has become ascendant… but at what price?

Animated by Julian GD, and voiced by Toby Ricketts and Bronnie Howells.

Part 3 has been done since May (as you’ll note by the youtube upload date), but I’ve had it unlisted until now because I wanted to release that along with another gameplay video.  No such luck.  More on that in a bit.

Release Date Is Now March 2016

More details on that are here, along with a Q&A with a lot of the people who have been in the beta or were hoping to get in the beta (and still can next year!).

The short of it is this: this game is freaking huge, and it’s extremely novel.  That costs a lot in time, money, and also creative energy.  We’ve been running ourselves ragged over the last few months, and we came to a decision as a team to put the game temporarily on hold.  We don’t have confidence that we could release this in 2015 in a state that we’d be proud of, and even if we did it would likely get smashed by the impressive roster of competing strategy titles that fill the remainder of this year.

Meanwhile, there’s another project that is much smaller and that I’ve been getting increasingly excited about as I designed it on the side over the last half year or so.  Given that we could use a creative hiatus from SBR, and we need to do something with our time, this is the perfect fit.

I know that this sort of delay can be disappointing or even alarming, but really this is what you want developers to do.  Rather than just cut our losses and shove something out the door that doesn’t live up to its potential, we’re going to be a bit smarter about this.

Of course, we’re only able to do this because we’re self-funding: I don’t think a publisher would go for this, and I know that if we’d kickstarted the game people would be screaming bloody murder.  In a lot of respects I wouldn’t blame them, even though this is what’s sometimes just best for a game.   It’s one strong argument against kickstarters, in my opinion, because it puts you in a catch 22 situation where there is no right answer.

The Interim Game

We’re looking to release the upcoming interim game — a realtime roguelike with persistence — in January.  This seems very feasible at the moment, and certainly a lot lower-risk than putting all our eggs in the SBR basket for that same timeframe.  That causes an unfortunate delay in SBR, but I believe the final version of SBR will be a lot stronger for it.

Most likely we will start a non-Steam Early-Access-style alpha for the interim game in November of this year.  We have a huge amount of the code and design for the game already done, as it is partly using something that we developed during the dev cycle for The Last Federation — but had to set aside because it didn’t fit with the rest of that particular game.

Why not Early Access on Steam?  Well, you only get one release on Steam, and if we tried to do a release in this time period we feel like we’d just get lost in the shuffle.  Much better to just do a more limited release through our own site and maybe a few other partners, then have our big launch with Steam and yet other partners at 1.0 in January.

If you’re wondering, this interim game is the one that we’ve been talking about since 2014 that was originally called Airship Eternal, then Life At The End Of The Universe, and now is who knows what.  It was originally more of a SHMUP with survival elements, but I’ve been playing more roguelikes lately and found that they better scratched the particular itch I was trying to get at.

Something Else In November!

We also have something else planned for November, although I’m not quite ready to say what it is yet.


Until next time!

Click here to view the official forum post for this topic (with more details).




Interview with SpaceSector about Stars Beyond Reach!


Interview with Arcen Games, By Edward Varfalvy

This was a great Q&A with Edward about the game — he asks some really great questions that get at not just what the game is, but what the motivations were behind it.  Some of the questions get at future intent as the current beta progresses, as well, so there’s some cool info there even for folks who are already in the beta.

Speaking of the beta, we are still doing periodic waves of those, so feel free to sign up!

Better a Memorable Defeat than a Forgettable Victory

Chris: This was written by Sean Johnson, one of our beta testers for Stars Beyond Reach, and I’ve only added formatting and images.

Sean: I have never had so much fun losing at a strategy game and have certainly never felt compelled to write something about it.


Sean: All seemed well in our budding Zenith settlement of Kulrider. Despite the close proximity of an Acutian settlement, and the pollution that comes with it, we were pursuing a tranquil path of scientific discovery. What follows are excerpts from the personal journals of Premier Zeke I of Kulrider…discovered by me in the wreckage of our once proud city. May these accounts prevent others from repeating our mistakes…


Entry: I was wakened in the night with news that our Acutian neighbors had instigated a war of aggression…against fully half of the known races present on this world! Thankfully, we are not one of them…Yet. What am I saying? Even if the report is correct, and I have doubts about its accuracy, surely they cannot hope to win. They will be eliminated, along with their threat and their disgusting pollution…and good riddance.


