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.
I’m very excited about the new feature I’ve just added to Sol Trader - when you visit a location you can now listen in to all the conversations that are going on whilst you’re there.
This is how it works: characters will chat away about their lives and their friends to anyone in the room. The chance of chatting varies depending on what they’re doing, and if they have low wisdom they’ll chat more. They’ll stick to existing conversation subjects if they can, and the things they bring up are entirely random. This means that big revelations are definitely possible. It’s possible for lots of info to come out by accident, including work incompetence, embarrassing friends, and office romances.
The best thing is that these conversations are sharing real information that is recorded as you go along. You never know when an indiscretion will come in handy later for an information gathering mission.
It’s now great fun to simply sit in a bar and listen to the characters chat away to each other. You pick up a lot of useful information about what characters have been up to and where others might be found. It’s also rather scary handing over sensitive information to another character now, especially a reckless one: you never know where it’ll end up.
Up to this point, communication in Sol Trader was almost entirely reactive. It was impossible to find anything out without going and asking someone. This meant that characters used to feel more like mindless vendors of information than like living and breathing individuals.
Now they actually talk to each other, characters feel very much more alive. Additionally, because characters remember the information that’s talked about, they can form new opinions of other characters, and change their behaviour accordingly.
This new build with gossip in will be out to Insider backers in the next few days. This brings to an end the cycle of work on the interactive world and gameplay progression through organisations and missions. Next, I’m moving back out into space with work on asteroids, ship customisation and advancement, and polishing off combat.
Game design can be such an enigma. Some features that you work away on for ages never seem to be that fun, whereas a small thing that only took a few hours, and that I debated including at all, has proven to add a huge amount to the feel of the game.
I posted this a while back:
After quite a lot of soul searching, this is still true. I now know that I don’t know how to make a great game, but I do know how to go about being lucky enough to discover one.
Sol Trader’s release date is set for late April 2016 so we’re gearing up for two big shows this year to put the game in the hands of gamers.
We had a great time at EGX in September last year, and are looking forward to returning to EGX Rezzed on 7-9 April.
We have a big double stand and there will be lots of opportunity to get your hands dirty with a preview build of the final game. You’ll be able to create whole new procedural societies to interact with, flying missions, trade goods, shoot down pirates and avoid the wrath of their family members…
If you’ve got your tickets, we’ll see you there. If you haven’t there are still some available.
I’ve just finished reworking the old state-machine based AI system that I threw in to the game last year just to get something working. Sol Trader now boasts a full STRIPS-based planning AI. This works by starting a character off with some basic needs to fulfil: the need to socialise, rest, work, self-improve, etc. It then uses pathfinding techniques to work out a series of steps to get those needs fulfilled, such as buying a cheap good and selling it for more somewhere else, hitting the bar after work, or hanging around a jumpgate looking for easy prey. Here’s how it works.
Let’s say Anthony, an AI character, is tired and has a strong need to rest. To fulfil that need, the game allows the character to rest at home, but also to stay a night at a friend’s house. Here are some rules from the actual planner in the game written in a semi-formalised manner:
RELAX_AT_HOMEif we are
IN_LOCATION(MY_HOME)at cost of 0
STAY_A_NIGHTif we are
AT_HOME_OF(CLOSE FRIEND)at cost of 50
To stay the night at a friend’s house, Anthony would need to move to their house, so we need some more rules to cover this:
AT_HOME_OF(PERSON)if we are
MOVE_TO(LOCATION)if we are
IN_CITY(CONTAINING LOCATION)at cost of 10
Let’s assume that we are already in the city in question. The planner starts off at the need (
REST) and works backwards until it find this
IN_CITY state. It then forms a chain of actions to complete to get the need fulfilled:
ANTHONY'S PLAN: MOVE_TO(HOME) -> RELAX_AT_HOME -> FULFIL_NEED(REST)
The game will always chose the lowest cost option. If Anthony is in his home already, or in the same city, then he would just go home to rest, rather than to a friend’s house. However, let’s assume he is in a different city. It’s too far for Anthony to head home to his house, so the lowest cost option would then be to trespass on the hospitality of a friend who lives in that city.
There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to good game AI. The effectiveness of AI techniques varies dramatically depending on the type of game being designed. However, planning is a great fit for Sol Trader: it’s had a dramatic effect of the feel of the game.
