Extra Punctuation Transcript
Well I hope we all had lovely holiday. I certainly did. I had a whole week where I didn’t have to do any work making Zero Punctuation. So I wrote Extra Punctuation columns and worked on my creative projects. What else am I supposed to do? Drink and stare at a wall? Spend time with my family? No. I get restless too easily. If I wasn’t working I’d go mad.
Long time viewers will remember that before I was doing Extra Punctuation I was doing Dev Diary, in which I explained and explored my favourite hobby of solo game development. In the first year I challenged myself to make twelve new games in twelve months, and then the second year focussed on the development of Starstruck Vagabond, my long term hobby project. Well, it’s been about a year since that ended, and I keep getting asked how Starstruck Vagabond’s doing, so forgive me while Extra Punctuation briefly turns into Dev Diary again so I can do an update.
I’m at peace with the fact that it’s taking a long time to make. It is, after all, a hobby. I could probably be hammering it out quicker if it was my day job but I’ve already got a day job and another novel in the works, so I can tinker with it for half an hour a day and it can be bloody well grateful. But to get you back up to speed, Starstruck Vagabond is intended to be a sort of light work sim in your Stardew Valley mold, and I swear having the same initials was a coincidence.
You play a space captain piloting a small ship in an unknown galaxy where you move from sector to sector by taking delivery jobs. While you’re doing that and whatever other odd jobs pop up, you get embroiled in an overarching storyline, as well as several mini-adventures as you attract a succession of rag-tag misfits for your crew. And as I suspected around the time I ended Dev Diary season 2, writing all of that story and dialogue was going to be the very big, very long job that wouldn’t make for terribly interesting diary episodes.
Well, the story’s now done. Mostly. The critical path big ongoing story quest is, anyway. Right now I’m scripting all the optional cutscenes you get from improving your relationship score with individual crew members, Persona-style, as well as all the quick bark lines your crew members dish out during regular gameplay. Turns out there’s a lot of them. But since it’s more of a writing task I can treat it the way I write my books. I just plonk a load of placeholder strings into the code and tell myself I’ll write so many actual lines a day.
But I have been inspired to make a few gameplay tweaks along the way. For example, I’ve redesigned some things on the assumption that players won’t usually go back to star systems they’ve already been to. There used to be a couple of side jobs – fetch quests, generally – that involved getting something from a neighbouring star system and coming back. But I found in testing that I never wanted do them. I wanted an experience more like an ongoing journey of discovery. It made more sense to retool things so you can complete every sector’s activities and then move onto the next. Out went the interstellar fetch quests, and I added a couple of new interplanetary side jobs to compensate – cleaning buildings and hunting Zoobs on uncivilized planets.
Another recent addition is crew quests. What I specifically wanted to avoid with the socialization mechanics was the Stardew Valley thing where you befriend people by giving them presents every bloody day like an obsessive-compulsive stalker trying to launder stolen goods. I think it gets the player’s feelings about an NPC off on the wrong foot if they have to go out of their way to appease the greedy sods. So, instead, we have crew quests. Every now and again when you answer an NPC’s bark, they suggest one of the many activities you do as a matter of course. Do a side job, take a new delivery, clean your disgusting engines, etc. Then if you do that, it boosts your relationship with them because they appreciate having their suggestions taken on board. So by tying relationships to tasks the player might be doing anyway, hopefully they develop more organically than when you have to run around town holding a potato over your head looking for your projected future spouse.
Also, I’ve commissioned a bunch of visual novel style portraits to put over the dialogue of crewmembers and other important characters. Just felt like I needed to get some more visual personality in there, and I’m pretty happy with how it looks. Incidentally the artist I commissioned is regular Escapist artist El Cheshire, who does a lot of work for Adventure is Nigh. It’s almost like being a game designer is helped by also working for a gaming website.
The last major tweak relates to my old chum the primary gameplay loop. Specifically the business of picking up boxes, putting them on your ship, then picking them up again and putting them somewhere else. See, there was a suggestion a while back for a way to evolve the crate transporting gameplay – to start having long boxes or weirdly shaped boxes you have to tesselate into your available space like Tetris blocks – but that proved unworkable. Or perhaps I should say, not something I could be arsed to attempt, the code for pickups is pretty heavily entrenched in them only ever being one grid square big.
But! I had another idea for a couple of on the ground box sorting mechanics that fit comfortably into the one square per box rule. As you progress in your box delivery career, you start having to deliver refrigerated crates, which have to be powered. Some of the grid squares on your ship have powered cables on them, connecting components to the ship’s reactor, and refrigerated crates have to be placed in one of these squares or become damaged over time.
Irradiated crates, meanwhile, are crates that have to be placed away from other crates, because any crate immediately adjacent to them will become damaged. And if any of the crates you deliver are damaged, be it by radiation or from unpowered refrigeration, your payout for the delivery gets severely cut down. Just adds a little bit of extra thought you need to apply when packing shit into your cargo bay. Don’t pack your milk on top of your potato chips. The little gamifications of everyday life.
So that’s where Starstruck Vagabond is at right now. I’m starting to get the sense as I script the last few relationship scenes that I’m over the hump and entering the final stages of development, which is my second favourite part of a creative project after starting one. And starting a project is the fast-living party girl kind of excitement who’ll give you the time of your life for a night and then abandon you in the morning to do the washing up and launder the bedclothes. Getting to the end excitement is the friend who always make sure there’s a cup of tea on your nightstand and who you’ll probably end up marrying as soon as you both get sufficiently desperate.
Yeah, sorry, this isn’t one of those searing insights into game design sorts of episodes, I just figured enough of you have been watching since Dev Diary that you might like an update. Especially if you represent or know someone who represents an indie game publisher, that’d be handy right about now. There’s always a part of me that wants to keep delaying to fiddle with it more so it never has to be released and subsequently judged, but it’s probably time to grow some balls and get the ball rolling on that. So that… people don’t get blue balls. Christ, English is a ball-centric language.