A Let’s Player by the name of MrGazillion has just completed a blind Let’s Play of Another Star! Here’s the first episode, and you should really give it a watch:
I’ve never actually seen someone really sit down and play through my games before, other than roping a few family members to try them when I was much younger, so this is a new experience for me. As a developer, it’s pretty amazing to be able to watch as a new player picks up the game and gives insight into how they approach it and what they’re thinking. It’s one thing when people explain their thoughts on a game afterwards, but it’s quite another to see it firsthand and figure out what game systems players are overlooking, not understanding, or just not enjoying. There’s more than a few things MrGazillion missed that are probably far more my fault than his.
Developing Another Star felt like fumbling around in the dark a lot of the time. A few people did try the game and give they’re thoughts, and for that I will be ever grateful, but with so little total feedback it was really hard to figure out what was working and what was not. In many ways, I think the game suffered from my lack of direction. Thankfully, I have a feeling that Another Star 2 will have no shortage of volunteers to test it out.
When throwing around the term “8-bit console”, it’s important to understand what that actually means. “8-bit” has come to refer to a style of art and music, usually that specifically of the NES, but it really doesn’t have that much to with a console’s graphics or audio at all. Instead, 8-bit refers to the console’s CPU, and it denotes that the CPU works with a single 8-bit byte at a time. Today’s machines are almost all 64-bit. They still work with 8-bit bytes, but they work with them in chunks of eight bytes at a time. 8 bits × 8 bytes = 64 bits.
Now, when people think of 8-bit consoles, they generally think of the two titans of the era: the Nintendo Entertainment System (a version the Japanese Nintendo Famicom, with slightly different specs), and the Sega Master System.
Some people think of the Atari 2600, the first real hit home console, and they’re not entirely wrong as the Atari 2600 was an 8-bit system (with the same base CPU as the NES, in fact). However, most people use the term to refer to the third generation of home video game consoles, and that’s what I want to touch on today since that’s clearly the generation Another Star 2 is pulling its inspiration from.
So, without further ado, let’s talk about the consoles that Another Star 2 is drawing on.
The NES was the clear winner of the third generation of video game consoles. It dominated the market in Japan and the United States. This is the game console that I grew up with. The NES has a limited palette, and sprites and tiles can only have three unique colors plus the background color or transparency, but these limitations combined with a rather incredible little audio processor gave it a unique look and sound that has remained iconic to this very day.
The Master System, on the other hand, got its major foothold in Europe, and in Brazil it was so big that it thrived well into the 16-bit era. Meanwhile, most of us Americans didn’t even realize that Sega had a console before the Sega Genesis (this is the name Sega in North America gave to the Mega Drive). The Master System allows for more detailed graphics by allowing sprites and tiles to use far more colors at a time than the NES, but its master color palette is excessively bright and it lacks the NES’s more subdued tones.
The Master System is the console that the original Another Star was most heavily inspired by. In fact, I almost switched to the Master System’s palette about halfway through Another Star’s production.
There were a number of other also-rans in the 8-bit era, all of which failed to really leave a mark.
The most recognizable of them in the United States is the Atari 7800, and it’s possibly the most unique of all the 8-bit consoles as far as its hardware goes. But it was doomed from the start by delays, cancellations, and contract disputes as the Atari brand switched hands in the middle of the system’s launch.
In Europe, there was the short-lived Amstrad GX4000. Under the hood, it’s basically a console version of Amstrad’s personal computer line. It came out about the same time as the Sega Genesis / Mega Drive. You can guess what happened to it.
Also of minor note is the Epoch Super Cassette Vision. Releasing around the time as the Japanese Famicom, it never gained a real market share, and just barely squeezes in to the third generation of consoles. However, it does have some interesting specs. Unfortunately, almost every document and article about it is in Japanese, and even Wikipedia just gives it a tiny section in the main Cassette Vision article.
There were a few other consoles that came out in this era, some of which lasted mere weeks before being pulled from store shelves. (Did you know Casio had a video game console? Casio had a video game console!) There’s also the handhelds, such as the original Game Boy and the Sega Game Gear, but Another Star 2 isn’t meant to be a handheld game so I won’t go over those here.
