Out There: Critique & Strategy

Out There is a Rogue-like in space.  It can be a very frustrating experience, but some of that is inherent in the genre.  Rogue-likes are notorious for randomness, which can cause player death/failure with little to no warning.  Repeated failure is a hallmark of the genre, and the difference in growing player skill/mastery is generally not about whether you die or not but how far you get before that happens.

One of the ways that Out There is different is that it offers a discrete ending.  This is a key distinction, because rather than making the condition of success about getting farther than you have before, this puts a clear endpoint and target on the experience for the player.  (Spoiler:  There are actually three endings, each with a different “win” condition that get introduced over the course of the game).  In some ways, this makes it more frustrating when you lose, because it is not the case that every playthrough will end in death.

There are a lot of nice, little touches in the game: interesting scripted events, options that are only available when you have certain types of technology equipped, the different layouts of the ships, a wide variety of random occurrences, etc.  But, there are two critical failings that destroy the game experience for me.

First, there are a number of failure states where the player cannot know that they are at a dead end without putting a fair amount of extra effort in.  For example, as you progress deeper into the star field, the nodes become more distant; to get past a certain stage in the game, you must have picked up a technology that extends the range of your ship.  However, due to the randomness of the tech tree, it is entirely possible to never find any of the three technologies that allow you to do this.  Or, given a particularly bad distribution of one resource (fuel is an easy one) in the early part of the map, it can be literally impossible to reach the area of the map where new ships begin to appear, making it impossible to progress.  Or, being “warped” to a different part of the map (a not-uncommon result of various random events) can put you into a region where you can navigate among a few nodes, but not leave that particular sub-section.

Let me be clear: it’s not the failure that irks me.  It’s the fact that the game allows the player to continue to play the game when they are in a state that is not recoverable.  There are basic, discrete population and spacing tests that can be done algorithmically to avoid these states.  Killing the player due to a random event is not a sin, in itself, especially if the player was already teetering on the verge of dying.  However, giving the player the illusion of agency when every available path leads to death and failure breaks a fundamental contract between the game and the player – a contract that was established when the game gave the player a specific target goal.

This problem is exacerbated by the high cost of routine actions.  I’m not referring to the fuel, oxygen, and hull depletion that happens with almost every action (although tuning down some of those costs could easily make the early game more survivable); rather, I’m talking about the interface/player cost of the actions.  Because you have three resources that you are continually trying to replenish, doing something as simple as exploring the planets in a particular system involves a lot of back-and-forth between various interface screens, as you mine, sort your inventory, maintain your stockpiles, re-arrange your stacks, etc.  In a classic Rogue-like, exploring has little to no cost; your primary resource drain is combat.

In Out There, everything you do has a cost, and every cost ends up requiring player actions sooner or later (often sooner, particularly if you want to stay alive).  So, when you’re stuck in a dead-end path, it takes a fair amount of time and energy to discover that you have no options.  So, not only is the player robbed of the potential win, their agency is wasted.  You are better off quitting and re-starting, except that the game does not tell you that, so you have no choice but to continue to fight for survival, even though it is futile.  And again, with a little cleverness in seeding the map, this is avoidable.  For example, there have been several times where I was so low on resources (or stuck in a dead-end backwater branch) that the only option was to take a new ship; I cannot tell you how many times I have transferred all of my resources and equipment to that ship (again, a serious investment in interface effort), only to discover that the ship cannot make a jump long enough to get out of that particular map sub-section.

To steal a phrase from Ernest Adams: bad game designer, no twinkie.  It would be trivial to do a sub-section analysis and make sure that any ship present in that area can back-track back to the beginning of the game.  You could also seed one of the range-extension technologies on one of the planets as well as the resources needed to build it.  It’s not that the problem isn’t solvable, rather the developers didn’t care, didn’t see the solution, or didn’t have the resources to implement a solution.

The second issue is full of spoilers.

I’ve warned you.

If you want to find out for yourself, skip down a ways.

