Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Apr 3, 2006 in Front Page Features, Stuff We Like

From the Armchair: A Story of a Developer That Cares?

James Lombardi

"Gather ‘round kids, I’m going to tell you a fantastical tale.”
“Is it about the time you won 14 Olympic Gold Medals?”
“No, not this time.”
“Is it about the time you single-handedly killed 6 dinosaurs?”
“Nope, it’s about a time when a game developer cared about their customers!”
“You old coot! That’s just absurd!”
“Shut up you ungrateful varmint, this is a story about a little company called Stardock!”

Maybe one day, we’ll be telling a story like that to our grandkids. The problem is, most people wouldn’t believe the story today, who knows how things will be then. But right now at least, the game industry is abuzz watching the way Galactic Civilizations 2 (GC2) came out. There are a couple of things involved here. One is that this game spread almost entirely by word of mouth. There was no expensive, long-term ad campaign to build up the hype. In fact, Tycho of Penny-Arcade just mentioning it in a news post probably did more to spread word about the game than any single ad (I know that’s what finally got me excited about the game, until that I had only heard the name and vaguely knew it was a 4x game). But the biggest shock is that the game has no copy protection per se. The CD doesn’t need to be in the drive, it doesn’t care if there are virtual drives running, and most certainly there is no Starforce involved.

{default}

If the typical expectations developers, publishers, and industry analysts held true, everyone should have this game, and almost no one should have paid for it. In all three major entertainment industries (Music, Movies, and Games) all we hear is how piracy is killing the industry. So here comes a game that doesn’t involve the latest anti-piracy “solutions” and wait – the game is tearing up the charts! Sheer Lunacy!

But let’s be fair, the game does have at least some form of protection: you need to have a valid serial to download patches and updates. GC2 is far from the buggiest game to have been released, but it had a fair share of bugs, a patch or two is greatly appreciated, however generally it’s been playable right out of the box (in fact, they sold so well that they had to have a new set of retail boxes made, and those ones come with the latest version anyway).

You’ll be checking for updates a lot – but each one is actually worthwhile! I’m sure most developers care 100% about the product they make, unfortunately few have the ability to support the title afterwards the way Stardock does.

Hold on though, the story doesn’t end there. The developers of GC2 are doing something even more mad. They’re actually interacting with the community to help improve the game based upon input from their customers. We’re not talking about just fixing bugs that the community found but actually looking into adding features (or changing existing ones) that the community – the paying customers – want to see. These guys don’t sit high above their subjects and arbitrarily make game changes based on what they think people want to see. Think of the GC2 developers more like Shakespeare’s King Henry V sitting and talking with the troops on the eve of battle as if he were just one of the men (if you’re not well versed enough on Shakespeare, you might have seen this scene at the beginning of a particular episode of Star Trek: TNG – and if you don’t know Shakespeare and you’re not a nerd, well too bad). They’re active on their forums debating design issues and discussing solutions to problems, be they bugs or confusing features.

This is a company which promises to develop and improve their game throughout its lifespan. Not a patch every now and then that occasionally has a new map or something, but rather a constantly improving game. On their forums they even offered a link to where people could download their latest internal build to see the changes they’re making before a patch even comes out.

One could argue that these problems are all things that should have been worked out before release. They should have had all the serious bugs worked out and the features should have all been clear and effective. I would agree, if we were talking about a game made by one of the big publishing houses with large budgets and resources. Instead, we’re talking about a small-time developer with a limited number of resources at their disposal. What’s important here is that when you buy this game, you’re getting something very fun and playable already, which they promise to make even better.

Do I really expect many other developers (other than MMO developers who do it by necessity) to devote this sort of effort to a game? No, but boy is it refreshing when someone does. Besides, could you really imagine a developer dealing with the unwashed masses that populate some games?

Pl4y3r: OMFG!1111one111eleven1 Give spec ops more gunz lololol
Developer: Well, it’s a matter of balancing the classes in the game…
Pl4y3r2: STFU!! ^$!!$^& NeRf SnIpEr@@
Developer: What? Again, it’s a matter of balancing the classes against each other…
Pl4y3r3: gg I pwn!
Developer: …? I quit.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of the game’s audience whether this approach will be possible. A 4x style game (and wargames) typically have a much more mature audience that have reading levels above 2nd grade. Granted, the same audiences are typically extremely opinionated and don’t like to admit that they’re wrong – just take a look at some niche wargaming communities and see some of the heated debates that can happen over simple design decisions. Additionally, it’s hard to expect a developer to really find it worthwhile to continue devoting large amounts of time to a title once it’s released and the money’s already in. But it’s a business model that works, because if you just check out their community, they’ve won the loyalty of a lot of people who are more than happy to purchase future titles from them because of their devotion to improving their product.

Update:  Since writing this, there’s been some work on the next version of GC2 (version 1.1).  The new version was actually released in beta (twice) allowing the community to help break in the new version and suggest changes or provide feedback on what does or doesn’t work.  Unfortunately I haven’t had the time to check out the beta in either stage, but I’ve been following the updates on what’s been changed and it’s an impressive list of bug fixes and gameplay changes – and there’s already been talk of what is to come in a 1.2 release!

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *