December 30, 2014

Jordan Coombs

Upcoming: Improving Your Crew's Day

The improved interface addressing some of our larger issues

Greetings Star Commanders!

Hope you all have had a wonderful Holiday season and that you are ready for the New Year.

We have been back at work this week after a very successful Alpha 1 launch. We are very excited to have our kickstarters and fans playing the game and are looking forward to updating and improving the experience - which is exactly what we are talking about today. If you haven't gotten into the alpha you can right now at!

The focus for our next update, which comes out in January, is crew interaction. Right now a lot of features in our game are pretty much done but not quite. For example:

  • Power is in but not connected to the GUI and some objects.
  • Food and Energy are draining but not really causing you harm
  • Using objects works but is very clunky
  • Teleporting exists but is finicky
  • Tooltips tell you a bit but not enough
  • It's not entirely clear what it is that you're supposed to do!
All of these items and more are on our list of things to do.

But the primary focus is on fixing and improving how you interact with your crew, how they give you feedback and how they interact with the world.

Desires, for example, should be a strong guiding force for what you are "supposed to do." If your crew member is hungry, tired, wants more light or wants to explore a planet this should be clear to you, the player.

A crew member wants more light. When you don't make it happen, he gets mad.

Our central gameplay cycle revolves around keeping your crew healthy and happy. One of the primary complaints in Star Command mobile was the fact that your crew and ship were always ready for battle. You got into a skirmish then proceeded to healed your crew, repair your ship and then head for the next battle. 

In Galaxies the ship battles, visits to alien planets, diplomacy and trade all throw off the energy, hunger and desires of your crew. For example: visiting a Trilax ship will introduce new desires for your crew like Trilax art. Now, as Captain, it is up to you to decide who is ready to go on Away Team missions, who is the right person and what the consequences of that will be. You have to weigh that with who is tired, hungry, injured or afraid of alien worlds.

Focusing on your crew's mood/stress level will be very important. We will be introducing those elements in the next update so that it's much more clear what you have to do with the hours of the day in your crew's lives.

We will also introduce comfort objects - things that help your crew relax and get into a good mood. Plants, paintings, TV's will help your crew get some R&R after a costly battle or exploring the harsh environment of a lava planet.

More to come as we get closer and closer to release of Alpha 2. Tell us what you think and if you have any questions!


December 21, 2014

Jordan Coombs

What Makes a Great Tutorial

Greetings Star Commanders!

Star Command Galaxies Alpha 1 is out! You should check out our brand new website and join in if you haven't already.

One of the biggest questions we have received so far about the alpha is "What Do I Do?" It's almost like we forgot the tutorial. To be clear, we did not. So we want to talk about great tutorials and our approach to teaching the mechanics and strategies of Star Command Galaxies.

The Original Tutorial
Let's start by talking about one of the greatest game tutorials: Super Mario Brothers for the NES. This is been covered many times by many people and probably much better than us, but we will rehash some of the principal concepts.

Basically, the very first area in Mario teaches you all the mechanics of the game. It was designed to teach a new player that getting mushrooms was good, blocks could be hit, and jumping on gumbas wouldn't hurt you, by making these actions almost impossible to avoid. It's elegant, it's simple and most importantly it uses no text.

Super Mario Brothers designed by today's standards

Mario isn't the only game to have an awesome non-tutorial tutorial. We look at Sim City 4 quite often.

Sim City 4
Sim City 4 never told you "You have to build a power plant." You would get that message by zoning a neighborhood and watching it not grow. Eventually you would get a "No Power" icon. The same was true of water, garbage, employment and other game concepts. Yes, there were advisors to help you along the way, but primarily the game showed you that there were certain things that needed to be done before you could continue on. The system, by its nature, enabled you to explore and try new things through experimentation.

The Sims thinking thoughts
The Sims is also a big inspiration for us. Again, the game never says "This Guy Needs To Sleep" - it shows you icons, body language and other hints of what you need to do to keep your character alive and happy - how succeed at the game. This means that ANYONE can pick up the game - kids that can't read yet, people that don't speak english or even new gamers who aren't familiar with common gaming tutorials. It's elegant, it's simple and it's universal.

