The Road to Alpha

Dust Fleet’s whole gameplay loop is effectively in place now, and as I’ve been living with it for a few weeks I’ve started to think about where the gaps are, and what’s needed to take the game from “playable” to “compelling”.

And that got me thinking about the basics of gameplay. Sometimes after a long time on a project, it’s good to step back and return to first principles. So here they are. A good long-form strategy game should include:

  • Decision-making: Give the player decisions to make
  • Outcomes: Let the player feel like their decisions have consequences
  • Flexibility: Make it easy for players to try different strategies
  • Situational awareness: Ensure players can easily see and understand what’s going on

Does Dust Fleet do these? Yes.

Could Dust Fleet do them better? YES.

So, in the run-up to the alpha test, I want to get a set of features and refinements in place, so I can collect feedback on them and fine-tune them. The game has a very solid structure, and I’m excited to take the opportunity to go deeper on each mechanic to really expand the gameplay. Sometimes that will mean building up an existing feature, and in a couple of cases it will mean stripping a feature back to it’s barest intent.

Here’s what I’m working on for the alpha test.

Tech tree – I’m taking tech unlocks out of missions and letting the player choose when to unlock items in a tech tree. This gives the player the ability to set their own goals about what they want to unlock next. More decisions, more control.

Simpler ship customisation – currently players can customise every ship’s turret and module loadout. Sounds great on paper, but in reality, with the player having potentially hundreds of ships, it’s not much fun to manage. Instead, I’m going to create variants of existing ships with different configurations the player can unlock – for example, a standard Knight for attacking ships and anti-missile Knight equipped with an anti-missile beam. I’m still planning on keeping module customisation for now, I’ve got an idea on how to streamline the UI to make this much quicker.

This is way too complicated. Expect to see a simplified version soon!

Better situational awareness – it’s not always easy to spot ships during a battle, so I’m going to add a simple overlay to make allied and enemy ships. In addition, notifications for new ships being constructed and arriving, together with clickable “go to” buttons will give the player an easier way to jump between events as they occur.

More factors to balance – currently, the game has one resource type and it’s used to build ships. I’m going to add two more. One is crew, required in varying amounts for all starships. The other is research points, to progress in the tech tree.

Maintenance costs – another way to give the player more to think about, maintenance costs will be charged per-turn, for each large starship and station in the player’s fleet. That might not sound like fun, but this isn’t there to curtail your fleet sizes. Instead, players will be able to add refineries to stations to generate more income. But they’ll have to choose between that, research labs (for the tech tree) and crew training facilities (for ship crews).

Simplified starmap UI – the starmap is very flexible. In fact, it’s too flexible, and presents too many similar options to the user. Not only can you “drill down” to management screens, you can also “drill sideways” between them, which is unnecessarily complex. In addition, shortcut buttons are present in places that add clutter and actually reduce convenience. The end result is more friction for the player, so I’ll be undertaking a streamlining to make everything easier to use. On top of that, I’m going to increase the amount of useful information on show here. For example, each station will clearly show what it’s costing, and what it’s contributing. In addition, a fleet-wide list of costs and income will be available to the player so they can clearly see when their fleet may be starved of a resource type.

It’s flexible but cluttered, and doesn’t provide enough information to the player.

It may seem like a lot, but it’s not really. With so much of the game written, these are mostly tweaks and extensions to existing systems. I’m very happy to be at a point where I can make these kinds of assessments and changes without major work. It’s a very exciting stage!

Keep an eye on the blog for more progress updates.

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