The sixth of June is a significant day for me personally. In 2004, I spent the entire of the day in hospital. I remember the 60th anniversary commemorations of D-day on the TV in the background, as I sat beside my wife, in labour with our first child. I became a father an hour after midnight on the 7th June; my son becomes a teenager tomorrow.
Twelve years later, in 2016, I spent the entire of 6th June glued to Steam watching and waiting whilst my first game Sol Trader was released to the world. This was a career dream come true: since I started programming at six years old I’d always wanted to create and ship my own games. Sol Trader’s release was ultimately a painfully formative experience for me, which I wrote about at the time and was interviewed about recently in GamesIndustry.biz.
Over the last year, I’ve been keeping busy doing two things. One is to support Sol Trader as much as I can with countless updates and patches. I’ve also been very busy working on a new game, Ealdorlight, a medieval RPG-style take on Sol Trader’s mechanics, with turn-based combat, realistic damage and great graphics. I announced Ealdorlight in March and demonstrated it at Rezzed, strengthening my hope that the idea was a good one.
I decided fairly early on that I wanted to take Ealdorlight to Kickstarter. Sol Trader’s successful Kickstarter was a brilliant experience. The Kickstarter community is one of the kindest, most positive on the Internet. I also needed funding for this game: Sol Trader was self-funded through many long evenings and contracting work, and for Ealdorlight I need a bigger team to realise the vision. It’s built in Unreal Engine 4, which simultaneously saves me loads of development time and means I need a bigger team to pull off the realistic art style I’ve gone for.
As time came near to launch, the first anniversary of Sol Trader’s released seemed an appropriate day to launch the campaign. So today, 6th June 2017, I will spend the entire day glued to Kickstarter as my campaign goes live at 4pm today.
There’s plenty more about Ealdorlight on the campaign - head over there and read all about it! A huge amount of work has gone into it, and I’m very grateful for all the support and help I’ve received from the team I’ve put together, and for friends and family who have given me endless encouragements and feedback.
This post is a little earlier than 4pm so that you can watch it go live if you want. Earlier backers get lower edition numberings on some of the rewards, so you might want to be there from the start!
As we head towards the Kickstarter campaign launch on June 6th, I want to talk a little about the story behind Ealdorlight works.
The basic story stays the same for each game: you are discovered wandering through a remote village at a young age, and realise your destiny is to overthrow the King. However, like in Sol Trader, every person you meet is randomly generated. This means that your real identity will be different every time, and you’ll have to discover it all over again every time you generate a new game.
The trick is layering a great story on top of a generated world with random characters. Building empathy with the main character and his family when all characters are generated is hard, and hinges around being able to hook the story in at the right moments.
My plan is to write plenty of tightly connected story arcs that are triggered on events that happen during history generation. These will in turn trigger future quests the player can undertake. Not all story-arcs will appear in every game: it will depend on how the history generation goes. I will constrain things such that there is always a route through the game, and that players always have a way to overthrow the King, even if that might be easier or harder depending on the starting setup. These story-arcs then should interact with each other, hopefully producing a unique path through the game.
Ealdorlight is set within a low fantasy world, and there’s no traditional magic. The player gets more powerful through discovering key pieces of knowledge about their past. These insights into of your real past feed directly into your character’s stats, skills and abilities.
I’ve long been fascinated with identity: knowledge of who we truly are affects many areas of our lives for the better. In Ealdorlight I wanted to tell a story which takes this to an almost supernatural level. By removing the player from their birth family, they start as an entirely normal person within the world. It’s only after their early game encounter with the Ealdorlight and the discovery of their past that things begin to change.
Much more on this to come, but in the meantime, here’s a glimpse of our story’s beginning.
I am now back from some extended time away after Rezzed, both on holiday with the family and training some clients away from home. I’ve released Sol Trader 1.3 today, and set the Kickstarter for Ealdorlight to 6th June.
Rezzed was fantastic: it was great to see lots and lots of people wearing our Ealdorlight crowns. We ran out of crowns on both days, with some creative head displays on offer:
Yes, I know I said May :) I’ve decided to go for a 31-day campaign, starting on the 6th June, for a few reasons:
I’m excited and nervous about this Kickstarter campaign: my third one to date. After succeeding last time I’m really trying to take my time and get it right.
Now that I’m back, I’m able to support a new release of Sol Trader: 1.3 is now finally released after a length beta period.
Here are the highlights:
Your steam copy should automatically update. I’ll be releasing an updated downloadable version to SendOwl in the next few days.
I’ve been rather too silent in the last couple of months about what I’ve been working on. Here’s the low-down:
Sol Trader 1.3: enhanced gameplay, balance & UI improvements
I’ve been thinking about how to further improve Sol Trader, my first indie game released last year. The game hasn’t sold that well - you can check the numbers on Steam Spy for yourself. I’ve written about this before: in summary I’ve put the lack of sales down to a crowded space-sim genre and a lack of focused playtesting which gave rise to gameplay and UI that was hard to learn.
