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Smugglers of Cygnus: Design Decisions

Design Decisions

This entry picks up where the last left off. In the first entry, I wrote about the team bringing you Smugglers of Cygnus. This entry covers some of the design decisions and what the team is learning while implementing them.

When I was first brought on to work with Indie Imprint on game development, we had many discussions about the concept, scope, and target audience. The easiest discussion was regarding the game jam for the GYATM Gameshell Edition. With a Pi-type target platform that included a screen and built-in controls, there's very little to talk about. The biggest questions are "What can we use to write for it?" and "What can we do in time?". Everything else was secondary. Since the easiest answer was to help Jess, the head of Indie Imprint, use a language she already knew (such as Javascript), the answers to both questions were pretty easy. My job was to help her get up to speed as fast as possible with a Javascript-based game toolkit that would work on the Gameshell. You can try it out in your browser if you'd like.

The second project posed a much bigger game development question: How could Jess take the ideas that had been too big for the game jam and implement them? She was curious to see if game development would be a good fit with a company focused primarily on publishing and editing until that point, so she wanted to know more about it. We talked scope, platforms, development cost, portability, indie-friendliness, and forward-compatiblity. In the end, this discussion came down to the two King Kong stunt doubles of the game development world—Unity 3D and Unreal Engine.

I explained there's really no wrong answer. Developers should use what they're comfortable with and what produces the best results. In the case of this broader reimagining of the Gameshell game, a proof of concept on UE4 would accomplish the goals better, and it was a better fit with my skill set. We decided on a tiny initial budget, a timeline, and then we whiteboarded out an entire Proof-of-Concept scope game. Scope is extremely important on new projects, especially when a new team is learning about one another at the same time they're working to reach project goals. I enlisted the help of friends to help with music and testing, and we were off to the races. After about a year of development and testing, GYATM Dragon Edition debuted on Steam on Halloween 2019.
The initial response wasn't amazing, but it was substantial. The game earned back the tiny budget, and it continues to turn a profit.

The team learned a lot on this build. It was time to decide where to go from there.

The first issue we encountered was general confusion about an author-services company making games. Sure, Indie Imprint had made a few web-game ads for others, a handful of mobile phone games for other companies, and even a few VR games for others. It just wasn't Indie Imprint's primary focus, which created dissonance in the minds of the public. Was Indie Imprint a game developer or a provider of author services? It was time for a change.

  • We needed to think bigger.

Indie Imprint got the wheels turning on a new game, one far bigger in scope. More importantly, it involved a book property that would live in the same universe. We reassembled our tiny team of three people from GYATM and we threw out ideas like mad. We brought in a few more friends, and they threw out ideas. We brainstormed for months. In the end, after hundreds of pages of concepts and designs, we had invented an entire galaxy to explore. The team took a vote and decided to pursue a game concept we could actually accomplish and that—first and foremost—appealed to us. Against a backdrop of an entire galaxy of cool characters, intriguing plots, and surprising stories, we voted for Smugglers of Cygnus. to be the genesis. It would be full of science fiction nods and have a story rooted in a broad and complex background, but it would invite a player to explore and develop their own adventure instead of be dragged through a preset one. Smugglers of Cygnus was to be the prologue, an introduction to a galaxy of adventures in the Cygnus game universe.

  • We needed a place to stand, and a big enough lever.

We began by choosing UE4, and I started putting together a green-fields framework to support this flexible game design. I wanted to make sure that it would run on most gaming machines, understanding we weren't going to reach 100% of them. The target audience became simulation and science fiction gamers who sought challenging gameplay. We found an excellent artist, we signed on the talented Hexenkraft (who had let us license the music players loved from GYATM), and started working. To keep things simple and focused, Longplay Games was spun off from Indie Imprint—which returned to providing services to independent authors. With a little seed money and a ton of hard work, we forged ahead and reached the exciting milestone of seeking input from the community.

  • So we asked gamers what they wanted most.

We initiated discussions both detailed and general on discords, streams, and social media. We listened to people, let them tell us what they wanted. Game development isn't about making everyone's dream game; it is about discovering touchpoints in the gaming community. People wanted games that were less stressful. They wanted gamepad support. They wanted games they could pick up and put down without having to learn everything from scratch. They wanted deep experiences they could also choose to ignore. They wanted fewer cutscenes, and they wanted polished visuals without sacrificing gameplay for it. They wanted meaningful soundtracks they could listen to independent of gameplay. Some of these things conflict; some work together perfectly.

  • We listened, and adapted.

After having conversations with gamers from all over the globe, the development team talked about how we could address players' desires in our game. This was when the really fundamental design decisions came in. Design decisions like game engine, graphics style, music, and gameplay interface were all made with the input of the gaming community. Some items seemed like a checkbox, such as gamepad support. Some were (and still are) difficult to pin down, like making a story that's both deep and skippable.

We're only six months into our timeline, but hope players will like how we're integrating the community's ideas.

  • Gamepad support. Everything in the UI has been designed and tested to make sure it supports both gamepad and mouse.
  • Beautiful Music. Hexenkraft is working on a fantastic soundtrack for this game, and it will be available on Bandcamp.
  • Graphics balanced with gameplay. We're striving to make the graphics excellent yet also largely untethered to the gameplay. The world of Smugglers of Cygnus is filled with unique characters and art, but it's not our primary focus. If this game is ported to a portable gaming platform and the graphics are trimmed back, the game should be every bit as entertaining. (This is tricky to balance, so you'll have to let us know if we got it right.)
  • A deep story that isn't a plot wagon. This suggestion was interesting. How does one provide a deep story without telling the audience? In our case, the story exists for the player to discover as they go along. They can choose to play the game much like a simple shipping game, or they can explore the galaxy, take on missions, encounter crazy characters and situations, and engage with the expansive galaxy Jess Alter and Sten Pettersen have written. Good, bad, or shades of grey. Pirate, pirate-hunter, or a merchant trying to eke out a comfortable living smuggling a little contraband masked by legitimate cargo. It's all there for the player to use as they create an unique adventure.

In the end, you'll have to tell us how we did. I hope we can go on to make a whole lot more games, explore the far reaches of the Cygnus galaxy, and deliver the majority of our game ideas into gamers' hands. For that, we need your support. Since you made it all the way to the end of this entry, I hope that means we are already entertaining you. Thank you for your support!


See you next time!