First Alpha test result

First Alpha test result

Test results, as promised from our first test session of our Alpha 3.7 build.

It was a fun road trip down to LA, our writer Amy got to meet Rob and we all got to meet and talk with: Mick our video editor. Chris delivered last minute by fixing code items and drinking tea so that he could stay up late from his home in the UK to battle us in California.

Alpha3.7 build, with temporary graphics and no design implemented yet. Here we see a player getting started.
Alpha3.7 build, with temporary graphics and no design implemented yet. Here we see a player getting started.

Improving the gameplay

The laptop party resulted in about a dozen or two items ranging from bugs to playability concerns and card pool suggestions. I was really pleased to hear that the general consensus was that the game has a lot of potential and the testers felt it was very unique.

Feedback that related to usability or bugs were easy items to deal with.

We did notice that my test-decks need some tweaking to make your demo-cards more straight forward and cheaper to promote faster play (less big expensive cards and more cheaper ones). Changes to cards, stats, abilities and deck compositions are all very easy to accomplish.

A bigger concern though was that I noticed that the turn phases were a bit unintuitive for players. It doesn’t help that as an early Alpha you don’t have a tutorial or help-overlays in the game yet, but it is also even better when one doesn’t need help text to understand how things work. Up until this point we had conveniently split our turns into four phases that magically matched the 4-terms associated with 4X: eXpand, eXploit, eXplore and eXterminate. In eXpand you would colonize and invade, in eXploit you would gain resources from current and any new sectors your acquired, during eXplore you moved and built things and in eXterminate you resolved battles in sectors that are contested.

Our decision was to reduce this down from 4 to just 2 phases: the “move” and “battle” phases. Right now we don’t have a fancy name for them anymore, but that is less important than the gameplay. Invasion and colonization simply happen during the move phase with a single extra rule that makes it so that colonization and invasion can only happen if you start your turn already in the sector. The exploit is removed entirely and instead is just an “invisible” resource collection phase that now happens at the start of your turn.

Coding wise this has some impact on us, but not much. In fact in the week since the test event we have already implemented this fix in Alpha 4.01.

A much bigger problem we noticed was the increased turn length we observed when playing the game digitally instead of as a physical card game. This surprised me a little since digital games take care of all our housekeeping. I noticed that the increased “down time” waiting to take your turn came from a few contributing factors:

  1. In a physical game you banter and talk while the other person plays and you can observe where they are looking and their general activity,
  2. Somehow drawing, remembering, playing and discarding cards seems to go faster when the game is physical than digital. This is partly UI related but it may still remain a factor for newer players or because of the need to fit a lot of information on a small iPad screen.

If the game is already slow as a 2-player game it will only get worse in a 3+ player game. Granted some UI work will improve this, like being able to camera-track enemy moves so you can see what they are doing where, but the scalability of sequential turns would still be a problem with larger games.

We had already considered many months ago the possibility of moving from sequential to simultaneous turns, but we decided at the time to delay this until later on as a potential “side path”, pending budget or a strong need from testing.

That time had now come, and for the future of the game’s potential as a multi-player game the priority definitely increased substantially to explore simultaneous actions now, rather than later.

Gladly we are still in a very early Alpha release, so there is no better time to switch from a sequential turn sequence to a simultaneous one. The new architecture will permit both players to plan moves and build things at the same time and then once they submit, the server will play back all moves and actions each player did in order. Areas with conflict will then generate battles, players with ships / planetary structures located in the same areas as each other will get the opportunity to fire shots at each other (or activate special abilities) and then once everyone has picked their targets a grand space opera of blasting ships will then camera-roll.

This means now that Alpha-4 will likely be split into two, with the first part of it dealing with the turn refactoring and the second part of it being the original intent of adding in our mid-game technology-research mechanics. Alpha-4A and 4B doesn’t quite ring so instead we will push the technology feature-set to Alpha5.

All in all our timeline still looks solid with this change to hit our end of June soft deadline of Alpha development. Chris has been interviewing a dozen or so Unity C# programmers, with an extra set of hands the workload should become even easier to manage.