Space Exploration: Serpens Sector is an upcoming RPG by Metal Beetle Ltd. It's a work in progress, but you can download a development preview now.
In SE:SS, you are tasked with charting the long-abandoned Serpens Sector, a region of space reached through a wormhole near Earth. Each star system you visit brings you an encounter with something - aliens, ancient ruins, other humans and many dangers. The map and encounters are chosen at random for each game, which means that each game plays out differently.
I release new previews every once in a while and I'm very interested in any feedback - so once you've tried it out, head over to the forum and tell me what you think - or use the feedback form. You can also follow the game's development on Twitter.
The base game will be free and there will be expansion packs for sale.
2011-11-23: SE:SS Update
We've all seen this: an indie game is grandly announced, makes a lot of progress initially, and gets to a playable stage. You play it, you like it, you eagerly anticipate updates. But then the time between updates starts getting longer, and the updates get more terse. Eventually, there are long stretches of no activity at all. Then, there is a post insisting that the project "isn't dead". That's usually the last update you ever get.
I really don't want SE:SS to be another instance of this. So why, exactly, have you seen no updates for the past year and a half?
Two years ago, in October 2009, I quit my day job at Linguamatics to finish SE:SS. I had savings to last me to the end of the project, and some contract work lined up. Two days later, I had RSI so bad I basically couldn't type anymore. I proceeded to limp through to finishing dev 10, months behind schedule, working as fast as I could, maybe an hour a day. By that point my money was running out, so I switched to spending that hour doing contract work.
Since then, I have been slowly and unsteadily improving. Today I can work for maybe four hours a day on average, if I space them out through the day. Of all the things that I tried to improve the RSI (or whatever it is I have, exactly), the one thing that worked the best is exercise, so I try to get in enough of that as well.
So that's one reason for the lack of updates. The other has more to do with my own foolishness. You see, I have been working on other projects. Things like my Java4k entry, Which Fish?, Kobold Pit, Project Fruitbat, and, um, an entire OCR engine. So why didn't I spend this time on SE:SS?
When I first started putting up a feedback form for the game, I thought this would be a great way of receiving bug reports and knowing what people thought of the game. What I didn't realise was that I'm frankly pretty thin-skinned, and really could not cope with some of the feedback I got. Now, for the Internet, even the most negative feedback was rather mild. It wasn't "I will track you down and gut you like a fish," more "This game sucks. You should change it around completely. Make it 3D. And massive multiplayer. And about ponies." The vast majority of the feedback was much more polite than that, and a lot of it was very constructive.
So the stupid thing I did was that I got really defensive over the exact way I'd written the game - even bad design decisions I'd made on the spur of the moment at half past midnight. People told me again and again that the game's responses were too random. I hid behind a succession of justifications for why it had to be like that instead of realising that for a game to actually work, there has to be a clearly visible link between the player's action and the game's reaction, and there simply wasn't in many instances. Send out a well-chosen crew to explore ruins? Bang! One of them dies. Send out a single trembling archeologist to hunt prayer monkeys? She captures them with ease. This is frustrating, but I'd decided that "in real life, this is just how it works", evidently forgetting that I was making a game.
I felt that I didn't want to do a game based on the ideas of whoever sent me the most strident emails (even though I'd asked for them, even though a lot of the feedback was very constructive). I had also made he mistake of rather heavily promoting the game as nearly done, with a clear release schedule it was now impossible to meet. So I ended up pretty much not working on SE:SS at all. And when I worked on other things instead, I tended to talk about them almost furtively, since they were using up time I "ought" to be spending on the game.
The game on my hard drive is somewhere between dev 10 and dev 11 right now: dev 10 with some combat mode enhancements (like a tractor beam) and one or two more encounters. There is obviously a temptation to just ditch the project and do something completely different. Concentrate on my other projects. Start making a new game based on one of the myriad ideas I've had since I started working on SE:SS, um, four years ago.
But actually, I don't want to. Not out of stubbornness or out of a sense of owing the completion of the game to others, but because I actually really like the game. I take dev 10.5 (so to speak) out of its dusty toolshed every once in a while and just play it. And I really like playing it. I have fun. I like the graphics, the sound, the setting, the characters.
After a year of perspective, I've realised that I should make the best game I can, not the game I'm least worried about people disliking. I'm the developer, so if I don't think ponies are a good theme for the game, it won't be about ponies. By doing that, I can also let myself see where there are real problems, like the aforementioned frustrating randomness.
This has been a pretty long and maybe slightly over-sharing post. The short version is that I haven't worked on SE:SS because of RSI, and because of not coping with others' expectations.
So when will you see the next dev release? Not quite yet, I'm afraid. I have been tying up loose ends (like shutting down my unnecessary company), but I'm not there yet, and dev 10.5 needs more work before it's worth putting out as an update. I also absolutely do not want to make promises about a schedule. And I'll be working on other things too, and will actually write about them, and link to them properly.
I want to remain kind of stealthy for now, and only give a firm date on release when I have on my computer a beta version of the game, ready to be released save some typos and minor bug-fixes.
It will be done when it's done. And it will be.
2010-08-20: Happy 2nd birthday, Metal Beetle
Metal Beetle Ltd is now two years old!
If you follow the Space Exploration: Serpens Sector news or twitter feed, I'm sure it won't have escaped your notice that it's been very quiet. This is not something I wanted to happen, but three things conspired to make it so: moving house, my ongoing wrist/shoulder problems, and running out of savings. This last one has meant that for the past couple of weeks, I've been doing contract work every hour I could safely spend at my computer.
This isn't a situation I want to be in. I want to finish SE:SS. I have a to-do list for the core engine 41 items strong, half a dozen ship designs waiting to be used, and entire notebooks filled with plans for encounters. As with any half-finished large project, what you can see now is only a small proportion of all the work that went into it, and I desperately want to finish the game and show you the rest.
The Internet is littered with dead projects which were never officially abandoned but simply saw their update frequency decline, with some routine entry from 2002 the last sign of life, after which point the author presumably lost interest entirely. I assure you that this is not what's happening here. But while I'm only capable of an hour or two of work a day, my first priority - putting food on the table - takes up all of that capacity.
I am pursuing more avenues to get this fixed, and there are some promising signs from a new exercise regime. So eventually, SE:SS will be completed. But you and I are going to have to be more patient than originally planned.
Finally, if you have any questions, head over to the forum where I'll be happy to give (perhaps somewhat terse) answers.
2010-06-15: Status Update
Things have been rather quiet around SE:SS central lately, so I thought I'd just reassure you that I'm still alive, and so is the game project. I haven't been working on it in an attempt to finally cure this chronic wrist-and-shoulders problem, but work will resume!
To tide you over, here's a preview of the new Fleet HQ. The model's only partly done, as there will also be an inner docking ring, and more detail on the modules: