Interview: How Expansive is Lacuna Expanse?
Questions by Vincent Haoson (Vincenthaoson), OnRPG Journalist
Answered by to JT Smith, Lead Designer
The Lacuna Expanse is a massively multiplayer online space strategy game. Think SimCity meets Masters of Orion. You can choose to be an isolationist who’s sole concern is designing and building a sprawling city on a single planet, or you can be bent on utter domination and build a huge empire across the expanse. You can become a master trader or a master ship builder. You can engage in espionage, or become an explorer. The choice is up to you in The Lacuna Expanse.
OnRPG: The game has started operations late this year, how has the game fared so far? Have you met your set goals since the start of operations?
We’re up to just under 2,000 players in just 2 months so I’m pretty happy with that. Financially the game was paying our infrastructure and support staff costs within the first month, and increased revenue 30% in the second month (November). So on both counts I’d say yes it has met or exceeded my expectations. Our goal going forward is to get more users to find out that this isn’t your traditional web or iPhone game, but is rather both broad and deep.
OnRPG: One of the game’s most notable gameplay feature is that it concentrates on espionage as its primary form of “activity” why did you take that route? What made you think that this is a more interesting gameplay mechanic compared to the conventional ways other games of the same genre take?
Espionage is cheaper and often more effective in the real world than all out war, so I figured why not build that into a game? You can still use war ships to conduct war if you want, but they are very expensive compared to spies. Though even our war ships aren’t the traditional fare. Sure you can bomb people, but you can also dump your waste on them causing pollution and unhappiness. You can also send “Bleeders”, which suck their resources dry.
I wouldn’t, however, say that espionage is the primary activity of the game. It’s the primary way to wage war in the game, but the Lacuna Expanse is not primarily a game of war. It is a game of civilization. So war is a big aspect of it, but so are empire building, trading, exploration, and discovery. We have an enormous technology tree of well over 100 buildings and 30 ships, and both are growing weekly, so just building out your empire is a big undertaking in itself. We have several different trade systems in the game to suit different play styles and to exploit various advantages. We also have a mission system, which is something like quests in an RPG. And we have a fairly unique archaeology system that makes exploring the Expanse an adventure all it’s own.
Both our choice to go with espionage as the primary form of combat and our decision to make the game not entirely about warfare was because we wanted to take a risk on something we hadn’t seen done before. We wanted to take the depth of a AAA title like Civilization or EVE Online and bring it to the convenience and portability of a web/iPhone game. People who play a lot of web or mobile phone games often don’t have a lot of free time, so we wanted to slow down the pace of the game, and make it something where their empire wouldn’t be completely crippled if they could only check in on it for a few minutes once per day. At the same time, we needed there to be enough to do for players that could be logged in for hours at a time. So that made us build a game that was both broad and deep.
OnRPG: What would you say is the most interesting game mechanic that Lacuna has?
Probably the most unique aspect of the game is the Archaeology tech tree that runs parallel to the regular tech tree. Our regular tech tree is huge with nearly 100 different buildings. However, there is also a tech tree that is left behind by a mysterious great race. These technologies aren’t naturally something you can build in the game. You have to first discover them through exploration and archaeology. The buildings and ships you can create with them are far more powerful than anything in the normal tech tree. And many of them have unique abilities that you can only find in this tech tree.
OnRPG: Aside from the diversion to the conventional gameplay, what makes Lacuna Expanse different from the other website games there are out right now?
One thing is that we have an in-game chat system that pretty much always has some interesting discussion going on. It is certainly not unique to us, some other web games have chats, but all of the traditional MMO’s have them. We thought it was a must-have to help bridge the social gap that is missing in a lot of web games.
You can play Lacuna as a single player (isolationist) or in full on multiplayer. As an isolationist you cannot attack or be attacked by other players, but you can still engage them in trades, do missions, join alliances, and other things. Plus, you’re not stuck as isolationist if you become bored going that route. At any time you can choose to venture forth into multi-player mode. But once you remove your isolationist status, you’re out forever.
