Star Traders: Frontiers – A Game That Works

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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

Playing Producer: An Overwatch RPG?

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

Taking a break from my more dramatic posts to do a bit of game analysis here!

As people discuss Blizzard’s next projects, somewhere I saw a comment that maybe Blizzard’s next goal would be a Destiny-like Overwatch FPS RPG. You know the basic idea – something like Destiny and it’s sequels, Borderlands, and so on. That got me thinking – is this a viable idea?    Also feel free to use any of these ideas.

I won’t beat around the bush – if an Overwatch action RPG with MMO-like elements (or a pseudo-MMO) was considered, would I play it? Well, honestly probably yes – but I’m just one person. But would it be a viable product for more than “Steve” and how would it be done.

Since I always love analyzing these things, let’s make me a stand-in Product Owner and producer and ask if this’d work.  Hey, come on of course I’m going to bring this back to my love of processes, Agile, and organization . . .

Factor #1: Product Synergy

Product Synergy is important to Blizzard, as one can witness by everything from movies to game tie-ins to whatever the bizarre Heroes Of The Storm roster. So first up, does an Overwatch FPS RPG provide good product synergy?

That’s pretty obvious – yes. It ties into an existing propery. It parallels an existing product (Destiny 2). It’d be a genre not explored in “core” Blizzard properties.  There’s tons of media crossover potential to be tapped.

Plus with that much lore? An RPG would let peope go nuts.

Summary: Yes, there’s product synergy.

Factor #2: Market

Secondly is there a market for a FPS RPG? Blizzard, after all, is known for polishing existing ideas to a fine sheen. These have been done in various forms – in fact, with Destiny 2 they’re kinda doing it now. So is there a market for another FPS RPG or just an Overwatch RPG.

I think so – this area has seen a number of successes in various formats and settings. The big worry would be doing it in a way that stood out. Fortunately Overwatch already stands out, but this is no sure bet.

I’d also add that maybe an FPS RPG isn’t the best idea depending on how accessible you want it to audiences.

Summary: Probably a market, but I’m not as sure.

Factor #3: Would It Compete With Destiny 2?

OK yes it probably would, let’s not lie. I’m not sure if it’d be a problem as Destiny fans are pretty dedicated, though I could see this producing bad blood.

However I don’t know what Destiny 2’s lifespan will be like – and I’m not sure it’s lore and peripheral elements lead to a larger mindshare over time. Competition would lesson over time – and I expect Destiny 2 to fade in time.

Still there’d have to be some awareness of this. Even if you could do it, say, this year, you shouldn’t.  Give it time.

Summary: It would complete with Destiny 2, and that has to be taken into account.

Factor #4: Could it stand out?

Well, bluntly, yes. Though it’s easy to compare Overwatch to Team Fortress 2 and other “people with guns” games, it’s really a superhero FPS. In turn an RPG would be more like a Superhero RPG with a unique take – and though we’ve had them in various forms, the best survivors I’ve seen were tie-ins.  Overwatch could forge ahead with a semi-superhero RPG as its own thing.

On top of this, Overwatch also has a very strong lore to build on. An Overwatch FPS RPG that *delivered* on the world, letting people immerse themselves in a setting, would definitely stand out. I’d wager a well done Overwatch FPS RPG would set a new standard for immersion of done right.

Summary: Yes, it’d stand out.

Factor #5: What about the economy?

Does the economy have room for Blizzard to drop a big property?

Here’s where there’s an issue – I’m not sure about the state of the economy right now. We’ve got political instability and the long slow recovery from the Great Recession may be the longest period of sustained growth, but not everyone recovered. Also, we’re probably due a recession.

In addition there is the potential competition with Destiny 2 and other action RPG games (say, Warframe).  The market is also saturated with Battle Royale type stuff.  Probably not the best time.

So launching anything like this wouldn’t be something to try to rush out or get out in 2 years. I don’t think it’d be viable until 2021 or 2022.

Summary: In the next few years this probably isn’t the best time.  3-4 years is probably a better timeframe

Factor #6: Will it detract from Overwatch’s interest?