That is one tired crew
In Galaxies we have similar goals. At this point its very early and, frankly, not working at all but the overall goal is to let the game tell you how to play itself. Early you can't travel because you have no engine. You may build objects but they have no power. There is a sequence and we don't have to tell you "Build an Engine First" - it enables exploration and creative thinking. There is no "right" way to play the game, just some minimum requirements for you to continue on.

We want anyone to be able to pick up Galaxies. I personally have a 4 year old son and one of the more frustrating things I have experienced is his inability to play Star Command on mobile. It wasn't for a lack of trying. The game simply had too many unintuitive concepts that had to be explained through text - something he couldn't read. He didn't know why he had to assign crew, what the enemies were trying to do or what his goals were. All of these elements were delivered through text in hails and popups - not very elegant.

That's not to say we won't have any text. It's still very important to world building and finding out more information on a particular object or character. But with Galaxies it doesn't start with "read this to figure out what your supposed to do" - instead it is "play this and if you want to learn more you can."

Right now this is not working - we will freely concede that. But we won't bandaid it with a bunch of popups that would work but not really fix the core problem. Instead we will diagnose why players aren't understanding certain concepts and help the game explain those better. 

A great example is refrigerators. Right now it simply isn't intuitive to go pick up food pellets, put them in the fridge and then go the kitchen to eat. Telling you to do this wouldn't fix to core problem.

So please bear with us while we try to make the game intuitive instead of putting in temporary or just bad fixes.

Tell us what you find to be unintuitive or what you would improve on that's already in game. Or point us to great tutorials you have used in the past. We read every comment, forum post, tweet and facebook post you send - so join in the conversation!

Next: Food, Energy, Social, Stress!


December 4, 2014

Jordan Coombs

The Mobile Marketplace Has An Integrity Problem

We just received an e-mail that we wanted to share and discuss with our community. This is the tail end of it:

I offer many services concerning your app, if you are interested feel free to contact me. 
1. App Store Ratings & Reviews :Ratings/Reviews Price 
50 ratings and 10 reviews - 99 USD 
75 ratings and 15 reviews - 149 USD 
100 ratings and 25 reviews - 199 USD 
125 ratings and 30 reviews - 249 USD 
150 ratings and 35 reviews - 299 USD 

The premise is paying some fixed amount to receive reviews and ratings for your mobile title - and receive these types of offers almost daily. We have never used these services and we never will. But it does speak to a larger problem: integrity.

The ability to essentially purchase buzz for your game is nothing new, but on the mobile marketplace your rating and reviews are absolutely critical to success. And, to make a baseball analogy, paid reviews are the equivalent of steroids. It's not cheating because it's not illegal but it makes everything you see in the store suspect.

For mobile it has become increasingly a strange world that has nothing to do with "games" as we would classify them. Products built from the ground up to entertain and challenge players. This is just no longer the case. Larger companies build games from the ground up to be money producing machines not based on the merits of the gameplay but on the model of the challenge. IAP aren't inherently bad (there are many great examples of freemium games) but the culture on mobile is always suspect. There is no integrity.

Popularity can be purchased. Reviews and ratings can be fixed. Games sell one model then quickly pull the rug out to reveal much less genuine intentions. None of this is new - but it is becoming increasingly discouraging.

That is not to say this is limited to mobile. This is something that the game culture as a whole is wrestling with as well. GamerGate is all about the integrity of the reviews we are given. Can we trust the numerous sites, blogs and youtubers to give us honest evaluations of our favorite hobby?

One of the things that makes this complex is the rise of indie games. The front page of Steam at any given moment is more than 50% indie titles - which is great. But it also makes it extremely difficult to figure out what is worth the investment. The most interesting element about the state of gaming is that most players don't even play the games they purchase. It's not longer about "can I get it?" - it's about your most valuable asset: time.

And this is why integrity is so important. There are hundreds of titles released and we all only have so much time. Gamers want those amazing experiences: building your first hole in the ground to escape the night in Minecraft; using a uber-medic combo to push your team and the cart to a victory in Team Fortress; getting the shit scared out of you for the first time in Amnesia. Our time is valuable and we want to pour it into the titles that give us the most return on our time investment.