Entry: Unbelievable! The Acutians have emerged victorious. How can this be? How weakened are they? Does it even matter? We are in no position militarily to take advantage even if they are devastated. What if they are not devastated…What if we are next? Damn me for allowing my advisors to convince me we had no need for a standing army. That changes…now! I will divert all our resources towards military readiness. Will there be enough time? There has to be…


Entry: The Minister of Health has been pestering me about a meeting for weeks, so I finally decided to placate him so I can be free of his whinging. It seems our fair minister is concerned that his funds for disease research have been diverted to military research. After explaining to him that there has been no hint of any disease since the founding of our fair city, I denied his request for renewed funding and sent him on his way.


Entry: Our newly constructed guard post has been utterly destroyed by some kind of damned subterranean worm…And worse, it seems that the Acutians have been working fervently to reconstitute their military might. This is…concerning.


Entry: The Minister of Health barged into my office reporting the outbreak of some sort of fungal infection. Although the mortality rate is not high, it appears to be highly contagious and the symptoms highly debilitating. I agree to divert whatever funds are necessary to the Minister of Health, but the look on his face tells me that it may be too little…too late.


Entry: Disaster! Our spies tell me that the Acutians are preparing to launch a full scale assault against us. We will be too weak to defend ourselves. Those who have not died in the damned pandemic are too sick to work. Our trained physicians, few as they were, died of disease whilst attempting to cure the afflicted and our military installations are manned by skeleton crews.


Final Entry: This is the end. Only a few hundred of us are left and only a few dozen have avoided infection. I have sent away the last few healthy citizens, for all the good it will do. There are not enough of us left for us to be genetically viable as a species. The Zenith end here. My only solace is that no one will be left to share my name that it be cursed forever more…


Stars Beyond Reach Release Pushed To Early July.


First off, the news: the release date for the game is shifting to early July rather than early June.  Why?  More time for polish, mainly.  Our first wave of beta testers (the redshirts) have been awesome, but there have been enough things going on that we haven’t even brought in the next round of testers (the blueshirts) yet.

The difference between a touchdown and fumbling the ball at the 1 yard line is pretty small, and in this case ultimately shooting for a June release would almost certainly be a fumble.  I’m super excited about this game, and our testers seem to be as well (always a good sign when their excitement remains after getting their hands on even a really rough early version), but we all agree that there’s a lot more to be done in the polish and balance department.


A lot of great things have already happened since the redshirts came in, including the implementation of our new HUD (see above), and getting crime and pollution and disease under control.  For a while there, cities would reach a certain size and then a death spiral was all but guaranteed.  There were mass mall shootings, citizens with like 5 terminal diseases at once, trash piled to the rooftops and bodies littering the streets, and so on.

A lot of it was actually really amusing, but it’s one of those things that just needs polish and time.  It’s also the sort of thing that just needs to have enough testers, frankly, as we continue to bring in people in waves.  A lot of those things weren’t biting me, for instance, since I play a certain way.  But get a larger group of people in, and suddenly different things bite different people in different ways.  It just takes time to polish all that out, and we want to make sure and give this game its due in that department.

So that’s what’s up!  Things will be speeding up substantially on Monday the 27th in terms of our ability to fix bugs and balance and so forth, by the way.  So there will be more frequent beta updates, and we’ll move closer to getting the blueshirts in sometime in the middle or late next week.  And then more groups of testers in waves after that.

Beta Reminders

The beta is absolutely free (though tips are appreciated if you want to give them), and we are taking people in groups.  The game is already at a point where it is feature complete, and has been for a bit.  The last few weeks I’ve been going through and wrecking stuff and figuring out balance and so on, but the game is huge and there’s a lot of that sort of thing to do.  This is a closed beta, which is basically saying that it’s invite-only.  That said, we don’t have a specific cap on the number of people that we’ll let in, so if you want to be added to the list of future beta players, please feel free to post on the forums here.

We’ve got essentially three groups of beta players:

1. Redshirts.  These folks were thrown into the game right at the start, when documentation is the most-poor and so is the balance.  These guys jump on the early confusion-grenades so that later waves of beta testers don’t get hit by that particular brand of shrapnel. ;)

2. Blueshirts.  These folks will come in probably about a week from now.  The worst things will have been taken care of, and the blueshirts can clamber over the dead bodies of the redshirts to have a better first experience.  But it’s still a lot of live fire going on down there, if you know what I mean.

