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  • Postmortem - Starcom: Nexus

    - Kevin Lin
  • The following is a condensed and updated version of a post from the game's blog.  

    My Start

    My career as an indie game developer got off to a late start.

    I spent most of my professional life as a web developer, initially as a general purpose "webmaster" in the late 90's, before specializing in UI during the dot-com era, then switching to server and database development. It wasn't until I was in my mid-thirties that I decided to try my hand at game development.

    My first game: PlanetDefender

    I had a couple of ideas for games, but with no game-specific development experience I decided to start small with a fairly basic "tower-defense" game called PlanetDefender. I built it with Adobe Flash, simultaneously learning ActionScript as well as general principles of game design. It took maybe a month or two in my spare time. I was very happy with how it turned out, despite not being my "dream game."

    Most aspiring game developers have a dream game: the game in their head that's just itching to get out and is invariably too ambitious for their skills. 

    Mine was in a venerable genre that doesn't actually have a name: 2D space exploration action-adventure where your ship essentially is your character.

    Screen from an emulated version of the 1971 Star Trek

    This genre can trace its roots back to the very popular and very unofficial Star Trek games of the 1970s (and possibly even earlier with influences from Spacewar!, arguably the first video game ever).

    But my primary inspiration was a game called Starflight.

    Starflight was one of the first entrants in the genre to fully realize its potential by combining RPG elements with a procedural sandbox universe. Incredibly advanced for its time, it inspired numerous others including Star Control IIEscape Velocity, and many others. It had multiple alien races with unique ships and dialogues who varied their disposition toward you depending on your actions. It had a galaxy of nearly a thousand planets, most of which you could land on and explore. It had an engaging story that unfolded through exploration.

    Starflight: my earliest inspiration

    I wanted to create a game like that: a vast open universe of exploration with aliens to meet and battle, and stories and mysteries to uncover. Unfortunately, one tower defense game under my belt wasn't quite enough experience to make that a reality.

    But I still wanted to try to make a simplified version of that vision.

    My initial attempt was relatively modest in scope, but still a big step up from the tower defense space game: it had fast-paced combat with multiple weapons and upgrades, a simple story line and some light RPG elements including ship upgrades. There were no alien races you could talk to, the planets were simply window dressing and the whole game could be finished in about an hour or two. But I was immensely proud of the accomplishment and like PlanetDefender, it was fairly popular among the Flash gaming community.

    My second Flash game: Starcom

    Since the dominant form of making money from Flash games was ads and sponsorships, which usually paid pennies per thousand plays, neither of these first two games made a substantial amount of money relative to how long they took me to develop. Which was fine because this was still a hobby for me.

    At this point I felt I had enough experience to attempt to make a game with the goal of doing it professionally.

    After my last web dev contract wrapped up, I set myself on the task of developing my third game: a multiplayer real-time roguelike dungeon crawler called Lost Crypts. It was loosely inspired by the standup arcade Gauntlet that had eaten hundreds of my quarters as a kid, but with rogue-like procedural dungeons.

    My third Flash game and first attempt at an indie commercial product

    It took a little over six months to develop and I spent $1000 on art and music. Players generally enjoyed it, but my attempts to make money from it failed utterly. At the time, my understanding of both game marketing and free to play monetization were quite limited. I told myself that it was successful as a learning project and portfolio piece, which is true, but privately I felt I was failing as an indie developer. My games had made a lot of people happy and I don't think people should be valued based on how much money they make, but realistically I couldn't afford to continue as an indie dev making less than minimum wage. And Lost Crypts didn't even recoup its external costs.

    So I returned to contract work to pay the bills. During that time a few players tracked me down to ask if I had any plans to make a sequel to my space RPG.

    In the era of Flash gaming, a developer released a game and if it was popular it would end up being re-hosted on numerous websites. I had the foresight to have the game "ping" my webserver when a player started a new game so I could have a count of gameplays, but there was no way to connect with the many players who might be interested in my next game. Which was a mistake I would later regret, once I learned the importance of marketing in game development. This might seem obvious in hindsight, but since my first two Flash games reached hundreds of thousands of players with no marketing effort on my part, I sort of assumed that if you made a good fun game people would find out about it somehow.

    Better late than never, I set up a mailing list so players who visited my website could let me know they wanted a sequel and say what features they thought it should have. A few hundred interested players found the list, bringing with them the hope that there might actually be a market for an ambitious game like the one I'd originally envisioned.


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