Pick a card! Any card!

As I leave the holiday season behind me I find myself thinking about some of the good fortune I’ve had in my life. My career is certainly one of the things for which I’m most thankful. There are few jobs in this world that will pay you play games.

But as any developer will tell you, testing games and playing games are very different things though. Having to repeat the exact same played action dozens of times looking for an edge case (a bug that occurs in rare circumstances) can get tedious after a while; particularly when there’s a really exciting game and you’re stuck standing at the gates.

For Star Pirates Infinity, and card games in general, we face unique challenges. Since cards remain in play and can have effects across the board and touching many cards, balance is a tricky thing to achieve. While a particular card may seem to have an effect that is reasonable based on the cost of the card, effects can be amplified by interactions with other card abilities.

Precise language is also critical. Anyone who has played games such as Pokemon, Magic TG or Hearthstone will tell you that the addition or removal of a bit of punctuation can totally change the meaning of a card. This presents another challenge that our goal is to have a multilingual game at release, but starting the translation while card review is ongoing will force us into some updates to the translated text as card details are refined.

The best part now is that most of the cards are in the game and playable, the deck manager is working, and both PvP and missions are working really well. It just makes me thankful that not only do I get to play games, I get to play games that I and my team – colleagues and friends – have designed and built together. Yeah, my job is pretty cool.

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Christian “Balthagor” Latour
Product Manager, SHG Studios

The Art of Drawing

Last week Star Pirates Infinity development was focused on additional polish to the UI and various bug fixes. Much of the required card art is done, so our art team can focus less on drawing cards, and more on the clean up of the UI.

It ended up being one of our most exciting weeks in quite some time. By the end of the week, our art team had really improved the visual quality of the game and we were playing simultaneous games on a bunch of devices. We knew we had the team engrossed once everyone started talking about card balances, but that will need a bigger testing pool to be properly evaluated. We strongly believe that detailed game balancing is best done with the community, post launch. We have set a baseline for balance, but we’ll need players to make all the wonderfully unexpected combinations for us to really understand the meta of the different card combinations within each faction.

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Badlands: Max Carnage meanwhile will be focusing on drawing of a different kind. We have launched a draw for a $50 Google Play gift card. Players earn one ballot per day they log in after their first day. Full contest details can be found here;

Badlands Max Carnage – Login Draw Rules

For the Starcrash games, work is continuing on Spy Battle to create the 3rd Ascension. We’re also running a contest for the creation of one of the art images needed for the story, an image to be done in ASCII art. The story called for such an image and we decided it would be a great opportunity to invite community participation. Hop on over the to the game if you’d like to get all the details. There are 6 months worth of Special Agent days up for grabs!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from everyone at SHG Studios!

The Varying Aspects of Game Design

It may come as little surprise, but it’s often the little things in game development that trip you up. The focus this week for Star Pirates Infinity is on QA of the code that’s been written the last few weeks. I was reminded of the importance of having a library of testing devices. An animation error was observed on one of our tablets, but testing the game on my phone, the bug magically went away. The cause was later determined to be specific to the aspect ratio of the device. There are so many different screen sizes on Android, we spend a lot of time retesting things that worked on one device to watch for unexpected results on other devices.

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Despite all this, we have a third faction in testing now. We have the majority of the art created, although some will be revisited to make it better based on the ever improving skills of our art team as they spend so many hours involved in art creation. We’ve also been testing the game’s multiplayer connectivity to assure a seamless play experience.

For Badlands – Max Carnage, it’s a case of another week, another update. This week saw the launch of a new season in PvP as well as some improvements to combat ability animations. Our goal is for ongoing PvP competitive seasons. The current thought is a default one week rewarded season followed by a one week unrewarded PvP. We may also switch up some of the game mechanics during certain seasons so we can analyze the impact on gameplay. We expect that it will take data from a number of seasons before we find the right balance to make competitive play fun, challenging and balanced.

This week and next also involve some back end maintenance. We are switching servers for most of our games and this may cause some down time as new site addresses are propagated. We are making efforts to minimize the disruption and apologize if we happen to be down when you’re trying to connect.

And if you’re trying to find me in games lately, you can likely catch me in Star Pirates. I began Ascension 2 last week and got an initial bunch of points that I’m currently using to try and burn through the low levels. If you see me online, feel free to ask questions in the shoutbox. The other players are working hard to keep me in the yard so I usually have time to answer.

