What is the future of Early Access?

Published on Friday, February 27, 2015 By Frogboy In PC Gaming

Little known fact: The first commercial game to be sold while it was in beta was called…Galactic Civilizations for OS/2 in 1993.

Since then, every single Stardock game has been made available for sale, as a beta to customers.   I found a link from 1995 for people to pre-order Avarice for OS/2.

Suffice to say, I think I can definitively say that Stardock was the first company in the industry to make use of “early access” for its games. 

 

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Galactic Civilizations for OS/2 early beta (1993)

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Avarice for OS/2 (1995) was available as a beta.

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Stardock’s Trials of Battle for OS/2 (1996) was available for sale while still a beta

 

Why Early Access?

The why is the key. 

The reason Stardock has always supported early access is because I needed your feedback. I want your ideas. I want your opinions. I don’t want to ship a 1.0 game. I want to ship the 1.1 game and skip the iffy 1.0 version if I can.  Galactic Civilizations got its starbases from early access users. Sins of a Solar Empire got unlimited resources (the asteroids never run out of resources – originally they did) because of early access.  And let’s be candid, if Stardock had done a better job listening to its early access players we would have pushed War of Magic to the following Winter to give it more time.

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Ah, Elemental: War of Magic. There is not enough therapy in the world to get over you.

The problem with early access is when developers try to use it to fund their game.  This is a gigantic mistake.  Early access games do not sell well. This is doubly true of games that aren’t part of a franchise.  You cannot reasonably expect to fund your game from early access.

Why charge so much?

One thing we do that results in lots of criticism is that we don’t give much of a discount (if any) for early access.  We do this to discourage sales. Remember, we aren’t funding our games in early access. We are looking for feedback from people who are genuinely interested in the game and are looking to help shape the game.  The worst thing that could happen is to get casual buyers in the beta process.

How many games are too many?

We have a lot of games in development right now.  The below chart isn’t even the full list.   This next week we’ll be unveiling Servo. It’s arguably ready for early access right now. We’re playing it. But the thing is, we have three games in early access (OTC, GalCiv III and Sorcerer King). We need at least one of those games to ship before we ask our community to get involved. 

Offworld Trading Company went through a similar experience.  We’ve been playing OTC for a year – and it shows. But we didn’t want OTC to be in early access until Sorcerer King and GalCiv III were nearing completion so that our community understood that we’re not just putting half-finished games out there. It was important to us that our customers trusted us that we would see these things through.

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Not a complete list of what we have in development

Temptation is tough

Servo is very hard to resist putting out at early access.  Once you play it…well, you’ll understand.  Very fun.  But if you think that’s going to be tough, wait till you see what we announce next week. It’s a game that we’ve been working on for years and when you see it in action (not mockups but actual gameplay) there will be outcry that it’s not in early access because it’ll be obvious how far along it is.  And the answer is: We won’t put it into early access until after GalCiv III and Sorcerer King are both released.

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Who Wins

When done right, the customer wins. If anyone reading this has Offworld Trading Company has a moment, please comment to let others know the validity of this statement: By holding back games to make sure we don’t have too many in EA we end up with games that go into EA that are very polished and very mature and yet still ready to take lots of feedback from players.

In other words: The traffic jam of Stardock games in development is allowing our partners and our teams extra time to polish and enhance the games which results in a better experience. 

This is why I think developers need to exercise a restraint with regards to early access.  It is better to wait until the game is far along before putting it out for early access but still early enough that meaningful changes can be made based on player feedback. 

GalCiv III Trailer music

Published on Friday, February 27, 2015 By Frogboy In GalCiv III Founders

If you check the Founder's Vault, you should see a new entry. Some users requested that the trailer music theme be made available as its own track.

Surviving this brave new early access world

Published on Friday, February 27, 2015 By Frogboy In Galactic Civilizations III

I saw Galactic Civilizations III on Steam on discount even though it's still in early access.  We have really entered new territory as an industry.

When Valve asks if you want your game featured you answer that question the same way you would answer someone who asks you if you're a god. The answer is always YES.

