Topic: Design decisions, ethics, and the importance of your feedback

by Ovid at 200.08/62:257 GCT

I wanted to offer my perspective on “pay to win” (P2W), combat, and other issues our community has been discussing.

Those of you who know me in real life (quite a few early adopters do) know that I’m passionate in terms of demanding high ethical standards. From my talks at conferences to my Twitter feed, “doing the right thing” is something I focus on heavily. I get mad when companies appear to abuse their customers, so it stings pretty hard to be on the receiving end of such accusations.

First, yes, we have to make money to pay our developers and run our servers. Look at the quality of the artwork, the loving detail to ensure even blind players can enjoy our universe, the intricate missions, the regular release of new features: we all love what we do, but we have to be able to put food on the table. So we went with the F2P model. What’s interesting is that when I first thought “F2P” I had no idea of the politics surrounding it; we simply decided to start F2P because everyone can live in our universe for free.

Ah, the good ol’ days of naïvety.

Ethical Free to Play

So when we were building our monetization model, it was hard work and we eventually hired Teut Weidemann, a well-known F2P industry expert and strong proponent of the ethical free-to-play model. In short, everything in the game should be available via time, skill, or money. And rich players shouldn’t be able to buy the strongest of everything and dominate (more on this later).

And then there’s P2W. This is a coercive model which uses unethical tricks to earn money. For example, get the player hooked on the game and tell ‘em they can’t go past level 10 unless they fork over the dough. Or design a problem so hard that you can almost get past it, but need superhuman skill to do so. Or you can buy a few gems and make the problem go away. There are a number of well-known companies, including one famous for pushing their games on Facebook, who live for P2W. Then there are games like Warframe which have done an excellent job with the ethical F2P model.

We agree wholeheartedly with the ethical F2P movement. So you won’t see level caps, or content you can’t acquire without spending money. Nor will you see loot boxes (unless we somehow made it a fun and free in-game element that naturally ties into the narrative). If you want bonds and can’t afford them, you can grind for them, or simply log in daily and get them as part of your career salary. VIP packs can be purchased from merchants once a week, purchased from the player market whenever other players want to sell them, and you can grind for 1- and 3-day VIP packs.

So that’s the intent. What’s the reality? Honestly, we’ve never built a game before. When I started, I stupidly thought, “I’ve worked on some of the world’s largest Web sites, I know how to build big things.” That, more than anything, is probably the death of many small indie games. It turns out that a lot of development knowledge doesn’t translate well to the game industry. So we’ve screwed up a few times. For example, the biggest screw up was my initial decision to make your stat strength relative to other players of the same level. We calculated average stats per level of everyone in the game and you could still have spent a lot of time developing your strength, but still have “poor” strength because other players spent more time. It was a perpetual arms race the players were, well, up in arms over.

This had far-reaching effects. It wasn’t just combat. If your strength was “poor”, then strength-based career tasks were harder to perform. Strength tests in missions and jobs were more likely to fail through no fault of your own! So you spent more time building your strength and watching your other stats suffer relative to other players.

The fix for this one was, fortunately, simple. We made your stat level relative to the stats needed to avoid injury while training at that level. It removed a lot of player grief.

Other issues are harder to figure out and communicate. Some players have complained that you can only speed up university courses once. That’s unlikely to change because university courses give a permanent benefit as opposed to the temporary benefit of rations. Thus, players with lots of money could buy their way through all the university courses.

We also made the bond-to-credit conversion low. Some have complained about the conversion rate but we did this to avoid people being able to easily convert real money to credits and again being able to “buy” their way through the game. Spending money will help you advance, but you can spend time instead. How do we balance that? With difficulty. It’s not easy (if it was, more games would be doing it).

There’s also the problem that, for most large free-to-play (F2P) games, there are always going to be accusations of the developers building a P2W game. Sometimes this is for good reason but sometimes also due to personal game experiences like being beaten by someone else. For example, while Warframe has done a great job of ethical F2P, there are still players who say it’s P2W. They don’t get a lot of complaints, but they definitely get them.

What about Tau Station? We are striving toward our goal of providing a top-tier MMORPG, but in a narrative format, not a graphical one. Top-tier MMORPGs typically cost between $20 million to $100 million to develop and often have staffs of 50+ people working on them. We’re a tiny indie shop and we don’t have that sort of money. We will never have that sort of money. This is a labor of love, but we still need to pay the bills and that means striving to balance what we can develop against what our community wants.

Building a Universe

First, to create a universe like Tau Station, which appeals to many people, we have to accept that people are different. We generally follow the Bartle player types model where there are roughly four types of players:

  1. Achievers (how far can I go?)
  2. Explorers (how much can I discover?)
  3. Socializers (make friends and help them)
  4. Griefers (Void) 😃

With multi-player games like ours, it’s useful to add in a fifth player type, “Marketers” (players who try to play the markets to acquire as much stuff as possible).

Players tend to be one main Bartle type but shift over into other types. For example, I tend to be an explorer, and sometimes an achiever. This shows up in the game design.