Multilingual gaming, without a babelfish in your ear…

We’ve been much too quiet lately, apologies for that, and I’ve decided the solution is simply to start talking. Cue the Pink Floyd.

 

Legacy Games
Zombie Moon has more missions. Guts and Glory is sunset, but playable if you have the game. Star Pirates now has a Leviathan class ship. Gates of Camelot is looking old, and either needs a facelift or a sunset. Spy Battle will get Ascension 3 in the coming months; balancing new things in a long running title is hard.

Badlands Max Carnage (BMC)
Despite being available in only Canada and Australia so far, Badlands Max Carnage continues to gain users. Our worldwide launch timeline however is being heavily impacted by marketing plans critical to the long term success of the game. We are continuing the update the game, with last week’s update adding PvP rank to the leaderboards, a new store layout and further performance fixes. We continue to listen to what you think needs to improve in the game — if you have comments, please tell us.

The game server however is still not sufficiently reliable for a wider launch and we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that we’re going to need a new partner for the server hosting. Server migration should occur sometime in December.

December is a challenging time to market a game, as many types of advertising is double price this time of the year. So expect BMC to make a big push just after Christmas and into the new year. We have a large (for us) promo/ad budget to use by Feb 28th. We do social games — and social games get better with more people!

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Star Pirates Infinity

Development on Star Pirates Infinity is progressing well with card art nearing completion and we have a working beta that allows us to play a few matches a day.. We’re currently doing only a closed beta but may open it up to the community as we get a little further along. Our next major consideration is going to be localisation – we’re close to a final word count so we can start the process with our primary translation partners. Our hope is also to leverage local game developers who are multilingual to perhaps offer more than the standard EFIGS regions.

 

Part of offering multilingual is the fact that SPI will allow for play across languages. The borderless nature of videogames is such that a larger number of markets can be supported with a bit of planning and effort. As well as being available on multiple platforms, multiple languages helps games reach a bigger install base. Something very important for a game designed to leverage social experiences making Daily Active Users (DAU) one of the Key Performance Indicators we’ll be tracking at release.

Happy Holidays from all of us at SHG Studios!

The Heroic Efforts of our Team

Work is continuing on Wasteland Heroes and our team is knocking out regular updates. We are just under three weeks since our soft launch and today we posted our sixth update. Today’s update in particular adds better connection stability and better user feedback. We’ve also started some retouches of the environments. The desert has never looked so good! Tooltips now show you what your Hero powers actually do. This is a feature we have been planning for some time, but it was not stable for the release. We’ve also increased the drop rate for Hero tokens from missions. You can now get one token from steel crates, two from gold crates and four tokens from platinum crates. Tokens can still be earned from each mission only once per day per mission.

Our roadmap for the game still has lots to come. More bad guys, more missions, more levels and, of course, more Heroes are already in the works. We are also working on adding Events to the game where a certain part of the game will function slightly differently for a couple days. These will happen on a fairly regular basis once ready such that the experience of the game will be slightly different from week to week.

We are currently only launched in Canada and Australia, so the community is still small, but growing as we prepare for wider release. If you’re not in the game yet, don’t worry, we’re warming up a spot for you!

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The team here at SHG has worked tirelessly to get the game where it is, and we couldn’t be more thrilled with the progress. We are definitely looking forward to the future with this game, and all the opportunities within.

See you in the Wasteland!

Ongoing Development

So work is continuing on Spy Battle 2165 (www.spybattle.com).  With Richelle‘s work on art and Mark‘s work on content is leading towards some new story elements for the game expected in February.  We’ve added some periodic weather effects to the game to help liven things up and the redesigned “new player walkthrough” is being tested and the text reviewed.  The design we’ve adopted for the tutorial is similar to what was done for the Star Pirates full graphics but with a little more interactivity. It is centered around special directives to help point new players to various things they can do in the game.  We should also be able to apply this system to Star Pirates to update the walkthrough there as well.

Game development is always a balancing act, particularly for live, established titles.  We always want to work inside the game, but at times the external elements need some attention.  The work invested in maintenance is also hard to quantify for the users since, when done right, it’s entirely transparent.  While I’ve been working on the look and introductory experience in Spy Battle, Admin256 has been working on game infrastructure for all our titles.  The servers that house all the Starcrash games are older boxes and we’re overdue for an upgrade.  That is something that should occur in February or March and should not affect the game; at least that’s the plan.  If everything goes right, we’ll soon have a new landing page with a new introduction to a new UI on a more powerful server.  All of this of course is part of “Christian’s Plan for World Domination!”… oh, sorry, wrong document.  “Christian’s Plan to uplift Starcrash!”.

All of these changes are building up towards a renewed effort to market the game and attract a new group of users.  We strongly believe that the content and community the game provides are still a relevant experience for many players who haven’t found us yet. However, we’re not quite ready!  There are still some glitches in the new UI, and the redesign of the Special Directives is still in progress.  We’ve already made some initial changes.  Directives now have time limits and new directives don’t appear right away.  There are also a few more graphic elements that need updating, but we are making progress.

The rest of the team is also making progress on our new mobile project named ‘Wasteland Heroes – Boss Wars.’  We are close to having some screens and artwork to share so expect more about that in the next blog.

Thanks again for playing our games!

We’re Growing Again!

Building a video game is a team building experience. You cannot do it alone.  It requires a group of people with various skills to come together behind a shared vision and work some very long hours.  But, sometimes, it really comes together and in the end you’re left with something you can be very proud of.

Some games also have a longer lifespan than others.  This gives you the opportunity to experience this synergy more than once.  We’ve seen it a few times with Star Pirates, Spy Battle and Gates of Camelot.  It’s now my great pleasure to be heading up a team to reinvigorate the games that have been the backbone of our game library for many years.

Thanks to continued community support in the games, I was able to make the case as product manager to devote extra resources to uplifting some of our starcrash games.  The only problem was, we currently have a very heavy pipeline for new game development.  So the decision was to bring in some new talent.  Mark, who began interning with us in October has come on board as staff for some of our content and coding needs. Others will follow.

Star Pirates has received a notable amount of new content in the last six months. The new Ascension, Goals system, Exclusive Commissions and UI touch ups have certainly had an impact in terms of extending the player experience and encouraging new players to stick around.  Gates of Camelot is the game I see with some of the largest potential as it has less established game canon than Spy Battle or Star Pirates, but that is likely why it has the smaller community these last few months.  Spy Battle is a comfortable middle ground of a strong community with some established content but lots of room to grow.

So now the work begins.  We have already created concepts for improving the visuals of Spy Battle and creating some content to go with the new look.  We are still a small team, so it may take some time to deliver on the new look, but we’re eager to do it right and then drive some new players into the game.  The community has many established players but new blood is vital to avoid community stagnation from setting in.  We expect all of this to bear fruit early in the new year.  For now, here are some visual teasers to stoke everyone’s imagination.  

Happy Holidays everyone!


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Mobile Means “Can Move Around”, Right?

One month ago today, we launched World War Mobile. We knew we had lots to learn going in but also brought extensive knowledge of our own. So now that a month has gone by, we want to share where we are at.  Spoilers – we need to do more work.

SHG has always worked with the MVP concept — essentially launching a game with the minimal feature set that can make a game good. From there, we learn and grow. This is best practice for startups.

That means, the game we launched in September, in our opinion, has suffered from split personality.  We found ourselves trying to both test the game and maintain the game at the same time.  Because of this, some of the visual uplift that has always been planned fell by the wayside as we did controlled tests such as the game’s gifting mechanic. In the last week, we’ve tied up some of our biggest stability concerns with logins and game performance but the game flow is still highly accelerated so that mid and late game elements can be tested as well.  

A big thanks goes to our programming team who pumped out updates almost daily with one to two public updates per week. You guys are awesome!

And now we have new pressures on our schedules.  We have started to grow the team again and, Bret Measor, the Product Manager for World War Mobile, is need for a new project in the pipeline.  We knew this a few months ago and, as planned, World War Mobile is now shifting to my responsibility, along with team members.  I have to also thank Bret for the great work he did leading the team.  I saw him keep everyone focused and motivated. He led the team, but it was a team effort — there was never discounting of anyone’s opinions.

This type of handoff shows we are growing as a studio. Less reaction, more planning. And its working. But it does mean a change in how we handle things. We know a lot more than we used to, and due to a month’s learning we know a lot about World War Mobile.

So what’s next?  Well, we want to bring World War Mobile up to its full potential and we want to do it soon.  But the only way to do that, is that the game will have to go offline at the end of this month, until the new year.  The game is not available worldwide right now, we started with a limited region release, and we want to be sure that we put our best foot forward for worldwide release.  Some of the work has already begun, here are a few images of what the units could look like if we pull the game back into the workshop for a little while.

