Alpha

Up to last week, my circle of playtesters was limited to a small group of family and friends.  My intention is to widen this group of players gradually , taking on board new feedback and making the game more feature rich at each step, before opening the gates to the next circle.

Three days ago I set up a page on itch.io where interested players could sign up for a limited-places alpha for Star Dynasties.  This coincided with a first view of the game by Nookrium.

Thanks to Nookrium and itch, I’ve hit my goal for the first round of places for Star Dynasties in just three days!  I’m really pleased that the game has generated so much interest on the basis of this first look video and a static page, and am absolutely stoked to continue working to expand and polish the game.

The alpha testers have started posting feedback to the game’s reddit, so if you’re interested to know more about the state of the game and what playing it is like, come take a look.

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Playtesting Notes

A few playtesters have been putting the game through its paces, and I now have a much better picture of what works, what doesn’t, and the areas that need focus to advance the game to the next stage.  In today’s post I’ll talk about the issues that playtesting has highlighted, using them as an opportunity to describe how the game works, and giving you an insight into the challenges of building the game.

Update Visibility

Star Dynasties is turn based.  When the player ends their turn, six months are simulated.  A lot can happen in the galaxy in six months. When an important event happens (for example, two neighbouring factions go to war), the player is shown the event in a popup message on the map called an update.

An update popup on the map informs me of my daughter-in-law's rebellion
Updates are the main way in which changes in the world are communicated to the player

It’s a challenge to figure out what’s important enough to tell the player, and what can be filed away for them to optionally review later.  If too much is popped up, the player will be bored by irrelevant information and will find it hard to get into a flow. On the other hand, if too much is hidden, the player will miss important events and the opportunity to take advantage of them.  Right now, the balance is leaning in the direction of too many updates being shown, and I’m working to make the importance calculating algorithm smarter. This is not trivial; the same type of event may be shocking if it happens to your neighbour or your brother, but not interesting at all if it happens to someone with whom you have no connection.

Related to this is the interface that the player can use to review everything that’s happened, which comes in two parts; a contextual control so that the player can see the full history of updates that are related to a particular character, faction, etc., and a window from which the player can quickly browse everything that’s happened in the last turn, if they want to drill into the detail or to make sure they missed nothing they care about.  I am currently experimenting with the latter, trying to adopt some UX lessons from social media feeds to make it more digestible.

The Turn Events Log shows what recently happened in the world
The current turn events log… very much a work in progress

Emotion Model Finalisation

As described elsewhere, Star Dynasties models characters’ emotions, and the opinions that characters form towards each other based on their personalities, emotions, and the morality of their behaviour.

We’ve racked up a lot of time in the world by now and it’s been a great test for whether this model is working realistically and believably in the game.  The dynamic of empathy, where a character will empathise with the events that are happening to another character (including changing their opinion of those that are hurting them or helping them), needs fine tuning… characters are perhaps too emphatic at the moment (what a problem to have!).  

The other area that needs balancing is how difficult it is to remain popular.  How effective is diplomacy? How hard is it to please everyone, or to please enough that you can maintain your power?

Playtesters discussing the difficulty of remaining popular while dispensing justice within your realm

AI

One of the most challenging aspects of building Star Dynasties is controlling how the world evolves over time.  The simulation consists of many characters that are making selfish and blinkered decisions in their own lives, and the impact of all those decisions on the story of the world can be quite chaotic.  

For example, a leader’s son in a position of power might abuse his privilege because he feels untouchable.  Later, a prominent character may demand that the leader do something about these abuses. If the leader stays loyal to his son and refuses, his political standing will be damaged.  If his position was precarious, the chain of events may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and moves a disgruntled ruler to start a rebellion.

You are being asked to bring your own son to justice

It’s this chaos that generates interesting stories for the player.  It also makes it quite hard to make sure that, when all these events are summed up, the behaviour and life stories of characters in the eye of the storm (such as leaders) are realistic.  And right now this is an area that needs some balancing. Characters are too impulsive and ready to break the law, and the aggregate impact of that universal risk-taking is an unstable world, where factions and leagues can rise and fall overnight.

Initial Game Experience

The game has a steep learning curve.  The interface is somewhat dense, and there’s a lot of knowledge about how the world works that a new player just won’t have at the beginning.  The first hour is daunting, and I fear that some players will not push past it to get to the engaging game beyond.

To some extent, this is just the nature of the genre.  It’s hard to have a rich, complex game that is also easy to get into, and it’s hard to create some kind of introductory / tutorial version of the game, when so much of the simulation is interlinked and interdependent.  You can’t switch off segments of reality so that the player can be brought up to speed gradually.

I’m brainstorming three ways to deal with this problem;

  • A basic tutorial that will launch when you first start a game.  This will explain how to use the UI. For example, the UI allows you to focus on two world entities at once, depending on whether you left-click an item (details come up on the left), or right-click an item (details come up on the right).  This is useful because it allows you to explore the relationship between two characters with a minimum of clicking, but needs a few minutes of getting used to.
  • A set of information popups that will be shown when the player first opens a particular panel, or encounters some situation in the game for the first time, to bring them up to speed with the concepts of the world.
  • Some additional early game content to ease the player into the world more gently?  I don’t know if I can make this sufficiently interesting or different from the previous point to justify it.

Overall Gameplay and Balance

The most important thing to have come out of extensive playtesting is a crystallization of the core gameplay experience.  For a long time I had put my faith in the belief that if I built a world simulation that was realistic and gave the player the role of a king or queen in that world, then the gameplay and narratives that would emerge would be interesting and fun.  It’s been gratifying to see that come true as the game has matured.

