The fine folks at Venan Entertainment have been on the App Store for a long time, known first for Space Miner [$3.99], and now returning to the App Store with Space Miner Wars [Free], which recently released. I had a conversation with Brandon Curiel of Venan to chat about what they were trying to do with the game, the challenges of selling a free-to-play to a skeptical audience, and their thoughts on recent game update debacles.

TouchArcade: So, when deciding on a new game to make, why return to Space Miner after all these years?

Brandon Curiel: We always wanted to do a sequel to the original game. Back in 2011 we had actually gotten pretty far with the design before financial circumstances forced us to shelve the work in favor of some other contracts that we had.

After transitioning to an independent studio and having some success with Book of Heroes [Free], we were finally in a good spot to tackle our next title. We did some brainstorming but ultimately everyone was really behind bringing back Space Miner. Collectively, I think we all felt that there was some unfinished business and we all still really loved the universe.

TA: Where did the spark of inspiration come from in terms of the 'Space Miner + Clash of Clans [Free] = Space Miner Wars' equation? If you see it that way at all?

BC: The original idea came out of a concept we had for Space Miner 2 called Player Mining Companies. It sketched out a type of career mode where players would have their own mining company that they were building up from scratch. Essentially, the player was going from working for Uncle Jeb, to being Uncle Jeb.

The heart of Space Miner Wars came from that idea.

The path between that and the game we have now was anything but straightforward. We iterated a lot on the look of the base and the claim - it was originally much different. But ultimately, when we finally tried building a base on an asteroid, one not too dissimilar from the one in Space Ore Bust (duh), we realized that this was the right direction for the game.

TA: How exactly do you find a way to differentiate yourself from the other raiding-strategy games that are out there?

BC: The biggest one is that you are playing Space Miner! You are flying a ship, not directing units. When you attack someone's base, you are literally destroying every building, and aiming every bullet yourself. That, as far as we've seen, is completely unique. Most (if not all) of the raiding strategy games out there are unit focused, where the focus is on managing unit deployments, pathing and target priority. We are absolutely nothing like that.

We also have more gameplay options than just attacking bases. In these other titles, you can raid bases, and then raid more bases. In Space Miner Wars, we still have all the traditional mining and mission gameplay, as well as these new base attacks. It's really a much more diverse game than anything else we've seen in this genre.

Finally, we have a strong focus on content and our campaign. Most, if not all games in this genre are about creating an appealing setting. They have nice looking characters, but they have no sense of place or story - they are just a dressing on the game mechanics. Campaigns are usually treated as a set of optional content that the player can effectively ignore.

With SMW, we wanted to keep telling stories, so we focus heavily on the story and the characters. Our campaign isn't tucked away in some menu, it's all integrated into the same game map where everything else happens. And as we add expansions to the game, new storylines and missions will be a part of that.

TA: How do you assuage the fears of an audience that's often vocally against free-to-play? Or is there more of a silent majority that enjoys what you're doing?

BC: I'll be honest - that's one of the things we've been dreading. Space Ore Bust was beloved by so many, especially here on Toucharcade, that it is somewhat daunting to bring it back as a F2P game, knowing that there is a very vocal, anti-F2P audience. We are definitely expecting (and receiving) some backlash. However, taking Space Miner F2P is not only good for us as a studio, but also represents the best possible path for players.

The big thing is that Space Miner is now a "living" title. Even though we are shipping today, we haven't even reached the halfway point for development. We have SO MUCH MORE to add. We have a thirty mission campaign currently, which is bigger than the size of the original game, and that is only the first third of our initial content plan.

Over the coming months and years, we will be adding content to the game non-stop. We'll be adding new ships. New enemies. New mission types. New campaigns and story. Entirely new game systems and gameplay. Adding all the things we want to do as game developers that just don't work out economically in a premium title or would get cut due to time. If it's broken - we fix it. If we don't like how we did something, we do it better. Having the ability to support a game like this is really a big win for the players.

We love Space Miner, and being able to resurrect this universe, and tell more stories, and make mORE puns - we couldn't be more excited for it! And most of the players out there won't pay a cent to experience it.

TA: How exactly does a soft launch period help out what is now the worldwide launch version of your game?