Unit_01 Unit_08

There are also UI changes we would like to make that would break the game for a while as they get implemented plus the game balance is not where it should be, too easy in some places and too hard in others.  Pacing, something I discussed in a previous blog, is all wrong currently.  With the current design, it could never maintain a community like we have created in Star Pirates or Zombie Moon.  Since a strong community has always been a key element of our successful games, addressing this is a must for us.

So, if you are playing the game, please stop into the shoutbox this afternoon, 4PM EST.  The dev team will be hosting a shoutbox party and we’d love to hear your feedback.  And the game will remain accessible until Oct 31st.  Over the next few days, we will also be addressing those players who invested real life cash in the game.  We want to be sure we do right by every last person who paid real money into the game so far.  Many have already received some form of credit in our existing games but we will be sure that no one is forgotten.

Also, watch for more development blogs over the next few months.  We guarantee you that the wait for the next evolution of the game will be well worth it.

[Monday Update] – Here are some screens from the new units in game:

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You Meet Some of the Coolest People when you Collaborate

 

SHG Studios has a history of finding interesting opportunities for collaboration.  Over the years, we have found artists within our communities to make images for stories in our games.  We have worked with web comics, bringing their characters into cameo strips, set in our games.  Cosplayers from North America and Europe have worked with us to bring characters from our game to life.  These have all been worthwhile partnerships and we’ve enjoyed them all.  Our latest collaboration, however, generated the most excitement yet within our development team.

In mid September, we released a new exclusive commission for Star Pirates.  This story was not written by our usual crew though.  This was a collaboration with award winning Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer.

Robert Sawyer
Photo courtesy of Bernard Clark

Robert is the only Canadian to ever win all three of the science-fiction field’s top honours for best novel of the year. He won the Hugo Award in 2003, the Nebula Award in 1996 and  the John W. Campbell Memorial award in 2006. Robert has extensive experience working in a variety of mediums having previously worked with other game studios and in bringing his novel FlashForward to ABC, a recognized hit for the broadcaster.  His twenty-three novels include Red Planet Blues, Triggers, Calculating God, and the “WWW” trilogy of Wake, Watch, and Wonder, each volume of which separately won the Aurora Award — Canada’s top honor in science fiction — for Best Novel of the Year.

This opportunity was exciting to us for two reasons; First, many of our staff have read Robert’s books.  Myself, I have read the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy and I know that AdminIce is working through the WWW trilogy.  Second, leveraging a professional writer for our game content raises the bar. The stories Robert writes are always engaging, based on hard science, and fun to read.  Exactly the qualities we want for a game that has enjoyed such a long shelf life.

But our dev team is not sitting idle either.  World War Mobile development is progressing well and next month we begin work on Star Pirates Infinity, our new CCG title. Zombie Moon has benefited from some back end changes to reinforce the store and free offers.  Another exclusive commission for Star Pirates is nearing completion and, my most daunting tasks, we are exploring an Ascension for Gates of Camelot.  Perhaps the only drawback of working with Robert is, as I now undertake the task of writing for Gates of Camelot, I find myself walking in the footsteps of a giant.

Much of my time this month will be focused on the Ascension for Gates of Camelot.  this is both an opportunity and a challenge for us.  Star Pirates and Spy Battle have already determined the framework for an Ascension and provide us with much of the underlying code base.  However, there are some story based decisions we have never considered in Gates of Camelot terms.

goc

Ascensions take place in isolated locations.  GoC has had only one map so we must determine where it would take place.  Ascensions also have rewards such as medals and an item slot.  These need to be created and be consistent with the current theme of the game.  The writing is certainly daunting, usually around twenty thousand words or more and the encounters need the right balance.

Most challenging though at this time is the graphics requirement.  All of our artists are currently needed for other projects.  We will likely be faced with a choice between delaying the release until we have resources to allocate to graphics or accept that the quantity of images for the Gates of Camelot Ascension will be reduced.  This will likely become a community discussion in the next few days.  Stop into the Gates of Camelot forums if you’d like to offer an opinion on this.

So I guess it’s back to writing for me.  Well, maybe just one more chapter of Wake first…

Game Pace Can Impact Gameplay

In case we haven’t said it recently enough – Thank You!  When we look at how long Star Pirates has been active and the ongoing community support it receives, we are still humbled by how the community has embraced the game we made.  We are also thrilled that we are still able to continue expanding the universe with new content and features.