Now the AI is now intelligently making decision based on relative needs, the game has the following new features, all of which were easily added:
It was also very easy to put in a conversation option which asks what a character is thinking about. This returns some text detailing the character’s top need, which shows what they’re most likely to do next:
I’ve posted the start of a reference guide to the forums for modders.
This new build is now available from the forum if you have purchased insider access (if you haven’t there’s still time!) If you are already a Kickstarter backer and you haven’t received your copy, or you’re a member of the press, do get in touch.
Since getting the new mission code into Sol Trader before Christmas, I’ve been working on upgrading the conversation mode. Now it’s possible to have much more detailed conversations with players about your events and theirs:
Conversations get ‘deeper’ the more you share, so you can feed a character lots of interesting (and potentially damaging) information about your life, and in return you’ll get equally sensitive information back about the character you’re talking to.
If you’re talking about a different character, then you can share what you know about them and get information back in return. This way you can build up pictures of characters you know about by gradually discovering information about their past.
The flipside is that you’re sharing sensitive information about yourself, which could potentially be used against you by other characters in the future. It’ll soon be possible for characters to blackmail you by forcing you to undertake a mission by a certain time, or they’ll release damaging information about you. Be careful who you give your sensitive information to!
The relative radio silence from Sol Trader Towers is for a reason: I’ve been working hard on a flexible and moddable mission structure, that allows players to take a variety of interesting quests in-game.
I’ve built a few missions to start with, including delivering parcels for business or personal reasons, taking characters on business trips and making other characters disappear. It’s great fun to have a variety of things to do for characters now and adds yet more colour to the game. Because it’s completely moddable, I’m also excited to see what storylines other people come up with!
The full details of how to create your own missions are available as a lengthy forum post, which will be kept up to date with changes and clarifications. Here’s an overview:
The missions are organised into packs, which exists under the
data/missions subfolder. If you have access to the beta builds, you’ll see there’s one pack there already: these are the missions that are built in to the game.
There are several csv files in each mission folder:
requirements.csv: This file details the cases in which this mission might be triggered. Each character in the game has a chance of picking this mission (and becoming the ‘giver’ of the mission), based on the conditions imposed by this file.
conversation_player.csv: The extra conversation options available to the player because of this mission.
conversation_ai_response.csv: The extra options the AI can choose from as conversation responses.
opinions.csv: The extra opinion triggers, used for reactions to the generation and completion of these missions.
strings.csv: The new strings needed for the previous CSV files.
The possibilities for you to build your own missions are expanding all the time, as I add new missions triggers and possible goals for the AI.
At the moment it’s possible to take on any mission from any person, which isn’t very realistic. I need to allow players to gain other character’s trust, so that they will only give you sensitive missions in certain cases. Additionally it will soon be possible to start a career with an organisation, which will give you a rank, a certain amount of built in trust, and access to more senior characters.
I’m also going to be working on the in-space AI very soon. At the moment only freelance traders fly around between planets: it’s time we had passenger ships, military guards and pirates thrown into the mix.
Have a fantastic Christmas and I’ll see you all in the new year with some more updates.
The opinions a character has of other people, based on the partial events that they know about them, will now directly affect the things that happen in the history generation. This creates new events, which will in turn feed more character opinions.
There’s a new beta available on the forums if you have insider access.
In the example on the left, we can see that an acrimonious divorce of Meredith’s parents has left an indelible mark on her childhood. She now has a very low opinion of her father, Dudley.
When characters are adults, they can then generate a series of ‘favours’ (or ‘missions’) that they want completed. This is a source of work for the players, although completing certain missions does have real consequences on your relationships with the target of the mission. If they find out you’ve taken a mission against them, then they won’t be happy with you.
To continue our example, Meredith, whom we are now married to, wants us to find out some potentially incriminating information about our own father-in-law, Dudley. It’s up to us whether we take it or not. If he finds out, we’ll make an enemy of him.
As the game goes on, the player will get embroiled in these relationships between the various characters and be able to directly affect their stories. Choosing what to take on and who to ally yourself with forms a major part of Sol Trader’s gameplay.
