March Progress Update

Story Events Editor

The big news this month is that I’ve made good progress on an editor for adding story events to the game. I will be making this editor available to everyone eventually as a modding tool, and I can’t wait to see what people will come back with.

Let’s quickly put together a story event so you can see how it works.

Defining a story event's "cast" in the editor
Defining a story event’s “cast” in the editor
Fleshing out a story event's details in the editor
Fleshing out a story event’s details in the editor
Adding decision choices to a story event in the editor
Adding decision choices to a story event in the editor
And now we can try it out in the game

I’ve also been putting together a test pack of story events to thoroughly test the editor and add more content to the game. So far I’ve reproduced all the 18 story events that I prototyped in v0.4 via the editor, and added another 23. Some of those are multi-part stories that can span multiple turns. For example, if you have a hot-headed character as your head of military, you might get the following.

If you let him run the training as he wants, he’ll occasionally get you into further trouble…

Another benefit of the story event editor is that the game can show the player what the effect of a choice will be.  E.g., the following is the tooltip you will see for a choice in a story about experimenting with a new medical treatment.

You can see in detail what may happen

Not all the stories I’ve added have fleshed out descriptions, I’ve been focused more on the functionality at this point. The rate at which I’m adding these story events is quite slow while I’m still working on the editor. But in future, putting together a story event should take me a lot less time than it would by coding it directly into the base game (like the core actions and events).

Early Access or Kickstarter?

I’m wondering whether to run a Kickstarter. I feel the game needs more work, and I need some help to get it past the finishing line. I would love to add some more art to the game.  It would be nice to get some assistance on writing story events.  And I could use some help with making the UI more digestible. I had been planning to open up the game to Early Access on itch.io, but another option would be to run a Kickstarter with beta access for backers. I’m still mulling over my options, so any thoughts or suggestions are most welcome.

Revamping Updates

I’m going to be working on revamping the way updates work internally. That may not be exciting from a player’s perspective, but updates are one of the oldest piece of scaffolding in the game, with many pieces that have been duct taped on over time. It needs to be given some tender love and care before I stack a bunch of story events on top of it. There are two impacts of that which will be visible.

1) I would like updates to automatically tell you what has explicitly changed in the world as part of that event, rather than just contain a freeform description.

2)  I would like the game to be smarter in figuring out which updates to show you and which to hide.

Showing the Right Amount of Updates

This is a difficult problem. First off, the importance of an update depends on its context. It might not be important to the player to know that a neighbouring leader has promoted somebody to their council.  However, if the neighbouring leader fired the player’s daughter to promote someone else, the player might be interested.

Secondly, its difficult for the game to know what the player is interested in. Different players have different interests.  Its also difficult to work out how the “interestingness” of an update changes when it happens to someone you know or care about.  And how does the game even know who the player cares about?

If the game shows you too many updates you don’t care about, it becomes difficult to pay attention. If the game misses some updates that are necessary to understand the context you’ve ended up with (“wait… since when were those guys at war?”), it becomes confusing. So there’s a narrow sweet spot where the game shows you just the right amount of updates. I’ve already experimented with various approaches in this area over the development of the game, and I think there is one last set of refinements I can put in to put this one to rest for now.

Social Media

Lastly, I’m going to try to be a little more active on social media and this blog. This is a struggle for me – I’m not an extrovert, and my natural inclination is to hide in my developer cave. However when people discuss the game and come back with comments I find it very helpful and rewarding, so I will do my best to do more of that.

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Next Content Areas

Star Dynasties has been in the hands of early alpha testers for two weeks.  I’m pleased that there have been only a few bugs reported, and no serious issues.  Most of the feedback has been about how to improve the UI and how the game’s systems could be made richer, which is exactly what I was hoping for.  

I will be providing regular updates about what I’m working on next and what my plans are.  That means that sometimes I will make mistakes, or brainstorm something that then proves to be unrealistic, hard to implement, or simply not fun.  Please be patient with me when that happens.

The main focus of my next few months is going to be content.  Specifically I will be working on the following eight areas, in rough order of priority.  

