Community Update #142
Hey everybody; it’s been a while since the last update (we stopped doing them since the launch of the game in Early access due to lack of time) and as per community feedback we’ll be resuming the updates from now on in a new format called community updates. Unlike the old weekly updates, they’ll be posted more irregularly. The idea is to more or less try to synchronize them with in-game updates / patches, so in terms of frequency you should expect to have one or two per month. We’ll also try to post a special community update every quarter that will be a summary of the work done in the past quarter, come back on the state of the project and contains revisions to the roadmap.
This first community update will be more similar to a quarterly update, and since we’ve had a lot more new players during the Early access launch that aren’t necessarily aware of the history of the project or the company, I’d like to start this update with a more general retrospective.
I-Novae Studios was established by Keith Newton (ex Epic Games developer) and myself (Flavien Brebion) in Q2 2010. Prior to that, I had been working for years in my spare time on a 3D engine able to render full-scale, seamless procedural planets and on an Elite-like space MMO called Infinity: the quest for Earth -often confused with Battlescape- but unfortunately, in an era where crowd-funding didn’t exist, it never went past the stage of being a hobby/community project. The company focused its early-2010’s efforts on improving our tech and looking for funding for the MMO, without success.
In 2013, after Kickstarter made crowd-funding popular for video games, we decided that it was time to resume work on a game project; to keep the budget within reach (we’d need millions of dollars for an MMO) we decided to launch a new space game in the Infinity universe: Infinity Battlescape, that would become our first funded project. In many ways, the idea was to take out the action part of the Infinity MMO and focus on it so that we could keep the scope more realistic for a small startup company like us (2 programmers and a handful of artists), and if successful, we’d gradually expand the scope. Around that time I left my regular full-time job to work exclusively for the years to come on Battlescape.
The next two years were mostly focused making the tech game-production ready (including various tools, like a material editor and assets cooker ) while we started pre-production for the game and the various Kickstarter assets.
In 2015 we focused the company’s effort on the Kickstarter itself - that meant recording the actual trailer video, ramping up on marketing, working out our reward tiers and the game’s design and pitch. In parallel, I started to work on a tech demo that we could use as a proof-of-concept. This work started in April 2015. The Kickstarter video itself was recorded two months later during a meetup trip to Finland (note that the company is all remote, so we all live in different areas of the world. I’m in Belgium, Keith is in the USA and the artists are in other countries).
The Kickstarter campaign was launched in October 2015 and ended as a success on the 20th of November, raising about $330K USD.
A space battle in orbit of Cinder (2017)
2016-2017: The Dark Ages
Until 2016, you could say work on the game was pre-production and had never been the focus of the company. This changed after we receiving funding from Kickstarter.
2016 and 2017 could retrospectively considered “slow” years. It quickly became clear that our original game design, which was purely PvP focused (it had no PvE elements) wasn’t going to work. We expanded the scope of the game to support both PvP and PvE playstyles, which meant introducing AI bots to the game to fill-in for players.
The entire game was rewritten from scratch, as it was originally all client-sided (note that this wasn’t an oversight - the KS demo was just a quick’n’dirty implemented proof-of-concept in a few months). It was also around that time that we spent a great amount of efforts into achieving epic space battles (both rendering wise, being able to see hundreds of ships - and network wise, to have so many moving entities consuming only a few dozen KB/s). In terms of gameplay, these two years can be considered the “dark ages” of the project, as there wasn’t much gameplay beyond flying around planets and killing other players. There was no big AI battles, no UI / menus and controls remained basic.
2018: Core gameplay loop
If 2016 and 2017 were building up the foundation of the game, one could say 2018 was a transition year mostly focused on establishing a solid core gameplay loop. By 2018, all ships - including capital ships - were playable, but didn’t have much going on. We did a lot of work on the weapons systems / automated turrets in 2018, new ship systems (scanning/detection, proximity mines, warp jam), introduced the AI battles, refined the ship’s physics and controls, the warping mechanism, the damage model, the (re)spawning system, and of course introduced factories and the haulers/resources/credits systems.
The game was slowly shaping up but was still limited, in terms of content, to roaming around (for scouting or destroying haulers) or participating to battles/destroying objectives.
2019: Early Access
As we entered beta in February 2019, our ships assets were still all untextured and the game didn’t have proper UI or in-game menus. The next few months were spent on texturing all the ships and preparing our promotional content for the Early access launch - which means that for the first time in years, we spent some time (about 2 months) reworking on the visuals.
We introduced new particle effects for weapons, explosions, replaced the old stock soundtrack by an original one, we did the same for many sound effects, and finally started production on the Steam trailer. In parallel we worked on the game to introduce its UI / menu system - including the tab menus (star map, ship selection, leaderboard and missions screen), a new respawn system, the options menu (previously everything was done on the launcher, requiring a restart), keybindings + HOTAS, but even more importantly, the root menus including Steam authentication and server browsing.
We also had to do a lot of hidden backend / infrastructure work, the registration screen, Steam backer rewards and ensuring scalability of the servers, with a lot of network/performance stress testing. All of this put immense pressure on us, as time was running out before the Early access launch date approached, so we had to drop the weekly updates around that time.
The game launched in Early access in end-september 2019. Sales went pretty well especially the first few weeks and started to fall off (which was expected due to our limited marketing budget) but we still raised enough to finish the game to 1.0 release (assuming it doesn’t take another 5 years of course) and even expand the scope in a few areas. There are a few things that caught us off-guard though:
HOTAS / Joysticks support was broken. We hadn’t tested them in depth prior to the launch, and a high number of people ended up having trouble with key detection and rebindings for their HOTAS and ended up refunding the game. Since then, we have addressed the problem and HOTAS / keybindings should now work. We are still missing input profiles for various HOTAS, so if you have functional ones please forward them to us so that we can include them into the game for other players, thank you !