In order to create a rich universe, you need to appeal to all of these types. Even griefers are valuable because they create drama, which creates emotion, which leads to plotting and counter-plotting. Eve Online is one of the best examples of this.

As we push forward, think of economics. Economics is nothing more than the best use of limited resources. “Best”, however, is going to be evaluated differently by different players types. Explorers want more star systems open and more of the story opened up. Socializers want more chat, more syndicate functions, and so on. Griefers want more and better combat options (and others want better options for stopping griefers). Marketers want our “Elite-style trading” opened up, with cargo ships hauling bulk commodities from star system to star system. Achievers want display cases, leaderboards, and so on.

In short, everyone has a different idea of what “best” means and if we keep jumping from different “best” to “best”, we can’t focus on the deep design decisions necessary to create a living universe. That being said, we recently addressed many of the immediate combat issues and that took time away from our work developing player avatars. And we also did a lot of deep work in architecture issues to make sure we could resolve many of them now instead of later when they would hurt us more. This took time away from syndicate campaigns.

And players were unhappy with that, too. I'm unhappy with that, but as a small indie shop, we're trying to figure out the right balance for you.

Combat

For those who remember the early days of Tau Station, it was pretty bare-bones compared to what you have today. There was no tutorial mission, no player market, no shop, and the combat system was “bug-o-rama.” We didn’t even have custom item images. It was an “early release” to build community and let you give us feedback and help us steer the ship, so to speak. If we had pushed hard for more players at that time, we would have lost everything because players would come, see a seriously incomplete game, and quit. More citizens are arriving now, but we are still avoiding the “big push” because we still need avatars, syndicate buildings, better combat, and so on.

(Trivia: we could have opened our shop much earlier, but we delayed that because it wasn’t accessible to blind players or players with mobility issues. Opening it earlier would have earned us money earlier, but that would violate one of our core ethical tenets that the game be accessible to everyone.)

Some of the issues with combat are related to the fact that our growing universe still has a small population. If we had tens of thousands of players at every level, players would find it much easier to associate with players of their own level and the wildly disparate levels of combat damage would be mitigated. So we have a core mechanic which is broken, in part, because it requires scale.

However, there is still a lot of work we need to do to improve the combat system and that comes back to “Building a universe.” We have many different player types we need to appeal to and now that many core features have been built, we’re building out more features which take time to perfect (and yes, we know we’ll get some things wrong which is why we want your feedback). So, for now, we’re trying to return to our focus of letting players choose their avatars and syndicate campaigns. Syndicate campaigns will lead into syndicate buildings which lead into syndicate raids (which, despite the name, are based on resource theft and not PvP).

So let’s look at avatars. Avatars sound easy. We provide a set of pictures and you choose which one you want to display as your avatar. On our side, it’s more than that.

  • Consulting narrative team descriptions so we could design avatars matching different genotypes
  • We need time to render the avatars and approve them (that can require re-rendering).
  • We need to build a system which works on both mobile and Web.
  • You can choose your avatar on citizen creation
  • You can choose your avatar if you don’t have one and are already in the universe
  • You see your avatar on every page
  • You see someone else’s avatar when you visit their page
  • You see avatars of syndicate members
  • You see the avatar of the person you’re in combat with
  • NPC avatars are even more work …

All of that has to be carefully built, tested, rebuilt, and so on. We’ve had to rework some designs because they didn’t work on mobile. We had to rework others because choosing the avatar wasn’t as smooth as we thought it should be.

And all of that has to be built with accessibility in mind. Syndicate campaigns, buildings, raids, and so on, have similar complexities.

So where does combat fit? We strongly want to fix combat. We also going to build avatars. We also are going to build syndicate campaigns. We also are going to build syndicate buildings. We also are going to build Elite-style trading. We also are going to open new star systems. We are going to build achievement boards. We are going to build display cases. We are going to build variable-gravity stations. There are so many things we have plans for, but only so much time to build them all.

In short, we’re a small, indie company and we are definitely listening to you and changing Tau Station based on your feedback (for example, station news was heavily influenced by Tau Station community suggestions). But none of this is quick or easy because even small changes can have wide-ranging impacts (see the “average stats” discussion above). Even simple changes, such as when we temporarily made VIP packs non-tradeable, can hurt when we get them wrong. Thus, we need time to implement things correctly to ensure that Tau Station citizens have as rich an experience as possible. Yes, this means putting more of a skill component in combat. This means getting in more citizens so that you have more players at your own level. This means listening to your feedback and trying to prioritize things in such a way that we keep building our universe to appeal to all players.

For specific combat improvements, we need to trade carefully because even small changes in such a complex universe can have unexpected consequences. However, we’ll be considering stat caps, greater XP for “close wins” (encouraging fairer fights), more combat ending options, “dodge” abilities, and more things which allow you to develop your personal combat style. It’s hard work, but it’s important work and we want you to enjoy living in our universe as much as we enjoy building it.

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