tl;dr: The community is super important in developing Outscape. We need to focus on usability for new players to make Outscape successful due to a ‘usability crisis’, but this must not be at the expense of strategic depth. Because we are working on usability plus some very large items (e.g. Alliances) where we can’t show incremental progress, it may make the community wonder where we are going. We understand this is a difficult phase for the community, but all will be solved (details within).
The past few weeks have been quite hectic for the Outscape team with a lot of intense development on new core gameplay features. Based on some of the recent community feedback, we thought we should make the current development priorities clear and clarify the important role the community is playing and can play during the current winter/spring seasons.
In early January we published the core of our roadmap detailing what we will be working on over the coming months. The truth is that important features such as alliances and social elements such as the ability to trade/give fleets and planets to other players, chat and player profiles/achievements had their development pushed back in 2017/2018, mainly because these are all classed as ‘Extra Large’ items in terms of engineering effort – meaning it’s hard to focus on much else whilst these items are in progress. In Early ’19 we decided to bite the bullet and begin working on these, knowing it will be hard to do the smaller more incremental things community members are used to.
What we perhaps didn’t do a great job of explaining was the ‘usability crisis’ we have been facing for new players. We noted briefly in the roadmap blog post:
The game is not newbie friendly… 60% of players drop off very quickly because of this, however those that persevere through the first few sessions tend to find a rewarding experience.
Let us illustrate this with a chart of # Daily Active Users when we started the Alpha 2 and Alpha 3 Galaxies:
There are a few things to bear in mind when looking at this chart, firstly, not everyone joined at once, in fact players join and become ‘active’ over the course of several weeks after each galaxy launch, so the declining numbers are constantly being propped up by new players in the first month.
The main observation is that despite all the extra features and gameplay we added ‘during the course of Alpha 2’ and the things we added at the ‘launch of Alpha 3’ we haven’t seen any improvement in the retention rate of players.
Why do players stop playing?
We ran a 2nd survey to find out what was going on and the issue is complex. Inevitably some players just didn’t want to play this sort of game and thought they were going to be playing something like ‘Eve’ or similar (we need to make sure the marketing materials better explain the game). However, according to the survey, most players found the game too hard and complex to play, they found the UI convoluted and not self explanatory. Some wanted a tutorial, others couldn’t figure out how to do basic things in order to be successful in the game.
Yet we also found that where players push through and persevere over the first 5+ gaming sessions and who join chat and ask questions on forums, those players manage to break through the initial difficulties and go on to find a long-term rewarding experience in Outscape. But these players are more the minority.
Why does this matter?
Outscape is a very expensive game to run – all players are effectively online all the time and each player has multiple units carrying out actions continually 24x7x365. This equates to high server and scaling costs, as well as support costs to maintain and ensure the game and servers are all running smoothly. With a drop-off rate like we currently have in a fully scaled paid game we’d get a ton of bad reviews from the players who decided to give up after 1-2 days, which would impact sales to a point where the game wouldn’t be commercially viable (we have to see this as 60% 1 or 2 star reviews). We also see Outscape as a platform where a ‘fully paid launch’ represents a mere early milestone along the way to making the game even greater. Yet making the game greater will also require funding from sales (above and beyond keeping the lights on, servers, support and maintenance). So it’s really important we keep this majority group of players happy, so we can achieve enough sales to invest a lot more into the game.
But this doesn’t tally with the feedback on the forums! This is because forums represent largely the 2nd group of players who pushed through the initial difficulties of playing the game and now know how to get things done in Outscape. Which means when we try to make changes to fleet management to allow players to merge/split fleets, players on the forums don’t see why we would want to even spend time on this (and yes we also made some bad decisions in trying to make things easier and we are grateful that the community called this out). Yet this area has been a huge problem for new players, indeed some new players commented on fleet joining/splitting as not even being ‘worthy of the alpha’ label because they found this so hard and cumbersome, and was even worse if you only have a trackpad.
The actual goal in overhauling fleet management was to simply allow players to easily merge/split fleets from context menus without having to get fleets positioned perfectly in space and get the camera at the perfect angle to perform a merge by dragging ships. This proved an especially hard task for us because we didn’t want to mess with existing player defined ship positioning, so we made further mechanical changes to allow such a merge to be consistently possible without edge-cases, and well you saw the result which we are now rolling back.
Other players not represented in the community
Another interesting callout is that we found a critical bug where 70% of new players (with no previous IDA Games login) joining Alpha 3 in the first week could not even load the game. We didn’t get a single comment on the forum or direct message about this bug. These players just clicked uninstall (they probably thought the game was a scam or something). Players at the early stages don’t want to spend any effort looking for or engaging with the existing community. We don’t have a way to give them a voice and hence their feedback is not represented in the community. We rely on running surveys and looking at data to figure out what is happening with this group. Note the players experiencing the critical bug were not counted on the graph above as a player only gets tracked there once they join a galaxy.
We need to make the game more accessible, we do not want to dumb the game down strategically, in fact we want the game to have more depth than it does today. We do have a careful balancing act on our hands, whereby we want new players to be able to play relatively easily and at least ‘get by’ by playing, at times, just once or twice per week (also part of the reason we have been adding automation). Our goal is to simplify the user experience without simplifying the game itself and to grow the strategic depth over time without overwhelming a new player.
