Game Design Deep Dive is an ongoing Gamasutra series with the goal of shedding light on specific design features or mechanics within a video game, in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren't really that simple at all.
My name’s Tom Ivey and I’m the Lead Designer on Dead Star at Armature Studio. Before coming to Armature, I worked at Retro Studios for 9 years as a designer on various franchises, such as Metroid Prime, Donkey Kong Country Returns, and Mario Kart. My first job in the games industry was way back in the long, long ago, when I worked on Ultima Online at Origin Systems, Inc.
Dead Star is a competitive, team-based multiplayer game set in the far reaches of outer space. While the moment-to-moment action is built around the fast-paced combat of a twin stick shooter, we stack strategic elements from modern genres on top of that central core.
In our main game mode, called Conquest, two teams battle for control of a region of space: dog-fighting in debris fields, mining asteroids for precious ore, and capturing and upgrading outposts to establish their supremacy over the region.
In addition to this primary mode, players can earn loot drops which grant them access to our version of a “raid” mode. In this mode, called “Escape Run”, a squad of players escorts a massive Capital Ship as it warps directly into a series of live player matches, disrupting the normal match mode as a temporary third team. The Capital Ship crew has to defend their ship for five minutes before they warp into the next player match, earning a rare reward for each successful jump they complete before they escape the region or the Capital Ship is destroyed.
When we first started talking about Dead Star internally, we were really interested in creating a game that had a heavily asymmetrical element to the competing teams. Central to this idea was an episode of the TV show Battlestar Galactica titled “33." In the episode, the Galactica warps through space with the Cylon fleet hot on its tail. Every time the Galactica comes out of warp, the crew launches fighters and prepares for the Cylon attack, hoping against hope that they’ve finally escaped the Cylon threat.
In the original game pitch, this “small crew against overwhelming odds” concept was the core of the entire game. A small team would fly escort ships around a giant Capital Ship, hidden in a randomized location within a massive, procedurally generated region of space. The other team, called the Hunters, was comprised of three to four times as many players as the Capital Ship team. The Hunters were tasked with heading out from their home base, locating the Capital Ship, and destroying it before it powered up its warp drive and escaped the region.
As a match progressed, the Hunters would capture outposts, giving them new spawn locations, increasing the range of their scanners, and generally making the region of space more dangerous for the Capital Ship crew. The Capital Ship crew, on the other hand, tried to hide the presence of the Capital Ship by taking out sensor outposts, harvesting ore to upgrade the Ship’s defenses, or using a limited “skip drive” to teleport the Capital Ship to new locations within the region at set intervals.
Before we created the full Capital Ship experience, we were playing matches every day in a hybridized test mode we called Conquest. In this mode, we generated a smaller, randomized region of space dotted by outposts that could be captured and controlled. We were testing and balancing ships, implementing key features in the upgrade system and other aspects of the moment-to-moment combat. As soon as we got the first battles online, we were hearing people cheer and call each other out across the office as they pulled off an amazing move, or finished a match just one kill ahead of the other team. The ships were fun and balancing out well. The combat was really hitting the variety of notes we had hoped for. The act of building up outposts and fighting for control of the match in a tightly packed region was a real thrill.
That was the good news.
The bad news is that when we expanded to the larger scope required for the Capital Ship hunt, the concept devolved into a tiresome slog. We quickly identified two primary issues, both related to the “scale” of the game:
Our early playtests showed us a strong core game in the ship-to-ship combat and outpost capturing, but we weren’t getting to that core gameplay quickly enough. As we pushed forward, it seemed like our early design concept – large scale, long buildup, hide and seek -- was conflicting with what the playtests were telling us was the actual fun part of the game. We started to question exactly what type of game it was that we wanted to make.
A couple of months into development we stood at a crossroads: we had a really fun game with the systems we already had online, but it wasn’t yet integrating the “giant capital ship versus marauding horde” idea that had formed the original core of the design.
It was around this time that a few of us sat down and took stock of the current game in comparison to the original pitch. We talked about what had first inspired us from that Battlestar Galactica episode. It wasn’t necessarily the hunt and the long buildup. It was the short, sharp tension right after the ship came out of warp, when the future was uncertain. It was the scattered panic as the scanners filled with incoming enemy ships and the Galactica’s pilots launched their fighters. It was the last breathless moment as a volley of nukes flew in, about to blow the Galactica to pieces.