So, about 40 jumps into the game (as far as I can tell, the game measures time in number of system-to-system transitions that you make), an enemy faction appears.  This event is punitive in the extreme.  You lose a lot of resources (including entire stacks; I’ve lost 40 Helium and 20 Hydrogen before, taking me from well-stocked to dry in one event), you forget two technologies (including the possibility of losing basic abilities like the Interstellar Reactor, Space Folder, Drill, and Hydrogen Probe, essentially making it impossible to re-build any of these if they break and therefore also making it impossible to change ships and make progress), and two technologies that you have equipped are broken.

This one event can entirely cripple your ship.  For example, if you lose the Iron and Omega that you can use to repair your Interstellar Reactor and Space Folder, and those are the two technologies that break, you can be completely dead in the water.  Even in the best of cases, forgetting two technologies and losing multiple resources puts you in a fairly major hole.  In addition, all systems that you visit after this event have a chance to have their planets occupied by the hostile faction, making them completely inaccessible to you as a player (combat is not an option).  It is entirely possible for the hostile faction to have control over every gas giant within reach, again making your death inevitable but painfully slow to verify that there are no outs.

What makes this even worse (more spoilers here) is that if you are trying to complete the first objective (the red one, the one that you start the game with), not only is it impossible to go all the way out there and back to where you need to go before the hostile faction event triggers, but it is possible for the hostile faction event to erase one of the two technologies that are essential for finishing the game, and/or robbing you of the key resources that you need to have to do this.  Plus, it makes all travel harder and less reliable, because the way-points and resources that you used to get to the red objective (which is always separated from the main star field by a linear sequence of highly spaced nodes) are not all accessible as you re-trace your way back.

Again, I have no problem with making the ultimate objective difficult to achieve.  In fact, I like that there are three distinct end goals (so far, there may be a fourth that I haven’t found yet).  But the hardest one should not be the first one you introduce the player to.  And, if you’re going to make that goal difficult in one way (like positioning), throwing the hostile faction event on top of that is just pouring salt in the wounds.  There is no way to prepare for that event.  No matter what you have done in terms of stocking your ship, picking up technology, etc., the random and broadly destructive nature of that event can disable any plan.  And the only way to discover that is to get 40+ systems into the game.

Not only does this devalue player agency; it also devalues player skill.  There are ways that you can get better at this game, no doubt (see the strategy tips below), but the combination of the complexity of the final objective with the broadly random destructive nature of the hostile faction event means that you have to be extremely lucky to have any chance of winning the game.  That’s on top of being highly skilled.  I love slot machines, but don’t make the entire game a slot machine that I have to invest 30+ minutes of tedious, inventory-managing effort into just to find out that I got a lemon.

Okay, end of spoilers.

Seriously, it’s safe to read again.

So, in my final analysis, Out There is an interesting experiment, and I can see why it would be intriguing to people making games with procedurally generated playing fields (cough), but I do not recommend it.  At a basic level, the game fails to value and reward player agency and the development of skills and mastery, and that goes against the core principles of what a game is.  I could pick a lot of other nits with the writing, the events, the language system, but they are all tangential issues.  At its core, this game punishes players for playing, and I don’t see any reason why people should waste their time and money on games like that.

However, if you’re going to ignore everything I’ve just told you, here are some tips for getting farther in the game:

  • The first new ship you can take over does not appear until the fifth “ring” out from the starting position (in this case, starting position = 0).  Don’t waste time exploring in these early nodes.  Get to the fifth ring with as many key resources as you can, then ditch your starting ship.
  • You are going to need a range-extension technology to get to a win condition.  Once you have your new ship, focus on finding one of these.  Technology only becomes available through exchange with alien lifeforms, random events, and landing on rocky planets.  Keep your ship stocked as you move down and right, but take every opportunity to get more technology; if you don’t, you’re destined to fail anyway.
  • The alien language system resets with every playthrough, so it’s always a bit of a crap-shoot.  Always have Iron and Hydrogen in your cargo when looking for technology or Omega on these planets.  Also (not 100% verified), if you get a negative response for one choice with one alien lifeform, do the opposite response the next time you get a choice.
  • If you don’t have the resource an alien wants, leave rather than trying to give them something.  This leaves them open for re-visiting later.  If you have no interesting resources, you can also repeatedly encounter them to pick up more vocabulary.
  • Putting a subordinate technology (like Gravitational Lens) next to a primary technology (Telescope, in this case), gives an extra bonus.  Don’t be afraid to dismantle and reassemble pieces of your ship to get the adjacency bonus.
  • The most slots you can have on a ship is 20 (the biosphere-type).  Since anything can be repaired with Omega, you want to optimize your cargo around survival (fuel, oxygen, iron) rather than building more things.  Of those three, lack of oxygen is the least likely to get you killed (although it can happen).
  • Your Drill (or Hydrogen Probe) never breaks at depth 6.  It can break at depth 7.  So, when drilling, go for 6 or 10 (make sure you have spare Iron to re-build your Drill if you go for 10) depending on how many resources you need.  Using the Hydrogen Probe at depths >6 just depletes the resources faster, so it’s not worth the chance of breaking it.  If you have the Planetary Expansion, drilling deeper than 6 can actually cause you to get less resources because they don’t all fit in the queue on the left.
  • Don’t drill (or probe) more than three times in a row at the same location.  Diminishing returns kick in hard.  If you can’t recoup your investment on half of what you got last time, stop.
  • If you leave a star system, it loses all history of what you mined/probed, but the values for the planets remains the same.  You can bounce back and forth between two star systems with particularly lucrative planets to build up your reserves.  Just keep in mind that if you do this early, the clock is ticking.
  • You can build equipment when in the drilling results menu; use this when you need to shuffle things around to build something without losing other resources.
  • If you have enough space, keep some extra resources around in case you need to switch ships and re-build tech.  My general priority stack (after the four essentials and Omega) is Silicon, Thorium, Platinum, Gold, Tungsten (if I have a lot of resistance tech), Hafnium (only if I have the Subspace Reactor tech).  Rarer elements, like Copper, Cobalt, Carbon, are only useful if you have something specific you need to build.
  • Don’t bother building Cryonics unless you also have Shared Cryonics and plenty of space to work with.  It just doesn’t make that much of an impact.
  • Range-extension tech (Space Folder dependent) is more important than cost-reduction tech (Interstellar Reactor dependent).
  • Black Holes never have planets, but they can have ships and space stations.  Only use them as waypoints if you don’t have other choices or you are completely stocked on key resources.
  • Move as quickly as you can towards your objective.  The more jumps it takes you to get there, the more likely you are going to get screwed.

Okay, that’s enough for now.  You shouldn’t be playing this game anyways.

Facebook’s Tilted Table

The social media streams have blown up overnight with the news that Facebook has bought the company making the Oculus Rift VR hardware for $2BN.  That’s not what this post is about, although I’ll touch on that later.  Rather, there are a few aspects to running a game on Facebook of which many developers and likely almost all consumers are unaware.  No platform is completely free of bias (Apple curates the App store, Google Play sells advertising, etc.), but Facebook is particularly nefarious in the way that they put their thumb on the scales, and it’s something that I think more people should be aware of.

First off, it’s no secret that Facebook takes 30% of revenue off the top for all RMT (real money transactions, the equivalent of in-app purchases on iOS).  That’s actually become fairly standard, but it definitely skews the economics of publishing.  If you’re looking at a true indie, self-published game vs. publishing on FB (or iOS, which charges the same 30%), that margin can easily make the difference between sustainability and collapse.  The question you have to ask is, what do you get for that 30%?

The answer, by and large, is that you get access to the users of that platform.  In the case of iOS, you get some limitation on the number/variants of hardware and software that you have to deal with, but no such advantage exists on FB or Android.  Access to users doesn’t mean anything, though, unless you can actually reach them.  In the last five years, FB has systematically shut down viral channels that game developers used.  The techniques that early players on the platform used to grow their user bases are simply not available anymore.

For a lot of FB users, this represents progress: not getting spammed in your newsfeed because one of your friends is playing a game; getting newsfeed stories grouped together when you are playing a game; culling repetitive posts; better control over what’s on your timeline, and so on.  However, for the game businesses that used these tools, each channel that gets shut down is another vector for advertising that no longer exists.

That’s fine for FB.  The thing is, their business takes over where the viral channels end.  In other words, the advertising that used to be so cheap, easy, and ubiquitous is now securely behind a paywall, and the guardian of that gate is FB themselves.

Let’s do a little math.  The classic formula is that if your lifetime value (LTV) for a player – the amount of money on average that a player will spend over their lifetime with the game – is higher than your cost of acquisition (CPI) – how much you spend to bring in a player – you’re in a virtuous cycle where you can spend more money to bring in more players and scale up your profit.  If your CPI is $1 and your LTV is $2, in theory you can scale your population and profit by a dollar for every marketing dollar you spend.  In theory.

The problem is that as you scale up your population, the CPI goes up – users are harder to come by, so you have to spend more to get them.  Whereas in the early days of FB games, CPI was measured in pennies and dimes, now it’s easily $2+.  So, that game that could make bank at an LTV of $1 is now a losing proposition.

Why does the cost keep going up?  Because FB is arbitraging advertising costs.  Aside from mining data and selling it, this is probably the most profitable thing that they do.  Pretty much all of that CPI goes to FB, either directly through purchasing ads, or indirectly through using FB ads managed by a third-party and otherwise feeding players’ connections to FB.  So, let’s say that you can manage an LTV of $3.  In theory, you might be able to build a business on that (although not easily).  Remember, FB gets 30% off the top ($0.90), so at a CPI of $2, your margin is literally 10 cents per player.

Meanwhile, FB is grossing $2.90, plus you’re feeding engagement with their platform.  Everything you do to increase monetization and retention in your game is actually feeding monetization and retention for FB as well, and in most cases, they’re getting the far, far better end of the deal.  Because, remember, whether or not a player ever pays a penny in your game, you’ve already paid FB for that user.  Whether your game reaches sustainability or not, FB gets paid.

And, in fact, there is nothing to keep FB from constantly (albeit slowly) ratcheting up the advertising costs, increasing your CPI and their profit margin; remember, the money they make from your acquisition of users ($2) far outweighs the money they make from your users buying things ($0.90), plus it’s reliable income.  As you try to scale your population to reach sustainability in your business, you pay that money to FB, scaling their profits while your margins shrink.

This is not to say that there are not success stories on FB.  Battle Pirates is posting some of its highest revenue numbers ever, and it’s been out for three years.  What you’re not seeing, though, in the social games space, is a lot of innovation, new companies, new games, or new success stories.  Most of the people who are making bank on FB were there early, and the more successful ones went cross-platform years ago.

As a platform, FB is a bit of a venus flytrap.  It looks fine from the outside, but the more involved you get, the better they can suck you (and your audience) dry.  They are, figuratively, killing the very organisms that made their ecosystem possible in the first place.  As Greg Costikyan said, the walls are closing in.

So, some people are upset about FB buying anything they like, because they recognize this predatory dynamic in FB’s relationship with its developers.  That is probably a very, very small fraction of the outrage, though.  More likely sources include:

  • Post-indie syndrome.  You know when that band you loved and was totally cool suddenly became mega-popular and everyone knows about them now, so they’re not cool anymore?  Yeah, that’s what happens when FB buys a company you like.
  • Envy.  Someone founds a VR company and gets to be an instant billionaire, but I still have to work for a living?  Screw that guy.
  • Not understanding Kickstarter.  Kickstarter did not fund Oculus as a business; they provided publicity and a way for people to get dev kits.  However, for the people who put money down thinking they were getting early access to the next big thing, they now feel like they’ve lost an opportunity that they paid for.  This is an illusion, but still emotionally powerful.
  • False consciousness.  All mega-corporations are evil!  I’m better than you capitalist drones because I shop at the organic farmers market (although my clothes are still made by workers in the third world).

The real impact of this acquisition won’t be knowable for years.  However, that will not stop people on the internet from publicizing themselves via having an opinion about it.