Today we are interviewing Rocco Bowling, the sole mastermind behind Chimera Software. Bowling is best known for developing Starbase Orion, an exceptional 4X space strategy game available on iOS. Starbase Orion was released October 2011 and successfully (in my opinion!) took the basics of Master of Orion and translated them into a modern game that also incorporated a fantastic multiplayer system.
Bowling released his second game under Chimera Software, Naval Tactics: Captains of the Spanish Main in May 2014, and has continued to update both that title as well as Starbase Orion, the latter of which has received continued development for nearly four years.
Oliver: Hello Rocco! It is great to have you here to talk with us at eXplorminate4X (E4X). As you may know, E4X is a website run by dedicated strategy game fans with a special focus on 4X games. So we are happy to be talking with you.
Let’s start at the beginning. You clearly have a passion for and interest in strategy games. How did you get into playing strategy games and more importantly take on the challenge of designing your own games as an independent developer?
Rocco: I owe my passion for strategy games from three distinct sources. The first would be my older brother, with whom I’ve played innumerable strategic board games with over the years. I remember setting up games of Avalon Hill’s Axis & Allies late in the night, playing them out and then staying up even longer to contemplate what each player did right or wrong. The second would be my solo exploration into various strategic computer games of the 90’s such as Civilization and the Master of Orion series. These games encapsulated the deep thinking aspects of strategic gameplay coupled with the ability for the player to live out their own unique story in a sandbox environment. The final source would be Blizzard’s WarCraft series, specifically WarCraft 3 and The Frozen Throne when played multiplayer on Battle.net (and later the DOTA evolution and League of Legends). While some may not consider these latest incarnations to be core strategy games, I believe they are still quite strategic and, perhaps more importantly, have shown the kind of success multiplayer strategic gaming can achieve.
Oliver: And how did you end up developing strategy games for iOS?
As for my journey into iOS gaming specifically, it was the natural path for a seasoned Mac developer to take. My first published titles were with Freeverse Software for Mac/PC. I enjoy choosing a genre of game which I like and then envisioning it in a different setting, with different mechanics, or with a feature which truly helps make the game a better experience. With Freeverse that first manifested in the game Solace in 2003; a dice-rolling, Axis & Allies-like strategy game for Mac/PC. It included a very streamlined Play-By-Email system (or asynchronous turn-based multiplayer as we like to call it today). Later we did Big Bang Chess, which again took a well known genre and made it better, this time with a host of innovative features which won it two Apple Design Awards in 2004.
With the advent of the iPhone and the popularity of the Apple App Store, there was suddenly an attractive alternative to the publishing deals of the day. I can have a complete sales, distribution and delivery system to a computing platform for just 30% of revenue? Using the same development tools and techniques I’ve been using for year (Objective-C and OpenGL)? It was an easy decision. But why core strategy games and premium apps? I suppose I could have joined the wave of developers clambering to make the next casual-freemium-money-maker, but that’s just not me. I make the games I want to make, generally without compromise. Thankfully I have a fantastic community of players which continues to support that mentality.
Oliver: A recent discussion in the eXplorminate forums was about whether or not there was a market for “core” strategy games in the mobile realm. Some people asked “why would a core PC gamer even ‘want’ to play a mobile game in the first place?” I’m curious what you think. If you had to sell a PC gamer on trying out premium mobile games, what might the hook or appeal be?
Rocco: Because you can easily use an iPad on your toilet.
Oliver: Ha! Yes, and it is another good reason not to let your friends mess with your … uhh … iThing. But seriously…
Rocco: In my non-scientific, common-sense reckoning of things, as a person develops in their life, more and more things start to take priority. Gamers graduate school, gamers get jobs, gamers have kids. These things take up more and more of their time, leaving less and less time for dedicated gaming. Your 4 hours a night turns into 1 hour a night, which turns into gaming only on Tuesdays. What’s a core gamer like that supposed to do? Quit gaming? Succumb to the inane world that is “casual” mobile gaming? I believe these dedicated, but suddenly very busy, gamers would love to play a core game during the bits and pieces of time they have throughout their day.
Too often people associate “mobile” gaming with “casual” gaming. I have much respect for companies like Super Evil Megacorp; they made VainGlory, a core game on mobile without compromise. I believe there is a bright future for core gaming on mobile, for those crazy enough to walk that path.
Oliver: This sounds like a chapter out of my own book! I can sympathize with the plight of the aging gamer with growing responsibilities! I also appreciate being able to sink into my comfy chair next to the fire and enjoy a proper strategy game.
Speaking of which, let’s talk a more about Starbase Orion. You clearly had ideas in mind for how you wanted to build on the Master of Orion DNA. Where there any big goals you wanted to achieve with your game? Do you think you met them? What do you feel are the highlights of the game?
