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.