If you look at the eXplorminate 4X-Like Game Database, you’ll see the past few years have been great for 4X gaming, and particularly good for space strategy games, with the following all released in the past five years:
- Endless Space (and Endless Space 2!)
- Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion
- Distant Worlds: Universe
- Civilization: Beyond Earth
- Star Ruler 2
- Galactic Civilizations III,
- Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars
There are more besides; these are just some of the “big names”.
In the same database, near the top, you’ll see “M.O.R.E.” by Idea-L-Center with a status of “IN DEV”.
For those that haven’t heard of this game: M.O.R.E. was/is to be a space 4X turn-based game as a sort of “spiritual successor” to the likes of Master of Orion (2, rather than 3, you might be glad to hear – although the latter was improved with community patches). The developers launched a Kickstarter campaign in late 2012 with a goal of $50,000. It was funded to more than $90,000, meeting a number of its stretch goals. They have an official web page if you want to see… more.
This might already be raising red flags; $90,000 doesn’t seem like an awful lot to produce a game of this scope. Granted, the team are Polish (and working in Poland) and as such might not have the same salary expectations, but I wouldn’t expect this amount of cash to fund more than two or three (at a push) game developers for a year. That’s not including development resources – just the labour cost.
The project was launched on the 2nd of September 2012, at which point Idea-L-Center was comprised of 12 developers and expected a release date of December 2013. Judging by the post thus far, you’ve probably gathered that they didn’t meet that date. In fact, it’s still in pre-alpha today.
If you check out Idea-L-Center on Kickstarter, you’ll see they have a distinguishing “2-time creator” badge when they make posts in the community. M.O.R.E. was their first project; it was also their second.
The second campaign generated more than $17,000 and, notably, pushed the final release out to April 2015, which came and went. They generated a further $3500 on IndieGoGo, $1000+ through PayPal donations and, most recently, announced a “new start” in May (2017) after five months of radio silence. As part of their new start, the team “secured funding needed to finish M.O.R.E.”.
One wonders how, having acquired more than twice their initial goal (which, presumably, they had scoped as sufficient to complete the project), they still require funding from another backer.
Was the Kickstarter funding supposed to represent 100% of the project cost? Perhaps all of the developers have other jobs? Perhaps they’re taking a financial hit to make a dream of theirs come true? Admirable in anyone. This is somewhat supported in a statement on their first Kickstarter page:
The only thing that stands in the way is lack of finances. This is our only limitation. Once we overcome this obstacle, we will have made a polished game. Therefore, we need your financial support. Our planned budget is $50,000, and these funds will allow us to finish this project. Furthermore, we invest in this game, our own money and time.
Idea-L-Center thought that $50,000 would be sufficient, but at least $110,000 later, they still didn’t have enough.
I don’t believe there’s ever been any official acknowledgement of having run over budget from the team behind M.O.R.E., only statements of wanting to add more features, to kick Master of Orion off it’s throne, and to only want to release a polished product. All of these things are just as admirable as their wish to chase their dream, but the execution oozes naivety.
Read any of the updates coming out of the development company – official Kickstarter updates and forum comments included – and there are two good (main) reasons, I believe, for the project’s tardiness: feature creep and the planning fallacy.
… But Not M.O.R.E. Focus
The Planning Fallacy
Project planning is notoriously difficult in the software industry. My day job is as a software engineer for a rapidly-expanding startup. I joined early in the life of the company as the third software engineer; the software team is now four times larger, and as such requires significantly more organisation. We’ve started estimating projects and a portion of this is to try to recognise and account for cognitive bias, including the so-called planning fallacy.
The planning fallacy boils down to a person, or team, underestimating the time, costs, and risks of future actions while simultaneously overestimating the benefits of the same actions. This results in time and cost overruns and benefit shortfalls.
This can be counteracted by a few methods. In one, one can segment tasks into smaller tasks. What teams tend to find is that the time allocated to a large task is significantly smaller than the sum of the time allocated to smaller tasks.
In another, one can create a concrete plan (how, when, and where will one act?) for a given task, which explicitly recruits willpower and essentially commits a person to the completion of a task. This directly counters optimistic estimates.
I’m of course not privy to the inner workings of Idea-L-Center, but their public communication indicates some level of succumbing to the planning fallacy, not least with the constant kicking-out of deadlines. From Calavero, one of the team members, on the official M.O.R.E. forum:
I know that we are far behind our original road map, but with lack of funds, creating good quality game takes time. For now it’s not possible to play. Playable pre-alpha should be ready… maybe even this year? I think 2017 should be interesting year for you and us.”
A playable pre-alpha maybe in 2017, four years past the initial full release date?! I’ll ignore the “lack of funds” thing because… well… I just can’t.
Feature creep is a pretty easy concept to understand: the ongoing expansion or addition of new features in a product.
In my mind, this is the number one reason M.O.R.E. hasn’t been released. From the second Kickstarter campaign:
Since deciding to create this game, and seeing how much support we have had from the community, we realised we had to think big. We decided to change the game engine from XNA to UNITY, which created new opportunities for us. We’ve also extended our gameplay ideas, adding new features, many of which were proposed by our community on our forums. With this great responsibility lying on us, armed with belief in success, we start realizing our and our backers’ dreams.
A complete game-engine change? That’s not straightforward, and not particularly recommended if you’re behind schedule. I could have forgiven the devs for being honest and suggesting the funds were to keep up with their original plans, but instead they added additional stretch goals.