To solve the player drop-off problem we are focusing on ‘High Value Actions’ (HVAs). These are actions where if the player achieves them (with relative ease) early on in the game, they are more likely to stick with the game and go on to find a rewarding experience. Here are some example HVAs we are tracking:
- Develop their homeworld (power, pop growth, mining, tax, happiness)
- Colonize a 2nd planet in their home system
- Research a technology and then use it
- Design then build a ship
- Gather resources from planet surfaces and deliver them back to their homeworld
- Mine an asteroid field and bring resources back
- Win a battle
- Form a fleet
- Explore a new system
- Meet another player
- Post to the forum
- Use the Wiki (and find it useful)
Doesn’t a tutorial solve this? Our experience shows that a tutorial will only be used by up to 1/3rd of players, and even if they read and follow it in detail, it usually isn’t enough on its own. The game needs to have an intrinsically simple surface UX experience and also naturally direct the player’s attention to where it is needed (at least in the early stages).
The combination of going away and focusing on some the the super large items such as Alliances which the community has asked for (but where we can’t really show incremental progress) and us working on all this ‘UX/HVA stuff’ which the ‘existing’ community doesn’t really need, has understandably made the community wonder if we even know where we are going when they look at our progress through the lens of recent patches. This would probably be more ok if the galaxy wasn’t such a sandbox and players could find more purpose in the game, but right now it is pretty sandboxy, which we will address after we have made reasonable progress on the items we have laid out thus far.
Looking beyond the roadmap we have published so far, we see the following broad phases (which will overlap with each other):
- Social features – (Alliances, Trading, Chat, Profiles & Achievements) and Quality of Life (automation). This is large ongoing work which will take time.
- New player simplification – (UX, Improved Tutorial and HVAs).
- Purpose – We’ll focus on developing our first ‘game type’ with victory conditions. We’ll also revisit growth limitations here and are confident it will be a big improvement on today.
- Content is King – We will intensely focus on: Balance, New Content, Civ specific advantages and abilities, Tech, More to explore and more stuff to discover, Hull specialisation and specific abilities, espionage, a 5th civ, and more…
At some point during the above phases we plan to launch paid Early Access. The goal would be to hire more people to develop the game with the paid early access proceeds and move much faster, all revenue will be reinvested back into the game during paid early access.
Role of the Community
The role the community plays in all of this is super important. There would be no game without this community we have today, Outscape would have been long abandoned! If we didn’t have this community we would have no way to test new features and hone them, there is no way for us to meaningfully recreate this long-running MMO experience ourselves. We’d also make a lot of mistakes which wouldn’t get fixed. For example if we were building the game in isolation we would have just ploughed forward with the recent fleet management changes (which seemed ok on a whiteboard before hindsight) and we would have layered multiple other things on top of that change, resulting in something which would likely be impossible to unwind. We also need the bug reports (its 10x easier & faster to fix a bug at the point it was introduced than to go back later and try to figure out what is happening) and we need your ideas (we were whiteboarding the ‘Seed Ship’ this week to see how hard it is and how soon we can do it).
We have three important community tenets which govern the way in which we work:
- Respect the Community.
- Value Community feedback.
- Build for the Community, not yourself, not another group of players you can’t identify.
This makes launching any update pretty terrifying (but also thrilling if we succeed and get good feedback). We are all held to account to these three tenets above all else. Our investor seemingly reads every community post and questions us too if he sees anything concerning.
Very occasionally we need to go against the immediate community consensus in order to achieve a goal. We now have a Trio (which includes Joe who represents the community in all our decision making) who have to unanimously agree to allow something to go live. This ensures the community has a voice in every feature and design decision. Sometimes we can’t resolve a difference and the Trio agrees that releasing something and getting feedback is the only way to resolve a difference in opinion, but most of the time Joe will vote down a decision which would go too far against the community before it’s even designed. Occasionally at other times we know that the community will disagree because they don’t see the problem we do, of course our challenge there is to try to explain it, but it is often so convoluted, complex and linked to data only we can see that it’s hard to justify the amount of time the explanation would take, given our very small team size.
Perhaps most importantly, we need the community for motivation. We couldn’t code for months on end without feedback. We have a channel in our internal chat where we paste in positive feedback or messages we receive from players just to remind ourselves why we are doing this. Without the community it would not be worth the long days and nights and relative isolation we often feel.
Resourcing & Funding
On a final note, we have been down to 2x Engineers (who are the original founders) for a long time. We tried to grow the team last year, but being a pre-revenue company we were not able to compete salary-wise and found that developers would leave for 3X salary despite being given share options in IDA Games. Don’t expect a slowdown or anything, this has pretty much always been the case (we had a blip for a couple of months where we had two more engineers last year, and in fact the training of those people slowed us down). These 2x engineers also support the servers, investigate and fix bugs, etc. We do have other roles, such as art, community management, UX and we do sometimes use contractors for various tasks.
We looked to get more funding, and found the investors and publishers were very keen, but only in some kind of coin-operated or pay-to-win model (seemingly the way most modern games are going). This totally goes against our principles and we won’t be going down that path. So it’s just the two engineers until we can start selling the game, then hopefully grow the team from there.
We hope this update makes things a little clearer, and we hope this post also serves as a resource which community members can link to during the discussions over the next few months. We are humbled by all your ongoing support and are looking forward to make Outscape the game we all want. See you in-game!
– The Outscape dev team