I see two factors here:

  1. First, it well could, especially if it’s “Overwatch with some RPG” bolted on. Imagine if you could play Overwatch with some bits and bobs, and if it’d distract you from the core game (for me, yes).  You can’t make “Overwatch Fortress 2” with some customization elements and expect it not to compete.
  2. Secondly, it might increase its lifespan of Overwatch if done right. I’ve found myself loosing interest (indeed, Overwatch took me away from TF2, which I was losing interest in), and am not sure my own interest will sustain much beyond another year. But a new way to experience Overwatch (and some tie-ins) could keep me there.

So if an Overwatch RPG can synergize with the game but not detract from it, then I think it’s not just viable but may keep people involved. However, this may mean it’s more viable as a regular RPG so there’s less competition mechanics-wise. In other words, it might not be an FPS, though I’d preferr it.

I’d also note my above statement it might not be viable for a few years could let it refresh Overwatch if/when it sags.

As I analyze, I’ll proceed with the idea of an Overwatch RPG that would probably be FPS – but am not sure.

Summary: An Overwatch RPG has to stand out distinct from Overwatch while building interest.  That means it may not be an FPS, and would have to be both distinct and related to the starter property.

BONUS ROUND: Pen And Paper Tie-In?

One way to judge interest in an MMO would be to release a pen-and-paper tie-in related to any future game system to check buy in, gain synergy, and of course make money and build buzz.

Moving On

So next up, I’ll discuss just what an Overwatch RPG might be like.

And I’m sort of enjoying playing Product Manager . . .

– Steve

Fallen London: Why It Works

(This column is posted at,, and Steve’s Tumblr)

I found Failbetter Games browser-based adventure game Fallen London via it’s Kickstarted sister game, Sunless Sea, a kind of nautical rogue like of comedy-horror-adventure. I quickly took to Fallen London’s playable-novel style of adventure (in fact, moreso than the brilliant but nerve-wracking Sunless Sea). As I played this game I began to wonder just why I had taken to it so much – enough to get a monthly subscription for extra elements. That’s where this essay comes in.

It’s clear this award-winning browser game has a certain something that compelled me and others. By getting my own thoughts together here I hope to make a small contribution to game analysis, as well as understand my reactions. Fallen London got me thinking about game mechanics in surprising ways, and a good analysis should help me – and others.

So let’s look at Fallen London – and what it does right. Join me, Delicious Friend.

The Basics of Fallen London

In Fallen London you’re a newcomer to the Victorian subterranean city, which was London some thirty years ago until it was stolen below ground by strange forces. Now under control of the mysterious if often friendly Masters of the Bazaar, nominally ruled by the “Traitor Empress” that made a deal with them, it’s a haunted, weird, scary, and wonderful place. Hell is nearby and has an Embassy, living objects come from distant shores of the underground “Unterzee” and previous stolen cities ruins lie around. Also, people are mailing cats.

You walk into this as a newcomer, arrested for some reason (likely just coming there), and upon escaping embark on your own destiny. Poet, spy, mercenary, investigator, and more all are available to you. As you progress you make connections, improve your character, find lodgings, unlock further secrets, and so on. Whatever you do is up to you.

All of this happens with very well-written text and story vignettes that really bring the half-horror half-comedic setting to life. Fallen London, bluntly, is probably better written than most any game and quite a few books, somewhere between Monty Python, Eldritch Horror, and Discworld.

As I analyzed it I was able to find six areas that the game did things right. These traits and mechanics, in combination, produce a marvelous experience.

Let’s take a look.

Fallen London’s Writing Writing: Expressive, Layered, Personal

It’s hard not to go on about the writing in Fallen London. Were it simply a series of novels or a comic series it’d be an epic experience on its own. The fact this writing is couched as a game makes it even more compelling as you live the writing. This excellent wordsmithing succeeds due to three factors:

Writing Comes First. It’s very clear that the writing of Fallen London is meant to be of the highest quality. The tale-telling clearly has come first over all else, bringing you into the setting, but also making the choices and usual actions of an RPG have a particular urgency and life to them. The writing is not just witty and illustrative – it makes your choices feel real, and the choices and plots are well-thought out.