The mobile market place has a serious problem with this right now and the business model isn't helping. The most heartbreaking thing about the whole environment is that could have been the next great mobile platform. Better than the 3DS, more adopted than the PSP and more accessible to indie developers than any other system before. Instead we have a system where discoverability is extremely difficult, reviews are always suspect and a games place on the top 10 chart can simply be purchased instead of earned. That is to say nothing of the copycat of mechanics that, frankly, were well established and refined in the late 90's.

Don't mistake this as us ejecting from mobile development - nothing could be further from the truth. But as gamers and developers we have concerns. We love the potential of the platform and don't really have answers to some of these larger problems. Maybe with time the market will mature and begin to self-regulate itself - who knows.

If there is one silver lining it's the community itself: gamers overall tend to be extremely reasonable, passionate people that really just enjoy having fun. It's rarely about ego, social standing or any other existential facet that can plague other hobbies. We have utter faith that the community will find a way to make things "right" and bring the integrity of gaming back.

That's all. End of rant.


November 21, 2014

Jordan Coombs

The Highs and Lows of Game Development

Deadlines in video game development are tricky things (as many of our fans know). You have to weigh what is good to what can be done in a "reasonable" time frame. To self regulate ourselves we try and focus on external events to apply for - and for the last 2 weeks we have been crunching to submit IndieMegaBooth at PAX East 2015.

For those that don't know, IndieMegaBooth is an organization that takes a group of lesser known indies and get's them booth space at events like PAX, GDC and Gamescom. They are one of the bright stars of the indie development world.

These crunches represent the best and worst in game development.

We got a ton done on the game. We cram as many features in that we can, everyone works very hard and very long hours and does it of their own free will as we are an indie studio and we answer to no one.

Last night we were all in the office working 'til 2:00am to get our game submitted into the Indiemegabooth. As we reached the submission hour our build fell apart - we could not get it to compile - and what we could get to compile wouldn't run. To describe the situation as disappointing would be an understatement.

But this is the challenge of making games. Often times people wonder what the hell we're doing. How can it possibly take so long time one one game? Our approach is that good things take time.

Here is a screenshot of the game with our real time lighting, crew desires and planets. We know the game is fun and we know that our fans will be very happy with Galaxies.

Nights like last night can be extremely discouraging to a team. You work very hard for a very long time on something you are very passionate about - and it doesn't come together how you envisioned. But then we look at what we have done and we see the passion our fans have for our game and we know in the long term it will be worth it.

More is coming very soon. The game is in a fun, playable state and with a couple more weeks of polish we should be looking at a public alpha. That is something we can't wait for. As long as we can get the game to build :)


November 5, 2014

Jordan Coombs

Star Command Galaxies - Now With S.C.I.E.N.C.E!

We just released our first Alpha of S.C.I.E.N.C.E. to our Kickstarters - and we couldn't be more excited!

This represents months (years really) of hard work. We completely changed our engine, our building system, our crew and character system, combat - really everything from the ground up to make a more open, dynamic and exciting Galaxy for our fans to explore.

So What is S.C.I.E.N.C.E?

S.C.I.E.N.C.E. is the same toolkit we use to create content that will populate the game Star Command Galaxies.

The primary function is to create map files that we call "Super Objects." Super Objects are the ships, space-stations, planets and objects that populate the pool we pull from to populate a galaxy. This procedurally/randomly generated galaxy is where our super objects will live.

So when you create a ship, all the walls, tiles, lighting etc and how you set them up are saved as a super object. You will eventually be able to load that super object in the galaxy map and fly around the universe coming across other creations of your own, our creations or ones from the community.

S.C.I.E.N.C.E. will help you create, preview and experiment with lots of different things. Let's say you want to make a scummy forgotten town on the far side of the universe, and you start with designing a cantina. You could layout your bar, dance floor and band stand, save the file and then you would have the option to load that super object into any planet scene you create.

This will eventually lead to deep and interesting environments to explore with your starship crew. Truly unexplored areas that dynamically populate cities with their own inhabitants, structures, economies and dangers.

This is the first step in our roll out of Star Command Galaxies, the next chapter in the Star Command saga. It will be released for PC, Mac and Linux and more information including a new website, gameplay, features and other info will be coming soon.

We will be releasing S.C.I.E.N.C.E to the public after we do some initial bug squashing and feature testing/fixes.

More coming soon!