Paired with the thrill of playing this role through the stories the game generates, are the challenges of balancing between the various demands on your limited time (dispensing justice in your realm, maintaining your house, acquiring new territory, etc…), and maintaining a precarious political position in the face of the competing requests and agendas of other leaders and rulers.

A vassal leader is pushing their own claim and threatening to rebel
A leader in your league has a stronger claim than you on one of your personally held systems

The challenge increases as you grow in size; from a starting position where you have a lot of control over a small territory, your focus is outward, and you have limited options but no real competing demands; to a point where you have tenuous control over a large territory, your focus is directed inwards, and you have a lot of options but a challenge in using them to meet a larger set of demands.  And the journey isn’t linear; rebellions, succession, bad luck, etc… create setbacks that ratchet the player back at various times and provide a kind of snakes-and-ladders dynamic to the gameplay.

As I add more content, the details of what the player will do on a particular turn will change, with a greater variety of action and events, and my challenge is to make sure that the gameplay remains true to these dynamics.

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Post Collapse Society

In this post, I will describe the political structure of the galaxy. The game has matured in this area recently, so it’s good to outline the big picture.

Background

First, a quick refresher on the background. In the 22nd century humanity had a foothold in the stars, but the inadvertent destruction of Earth has plunged the galaxy into a new dark age. In the years since the Collapse, there has been the near total loss of the political, technological, and economic advances of human civilization. The initial focus of the colonies, never intended to be self-sufficient, was simply survival. Disconnection of the lifeline of resources from Earth wiped out many, and the survivors faced a most desperate enemy – each other. The ensuing lawlessness shattered the old political structure and led to the rise of warlords and a brutal cycle of subsistence and war. Several hundred years later the colonies have stabilised into a simple feudal society. An aristocratic elite fight between themselves for the right to rule over the scattered fragments of human kind.

Houses

This elite population is organized into houses, typically consisting of an extended family and their more trusted servants. Houses are headed by an autocratic patriarch or matriarch that wields its power absolutely. This power usually comes from its exclusive control of parts of a colony. For example, a wealthy house may control a shaft in a mining base, or one of the hydroponic farms that feeds a system. Houses formed out of the gangs that arose initially after the Collapse to seize and control colony resources, and which have now matured to become the backbone of the political structure. To be anyone of any consequence you must be a member of a house. Membership is hereditary, although houses will sometimes adopt new members from junior houses or the peasant population when they need more henchmen.

Managing a house in Star Dynasties
You assign your house’s members to roles based on their skills and your needs.

Usually, the most powerful house in a colony has established itself as its overall ruler, and maintains order and dominance through a mix of political manoeuvring and force. While weak rulers are sometimes overthrown, ruling houses that maintain their position for many years come to be seen as the legitimate source of order in a colony. Over multiple generations, this social order has stabilised and developed its own customs, martial rituals, and obligations. The most important of these is that each house is expected to participate in the defence of the colony by maintaining a military force that can be called upon by the ruler. Houses rarely need any encouragement to do so, as defenceless ones tend to be taken advantage of by their more martial peers.

Factions

Some colonies group together into factions, led by their strongest ruler.  These political relationships between colonies are more tenuous because of the distance between stars. A colony can be spread across multiple installations in a system but the travel time between these locations will still be hours at most. The jump between two systems takes several days, and this makes it impractical for any house to control territory on multiple stars with the same effectiveness. What has evolved over time are relationships of tribute, military service, and protection between strong rulers and their neighbours. These leaders can call upon the combined militaries of those that they have cajoled or threatened to belong to their faction, and use this combined military might to keep their faction’s rulers and other nearby leaders in check.

As this social structure has solidified, norms of obedience, loyalty, and acceptable behaviour between leaders and rulers have emerged. Leaders are seen as the legitimate heads of the status hierarchies of the galaxy, but those that abuse their position draw universal ire. Acts of tyranny make a leader vulnerable to rebellion from ambitious rulers. A leader’s faction persists beyond their death and its leadership is inherited by their children, a custom that avoids a lot of unnecessary bloodshed.

Star Dynasties Star Map: Leagues and Factions
Some factions group together into powerful leagues, led by archons

Leagues

The strongest leaders, called archons, establish master-subject relationships with other leaders.  Leagues can form when a leader submits to another instead of risking annihilation.  However they usually form when a faction simply grows too large to be managed by a single leader and the members of their house.  Such leaders are forced to weaken their grip on their extended territory, breaking it up into separate factions and granting them to vassal leaders.

Archons that successfully maintain control over their league of factions occupy the shaky pinnacles of the galaxy’s power structure.

Custom and Law

Binding society together is a code of primitive ethics and law that has been adopted slowly over time. Unsurprisingly this largely serves the interests of the most powerful, who perpetuate the belief that they are the rightful wielders of power in the galaxy. However it provides good restrictions against general violence, by prohibiting military adventures without any justification and other destabilizing acts. Systems of hereditary rights have evolved at multiple levels; house, faction, system, and league. These help to provide continuity of ownership with minimal dispute and to reduce incentives for acquiring wealth through naked aggression.

An important institution is marriage, as both an avenue to acquire hereditary rights peacefully, and a mechanism of reducing violence and building alliances.  As a consequence, divorce is widely frowned upon.

One area in which the powerful have had to bend is to fulfil the role of providing rough justice for their followers. Even a mighty archon will fall if they routinely ignore the valid grievances of their subjects.

Star Dynasties Society; As a leader you will be responsible for punishing the worst crimes of your followers
As a leader you will be responsible for punishing the worst crimes of your followers

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