Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

The joy of building, and treating simulation and strategy games as toys

I had a few negative reactions (not many) to some of my early screenshots and videos of Gratuitous Space Battles 2 Screenshots like this:


Basically people didn’t like the ship designs and colors. The colors were too gaudy, and they hated any hint of a checkerboard pattern because it makes them think of placeholder textures. This amused me, because actually the designs are based upon the artist chriss foss, who I liked as a kid. He did some really distinctive spaceship designs. Some people may dislike them, but in a world of identikit spaceships, his stood out.

So much for blocky color patterns, but the other criticisms (that the designs were not good) is more relevant, and serious. It is, of course, entirely a matter of personal opinion. For contrast, here is a few ships from GSB1:


Some of you may prefer that. So this blog post is here to make you feel better :D.

Firstly, do you know who designed the spaceships in all the GSB2 screenshots and videos? It was ME. ME!!!!! And I don’t have much of an artistic eye, or patience, or time. The basic components are done by the talented GSB1 artist, but then my totally clueless hands have been let lose on them, using an unfinished space ship designer, so this is what comes out. In other words, people with more of a sense of style, more patience, more time, and finished editor…should turn out MUCH nicer stuff. I’m also toying with the idea of actually paying someone to design the initial enemy ships for this very reason, although I’d love to try it myself…

The thing is, I am vastly more of a fan (as a player) of stuff that lets me put my mark on it. Sim City is great, but it’s even better when you have the building design tool. One of the appeals of minecraft is surely building things. People spend a crazy amount of effort just designing their clam logos for Battlefield 4. Give the player a ‘customize’ option, and you will lose them for an hour or ten. Even spore, a game that people rapidly dismissed as bad (despite earlier promise) had a huge number of high quality creature designs. And the ultimate example of people designing awesome spaceships so far is probably galactic civilizations 2, where people have clearly spent hours and hours designing the ultimate space battleship.

Yup, we may not all be experts, but I’ll take a ship I’ve customised over a ‘stock’ ship any day. People like to stand out, they like to create, they like to ‘play’. And this is where I like to think my games often cross the line from what people call ‘games’ into toys. I have never been a fan of scripting in games, or linear experiences. We have books and movies for that. Games give us freedom, freedom to experiment, to define our own rules, to invent, or at least they could…

FPS Design over the years…

Back when I first started gaming, a lot of games gave you a sandbox experience. It was frankly easier and cheaper than level design, and limits of file sizes mean you simply couldn’t fit 200 hours of RPG backstory onto a floppy disk. This resulted in incredible free-form strategy epics like Lords Of Midnight. I really miss those times, and that encouragement for free-form experimentation. Kids these days do not really ‘play’ games. They ‘compete’ at them, to ‘win’, or to ‘beat’ them. This feels weird to me. I’m always playing to have fun, not to go along with what a designer has decided I will do that day. In the ideal Star Trek MMO, I’d just tend a ferengi bar, but the designer no doubt wants me to go ‘questing’…

Democracy is probably the most free-form of my games so far, but they all have a hint of it in them. Kudos didn’t really have a proper ‘end’ as such. there was no boss to beat or princess to rescue. It was a toolkit, a toy, and bunch of things to play with, woven together as a functional simulation that let you play out ‘what if’ scenarios.

That’s what GSB2 is. It’s a big pretty spaceship battle toolkit for you to have fun with. If anyone complains that they’ve ‘beaten’ it, or Democracy 3, then they haven’t understood the purpose of the product. A game is not a challenge from the designer to the player, but an environment created so the player can experiment and enjoy themselves. That’s why there are customizable spaceships in GSB2. It’s not about the designer, or the artist, but about the player, and I believe in giving the player as much control as possible.



19 thoughts on The joy of building, and treating simulation and strategy games as toys

  1. As far as I can see the kids from today love sandbox “games”, and I have never seen or played one 20 years ago. I hate those so-called games that have no goal and are in fact just toys. For me if there is no goal there is no point playing. Maybe that’s why I didn’t enjoy GSB1 and Democracy 3, although it seemed to me they had clear objectives.

  2. Do you have a bunch of trusted regulars – forumites, commenters, past testers – to whom you could send the current (unfinished) ship editor?

    Even if there were just one or two community members who pushed the ship designer in GSB1 that you could let loose on this one… it would give you a lot of new ideas to pick from when you made the next trailer.

    (For the record – I’m not volunteering. You don’t know me and I’m not sure I’d be good at it. Also for the record – I love the circle-centred ships in your GSB1 shot. As long as that stays possible in #2, I’ll be happy as a pig in mud :D)

  3. Indeed, this was part of my plan. I definitely intend to get a lot of ship building feedback during beta, and will probably be doing a pre-order lets you play the beta thing.

  4. Question: do you think modding tools should be provided *within* the game? Is the old game+separate-level-editor thing dead?

  5. Funny that you mention the ferengi bar role. I hate to admit it but I spent many hours just colouring players’ hair (hairdresser) in Star Wars Galaxies. It was social and lucrative.