Another example: the sad tale of Sarina, our older half sister. I picked Dagny and Warren in history generation to be my character’s parents, knowing that Dagny was cheating on her husband Hayden, mostly to see what happened. Little did I know how much it would affect Sarina, Dagny and Hayden’s eight year old daughter. When she found out about my birth, she got very upset.
She didn’t blame me, thankfully, although she never thought much of me. However, she never really spoke to our mother again, especially since her beloved father Hayden died soon after we were born.
She left home at a young age, and became a political assistant, but she didn’t make too many friends. She was doing ok for a time, only to find out that the love of her life, Richard Ruhr, had been having an affair behind her back all along.
She divorced him, got depressed, quit her job and by the time I grew to adulthood at the start of the game, she was living in a hippie commune somewhere on Mercury, trying desperately to get some gossip on her ex-husband.
This new beta is now available from the forum if you have purchased insider access (if you haven’t there’s still time.) Let me know if you find any other interesting stories such as these!
I’ve been working hard on the Sol Trader core gameplay mechanics in the last two weeks. High up on my list was a way of generating more interesting missions for the characters to complete.
In order to have a reason to gather dirt, find locations or desire an early end for an enemy, our characters need to feel strongly about other people they know. This is where their opinions and prejudices come in.
Characters already keep track of the events they know about for each other character in the game. Now they can form an opinion of a character based on the partial set of info they know about someone else’s past.
The plan is to use these thoughts about each other to make decisions about who they’re friends with, deal with relationship breakdown, blame and prejudice.
Here’s an example of how we configure this under the hood for an occasion where a character is caught and reported for taking bribes:
Anyone knowing about this event will think the character is less deserving of sympathy and assume the character is less moral. If we’re the one catching them take the bribes, then the briber becomes much less influential over us. If we’re the one being caught, then the one catching us is definitely no longer our friend. Depending on our profession, we will brief against them or possibly try to take them out.
Now characters have opinions about others, we can use these to guide their conversation choices, who they’re likely to target, give us gossip on, etc. It’s all game design fuel for other behaviours in the game, and will combine to form interesting unexpected effects and tell original stories each time.
Next time I’ll discuss about the new events that get created in the history generation because of these new opinions. Our stylised formulaic view of history is about to become, well, a lot more messed up. Rather like real history…
Since the Kickstarter was successfully funded last month, I’ve been working hard the next major feature: combat!
Here’s a short video showing progress so far. If you’re on the beta of the game, head over to the forums - you can grab a new copy of the game today and start shooting things for yourself! (There’s still time to jump on the beta if you aren’t already…)
Since the Kickstarter finished, I’ve added sound effects and explosions, and I’ve done a lot of work under the hood on the entity component system to allow the to removal of components from entities.
This was fiddly as I had to change the implementation of some of my fundamental low level data structures in order to support fast removal. It’s worth it, though. Now when a ship blows up, I simply remove the components that made it a physical thing (Spatial, PhysicalObject, Renderable, Enterable, etc) and leave the components for its logical existence (Ownable, Nameable, etc) so that characters don’t forget about it.
I’ve also added the basics of ‘bad’ events when combat takes place. When a ship is destroyed, the game kills everyone who happened to be on the ship, and adds ‘killed’ events for them, blaming the pilot of the attacking ship. These events will come back to haunt the attackers in future, as word gets around about who is responsible…
Lastly, I’ve added the first draft of the inevitable “game over” screen, with a Rogue-like throwback style :) This one is a work in progress and will get more interesting later on:
If you’re the kind of person who likes to get the up-to-the-minute news on development, and doesn’t mind lots of detail, you can see the latest development notes on our Trello board. You can even comment and vote on cards - I welcome any feedback!
Plenty of people have been writing about the ‘Indiepocalypse’ - the alleged death of the indie game development market and the destruction of indie studios everwhere. Some are wringing their hands and foretelling utter doom, whilst others are wondering what all the fuss is about.
Here follows my take, as I embark on the final phase of the perilous four year journey of finishing my first indie game, with plenty of people on the internet telling me that I’ve wasted my time.
I think we’re witnessing a market correction, brought about by an oversupply to the market of good games.
I believe that we do have to be lucky to succeed, but that we can make our own luck. After reading a lot and studying the market, I have come to believe that the main thing that separates successful indie devs from failed ones is sheer determination, stubbornness and persistence. We have to be in this for the long haul, and we have to enjoy the process.
