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Design Journal - Part 7

A glance into the learnings gleaned from and after the launch of Epic Owl's first game, Starside Arena.

-- Orignially published at http://blog.epic-owl.com/

Hey everyone! It’s been some while since my previous post: we’ve had the launch of our first game, Starside Arena, and it’s kept us all quite busy. I’d like to share the experience and future plan with you today.


 

As with any game you’re working on, you should always aim for the launch. As a designer, you’ll never be perfectly satisfied with whatever you’re releasing. There’s always going to be that small detail that ain’t there, a tweak needed in the balance, the polish on that UI panel. The bigger your budget, team and development time, the less you’ll end up having these perceived shortcomings. In Epic Owl’s case we had to prioritize delicately throughout the production to compensate for many practical limitations. The end result is a game that, from my designer’s perspective, has most features on the “good enough” level, but more importantly, is a functional and unique title. It may sound like I’m giving the game a hard time, but it’s quite the opposite. We stayed our course, focused on the core game and shipped on time. That’s a grand feat on its own. Keep this in mind and don’t demand the impossible of yourself. If the core game works, you can build it further later. Just release when you can.

Now for some learnings. When you’re making a game for the mobile, you want toconsider the preferences of that particular audience. We knew our title would be less for the typical mobile gamer and more for the invested, experienced one. This is an extremely difficult distinction to make on the design side. As advice to any designer reading this, be very conscious of who you are intending the game for. Based on our metrics and direct feedback, it seems we did actually hit a good spot with this. Of course there are gamers who would’ve liked an even more in-depth, hardcore experience, and there are casual users who find the game too obscure. It’s going to be impossible to please everyone. However the vast majority of our players has gotten along well with the design as shown by good retention figures and feedback. At this point as a designer I have to keep my eyes open and continue studying our player base to determine whether the game should take a more hardcore or casual turn in the future. You cannot decide who discovers your game, but you can decide to tailor the game for those that do.

If you’re making a title for a broad user base, you’ll get a lot of people who are accustomed to the mobile free-to-play micro transaction mindset, and have no issues digesting your version of it. Our targeted gamer demographic is a different thing altogether. Many hardcore gamers eschew the idea of payments in games, and implementing them is a trivial way to throw off your desired audience. The economy was designed with respect to this dilemma: payments are not required to advance or to be competitive, but they can improve your performance (and scratch the itch to play more). Very few users have experienced this design as obtrusive or demanding. Additionally the metrics have remained excellent: perhaps it is indicative of a maturing player base that can appreciate not feeling extorted or pressured.

One of Starside Arena’s central missions was to make a truly unique title. While I would say the game is a great success in terms of both novelty and enjoyment, it has definitely not been an easy target to reach. Novelty becomes a great challenge for several reasons. First of all, you have no idea whether players will enjoy the game or not. There is no live proof of your concept, and everything you design is based on theory and conjecture. Second, you have no way to draw reference from similar titles. This means you have to come up with all the mechanics and interactions from scratch. This applies to the core gameplay loop, the pacing, economy… pretty much everything. It makes a designer’s work arduous at best. In hindsight it would’ve been smart to have more parallels between other games we could’ve referenced, but then again Starside wouldn’t be the snowflake it is. A third major issue is business reliability. Many potential partners are hesitant to jump onboard with something they can’t relate to another success already on the market. For them it’s risk management, for us it’s lost potential. Funny how these kinds of matters also impact design. As a designer and gamer I’d love to just focus on the game, but in the real world it doesn’t work that way. These angles are good for any designer to keep in mind.

The game’s never going to have everything you’d like it to. The backlog always bloats faster than you can empty it. While our players are truly enjoying the game, they’d also like to see options in places that have none, more diversity where things are plain; I understand nothing better than the desire of a gamer who wants more out of their new treat. Probably the biggest lack as of now is a flat meta-game. Things that would flesh it out are such as teamplay, multiple ship live combat, guilds, diverse missions and targets. I’d love to have all of these. But, as a developer, I also need to be realistic. Adding in good quality guild play, for example, takes many months of work. I need to put everything in cost / value order and prioritize based on this. This means the game will have to take smaller steps at this point, but it doesn’t mean those steps can’t bemeaningful. Our plan going forward is to maximize the value of the game with the best effort to value ratio possible.

Volume means everything. You could theoretically have the best game in the world on your hands, but if no one knows it exists, it’s worth nothing. The road of an independent developer is a rocky and unforgiving one. The market is staggeringly saturated; this is why we at Epic Owl decided to take a different angle and create something fresh, something that could hit a niche spot that is yet to fill. We succeeded in this target, but it has not brought us enough momentum yet. The cold truth is money begets money.You need hard cash to start up your game and to have any hopes of growing the player base further. There are of course options of teaming up with third parties (such as publishers) but this brings us back to the novelty issues. It’s going to be tricky convincing someone of your title’s worth when there’s no reference point, and to create reliable metrics yourself you’d need money for user acquisition. It’s a chicken-egg problem. Plus of course third parties may want to alter the production, and for us it’s a priority tomake the game on the game’s terms. Lessons learned: novelty will be nigh impossible without large initial capital. Familiar design stands a better chance with third parties and suffers less from external input.

To bring this all together, I’d summarize: Starside Arena is greatly liked, has a core following, is a veritably unique title and we managed this ambitious design and production in record time. The challenges will be finding the visibility and improving the meta-game, both of which are under work at this very moment. The business perspective challenge is daunting, but our mission remains the same. We will keep prioritizing the novelty and quality of our games above all else.

And, to conclude, a TL;DR checklist for all you curious ones out there:

 

  1. Understand the requirements to realize your design. Cut out everything you don’t need and never stop focusing on the core.
  2. Be mindful of who you are designing the game for. Making the right game for your audience is everything.
  3. Study your economy. Don’t just take a monetization template from another title and slap it on yours. Tie it in with the design, and design it with respect to your players.
  4.  Stay aware of the production schedule. Always work on the highest priority, and prioritize based on the impact-to-effort ratio. Keep moving forward.
  5. Have money. Lot’s of it. If you don’t, think very carefully about how much risk you can take with your production. Your capital defines the safety boundaries of your design. If you ignore this (like we consistently do), be prepared to fight windmills.
  6. Trust in your game. If we all took the path well tread, the world would be a dull place. Don’t be afraid to do something new. That’s how all the best things were discovered.

 


That’s all for this time. Hope you enjoyed the insights of Starside Arena’s post-launch learnings! And now… I am off to keep working hard on making this the best game it can ever be. If you wan’t to follow the game’s progress and have a blast designing your own future warships, go get it HERE for both iOS and Android.

 

Keep it cool!

-Risto

http://www.epic-owl.com/

https://www.facebook.com/epicowl

https://twitter.com/epicowlltd

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