Finally, there’s one last console to talk about, and that’s the TurboGrafx-16 Entertainment SuperSystem, released in Japan and France as the PC Engine.
A joint venture between NEC and Hudson Soft, the TurboGrafx-16 had an 8-bit CPU combined with a 16-bit graphics chip. As such, it was a strange marriage of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, like a console stuck somewhere between them but never fully planted on one side or the other. Though an 8-bit machine by definition, it kicked off the fourth generation of video game consoles, better known as the “16-bit era”.
While it never quite caught on internationally, it was the first home console with a CD-ROM attachment. Japanese developers did some really amazing things with that 8-bit system thanks to the incredible storage capacity of the compact disc. It’s a shame those of us in the west didn’t see more stuff like this on consoles in the 90’s:
The reason I bring all these systems up is because I don’t want Another Star 2 to be completely shackled to the limitations of an actual 8-bit console. If I wanted to make an real 8-bit game, the thing to do would be to learn 6502 or Z80 assembly and actually code an NES or Master System game. Both systems are well documented and have a thriving homebrew scene—especially the NES.
Instead, like many so many others, I want to evoke the feel of the era. Some, like Shovel Knight, do this by working fast and loose with the limitations of the era, which I think betrays the parts of the aesthetic that I like the most.
What I want to do as a developer is take the most recognizable and most interesting limitations of the 8-bit era and use those to build the game’s art style and gameplay. To do that, I need a sort of framework, a mishmash of multiple consoles that plays to the strengths of the era without getting too bogged down in its drawbacks.
In this quest, the TurboGrafx represents a sort of speed limit for the 8-bit era. As you can see from my earlier mock-ups, my vision for the game surpasses anything the NES was capable of thanks to the limited number of colors on that system, and it just beats out the Master System because it has larger sprites and a more vibrant 256 color master palette instead of the Master System’s limited 64 colors. However, it doesn’t quite reach the fidelity of the TurboGrafx. If it catches up too close, then I know I’ve gone too far and I’m getting too close to the style of the 16-bit era.
In my next entry, I’ll start to detail the “rules” of Another Star 2’s limitations by taking a look at the specs of all the consoles I just talked about. I’ll be spelling out exactly what Another Star 2’s limitations are, why I think they’re interesting, how they’ll impact the game and its production, and I’ll go over a little bit about how I plan to implement them.
Talking about whether an indie game was successful or not is difficult, because you first you have to quantify “success”. It’s easier when talking about a game made by a big studio, because then you can break it down by the amount of money taken in, and then compare it to how much was spent to make it, advertise it, and distribute it. It’s harder with indie games, because often there isn’t really a budget. Sometimes the game is made in the developers’ spare time with free tools on equipment that was long ago bought and paid for. With other games the developers may be working on them full time, but they’re not putting money directly into finishing the game so much as just paying bills and buying groceries, and often with freelance work to back them up.
“And if you look at the chart here…”
When Another Star came out, I said that the game needed to take in just 100 sales in the first three months in order for me to consider it a success. The game took about nine months on-and-off to make, so obviously 100 copies of a ten dollar game wouldn’t give me back the money it took just for me to exist during its production—let alone the extra six months that the version 3 update took! However, it would help me pay for some of the software and equipment specifically bought for game development (not to mention the $100 I sunk into getting the game into Steam Greenlight). More importantly, though, it would show me that there was an interest in what I was doing. If people liked the game and were willing to buy it, then that meant it was worth continuing on and making a second commercial game in the future.
Sadly, Another Star didn’t achieve even that. Despite a rocky but somewhat promising start, the game was a commercial flop. After a year, the game still only managed about 80 sales across all retailers, and most of those were not at full price. Granted, Another Star had over 2,000 sales in an IndieRoyale Bundle, but my share of each individual sale was literally tallied in cents. And then, of course, Desura’s new owner Bad Juju Games declared bankruptcy, so I never did even get the money from that. In excess of $500 dollars from Desura and IndieRoyale down the drain!
And then something magical happened. In March, I got a sudden email from Steam. By pure attrition, Another Star had made it through Steam Greenlight. It never did reach the top 100. (Just to give an idea of how low the bar to entry has continued to drop, as of this moment even the #20 game on Greenlight has less “yes” votes than Another Star ever did.)
