4 things: exploration, knowledge gain, story, mastery

The process of designing Sol Trader has helped me to crystallise some of the essential components of any space game. Here are four I’ve discovered so far.

Space games must have: Exploration

The wild unknown is a powerful draw, and the vastness of space is the ultimate wilderness. Players love to explore new worlds, and they like to be the first to make any discovery.

The challenge in this genre specifically is that there’s an awful lot of emptiness in space. It’s no accident that most space game development teams release screenshots of massive asteroid fields, strange planets, or nebula, rather than shots of empty space. Screenshots of endless stars get rather samey after a while!

Keeping space interesting is challenging but essential to any space game. Hiding hidden bases, mineral caches wrecks within asteroid fields, or drifting wrecks in deep space will keep the interest high. Ensuring that players are able to share and explore the same worlds through the use of shared random seeds can also be a powerful way to allow players to race to certain discoveries.

Sol Trader will support many of these features to keep players exploring: seeded word generation, drifting wrecks and asteroid fields will all be in the game.

Space games must have: Knowledge gain

The lure of the unknown isn’t just spatial. Similar to the fascination with magic in the fantasy genre, players love to interact with and eventually conquer forces they don’t quite understand.

With space games, this need to gain knowledge is normally satisfied by giving players the opportunity to interact with advanced technology. For example, you might allow the upgrading of ships to carry the latest weapons, or the most powerful scanners to spot distant objects. In Sol Trader, I’m taking the technology route, but I’m also allowing players to navigate a vast network of interactive relationships via the generated history. As players gain friendships with powerful characters, they get access to unique missions and technology upgrades.

Space games must have: Story

Without a compelling tale to take part in, players will quickly lose interest. People love to be part of a story that’s bigger than themselves, and this is no less true in space games. When there’s no story built in, there must be enough malleability in the game to allow players to create their own story, perhaps with friends: Minecraft is the canonical example of this.

It’s important to show enough glimpses of the stories that can be told in your game, if you want anyone to be interested in it! With Sol Trader, I omitted this on the first Kickstarter video, and corrected it on the second after a lot of feedback.

Space games must have: Mastery

Ultimately players want to be able achieve their goals. Sometimes that’s to “win the game”, if it’s finite and limited, or perhaps they set their own goals. Either way, it needs to be challenging to achieve them, but not too challenging. Games that are too easy will fail to hold the player’s interest and quickly become boring. However, if games are too hard with no obvious route to proceed, players become frustrated and the fun seeps away.

I’m of the opinion that games should always err on the side of being too hard. We should never frustrate the player, but we should make it challenging to achieve what they want to achieve. This approach makes gaming more satisfying in the long run.

I’m a big fan of Roguelikes in this regard, as they don’t allow ‘checkpoint’ saves, ensuring that when a player dies, it’s permanent. This is also true in Sol Trader. When you’re dead, the game is over and you have to start again.

How do you ensure that this doesn’t become frustrating? By making it fun to start again and tell a new story. The Dwarf Fortress motto is “Losing is fun” - your fort might go down in flames (and plenty of mine have) but you’ve always had a blast along the way. With Sol Trader, there are always more characters to get to know, and more stories to discover and weave into your own.

What other elements must all space games have?