We are developing features too slowly and are constrained by our budget, yet we have an amazing community and the game is doing well so far. We need to launch Outscape on Steam Early Access to increase our feature development velocity and secure the future of the game we all want to play. We don’t want to be a ‘pay to win’ game, so a Steam launch is the only sensible option. More than ever, we need the community’s (i.e. your) help to increase our development velocity and also secure the future of Outscape. Please help us!
Herein lies some super important information regarding the future of Outscape. This is a longform blogpost so grab a coffee and make yourself comfortable 🙂
Where we came from
We started building what is now called Outscape more than 5 years ago in 2014. Initially it was a concept prototype built by the person who then became our investor and goes by the name of ‘Monibius’. Monibius spent his teen days playing turn based PC space games such as ‘VGA Planets‘ and ‘Stars!‘, other space games such as Imperium Galactica, sims such as the Wing Commander series and the various Lucas Arts games such as X-Wing. Many other games were highly influential such as the XCom series.
Playing against humans in the early play-by-mail / turn-based games with all the politics and intrigue made them both exciting and mysterious. Modern AI still does not give the same thrilling experience of playing against humans in 4X games. Because these original games played out over time, Monibius would become deeply invested, there were real consequences to losing. Yet that time between turns afforded the ability to think and plot even when away from a PC. At the same time, being turn-based e.g. there being 3 turns per week would cause an unnecessary abstraction from real-life and meant that you were forced to play at very specific times so as not to ‘miss a turn’ and lose your advantage. Due to software and computational constraints at the time, galaxies were very small with just a handful of players in each, which meant players didn’t get the awe of the scale of real outer space which also limited the experience.
Along came fast internet, cloud computing, ultra-scalable databases, PCs and games engines capable of ultra-realistic graphics and developers with the skills to do something with all that. Plus of course, all the other innovations we take for granted such as online marketplaces and easy online distribution. Monibius had the idea of taking a 4X space strategy game and making outer space genuinely huge (like space should be experienced), real-time (as opposed to turn-based) and player centric (as opposed to AI centric in most modern strategy games). In addition, aim to provide more realism compared to other strategy games by allowing the player to zoom from the usual strategic views all the way down to individual fleets and ships, and even allow players to physically design their ships.
Monibius did not have much money, yet he knew he needed to get help to properly architect and build out his prototype of Outscape. This part deserves it’s own story, but the short version is that Monibius searched high and low for someone that had the necessary skills (and was willing to work on a shoestring), created a series of tech challenges to evaluate and inspire a suitable engineer, and landed on ‘Loopzilla’ who is now our CTO and who was responsible for architecting much of the game. However, this also meant Monibius had to remortgage his house up to the maximum, to not only hire Loopzilla but also a few more people.
Monibius is UK based, Loopzilla is based in Ukraine and it was in Kiev where we ultimately got a small office and hired some more people. There is actually a reasonably large games industry in Kiev. Max was the 2nd developer to join in Kiev, Joe was hired in the UK by Monibius to take care of Community, non-core game services (such as the website, forum, wiki) and company admin. Monibius had to continue to work full-time elsewhere throughout this entire story to fund his now much larger mortgage and the company. Our Kiev office grew to a point where we were at 8 people, but our own financial constraints (which include all the cloud compute time, software licensing, etc) meant those numbers declined over time. However, most of those people were creating content such as art, 3d models, etc which were well incorporated into the game. However, the community was asking for more feature based content than asset based content (e.g. alliances, private chat, wormholes, etc). Both financial constraints and strategic direction meant we had to make a hard decision to downsize back to the original core team (Loopzilla, Max, Joe) and focus on what the community was asking for.
During this phase we also ran a small ‘Call to Arms’ campaign to see what player interest we might get and set up a community Trello board to discuss ideas for the game. Ultimately this is where the current set of Alpha and Beta players came from, these were the visionary players who could see the potential and often wanted to be part of guiding the development of the game. We are eternally grateful to all those in the community who steered us to what we have today (and where we are going) as well as persevering with our relatively slow development.
The downside of opening up Alpha at the very early stages was the amount of time we had to spend supporting players all the way from Alpha 1, partly due to bugs or UX issues, and partly because of the infinite combinations of hardware and software PCs come with, which meant that there were just really odd bugs on certain hardware/software configurations. Support to this day takes a huge chunk of our time. That said, it’s so much faster in the long run to fix bugs at the point they were introduced, and to get immediate feedback on new features, so ultimately the community played an immensely valuable role in helping to develop the game throughout.