Now, a lot of people say that indies don’t need Steam. That we can just put our game up anywhere and do just as well so long as our game is good enough. The numbers say otherwise.
In just over 12 hours on Steam, the game had outsold any other single retailer (not counting IndieRoyale), and at nearly full price. In less than 72 hours, it had outsold every other retailer combined (again, not counting IndieRoyale). By the end of the first week, the game sold enough that it had doubled its lifetime income (this time even counting IndieRoyale, though I’ll never see that money).
Another Star has been on Steam for about three weeks now. Whereas I used to count the number of days (or weeks, or months) between sales, now I am counting the number of sales per day. At this point, it’s usually only two or three, but they’re still continuing to add up quickly. Monday was my first day since launch without a single sale, and then I got five yesterday, as if to make up for it. As of this moment, Another Star has made just under 200 sales on Steam and is on over 2,000 wishlists. And I’d say a big part of the credit here goes to Valve’s Steam Discovery Update which, although terrible at its initial launch, has been improved greatly and even now puts the game in front of people by showing up on the main store page as a “recommended for you” title. People are not only playing the game now, they’re enjoying it, posting their screenshots on Steam, and even discussing it in the Steam forums.
There are a lot of people that claim that Steam is getting too crowded. However, even having to vie with all the other titles on the storefront for attention, Steam is probably the single greatest thing that’s ever happened to the game. No, the game isn’t going to generate enough for me to live on. If I’m lucky, it’ll at least cover the cost of the MacBook I bought to do the OS X version of the game. But now I can say, without a doubt or a hesitation, that the game is a success.
And, moreover, because of it, I can say that Vision Riders will be releasing another game.
A huge, huge thank you to each and every one of you that bought the game. You’re all amazing.
Sadly, there won’t be a witty sketch for today’s blog entry because my desktop computer messed up the other day and refuses to boot and, more importantly, I wanted to get this up as soon as possible.
In case you haven’t heard the news yet, Desura’s parent company Bad Juju Games has filed for bankruptcy. For those wondering, Vision Riders Entertainment has yet to be payed the hundreds of dollars that are still owed for Another Stars. It now looks like I will never see that money. How long the Desura site even stays up is yet to be seen.
If you own Another Star through Desura, you need to know that I will not charge you to buy the game again. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org so that I can sort things out for you. If possible, include your Desura account name and/or the original receipt. It doesn’t matter that I’m not getting the money, you paid for the game and I respect that. I am taking this bullet for you.
I will do my best to get a Humble key to you, which will not only net you a DRM-free copy of the game, but will also give you access to the Steam key once it’s available.
Last week, I wrote about my frustrations trying to get my money from Desura. If you’re not familiar with the recent Desura controversy, that’s a good place to start getting up-to-speed. Short story version: since at least November a number of developers, including Vision Riders Entertainment, have not been getting their payments from Desura, and were getting the runaround when trying to contact them about it. As of posting this, I have still not been paid.
Yesterday, Desura posted an update concerning the matter detailing their side of the story and giving a list of changes that they’re planning to make going forward. You should go ahead and read that now, since I’d like to address a bit of what they said.
“Now sit there and think about what you’ve done.”
I don’t know how big Bad Juju is, so I hate to come across as “picking on” what may very well be just a small handful of people, but there’s a lot that I feel really needs to be said about this whole thing. Ignoring the problem is not going to make it go away; sometimes sunlight really is the best disinfectant. I’m glad that they’re publicly talking about what’s going on, but it’s still only a first step.
Yesterday the news started to come out that Desura has not been paying some of the developers on their storefront. This is kind of a big deal. I’d wager that most of the devs on Desura—myself included—aren’t making enough on their games alone to pay the bills or put food on the table. But money is still money, and developers deserve to get paid for the work they’ve put into the games they’ve made.
The almighty dollar.
One of the developers that Desura happens to owe money to is Vision Riders. Another Star crossed Desura’s $500 payout threshold during the Indie Royale Debut 100 Bundle. (For those not aware, Indie Royale and Desura, while not technically the same operation, are interconnected.) The money should have gone into the company’s account sometime around December or January, but this didn’t happen. It always gave the same “payment pending” status on my Desura developer’s account page.