3. Everybody else.  I’ll be bringing in people in in batches every week or half week or so.  I want to space this out some, because we only get your first impression once, and as we polish the balance and documentation that is something I’d like to see the results of (is that clearer or not? etc.).

Help Us With Procedural Market Item Names! (If You Want)

If you want to help us with the components for procedural market item names, that would be awesome.  It’s a big task, but if a lot of us do just a bit on there, we’ll have two big nice things.  Firstly, nobody goes brain-dead from trying to fill out the whole thing.  And secondly, we get a wider variety of creativity from a larger group.


Why Am I So Quiet Lately?

Sorry about that, folks.  I know that I’ve been absent in a ton of forum threads, and there are probably a ton of questions, comments, beta requests, and so on.  I will get to those!  They’re all stacked up in my inbox, waiting for me when I get a chance.  Right now I’ve been focusing on just plowing through some latent feature shifts and the GUI stuff, and some of the nastier bugs and balance issues.  I’ve been focused on mantis more than the forums in terms of trying to keep things on track.

Keith has had very limited time for the last couple of weeks, but he’ll be back in full force on Monday, as well.  So that will ease things off of me, and give me more time to respond on the forums, do my own testing, organize, etc.  Anyway, thanks again for your patience with my “on again off again” presence in the forums in particular.  It’s not something that I’m trying to do, I’m just really trying to keep a lot of plates spinning at once and feeling short a few hands right now.  That will change before too long, knock on wood. :)


Until next time!

Click here to view the official forum post for this topic.




Stars Beyond Reach: Beta Begins, and Tales of Woe Part 2 of 3


Two exciting things yet again!  First of all, the beta has started.  The beta is absolutely free (though tips are appreciated if you want to give them), and we are taking people in groups.  Right now our first group has gone in, but we still do have room in later groups if you are interested.

Last time I showed a brief video of gameplay, plus a written rundown of it.  That also had an embed of the first part of the Tales of Woe series of visual shorts from us.

Part two is now here!

“Tales of Woe” is a three-part series of humorous video shorts set in the Stars Beyond Reach universe.  The first video focuses on the approach to the planet, and reveals the general backstory.  The second video is a look at a supremely unlucky set of new arrivals on the planet.  And the third video is a look at that civilization as it has become ascendant… but at what price?

Animated by Julian GD, and voiced by Toby Ricketts and Bronnie Howells.

Beta Bits And Reminders

The game is already at a point where it is feature complete, and has been for a bit.  The last few weeks I’ve been going through and wrecking stuff and figuring out balance and so on, but the game is huge and there’s a lot of that sort of thing to do.  We’re going to be doing a closed beta, which is basically saying that it’s invite-only.  That said, we don’t have a specific cap on the number of people that we’ll let in, so if you want to be added to the list of future beta players, please feel free to post on the forums here or on another related thread.

We’ve got essentially three groups of beta players:

1. Redshirts.  These folks are being thrown into the game right at the start (now), when documentation is the most-poor and so is the balance.  These guys jump on the early confusion-grenades so that later waves of beta testers don’t get hit by that particular brand of shrapnel. ;)

2. Blueshirts.  These folks will come in probably about a week from now.  The worst things will have been taken care of, and the blueshirts can clamber over the dead bodies of the redshirts to have a better first experience.  But it’s still a lot of live fire going on down there, if you know what I mean.

3. Everybody else.  I’ll be bringing in people in in batches every week or half week or so.  I want to space this out some, because we only get your first impression once, and as we polish the balance and documentation that is something I’d like to see the results of (is that clearer or not? etc.).



Help Us With Procedural Market Item Names! (If You Want)

If you want to help us with the components for procedural market item names, that would be awesome.  It’s a big task, but if a lot of us do just a bit on there, we’ll have two big nice things.  Firstly, nobody goes brain-dead from trying to fill out the whole thing.  And secondly, we get a wider variety of creativity from a larger group.


Target Release Date: June 5th

It’s been a long haul on this project, and we’re really excited to be able to share increasingly more with you over the coming months.  I’m super proud of this one.

Until next time!

Click here to view the official forum post for this topic.