  6. “Give the player a ‘customize’ option, and you will lose them for an hour or ten.”
    So very true!
    I love sandboxing and just fooling around without anyone nagging me about something (as in “go break that door, Gordon! Move there, Gordon! Don’t just play with the debris, Gordon!”) or urging me to do these quests, when I just don’t feel like questing. The best thing in something like Crysis 2 was the destroyable environment (trees), I just couldn’t really care less about the “story”.

  7. People mailed postcards to the publisher when they got Competent rating in Elite. Adults played Lords of Midnight to beat it.

    To some extent, it’s a matter of taste. To some extent, it’s a matter of “realism,” or immersion, or something that human beings look for, more or less regardless of what they are doing, until they find it. Meaning. Purpose. And everyone knows that there is some opposing force that has to be overcome. That’s just the way it is. If it isn’t there, something is off.

    Arguably people play games to escape from this, but you can’t really get away from it. So, instead of ignoring it or leaving it out, games usually include their own version of it.

  8. You know, I’ve always thought of myself as an aspiring (hi-tech) toymaker…
    However, this stuff reminds me of the endless debate on whether videogames are art or not.
    Personally, I don’t consider games art, though certain parts (some musics/pictures) certainly are.
    TBH: I don’t think movies are art, either…
    It’s funny how upset a lot of people get when you say something like that, as if the only fulfilling and useful jobs are the ones involving art.

  9. I think you are right to be concerned.

    Lets say there are two games(engines) of equal capability for modders. One of them ships with great examples/demo games and other not so great. Players will flock to the one with the great demo maps/whatever and the modders will also because they see the more polished examples as “hey, this is clearly capable of more professional results” – despite the fact the professional results may have had more to do with map design/scripting/art than actual engine capabilities or scripting/programming related things.

    Following is biased since I’m all about polish and production value:

    Press is going to show images of GSB2 and impulse-buyers may be purchasing based on seeing a single screenshot. If they then see the price and the graphics are not ones that make the price seem like a good value, that could lead to lost sales. Of course if getting a good artist costs a lot, it’s really hard to say whether the increase in sales would actually cover the expense. Personally I’d prefer the professional looking ships but on the other hand, if the game is going to be full of player designed ships, it’s a matter of choosing whether you’d want the modders “aspiring” to certain quality level, or risk that the professional designs stand out like a sore thumb vs the “funny ships”. Some like myself would prefer all around polished look but if the gameplay is practically similar (biggest complaint in reviews that I’ve read is that there’s not much depth so interest can be lost quick) as in GSB1, then marketing the crafting/sharing focus more would help with setting the expectations a bit differently.

    So ultimately I think the decision of professional arts rests on whether the USP message is for the craft/modding aspect (assuming there’s market for that) or the “GSB1 with better graphics” – of course with latter, you really need the better graphics.

    Ideally you could let the art/graphics speak for itself and focus the written message on the modding side and other things that’s not visible, like perhaps various (optional?) online capabilities that weren’t present in the standard GSB1 (incase some people didn’t try the online expansion).

    Overall I agree that those checkerboard/bright color ships looked like temporary graphics and only having them risks losing unknown % of market. Would it be possible to mitigate this by shipping professional made ships to the press, but somehow selling them as DLC? I don’t know really and that has a VERY high risk of pissing of people who were expecting them as standard.

  10. Very interesting post…
    I think you make a very valid point that the initial screenshots and press are going to see those developer-designed ships, so they have to be good. I think its no problem to sell GSB2 as looking better than GSB1 regardless of ship design, you only need to see side-by-side screens and vids to notice this :D
    But I think it is definitely worth getting some very polished ship designs done. Like everything, it’s one more thing to do that pushes everything back release-wise and costs more money. ARGGGHHHH etc :D

  11. I really must add this too: Don’t forget that GSB still is AFAIK quite novel in the gameplay. That shouldn’t get lost in the messaging incase there’s people still in the market who don’t know about GSB.

  12. TBH unless there’s some contractual issues, you could try re-using the GSB1 designs in big way (beside the stuff sent to press) without feeling too bad (also I saw one of the first GSB2 screenshots having quite good looking ship just by good use of the lighting, the later screenshots with the over-saturated colors and checkerboards etc just went in completely another direction and that’s what probably prompted the comments you noted).

    But what about the issue of player built ships and the “mismatch” of quality and “dong-ships ala Spore”? One way to deal with this is to keep the quality stuff in some sort of “campaign” mode, and then have the craft ships on the online/sharing side of things. So players couldn’t use the gsb1 and the few new professional designs in the online side of things vs other players. TBH I’m not sure if it’s possible to satisfy both the professional looks and the “spore-like”-side of things at the same time. You need to make your own decision. A complicated solution to this is to make the player created ships largely consist of professionally created parts that are glued together by players and perhaps players and mod the lighting/colors. Then if some modders really want to build their own designs from zero, allow that too but perhaps through downloading some mod tool, so that “casual modders” would stick to the more easy modding if they aren’t looking to make something for their CV’s.