I don’t think indie games are doomed, but some indie developers will have to quit the business. I’m also determined to do all I can not to be one of them. Here’s my approach.
Firstly, I have an alternative career. I train and coach teams of developers, and work part time locally, which allows me time in the day to work on Sol Trader without worrying (too much) about whether my family will eat next month.
Sol Trader has been four years in development, but I’ve only worked on it significantly during the day in the last year. I’ve used savings from consultancy work to get me this far. This means development is sustainable and I can avoid crashing out financially.
I’ve been building the Sol Trader community from day one, as everyone is advised to do. However, I’ve come to believe that the important thing is to have something for people to do in response when we communicate with them. We need a great call to action.
For example, Sol Trader has been available purchase on Alpha Access since May 2012, and on Kickstarter for Alpha or Beta access since the beginning of the year. Even when we paused sales on the game this year, people could still sign up to our mailing list for news, updates and articles.
I’ve found that it’s very hard to get anyone excited about anything without something people can do or buy. Otherwise people get bored of constant tiny updates about progress and they lose interest.
This is why I think great content marketing is so important. I’ve learnt that game updates are best when the audience can learn something from what I’m saying (like how to add bloom to an engine, or how to implement an entity-component system). They stimulate great discussion, they give my audience value, and they slowly grow the community around the game.
Sol Trader was a good game a year ago. It wasn’t enough. After feedback from the failed Kickstarter campaign at the beginning of the year, I’ve reworked the gameplay fundamentally from the ground up. I’ve focused the design on people and relationships, and it’s turning into something unique, original and truly interesting. I’m hoping that this means I’ll gather more press attention than I otherwise would.
Making a simply “good” game isn’t going to cut it. There’s so much about games at the moment that is derivative, and the product lifecycle of existing popular indie games is increasing with slower moving minimum specs and DLC to keep existing audiences entertained. I plan to do all I can not to settle for “good”. I’ll delay the game’s release if it means turning it from a good game into a great game.
This all might not be enough. Perhaps no one wants to buy this game and that would be sad: although comments like this one from YouTube fill me with encouragment! Part of the reason to do two Kickstarters was validation of the core concept to ensure there’s enough of a market. I believe I’ve had enough validation of the idea to continue pushing at it!
Perhaps it’s just brazen stubborness, but I just know that I’m not going to quit and I’m going to release Sol Trader no matter what. I am running this as a business, but it’s more than a business to me: I’d release it even if I knew now it was going to make no money. I’m sure that people will enjoy it (they are already) and I believe in the design: this game just needs to be made.
Am I wrong, or crazy stubborn, or both?
Six months ago, Sol Trader was in a very different place. The previous campaign hadn’t quite made it, yet we’d been greenlit in the same week. I’d had a ton of feedback about the game. The main thing that was clear was that it was difficult to understand the core gameplay, and that the lack of a demo was making that worse.
I therefore decided to completely revamp Sol Trader’s code and gameplay, and spent several months completely overhauling the game. As I said last week, every line of code in the current build of the game is less than six months old. I’ve focused on the fundamentals of the gameplay - the interactions between you and your family and friends - and dramatically improved the code architecture and visual of the game.
The result is a playable demo (download it now from the website) which shows off the vision for the game for the first time. Every interaction - buying and selling goods, accepting missions, gathering information, hiring ships - is done through people who can potentially become your friends, allies or enemies. Every decision you make and action you take will have an ripple effect on the people you interact with, causing consequences that you must live with long term.
At times working on this game has felt completely overwhelming, especially as a solo indie. Thankfully I’ve been cheered on by some amazing people: Richard Patching and my brother Steve Parsons being at the forefront. I’ve been ably supported by a great team: Aamar Rana has provided some fantastic artwork and Andy Dollerson is responsible for the wonderfully moody soundtrack. Furthermore I’m grateful to everyone who has ever encouraged me on social media, retweeted a tweet, or liked a post on Facebook: you all are collectively responsible for keeping me going!
This is a crunch point. The game is mostly written and we’re heading into general beta next month. There are still some big features to add, such as weapon systems and more varied missions, but hopefully enough of you like what you see so far to want to join me in the beta and help me finish this thing off.
Sol Trader has all the potential to become a classic genre-defining game. I’d love you to help me make it one.