Branching And Combining Stories. Various conditions unlock story options, stories have multiple resolutions with real impact, and the end of one of the tales may lead to several others. This produces clear choices that feel very real – and are often real as they will lock future choices on one hand, while opening others or at lest providing resources to open them.

Parts Of A Whole. Though there are many stories and “storylets” great care has been taken to make them part of a whole. A mysterious squid-faced man handing you a chunk of slimy amber isn’t a random event, but is due to a backstory. A marsh filled with giant mushrooms isn’t just a marsh, but the site of races as people have discovered that running across giant mushrooms is rather sporting. Everything is connected (finding these connections could occupy you quite a bit in the game).

Abstract Characters. One of the most curious elements of Fallen London is most characters are referred to by abstract names – the Wry Functionary, the Knuckle-Scarred Inspector, and so on. Instead of making them distant this abstraction makes them archetypical, giving them life, while also making the experience personal and unique. Everyone may encounter a Sardonic Music-Hall Singer, but it’s their own, personal one.

Attributes And Failure States In Fallen London: Clear, Abstract, Applicable

Representing characters with various numbers is a classic element of role-playing games. Fallen London is no different, but does it with a mix of generality, clarity, and precision.

Distinct Attributes. Characters are represented by four different Attributes – Watchful, Shadowy, Dangerous, and Persuasive. These Attributes affect a character’s chance to succeed at an appropriate task with a simple random “roll,” and a success provides colorful descriptive text as well as various rewards This simplicity makes characters and characters easy to understand – but also distinct depending on how high that Attribute is.

Attributes Associated With Settings. Various areas of the setting are associated with the activities requiring a given Attribute or Attributes. A monster-haunted area may yield mostly Dangerous tasks, while a street of crime and mysterious couriers may have mostly Shadowy activities. The limited but distinct sets of Attributes in turn allows for easy definition of various areas of the game and the stories within, as well as what one may do there.

Distinct Failure States. Each Attribute has a parallel failure state called a Menace that usually increases if one fails a more severe challenge – for instance failing a Dangerous challenge may result in an increase to Wounds. One can usually guess the probable results of a failure state from the Attribute involved and the descriptive text. The failure states also contain witty descriptions, such as one where spending time with a Vicar raises the Menace of Scandal when said Vicar turns out to be a reporter in disguise who assumes less than pure intentions. Failure is a story.

Unique Results Of Failure States. The Menaces can be treated by specific actions, such as taking Laudanum to deal with the Menace of Nightmares. In addition, if Menaces get too high then the character you play suffers specific effects, such as being imprisoned for having too much Suspicion. Addressing these challenges leads to further stories, making the tale one experiences both appropriate and unique.

Acquired Traits: Linear, Distinct, Multiple

As the character adventures, they make friends, solve cases, advance in the ranks of clubs, and so on. Representing these is done distinct from the attributes in question, often as the result of an action.

Achievements By Simple Numbers. To represent the connections people make, achievements and reputations and so on, there’s simple number scores characters acquire. These represent everything from how good a thief they are to how well-connected they may be to the police. A character may have many of these or only a few – it depends on the activities of the characters. This simple method allows for very complex character differences all with different “piles” of simple numbers.

Reputation As Number. Depending on how a character dresses, their home, and how they comport themselves, they get reputations – Bizarre, Respected, etc. that also have simple number scores, much like Attributes. The items that influence these traits, of course, often have clever and witty descriptions.

Use Of Acquired Traits. Acquired traits open up new story opportunities or may even be used like Attributes in some occasions, such as using one’s Dreaded reputation to threaten someone. Thus these acquired traits become goals, rewards, and tools while just being simple numeric stores. The drive to upgrade them also helps propel some of the game, and may inspire players to upgrade equipment and Attributes.

Progress In Fallen London: Numerical And Relevant

Progress in various ventures in Fallen London is measured by numeric scores, much like the acquired traits.