Fun With Procedurally Generated Market Item Names


So our players have been (and continue to be) a huge help with working on a system where we’re able to procedurally generate literally hundreds of thousands of names of items in various categories.  “Items” include things like sports broadcasts, entertainment broadcasts, different categories of poetry (romantic, crude, epic, angsty, etc), scientific periodicals, military equipment, personal hygiene products, and so on.

There’s an aspect of these that are tied to function (in a very broad sense — personal armor helps ground troops, for instance, but the specific name of the personal armor has no inherent meaning unlike in Borderlands or similar).  And there’s an aspect of these that is frequently tied to race.
Anyway, not being 100% function-driven with the names gives us latitude to instead make the names, well, fun.  Thematic as well, but also varied and interesting and sometimes funny.  It’s gotten to the point where I love seeing new market items from my own race or other races just to see the names.  Some of the best names that the game has generated so far:
  • Quarantine Zone Cream (hygeine product)
  • Thermal Buttocks Replacement (soldier bio-augmentation)
  • Anti-Air Nuclear Bayonet (personnel weapon)
  • Self-Righteous Electromagnetic Sensors (military component)
  • Why Do The Fatally Crabby Die? (dark philosophy)
  • Sweatshop Comedy Hour (entertainment broadcast)
I just love this sort of thing. :)

Stars Beyond Reach: First Video and Tales of Woe Part 1 of 3


Two exciting things for you today!  First of all, here’s the first video of the game:

I know it’s very short and skips through things pretty fast, but I wanted to keep this under a minute and give you an overview of a number of things without getting bogged down in details.  It’s a sort of high-level view to pique the interest of people who might not have heard of the game.  For detailed explanations of play mechanics and going through Let’s Play style videos I’m going to need a lot more than a minute!  I’ll be doing those sorts of videos during late April or into May for sure.  For now, if you want a heap of play-by-play analysis of the video, that’s down below.

Next up, a bit of a surprise perhaps:

“Tales of Woe” is a three-part series of humorous video shorts set in the Stars Beyond Reach universe.  The first video focuses on the approach to the planet, and reveals the general backstory.  The second video is a look at a supremely unlucky set of new arrivals on the planet.  And the third video is a look at that civilization as it has become ascendant… but at what price?

Animated by Julian GD, and voiced by Toby Ricketts.


Anything Extra You Can Tell Us About That First Video?

Sure!  That thing really is a tease, isn’t it?  So here are some facts, in chronological order from the video:

1. The music playing at the start of the video is a small bit from the “Stars Suite,” which is one of the many tracks being worked on by the very talented Pablo Vega.  Rather than doing as many short tracks, he’s focusing on doing longer “suites” that grow and evolve around a central theme.  It’s really cool, and the number of musical changes that happen throughout make it really seem like something… well, something more out of classical music than a video game.  It’s awesome.  (And for the record, I am about the biggest video game music nerd you’ll meet, I expect).

2. The very first clip there is showing your view super early in the game, when you’re placing your lander.  If the minimap makes the world shown here seem small, that’s because it is — this is a Tiny map, which is I believe four sizes smaller than Standard, above which there are another three or four sizes.  Anyway, even on the tiny maps there’s plenty of room — though you’ll have to eat a neighbor, most likely, by the end.


3. The second clip shows your lander after it has just unpacked, and with a few things rolled out.  You may notice that I’m on turn 63, and that’s no mistake.  I’m hardly into the game at all there, and I’m that far along in turn count.  I’m not sure what average ending turn counts will be, but I would imagine somewhere in the 2000 to 5000 range.  It’s also worth noting that those 63 turns took me… I’m not sure.  15 minutes at the most.  Some turns take quite a while and some don’t.  The time between turns is about a second at worst at the moment.

4. Also in that second clip, you’ll notice that there are some bars showing around the base of four of the buildings, looking almost like health bars but not quite?  Those are building efficiency bars, and they are usually based around how staffed that building is.  When it’s fully staffed, the bar goes away.  A healthy town won’t be having those all over the place.  I just got attacked by helicopters from the west, though.  In the case of the housing, it’s based around how full that housing is (so lower is not more unhealthy, it’s just a capacity meter).  The vertical bars next to my lander and next to that one factory are health bars, showing damage from the helicopter attacks that completely wrecked the building in the far left of the frame.