I could spend many articles praising Steam.  It has been a tremendous good for both gamers and game developers.  But game studios and publishers are also going to have to catch up to the concept that once your game is available, it's available and they have a responsibility to make sure their customers never felt like they were "chumps" for getting in early.

One of the things Stardock is going to be doing over the coming weeks and months is emailing our Founders on our various games and making sure there are additional perks available to them as a thank you and show of appreciation for supporting us.  These perks might include coupons. They might include special access to content that we haven't shown anyone else.  They might include sneak peeks.  But the main point is that we will find ways to make sure we demonstrate our appreciation of our customers in new and creative ways that sends home the message that we care about them and that buying a Stardock game is more than just a transaction, you're part of our team. 

 

Stardock: Avatar for Sarkeesian gaming…

Published on Thursday, February 26, 2015 By Frogboy In PC Gaming

Interesting article on Kotaku today in which activist Anita Sarkeesian expresses what she’s looking for from game developers.

Ultimately, she is looking for games to keep 8 guidelines in mind when making games:

1. Avoid the Smurfette principle (don't have just one female character in an ensemble cast, let alone one whose personality is more or less "girl" or "woman.")
2. "Lingerie is not armor" (Dress female characters as something other than sex objects.)
3. Have female characters of various body types
4. Don't over-emphasize female characters' rear ends, not any more than you would the average male character's.
5. Include more female characters of color.
6. Animate female characters to move the way normal women, soldiers or athletes would move.
7. Record female character voiceover so that pain sounds painful, not orgasmic
8. Include female enemies, but don't sexualize those enemies

So how does Stardock do?

Let’s take a look at Stardock last released game, the popular, critically acclaimed PC strategy game Fallen Enchantress:

1. Avoid the Smurfette principle (don't have just one female character in an ensemble cast, let alone one whose personality is more or less "girl" or "woman.")

Our last game, Fallen Enchantress has female leads and allows players to design female units in total equality with males with equal resource allocation (i.e. we spent an equal amount in the form of hundreds of thousands in art costs) on separate clothing, armor.

Stardock spent hundreds of thousands of dollars creating unique character models and assets to ensure that both males and female units could be created by players.

 

2. "Lingerie is not armor" (Dress female characters as something other than sex objects.)

Same. Fallen Enchantress female armor was functional, practical. As you can see in the above screenshot, the armor is not only not “lingerie” but it lacks breast definition because real female armor wouldn’t have that.

 

3. Have female characters of various body types

We include multiple models for male and females in the game. As any game developer can tell you, this was a non-trivial cost, especially to a small studio because it meant we had to create different types of armor (our armor is not a texture being applied).

 

4. Don't over-emphasize female characters' rear ends, not any more than you would the average male character's.

We modeled our units proportions based on real world measurements.

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In Fallen Enchantress, players can design their own units, leaders, etc. Multiple body sizes included.

 

5. Include more female characters of color.

Done.

Literally any color you’d like. Even blue.

6.Animate female characters to move the way normal women, soldiers or athletes would move.

Done.

7. Record female character voiceover so that pain sounds painful, not orgasmic

Done.

8. Include female enemies, but don't sexualize those enemies

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The Villain, Ceresa was female

and

according to statistics the most popular HERO of Fallen Enchantress was…

 

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Procipinee. Queen of the West, heir of Amarian. The world’s most powerful channeler of magic.

 

But wait…that’s not all…

>50% of the source code in Fallen Enchantress was written by women (plural) and much of the art in the game was created by women.

I look forward to Ms. Sarkeesian holding Stardock up as the model of what game studios should be doing.  In fact, her and her allies are welcome to find any modern game or studio that has comparable representation of women both in terms of in-game characters as well as development.

I won’t hold my breath.

Windows 10 Start menu 9926 review

Published on Wednesday, February 25, 2015 By Frogboy In Personal Computing

Disclaimer:

I work for Stardock which makes Start10.  That means I have a vested interest in the quality of the Windows 10 start menu.  The better the start menu is, the fewer copies of Start10 we sell. On the other hand, the worse their start menu is, the fewer copies of everything else we make will sell.  So overall, I would prefer that Microsoft make Windows as good as they can.

