I have a love/hate relationship with galaxy-spanning 4X games.
I love building a gigantic space empire. There is something irresistible in being able to grow a world of your own design, to inhabit it in your imagination and shape it to your liking through thousands of small decisions. On the other hand, I dislike many elements that often come with the genre: the incessant micromanagement, the repetitive military conquests, the gameplay becoming sluggish and monotonous as your empire grows.
One day, I set out with an idea to build a game that would resolve these problems. Something fast and approachable. Easy to learn, but hard to master. A game filled with deep choices and trade-offs with no easy answers. A game where you always have to choose instead of just eventually inventing every technology and conquering every planet. A game focused on trade, science and building a functional society, not on a series of identical military operations. A game that would deliver its fun in hour-long chunks, but still give me the 4X fix I needed.
This idea became SlipWays.
The story so far
The game started as a prototype for PICO-8, a fantasy console that I immensely enjoy working with. My intention was to switch to a different development platform after I nailed down the core mechanics, but as the prototype grew, it became a full-featured game in its own regard. This version of the game was published on itch.io and since then, it has been among the most popular and highest rated strategy games on the site. It's pay-what-you-want, including free, so if you haven't played it yet, there is little excuse not to try it now.
Since the public reception was so enthusiastic, I immediately started making plans for the full version of the game I always envisioned. Unfortunately, by that time the uncertainties of an indie developer life have started taking its toll on my financials and on my emotional health. When a publishing deal I was negotiating fell through, I decided to take some time away from the project to get a steady job and recharge.
This was a year ago. The contract on that steady job is now up and I once again find myself full of energy and zeal for game development.
It's time to see this thing through.
The plan for the future
I've been working on the project daily again and I'm slowly building momentum. The game is looking better and better each day and I'm positively pumped to see it grow and become more like the image in my mind each day.
For the time being, I'm working on the game as a solo developer, but I don't plan on it staying that way. While I'm fortunate to have the skills to fill multiple roles on a project like this, I have my limitations and I don't want them to hurt the game. That means getting more people on board to help me with my blind spots.
This, in turn, means money – both for paying collaborators and for my own financial security, which is a big part of preserving the mental fortitude I need to see the project through.
The way I plan on getting these funds is by launching a crowdfunding campaign in early 2020. In addition to securing money for development, this will also let me start building a community of players that I can interact with (hopefully including you!).
If all that goes according to plan, I'm hoping for the game to release near the end of 2020, with multiple opportunities for people to play alpha and beta versions earlier so that I can make the project better with player feedback.
Goals for the project
1. Keep the good parts
One of the biggest challenges with reimaginings and sequels is not losing sight of what made the original so good among the sea of new features.
I intend to be very careful about all extensions to the PICO-8 formula – it is imperative that the game stays streamlined and easy to pick up through all the changes I'm going to make. Part of the reason why SlipWays is good is how focused it is, and I'm planning on keeping it that way.
2. Bring it to the 21st century
While I'm happy with what the original has done given its constraints, a 128x128 resolution is certainly less than ideal for a game about building vast networks of interstellar connections.
The new version comes with a complete graphics overhaul to make the game not only a joy to play, but also a pleasure to look at. Many usability issues caused by PICO-8's limitations will also go away and I'm planning a swath of UI improvements on top of that to make the game play even more effortlessly.
3. Increase replayability and variety
While I'm wary about needless extensions, there are many parts of my original vision for SlipWays which simply didn't fit in the PICO-8 version. The ones I want to implement are all tied to one of the most imperative features for any game with short gameplay sessions: replayability.
First, the game will feature a Council of five races, who are the ones employing the player. The races making up the Council have very different philosophical outlooks on how the galaxy should be governed. Throughout gameplay, Council members will offer their opinions on what you should do and goals for you to achieve. Choosing the approach you side with will have its consequences: ignoring a race's goals will diminish your standing with them, while hitting their requirements will have its rewards, the biggest of which will be unlocking new technologies that are specific to that race.
The original version had a suite of 20 technologies. Since they had wild implications on gameplay, they were one of the main things keeping each playthrough different.
In the new version, I plan to bump the number of technologies to at least a hundred, greatly increasing the choices on what paths you can take. To keep it manageable and streamlined, not all of them will be available every time – the set of options available to you will depend on both your choices and on chance, forcing you to take a new approach each game.
New ways to play
I'm also planning new modes of play, in addition to the classic time-limited mode known from the current version.
First, I'm planning a set of mini-campaigns: small bits of story coupled with a new complication to keep the gameplay fresh. An example would be a mission to colonize a dense nebula: a nebula that can be a source of valuable energy you can use, but will also hinder exploration and require special structures to disperse.
Second, I'd like to implement a frequent feature request from existing players: an endless mode that doesn't impose a time limit on your expansion. While this will be challenge to design (endless modes are notoriously hard to keep fun in all stages of play), I'm confident I can find a good solution with your help.
Third, for the dedicated players, I want to introduce a daily/weekly challenge mode that gives you a predefined sector with harder rules and lets you compete with others for the highest score.
4. More challenge for those who want it
The original game was hard to actually lose. Once you got the basics, it was mostly about how high a score you can rack up.
This classic mode will stay, but I'd like to make the game more appealing for players like me – players who like the thrill that comes with the possibility of failure. This means introducing more challenge in at least some of the game modes.
Some of that challenge will come from a more active role your population's happiness will play. It will be possible to get ousted from your leadership position if the happiness gets low enough, but I'm still looking for more mechanics that could take this a step further.
My current experiments in that direction center around a military mechanic, but one that is focused on building up and maintaining a force to defend from external threats – more tower defense than the usual 4X planet-by-planet conquest.
This is all quite new, so it will be a matter of a lot of work and playtesting to see how and if this fits with the rest of gameplay. I will not hesitate to throw it out if it ends up detrimental to the fun and there will be alternative solutions to using military might in most scenarios.
5. Build the game people want
I'm keen on listening to my players and firmly believe that a game designer is only as good as their ability to listen to feedback.
The most frequent requests I got from fans of the original were the aforementioned endless mode and an undo feature for the times when you fat-finger the wrong thing. Endless mode is on the roadmap and the undo feature is already built into the very core of the engine.
I plan to keep this open attitude throughout the rest of development – hence my promise of early beta access so that I can gather your opinions and act upon them. I'm also trying to keep the game engine open for modding wherever possible, so that you can act on those opinions yourself.
That's a wrap
I think that covers it! Thank you for you time, and if you're interested in the game, please do follow me on Twitter for updates on my progress. You can also leave your e-mail in the form below, though the mailing list is low volume and will be reserved for only the biggest of updates.
From now on, I plan on keeping a regular development log here, with new content coming on a roughly biweekly basis, depending on how much new stuff there will be to talk about. I'll post links to new content on Twitter and on itch.io.
If you have any questions or comments about the game or you just want to express your support, feel free to contact me anywhere, anytime. There is nothing I enjoy more than having a conversation about the game and your feedback means everything to me.
Until next time, and thank you for reading!