Social Status

This will rename and extend “General Public Opinion”.  More of what you do will raise or lower social status; performance in combat and wars, engaging in diplomacy, marrying into other high/low status houses, gaining or losing systems, etc.  Having high social status will be a key component of getting what you want; stability of rule, marriageability of yourself and your kin, general helpfulness of other characters, etc. This will make non-moral actions and events more significant than they are at the moment, opening up to a lot of smaller scale content that provides interesting decisions.

Story Events

Most of the content right now is the core of the game; the political system, the marriage system, administering your house and family, a legal system, economy, etc.  These are fundamental to the way this feudal world works, must be present in at least a basic way, and are deeply and tightly interlinked with each other. Now that the skeleton is solidifying, I would like to put some flesh on the bones, in the form of smaller snippets of narrative to bring the world and your character’s story to life.  Examples; you receive an SOS call from a broken down ship in space, a rogue AI has survived from the Collapse, your son brings back some valuable resources from an exploratory mission to another system, etc.

Deeper House Areas

Members of your house are assigned to one of five roles (Administration, Military, Security, Diplomacy, Medical).  Each of these areas govern various bonuses that your house gets. Diplomacy-assigned characters can also be sent as ambassadors to other houses (and can be then sneakily used to sabotage other systems).  My intention is to add more decisions and events that are related to the activities within these house areas. My current ideas are to add a high level decision that sets the focus of each area (e.g. military focus on defence, attack, or rearmament), and an activity to which you can assign members in an area (e.g. security team members can be assigned to investigate specific characters).

Negotiation

Right now, when you make a request or offer to another character, it is accepted or rejected based primarily on whether that character likes you, to what extent it is to their personal advantage, and whether you will subsequently owe them a favour.  Your main lever is to have improved relations with them prior to the request. This system aims to extend that by allowing characters to make a counter-proposal, accepting the request on the basis that you do some other action (something like diplomacy works in SMAC).  This is the biggest challenge, and most tentative item, on this list.

Basic Character Customisation

When you start a game of Star Dynasties you are currently given a random leader and faction to play.  I will add the ability to change the full appearance of the initial character, and to change a subset (hair, clothes) for any character you play during the game.  You will also be able to name children that are born in your house. In future I would like the player to have more customisation options at the start of the game (sex, traits, house composition), but those will came in a later iteration.

Gatherings

This will be a story event that triggers when a major political or social event happens such as your marriage or that of your heir, the victorious conclusion of a war, or the signing of a major treaty.  A celebration is hosted by your house, to which other rulers and leaders can attend. The celebration can have various consequences as the powerful mix; alliances can be born, or a personal faux pas can create rifts between characters.  A villain may find the opportunity to take advantage of being close to a rival.

Deeper combat

My priority for making combat more engaging is to add opportunities for character narratives e.g. getting hurt / dying in combat, having the opportunity to save a rival’s life, choosing a lieutenant to lead a particular engagement, a character distinguishing themselves in a skirmish, etc.  I would also like to add some high-level strategic decisions such as building listening satellites in a system that you want to fortify, or use as a launch pad for a military adventure.

Character Movement

Characters are currently locked into their house, except when they move through marriage.  I would like to add the possibility of characters being traded between houses outside of marriage, even being tempted to run away perhaps.  Another concept I want to address is the rigidity of house membership. Take, for example, the following scenario. Your heir marries into another house.  Their wife then dies shortly after. Is it realistic that your son remains a member of that house, given your stake in finding them a new marriage partner?

 

There are obviously many other areas that can be extended or added (feedback on the reddit has already touched on trade, hostages, fleshing out colonies more deeply, aliens, etc..).  The above are the areas that I feel are the most important to work on at this stage. I welcome feedback on these choices, and how they could be implemented in interesting ways.

In the short term, I am planning a small release for the end of October, which will contain some odds and ends that I am taking the opportunity to work on while looking at the feedback that comes in from the alpha group.  After that I will be working on the Social Status changes, and hopefully will have something playable for mid/late November.

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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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