And they go on…
We also want to improve graphics, animations, sound effects, and music as much as we can. Because of that, it would be best to maintain all of our coworkers working on this game for as long as we can, so we will be able to realize most of our ideas.
Let’s dwell on that last point a moment (maintaining all of our coworkers). Idea-L-Center began with 12 team members; this fell to eight by the second Kickstarter campaign. Was it the lack of funding? Artistic differences? Something else? We’ll never know; those running the show aren’t forthcoming with the difficulties ahead of them.
The original team of 12 was “composed of close-knit friends”. There was a smattering of the right skills, at least as self-reported, but was there the right balance? Most of the updates focused on artistic game assets. Are the programmers over-stretched?
There’s also a distinct lack of feedback from the developers. I suppose I can understand; there’s a lot of negativity thrown their way. (I’m sure this article won’t help matters, but that’s not the point here.) Kickstarter updates are irregular, often with several months between them.
I also wonder whether there is a constant pace to development on the game. Judging by the Kickstarter update titles, one builds a picture of the project progressing in fits and starts:
- The Big Comeback (July 20, 2014)
- Second Kick (September 16, 2014)
- Back to work (July 30, 2016)
- New start (May 30, 2017)
It’s perhaps the sort of thing you expect from a personal GitHub project rather than a professional outfit.
In general, there were a number of questionable decisions made in the course of development that projected an air of inexperience, such as the decision to put off adding game AI until the last hurdle. In the comments of Kickstarter Update 45 from November 2016:
Where are we? Before multiplayer. Many aspects of the game are ready. While adding this part of a game, we will still debug M.O.R.E. and add some other parts of the game – like basic diplomacy, espionage. When we will be ready, we will release Alpha version.
Then we will add Tactical battles, upgrade some parts of game – and release Beta.
Then we will add AI – and release Release Candidate (or Gamma or call it as you want).
Something as pervasive as game AI really needs to be incorporated from the get-go. Trying to retro-fit it into already-established systems is just asking for trouble and is a massive refactoring job.
At the beginning of this post, I listed a number of well-known titles in the space 4X genre that have seen their release in the past five years. If M.O.R.E. had released on time, it would have been one of the older entries and could have been part of that wave of great games marching the genre forwards.
There were some big gaming concepts that M.O.R.E. wanted to explore. Things like: an answer to late-game micromanagement (which was more-recently tackled by Stellaris and its sectors); and design of spacecraft that doesn’t boil down to placing items in predefined hulls (the Galactic Civilizations franchise notably gives you lots of freedom in ship design, including appearance). These are not so fantastic anymore, quickly becoming a staple of this type of game.
There are still some game mechanics that, if and when M.O.R.E. is released (and assuming this is achieved in a timely fashion – which is a bit of a pipe dream given the game’s history), won’t have been explored to any significant degree in space 4X gaming to-date.
One of these is turn-based tactical space combat. Real-time combat was explored in MoO: Conquer the Stars, Stellaris, and of course Sins of a Solar Empire, but I don’t think I’ve seen fully-fledged turn-based tactical space combat (Endless Legend saw a great tactical combat system, but wasn’t space-based, and Endless Space saw some semblance of a turn-based system, but was terrible).
Another big promise was truly-different space empires. Again, Endless Legend shines as an example of what a 4X can do with races that have genuinely different play-styles, but I’ve not seen this achieved to any great degree in a space setting.
Given their recent investment, perhaps Idea-L-Center should take the initiative and focus on those systems that will help the game stand apart from the now-significant competition.
Why am I bothering to write this article?
In case it’s not obvious, I was a backer of M.O.R.E., and a keen one at that. I, like many other backers, forgave some of the original tardiness. I’ve even forgiven other projects that have flopped; at least there was some closure and generally an admission of failure.
I don’t expect a finished project, but I do expect a level of professionalism from those that I back, and I don’t think Idea-L-Center are demonstrating that. As they consistently push out deadlines (and, in fact, now don’t even publish them), keep scraping together money from whichever poor sod next lies in their sights, and don’t seem to learn from their mistakes, my estimation of them as professional developers dwindles.
Is this project irredeemable? Not at all. That is the point of this article. I’ve hinted at some ideas of what the developers can try to get this project back on track:
- Get their heads out of the clouds and think realistically about this project. Cut some features for now (there’s no reason they can’t eke out an expansion or two later, if they’re successful) and decide on what the core of M.O.R.E. is. Personally, I think this means to try something new and move the genre forwards.
- Fix their planning/estimation strategy and techniques. Whatever they’re doing, it’s badly wrong. This is strongly linked to point 1.
- Be honest with their backers. I mean really honest; admit mistakes, explain what’s taking so much time and why, identify staff shortages, etc. They’re more likely to attract sympathy this way and it’s also likely to benefit management of the project if they’ve got to explain things to an outsider. This is also linked to 1 and 2 above.
- Get a playable alpha in the hands of the backers ASAP. This means doubling-down on 1 and 2. This isn’t just about quieting the crowds; this is about getting a solid foundation from which the rest of the game can rise.
It’s no surprise that these points are linked together; a project as big as a genre-defining video game is a complex beast and it needs to be tackled from multiple angles simultaneously.
I’m sure there are many alternative paths the developers could take that I and other backers would still consider a success. They might consider making the game development open source (though not necessarily free), for example, to make up for lost time and lack of funds.
I don’t want to wish the developers luck at this point. They’ve been lucky enough to receive the continued funding. What they need now is to apply themselves and start making good on some of their promises; that’s the surest path to success.