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A review of previous games and lessons to learn for the future

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This is a post not like my usual ones. Usually I fire from the hip, say things I myself think later “Why did I say that” or otherwise think were not fully thought out. But this is something important to me, so I am trying to address it with the care it deserves:

What are the lessons we have learned from past Arcen failures?

NOTE: There will be a tl;dr in a seperate post, so as to present lessons that would benefit AIW2.

That is a bold, brash statement. But I feel like a level of frankness is needed here. AIW 2 is upon us, but we must address the lessons of the past so we can improve the future.

Let us start with Starward Rogue. A bullet hell. Let us be honest about bullet hells:

1) Most of them are very small scale operations. Among steam I see them on average as among the lowest. I am not casting any judgment about quality or anything of the sort. They just are just small in sales.
2) Many are made by a handful of companies it would seem (I proclaim no detailed knowledge) and many seem to be of fairly consistent levels (not random) and it would seem that there are many sequels that go through evolutionary, not revolutionary, steps.
3) In general, the sense of advancement is that if you are good enough to make progress because you are good enough to “win” in beating the game, and then the goal is to refine that “win” through points or harder modes.

For me, this makes bullet hells among the most niche of the markets. If you are not already talented at them, it is difficult to persist playing them because it is hard to develop the skill from playing set. There is no goal of “Why should I play again” if you fail miserably the first time unless you absolutely love the game. This is a very common roadblock that has to be addressed and I have not seen addressed well. Examples that I have seen that do address it include:
1) New characters/ mechs/ etc that provide new options that the player can pursue
2) “Achievements” that present passive buffs to slightly ease the player in further gameplays
3) “Shortcuts” that provide opportunities mid game that were not present before
4) Features that otherwise enhance the player's ability to advance further into a game, which further provides enhancements to the player's odds of finally winning

Starward Rogue fails to provide any of these incentives. The result is that for most players after the first, second, or perhaps third play-through the player is feeling the lack of progression if they have not won the first time. Keep in mind most players do NOT like “FUN!”, and even if they do no one should assume they can match dwarf fortress in that regard. DF is the exception, not the rule, so don't follow that idea. Or to put it a different way failure discourages a player to play more usually.

Indeed, despite all the work on making every game feel different on a moment to moment level, on the grand scale of things it feels far to similar. Do X, then Y, rinse and repeat. If I am not skilled enough to actually beat the boss the third time since I already struggle on level 3, why should I keep playing? I have 10 other games calling for me. “I will play it later...” says the last time the casual plays SR.

In my opinion, SR lacks that overall arching theme of both “why” I am playing (a motive) and “why” I should play again (a sense of progression). If I do not have a reason why I should keep playing, I will not. And with that I have a lack of why I should ever tell someone about this game or buy any dlc or otherwise give a game legs.

So for me, a game without legs is wasting time putting a lot of efforts into making random rooms, etc, when in reality most players are not going to play enough to ever recognize those differences. Perhaps a more narrow focus on the amount of possible rooms and more of why the boss is important, or why the fight is happening, or mechanics to encourage further play. I know after you beat a game a story is repetitive, but is that really worst then someone who doesn't finish the game once because there is no story?


A dinosaur FPS. Sounds fun, right? Others have thought that as well. The market is glutted. So it needs to be unique.

What is it that seems to give a FPS legs? Multiplayer, right? Or a tight, focused story. At least for me that is what I observed. There are some that go the RPG route as well.

I do not see CER having any of these features. Of the above, what CER could have benefited from a story. Something to provide purpose, a “why” to keep playing. CER did not have to face the issue of encouraging the player to advance further, because the was no meaningful failure nor was there an end trying to be reached. It was a proof of concept.

When I think about all the reasons it was delayed, I kept hearing “This is causing work up front but allows content to be added later.” But all that work didn't address the reason to pursue that content in the first place.

I am a raptor. I can wreck robots. Great. But after 5 minutes I think to myself “Why?” What is my goal? I can't die. I don't have a narrative, a background, a foe. I can't find a tease or anything like that. Reading on the forum of the backstory and lore of how this all fits in the arcen universe helps, but from the game itself I could not derive any of it.

So where I am going with all this? How does this relate to AIW2?

I am bring all this up because AIW2 needs to incorporate the lessons from the first two games. Not all the lessons are directly applicable to AIW2, but they can still guide and provide prospective for future events.

