Outer Colony has undergone a great many changes over the course of the last year, and the purpose of this article is to explain them. The failure of 2014’s Kickstarter campaign and some of the reception OC received prompted serious introspection. We went back to the drawing board and evaluated every aspect of the project, aiming to learn from our shortcomings and improve in all phases. We wanted to enhance OC’s appeal. We wanted to improve the project’s feasibility. We wanted to focus more tightly on our core competencies, do precisely what this team can do best, and ultimately release a technically innovative, extremely fun game.
The most prominent change was switching Outer Colony from its MMORPG form (TFR) to an RTS. The foremost factors motivating this change were a desire to focus more keenly on world simulation and AI and the difficulty we had of showcasing these features in MMORPG format. What makes OC technically special are its hard, number-driven simulation mechanics and advanced AI, and it was difficult to properly demonstrate these aspects of the game in the MMO form. I don’t think most people had the patience to sit through 20+ minute demonstrations of these features, and I’m nearly certain that the message didn’t get across to many viewers of the website or Kickstarter campaign. That’s entirely my fault, and no one else’s. There were just too many distractions in the previous OC, and I couldn’t really highlight those things that made OC interesting and special.
What we needed was a better vehicle for conveying the core ideas about world simulation and AI. It’s harder to see the innovation and advanced performance of these subsystems from an RPG, where you’re controlling one character. It’s much easier to experience the simulation and AI from the strategy game perspective. Players see the world from above, they see the world changing dynamically, they experience the passage of time more quickly, they can easily discern population dynamics and quickly see the game’s AI doing compelling things. When the core of the project is about advanced simulation and AI, the game needs to let players understand these facets quickly and experience them readily. If it doesn’t, the project can’t succeed.
The need to more thoroughly exploit OC’s best features was the primary motivation for the genre switch, but other factors also played roles. OC’s simulation and AI impose fairly extreme processing requirements, and I really needed more technical control of the system to address them. A fundamentally multithreaded game engine was a necessity, and the move to an all Java architecture made OC’s codebase more monolithic and simple. We needed to develop features even faster than before in order to operate within time and budget constraints, and the simplified technology stack goes a long way toward achieving that end.
Another area we needed to adjust was OC’s visuals. We had a lot of difficulty getting people to see past OC’s graphics, and I think that aspect of the game left many dismissing it out of hand. I personally like retro 3D quite a bit, and some indie games have pulled off low polygon models with only diffuse textures very well. I don’t know if OC’s models and graphics ever fit properly with its gameplay, though, and few potential players ever reported liking its look and feel. Exacerbating this problem, I have virtually no 3D modeling capacity myself, and while the project’s modelers did an amazing job on an extremely limited budget, the results just weren’t acceptable for many MMO consumers.
Any attempt to address the graphics problem in OC’s previous incarnation would require many thousands of man hours from very talented 3D modelers, and probably a full time team of at least two artists. This would be the minimum of what I’d ballpark to make OC’s graphics acceptable for normal players. Even an expanded setup like this wouldn’t come close to producing the AAA graphics that most MMO players currently expect, and this lies so far outside our present budget as to be impossible. Sadly for the genre, I don’t think there’s a lot of overlap between indie gamers and MMO consumers. Most popular MMOs are so technically complex that they’re impossible to build without the resources of a large company, and, in 2015, most potential OC players demand highly polished games with nearly photorealistic graphics.
These are all fairly unfortunate points, as I’m immensely passionate about MMORPGs and would absolutely love to develop one. But community driven MMORPGs, as OC was envisioned, require large player bases to function, and I don’t think it’d be possible to rally enough players without the graphics and the polish. These would ultimately demand a budget that’s an order of magnitude larger than what I can practically save, making an MMORPG incarnation of TFR presently infeasible.
Still, the fundamentally unique aspects of OC, namely its world simulation mechanics and AI, can make for a very fun and compelling game. Putting the difficulties of MMORPG development aside, I absolutely love turn based and real time strategy. I love gorgeous pixel art, both in classic games and modern ones, like Pixel Noir and Terraria. We’ve got all the talent needed to develop a fantastic, engrossing, detailed, and fun RTS game with very attractive graphics, novel gameplay and mechanics, and technically innovative AI and simulation that have never been implemented in a game before.
And that’s what the project’s changes were all about. Focusing in our strengths: hard simulation, world modeling, AI, novel gameplay, technical innovation, illustration, simplified but attractive visuals, and a great soundtrack. OC has undergone a lot of changes to reach its current form, but all of the project’s history has been essential. Those formative experiences make the project what it is today. Our core vision is still to produce a fascinating, fun game, to do things that have never been done before, and to push the boundaries of simulation and AI. Our aim is to make people think differently about what software can be, and everything we do is meant to achieve that objective.
As a final aside, for MMO fanatics like myself, all of the MMO specific code developed in 2013 and 2014 still exists, and it’s not going anywhere. If we ever do find ourselves sitting atop a vast budget, there’s nothing stopping us from revamping the graphics and bringing OC’s AI and simulation to the MMO genre.
I’d also like to really, really, really thank everyone who supported OC in its last Kickstarter campaign. Even though we fell short of our budgetary goals, all of the support, kind words, and encouragement from complete strangers online helped to push the project through a challenging period. That experience and the lessons learned from it are what made OC what it is today, and I owe a debt of gratitude to the unbelievably supportive people I’ve encountered along the way.
I hope this article explains how the project has changed in the past year, and I’m excited to push forward to the launch of the new incarnation of OC.