The learning curve: we under-estimated how tough it is for new players to learn the game. As we had been working on it for a number of years we thought the learning curve would not be a major blocker for new players - they’d just take a bit of time to get used to, despite the lack of a tutorial or in-depth explanations - and so we didn’t consider this a big problem, which caught us off-guard.
The other major issue, the elephant in the room, which also explains why servers are on low pop, is player (lack of) retention features. Now I want to be perfectly clear that it wasn’t a surprise to us as we perfectly knew the game didn’t have enough content to keep players hooked for dozens of hours long - hence why we launched in Early access.
This is something we’re going to address in the long term as it’s a huge amount of work, through multiple ways, by adding new content (ship upgrades should make a huge difference already), more environments (planets, oceans, surface details), more missions / side activities to make the game feel less repetitive and of course, the persistent progression with unlockables (skins, tags, voice lines etc… ).
2020: Towards full release
After Early access we released a roadmap which contained our plans for the next few months/a year. While most of the items on the list remain valid, the priorities have been changed. The feedback we got from the launch made it clear that we needed to address major issues with the learning curve sooner than later. In our refund reasons, the lack of players on servers is obviously #1, but the “I don’t understand what is going on or how to find battles” is actually #2. Retention and lack of content is actually below in the list, because a lot of players currently give up on the game in the first hour and don’t even have a chance of
experiencing the more advanced content like capital ships gameplay.
Note that the learning curve encapsulates more than just learning the controls. The game currently has a defficiency in terms of feedback - events and things happening in game are not clearly explained; for instance, when one of your bases is under attack by an enemy, nobody on the team gets notified that this base is under attack. This tends to make the game feel chaotic and a lot of players mentioned how they felt like they were not really affecting the outcome of the match. We’re looking at addressing all of that in the next few months.
An untextured carrier roaming above the surface of Sarake (2018)
We have recently completed some huge updates to the game’s HUD and the new MFDs. Coming next, we’ll be implementing a new sensor overlay tactical screen that will replace the old radar zoom; this screen will be a blend of the old 3D radar and the starmap. The idea here is that once you hold the sensor key, the camera will switch to external mode, smoothly transition off from your ship to the whole battlefield (very quickly, like in a second) and overlay a tactical grid over the 3D view. We are also going to experiment some ideas to highlight the “hot spots” (clusters of ships) as well as various filters. This new sensor overlay screen will be the focus of the next patch, in a week or two.
Afterwards, our focus will shift on to the starmap. There are a lot of things that will be remade or improved. We want to better display the 3D view and grid, avoid the clutter, make it interactive (you’ll be able to click on the icons), and make information more condensed and more detailed in the targets list. Many “modes” will be available, to emphasize either the bases (which ones you can spawn at, which ones are under attack), the resources flow (haulers / routes, team icome), hotspots (where action/battles are currently happening) and even where your current mission is located. If you have more ideas about improvements or features that you’d like to see for the starmap, now would be the best time to send us your feedback !
While we aren’t going to do a full in-game tutorial just yet (that’ll be coming around the 1.0 release around the end of the year or next year), we’ll introduce a new serie of context-sensitive help screens, that will pop up for new players. They will contain more detailed explanations about the game’s rules, how the star map works, how to find a battle or a mission, what the ship classes do, etc… We’ll also improve our current tooltips system which pops up hints during the game. This should go a long way to make the game more newbie-friendly.
In terms of gameplay, while we still aren’t going to do ship upgrades or retention features just yet (we’ll probably start on them this summer), there are a number of important changes that we’re going to make in the coming months. In the short-term, we’re going to add a quick respawn button on the spawn screen that will allow players to jump back into action very quickly (especially in the case of attack battles where a carrier isn’t available), with one caveat: they’ll take place of one of the AI bots currently in the battle, preferably one that isn’t damaged and not currently engaged in combat. This should improve the game’s pacing, as it often feels like defenders have an unfair advantage when they can instantly respawn at their base, while the attackers have to spend minutes to fly back into battle. We’re also going to make it more clear where you can repair/resupply, as it’s been a source of frustration for a lot of players.
There are also a number of changes planned in terms of match and battles progression. Battles currently feel too repetitive and chaotic with seemingly unfair difficulty. We want to spend more time on the AI commander, reorganizing the AI fleets into squads of ships, following formations when possible and having mini-objectives within a battle. These objectives will also apply to players, that will get them rewards if they follow the mission’s objectives. Such objectives would range from “go and repair this damaged ship” (if you’re in a corvette for example), to escorting/protecting certain ships (ex.: a destroyer, protecting a cruiser from torpedoes) or to disabling some defense turrets or weakened points (interceptor), for example. If you have ideas on battle objectives that you’d like to see in the game, please let us know too.
Finally, we’re going to add better battle feedback, in the form of battle reports showing various statistics about how good or bad you did in a battle, how you ranked compared to other players, and once we have retention features later on, these will give you certain awards or unlock rewards.
A number of “smaller” features are also going to get added progressively, but we’re still uncertain about their timing; we’ll probably try to interleave them between major features. For instance, we’d like
to get the sub-targetting systems or squad management sooner than later. Once summer comes, we’ll go full steam ahead on content and retention features. We’re currently considering making the hauler playable, at least during a special cargo mission, but it’s not set in stone yet so we’ll probably work on that during summer.
-Flavien Brebion, I-Novae Studios