There's only been one Facebook game I've ever set an alarm for in real life: Starfleet Commander made me get up in the middle of the night to check my fleets and send out new attacks. What made the space fleet combat game—sort of a combination of EVE Online and Trade Wars 2002—so compelling? For me, it was the chance of actually losing. Losing ships, losing planets, losing time. Unlike most Facebook games that only use multiplayer as a sort of marketing scheme, Starfleet Commander encouraged you to sink time into its game—and then risk that investment to win.
Now developer Blue Frog Gaming is following up SFC with a quasi-sequel: Stardrift Empires will be launching in partnership with Syfy Games. Kotaku's Facebook Multiplayer Fleet Combat Correspondent Michael Schulte talked to Blue Frog's CEO, Matt Maroon in this exclusive first look at the game.
There has been some smoke-and-mirrors stuff hiding exactly what Blue Frog Gaming is doing with the Starfleet Commander universes [servers/shards]. Level with us. Are we looking at a new game entirely or are things changing within the current game? Tell us about the new adventure.
As for what we're launching Wednesday, we think of it sort of as "Starfleet Commander 1.5". It's called Stardrift Empires and we're publishing it along with Syfy. It's going to run on Facebook and eventually SyFyGames.com, which is in the process of being heavily updated. We got most of our original customers by advertising to people who like their TV shows, so we're really excited to have them as a partner.
We're going to continue maintaining the old Starfleet universes indefinitely. We're going to keep updating them and giving them new features. We have more than half of our company working full time on it, so things will be progressing quickly. We're probably going to focus on making the game even more social by reducing friction. The killer thing about Starfleet is that it's actually a social game thanks to alliances. People actually meet people and work together to accomplish things. We want to improve that with better communication tools and more rewards for group accomplishments.
We've given the game a complete redesign. We now have an in-house art team, so we've done entirely new illustrations too. We think it will be our best looking Facebook game to date, by far.
We're also going a little more hardcore with this one. No more diplomacy mode will be a big change from the original universes. We're limiting alliances to 50 people to try to make war more valuable and avoid the massive groups of newbies getting pummeled for easy points.
I personally am thrilled to hear that Stardrift Empires will no longer have a Diplomacy mode of play. One of the main things that makes Starfleet Commander stand out compared to all the others in this genre is the risk of actually losing. Will the game mechanics be the same as Starfleet Commander? In addition to the upgraded graphics, will there be any new technology or ships for the SyFy games launch?
The game mechanics will be pretty much the same. We're tossing in a lot of improvements for new users. We've added in new quests and a much improved tutorial system that we hope, along with the improved art, will make the game more enjoyable for new players.
We've got a ton of new achievements and badges and a profile page to display them, so we're going to give users reasons to stick around longer and experiment more. We're adding some more functionality to wars, which we've already improved in the last month, so you'll have options on the rules when declaring and accepting wars.
We've been testing out most of the new features by rolling them out to Starfleet universes, so we're not going to have a ton of stuff that long time players haven't seen before on launch day.
Going forward we're looking at ramping up the social elements. We're going to build a chat server into the game so you can plan attacks in real time with friends. We want it to be a passive one like Facebook's that persists throughout the game. We're also working on integrating a forum system into the game and improving alliance communication with that as well.
We've also got two commanders launching tomorrow. One that reduces hydrogen costs for moving your ships around and one that makes moonshots more likely to succeed.
Most new features will be rolled out to all universes except the art, so even longtime Starfleet players will get the improvements going forward.
The current universes have been at it for nearly two years now. People have amassed huge a number of ships and resources. They've constructed all of the buildings and unlocked all the technology in the game. Even with the extremely helpful wiki playbook, it's intimidating for a new player to coming in to catch up or even learn to play. What changes are being made in the new adventure to ensure that new players don't get obliterated by the old guard?
It is tough for a new player. We're totally revamping the startup flow and tutorial to do a better job of getting them into the game, teaching them how to play, and then helping them find an alliance to get them off the ground. We're also expanding newbie protection all the way up the chain, so they won't be able to be attacked by people much larger than them.
Facebook credits have barely impacted our revenue as a result, most of our players are playing off-site.
Though there are stand alone versions of your games that can be played without Facebook, it would seem that the model of the company still relies heavily on that interface. Is that terrifying or what? What is the future for Blue Frog Gaming?
Yes, it is terrifying. We've done a fantastic job of pushing people off of Facebook, which is yet another advantage of a hardcore game. They don't want to play in Facebook since the chrome there is just annoying. Facebook credits have barely impacted our revenue as a result, most of our players are playing off-site.
I think the future definitely consists of bringing Starfleet to people wherever they want to go. We'll probably explore doing a mobile version next.
Tell us some Blue Frog Gaming history, how did you get from your beginnings in Fantasy Football to Massive Inter-Galactic Conquest? Is there any truth to the atom splitting microwave? I thought that only happened in Sweden.
We got into Facebook gaming to promote our fantasy football product (Draftmix) when we launched an NFL Survivor Pool app. It was something we built and launched in a few days and it did a pretty good job of spreading so we went ahead and built our first full-fledged Facebook game, Football Tycoon. It never did a good job of promoting Draftmix but it did manage to monetize directly so we decided to switch to doing Facebook apps full time.
The microwave in our office is ridiculously powerful. It knocks out Wi-Fi and we have reason to believe it has proven the existence of the Higgs boson judging by the internal temperature of a hot pocket Wendy made one time.
With the advent of 'The Facebook Game' an entirely new demographic of gamer, many of which had never gamed previous, flooded the market. In the click heavy, spam your friends with requests world of Zynga, what did you and your team do to insure Starfleet Commander appeals to not only the avid strategist, but the religious Facebook farmer, city builder or chef?
To be honest, we really haven't done a good job of appealing to the Farmville Crowd. We largely don't try. I'm convinced that the core gamers are just a better way to go for a small company that doesn't have Zynga's marketing muscle and Facebook connections.
Now that Facebook has greatly reduced virality on the platform, to get customers you more or less have to buy them via Facebook ads (which is obviously good for Zuckerberg and company). It's really hard to outbid Zynga on the mass market side, especially knowing they get a cut of Facebook ad revenue that runs alongside their app (which is rather substantial relative to the low RPU those games make).
Core gamers will spend a lot more, so you're better off building a high RPU, high engagement game and drilling down your demographics to target them. Facebook's interest-based advertising lets you do this pretty well. If your game makes 5x per customer what Farmville does, and you're only targeting 18-35 year old males who list sci-fi shows in their profile, then you're in pretty good shape to outbid the mass market advertisers and still turn a profit.
Stardrift Empires goes live today. See you inside.
Play the game [StardriftEmpires.com]