Another thing that our players really like is the freedom to design the cities on their planets how they see fit. In many web games you’re forced to put building X into slot X, and building Y into slot Y. You’re also limited to how many slots you can devote to each resource type the game offers. Though it puts players into a resource-strapped situation that war games really need to thrive, it’s not terribly realistic. In the Lacuna Expanse it’s perfectly fine if someone wants to forego high technology in favor of an agriculture driven society. Their people will be fat and happy. Likewise, if someone wants to give up a few plots of resource generation so that they can have more Space Ports for a larger fleet, then why not let them? This kind of freedom you just don’t find in other empire building web games.
OnRPG: Was it hard for you to have the game be available on the web client and also for the iPhone? How does this work? Is there any delay on the account when a player decides to log off from the web client and then logs in via iPhone?
Making it available to both was more difficult from a UI perspective than a technology perspective. As you can imagine, trying to cram all the data presented in a large screen format into something that’s usable on a phone can be quite a challenge. I think our team did a pretty good job in this regard. Both clients are usable, and both clients are well suited to their screen size.
There’s absolutely no delay between logging in via the web client and the iPhone client. All state information is controlled by the server, and the server doesn’t really care how you’re logging in. It just needs to know who you are, and what information about your empire that you are looking for.
OnRPG: You have announced that the Facebook app of the game was removed by the FB staff can you tell us what happened? And will you continue to try and put the game into Facebook? Once you’re successful with reinstating the game on FB will current players access the game with their current accounts or will they need to get a new account for the FB game?
What happened was our fault. We misunderstood some of the rules of the Facebook API. We thought, for example, if the user gives us the privilege to post to their Facebook wall, that we could then post game updates. And we of course gave users a way to opt out of it, even if they approved the privilege. However, according to the Facebook rules we are apparently not only supposed to get the user’s permission to post to their wall, but also have them opt-in to each type of message we were posting.
We’re still using Facebook, but only for logins at present time. All other Facebook integration has been removed. However, we are planning on going back to Facebook, we just need to be ultra careful in our approach. We don’t want to get booted again.
OnRPG: How big is the world you have made for players of Lacuna Expanse?
The Expanse has over 100,000 stars and over 1 million planets and other bodies to explore. It’s divided up into over 200 zones, and as of now, only about 13 are inhabited. What the players haven’t discovered yet (though I’m giving it away now), is that the zones outside of the center (where they start), have many rich bounties, and we’re adding more all the time.
OnRPG: What were your inspirations on creating the world of Lacuna Expanse? Was there a specific work of fiction that became basis of everything in the game?
Certainly I’ve been inspired by movies like Star Trek, and shows like Stargate SG-1, and games like Pax Imperia, but what really got me inspired to do a space game were all the books about NASA and Wernher von Braun I read as a kid. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been a fan of “the possible” and those things that are just outside of what’s possible. Von Braun was that sort of person. He imagined a very different world than the one we live in now, one where we were just as comfortable in space as we are on Earth.
So I thought, “What if we fast forward time for a while, and bring about some sort of crisis that forces us to leave our planet forever?” Provided we didn’t all just die (which wouldn’t be terribly interesting from a story telling perspective), what might we find? Could there be a region of space that has a densely packed stars and habitable planets? If so, how would we use them? Would we peacefully colonize them, or would there be wars fought over them? What if we then found out we weren’t alone? And that’s really the premise of the game.
Resources are fairly abundant, so any conflicts that occur are for political reasons, not out of desperation. However, the artifacts of the Great Race that once inhabited the Expanse are fairly rare, and very powerful, so that does cause a bit of a conflict sometimes. And the expansion we’re working on now, “Enemy Within”, is all about political power, oppression, laws, and government. That’s definitely going to create conflict.
OnRPG: The game offers “premium services” for players who are willing to spend on the game, are these premium services meant for convenience or are they necessary to enjoy the game in full? How so?
There is nothing in the game that you ever have to pay for. If you have the time and inclination, you can do everything that the paid features offer by spending regular resources and time. The paid features are mostly for the impatient amongst us. Build this ship faster. Boost my storage. Make this trade happen instantly. That sort of thing. You can easily think of it as the subsidies that governments pay to make things cheaper or faster or what have you.
