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June 5, 2007
Astro Battle - A New Take on Old School Spaceship Battles!

By Linda "Brasse" Carlson

I spent some time talking to a very interesting fellow at GDC this year. Not a corporate executive of a multi-national gaming company, not a shaker and mover in the industry, just a guy who had an idea for a niche market game and the persistence and determination to bring it to life.

Meet Scott Williams of Lava Lord Games. A quiet, modest man with a great deal of love and time committed to the game he has developed over the past several years - Astro Battle. While Scott is the driving force behind the game, he also employs several contractors.

Scott's knowledge of the industry stems from his time with Disney Interactive, where he worked as a programmer for several years. Strangely enough, Williams has a Bachelor's degree in Drama; certainly not typical for the gaming industry, but providing some interesting insights into gameplay that a more mainstream developer may not have pursued.

When he felt it was time to go forth and create his own game, he had a pretty good idea of the type of game experience he wanted to explore. The groundwork for the game was laid in 1999, and he was able to release the game in 2002, just working on it in his free time.

Astro Battle is the flagship title for Lava Lord Games, and Williams hopes to continue its development while also creating new titles. With over 18,000 loyal subscribers, he has certainly built a solid independent game.

The inspiration for Astro Battle was the old classic, "Star Control". The game is a top-down strategic ship-based shooter game. Although it is in 2D, this is actually supportive of the gameplay, which revolves around customization and testing (via battles) of various combinations of ship elements, as opposed to being a space/flight/piloting sim.

You will design and builds your own spaceship in a modular format; pick and choose whether you want to be defensive, offensive, how many guns you have and what direction they are pointing - in short, the ship YOU want, instead of having to choose between a number of ships designed by the developer.

You'd think that with the ability to build any ship type, players would eventually settle on a single "best" model, but apparently there isn't one. Williams explained how, after an "unbeatable" ship appeared, he decided to build one himself that was geared almost entirely toward speed, and could run circles around the lumbering juggernaut. This sort of flexibility encourages players to define their own style.

I was curious as to the type of community Astro Battle supported. Were there any problems with managing difficult players such as griefers and cheaters? Very few, came the reply, and Scott was able to deal with them all one on one, something unheard of in larger games. In one instance, he was able to soothe an angry, disruptive player to the point where he became a solid member of the community. Ahhh, the hidden blessings of a small game environ! Large games simply do not allow this sort of hands-on management of community. As a result he has had to ban one…. ONE person from the game.

I popped by the game forums just to get a feel for the kind of people who populate the game. In short, all types. The draw of the game is the customizability, and the player base is chock full of ideas on what they want to see next, what works, what doesn't… and it's almost all very upbeat, a refreshing change from what I am used to reading in game forums. It is a testament to Scott's dedication and passion for the game, and his ability to communicate the same to his subscribers.

Williams is open to innovation, keeping what works, and discarding the less successful changes. The beauty of being the boss of an indy game is that you have the freedom to mess around with stuff and have only yourself and your subscribers to answer to!

Early on, Scott experimented with a premier membership model, but eventually made Astro Battle a free-to-play game, with pay-as-you-go add ons for those who enjoy it and wanted to broaden their horizons. He's been releasing the add-ons every two years thus far, but is aiming to get them out once a year instead, to keep the game fresh and interesting.

He also allowed players to run their own servers for a time, but found that it reflected poorly on the game as a whole, so brought that to a halt.

There are currently 3 large starmaps in game, and Williams has been considering a map editor to be released to the player base, along the same lines as the existing modular ship-building system. Completed maps can then be sent to him to be uploaded.

Here is a sample starmap - put yourself in this picture:

Also under consideration for the future: team-based play! I have always found

We all love live, in-game events, and Astro Battle has a tradition of "Shoot the Maker" once a week, usually on Wednesdays. Following a forum announcement, the event usually takes place from 5:00 - 7:00pm PST.

So, the game is FREE, you build your own ships, it offers a highly accessible, flexible developer, strong community and… did I mention it's FREE? As a game that you can hop into for a few minutes or a few hours at a time, you owe it to yourself to try Astro Battle!

Check it out today:


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