Would the warp drive recharge in time?
Would the Galactica make it out alive?
And how could we recreate that feeling for our players?
The answer came to us in a flash: instead of having the primary game mode centered on the long strategic buildup and hunt, we’d combine the Capital Ship concept with the Conquest test mode we were already playing. Instead of having the Capital Ship crew as one of the primary teams in the main match, they would warp in as a dynamic 3rd team, interrupting a match in progress and providing the red and blue teams with a new shared goal. Teams could continue their fight for control of the region, or make a tenuous alliance and work together to destroy the Capital Ship before it could recharge its engines and warp out of the match.
It was this idea that really got the ball rolling for us. It took the “asymmetrical teams” concept of the original pitch, but incorporated it into a novel premise: players effectively running “raids” into our Conquest match mode, disrupting the base experience in a really fun way.
The first step in integrating this new concept was finalizing the details of a mode we had previously only been using for testing. We focused on three primary features for our new Conquest mode that kept the feeling of the original pitch, while fixing the issues that had arisen in playtesting:
With our new Conquest mode solidified, we started working on exactly how the Capital Ship would be integrated into the overall match experience. As we worked over the idea, we wanted to make sure it felt like a big event, but not necessarily interruptive to the main game flow. Because a Capital Ship can warp into any match (provided it’s been playing for a minimal time and another Capital Ship hasn’t jumped in), it was important that we didn’t disrupt the match for players that just wanted to play Conquest mode.
To ensure this balance between excitement at seeing a Capital Ship and frustration with it interrupting an already exciting match, we don’t force players to attack the Capital Ship. While players receive high level rewards for destroying even a single one of the Capital Ship’s turrets, the match doesn’t end if the Capital Ship is destroyed, and, more importantly, a team’s home base can still be destroyed at any moment by the enemy team, even when the Capital Ship is still inside the region.
This also provided an important tactical element for the invading Capital Ship team: there were always conflicting interests for the red and blue teams, preventing them from working in perfect unison.
In fact, you’ll often see one team take advantage of the distraction of the Capital Ship to send a strike squad deep into enemy territory, capturing Outposts that are suddenly not as well defended. Perhaps the Capital Ship is too highly upgraded, or defended by a crew that’s too experienced. If a team figures they can’t make a dent on it during this run, they’ll exploit the distraction to gain a foothold in the main match.
In this way, the Capital Ship experience became yet another element that could add a unique flavor to a particular match. Our map generation system could already add randomized events to a region, like comet storms or pirate invasions, but now we had players creating unique events as they warped a Capital Ship into a match. Sometimes you’d see crews warp in and play a conservative, turtle approach – protecting and upgrading the Capital Ship at all cost -- but we also saw experienced crews warping in and heading deep into enemy territory, taking over red and blue outposts and completely changing the landscape of the match. It’s even possible for a Capital Ship crew to destroy one of the Conquest teams’ home bases, ending the match immediately (and resulting in a free warp for the Capital Ship!).
It was exactly the feeling we had hoped for in that original pitch, played out in a completely different game concept.
In retrospect, the decision seems obvious – take the most exciting parts of the Battlestar Galactica concept and integrate them as a unique and exciting event inside an overall faster-paced base game.
As we’ve introduced Capital Ship invasions in the live game service, people have responded really well to both the experience of running the invasion as well as being in a match that’s invaded. It’s a unique thrill, and it provides a big moment in a match that can change the whole feeling of the conflict. And while we’ve struggled with finding just the right drop rate to allow players to enjoy running a Capital Ship while also making sure every match isn’t constantly invaded, there’s no doubt that we’ve found something unique with the experience as a whole.
Whether I’m on a Capital Ship crew, checking my scanners for threats as the ship warps into a new region of space, or I’m playing in a Conquest match, desperately fighting for control of the region when the massive ship warps in and opens up a new lane of attack, I still feel the thrill of watching episode “33” of Battlestar Galactica for the first time: engines primed, weapons loaded, ready for the next adventure.