Ascent: The Space Game on building a better sci-fi sandbox

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Ascent: The Space Game on building a better sci-fi sandbox
You'd be forgiven for not having heard of Ascent: The Space Game before. EVE Online is the sci-fi sandbox dominating headlines, and Star Citizen and other upcoming games are breathing down its neck. Is there room in the genre for, well, an indie space MMO that isn't all about cutthroat politics or hardcore ganking?

James Hicks, the founder and CEO of Fluffy Kitten Studios and the man behind Ascent, says yes. He took the time this week to answer our questions about his already-playable-but-still-in-development game in deep detail, focusing on the game's complexity, player feedback, business model, mechanics, and how Ascent can truly expand the genre.

Massively: You're calling Ascent an "online multiplayer 3D space simulator," but the features list sounds more like an MMO or even an MMORPG, an indie version of EVE Online, perhaps. How MMOsy do you think the game really is? How much will it appeal to core MMO players?

James Hicks, founder and CEO of Fluffy Kitten Studios: There are two groups I'm developing this game for, and the first is absolutely core MMO players: those who want a space MMO that's PvE-focused, is really open-ended with good sci-fi and science, emphasizes freedom, cooperative play, and exploration, and has a lot of deep gameplay beyond combat. I'm developing exactly that MMO because if I don't, nobody else will. Everyone else is PvP-focused or makes no attempt at really big, open space or is solely about combat, etc. We have combat, but it's one aspect of the gameplay out of several. We will eventually have PvP as well, but we'll never have PvP in PvE areas, and we'll never add anything to "entice" PvE players who don't want to PvP into PvP areas. PvP will be rewarded with PvP rewards.

The second group includes people who like space and sci-fi but have never played an MMO. They may have never even played a space game. My goal for these people is to bring them into the space MMO genre and ease them in, expanding the available playerbase for both Ascent and other games. I believe this genre's potential playerbase is well in the millions, many times what we have today. How many people like space and sci-fi? About a billion! How many people play video games? Most of them! How many of those people play THESE games? A tiny percentage! Our goal is to be one of the games that brings more of these space and sci-fi fans in.

So while core MMO players may find the initial lack of a brick wall learning curve a little disorienting or at first feel a little out of sync with the apparent lack of grinding or the lack of a need for multi-hour blocks of play to get anywhere, I find they quickly see that the game has a lot of depth and that it's been designed from day one as a true MMO. It doesn't slap you in the face right away, but the more you time you invest and the more you learn the systems, the more you get out of it. And this never ends: Most of the game systems are completely open-ended, and I'm regularly adding new features and content.

Both of these groups are well represented in the existing playerbase. So far, so good!

The game is obviously influenced by the Wing Commander and Elite games, yet unlike the modern crowdfunded iterations of those series, Ascent is intended to be accessible, shunning complexity for complexity's sake. But the features list is still insane! How exactly are you making a complicated, detailed game accessible to a wider audience, especially with just one full-time developer?

Absolutely: David Braben and Chris Roberts are two colossal heroes to me, and one of our two biggest goals with Ascent is to bring more players into the genre who will hopefully experience several games over time. I would expect that all of our playerbase, sooner or later, will play either Star Citizen and/or Elite: Dangerous as well when they come out. I know I will most likely buy both myself!

The main way we provide accessibility to a complex game is to steadily ramp up the complexity and the depth of play together. We have really complex systems in the game, but you won't encounter that complexity right away. The learning curve and the difficulty curve start slowly and steadily ramp up together. For example, in your first few minutes of gameplay, things are simple. You're in a ship, flying over a big bay on a sunny day, and the computer is speaking to you about how to fly the ship. A month from now, odds are you're going to be reprogramming that computer through its command line interface to query the ship's gravity control system and output the current gravity reading to the HUD because you're 50 light years away trying to find a place for your first colony and, you know, gravity matters. But right now you have no inkling of that. The computer is a friendly, polite voice guiding you through your first flight.

If you're an experienced gamer, you'll probably breeze through that tutorial; in fact you can skip it completely and within minutes be either blowing pirates out of the sky to protect merchants or helping a powerful industrialist rebuild her empire and bring civilization back from the brink of collapse by feeding the people before they starve to death. Which one depends on the starting point you choose, although of course you can eventually complete both quest lines. On the other hand, players new to space games might not have their fingers on WASD yet and will probably need the entire flight tutorial to get used to flying.