Some of you are probably reading this because you bought Another Star in the latest Indie Royale bundle, or are thinking about it. When you buy the game through Indie Royale (or pretty much any other retailer selling the game), you also earn access to a key to redeem the game on Steam.
Here’s the thing, though: you can only get the key if it actually exists. And for that to happen, the game has to get through Greenlight.
Another Star has been stuck on Greenlight for months now, making little traction. But with the spotlight of the latest Indie Royale bundle, and thanks to the efforts of a great many of you, the game has begun to surge forward. Now, here’s you come in!
First off, if you have not yet voted for the game, please got to Greenlight right away and do so.
Bundles have become a really controversial issue among developers. When the concept of indie bundles as we know them began with the first Indie Humble Bundle back in 2010, it was really well received. But the first Humble Bundle was a novelty. Now bundles have become as commonplace as sliced bread, with dozens of sites and brands dedicated to selling them.
To many, bundles are a waste of time for developers (with the usual exception of the flagship Humble Bundles that sometimes manage to break the million dollar mark). Many of these bundles go for less than a single game by itself, which in turn must be further cut down and shared by all the companies involved. Thousands of sales are likely to result in only a few hundred dollars at most. The devs then have to provide support for hundreds of copies of a game from which they received less than a dollar each, and post-purchase support is one of the single most frustrating and time-consuming tasks in the entire development and lifetime of computer software.
When Indie Royale contacted me about putting Another Star in a bundle, I was hesitant. It was fairly short notice, I felt it was too early to put it in a bundle, I knew the returns would likely be small, and I knew it could bite me in the rear end with an onslaught of support emails I’d have to respond to.
But I also really needed the publicity. After thinking it over, I changed my mind and accepted.
As of yesterday, Another Star had only sold 64 confirmed copies. (It’s actually sold at least one more copy than that, but FireFlower Games uses a monthly reporting format instead of a daily or realtime one. I haven’t gotten the report for October yet, but someone noted they bought it during a recent sale.) As of writing this, that number has increased by eightfold. As already noted, this doesn’t translate into much as far as dollar amounts go. I don’t think I can discuss exact numbers, but I haven’t made very much despite almost 500 copies of the game being sold so far today. But I knew that going in.
Now for the flip side. The bundle has been on sale for six hours now. In that time, I’ve gotten roughly a hundred up-votes on Greenlight. That’s more than the past three months combined. The last time I broke one hundred up-votes in a single day was in the first week of the Greenlight campaign, and the day isn’t even over yet. I seriously doubt a steady pace of 100 votes every 6 hours will keep up through the entire two weeks of the bundle deal, but if I can manage just 200 votes a day, that’ll get me into the top 100 games on Greenlight, which puts Another Star that much closer to getting on Steam. Being on Steam is not some kind of magic bullet, especially these days with so many indie games available through the service, but the importance of being on that storefront cannot be understated.
It’s too early to say whether participating in this bundle was a good idea or not, but I hope it was. If it nets me enough to finally earn a payout from Desura, I think I’ll be content if nothing else.
Regardless, the game is in the hands of 500 more people today. I hope they enjoy it.
Truth be told, I’m not sure I care that Another Star has a tiny chance of getting through. I’m not sure I care that I’m losing sales by not putting the game there. Out of principle, I simply cannot stand the very idea of submitting it. I may yet give in, but the whole thing ticks me off and I’d rather just say “screw it”.
The problem is, principles don’t pay the bills. They don’t put food on the table. They don’t fund future projects, or even help keep hardware and software up-to-date. Valve has a virtual monopoly on the PC games market with Steam. A large number of gamers will not even consider buying a game if it’s not already on the service. It’s a sad, sorry state of affairs, but it’s the way things are, and despite Valve’s continued, empty promises that they’re going to overhaul the system it doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon.
That said, Greenlight has improved since I wrote both of those entries, even if only a little. At this point, I can say with certainty that Another Star will eventually be on Steam Greenlight. I’m still not comfortable with the service, but at least it’s gotten to the point where I don’t immediately gag at the thought of it. (It’s more of a slow, delayed reaction now.)
