The Inside Scoop – Money and Development

Our last Inside Scoop was either an April Fools joke or wishful thinking. Personally, I was secretly hoping some of it was coming true… *sigh* …But let’s set flights of fancy aside. It’s nearing the end of May and we have a new Inside Scoop for our dedicated fans. This release contains a lot of hard facts, some hints on future developments, and intriguing insights into where our subscription money goes.

(As with our other Scoops, this article was pieced together from an email discussion. Some wording was edited to help clarify and highlight main points. Money was a weighty topic and we dumped a huge load of questions on Joshua. We were afraid we might have scared him off, but he found the time to give us some excellent and exciting answers. Super thankful!)

Howdy, Planets junkies! It’s Talespin and Gnerphk again. We’re here today with Joshua Perina. We’ve been bribing him with bowls of poutine for the past month and we’re sure he’s ready to spill the curds on all the juicy money scandals. — Get your smartphones ready; we want to catch this on video.

PART ONE: Let’s talk about the Present.

As a starting point, I think it would be great to share where community money is going. When I pay my subscription, for what does that money pay? What costs are involved with running the site and making sure it functions well?

Right now, 100% of the money from subscriptions goes right back into the game. In the past year, we expanded our team with the addition of our 3D modeler (gugeyewalker) and a 2D artist who has been creating the race pics, irons, and in-game drawings. Both are working steadily on the project each week. Big Beefer and I round out our little four-person team. BB is the main site administrator and develops new features each week. The money is primarily used to pay these team members (excluding me) on a part-time basis. There are also relatively small costs for servers and a small marketing budget. In general, we try to keep our spending limited to what we bring in, but we may be running a small deficit overall.

“If we want all these extras, we will need to pay more.” Do you agree with that statement? When you hear that, what’s the first thing that pops in your mind?

More money would certainly give us the capacity to expand the team, but it would only work if we can expect that revenue to be consistent and long-term. Short infusions of cash would help cover costs but not allow us to accelerate. It takes a lot of time for a developer or artist to know enough about the game and its codebase to contribute.

There are reports of instability at the site: “hanging” games, “lagging” turn-opening and starmap features, “crashes,” “time outs,” “lost” messages and emails, the “hamster getting stuck in the wheel,” and other fidgety things which cause hiccups in User Experience. Are these issues related to money? Is the system outdated and needing major upgrades? Can it handle the new UI?

The system is not at all outdated and these issues are (mostly) not related to money. We haven’t invested heavily into the infrastructure or the architecture to fix some of these instability reports, mainly because they aren’t happening as frequently as it might seem. We investigate a lot of these kinds of reports and very often the issues are coming from the User side.

There is one known timing issue and this is when you see the Time to Host on your game go to “-10 mins” or some other negative value. This happens because the main Host engine runs only one game at a time. Some games, especially those with computer players, take quite a long time to complete a turn. This is almost entirely related to fuel logistics and pathfinding by the AI. We do know how to fix this problem; however, because this problem usually affects only a few players for a few minutes and the project to fix it is quite intensive, it hasn’t yet reached the top of the priority list. If we were to see a large growth in the number of players and games, we would have to fix this for sure.

PART TWO: What’s happened in the Past?

A year or two ago, there was a small increase in subscription fees. Why was there an increase and what did that extra money accomplish?

This was just a small tweak mostly driven by our switch to Stripe as a payment processor and subscriptions as our primary model. We just reviewed the pricing and thought after 8 or 9 years it might be O.K. to make a small inflationary adjustment.

Also over the past couple of years, we have seen a major User Interface change. In what ways was the mobile UI an expense?

Every decision we make is critical because strategic decisions take a lot of time to carry out. With limited development resources, these decisions define our roadmap for significant periods. Generally speaking, the primary driver over the past few years has been finding new players and keeping them.

This drive is evident in our decisions to phase in a mobile interface, introduce the League, and add our new Timeline levels. The mobile version increases our sign-up rate from 10/day to about 80. Adding League provides a nice entry point for referred players and keeps them coming back. The Timeline levels create a better Single Player experience and helps new commanders learn in small steps. All of these projects were significant undertakings and all have benefits for both the fresh and established community.

What about the site’s Message system? This has always been a source of angst for many players. What steps have you taken to improve in-game messaging?

Developing a new messaging system is another area where we have already invested a lot of energy. We plan to incorporate it into a new mobile UI (and the existing one). We don’t have a timeline yet on any of this stuff, but it’s coming.

A second hotly-debated item is the Documentation/How-To-Play files. Many people have requested more advanced and interactive help features. Does the site income allow for that kind of update? What ways do you plan to upgrade it?

This is a tough one, for sure. We’ve been relying on an amazing group of volunteers. If we could afford it, we might be able to do more in this area; otherwise, we would need to divert development resources. It takes a lot of game experience to even write documentation so without the volunteers this would be very tough to staff.

PART THREE: What’s coming to Nu’s Future?

Is the mobile interface being developed further and does it have a place in the future of Nu?

The mobile experience is something we still think is a core and fundamental opportunity for Planets. It’s a complicated “give and take”.

On one hand, the pace of the game is very well suited for mobile. We see diplomacy, turn-based play that can stop and start at any moment, and progress notifications as really positive mobile features.

On the other hand, the complex map and data elements are very difficult to fit onto a tiny screen. When we moved to mobile with the last version, we tried to create a UI that would work for both desktop and mobile; and now, we are currently working on a project to create a new UI entirely for mobile. It is coming along nicely and will definitely be one of the biggest things we release this year – along with incremental improvements in many other areas.

The high sign-up rate on mobile indicates a big opportunity for us if we can create a user experience that feels natural and fun to use. We’ll know we’re succeeding when more of you start playing regularly on your phones.

Let’s imagine you had loads of money coming in. What big dream item would you pursue?

Well, we’re always following our big dreams! The timeline project, mobile interface, and League are all big ticket items that are very exciting. Of course, if we had loads of money coming in we could pursue those dreams a lot faster and in parallel.

We’re excited to see where Planets and Nu is headed in the future, but we know that’s going to cost money. What kind of fee increases do you foresee in the near future? How much would you like to see come in? Where would you delegate that money?

I would love some feedback from the community on one area that we see as an opportunity to generate more revenue:

Giving people the ability to purchase MegaCredits to be spent on Campaign-related goods and things that spice up the community experience like customized ship hulls, planet pictures, badges, and titles.

There is a lot of resistance to “pay to win” games and I personally am completely against this concept. However, the Campaign Advantage Points system creates parity by limiting what people can bring into those games. As well, all these features are not part of Standard or League games, so it would be easy to avoid them if you couldn’t afford to pay more. We still want to create a viable, fun, and competitive gaming experience for everyone, while giving some players an opportunity to contribute more to the project and their own experience. This feels like the most likely direction we would consider.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I am still more-than-happy to continue investing everything to build VGA Planets into the world class game it can become. I’m excited to keep working on it and developing a team to support it for many years.

Furthermore, if there are any developers, artists, or designers out there in our community who are interested in working on Planets Nu, please contact us — especially programmers. I know we have a lot of great userscript devs out there who already know our codebase well. I’d be open to talking to them to see if there is a fit for our team now or in the future – most likely on a part-time basis.

Thank you very very much, Joshua. We really appreciate your thoughtful responses. I can see you’re holding back on the UI reveal, but you gave some pointed information that will help people understand how things are developing. Great stuff!

Thanks again! We really appreciate what you are doing over at Planets Magazine.

Thanks for reading! – T and G

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