As you progress through the game, the gameplay elements evolve in complexity and depth. At first, combat is like dogfighting between fighters-and most people can become reasonably proficient, at least against little scout drones, within a few minutes. But as you move through the ranks, your opponents become more intelligent, fly tougher ships and carry more and bigger weapons. This gameplay eventually evolves into huge broadside duels between ships 1,000 times that size with up to 50 weapons active each. As you progress, you learn the importance of hitting the enemy where he's weak, bringing down the shields on one side and hammering him there, taking note of holes in armor, and so forth. Fighting a starbase is a different experience from fighting a ship, and there are some missions with no shooting at all: You're planting a tracking device by stealth, and so on.

Similarly, the industrial gameplay starts simple. If you can use a website, you can trade in Ascent. Buy low, autopilot somewhere else, sell high. But the longer you play, the more elements come to light: contracts, asteroid mining, gas giant harvesting, salvaging wrecks, building farms and mines on planet surfaces, building a starbase, performing research, building shipyards, ships, modules, and so forth. And in each of these areas, the deeper you look, the more you see. Most people successfully harvest an asteroid after a few attempts. However, a skilled and knowledgeable player with the same ship, the same mining beam, and the same asteroid could obtain a far higher yield. The player knows how to get the asteroid's temperature just right before cracking it, and the character has also learned more of the mining skill, increasing yields. A more experienced player may even have a dedicated mining ship, with equipment onboard that takes weeks to research. We have players who do nothing but mine, who've made a career out of it. So the more you look into each element, the more of its complexity and depth you can learn and swing to your advantage.

As to how we do all of that with only one developer, well, weirdly enough the size of the game or the number of features aren't limited by having only one developer. I've been working on the game for only a year, but don't be fooled: I've had literally decades to plan it and decades to learn all of the tools we need to bring it to life. Actually, the only limitation is in the quality of the graphics and aesthetics we can show you. All of the (good) art in the game has been from artists we pay on a case by case basis, and the first employee we want is someone to take control of the overall visual experience and really bring it to life. At the moment, some of our visuals are good, and some of them really need work.

Your business model provides a free web client and a $5 upgrade to give players access to more hardcore gameplay elements. How did you decide on that business model, and do you think it'll provide you enough revenue long-term? How much of a barrier to entry has the fiver been?

Specifically, our business model is free access to the web client, with about $5.00 US (with regional variations) for the PC client, and there are three kinds of premium access in the game that go for about $1.00 US per month each. You can bundle these together or buy them separately.

At the moment, that's the business model because it's one I feel honestly happy with; these prices are at the point where I myself wouldn't think twice about paying them, and it means the heavy users pay for what they use. If you just want to check the game out, you can do that in depth without spending a cent, whereas with our long-term players who are really into it, virtually all of them bought the PC client when it came out and all of them have some kind of premium access.

In terms of enough revenue, look at it this way: When EverQuest went live in 1999, it no doubt needed a little server farm. Hardware servers. A data center of some kind. Industrial grade cooling for the room. A big uninterruptable power supply. Database servers. Enterprise storage. Networking equipment: switches, routers, firewalls, maybe load balancers. You're talking a huge upfront cost and a huge ongoing cost to power, cool, operate and manage all of that gear.

Fifteen years later, either Google or Amazon can give you all of that functionality and far more computing power for a couple of cents an hour. I can set it up and manage it on my own in a fraction of my overall time spent working on the game. I can even have clustered databases and load balanced game servers so we can upgrade stuff without downtime. We've got things like Linux and visualization of servers, databases, and even networks now that have driven efficiency up and costs down, even as the hardware behind it has also increased in power and decreased in cost. Times have changed, and the days of needing $70 upfront and $15 a month thereafter to run an MMO are over. The day of the indie MMO has dawned.

We will one day change our pricing-no doubt about it. But we'll do that when we know we're offering that much more value -- for example ,when we've got more AAA artwork and there's more awesome sauce in the gameplay.

As to the barrier to entry question: So far, it seems that virtually everyone who plays the game long enough to want a PC client or for premium access to be desirable goes ahead and buys it. The only questions I've had from people about the costs of play have been, without exception, from those who haven't played the game yet.