BC: Most importantly, it gives you a chance to try out the game on a larger scale and work out the kinks in the game systems. Things like the economy, PVP, and matchmaking depend on a bigger population of players than we can test on our own. It is pretty much essential for any game like ours that has a lot of player interaction. You can only get so far in Excel.

On the more technical side, it also lets us vet and optimize the client/server architecture. We've found plenty of inefficiencies and bugs, and those are much easier and cheaper to fix during soft launch. I think every developer's nightmare is to launch a game and get a huge influx of users, only to have their game servers melt down.

Finally, a lot gets done with marketing. This is actually really, really important. You have the opportunity to work on your ad creatives, identify consumers that your game resonates with, figure out what icon and splash images are the most effective, and that sort of thing. This is probably the area where we have the least experience and the most trouble, but even so, we are in a better place than we would have been otherwise.

TA: As a company that's gone back and updated an old game, I'm curious as to what you think companies like Apple could be doing to help developers and publishers out with helping to keep games operational?

BC: I'm not sure there is a good answer here. I think Apple likes to move forward, so for them, it is about the user experience and making that better, first and foremost. Compatibility is important, but not as important, and sometimes things break in the process. It's hard to say their strategy is bad, based on how Apple products dominate the marketplace and how much they are loved. Could they do both and be effective? Perhaps. But I'm sure it's much harder than anyone thinks it is. To give them credit, it is still much easier to handle than Android fragmentation.

But it can lead to some challenges. Case in point, we just recently found a bug in the original Space Miner due to how force touch input is implemented. When you try to touch a sector on the map, it doesn't work, unless you touch it very lightly. The fix was only a one-liner, but to actually get that out, we'll now have to update the project to 64-bit. That's a lot of work for a game that sells 5 units a day. It would be nice to get that updated, but it's probably going to be awhile before we have that kind of extra time.

Thanks to Brandon Curiel for his time. Space Miner Wars is on the App Store now.

  • Kav Euge

    It's funny how he says that FTP is the best possible path for the players. I strongly disagree. A game designed to encourage spending real money continuously by limiting gameplay features to the point where they become a grind is not the best possible path for the players. I understand the financial reasoning but when company changes direction from making a fun game to making a profitable game, that's where it loses its way. Times are tough and the world of iOS gaming changes very fast. I hope premium games become the norm again eventually.

    • mid83

      It's the best path for a player because without f2p, many of these small indie studios would likely be out of this business at this point in mobile.

      Sounds like these guys are working hard tin provide fun gameplay within the confines of f2p because you can't realistically survive otherwise.

      • curtisrshideler

        It's true that they did a decent job within the confines of f2p. But bottom line is that this model of pricing is driven by financial need for the developer. While that is a tough fact, it is no excuse for justifying it as the best model for the player. F2P benefits younger people and those without disposable income to pay a few dollars per week for games. Also, it has sucked in a lot of casual players who have been hooked by the f2p mechanics. Many games like this allow you to buy things like visual skins and upgrades. It's much like real life where you spend real money, but in the game it is not a tangible thing that you can keep once the server is shut down. When I play a game, I like to buy it with one price, and then play without worrying about optional costs to affect my gameplay... OR having to wait for timers and energy. That's so counterintuitive for a game... To limit the player's ability to play the game. SMW does it better than others, but this game just wasn't that much fun. And it solely was because of the f2p mechanics. The best thing for players would be to be able to play a premium version of this game, just like the first Space Miner game.

      • Tuzzo

        I agree. The point where he says that F2P is the only way to keep on expanding on a game is total nonsense. The world is full of premium games that get updates, expansions and fixes.
        F2P probably gives the developers the financial breath to keep on doing their job, which is even more true for indie developers.

      • Tuzzo

        Anyway, I think that Venan's formula for F2P is not that bad. At least for the time I have to play Space Miner Wars, I haven't stumbled upon any grind/pay wall yet.