Rocco: When I started creating Starbase Orion the first and most obvious goal was simply to bring the joy of 4X space strategy games to iOS. This was 5-6 years ago when 4X games were just beginning their revival trend, so at the time the biggest competition in 4X games on iOS was Ascendancy or Civilization Revolution. Ascendancy, for better or worse, was a faithful port of the 1995 PC game. Civilization Revolution was widely considered a poor replacement for the full Civilization 4X experience. So there truly was a nice void to fill on the platform for an 4X space game which didn’t compromise on the complexity of the genre while also taking full advantage of the modern mobile platform. As such, my goal was to fill that void, to become a well-known name in the 4X genre on iOS, to become a big fish in a little pond.
One of the avenues of long term success, especially in mobile, is to design a game which can be enjoyed both alone and with your friends. The classic 4X genre has historically been designed almost exclusively for the single player; one of my big goals for Starbase Orion was to design the game such that it catered to both audiences. Many players download the game for the single player experience, and eventually wander their way into the multiplayer community. Providing an easy to play experience (through asynchronous, simultaneous turn-taking), coupled with real-time chat to allow players to help each other in a friendly environment, have been key to keeping Starbase Orion alive and thriving for almost four years now.
Oliver: Yes. And with strong AI’s being a challenge to develop, making multiplayer easy for people opens up opportunities for the “human challenge” that comes with it. I do like how you’ve structured the simultaneous and asynchronous turn processing (and especially for tactical combat) – it facilitates multiplayer play very well.
As an aside, mobile is an almost perfect platform for multiplayer 4X games since you can “take your turn” wherever you are. And you only need to dip into the game for 5-10 minutes at a time, so the accessibility of mobile compliments the genre well.
What else about Starbase Orion was a focus point?
Rocco: Another area I wanted to strive for excellence in was game balance. Balance is critical for a deep strategy game; in a genre which focuses on planning ahead and making choices, it is important that those choices are meaningful. Having 100 different possible technologies to research is detrimental if 95 of them won’t help you achieve your goals. I think MoO2 did this fairly well in terms of researchable technology, but not as well with player racials. Starbase Orion does a fairly good job as well, and continues to grow in this area. Thankfully Starbase Orion has a fine player community, many of which participate during beta testing to help improve game balance.
On the topic of enhancing strategic choices, one unique aspect of Starbase Orion which I think builds on that is the sliding research window. In MoO2 you have categories of research, and at each level you can choose between a fixed number of options. There’s not much flexibility for the player. With Starbase Orion we have a sliding window of opportunity for researching tech, the mechanisms behind which can be can be affected through racial choices.
Oliver: I also think the research system is a high point. It’s simple but offers compelling choices – and it gives the player enough flexibility to not feel like they are getting “played” by an arbitrary system.
To interject with a high point of my own, I really think the tactical combat model you’ve used is excellent. I call it the “gratuitous space battle” model, where you custom design ships and then when a battle starts you issue orders at the beginning (movement, firing priorities, etc.). Afterwards, you get to watch your genius (or ill-fated) plans play out. It is an effective as a way to have tactical combat while still facilitating multiplayer. But also keeps the game focused on the bigger strategic picture while still giving you meaningful control over the tactical realm.
Rocco: Thanks Oliver; I’ve always been very proud of the space combat in Starbase Orion. One important note I’d like to make about the “gratuitous space battle” concept is that when it is enveloped in a grander 4X experience it allows larger battles to spill over between galactic turns. A really large battle might play out over two or three turns, allowing the player to adjust tactics mid battle as tides change or reinforcements arrive.
Oliver: Yes, good point about the multi-turn battles. The rules have changed a little, but if you send in enough forces you can keep hostile armies engaged and pinned in a location, allowing other forces to raid other planets, which adds a nice strategic element.
What are aspects of the game you think could be strengthened and improved? If not in Starbase Orion, maybe in a sequel?
Rocco: The Starbase Orion player community is constantly providing new ideas for improvement and growth, so there’s no shortage of ideas! For the core game, I would love to see galactic events and specials ( such as roving bands of space pirates, intergalactic monasteries, temporal fluctuations, etc). Other popular requests involve adding carrier ships with fighters and bombers, expanding ground combat, and more.
For the competitive, multiplayer scene I would love to implement an ELO ranking system and the ability to replay/review past games. Learning from what other players are doing is one of the best ways to improve; I’ve already made some experiments along these line with Starbase Orion Replays, where players can replay some games from the most recent Starbase Orion League matches.
Oliver: Given the multiplayer community that is built up – it seems like there is a pretty good “base” of players. And I assume, given your continued development progress, that Starbase Orion has been successful. So, has the game been a success or is this more a labor of love? Do you continue to see sales?