    History note:

    One “best space pc game ever” of the 90’s actually re-used maybe 1/3 of the ship designs as is in the sequel. The developers shipped the game with a note claiming they went on a 6 month polishing pass after the publisher had approved the game as being ready… I still regard that as the best game ever. So if I was doing a game that I really believed in, then spending big on polish would be no problem, but with GSB being more focused on short and casual explosive action, that also means the price can’t be at levels which would allow going for crazy polish. If you were creating a Star Control sequel then I’d say “yeah spend 4 years to get it right, I’ll pay $100 or whatever if it looks right to me then”.

  13. Okay I can’t help myself. You want to know what GSB needs to get to the full price category? If right now I think 15-20 eur is around the ballpark for GSB, going for 40+ eur would need something like online version of Master of Orion 1 with GSB style space battles. That would be super duper awesome. Is that even possible? Well – if players could somehow run their space empire concurrently without long wait for turns and have automated system to fill the galaxy with players etc, it could be ******* epic!

  14. (There’s also another possibility – I know lot of people who used to play something called Stars! – it was spreadsheet-taste version of Master of Orion. Instead of playing vs computer, you’d play a turn, then send the turn file to other players who played their turn and they’d send their file to you etc)

    That was pretty popular with adults who didn’t have time to play much and wanted more strategic depth than what MOO1 offered. Which type of light strategy game would have most market? player schedulers turns/concurrent turns/timed turns/real-time? I don’t know really. If you are going to do some sort of GSB MMO, perhaps a poll might be in order.

  15. Before embarking on my pitch for online MOO1, couple possible risks:
    1) Is there really a market for this
    2) if using time constrained concurrent turns, would *I* like that? I have played MTG in competitive setting a bit and the short time to think what to do are really annoying for the perfectionist in me who wants to think and ponder the optimal move. I would personally solve this by informing the server that I want to take x minutes to play each turn if I have y star systems/ships to manage, so “please set up players in this galaxy instance that have their time constraint parameters similar as mine”.

    Ok so after pondering GSB’s online possibilities and the kind of games I remember seeing already on the market (most way too intense/hc/time consuming or the other way around, MOO1 had perfect balance – I could learn it as 10 year old and it still has huge draw) , perhaps a time-limited concurrent turns with focus on fast paced games and light strategy+tech-tree element using pre-built ship plans would be the approach I’d like to see:

    The idea would be that you could:
    1) open gsb

    2) click start online game

    3) server would be running various galaxies of limited size, so each instance would have like 5-10 concurrent players – these instances would share the galaxy properties

    4) initially all the players would not need to be present on the server instance

    5) as players expand, if there’s not enough players to quickly fill instances, the instances would be joined after each instance reached same number of turns finished while players hadn’t yet explored each others space. This gets around the issue of having to wait for other players while doing initial micromanaging to get started

    6)ship designs could be pre-built but not available unless you happen to develop the tech during the game needed for those

    7)turns would be time-constrained and concurrent – atleast at the point which players have discovered each other. If there was a lot of players, perhaps there could be couple variations on the max time a turn (happening concurrently for every player) could take.

  16. I see a problem with the plan above:

    lets say the game goes into a situation where I have little to do but some other player has a ton of stuff to manage.

    Couple Possibilities:

    1) dynamic turn time (eg. have every n-th turn take longer for doing resource management/ship factory adjustments etc), and use the short turns for moving fleets around)
    2) allying and let other player help manage your stuff if they are out of stuff to do
    3) accumulating some sort of points over time that can be traded for extending the time you may take when you really need it
    4) ability to play around with ship design/battle simulation while waiting for other players to finish their stuff…

  17. Hmm. I just realized, some of my all time favorite game combat systems being in ME1 & DA:O, there isn’t a lot of games like that.

    So if I was to design a game, here’s the elements:

    – Dockable/landable Space stations/planet locations with Switchable 1st/3rd person view realtime combat with pausable time (for multiplayer the time could be limited)

    – seamless atmosphere to orbit transition (solar system and planetary flight 2.5D or 3D)

    – hyperspace ala sc2 for system transitioning – this mode would behave like a multiplayer submarine game in terms of locating and avoiding other players (fly in zoomable map)

    – very light strategic element MOO style (map)

    – space combat. Perhaps a realtime “pausable time” variation of GSB combat – where online players could opt-in to affect the combat if they wanted. Perhaps it would not be practical at the point which there was so much battles going on if you had large amount of fleets.

    A Tie Fighter style combat be possible for early part of the game where the player did not have large fleets in play.

    Somehow I think doing all this at once will end up like that Battlecruiser 3000AD deal – so it would be best to do each piece as once game while designing them to be combined later.

  18. Scratch that. I think there’s atleast 2 hybrid games I’d like to see. The other (strategy based) I described in the earlier post.

    The non-strategy game would be something closer to adventure-exploration-tactical-combat hybrid with co-op. Would it be theoretically possible to have pausable time combat with multiplayer such that when you pause, the other player doesn’t get paused? That’s be quite genious invention!

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