This month, we again added some of both.  Changes we’ve made this year include specific focus on the pace of the game.  While we cannot do anything that might damage the economy or balance, it is possible to accelerate players through certain areas where progress lags.  We have seen it in many games, that if you cannot assure continuity with parts of a story, the whole experience can be affected.  Consider any MMO where you travel between cities on a regular basis.  The distance between cities is fairly constant as is the time it takes to travel between them.  But imagine if one city took three times longer to reach but had no additional quests or monsters along that road.  Instantly the player will avoid that area of the game.

This was some of the focus of the latest Exclusive Commission which unlocks at level 32 for players.  The level requirements for the Ascensions, that large side stories within Star Pirates, are level 40, 45 and 50.  Many players quickly reach level 30 but, as each new level takes more work than the last, getting up to level 40 is more challenging.  It has always been possible, using belt runs and focusing on PVP, but there was little story elements within that part of the game.  We also wanted to make people think a bit more about going into the Ascensions.  Completion of the Upper Belt story unlocks a new search where players can find three kinds of modules.  These new items offer some of the capabilities of the types of equipment players can get from Ascending but are not quite as powerful.  Players also get some generous hideout credits, and hideout upgrades can really help players progress in the Ascensions.  Ultimately, the items and Hideout upgrades allow a sort of stepping stone for players making their way towards Ascension.

And we are already working on two more blocks of content for Star Pirates and a large block for Gates of Camelot.  Our plans for the game include more content through Sept/Oct then work on growing the community size through Nov/Dec.  We’d also like to fit in a few tweaks to the UI during that time.  Spy Battle content might slip to the new year though I’d like to fit in something before then.

One of our biggest barriers is the art assets for the games. Not that we don’t have assets, but our art team is currently committed to another project.  I can get by with what we have in most cases but resort to a fair amount of reskinning of existing assets.  For Star Pirates I actually think we’ve not used that technique enough of late.  I would expect pirates would like to paint their ships different colors.  Here are some reskins I’ve done for our Cruiser model.

Crui_502 Crui_602

Crui_702 Crui_802
So work continues as the kids head back to school.  This fall looks to be a busy one for SHG, but I’ll let my colleagues speak to that in some of their upcoming blogs.

Cheers,

Visual Cues

In game design, there is honestly never enough time.  Whether it is writing, sound, graphics or code, we always want more time to make it just a little bit better.  The flip side is that updating some of these can seem like such a large task that smaller items can often push the updates back again and again.  Sometimes though, you find the right balance and can push out some updates.

I’ll be spending my weekend on some final tweaks for the content we’re working on, but I’ll offer a glimpse of what is going on within the Star Pirates universe…

— Sensor Trouble —

“Captain” the pilot says, looking over his shoulder to you, “we’ve spotted a Battle Debris Scavenger Mk III in the debris field.  It’s headed for the same coordinates we’ve plotted.  It looks like it plans to take the salvage.”

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“Like hell it will!” you shout back.  All hands, weapon stations.  I want that AI ship taken out.  We’ll let the regenabots clean it up.

A few shots from your Fusion Blaster Array make quick work of the AI scavenger.  You proceed to the debris field and spend the next few hours filling your cargo hold.  While the ship systems are busy salvaging, you monitor communications from the nearby station.  Your ship AI suddenly pipes up.

“Captain, I am receiving new data from the station.  The AI Council has provided updated instructions for regenabots related to AI ships.  It does not appear to affect any of my systems.”

“Very well” you reply “let me know if we receive any instructions as part of the update”.

Once full, you head back towards the station, and pass by the same spot where you blew up the scavenger.  The regenabots will have been busy rebuilding the ship, but now that the field is empty it should just move on.

Your officer suddenly stands up from his station and looks your way.

“Captain, you should take a look at this.  There is something strange about the repairs on the scavenger”

“What do you mean?  Put the image up on the screen.”

Destroyer1_flipAs the image appears on screen, the whole crew goes quiet.  What you seen on screen is unlike anything you’ve seen before.  Your ship AI finally breaks the silence.

“Interesting.  It would seem these regenabots also received the updated instructions.  They are rebuilding the Battle Debris Scavenger to entirely new specifications.”

Soon the reconstruction is complete and the scavenger heads off to a new destination.  You can only wonder at the speed with which the AIs introduced entirely new designs to existing equipment.

The wonders of technology…

Have a good weekend everyone!