Another focus was trying to bring down compute costs. Unlike other games, all your units are online carrying out your orders regardless of whether you personally are online. We managed to optimise to bring costs from over $100 per player per game per year down to $20 (today we are somewhere below this still but it’s hard to measure). This allowed us to invite in more players, none of whom were paying, to get wider feedback and further test scaling the game.
Throughout this time we considered ways to get funded. We considered crowdfunding, but we were not confident in our own timelines. We had a lot of technological scaling problems to solve and we didn’t think it would be right to take people’s money and not deliver a product in a timely manner. The act of accepting anyone’s hard earned cash at any point is kind of scary for us, even without cash we feel a deep sense of responsibility to the community who have helped us and stuck with us for so long. Looking back, not using crowdfunding was the right decision. We would have either ended up rushing something sub-standard out or watched the community degrade into an angry mob with pitchforks because things were taking too long (we wanted to build this game with the community so this would have broken everything).
In late 2018 we shifted our strategy from build-out as rapidly as possible, towards doing less to a higher degree of quality. The game was just getting too clunky and the UX was degrading with all the new features into something which was very hard for new players to get to grips with. We also went back and simplified areas which were problematic for many players e.g. merging and splitting fleets. And it paid off. Feedback from the most recently launched galaxy (Pre-Beta in August 2019) was much better than previous galaxies. In the images below you can also see that over an equal period of time the newer Pre-Beta galaxy saw an increased average session duration across an increased number of sessions.
The downside was that features the community had been patiently waiting for were further slowed down (remember we have two developers + Joe who look after all of you plus try to build out the game).
Where we are going
Whilst we are proud of what we have achieved, it has just taken way longer than hoped and our rate of progress is still slow due to the need to support players and maintain reasonable levels of quality (remember we have two developers in total). We have delivered a tiny fraction of the planned features, despite having a fully working game. A very quick brainstorm (and this is still a tiny fraction) of things we are excited about doing in the (hopefully) near future:
- Alliances – player roles, group chat, etc.
- Greatly relax expansion limitations – colony vassal system, space docks
- Quality of Life & Automation – remember history, multiple orders for fleets
- Better Battles (strategy, look, feel, depth)
- Wormholes (natural and player generated)
- Territorial Markers
- Seed Ships
- More interesting galaxy
- Ion Storms (galactic localised weather)
- Sectors – each with unique characteristics and traits
- Mysterious galactic things – players have to figure out what they are and what to do with them
- More Content – tech tree, civs, weapons
- More PVE, and not just pirates
- Player Profiles plus mini-achievements
- Private Games and the ability for players to customise them
- Ability to Draw on the Starmap and also share those drawings
- Even larger map – one universe to rule them all
We need to move faster
We’re proud of our careful incremental approach so far which has allowed us to get the technology right at the same time as working with the community to gather ideas and get feedback. For the community (and for our own motivation) we just don’t feel we are moving fast enough. At the same time our available budget is at its limit. We need to grow our team to:
- Deliver more community requested features and faster
- Work on the technology to lower cloud compute costs per player (which means that more of the scarce funding goes back into making the game better)
- Improve scalability to allow for large alliances and very large galaxies as well as many small galaxies for private games
A quick look at our options:
- Carry on as is: Our budget is at its limit and our current rate of progress remains as is (slow) – Doesn’t make sense, going nowhere and failing to deliver the game’s potential.
- Get an investor/publisher: We don’t think now would be the best time to consider this route.
- Get Crowdfunding: We could, but we’d rather just let people have the product in the normal way, given we do actually have something tangible and not just hyped-up vaporware which is what is on most crowd-funding pages. In many cases people just get disappointed by crowdfunding campaigns because people often imagine a different product to the one on offer. This is a really long topic, but essentially when we were building the original Outscape community, people would see screenshots and think this is the next Eve or the next Starcraft and then became frustrated when they found out you don’t pilot ships, or the game isn’t about the dexterity and speed of your mouse clicks. Despite all our best efforts to counter this and explain our game, over 50% of people just seemed to always see the product ‘they wanted’. You’ll probably notice that we rarely post 3D closeups of ships anymore in any blog post or social media posts – because we always get people thinking this is Eve no matter what we say. So for us we could have a successful crowdfunding campaign, but with dire consequences for the community as players would use that space to vent and complain that the game isn’t what they expected. This just doesn’t seem like a good path.
- Sell the Game: We wouldn’t want to make a statement that we are ‘done’ and selling could give that impression, we are only a small way to delivering what we and the community wants. However, we could sell on ‘Steam Early Access’ which makes clear the product isn’t finished – Seems the most reasonable option.