We notice you're using a UserVoice system to pull feedback from players, regardless of whether they're paying players, which is unusual in this day and age of pay-to-give-input crowdfunding. How helpful do you find polling the general gamer population for open feedback? And what's the smartest thing someone's suggested that you've implemented (or want to implement)?

UserVoice is a great system because it lets people vote for features and put their own ideas up. But it's only one of several ways we gather feedback and ideas. We've got very active game forums and a really nerdy IRC channel with a few people idling in it (as it should be), and I am often actually in-game on the live servers talking to players about gameplay. However, we also run regular statistical analyses over the database. If a feature isn't fun, aside from the "omg so boring" comments from players, I can SEE how many people try it and give up because it's in the database. I have stats on the quest lines so I can see exactly where players get bored or confused. We've used all of these methods to tune the gameplay from week one of development.

It's really important to get feedback from these different sources. I don't act on players telling me something is too difficult unless the database stats agree. If NOBODY can do something, it probably IS too difficult, but if it's high end content and a few people can nail it, I'll leave it how it is. That stuff's meant to be hard. Similarly before nerfing something, I can see whether or not it really is overpowered. Do players who play like that advance more quickly than I intended? If yes, I carefully deploy the nerf bat after playerbase consultation and feedback.

Feedback is open for everyone rather than just existing players because I think it's equal parts myopic and crazy not to get feedback from people who tried your game and didn't like it or liked it but gave up because of X or who wanted to try it but were put off because of Y. Ascent is in part about expanding the genre, and we can't do that without talking to, and listening to, people who are outside of it.

If I have to pick one suggestion that stands out, it's one where a player posted a huge long proposal about the expansion of our research system. I won't go into it all here, but the way we'll expand it will be to have testing facilities in different environments that will contribute to research in a centralized location. We won't be literally word-for-word implementing that player's idea, but we've sure taken it on board for the long term Research plan.

But it feels kind of cheap to pick one! There is not a single element of the gameplay or the interface that hasn't been refined with player feedback and ideas. Our playerbase has grown from the very first day we had a playable demo, which was over a year ago now. Of course, if a suggestion isn't consistent with the vision, the narrative, or the dynamics I want to achieve, I politely refuse or ignore it. But without player feedback that supported these goals over the past year, this game would merely be an interesting tech demo that was a little dull to play and had an interface that gave you rabies symptoms. Currently, the interface only gives you hives, so that's an improvement!

MMO gamers in particular are skeptical of indie outfits because of how many MMOs go under both before and after launch. What's the one thing MMO players specifically need to know about Ascent to make them give it a try and trust that it's worth their time investment and will still be around tomorrow?

Fair question, and there are actually two things they need to know. The first is that as of April 2014, our income is covering server expenses already, and we really have far too much stuff provisioned for the current playerbase. We aren't even greenlit yet on Steam (help! we need more votes!), so I think the potential for far more players is absolutely there. Keeping the lights on has never been a problem, and it pretty clearly never will. So you don't need to worry that you might spend months building up an awesome space empire only to have it lost in some database somewhere because this game isn't ever getting shut down while it's got paying players. I can scale its infrastructure up or down as far and as fast as it ever might need.

The second is this: Ascent is to me what The One Ring was to Sauron. Into it I have poured all of my essence, my power, and bits of my soul. If it is ever destroyed, all of my trolls and orcs will run away and my house will fall down. I can't and I won't let that happen! What I want to do is to continue to develop it full time, get ourselves a little office, hire a good art person who can realize the vision in that area, hire an interface and detail-oriented developer to fill in my weaknesses there, and really get on with it. If we can't do that, I'd rather keep developing it full-time myself and keep outsourcing good art when we can, and if we can't do that, I'll develop it part-time while I do contract work back in the land of big evil corporate IT. When you can't run, you walk...

So if I may ask your readers a question, it's this: Have a look at what we've done, with one developer, in one year, on a shoestring budget for art, music, and sound. Do you want to see what we can do in another year, with more?

Do you? You can try out the game right now via Desura and the official site; you can also vote to bring it to Steam through the Greenlight program. Many thanks to James for answering all our questions so thoroughly!

When readers want the scoop on a launch or a patch (or even a brewing fiasco), Massively goes right to the source to interview the developers themselves. Be they John Smedley or Chris Roberts or anyone in between, we ask the devs the hard questions. Of course, whether they tell us the truth or not is up to them!
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