Encouragingly, people who do get past the UI tend to love the gameplay, and I’d love to continue to support players by releasing free updates. In particular there are some balance and UI improvements coming, I’m going to bump the number of characters to ensure jobs are filled, and I’d love to sneak in a surprise new gameplay feature…
I’m showing Sol Trader again at Rezzed at the end of March, so if you want to see a preview of the improvements, stop by and come and play the game! The new major update should be ready in April. You can also buy Sol Trader on Steam right now.
The next game :)
Eventually, I’m best served by moving on to a new project, so I’ve also been prototyping an exciting new game idea this year. It’s based on some of the best ideas in Sol Trader, combining a lot of the innovations with a streamlined gameplay experience that will be easier to get into. I’ve already got together a name, backstory and setting (it’s not a space game) and test gameplay. I’m not quite ready to talk about it publicly yet - I will be soon!
I’m in the process of figuring out funding for the new game, and I’m thinking of running another Kickstarter in March as part of this journey. I loved being on Kickstarter last year - the people I met through that community are amazingly supportive and it would be great to ensure that I’m making the game that people want to play.
I’d love to hear from you if you have thoughts about funding. I’ll also be at GDC next week if you want to chat there.
Introducing: Revelation Games
In summary: I’m excited about what’s next and what the next couple of years will bring! What’s new with you?
I tweaked space flight on the weekend before launch in order to make it quicker to travel between planets. This revealed a very nasty and previously hidden bug that I had unknowingly introduced several weeks earlier. The bug seriously affected space flight, causing ships to over-accelerate and become difficult to control. Because the change was made the day before launch, I didn’t have time to spot and fix this bug until 24 hours after launch. At this point, it had already caused a number of players to quit the game in frustration.
Games are different from business software: there are many more unexpected side effects and combinations of features coming together to affect the gameplay in unexpected ways. Since I’ve been much more careful with releases, testing them on several platforms with a number of beta testers before pushing them out to the world, and ensuring that key areas of the gameplay are thoroughly checked.
The initial launch was timed to avoid E3 and the launch of No Man’s Sky. In hindsight, I don’t think this mattered at all. People still played Sol Trader in any case and I believe they would have anyway. Plenty of sites have already reviewed it - the reviews were mostly positive thankfully - and No Man’s Sky was delayed last minute by a few months.
I should have finished the game, then planned the launch, not the other way around. By pushing myself to hit a deadline, I missed some of the gameplay flaws that I mentioned earlier.
Going forward, any other game or update that I launch will be out when it’s done! 1.1 is provisionally scheduled for July, but I’m not feeling pressured to release it by then if I feel it’s not ready yet.
A system map… an obvious feature that I should have put in from the start! Turns out I was way too “close” to the game. As I have been playing Sol Trader for years, I knew exactly where everything was, and so did my beta-testers, so we felt there was no need to put a map in. I should have to given Sol Trader to some fresh players to spot these issues - just hiring some gamers from Gumtree to see how they found the game would have been so useful.
As it was, the first time I heard calls for a map was from Twitch and YouTube streamers who had early press copies of the game. This is not the ideal audience you want spotting bugs and missing features on your behalf.
Next time I launch a game, I will definitely get some fresh players in at the polish stage. In the meantime, there will be a fully interactive map in 1.1, clearly showing areas you can and cannot travel - it’s already done:
It is very hard to see design flaws when you’re so focussed on getting a finished game out. I was throwing in lots of interesting features which were exciting on their own, but weren’t coming together as a whole. My response should have been to pare back the design to the core gameplay loop and then to work hard at refining that, rather than adding yet more features in to the mix.
One example of an area that needed more “fun factor” is the core conversation mechanic. I’ve already improved this part of the game since launch, and I’m in the process of making it more of a mini-game in its own right. I’ve released updates to the UI which make it much more intuitive to work with:
This is just the beginning: making friends with people is going to become much more of a skill. You won’t be able to earn friendship events quite so easily, which means you’ll have to pick and choose your friends very carefully, and rely more on having complementary stats. Endlessly boasting about your accomplishments is now going to seriously annoy people, so you’ll need to try more indirect methods to get people to like you…
The audience on Steam turned out to be different to my expectations. I’m used to launching business web applications, where you “release early and often”, making lots of changes in response to feedback. It turns out that the Steam community seem more used to developers cutting and running after release if they don’t release in Early Access. Therefore, when Sol Trader was less than perfect at launch, many were unsurprisingly vocal about the issues, assuming the game would never get better.
In hindsight, a Early Access period might have been wise, so my expectations would have better matched up to those of the Steam community. After launch it’s too late for this though, so I worked very hard to bust people’s assumptions about my intentions. Even though Sol Trader is released, I still plan to continue working on it and respond to feedback as much as I can. I am very active and responsive on the Steam community forums to assure people that I’m not going anywhere. This has resulted in a lot of much needed positivity and support from the community. I’ve also made friends with a couple of active people on the forums who can beta test 1.1 for me, which is enormously helpful.
Self-publishing your own game is like nothing else. It’s incredibly hard to get right. I can understand why people only work with publishers! I’m sorry that some people had a poor first impression of the game. Even though the launch could have gone better, I’m determined to make Sol Trader the best game it can be. I have a clear vision in my head for how I want Sol Trader to end up, and we’re not there yet. I will continue to improve it until I’m happy with it.
Roll on 1.1 in July! Join the Steam community to hear more detailed updates.