We actually think that we could be ahead of most Early Access games in terms of quality, but based on our own benchmark of how far we are through our own roadmap, we are most comfortable selling ourselves slightly short and hopefully exceeding player’s expectations. Also, none of us have any experience launching on Steam so at least this will give us some valuable experience, while reserving the full (non Early Access) Steam launch for a later date (once we have done much more of our roadmap).
The Outscape Early Access Offering
Outscape will likely retail at around $24.99 USD and we plan to launch on Tuesday October 22nd. We have little scope to go lower in price at this stage due to our cloud compute overhead for each player. At the same time, this will represent a significant discount on the final price, plus this allows new players to invest in the game’s development and join a community who are steering the direction of game features and the development roadmap. Players who purchase the Early Access version get:
- Up to three game slots:
- Slot 1 – Skirmish: Allows players to join a Skirmish galaxy. All new players have this slot available. New players will initially join a skirmish galaxy which has faster gameplay compared to ‘Full’ galaxies as they are more compact and players spawn closer together. This will allow new players to quickly get to grips with Outscape and see feedback more rapidly.
- Slot 2 – Full: This is the true premium Outscape experience. ‘Full’ Galaxies are much larger, although a little more spread out and the player has to be more strategic in the way they find and gather resources. This slot needs to be unlocked by achieving some very basic things in a Slot 1 (Skirmish) galaxy.
- Slot 3 – Veteran: Similar to a Full galaxy, however the limits on expansion in Veteran galaxies will be relaxed, allowing empires to expand further (both in numbers of planets and fleets) compared to normal rules. However, this slot will be much harder to unlock, players will need to gain a high score in a Slot 2 (Full) galaxy before unlocking Slot 3 to be able to enter an Veteran Galaxy. This ensures that players competing in this game are all highly experienced. Starting distances will likely be quite large due to players joining at different times. This galaxy will be ready to join once a suitable number of players have achieved the join criteria.
Please so consider buying Outscape on Steam Early Access (you can add it to your Steam wishlist now).
Offering to Current Players
It’s quite possible that you can’t or don’t want to pay for Outscape on early access but have been playtesting. The last thing we want to do is cut you off. At the same time, as discussed previously there is a cost per player we have to eat and as discussed we aren’t really in a position to be able to further increase our costs. So our commitment to you if you don’t buy Early Access is to allow you to keep what you have for as long as we can. Hence you will be able to continue to play in any current galaxy you are playing in and when that ends you will still be able to Join a Slot 2 (Full) galaxy. However Skirmish and Veteran galaxies will be unavailable to you unless you upgrade to Early Access.
How can I ensure Outscape thrives?
There are five ways in which you can help Outscape become the game we all want and to become that game faster than ever:
- Invest: Even if you don’t want to ‘buy’ the game as you see it today – please see the purchase of the game as an ‘investment’ – it enables us to build the game we all want to play. So please strongly consider ‘investing’ in the future Outscape by buying the early access version on Steam.
- Support the community: There will hopefully be a lot of new players. We want those players to be happy because they then leave positive reviews and tell their friends to buy Outscape. Getting through the first few hours can need a bit of hand holding and expectation setting (this is not supposed to be Starcraft or Eve). Helping them on chat, encouraging and helping them on the forums and also helping us maintain and update the wiki would all go a long way to making Outscape thrive.
- Spread the word: Stream on Twitch (tip: Activate streamer mode to not give away vital intel on your game when streaming), post screenshots, blog, reddit as much as possible. If everyone does one or two of these just once it would make a world of difference.
- Leave a positive review on Steam: This is how we get visibility. Steam’s algorithms go largely by review score so please if you purchase the game, leave us a great review. It’s very quick to do and has a huge impact.
- Encourage others to do the above: We have a strong community and doubtless only a tiny fraction will read this post, please please encourage others to do the above – and have them encourage their friends too. This is especially effective if you have an alliance already as you already have a place to communicate, share and track progress.
What happens after Early Access Launch
We’ll of course let you know when we have launched Outscape on Early Access. We’ll report back regularly on how well things are going. We will initially be busy supporting new players and resolving any new issues. At the same time when we see sales are trending ok, we’ll start the hiring process to bring in more people to deliver on our roadmap items and the new ideas the community will doubtless continue to come up with (the community steering the roadmap will remain on this forum). We have no idea if that will be on day one or month three as we have never launched anything on Steam before.
We always aim to be as transparent as possible with the community (but admittedly sometimes available time gets in the way). We hope that you have enjoyed some of the insights in this blog post. We humbly and kindly ask the community to support us through this major milestone to ensure we come out the other side on a steep upward trajectory to deliver on all those features and finish the game we all want to play.
Monibius, Loopzilla, Max & Joe