At least it’s there

Windows 8 didn’t have a start menu at all. It had a start screen. As a result, Stardock’s Start8 got tens of millions of downloads.  This time, they have brought the start menu back…sort of.

The Good

I like Cortana as a concept. It’s a good idea.  The implementation needs work but I look forward to one day being able to say “Computer, order my wife a dozen roses for tomorrow, put on the note, ‘I’m sorry about the chicken..incident.’”

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Cortana is a great idea even if I have trouble spelling her name.

I also really like the expand start menu option.  If you select it, you get a quasi-start screen.  This is a great UX and one I wish had been in Windows 8.

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There’s an expand button in the top right that lets you expand the start menu.

I also really like the Recently added item.  This was a brilliant addition in my opinion.  You install something, it shows up right in the Start menu.

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The “Recently Added” option is great!

I also like the general design of Windows 10 better than Windows 8 or Windows 7 in the sense that Microsoft is making a better distinction between consumer users and power users.  For example:

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The Start menu right click menu is helpful in getting you to core management features. First introduced in Windows 8.1.

Take a close look at what they display here.  If you’re a power user or someone with just a lot of experience, you know every one of these.  There’s no need for these to be jammed into the Start menu as some pretty icon. These are the low level controls of the machine.  Note that even the CLI is there.

The Bad

So there are definitely some good things in the new Windows 10 start menu. Even things that Windows 7 users could appreciate.  But if this start menu were to go out as the final, there will be many millions of new Start10 customers.  Here’s where things go bad.

Ditching the document centric purpose of a desktop

First, the search bar has zero usability.  Let me walk you through just how terrible it currently is:

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I have a document called “My Budget” . The point of a desktop PC is to manage my stuff. A lot of stuff. Otherwise, I’d just a tablet. 

So I type in “My budget”.  Now what.  Now nothing. There is no context menu.  Let me be clear: THERE IS NOW RIGHT CLICK MENU.  That means I can’t even pin that item to my start menu or open its file location or choose to open it with a different file.  I work with XML files all the time and what program I use to open it with changes.

I’m going to assume that Microsoft will fix this before release.  But I point out this issue because I’ve seen people who are supposed to be technical, poo-poo Start10 even thought Start10 beta lets you type in this sort of thing and right-click to get that file type’s context menu, pin it to the Start menu, etc.  

 

No jump lists

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I use a desktop to do work. Not having jump lists is a problem.

Jump Lists are a big deal because they allow users to go directly to the most frequently used documents of a particular app right from the Start menu.  So if I’m using Word, that contract I was working on is visible right away, for Visual Studio, the 2 projects I’m coding on are readily accessible.  That’s simply gone here. 

The left hand and right hand don’t know what they’re doing

The left side and the right side have nothing to do with one another. You can’t drag and drop things to the right or the left.

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The left side and right side might as well be separate programs

This is actually two problems in one.  First, I would expect to type into the search bar (which I’d prefer to be in the Start menu itself but I digress) and when it brought up the document or program I’d expect to be able to pin it to either the Start menu or “add to places”.   Second, I would expect to easily drag and drop things from Places to the tile list based on what I am working on a lot that week. 

Speaking of Places…

First off, you have no say in what shows up in places.  I bet a lot of users assumed that places were the same as the pinned items in Windows 7. They’re not.  They’re currently hard coded.

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A minor semantics quibble

Right now, you can’t add or remove things to “Places”.  I would prefer to see it named “Favorites”. A user could then pick and choose what shows up in Favorites.    Not to mention, File Explorer and Documents are essentially the same thing. One just opens Explorer to a particular location.

All Apps

The All apps option is one of the most frustrating things about the new Start menu.

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Luckily users rarely have anything that starts with an Mi.. on their system…

First, there’s no way to organize this.  You can’t simply create a “Stuff” folder and place all the things you rarely use in it so that when you do need to view apps that you don’t have on your start menu, there’s some semblance of organization. In fact, there’s no ability to organize it at all.

