Starbase Orion's long road to perfection31 Jul 2013 0
When I first played Starbase Orion in late 2011 -- back when it originally came out -- it was a passably good iOS 4X game: competent but colorless. Playable but forgettable. The video game equivalent of a Friends re-run. It excelled at passing the time and not much else.
Today, Starbase Orion is one of the deepest, most polished, and most accomplished strategy games on mobile. It's a Swiss clock of a game, and it's one of the few games on iOS that can credibly claim to rival PC titles in complexity. Two years of continuous post-release development will do that for you.
The 4X game (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate -- typified by Civilization) is a cursed genre. Making it big with a great 4X game is fantasy on the level of wanting to be a successful rapper or an NFL quarterback -- there's a lot of guys trying to make it and only a tiny handful will succeed and hit that Sid Meier jackpot.
For most aspiring 4X game developers, chasing that dream will drive their studio to bankruptcy, give their publisher reason to offload them, or cause them to spend years self-flagellating in atonement for how bad the game turned out. The genre attracts only the naïve, the mentally unstable, and those of Herculean stamina who succeed through sheer determination. Starbase Orion developer Rocco Bowling is one of the latter.
As you read this, Rocco Bowling is probably working on Starbase Orion. When you go to bed tonight, he will probably still be working on Starbase Orion. Chimera Software (which is the name under which Rocco operates his one-man game development outfit) has been toiling away on the title since 2010: a new feature this week, a bug fix next week. In an iOS market dominated by game dev factories that crank out new iterations of familiar titles on 180-day cycles, Bowling and SO are an aberration.
"A popular business strategy for indies on the App Store is to concept, build, and ship a new game every 3-4 months; if it takes any longer than that, the risk/reward scenario starts to tip out of your favor," Bowling tells me. "This philosophy doesn't work well for original 4X games; the 3-4 months is simply too short a timeframe for this genre. Starbase Orion's initial development cycle was over 13 months; a large commitment just to get out the door! That kind of commitment required a follow up, so I had planned a few more months of work post-release."
But that planned "few more months" turned out much better than Bowling could have hoped for. Starbase Orion might not have connected with me when it was first released, but it quickly built up a loyal fanbase. Good 4X games are rare enough on PC; on iOS, the only real option besides Starbase Orion is Ascendency -- a classic game, but one whose twenty-year-old design is starting to creak. 4X fans flocked to the game. "I didn't anticipate the success of SO, both in sales and active player involvement. A few months turned into two years in the blink of an eye," Bowling says. "Players are still coming up with awesome ideas."
The implementation of those ideas is part what's made Starbase Orion so unique on iOS. It's easily one of the deepest strategy games on the App Store, approaching the level of complexity of a PC 4X game like Civilization or Sword of the Stars. 4X games are a complex genre by their very nature, and balancing the demands for a strong AI and robust multiplayer are no small task -- but SO has managed to marry complexity and accessibility perfectly.
Each playable race in the game has different strengths and weaknesses, which can be offset or enhanced by hiring mercenaries (a post-release addition) to govern your planets or lead your fleets. Players research technologies and design the ships that make up those fleets themselves, then give their ships tactical orders before they go into combat. Special agents can be recruited to spy on or sabotage competing civilizations. And it's all wrapped up in a friendly, accessible UI that gleams from two years of polish, and it plays equally well as a single-player experience or a multiplayer brawl.
A lot of that is standard 4X fare -- but Starbase Orion has some features that its PC cousins do not. Besides the now-customary balance tweaks and new gameplay elements, the most recent update to Starbase Orion has added a Cloud AI feature that processes turns on Chimera's own servers, speeding up single-player games. This is a one-man studio building in the kind of shiny future technology that EA promised in the new SimCity game (but which turned out to be the least-liked rights management scheme since feudalism instead).
"From the start Starbase Orion was architected to be a multiplayer game; the 'single player' mode is essentially a multiplayer game using some server code built directly into the app," Bowling tells me. "As such, it really wasn't that hard to utilize the new dedicated server to accept a turn, process it, and return the results. Almost a little shocking how easily it worked, and the benefits for the players has been tremendous."
How can Bowling sustain a cloud server for a game with a single up-front price and no in-app purchases or subscription fees? "I have already set aside funds to cover the projected server costs for the next several years," Bowling replies. "Although to answer your specific question, new SO sales more than cover the run cost of the servers."
It seems like Bowling is chained Starbase Orion for the forseeable future whether he wants to be or not -- but he seems to enjoy his shackles. A longtime computer science academic and instructor, he had dabbled in game development over the years. In 2003, he released an Axis & Allies-like strategy game called Solace for Mac; but making strategy games for Macs in the early 2000s wasn't exactly a ticket to stardom, so Bowling went back to more technical work.
In 2011, an opportunity presented itself. "I had participated in the 2011 Google AI contest, whose focus was on making a Galcon-inspired AI. When you think of a 4X space game at the fleet level, the challenges for the AI are very similar -- what ships should I send where, and so on."
Bowling decided that developing the AI codebase he'd built into a proper game was too good an opportunity to pass up. "At the time, there was only one 4X space game available [in the App Store]. There are very few genre holes on the App Store, and at the time 4X space games was one of them. As it turns out, I wasn't the only one who noticed! Empire of the Eclipse came out just after Starbase Orion followed 3-4 more titles within the next year. I was a big Moo2 fan back in the day, a fan who loved the game but was annoyed the few times I tried to play it multiplayer. 4X is a genre that I really enjoy and wanted to see revived for my platform of choice."
Earlier this year, Bowling tried to make the jump from iOS to PC and Android, enlisting the support of crowdfunders via Kickstarter. The pitch ended up with just one-fifth of its intended $40,000 goal. Bowling is sanguine about the failure. "I used Kickstarter to help answer the question of how much demand there was out there for a port of SO. [Not getting funded] simply helped confirm that I shouldn't go down the porting path at that time." But don't be surprised if you see another Kickstarter in the near future -- at least one aimed at facilitating the PC port. "It's a shame that SO doesn't exist on the mother platform of the genre," Bowling says.
As good as Starbase Orion is today, Bowling doesn't consider it finished. "Players can expect more multiplayer features such as player rankings and player tournaments. Game balance adjustments, planned new technologies, and some long requested features such as fleet rally points will make it into the game.
"Updates for Starbase Orion will continue for the foreseeable future." Or at least a few more months.