On SR:

Starward Rogue put a lot of resources to make random levels every time which is unique for the genre. The motivation to continue and actually take advantage of all this random design however was very lacking. I do not know how meaningful this omission was accounted for, by the time I voice it it was already far too late in the design cycle to include. I will also question the budget for such a game, it seemed high given genre's niche audience.


Raptor devoted a large amount of resources making what almost seems a new 3d game engine. I am sure a programmer is screaming right now, so let me elcudate so you can correct me on my error in jargon ;) A lot of resources were used to make custom models, lighting, and procedurally designed rooms. These created an astounding look that I would never have expected from a game company the size of Arcen. However, I find a lack of motivation to actually take advantage of it. I wonder where the “game” actually starts. I can't die and I fight robots. What is the goal again? Why am I fighting robots. All this world building that makes a game memorable just wasn't there, let alone teased at. Taking a step back, a lot of resources were used to make a game engine for a game that ultimately would not get a large audience anyway. Too large of a budget.

“That's great and all, but this doesn't apply to AIW2! We have the motivation (kill AI). It has been well established!”


It is true as a virtue of a sequel AIW2 will have several luxuries. But I want to address the drawbacks first. AIW2 is going to certainly cannibalize most of AIW1 sales, and from what I have gathered AIW1 is the most stable workhouse of the arcen library to this day. So for that reason it is imperative it is not a money sink, because a failure this time will not only lose the sunk costs but hurt another game in the process. To put it another way, all the games up to this point have lead to “lessons learned” that would help make AIW2 better then ever. There really isn't the luxery of “lessons learned” this time around. Now is the time to put up.

The game market of 2016 is much more competitive then 2008. Even in 2008 player libraries were much smaller, so players were more likely to solder on through learning curves (both in difficulty and purpose) to enjoy a game. AIW2 has to reduce the initial learning curve dramatically and provide a crisp narrative from minute one so as the help the guide a new player and encourage them to continue playing. My first thought is gutting the tutorial and re-branding it as a “thematic” campaign, making it a whole game filled with journal entries that guide a player through at the very, very least mid game and preferably all the way through.

If I had no knowledge of Arcen and tried to play AIW 1 in 2016, I seriously doubt it would stick with me enough to continue playing. As it was in 2008 both Chris and Keith were heavily involved in the forums, and that provided that “motive” that the game itself did not always get.

AIW1 is a great game, but it is should be reminded it cannot coast on past success. Serious questioning of basic things need to be considered. Like which parts may add to the difficulty but not make it fun (At the 7.0 level). Which things are ok in a very niche situation but more then likely trips up the majority of players. These trips up can be !FUN! For the veteran, it can end the game experience for the first time player.

It is also important to recognize that AIW2 is only going to make so much income for its base game, and so it is important that the game development time follows through. The logic of “It is guaranteed success” is simply not true, or at least relative. For this reason not everything can be incorporated. The more content is added in a game like this the QA increases exponentially. It is imperative to not try to include everything, it is not only ok but a matter of necessity to leave some things for later. The goal is for a new player to finish a game so some of the most difficult things can be held off for a time.  Adding an extra few months to make the base skeleton “just so” and to add lots of extra content should be avoided, that way there is less pressure to have a huge number of players at the start.

So AIW2 will have that luxury of having the benefit of an audience and a motive, but it very important to increase both as much as possible so as to avoid the fate of previous games. I challenge everyone to try to think of unique ways to improve both of these aspects.

Whew, lots of text; you warned me about this via PM.  I'm reading the whole thing, but I'm going to respond in briefer segments without doing quotes because that would take forever.

1. Market for bullet hells: absolutely, that is smallish.  However, the main draw of this was meant to be action-roguelike.  I don't think that this game has failed because of the bullet hell nature.  Rather, people seem to have felt it was not different ENOUGH from other Isaac-likes, from what I can tell.  I have seen very little "ew bullet hell" reactions, and lots of "hey that doesn't look original enough" reactions.  And mostly lots of people who just skipped it all together because of the latter.

2. Meta-progression in Starward: this is something we had planned on, and wanted to do more of, but the competition was Isaac.  We needed enough variety in the base game pre-unlocks, and if we had a bunch of unlocks that would not have been the case.  Either way, the problem here has not been reception or adoption -- aka, the problem hasn't been the game itself.  The problem has been getting people to the game page, and getting them to actually try it at all.  The game is on track for an Overwhelmingly Positive review score if it keeps getting reviews at this ratio.  It's just collecting them slowly.

