Distant Star: A Retrospective (With Numbers!)

18 June 2011

Genesis

Let’s make one thing clear: I’ve wanted to write a 4X-style space game since long before I learnt how to code. The genesis for Distant Star in particular, however, came about the day I bought an (original) iPad, brought it home, and thought: “Why aren’t there any good strategy games for this?”

I’d just finished up Levelheaded, so I knew I was up to the task of putting out a game for iOS. And while Levelheaded wasn’t exactly a stunning success from a commercial (it failed spectacularly to sell) or critical (it wasn’t, let’s be honest, any good) view, the process of writing it taught me worlds about game development. Plus, it meant that I’d actually designed, built, tested, released, and sold a game — for the first time I thought of myself as a game developer, albeit not a very good one.

So I sat down that night (30 May, 2010), ripped the more useful OpenGL guts out of Levelheaded, and coded up a quick scrolling starfield. Another hacking session later and I had randomly generated star systems, some atrocious text, and not much else.

It wasn’t exactly the epic 4X strategy game I wanted to write, but it was a start. Unfortunately, the idea of carrying it on into an actual, playable game was incredibly daunting, so I put the project aside.

The October Challenge

That’s pretty much where things stood until Mike Kasprzak announced the October Challenge. I’d been a regular participant in Ludum Dare, a 48-hour solo game development thing; when Mike posed his challenge to the Ludum Dare community I knew I couldn’t resist. Besides, I had this half-baked idea all ready to go!

What I wanted Distant Star to be, at this point, was basically a touch-based version of Sword of the Stars sans tactical ship combat. At the time the project felt like a natural fit for a month-long game jam — I had a clear idea of where it needed to go and a core set of mechanics that absolutely had to make it in, plus a laundry list of cool features I could squeeze in if I got the chance.

Ship construction and fleet movement came quickly, followed by (idiotic) AI. By the time I had my first screenshots ready for The October Challenge community the game’s visual style had gelled into something very much like the retro/minimalist look it has now. I powered through October, squeezing in three or four evenings a week; by the 24 I felt the game was almost ready, and sent out beta copies to a dozen or so volunteers (shout out to the TouchArcade forums: you guys rock!).

Based on feedback from beta testers I added in the tap-through tutorial and the notifications system, not to mention fixing approximately seven thousand crashtastic bugs. Distant Star 1.0 for the iPad (only) went live on the App Store on 13 November, 2010 and sold 82 copies (at US$1.99!) that day.

Evolution

For the next two months I polished the hell out of Distant Star. While the vast majority of players seemed to like the game, I’d taken some flack from for some of the game’s rougher edges. Sporadic crashes (mostly due to hard-to-find memory leaks), buggy rotation handling, and a non-helpful tutorial were the biggest culprits, though I also received a staggering amount of amazing feedback from players who enjoyed the game as it was but had big ideas about what it could be.

I pushed several updates during this period, adding lots of new content based on player feedback (a new race, research tree, and numerous technologies). In particular, I worked on improving the tutorial system and adding in popup help throughout the game — quite a few early players had complained about the game’s learning curve, and I wanted to alleviate that as much as possible.

The iPhone Port

Since the original beta the most common question I received regarding Distant Star was “Where is the iPhone version?” I had hesitated to release (or even develop!) an iPhone port after the release of the iPhone 4, with it’s larger Retina display — I didn’t like the idea of releasing the game for a device on it had never been tested, and (frankly) I didn’t feel like I could justify buying myself an iPhone 4 when I still had a perfectly functioning iPhone 3G. In January, a friend convinced me that this reasoning was, frankly, idiotic; I took a train over to Glasgow a couple of days after my birthday and picked up an iPhone 4. The train ride back took about an hour; by the time I made it back into Edinburgh I had the game up and running, in a manner of speaking.

iPhone alpha test home screen

Getting the game running across all three screen resolutions (iPad, iPhone/iPod Touch, and iPhone 4/iPod Touch 4G) turned out to be harder than I’d expected. From the beginning I’d envisioned Distant Star as an iPad-only game — I couldn’t really see it working well on a smaller screen, and hadn’t taken steps in the original design to make it resolution-independent. Lesson learnt.

Eventually I sorted out the resolution problems and released an alpha version of the game for iPhone/iPod touch to testers on 16 March. After much back-and-forth, including a second (beta) round of testing, Distant Star 1.3, now a universal app for iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch, went live on the App Store on 20 April, 2011.

The Numbers

Since releasing Distant Star for the iPhone sales have picked up astronomically. As of version 1.5 the game includes all of the core features I originally laid out; consequently, I raised the price from US$1.99 to US$2.99. By this point it wasn’t the only 4X space game in the App Store, either — it has since been joined by 9 Colonies, Ascendency, and Vincere Totus Astrum. It’s good to have company.

My favourite insight from Distant Star’s unit sales isn’t from sales at all — if you look at the number of players downloading each update, it grows considerably with each version. Not only are people playing (and enjoying!) the game, they’re sticking around to see what happens next! The day the most recent update (1.6) went live it was downloaded by over 400 existing players.

So. freaking. awesome.

There’s also a shocking difference between the game being iPad-only and being a universal app. Make no mistake, I still think of Distant Star as primarily an iPad game — but it’s clear that I’m in the minority here. My efforts since releasing the game as universal have been directed mostly at improving player experience on the iPhone and iPod Touch. Everything is backported to the iPad version, of course, but Distant Star is now solidly a mobile game. Can’t say I ever expected that.

Before the iPhone release Distant Star was selling 3-5 copies per day. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t write the game because I wanted (or expected) to make boatloads of cash. 3-5 copies a day was enough for me to call it a total success, and more than enough to keep me rolling out updates. After the iPhone release, however, Distant Star has averaged around 25 copies a day, with that figure increasing steadily with each update. We’re not talking Angry Birds-level sales here, but that’s not the point — I never thought I’d be working on a game with hundreds of active players and a small but growing community.

I’m getting more feedback from players than ever before, and each and every time I check my email and see a new bug report or feature request (or even just a “Hey, I love 4X games! You made one for the iPhone! Right on!” note) it literally makes my day. Keep ‘em coming!

I love you guys.

That is all.

The Future

There’s a lot going on right now with Distant Star — some of which I can talk about and some of which I can’t. Right now I’m adding in GameCenter support and production waypoints, both in response to specific player requests. The most recent update, 1.6, brought a ton of bugfixes and a respectable about of new content (a new Economics tech tree, graphical fleet management, smarter AI, &c.) — most of which also originated in “Hey, why doesn’t Distant Star have X?” emails.

I’ve got big plans for the short term, and even bigger long-term plans — keep an eye out on the App Store (and in game!) for updates, and on this space for news.

— Trevor

Victory!
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