The problem at the moment is cash. Steam’s horrendous $100 gate is effectively shutting me out for the time being. Moreover, it’s not a free ticket to success. The money I have right now is already set aside for things like bills and groceries, and my credit card is just about maxed out. I can’t justify buying what amounts to a lottery ticket at this exact moment in time. Later in the month, however, I should have a bit more money to work with, and I’ll try to get Another Star up on Greenlight then.
To be clear, I’m not asking for a handout. I’m just asking for patience. If you have $100 to pay for someone’s Steam Greenlight fee, please find someone who needs and deserves it more than me. There are a lot of struggling developers out there who deserve a shot. I have more money on the way, but a lot of them don’t.
I knew from the start that I wanted Another Star to have multiple difficulty levels. There’s really no valid excuse not to, and it’s not all that hard a thing to implement so long as you begin adding the basic framework for it early on.
However, what is hard is realizing just what constitutes “difficulty”. In the first beta version of Another Star, changing the difficulty setting affected a couple of things, but most noticeable among them was that it raised (or lowered, depending on the setting) the maximum hit points of enemies in battle. This is actually fairly common. Countless games simply increase enemies’ attack and decrease the player’s defense based on the difficulty setting and then call it a day.
Trouble is, this doesn’t necessarily make the game any harder or easier. What it’s practically guaranteed to do is make the game more tedious. Sure, boss battles can actually be more fun and challenging if you stretch them out a bit on the harder difficulty settings (supposing the boss is well-designed and fun to begin with). But when minor cannon fodder enemies start requiring double or triple the hits to take out, even if it does make the game “harder” it makes battles tedious and repetitive.
Because the enemies in Another Star‘s first beta were so seriously unbalanced, it made this problem especially noticeable and I realized that I’d have to deal with it somehow. So I tossed the idea of merely making enemies tougher and focused instead on making them more relentless. Now when you play on the two higher difficulties in Another Star, the enemies will still get their old bonus to the STR (strength) stat—they will hit you harder and deal more overall damage—but they don’t get any real bonus to their RES (resistance) stat, and they don’t get any more hit points (except in very special cases). So long as the player can survive the enemy party’s barrage, they will go down just as fast as they would otherwise. This greatly decreases the tedium of playing on the higher difficulty settings. It also gets the player to focus more time on how to react to and survive enemy actions, rather than just figuring out ways to deal greater and greater damage. On higher difficulty settings, some enemies even get additional abilities at their disposal, and some abilities may have additional effects. Enemies also won’t lose as much HP when using abilities (most all magic and abilities in Another Star require spending HP), meaning that waiting for the enemy to drain their own HP is no longer a valid strategy at these difficulties, and the player will have to react accordingly.
I’ve also done my best to make sure that the easier difficulty settings are actually easier. In the game’s “Beginner” and “Easy” difficulty settings, enemies don’t check their HP before using abilities to make sure they have enough HP to actually use them. This leads to the enemy occasionally wasting turns, allowing the player to be more loose with their own strategies. Several enemy abilities are also somewhat nerfed on the lower difficulties, giving the player further wiggle room to make (and bounce back from) mistakes.
But, most of all, I wanted to make sure that there was no penalty for choosing any difficulty setting. Achievements are one thing, but there’s more than a handful of games that lock off features—or even halt the player’s progress altogether—as a punishment for selecting an easier mode of play. I’m sure there’s game developers out there that will disagree, but I find this practice deplorable. A person shouldn’t be missing out on content that they payed for just because they wanted a more laid-back experience. In Another Star, you won’t have to miss out on anything just because you switched to “Easy” mode for a boss fight that was giving you trouble. Likewise, there’s no extra items or special scenes triggered by you showing off in “Hard” mode. The game’s difficulty setting is about difficulty; nothing more.
Another Star is not a perfect game, and I would never claim that it is. There’s probably a lot with the game’s difficulty system that could have been done better, and admittedly there’s a lot about it that I overlooked (maybe I’ll end up making tweaks to it after release based on player feedback). But it is something that I put a lot of thought into, and I encourage other developers to do the same. Difficulty modes should not be an afterthought!
When the game comes out soon, I hope you’ll be able to enjoy the game on your own terms.