[I will try to make "What Could Have Been..." a regular thing]
On August 5th, 2011, Stellar Impact, by Tindalos Interactive, released quietly into the aether and was promptly forgotten.
The release was so inconsequential that I actually bought the game (as I sometimes do with 10$ titles) and forgot about it. Months passed and on October 10th I noticed the game as background gameplay in TotalBisquits Mailbox video and was reminded that this game, in fact, still exists.
For people who do not know who TotalBisquit is, heres a small summary (its actually important).
TotalBisquit, TotalHalibut, The Cynical Brit, or John Bain, is an... internet person, providing coverage of games on youtube. His followers come mostly from the time when he was running WoW-Radio, the premiere live talk-radio about World Of Warcraft. Since WoW radio dissolved around the time Cataclysm came out, he has continued his career as a blogger.
I would describe TB as very successful, his channel currently totals around 550.000 subscribers and around 170 million views on his videos.
His most popular series right now is "WTF is..." a first impressions series about newly released games (mostly indie, but not only). The videos usually have around 300.000-500.000 views each, so there is a lot of marketing-clout behind him and a giant ammount of exposure if he decides to do a video about your game.
In past times the exposure sometimes even proved too much for certain indie-titles (Frozen Synapse) and websites were overloaded, servers went down and general mayhem ensued when suddenly 100.000-200.000 people tried to buy, download, or even just visit the developers website.
Here I'd like to add that I find what TB does to be a great service to the Indy-scene, even though I find myself often at odds with his comments or style.
So, prompted by the video I checked out Stellar Impact and was surprised to find a really solid game behind a relatively obscure indie-title, allthough with a very small population (around 40-80 players online at a time)
Stellar Impact is a MOBA style game themed with spaceships instead of fantasy heroes. The game-mechanics are almost flawlessly balanced and what minor bugs or small nitpicks could be held against the game (no music or audio sliders in the options menu for example) are easily overlooked in favor of a unique take on the MOBA genre.
I will not go into the specifics but needless to say I was impressed by what I saw.
Stellar Impact of course is not the first game to try the MOBA approach with a sci-fi theme, Armada Online comes to mind, but its execution is past other similar titles.
Coincidentally, after playing the tutorial, I ran into TB on the matchmaking screen where he created a game to record a gameplay video for his "WTF is..." segment. We were joined by Manta and Eternity, the highest ranked players in the game and a developer, Stilgar. We played a nice game where TBs team (which I was part of) got their asses kicked by Manta. And here is where the situation goes downhill for Stellar Impact, or at least its developers.
Many people recognized TB in the chat and warned Stillgar that when he uploads his "WTF is..." there is a chance the site and game-servers will be overwhelmed. TB himself warned the developers that his community tends to crash websites when they are unprepared.
But the developers did not listen. Stilgar remarked a bit snarkily
"You can crash my servers anytime ;)"
But thats not the where it went bad. It went bad when the video went up the next day and the website was indeed crashed, the servers lagged to all hell and the game was borderline unplayable for TWO WEEKS.
During this time there was minimal communication between the community and the developers, the only notice was displayed ingame in the log-in screen (good luck even getting that far, because the authentification-servers went down at some point, making the game revert to desktop before the login even came up)
The forum, now injected with new life, the voice-chat now full of people, was teeming with anticipation. And I was happy. I was truly happy for the developers that they finally got a decent piece of exposure.
So the days passed and the servers stayed down, the new users on the forums slowly trickled away due to lack of explenation or communication from the devs beyond:
"We are currently having problems with the servers, sorry for the inconvenience"
So we waited. And waited. And waited some more. But when the patch and servers came back up (a week later) it was already too late. The initial wave had swept over and I found myself in a starved lobby again.
Games took over 30 minutes to start because there weren't enough players, and if they started I was always matched against high-level players, the old guard, that was going around "pub-stomping".
And honestly, I also lost interest after a few games, and by no means because the game itself is bad, or the community rotten, but because there was nobody around to play with.
Recently I checked back in again to see how things have developed.
The game is a ghost-town.
At the time of writing the lobby holds all of 10 players. The forum is even worse, the General Forum is full of spam from viagra to cheap toys, nobody seems to be maintaining this game or its community. The last posts are a week sometimes a month old. And this is not a timezone issue, the game is from a French developer on EU servers.
The developers have not only squandered their only opportunity at mass-exposure, they actually made things worse. Their inaction completely robbed them from the possibility to make their game into a great success, with thousands of players and a growing community.
Not even a recent content-update could save it with a ratings-reset, a new ship-type for both factions and five new skills.
I do honestly not understand. Do the developers not care at all what is happening to their game?
This is a tale of how not to manage and market your game, and how creating a good game by itself is only half the battle.
Its a cautionary tale for evey Indie developer.
I get reminded of the humble start of Riot Games (League Of Legends) and how they made it the MOBA-behemoth it is today. Tindalos Interactive is the antithesis to this success-story.
I am deeply saddened that Stellar Impact is slowly drifting towards Abandonware, the game holds so much potential wasting away in the hands of their current developers.