September 19, 2014

Parker Coombs

Ship Inventory and Store interfaces

Parker here! I'm one of the designers here at Warballoon.

I wanted to give you all an update on what we are working on and show you how game concepts change over time. Interfaces have the potential make a game really good - or really bad. We are often borrowing from well known and polished examples found in some of our favorite games. For a starting point of our building interface we took a look at Civ 5.
Civ 5's build system shines at relaying a lot of information but without being an overwhelming wall of text and options. The interface is capable of giving most building's bonuses readily while still relaying important modifiers for the city. New players are given recommendations using small icons and can play accordingly.

Here is our first attempt at a build screen. Items are grouped in categories relating to function, and more information regarding power use and added effects are given using mouse-overs.

We also took some inspiration from another well polished inventory system, that of Dota 2's.

DOTA2 has a more visual system, with icons used to represent every item and all the information given in mouse-over. We tried to incorporate aspects of this, mainly the icon system and categorical sorting functions. However, there is a higher learning curve for players as they attempt to guess an object's purpose and effects by it's icon. Experienced players simply buy the item they want by knowing it's icon, while inexperienced players are able to mouse-over. 

The environment is a fairly high Actions Per Minute style RTS, really hurting new players who are forced to make decisions in real time. DOTA's remedy to this is a "recommended buy-build" system where players can edit, download and share builds which helps make the game more accessible.

Our first attempt at implementing some of the Dota 2 store features.

Our latest iteration enhances sort-ability further, so that players can quickly figure out how objects would affect your ship's function and performance. Further play-testing will tell us if this helps new players overcome the learning curve of identifying ship objects by its icon. 

More to come next week!


September 11, 2014

Tim Anderson

You can make anything with SCIENCE!

Howdy everyone!  I'm Tim, a developer here at Warballoon, where we know how awesome designing/building/modding a game truly can be.  Today, I'm going to talk to you about a new breakthrough coming in the not-too-distant future, S.C.I.E.N.C.E.

I like science!  Wait, what is it?
Well, bold-face font, S.C.I.E.N.C.E. is the Star Command Isometric Enhanced New Creation Editor, which is our modding tool for the community to use.  It is a way for you to design new objects and add them into the game for you and your friends to visit and/or use.  Simply put: build things, create worlds, share it all, expand the universe.

Good tag line, but how does it work?
Once you open up S.C.I.E.N.C.E., you can choose what you would like to build.  You can build such things as Ships, Planets, Objects, and Characters.  Once you have chosen what you would like to build, you are given a graphical interface to develop it with.  This allows you to draw your objects, set up walls on your ship, or even add in Flora and Fauna to your new volcano planet.

Can these objects/ships/planets do anything, or do they just look pretty?
Perhaps you want your new object to emit radiation, or you want your new ship to have beautiful Avarian architecture.  No worries, S.C.I.E.N.C.E. has your back.  You can set properties for each object such as how much power it will take, or how obnoxiously loud it will be to deafen nearby crew members.  You can also bring in sets of alien architecture to work with your design, allowing you to make various alien ships.  Ever wanted to see an Antorian Cruise Ship or a Midorian Trade Cruiser?  This is your chance to make that a reality!

Neat, I made something.  Now what?
So you've finished your new Ship/Planet/Object of Doom and you want to share your new scientific creation with the world, possibly via email or at a large conference.  Well then, it's time to Export it into a game readable format.  Currently, we're looking at both LUA and XML as potential export options, and have tested both.  Here's a little of what the ship looks like in LUA format currently.

And here's what the ship itself looks like post-creation.

How much is this new S.C.I.E.N.C.E. going to cost me?
At Warballoon, we believe in sharing all of our new S.C.I.E.N.C.E. with the community.  So how much does it cost?  In a word, nothing.  In five words, it will cost you nothing.  Rather, it will be a free download for everyone on the planet, separate from Star Command: Galaxies.

I'd like to challenge your hypothesis on this new S.C.I.E.N.C.E.
The tool is still somewhat in development and we are always open to fantastic new ideas.  What would you like to see in the tool, and what questions do you have about it? Tell us on Facebook and Twitter. We're always listening. Always. (Cue creepy music....)

Remember, you can make anything with S.C.I.E.N.C.E!