Rocco: Starbase Orion has definitely been a financial success; if I were younger and not the sole income provider for a family of six I could have quit my day job a long time ago. That being said, I’ve taken a very pragmatic approach to Starbase Orion’s success. By keeping a day job I’ve increased my financial stability while allowing me to make decisions about the future of Starbase Orion relatively free of those considerations. You don’t see this a lot in young startups; they have a core product and every decision they make regarding that product is carefully weighed against its likelihood to increase profits. This means a lot of cool, esoteric, even game-changing ideas can get tossed aside trying to keep the company in the black.
To get off my soapbox and paint it all in a different light, by walking this path I’ve become my own angel investor. The investment I’ve put in Starbase Orion has paid itself back many times over.
Oliver: I have also been impressed by your stand on premium app pricing. It’s been $7.99 forever (outside of an initial launch discount) and has never been on sale. Is part of this is broadcasting the value of premium apps through the pricing strategy? How has this played out?
Rocco: I love Starbase Orion’s pricing model too! The mobile marketplace is such a chaotic place where prices fluctuate wildly, often for no apparent reason. By being up front with Starbase Orion’s cost and our resolve to not run sales or “free for a day” campaigns it removes a lot of consternation from the purchasing process. Many premium apps release expensive and then drop price a couple months in. From a common sense perspective, this is the wrong way to go about it. Did your product suddenly get worse two months after release? Your product should have gotten better because you’ve fixed bugs, balanced more of the gameplay, fixed issues you could not have foreseen prior to launch. All this does is punish your core fans who purchased your buggy, incomplete game on day one. They paid more for a worse product, and as a reward for their devotion you then give everyone else who is not a core fan a discount? To me that’s always seemed like the wrong message you want to send to your audience.
Oliver: I agree with that wholeheartedly, and it is kind of perplexing that more devs don’t see it that way. So this has worked out for Starbase Orion I take it.
Rocco: I released Starbase Orion with a discounted price and was open about the pricing strategy on release day. Buy it now for $4.99, at some point in the future it’ll become $7.99. It won’t go on sale and it won’t go free. Early adopters get rewarded for helping the game through its initial growing pains. You can confidently purchase it right away instead of waiting because you know it won’t get cheaper. That’s how I planned to build up a good reputation and trust with the mobile 4X gaming community. Hopefully, that will be rewarded when Starbase Orion 2 comes out.
Oliver: Speaking of the mobile 4X community, Starbase Orion was released almost four years ago. Have you seen the iOS marketplace change in good or bad ways over this period of time? What might these changes, if any, mean for you?
Rocco: I can’t say I’ve noticed much of a difference in the iOS marketplace regarding Starbase Orion, but that is likely due to the very, very small corner of it that SO resides in; there are not many core 4X games out there. 4X games in the broader realm have seen a recent resurgence, with more or less success depending on your point of view.
Oliver: Yes, 4X games seem to be going through a revival of late.
A while ago you launched a kickstarter (which was canceled) to make Starbase Orion cross-platform. Do you still see potential for it or a sequel going cross-platform?
Rocco: If you want to be cross-platform you need to plan for it at the start of the project. The kickstarter was my way of determining if there was enough market interest to justify a straight port of Starbase Orion to one other platform. Building an iOS specific game (like I did for Starbase Orion) and then porting it to multiple other platforms is a very expensive way of going about it. But that’s a much different proposition than developing a sequel with cross-platform as one of its core goals.
Oliver: That makes total sense – although I was saddened that the Kickstarter didn’t get more traction. I think many potential buyers, on the PC side of things, maybe scoffed at the notion of a core 4X game coming from mobile and stayed away as a result. Their loss unfortunately, as I do think Starbase Orion can hold its own with PC 4X games.
Last official question. What ARE your plans with Starbase Orion 2? We’ve all been drooling over the teaser trailer. Do you have any more information you can release – or do we need to hold onto our hats a little longer?
Rocco: Some of the tidbits I’ve already released state that Starbase Orion 2 is being written in Unity; I’m doing this to support multiple platforms and to harness the power of Unity’s 3D graphics engine. So expect to battle across the galaxy with your Android/PC/Mac friends and to become immersed in a more graphically rich environment. Other than that, Starbase Orion 2 does not have an official release date and I don’t plan to rush development, so everyone will need to remain just a little bit patient. I can say that no Kickstarter or equivalent fundraising efforts will be needed for Starbase Orion 2; its development budget is already set and fully funded. There’s just a pile of work be get done between here and there!
Oliver: It is great to hear that you have the funding in place to carry on with the sequel. I for one am definitely looking forward to it!
So with that, Rocco, we’ll let you go to. We at eXplorminate thank you kindly for your time in talking with us today, sharing your insights, and giving us a behind the scenes look at your game projects and their success.
Best wishes and good luck on your continuing projects!
Development on Starbase Orion continues, with the 1.2.6 patch currently under development and due to release soon. Check out the extensive patch notes.