  • skylined87

    I for one love the game. I am pretty anti F2P, but I have played my share of them (without spending), including Clash of Clans and a few other of these base building/raiding types. This one is by far the most unique and fun to play of them all IMO. It has also been very fair in dishing out the gems, which is the premium currency in the game. I have already been able to save up the 150 gems needed for a second builder drone after a week, and I actually have spent about 100 more when I got impatient with building times. I can respect Venan's decision with going f2p, after all they have to keep to studio running. I hope they can generate enough revenue to fund a premium Space Miner sequel, but for now this game is more than enough to keep me interested. I know there are a lot of TAers that refuse to give this one a chance because it is f2p, I was skeptical myself at first. I am so happy I chose to download it, it really is an incredible game! Don't miss out on this gem, ore you will be sorry! 😜

    • eugekava

      I did play it when it was in soft launch in Australia. Played it for a few weeks in fact. After it stopped being fun and became a grind I downloaded the original and played the whole game in three days. What an awesome experience! That made me dislike this f2p one even more. Yes, it is just like other f2p games, and yes it is free and yes, the devs have to make money. I can't help but compare it to the original, though. And in comparison, it doesn't do so well.

    • curtisrshideler

      Though I dislike the f2p mechanics in this one, I think you hit the nail on the head... I hope that this game does well enough for them that they'll be able to make a SM2. For that reason, I can see how this game fits into their catalogue.

  • Taeles

    I'm one of the minority who is really enjoying this game. I've played dang near all the big pvp base builders and the only one that comes close to this for single player content would be SW:Commander and that one is far more intrusive with its money spending than SMW.

  • Maelwolf

    I am not a big fan of F2P, but I have not had any issue with this game. I've attacked and won regularly versus people who have obviously sunk a ton of cash into the game. Since raiding is more skill than investment the paywall that hinders freemium games isn't present here.

  • Rain1dog

    So I guess a true sequel is not going to happen? This is ok, but it's NOTHING in comparison to the original. With the Orginal I couldn't come close to putting the game down even after beating it a few times. After ten minutes I don't even think about the game cuntil the next time I come across the app on my login screen.

    The Orginal space miner is my all time favorite game for iOS. It is what super Mario bros did for big N, but for iOS... It made gaming on your phone, legit.

  • Lohengriehn

    well, I didnt read all of the interview, just up the sentences with that best path....listen: i have not even downloaded the free game....and it stays so.

    Another note for other f2p devs: Im offering some inapps....ill download and play your game for an hour for 1,99€. 2 for 4,99€. and ill keep it installed forever on my idevice in case you have a premium account 😆

  • Forrest Stevens

    Heh, I love this quote, "... identify consumers that your game resonates with..." which reads to me as, "identify the whales that become so mindbendingly addicted that we can bleed them dry for years," all while collecting as much data as possible on everyone else to sell, just to keep their margins in the black. I don't have a problem with people trying to make a buck and support themselves, and F2P seems like the way to go because of the mechanics I mention... but I do have a problem with the state of things and wish it were different. 🙁

  • Schpank

    "Best for players because... Space Miner is now a living title" Nice talking point. As if the only way to deliver updates and iap is through a stilted f2p system. Owners of paid games, that they love, will gladly pay for upgrades and additional content, indefinitely.

  • Stormourner of the Nature

    "knowing that there is a very vocal, anti-F2P audience"
    sometimes they're not vocal because it can be the same person with different accounts and pretend to be vocal

  • lightbrazer

    The real problem I have with this game is that unlike the original space miner you need to use fuel just to go to a level. And just like with the original space miner your cargo can't actually hold everything in a sector meaning you'll need to take 2 or even 3 trips into a zone just to clear it. With only 500 ish fuel and 100 fuel used per trip this means once you stop liscensing up quickly at the beginning you basically use all your fuel just trying to mine one zone. Even leveling up your ship doesn't alleviate this. So while this may have a grand campaign larger than the first one. Good luck getting to play it being able to only clear out one or maybe 2 levels in a day. That alone made this game almost unplayable to me. Oh and of course all the usual timers on top of that. Most games of this ilk will go one way or the other having at least something you can do while waiting on the other. But with the game design as it currently is you quickly hit the point where you literally have to shut the game off and can't play it at all. That is where this design fails.

  • Peter321

    I like SMW a lot. I've already spent a lot of hours playing it without paying anything (I never pay for f2p). Sure I can't play for 3 days straight, but guess what? I actually have a life too 😉 so I'm fine with SMW forcing me to take a break every now and then. It's probably the best f2p title out there. Sure a premium sequel would be nice but the developers need to make a living too and if this is the best solution for them, I'm fine with that since we probably would not have another SM title have they not gone this route.