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Star Traders: Frontiers – A Game That Works

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

I know I rarely plug things here unless they’re cool – and because I’ve been playing an incredibly cool game, it’s time to not just plug it, but talk about what we can learn from it.

The game is Star Traders: Frontiers by Trese Brothers.  They’ve been building games in their own, detailed universe for awhile, and this is a successor to a mindbending mobile game from years back.  It’s an open-galaxy space adventure, but the description doesn’t quite do it justice.

What they’ve basically created is a Space Opera simulator.  Even in Early Access, it’s an impressive job.  I wanted to go over just why it succeeds so well at it’s goal.

The game starts with you picking (or creating) a template for your captain, their contacts, traits, and faction.  Depending on your setting the game will set things up for you, or you can extensively customize your starting crew.  This is the first sign the game is more than it seems – if you dive in with both feet, you’ll realize there’s a lot here as you ask about profession levels, skills, and even personality traits (each crew member has a unique personality).

The game itself has distinct mechanics that, separately, aren’t overly complicated.

  • Characters in the game are a mix of professions or a profession (which provide bonuses to common abilities and skills over time), talents (unlocked by the professions), and personality traits (which can get pretty wild).  Nothing is overly complex, but these factors intereact . . .
  • Your ship is basically a pile of equipment.  Most of this is also straightforward – torpedoes with certain ranges, equipment gives you bonuses to finding things while exploring, and so on.  It’s just there’s a lot of it, and it can affect your characters, or their skills, or cargo capacity, or . . .
  • You can trade.  The trade engine is wonderfully clear and straightforward – certain kinds of worlds produce or want certain things, and with a keen eye and a bit of planning, you can make a tidy profit in a short time.  Though various skills and events may affect this . . .
  • You can explore planets, spy on worlds, patrol for trouble, and blockade an enemy.  These all use a simple card game where you get a hand of five cards, can use some skills to modify them, and one is randomly chosen as a result.  Nice and simple, though results vary with skills and location . . .
  • You of course have space battles.  Skills from characters, equipment on your ship, all come together to give you options in battle.  This is made easy to manage because you have three things you can do in battle at the same time – move, fire certain weapons, and use one crew skill.  The basics are easy, but as I said there are options . . .
  • You might even get into close combat.  There’s a simple party-of-four battle engine.  Equipment for characters is upgraded automatically unless you get a hold of specialist gear (buy a better weapons locker for your ship, everyone gets new gear).  There’s plenty of skills though, and many combat classes, so though it’s easy to play you have many options . . .
  • There’s also contacts – each of which is also unique.  You can get missions from them, get help, and even meet new people.  Much like your crew, most are randomly generated – and you don’t always know about them.  I had at least two cases where I later found out a valuable contact was a traitor . . .
  • Finally, there’s politics.  Each faction has unique abilities and as you play the factions ally, fight, and more – which can affect your game.  You can manage reputations with factions, and even get things like permits and ranks.  Their interactions add a richness to the game:  a simple trade during a trade war can destroy your reputation, an alliance may give you great opportunities.  Your contacts might send you on a mission that ends up starting a war.
  • All of this takes place in a well-designed universe.  These various parts mean something.

None of these systems is overly complicated – the ship building part is the most complicated and in the end a lot of that is “swapping stuff”.  But as you noticed they all interact, making a game that feels like it’s in a living setting.  This interaction is what makes the game truly work because any one element can affect – and be affected, by all the others.

I think this is a good lesson for game design.  Individual mechanics need to be clear and spelled out, and not too complex.  However the complexity of their interactions brings life to the game.  As almost any factor in the game can affect any other factor, but the individual parts must be clear and identifiable.

I’d also note that some of the in-game mechanics aren’t exactly what you’d expect in games.  The contact portion is more of LinkedIn in space.  The card game for various common actions is a nice way to simulate space adventure without getting too complex, but the card mechanism isn’t used elsehwere in the game.  It’s a bit like the mechanics are best-of-breed ideas – all working together.

The end result of all of this is that Star Traders: Frontiers is one of the most compelling games I’ve seen in a long time.  Every action is it’s own adventure.  Every choice alters the game.  Each little thing is easy to understand, but you have to consider it in part of the whole.

I’ll probably be learning even more as I play it – it’s Early Access, so I’m expecting there to be more lessons . . .

-Steven Savage