Pushing the Frontier
It’s been a momentous few months for Edge of Space. Last time I spoke to designer Jake Crane, the 2D sandbox had just arrived on Steam Early Access. Since those early days, it’s been a community pick in the Steam Summer Sale, joined in the Midweek Madness, and even been part of a Humble Bundle. From the sound of things, Handyman Studios is doing a great job in persuading players to try out the unfinished game.
So what’s changed? Getting back behind the controls, the spacefaring sandbox certainly feels a lot slicker, reminding me of the responsiveness when playing old arcade-style sidescrolling shooters. But that’s just the tip of a rapidly changing iceberg, with updates arriving every two to four weeks. Not only that, but the team nails its colors to the mast, with an in-game timer counting down the days to the next big patch. Hotfixes and tweaks might sneak in between, but it means everyone playing knows when the major changes will arrive.
“I really like doing that because it makes us accountable to the community, and we want the community to know that we’re making a commitment that a patch will happen at that time. It helps make decisions, it helps us look at things, and it helps us think ahead better. Having a more defined roadmap has definitely helped”
“Early on, when it was two artists, Paul, and myself, it was pretty much how fast and any way in which we need to do things - we’ve got to get it in there, we’ve got to get it working, we’ve got to get it out - right? Now, we’ve really been trying to get our process cleaner, and we’ve been bringing in new systems like the Research system, but I really thing we’ve been making much better steps to get organized since we last talked as well.”
The studio is also growing, with a programmer joining to help with technical content and feature work. From what Crane tells me, the new starter is already fixing lots of bugs that are going to vanish in the next patch. They’re never quite sure what will make it in until the code gets solidified a few days beforehand, after which it goes through debugging and test before being pushed out to the players. Although they’re used to the process now, it’s not always been that streamlined.
“In the beginning it was rough because it was new. Sometimes we kind of screw up; last time, we didn’t think of the 4th of July as a holiday, and we set it on the 5th of July, and this was a big, four week long patch. We were like ‘Oh God, we set this up wrong,’ and had to push really hard to make sure we that deadline.”
Working with Early Access
Since arriving on Steam, Edge of Space has become something of a poster child for the Early Access approach of getting players in while development is ongoing. So far, it seems to be working very well for the indie studio.
“Early Access is fantastic. We come in, we work hard on the game. We get the resource help that we need to continue development on the game, we get direct access to people who are interested in the game to get feedback. As you know, we’re super active in our community, and listening and reacting to those changes, while making sure that we make a good game before we release it. So for me, our experience has been fantastic; it’s doing what we need it to do.”
How should Early Access work for the players? According to Crane, it comes down to three areas. “I think that we are providing the experience that people should expect from Early Access, which is frequent updates, clarity between the developer and the end user, and consistently making the game better.” Crane also believes that those early players are valuable, and not because of the money they bring to the table. “They’re doing work, they’re helping us in development, and they should be rewarded for coming in early. The users should not be looked at as a resource to extort.”
Part of Handyman’s approach is to sell Edge of Space at a discount. Now that multiplayer is available, the studio also sells a four-pack with a further price reduction. It’s an approach that Crane feels other developers should embrace, instead of ‘retailing their game’ while it’s still unfinished. “I think games should not be able to charge their full or end price on Early Access. I think that’s wrong. I don’t think that’s right to the end user. It doesn’t have to be a substantial reduction in cost, just not full price.”
It certainly seems to be paying off, with Edge of Space growing in popularity. After appearing in a Humble Bundle, being a community pick in the Steam Summer Sale and taking part in Midweek Madness, he tells me the feedback it gets is “really positive.”
“But it’s surreal to me. When I look at Edge of Space, I look at a product that’s not done. I look and wonder ‘how could people find this fun.’ And I’m constantly like ‘Crap, I need to go do this and this.’ But from a creator’s standpoint, I’m eternally cursed as such.”
As we played through the revamped tutorial – it now has holographic space-raptors – I asked Crane about where he gets inspiration. Besides 2D side-scrolling shooters, there was one response that surprised me. “I play League of Legends – looking at the kind of things they do with their design choices, and their clarity.” He later tells me those small touches are one of the things that drives him to be a better designer. “It’s about the little things – you can make this great system, but if you don’t integrate it properly, nobody will use it.”
Other than that, it comes down to experimentation, as with the new Research system. “I had experimented with a couple of different ways to get schematics to progress throughout the game, and none of it felt good. It felt too random, or the consistency of progression was not well paced.” The end result was a hybrid approach: mobs now drop research data, which can be used to fuel different categories of research. At minor progression markers and major rank up, new schematics are unlocked. Rare schematics will still drop in the open world, but there’s now a blend between linear and non-linear progression.
As we wrapped up, I remarked to Crane about how the world had changed. Instead of feeling mechanical and system focused, the world was starting to feel like a place where I could thrive and make it my own. Where I could have those crazy sandbox-style adventures with my friends, in a place where the Rule of Cool takes a leading role. With patch updates arriving this regularly, I’m left wondering just what the studio will manage to crowbar in next.
Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.