Some designers just want to develop a world where players can explore and conquer, but not Ryan Seaman. He’s too busy creating whole galaxies, massive stars clusters, wormholes to take you who-knows-where, and civilizations just waiting for you to discover or take apart. But you’re not in this alone. There is life out there among the stars, other players, just waiting to help you take on all those glowing balls of gas in the sky or to bring them crashing down on your head. Welcome to Star Sonata 2 – a free-to-play indie MMO where you, your ship, and your little slice of the cosmos take on the rest of the universe one photon blast at a time.
Anyone who remembered those classic space exploration games will be itching to take on the worlds of Star Sonata 2. Mixing real-time combat with RPG elements, you decide how to take on empires with a fleet or friends at your side. And for such a small team of developers, the game never sees to amaze in both scope and customization when it comes to gameplay.
Every great space adventure starts with a navigator. One of the developers behind this free-to-play space adventure, Ryan Seaman, has been gracious enough to lead us through some of the big ideas and even bigger ships you’ll find while tackling the beta of Star Sonata 2 which is available now for free on their website.
For anyone who doesn't know Star Sonata 2, how would you describe it to them?
Ryan Seaman: Gameplay is best described as a top-down space shooter in an MMO sandbox. Movement and attacking is all manual and real-time. No right click to attack here; you have to aim! You can take over territory and build space stations, and if your team gains enough control you can be crowned emperor of the universe. Most of the universe is procedurally generated, with a few key places being manually made such as Sol, Earth’s home. We do a "universe reset" every few months to mix things up. The universe itself is re-rolled while everyone's characters and gear carry over.
How do you even begin to develop a game that spans galaxies?
Well the first version of Star Sonata opened up to the public in a beta form back in 2004, it was very simple back then and most of the features we have today were missing. Since then, there has been constant development on the game with brand new features and content zones added every few months. A few years ago, it was realized that our old client (the part of the game running on user’s computers) was just not flexible enough to carry us where we wanted to go and work was started on the new game. Star Sonata 2 is a lot more flexible for us, and we felt that it was necessary to carry on.
What did you learn from developing the first game that you're including in this one?
Star Sonata 2 is a direct upgrade from Star Sonata, so we’ve carried over the entire server code and a decent chunk of the client-side code. We've tried to expand on things that people used a lot in the first one but we never really fleshed out. For example in Star Sonata, you had up to 5 assignable hot-keys, but people were always complaining that it wasn't enough so in Star Sonata 2 we expanded on that system. Now we have an action bar with up to 20 items hot-keyed, and you can see all sorts of info on them much easier than before such as recharge time or the amount left.
How do the MMO elements work with the space combat?
Action based combat is a significant technical challenge, there is a reason why its rare in the MMO market today. Collisions have to be constantly checked with every object in the area, and movement has to stay synced up really well or else players will have a very hard time aiming their shots. We’ve been able to overcome that challenge though, and what we have now is one of the most praised parts of the game. On the exploration side, that's where the “universe resets” that I mentioned before come in.
Every 3-4 months we generate a new universe to play in and our players get to explore it and claim new territory in it for themselves. It kind of has a “gold rush” feel to it, everyone is running around scanning planets and fighting to carve out their own little corner of the universe. We also tend to add new content for players to discover at these times so you never know what you’re going to run into.
What was it that convinced you to get into game development?
I got into playing video games when I was pretty young and I’ve always been interested in making them. I got a little wary about the idea though when I got this false perception that game development has to be done in a massive team like all the big studios do it. When I got to college and took my first programming course though, I realized that it wasn’t even close to as scary as I had thought, and that these things go much better when you have a team to work with. I tried out making all sorts of little fun games myself for fun and realized that making games is something I really enjoy. Sometime after that I ended up in contact with the owner of Star Sonata (of which I was a long time player) and joined the development of Star Sonata 2.
What are some of your future plans for the Star Sonata 2?
We’re always developing new content for players to do in game, and we actually have a pretty good amount that will go in with the upcoming universe reset. In the near future we’re also planning on taking a look at Gunner, one of the less used classes, and making it more viable in the endgame. A lot of players have been asking for that so we think it will make a lot of people happy. In the first Star Sonata, players could always count on something new around the corner and we’re definitely continuing that legacy with Star Sonata 2.
As such a small team, how have you been able to get the word out about your game?
It’s been a challenge. Ads through Google have paid off in the past and brought a slow trickle of people in. They’ve end up being worth the money but haven’t substantially increased size of our player base. More recently I parodied another post on Reddit.com that got upvoted to the front page and that caused a temporary explosion of newcomers. Luckily, we were able to handle the load and we had over 90 thousand views in just a couple days and somewhere around a 10,000% increase in account sign-ups for a couple days. We got a ton of positive responses from that so we’ve got a really positive outlook heading forward. It was crazy seeing that a well-timed joke on the internet can bring in more people to our game than thousands of dollars in advertising.
How has working so close to the players been for you and the team?
One of the nice things about being a small indie game, is that it’s so easy to just talk to your players and get instant feedback. Sometimes we’ll just log in to the game and ask if anyone wants to hop on our testing server and check out our upcoming updates; it gives us useful feedback and the players get to have a meaningful impact on development. We also have an active suggestion board that we read often, we rarely take ideas from it verbatim but it gives us a really good idea of what we need to focus on next.
The downside though is that sometimes we have to make a necessary but unpopular change. People who don’t like a change are always more vocal than those who are satisfied so we have to be careful to make sure that the feedback we collect is not misrepresenting our players. All things considered, close interaction with our players has definitely helped us to make a great game that we all love.
For other people trying to develop their own game, what one piece of advice would you give them?
If you want to actually finish something, start small. I’ve seen too many people who want to make what they view as being the “best game ever” before they’ve made anything at all. If you start out making something small you can actually have something fun come out of it and be able to point to it and say “I made that”. Once you’ve actually finished something you have an idea of what a bigger project would take and you can better judge if you have the skills or time to make it happen.
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