For example, let’s say you’re one of the millions of people who don’t know about the right-click on the Start menu trick.  For a long time you’ve been trained that if you want to remove something on your computer you go to add remove programs.  On this Start menu, too bad. The search won’t find it and it’s not in the “all programs” list.

The Elephant in the room

Live tiles on the desktop are a bad idea.  Nobody knows this concept better than I do.  Stardock, makers of ObjectDock, DesktopX, ObjectBar, Tiles, ControlCenter, Desktop Gadgets, etc. know something about this concept having been doing it for going on 15 years.  Weather temperature, stock prices, calendar info, news headlines and email notifications are what you’re going to get.  It’s what you always get.

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Can someone really make the case that this is a good UX for a mouse using desktop user?

For 95% of the Windows 10 installed base, live tiles are, in effect, poorly made, gigantic icons.  If we thought that a wall of ugly icons was a good idea for UI, we would have had them years ago.  The only purpose for tiles is to make touch computing easier.  Of course, I would also point out that 2 color tiles are a bad UX as well.  Humans are great at recognizing patterns. The more distinction you can make from one tile to the next the better.  Instead, they all look roughly the same.

Bottom line

While the Windows 10 start menu is an improvement over Windows 8, it is still a substantial step back from what has previously been available.  I think it would be very hard, if not impossible, for someone to make the case that the Windows 10 start menu is better. From a sheer usability perspective, it objectively has less functionality while using substantially more resources and screen space.

Windows 10 is still a work in progress. Hopefully the problems in this article will get addressed before release.  For those who make that charge, I will remind them that when Start8 came out, people made that same argument – Windows 8 was still in beta and they would “surely” add the start menu back before release.  They didn’t.

Windows 10 is good. Start10 makes it great!

Published on Tuesday, February 24, 2015 By Frogboy In Personal Computing

I have seen the future and it is good.  I like Windows 10. A lot.

I’m not loving their Start menu and while there is hope it will improve, it is good to know that Start10 is available.

Here is the current Windows 10 build with their Start menu:

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I have a lot of problems with this.  First off, most desktop users are using the start menu to get to their stuff.  Stuff is more than just apps.  The Windows 10 menu is a “Modern” app which means no context menus. No jump lists.  It also tries to jam in the old Start screen’s tiles.  The tiles are fine for a touch mobile device.  But in a menu? They serve no purpose other than for clutter. YMMV.

Here is my Windows 10 desktop with Stardock Start10 beta 1 installed:

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Starting from left to right:

What I choose to pin onto my start menu is my business. I don’t need Microsoft or anyone else to tell me that this should be reserved for “places” (whatever that means).  I’d prefer MS to set it to “Pinned” and let users pin and unpin whatever they’d like there.  I am hoping that is their goal.  Right now, it’s not very configurable.

Going down, you will notice the arrows next to the apps. That’s the jump lists. I have no idea why Microsoft would remove such a useful feature. 

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Jump lists are one of the best Microsoft innovations in UI.  They’re MIA in the current Windows 10 start menu. Maybe they’ll bring them back. I hope so.  But if they don’t, there’s Start10.

A picture is worth…

Just look at the two screenshots.  Honestly, which one would you prefer to use on your desktop? That’s really the ultimate answer.

You can get Start10 right now via Object Desktop. It’ll be available stand-alone this Spring for $4.99.

Website: http://www.stardock.com/products/start10

Sorcerer King: Arena

Published on Monday, February 23, 2015 By Frogboy In Sorcerer King

I am thinking of creating an Arena mode for the game where players could start and finish a game in 30 minutes.   I know some people, in fact, most people here are more into the really big maps (and we have those and they're getting more and more sophisticated -- wait till you see the big maps in beta 5) but I want to really sharped the game mechanics such that we can set up a game that has a lot of replayability and quickness.

This is an outgrowth of the conversation we're having on what the advanced setup options for the player should be.

Here are a bunch of advanced options that I've thought of and I'd like to see what others you guys have in mind (there's another thread that touche son this)

  1. Doomsday mana from destroyed yards (set how much the doomsday counter goes up when a shard is destroyed)
  2. Magic (the current slider) will determine how many shards there are in the world
  3. Doomsday from heroes dying
  4. Doomsday from passage of time (every 10 turns the doomsday counter currently goes up by 10 right now, this could be settable by the player)
  5. Lieutenants (yes or no, if no, CRAFT the key)
  6. World Health (how many fertile tiles are in the world)
  7. Dire Shops (shops run by SK cronies where you can spend doomsday points to get certain, special equipment)
Those settings would be selectable by players to customize a typical game.
 
But for the ARENA, I would hard code specific settings (so the map wouldn't be configurable) and scores would get submitted to a global Arena leaderboard.  The matches would be designed to last less than 30 minutes.

 

All hail the Frogs

Published on Monday, February 23, 2015 By Frogboy In Journals - GalCiv III

One of the things we were excited to add to GalCiv III was more detailed race customization.  This time around, we’ve made it a lot easier for people to create their own truly unique civilizations.

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You can set your leader to be different from your species

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Right now, you’re doing the eating but later, they’ll be eating you.

Of course, when making a GalCiv race you get to play AS that race and then later play against it if you so choose. So when designing them, you also can set up their AI personality.  It is in this way that players can

potentially have games with hundreds of players.

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Why can’t they just be happy for me?

Unleashed into an unsuspecting galaxy

 

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With your custom races, they can look at good or hideous as you’d like.  I suspect there will be a nice cottage industry of modders making cool looking races.

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Not sure if the public beta has this yet but the AI is starting to interact more with the player.

 

 

More to come!

First World Activists

Published on Sunday, February 22, 2015 By Frogboy In Politics

The Social Justice Warrior took a sip of coffee harvested by slave labor in South America. The hint of chocolate, brought to him thanks to the work of child labor in Africa filled the plastic cup that was made possible thanks to imported petroleum from a repressive regime. He gazed sternly at the screen on his MacBook whose parts came from forced labor in China. Something was wrong. His brow furrowed. Something was very wrong.

“I cannot buy this [game/movie/toy/rubber duck],” he whispered to himself. “The owner of the company that publishes it has…incorrect opinions.”

Quickly, he logged on to Twitter via an ISP that was working tirelessly to ensure that it could control what content could and couldn’t come across its networks. Heroically, he tweeted his principled position. This would be the hill he would plant his flag on and, if need be, die on (figuratively…naturally.).

Sorcerer King feedback responses from Dev

Published on Sunday, February 22, 2015 By Frogboy In Sorcerer King

Re feedback:

1. Doomsday clock speed. I was thinking of hooking the Magic slider at the game setup to this. You would get less magic from the shards but the SK would get a less doomsday for breaking one. This would allow the player to have a great deal more say over the pacing of doomsday.

2. Empire building. This is a really good discussion because really, that is the crux of the argument for the game: Is the game about your EMPIRE or about the Party of heroes you're putting together? I.e. where should the focus be.

I don't think there's a "right" answer here other than to say that one direction will satisfy more people than others. I also think that there is a lot of wiggle room where more can be added to one without diluting the focus of the other.

For instance, I have been adding more types of administrators to the game as time has gone on. These administrators could be further enhanced to allow for more differentiation in the city.

Similarly, I'd like to see more magical spells that affect cities put into the game. I don't think I'd want to get into the farmer/worker/elvis scenario but instead would prefer to see the player be able to spend magic to enhance their city based on what tiles they have. 

Nevertheless, I do feel like there is room for expansion on the cities themselves but I suspect that would have to wait until post release where we can see the game is going to go.

3. Expansions. We have 3 expansions for this game planned over the next 3 years or so. What goes into them will be up to you guys. I can tell you that Sorcerer King is the beginning of a series and not the end of one.

4. Early game setup. One of the things I'd be interested in hearing from you guys on are "advanced setup" options for hard core players. Since I write the code that woul dhandle this, I would be delighted to put in interesting things here. So based on your hours in the game, what sorts of things would you want (besides Doomsday adjustments which I plan to handle through the magic slider).

5. Re Crafting vs. Finding. There seems to be a slight preference that works like this:

I should be able to craft up to great things. But AMAZING things should only be findable and rare. Would this represent your view?

-brad

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