I first intended to use this article as a list of things to avoid if you are an indie dev, and I was going to use Star Sonata, an indie, twitch-based space MMO, as the prime example on that list. The game works, sure, and it obviously has a playerbase that seems to enjoy itself, but I am not sure how long it might take a normal, new player to achieve the same level of happiness. I literally had to re-do this visit to the game because the first attempt was hijacked by a glitchy livestream and other issues. Luckily, the first attempt had primed this second one a bit more, but I have still spent most of the week confused.
The worst part about being so lost in a game like Star Sonata is that it's very easy to see just how much potential the game has. Hopefully, this article -- combined with input from the players -- might just help the developers fix some of the very basic issues that are hurting this game.
I'll start with the basic controls. Star Sonata is sort of like an Asteroids MMO in the way you essentially use thrust to push your craft around space and therefore often have a hard time flying accurately. I really enjoy flying in this way, but only when the spacecraft's physics is balanced well. I fully expect to have a hard time flying at first when I am in my newbie ship, but after a while, it becomes tiring. I couldn't really get a straight answer from the chat about whether or not performance improves as new parts are added to the ship. I imagine that the more likely scenario is that the player becomes more used to how the ship handles. I didn't mind flying around like a noob so much until I was be sent on a mission that was many times more difficult than the previous one.
That moves me on to the next big issue with the game: the confusing missions. While many missions were pretty easy to figure out and were usually from the kill-10-rats category, problems set in when I would come across one that either did not explain itself well or was seemingly bugged. The problem with poor mission or quest implementation is that it's hard to tell whether something is wrong with the game or something is wrong with the player. It's unnecessarily frustrating. As I write this, I am stuck on a mission that sent me to a certain sector of space for a patrol but neglected to tell me how to patrol or what to look for. I had to skip it, even after asking the help channel for an answer, and I moved on to another area of space that seemed above my level. I was promptly destroyed.
A lot of the quests feature way too much text, text that is hard enough to read anyway. I'm not sure why pretty much every single space MMO I come across seems to be designed by the same three people, but there might be several reasons. Do all of these designers think that the future will be accessed through horrible, old computers that can display only the same bright text on a black background that we had to use years ago because our monitors could not support more than two colors? I think the more likely answer is that these designers are not artists; they are programmers first.
I have the highest respect for someone who can code an entire world, but those programmers are generally not the same people you go to for a beautiful website or amazing artwork. Perhaps these programmer-designers just see the previous game and take a cue from that, and the next guy takes a cue from that one, and on and on. The same bland sci-fi design gets passed down like a bad piece of folk art. Star Sonata is, in general, ugly. The space is adequate, and the ships are sort of cute, but overall, it's the same space game I've seen literally scores of times since I've been at Massively. There's no real wonder in these games, no awe. Of all places that a game could be set in to create a sense of wonder and epic scale, space would be it. Unfortunately, space game designers almost always forget to include this.
Let me talk about what the game does well. It's hard to talk about each cool part without also mentioning the messy part that came with it, but there is some fun to be had in Star Sonata. First, the community is pretty cool. The players attempted to answer many of my questions and pointed me in the right direction. The developers are also very friendly, even though they know that I'll be writing a not-so-nice impression about their baby. Sure, I get treated differently when developers find out I am writing an article about the game they work on, but the developers of Star Sonata obviously want to learn from criticism. That's awesome.
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The combat is actually quite fun when it does work. After I finally learned how to use the often descriptionless items that made my ship go pew-pew, I was actually able to destroy a few enemies. There's a primitive satisfaction that comes from controlling a ship in the same way I did as a child of the '80s. The UI is much too simple to the point that it is sometimes very hard to get any information from it, but with a few tweaks, it could turn into a simple UI that is easy to get information from. Simple is always better. Exploration doesn't seem to be part of the game, but trade does. I had fun traveling from sector to sector, so I can only imagine that trading over a long distance would be a blast.
The space in Star Sonata is almost cartoony, but I like that. Space can be rendered in only so many ways, and I've seen them all. It's good to see star systems rendered in almost miniature form. While it took me a long time to get used to the controls of the game, zooming in and out of the systems using my keyboard eventually became second nature. Near the end, I felt as though I was playing an arcade game. That's the best part of Star Sonata and a strength that needs to concentrated on.
"At the time of this writing, there isn't even an explanation about what a player gets when he or she decides to sub to the game!"
In my opinion, the developers have a long way to go before Star Sonata is attractive to more people. The website is ugly, boring, and so very dated. (Most indie games need a new website!) At the time of this writing, there isn't even an explanation about what a player gets when he or she decides to sub to the game! (One of the developers even agreed with me on this.) The missions need less text but better explanation. The fonts are hideous and in many cases bad for people who are colorblind. A simple toggle or set of font options could help. The ships need better controls, and pretty much most of the interface needs to be tightened up with better information. Items are confusing and are hard to tell apart.
The good news? The developers asked me questions, talked to me about concerns, and were almost excited to get things fixed. That's the difference between an indie developer team that stays tiny and one that continues to grow. I'll be sure to check back on the game soon.
Each week on Rise and Shiny, Beau chooses a different free-to-play, indie, or browser-based game and jumps in head-first. It might be amazing or it might be a dud, but either way, he'll deliver his new-player impressions to you. Drop him an email, comment, or tweet!