Progress Is A Number. Progress in almost anything is represented by a simple number score, often raised by challenges against Attributes or exchanging certain items. One may be “Solving a Case” and solve it when one has a score of ten. Or one may be exploring an area and solve it when one has ten points of “Exploring.” These scores are like very temporary Acquired traits, and often reset when a venture is over. These provide clear, simple measurements of progress.

Progress Influences Story. At a certain amount of “points” gained towards knowing a character or group you may unlock options such as starting a romantic relationship. Other scores may increase the challenge, such as solving a case getting harder the further one progresses, with new challenges arising. The score becomes a signal of challenges to come as well as a goal (and a player may feel their heart race as a score climbs . . .)

Negative And Conflicting Progress. These progress scores may, at times be negative or even conflict. One may be trying to outrun a rival, and as “progress” increases the rival is closer. Or one may be trying to keep one score up and another down. A few simple numbers can lead to complex stories and decisions.

Inventory; Abstracted, Related, Storied

Having a large inventory of “stuff” is a time-honored RPG tradition, and Fallen London is no different. However it uses the “adventurer inventory” to cover a wider range of ground, representing possessions far differently.

Everything As Inventory. Anything in one’s possession is portrayed in inventory, but this goes beyond guns or treasures. Possessions can also include knowledge, stories, or insights (each with its own description). One may thus have 1000 Clues or 50 different seafaring stories from their ventures – treated and inventoried no different than 70 pieces of Jade or a mysterious pistol. By treating everything as inventory the game allows a unique way to measure progress and address challenges – one may need to blackmail and enemy, and that story requires 3 Blackmail Materials (which a handy intriguer may have handy).

Inventory Presents Story Options. An item in your inventory isn’t just something to sell or “spend” for a challenge, be it pearls or an Appaling Secret. Inventory items often provide other story options when you select them, from acquiring other items to opening more stories, to helping you solve mysteries. A single kind of item might open up multiple options, giving you different ways to use them – each with their own descriptive text or substorm. One of my favorite examples is having Appalling Secrets – one option in using them is to try and “forget” a few of them with the hope of reducing Nightmares.

Inventory Converts. Another brilliant innovation in the game is that related items, from treasures to knowledge, can often be traded up in the associated “story options” mentioned. Hints become Clues, Jade can be traded for artifacts, candles traded to a church in return for mysterious salts. “Trading up” and at times “trading down” is required to unlock stories or do tasks, and figuring this out is an interesting challenge that contains its own miniature tales. One of my favorites experiences realizing that treasures I’d gathered in a seafaring venture could be swapped up to get information that in turn I could trade for a map to let me continue my adventures.

Economics: Omnipresent, Clear, Varied, Storied

As noted, some of Fallen London is about swapping various items or literal pieces of knowledge to achieve different goals. The entirety of Fallen London is actually about economics.

Progress Is Transactional. All of the well-written stories in Fallen London are essentially accessed by a transaction. This could be swapping a “move” to achieve something, or as complex as figuring out how to “grind” for information to get a legal document in order to get your hands on some important books. As these transactions are clearly stated and often work in a similar manner, the game is very easy to pick up – but the challenge is figuring how to pull off the transactions. After all you may want to save those Whispered Hints to solve a bigger mystery later, or your need to get your hands on seditious material requires you to choose between stealing from a group of Devils or getting into a fistfight with a book-carrying critic.

Tradeoffs Requiring Thought. The economics of the game also require one to consider tradeoffs. One may reduce the Menace of Nightmares with a good cup of wine, but a drunken night may raise the Menace of Scandal, which is best addressed by spending a few turns going to Church.

And So Our Analysis Of Fallen London Ends

So those are my initial thoughts on what makes Fallen London work. To sum it up I’d say it’s a writing-centric game that uses a series of simple scores and inventory systems in combination to allow for complex tales, and has simple but interesting ways to portray common game mechanics and choices. That is, of course, a simple summary.

Now as for what else we can learn, let me see where my investigations – and you reaction to this essay – take us . . .

– Steve