OnRPG: The game allows the player to choose to either be human or customized specie. How much freedom does the game have on players in creation of their “own” specie?
The species creation system works a lot like a character sheet in an RPG. You have a certain number of points you allocate to various affinities. Each affinity allows you to do something a little better/worse than someone else. For example, you can put more points into the habitable orbits affinity, which allows you to colonize more planets. Or you could put points into the deception affinity which gives you better spies. Everyone is equal in that they have the same number of points to allocate, it’s just a matter of how you allocate them.
There are 13 total affinities, that you can put between 1 and 7 points into. You have 45 points to allocate. If you do the math on that you’ll find that you have billions of possible combinations. This allows people to make highly customized species.
OnRPG: Is the game updating on a regular basis? Or do you update when you have an idea to include for the game?
We add new features to the game weekly. We think it’s more fun to see lots of small releases coming out constantly than one big release with lots of new features. Some weeks are bigger than others, where we might unveil 4 or 5 new features in a single week. Sometimes it’s just a tweak to an existing building or ship, but most of the time the features we’re adding are a whole new “something”. Whether that be a skill for a spy, or a type of ship, or new artifact to discover.
OnRPG: Are players an important part of “updating” the game? What game changes did you make that came from the players themselves?
Players are a huge part of setting the direction for the game. In the very first week of the game we added a short range colony ship, which is slow, but a lot cheaper than a normal colony ship. This was because many players wanted to get colonizing right away rather than just building up their first planet. As I write this we are doing a complete rewrite of the trade system based upon player feedback. Dozens of the features we’ve added were either entirely inspired by the players or at the very least took a different shape because of the feedback we got from them. After all, we’re making the game for the players. It wouldn’t make much sense to ignore their advice.
The players have become involved in other ways as well. We have created a mission editor (missions are like quests), and now many players are writing missions and contributing them to the game. We open sourced the web client, and we’ve had a few people send us patches that added some new features. Many of the experienced players hang out in the in-game chat system and help new players figure out what to do. And still other players have helped us expand our wiki, or have written utilities or even complete web sites devoted to some aspect of the game.
One player created a web site that maps the location of alliances. Another site tracks the historical trade values of various items in the game. Another helps you figure out how to co-ordinate attacks. And still another has created a site that tracks the progress of your empire over time, so that you can see how fast your growing, and perhaps plan a different strategy for areas you’re weak on. All of these web sites are possible because we created an open API that developers can use to interact with the game.
OnRPG: Do you have any plans on expanding the game and creating a bigger world for Lacuna Expanse? Or has the game reached the point where you are satisfied on what it has currently achieved? Why or why not?
We already have about 25% more content in the game than we had when we launched 2 months ago. Even though the game just launched, we’re already also working toward our first major expansion, called “Enemy Within”.
OnRPG: Can you share us your plans for the game before the year ends? How big are the events you have lined up for players?
Right now the players are about half way through a war with an AI called S?b?n Demesne that has told them that the Expanse was long ago settled by the S?b?n, and that the S?b?n want all the players out. Naturally, the players resisted the eviction.
There is a new AI coming after the war with S?b?n Demesne, which is far more viscous and will be quite difficult to eliminate. This is because this new AI won’t actually declare war. Instead, it will make demands, and if those demands aren’t met then the players will suffer a broad set of consequences.
We also have a few new AI’s coming that will not be actively engaging the players, but instead will be highly valuable either as allies, trading partners, or civilizations that can be absorbed into their growing empire.
The timing of all of this depends on how quickly the players are able to deal with the current threat. Since it is a multi-player game, we don’t want it to be just about dealing with some AI’s, so we try not to make the AI’s and their stories dominate the experience.
OnRPG: So what can Lacuna Expanse players look forward to in 2011?
The big thing for the first half of 2011 is our expansion called “Enemy Within,” who’s primary feature is space stations. Space stations allow the formation of allied governments that can enact laws, collect taxes, and do a whole bunch of other crazy stuff. The players will quite literally be able to declare ownership of entire star systems. This will likely cause strife and conflict, and the continuation of the cold war. Much mayhem will follow as spies begin to infiltrate the stations in an effort to sabotage them.