5. The third clip is showing first the Evucks, then the Peltians.  This is what it looks like when the AI plays as these races — it’s a completely different tileset from when you play as these races (in which case their tileset is the same one you saw in clips 1 and 2, where I happened to be playing as the Krolin).  The AI players all use completely different mechanics from you, and pretty different mechanics from each other.  In some cases completely different from one another.

6. Also of note in the third clip are a couple of buildings that were not visually finished at the time, but they now are.  I took this footage last week.  You can also see scaffolding on a few buildings, which is there when buildings are under construction.  And you can see a whole bunch of specialty resources that are being mined by the Evucks, too.  Each one has a double popup around the building, making it so that it fills the negative space between the building rather than sitting on top of the building itself.  We do that a lot. The on-map graphics and indicators are very very close to final, and I’m really happy with them.  The HUD around the outside of the screen has a long way to go still, but will be in much better shape in a month’s time.  For now it’s functional, and some parts are beautiful.


7. Clip four shows first the edge of a Thoraxian settlement, and then it shows both the Burlusts and the Skylaxians practically merged into one town.  It’s kind of lucky those guys are friends — you can tell because there are no health bars up all over the place, or wrecked buildings.  The same can’t be said of the Thoraxians and the Zenith, further south from here (visible only on the minimap in this video).  Those guys are exchanging rocket fire, ground troops, and helicopters like mad.  The few health bars that you do see in the Skylaxian section have numbers above them like “T -1” and “T -2,” which along with the scaffolding show that those buildings are under construction, and how many more turns before they are complete.  Again the proximity here is based on this being a Tiny map, and you can see it leads to some pretty interesting situations.

8. Clip 5 loses all the music, because gosh darn it I spent a lot of time on these sound effects and I didn’t want them to be fighting with the music. ;)  What you can see here, though, is actually several turns’ worth of AI attacks me at once.  How does that work, you ask?  Well, the results are calculated immediately, and then the animations play without blocking you from doing anything.  So you can do, say, 5 attacks from your barracks against the AI all at once, and either watch your guys do the shooting or not watch — doesn’t matter.  It’s not slowing you down either way, since it blocks nothing.  The same is true if you hit end turn a bunch and the AI is attacking you — you can have two or three or even more turns’ worth of attacks from them coming towards you all in one crazy barrage.  As soon as an attack starts, the health meter of the target adjusts to show the result, so you can base your next action on that instantly without having to wait around to see what the animation shows.  The animation will show the leadup to that health change.  I’m really proud of this system and how absolutely fluid it makes things.


9. That same clip is showing attacks from both the Thoraxians and the Zenith, ganging up on me at once.  Lots of temp graphics for the Zenith in the south, although those are all complete now.  The Zenith are just sending some ships at me from their seaport and then firing rockets off their ships into my city.  They actually target my power generators first, which then causes major problems for me the next turn.  The Acutians send ground troops from two barracks, a ship from their seaport, and two helicopters.  They target a whole bunch of stuff, including some medical facilities and some of my own barracks.  Oh, it looks like the Evucks actually sent a ship over to me in that clip, too — I hadn’t noticed that.  I did notice that the Evucks coast guard was helping protect both the Acutians and the Zenith when I was playing that savegame, but they must have finished their full seaport to launch an attack before this clip.  Huh.

10. Clip 6 is basically the next turn, and shows me building some small solar collectors on the far back side of that town, where none of the enemy forces can reach.  It’s towards the Burlusts and the Skylaxians, but they don’t seem to hate me.  It’s hard to tell for sure, unlike in TLF.  You have to use diplomats or spies to figure out the attitude of races toward you, and you never know the attitude of all races toward all other races.  You are a lot less all-knowing, which I like.  Anyway, this was a test game so the number of crowns that I have to spend (up there at the top) is almost 100 million, which is of course ludicrous.


11. Incidentally, in that same clip it shows the placement animations and sounds.  I really feel like having a satisfying animation and sound set for things like that helps give a sense of “bubble wrap popping fun,” as we say.  Obviously the larger game is the big thing that has to be fun, but having the little things just feel fun and fluid has a big impact on the overall feeling of fun.  I really like placing buildings. ;)

12. Clip 7 shows me launching a counterattack against the Acutians a few turns later.  You’ll notice on the far left that my power at this city is now north of 71k, so my solar panels finished building and the destruction of my town hasn’t completely crippled me.  I am not running at full efficiency (98 unfilled jobs) and I’m positively drowning in smog (I seriously need some hazmat folks, plus the placement of my toxic buildings was stupid to start with), but overall I can push back against the Acutians pretty decently.  Each attack I make costs energy from my working pool of power that is left over after powering buildings and whatnot.  That’s the balance that you see over there on the left.