3. Locked content is something that we did in Skyward Collapse, and there was a big backlash to that.  I remember way back with Midnight Club II, the Penny Arcade guys were complaining about lack of time and "I want all the features now, that I paid for."  In order to avoid that feeling the base content has to be compelling and huge.  Isaac nails it.  But it has 500+ items.

4. CER: I can't argue with any of that, and it aligns mostly with my own analysis of it.

5. CER: In terms of the "custom 3D engine," one thing to note is that pays dividends forward.  The various things that are in there in that regard are a HUGE asset that we now have moving forward into any other remotely-first-person 3D game from now on.  So none of that was wasted.  We had a similar upfront cost in time and whatnot in Valley 1 that continued to pay dividends even though Stars Beyond Reach.  Heck, some of that even echoes into AI War 2.  Actually, some of what was done in CER is already paying some dividends into AI War 2.

6. Cannibalization of AI War 1 sales: absolutely, and this is why I've not done a sequel to this before.  Cannibalizing our top seller is not my first choice of things to do, so it's been 7 years.

7. Agreed on both the need for narrative and a better learning curve.  It's funny that you mention narrative, because that's something I plan to focus on a lot that I think that many players here will not care about.  However, the overall goal is immersion, not a wresting of control.  The sense of emergent narrative that happens in TLF is something that I want to happen here, too, except cranked up further.  We're on the same page.

8. I completely agree on your points with the serious questioning of basic things.  There are some dramatic things I'm going to be suggesting in the next couple of days, which I think will be easier for new players to pick up, and actually easier for existing players to manage so that they can Get On With It.  But this is not at the expense of depth.  There are some things in AIW 1 right now that are like using the back of a hammer as a screwdriver, in my opinion.  I'd rather stop the ability to even do that, and just give you a better hammer and some screwdrivers. ;)

9. Very much agreed on not including everything and the kitchen sink in the base game.  We're going to be aiming for at least $200k in funding I think -- not positive, but I think -- and if we can't hit that, then we probably can't do the game.  We need to have the time upfront to do this and do it right, without having to worry about further sales of the game.  Otherwise it's doomed.  This is also why I'm working on an extremely strict and detailed design document this time around.

10. Boy you had me worried for a super harsh post with your PM, but I find myself mostly nodding along there.  I can't really find much to disagree with, except possibly some of the market positioning of Starward Rogue.  I think it failed because of a glut of Roguelikes, not a rejection of SHMUPs.  But that's moot for the main discussion here, either way.  And we can never truly know on that.

11. In general, glad to see that we're on the same page, and that someone else other than myself and Watashiwa are thinking about story being a meaningful thing.  I remember that RCIX eventually bounced off of AIW1 just because he could never find the motivation to really do anything in particular.  Long-term goals were there, and in the start of the game short-term goals were there, but then the short term goals dry up and there are no middle term goals unless you already know how to play fairly well.  That struck me as a problem, and I had no idea how to fix it back in the day.  Somewhere between SBR and TLF I think I found a middle-ground where some slight sprinkling of flavor from them can bring a much-needed element here with minimal cost to Arcen (and approaching-zero cost in terms of the core implementation "critical path" for the game itself, which is a double bonus).

All good, and thanks for writing. :)

I am glad to hear you understand where I am going from with all this. I admit writing all this is a lot less fun then coming up with new doomsday scenarios for a player.

But I feel the need to remind everyone that 90% of us forumities would be considered veterans, and the goal is to bring in new blood, and that means reacting to what new blood wants. That does NOT mean lowering depth, but rather broadening the base. It is also to remember that new blood brings in funds to allow expansions: We all have our own pet game we wish had more focusing on new blood we get the new expansions.

This also draws upon something I had meant to bring up in the OP, the need to focus. Any time a game loses its focus it is a failure. Look at AIW1 defender mode. An ultimate dead end. Look at the fragmentation of AVWW 1 + 2. Neither took off. Look at TLF, broadening one game into three fragmented it so none could be pursued further. All of have different details, but all shared the same outcome.

It is imperative that a game at its most vulnerable (the start) focuses the hardest. It is not the most fun if you have played it many times I admit. But by refining that first game feeling for a new player, you ultimate create a cadre that can carry expansions. Those expansions also need to stay somewhat refined, but the first game needs it the msot.

Captain Jack:
Hang on, while I agree with the broad strokes of what you're saying (and yay narrative!), but I disagree that Last Federation is an unfocused game. AI War Defender mode is, kinda, but I feel that each TLF mode is distinct. Maybe needs more events...


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