13. In that same clip, you’ll notice that I select barracks as the type of attack I want to launch.  It then highlights all the buildings I can hit with any of my barracks, and it highlights all of my barracks that have not already been used this turn.  I then can click the targets I want, and the best barracks for the job is automatically chosen.  That costs energy, exhausts that barracks for the turn, and — depending — may cause some of my citizens to die or become wounded.  The exact results of the combat are shown in advance, no percentages or guesses or whatnot.  You click the button and that exact thing will happen.  There is randomization of course, but it basically shows you the result of each die roll before you have to commit to that attack.  It makes it more fluid, and it also prevented me from thinking “hey, that’s not the result I was expecting — was that a bug?” when I clicked enemy buildings.

14. Same clip, you’ll notice that I actually rapid-click on one of the buildings of the Acutians and send a lot of ground soldiers at once.  That isn’t me click-spamming.  The health bars of each target show the current health and the projected health right to the side of them.  As soon as one click happens, they both update.  If I like the new update, I can immediately click again, and repeat.  So within about 3 seconds I can launch 6ish attacks, doing exactly what I want, getting exactly the results I expect (though I don’t pay attention to my soldier deaths or woundings until after the fact, usually — I view that as a supply problem, the way I play), and it takes very little time.  And the battle looks pretty epic at the same time, which is a nice bonus.


15. Clip 8 starts in with one of the later verses of the main Stars Beyond Reach theme, which is just such a cool piece.  That’s sung by Pablo himself, some of his friends, and the Vox Virorum choir from our local area.  They just knocked it out of the park.

16. Same clip, it’s at first showing some early bits of the tech tree.  A lot of the tree is invisible at the start, gated behind your social progress level.  That way things aren’t too overwhelming at the very start, but you can still see a good ways ahead and make plans.  Originally there were about 100 techs in this tree, but through testing I found that to be too many to be fun, and I condensed them down into I believe 74.  There are then another 125ish “techs” of sorts in the social progress screens (not shown in this video), and then of course the “procedural techs” so to speak that are market items like broadcasts, inventions, writings, and so forth that you can make.  The main tech tree is almost exclusively focused on unlocking buildings.  This is a near-final screen, with the scrollbar at the bottom being pretty much the only temp piece.

17. Clip 9 shows a pretty unpolished screen that is the linguistics research tab.  First thing TLF players might notice is the much-improved icons for the various races.  And then of course the new races and the AI War races also have icons.  Each race has 7 levels of language skill that you can learn with them.  At the start of the game, you get 2 levels with one random race, and 1 level with another random race.  You have to have at least one level with a race to speak to them at all, and even then it’s pretty incomprehensible.  Negotiate in that fashion at your own risk!  At the highest level of language skill, everything is in perfectly plain English — everything in between is gradations.  On the right hand side you can see a proverb from each race.  Each race has 12 proverbs, and they switch out every 10ish turns or so.  They let you look at some text to see how your translation skills fare against a short sentence, and they give some insight into that race — the sort of proverbs a race has do say something about them, after all.  I can see the word “dead” in the Neinzul row!  I wonder what they’re saying is dead. ;)


18. Clip 10 shows me in a different game, playing as the Skylaxians very early on in.  This is the diplomacy screen, and visually it’s semi-polished.  I am on the right, playing as the leader Lapnu.  On the left is just the icon for the entire race of Thoraxians.  I have no idea which queen I’m talking to.  It will take some spies or diplomats to figure that you.  Discovering that can be pretty important, because learning her goals and personality will be important to how I deal with her.  Right now I can kind of speak to her sort of, but I have no idea what her true motives are, and half the time I don’t know what she’s saying.  If I want to do long term business with her, it’s best if I learn her language better and figure out who she really is.  Once I know her identity, then her real portrait and name will appear on the left instead of just her race icon.  Fortunately with the “first time ever meeting and greeting” I managed to pick a statement that elicited a mildly positive response, so there’s that.

19. Clip 11 shows the Boarines up by the north pole, and then the Andors near them.  And that’s that!



Beta Reminder

The game is already at a point where it is feature complete, and has been for a bit.  The last few weeks I’ve been going through and wrecking stuff and figuring out balance and so on, but the game is huge and there’s a lot of that sort of thing to do.  We’re going to be doing a closed beta, which is basically saying that it’s invite-only.  That said, we don’t have a specific cap on the number of people that we’ll let in, so if you want to be added to the list of future beta players, please feel free to post on the forums here.

We’ve got essentially three groups of beta players:

1. Redshirts.  These folks are being thrown into the game right at the start, when documentation is the most-poor and so is the balance.  If helping to polish the roughest stage excites you, please apply.  If it would be frustrating, please don’t. ;)  We’ll be sending the Redshirts their invites via PM on the forum probably on Monday the 13th or very close to there.  If you’re worried you won’t get the PM, send us your email address instead.

2. Blueshirts.  These folks will come in probably about a week after the redshirts.  The worst things will have been taken care of, and the blueshirts can clamber over the dead bodies of the redshirts to have a better first experience.  But it’s still a lot of live fire going on down there, if you know what I mean.

3. Everybody else.  I’ll be bringing in people in in batches every week or half week or so.  I want to space this out some, because we only get your first impression once, and as we polish the balance and documentation that is something I’d like to see the results of (is that clearer or not? etc.).



Help Us With Procedural Market Item Names! (If You Want)

If you want to help us with the components for procedural market item names, that would be awesome.  It’s a big task, but if a lot of us do just a bit on there, we’ll have two big nice things.  Firstly, nobody goes brain-dead from trying to fill out the whole thing.  And secondly, we get a wider variety of creativity from a larger group.


Target Release Date: June 5th

It’s been a long haul on this project, and we’re really excited to be able to share increasingly more with you over the coming months.  I’m super proud of this one.

Until next time!

Click here to view the official forum post for this topic.




Stars Beyond Reach Beta Approaches! Have some screenshots. :)



How did you enjoy our accidental pre-April-Fool’s day prank on ourselves?  I’m not really a fan of how the internet turns into a big pile of mostly-unfunny jokes one day out of the year, but this time the joke was unintentional and on ourselves.  Gremlins with the servers!

Anyway, it’s been a while since my last Stars Beyond Reach update, and I apologize for that.  It’s been a big struggle to get things ready for beta.  We now have another week to go and then we’ll start the beta on the 13th or VERY close to that.  The full release of the game is planned for June 5th.

I have a lot to do next week to get the beta ready for those who will be in it (balance stuff, documenting stuff that I understand but that you won’t without more text than “~*~”, and so on).  Until the last couple of days, the game didn’t have any sound, and prior to that the combat animations and visual feedback in general was… very rough.  It was one of those things that we could test but it would make no sense to anyone else.  The completion of those two things were my big tasks for this past week, and it went really well.  I’m quite pleased with how that turned out.

In other news, the graphics are coming along to the point where the main non-HUD parts of the game are getting very finalized.  We’re super excited about that.  You may know that the AI-controlled races use different buildings (both on the surface and underground) compared to what you as the player get to use.  The set of buildings you use as a player are larger, and consistent regardless of which of the 8 playable races you choose to be (but which race you choose affects many other things).  Anyway, I thought you might enjoy seeing the surface building graphics (some of them, anyhow) for 9 out of the 14 total races (click for fullsize):


Above: Acutians


Above: Andors


Above: Burlusts


Above: Fenyn


Above: Neinzul


Above: Peltians


Above: Skylaxians in the middle, Spire floating around them.


Above: Thoraxians

What About The Beta?

I haven’t officially asked for beta signups yet, but we already had 40-some people preemptively volunteer.  Which is awesome!  I wanted to see who came out first without me asking, but at this point we’re now asking: if you want to be added to the list of future beta players, please feel free to post on the forums here.

Oh, Also

If you want to help us with the components for procedural market item names, that would be awesome.  It’s a big task, but if a lot of us do just a bit on there, we’ll have two big nice things.  Firstly, nobody goes brain-dead from trying to fill out the whole thing.  And secondly, we get a wider variety of creativity from a larger group.

Give Me Video, Fool!

There is some footage coming next week in a teaser video that’s about a minute long.  We’ll also be releasing part one of a three-part set of video shorts set in the game universe.  Thanks for your patience!

Have a great weekend, everybody.

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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.


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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.




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